Believing Is Seeing

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

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

So, like any good millennial, I googled “nearby United Methodist Churches” and I decided to try out the one with the least bad website.

I meandered through the open front doors and stood awkwardly in the narthex.

It was empty.

No ushers. No greeters. No nothing.

So I walked into the sanctuary, hoping against hope that the website had been accurate in terms of the church’s worship time, because there wasn’t a soul in the sanctuary.

I paced around for a minute or two contemplating the strangeness of the situation, when a I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and discovered a rather old and disheveled looking man who blurted out, “You must be new. We’re having worship in the fellowship hall. Follow me.”

And so I did.

We navigated a few frightening corridors, all while passing long-forgotten Sunday school rooms, until we entered the dimly lit fellowship hall. Folding chairs were arranged in a haphazard semi-circle, a leaning piano rested in the corner, and there was a make-shift plastic folding table altar next to a podium. 

As I crossed the threshold to the space for holy worship, the preacher encouraged the couple dozen present to rise for the opening hymn:

Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King.

Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from thee.

Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.

Take my intellect and use, every power as thou shalt choose.

Then we settled in for worship. We prayed. We listened. We heard a sermon about the virtues of Christian generosity, about the call to give back to God what God first gave to us, and the imperative to raise enough funds to replace the Air Conditioning in the sanctuary lest we keep worshipping in the fellowship hall until Jesus returns on his cloud of glory.

After the benediction was shared, we were invited to the other side of the room where lemonade and cookies were waiting to be consumed. The preacher promptly pull me aside, introduced himself, and apologized saying, “I’m sorry you had to hear all of that on your very first Sunday. I don’t want you to leave thinking this is what it’s like every week.”

I made some sort of comment that attempted to soothe his worries, when the little old man who led me to the sanctuary came up and said. “Don’t listen to the preacher. It should be like this every week. Giving is what being a disciple is all about.”

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

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. What should we think about this situation in the strange new world of the Bible? Because right here, in one sentence, we have the whole truth about one person, and also the entirety of humanity.

This is what life can do to us.

Life, at times, seems to be everything we intend it to be. We have the right job, the right spouse, the right whatever. And then life happens. Usually, without warning, life comes at us pretty fast and we find ourselves sitting by the roadside of life. A wayward diagnosis, an argument leads to a fight which leads to words that can’t be unsaid, a company folds, on and on.

Blind Bartimaeus sits by the roadside. That’s what they called him – named by what he couldn’t do. The only thing others could see about him was that he couldn’t. Forgotten or, worse, tossed aside. If he disappeared maybe one person would notice, but life would continue on its merry way whether Bartimaeus did or not. 

And the world looks quite different from the roadside. It looks different from the hospital bed, or from behind bars, or from the fear of living paycheck to paycheck. There is nothing that one can do from the roadside but to accept fate and recognize that this is what life will be.

And yet, Bartimaeus, in his blindness, sees the truth of the world. He understands, like others in his position, what we who feel on top of the world miss – life is cruel.

Sometimes we get a taste of it, we visit someone in their distress, we sit in these pews for a funeral, but we do whatever we can to return to the comforts of our lives as soon as we possibly can. We live under the power of denial that life will continue on however we want it to, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

And then, another One comes onto the scene. This is another person who, like Bartimaeus, is about to be pushed by the world to the side of the road, to be thrown out among the dead. He has friends, they follow him, and yet they are fools. They argue about greatness and power and prestige. And, in the end, they will all abandon him.

So what happens between these two figures? 

Bartimaeus is at the very bottom of life, both geographically (Jericho is 900 feet below sea level) and literally. He has no hope in the world. And yet, the hope of the world happens across his path that day.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

The crowds beckon the beggar to shut his mouth. Can’t he see that the Messiah doesn’t have time to waste on him?

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

And the Lord stands still, and calls upon the blind beggar by the roadside. “What do you want me to do for you?” He asks. 

It’s the same question he just asked the thunder brothers. Do you remember what they asked for? “Lord, let us sit by your side in glory, can we have cabinet positions in the kingdom of God?”

And what does Bartimaeus ask for? Mercy!

This blind man, left to the ditches of life, sees more clearly than anyone else. “Lord, let me see again!” “Go, your faith has made you well.” And immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Notice: Jesus heals Bartimaeus, reverses the misfortunes of the world, and orders him home. Go live the life you never had Bartimaeus. 

But he didn’t! Because if Bartimaeus had gone back to a normal life, we surely wouldn’t be here talking about him. After his life is changed, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.

Jesus is in the business of transformation – of taking us from where we are, to where we can be. That’s what church is all about. We don’t do all of this just to sing a few songs, and think a few lofty thoughts, and feel a few warm fuzzies only to do it all again next week. We do this because it changes us.

You know, for what it’s worth (pun intended), the Bible speaks about money and possessions more than anything other topic except for love. Which, of course, relates to money and possessions. Where our treasure is, there are hearts are also.

Following Jesus on the way is all about coming to grips with a new reality in which giving of ourselves in the only way we know how to live because that’s exactly what Jesus did, and does, for us.

Our giving, whether it’s our time, our talents, or our tithes, connects with how we, and others, experience little slices of heaven on earth here and now. Or, to use the language of our scripture today, they give us opportunities to have our eyes opened by Jesus to the truth.

In just the last few months alone I have witnessed the transformative ministry of God through this church. We welcomed in gobs of kids for Vacation Bible School and taught them about the virtues of discipleship. We sent our youth on a hometown mission trip in which they truly lived out their faith by loving their literal neighbors. We restarted all of our Sunday school classes and small groups in which, through the powerful work of study, we’ve grown in Christlikeness. We’ve even brought back our different music stylings from the praise band at the early service to the different bell choirs at the traditional service all so that we can retune ourselves to God’s frequencies in the world. 

All of those things are made possible by and because of giving – the giving of talents, times, and, tithes.

Generosity changes us. It changes us in the immediate because our brains release endorphins when we do things for other. And it changes us in the long term because our giving now makes things possible for others later.

We have a church history room down off from Memorial Hall. There’s a remarkable quilt that details the different developments of Methodism, there are pictures of the building throughout the decades, and boxes full of old paperwork. 

This week a woman came by the church because she was baptized here, she was married here, and is now back in town and she wanted a change to remember. So she and I sat together in the history room, we looked over the old attendance records where she was able to find the names of long gone friends and family. It was a remarkable experience.

After she left I went back into the room for a moment and found myself bowled over with emotions. 100 years ago a group of people were so committed to the Good News, despite the world being filled to the brim with bad news, that they decided to start this church. And for one hundred years Christians like us have been gathering again and again to proclaim the Gospel and to respond to it with giving.

People gave their time, talents, and tithes without knowing at all how it would bear fruit, and they did it anyway.

That’s the kind of mission we’re caught up in today. Planting seeds with our time, talents, and tithes so that they might bear fruit in ways we can’t even imagine. Jesus’ great gift makes gift givers of us all. What we do as a church is nothing short of eye-opening endeavors in which we are given opportunity after opportunity to be blessings to other because we have been so blessed. 

We are all Bartimaeus. Life has knocked us down at some point or another. We’ve felt the weight of the world come crashing down upon us. We’ve felt abandoned to frightening fates in the ditches of life.

And Jesus come to us there in the ditch. Meeting us in our sins and in our shortcomings. The great gift giver comes to set us free. He opens our eyes to the truth. 

“Go,” Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”

What happens next, is up to us. Amen. 

The Adventure of Faith

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave or all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

There was an incident as a prestigious university a number of year ago, perhaps the same one where I went to seminary, during which, one random fall morning, their was a disheveled looking beggar sitting on the steps leading into the Law School.

The sight was quite the juxtaposition on the immaculately manicured campus.

The next week the same beggar, bandaged and certainly in need of help, sat by the doors leading into the School of Medicine.

One week later and the beggar was back again, bruised and bloodied, and this time he was laying down by the entrance to the Divinity School.

By this time, the university decided they had to put an end to these incidents and so they alerted the police to be on the look out for the questionable figure on campus.

However, when they surrounded the beggar a few days later, the beggar began removing his outer clothing and his bandages and his fake beard and produced a Student ID card. He was in the midst of his PhD in Sociology and had been conducting an experiment on campus.

The idea behind his escapades was to discern if people from certain academic disciplines were more or less inclined to helping a stranger in need. After all, he had a pretty decent set of variables to work with, and it didn’t take him long to set up the whole experiment.

Months later, when he published his findings, the campus was in a bit of a shock.

Apparently, while laying out in front of the Law building, countless students offered him money but that was the extent of what they were willing to do.

A fair number of students enrolled in the Medical School offered to examine his injuries or escort him over to the hospital.

And while perched in front of the Divinity School, not a single student nor professor stopped to offer anything. Well, they apparently offered lots of excuses but nothing more.

In fact, the story goes that they only person who stopped in front of the Divinity School was a janitor, who risked losing his job in order to help make sure the beggar was taken care of.

James and John, the brothers Zebedee, are idiots. Jesus teaches them about the mysteries of the kingdom of God, Jesus offers them miraculous food to eat when they see nothing but scarcity, Jesus even spells the whole death-and-resurrection business, the exodus for the rest of us, as literally as he can and still, they miss it all. They approach their Lord and demand cabinet positions in the kingdom. 

These fools want power while God in the flesh has told them time and time again that glory comes in weakness.

In short, the brothers Zebedee are out of their league.

And yet, just as Peter blurted out his own non-sequitur desire to build houses up on top of the Mount of Transfiguration, James and John fumble out their desire for greatness.

Perhaps, like us, when these brothers are confronted with seemingly bad news, they prefer to keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side.

“Excuse us JC, it’s all good and fine for you to talk about that Son of Man stuff, but can we talk about what it will be like when this is all over?”

And JC, like a good rabbi, answers their question with a question.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

“Lord, we are able! Our spirits are thine!”

“Okay,” Jesus intones, “I just want to make sure we’re all clear, then, about what that means. Remember, I’m in the death and resurrection business. I’m here to turn the world upside down. So, for God’s sake, pay attention as I say this for the 50th time: if you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to be great, you have to be the least. For the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to his his life a random for many. Got it?”

The disciples, James and John and all the rest, they want glory, they want power, they want prestige.

These fools are just like us! Looking for the easiest way to the top in the shortest about of time with the least amount of resistance!

But glory, according to the strange new world of the Bible, is not how we so often picture glory. We might imagine the corner office, or the perfect stock portfolio, or the kids going to the right college, or going to seminary so that people will call you Reverend one day.

However, this is how Jesus describes glory: The Son of Man, God in the flesh, serving humanity from the hard wood of cross, rectifying the sins of all those who seek glory by the wrong means for the wrong reasons.

At the end of the day it’s important to remember that the Gospel, the Good News, is a story. It’s not a self-help program, it’s not a textbook with steps to salvation, it’s not program for perfect morality. It’s a story, actually the story, that renarrates all of our stories. 

Whenever we enter the strange new world of the Bible, its impossible to miss how the whole thing, particular the New Testament, is organized around a journey. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end that is really a new beginning.

And, like most journeys, we know we have somewhere to go, but we never really know what we will encounter along the way.

The same is true of the disciples, then and now. Disciples follow Jesus, but we clearly don’t know a lot more than that.

Following Jesus, then and now, is a strange and wondrous thing. It is strange because we do not know where it will lead and it is wondrous because we do know that God in Christ is with us for the entire ride.

What are the marks of faithfulness, or discipleship, today? Do you have to be baptized? Do you have to have perfect worship attendance? Do you have to tithe? 

Notably, Jesus never says to his disciples, “You have to believe these five propositions in order to be a disciples” or “You must engage in this list of Spiritual Disciplines.”

He merely says, “Follow me.”

And yet, the “merely” in that sentence is a betrayal of the magnitude of discipleship.

Whatever our faith may be, whatever it may look like, it is found in the following. It’s not about having some sort of emotional response to the Spirit, or making some sort of public proclamation about Jesus’ lordship. Those things can, and dare I say should, happen.

But they are not discipleship. They, to put it bluntly, are not the Good News.

In the end, discipleship is nothing more than stumbling behind the Lord on the road of life, going from one adventure to the next, with the safe and secure knowledge that he’s in charge.

Therefore, we never really choose to be Christians. 

Discipleship is something done to us.

I’ve never not been a Christian. I’ve spent my whole life in and around and the church and don’t know know anything different. But even those who come to faith later in life, we do so not by making a decision. We do so because something happens to us and we eventually find ourselves within a community like this one.

That something is named Jesus Christ.

It just kind of happens that at some point we realize we’re caught up on the journey that we might not have ever chosen on our own.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty Good News! It’s very Good News because it means the church has room for those with tremendous faith and for those with tremendous doubts. The church has room for those who feel like they’re on top of the world and for those who feel like their down in a ditch. It means the church is a journey, an adventure, in which we are always moving.

And yet, like any journey, there are signposts, guides, billboards that help us know where we are going.

To be on the way of faith, to be caught up in the adventure of grace, means imitating the moves of the master. That is: we learn and live and move and have our being by repetition, by habit, by practice.

That’s why Jesus is forever telling stories. Notice: Jesus stories are not about esoteric conceptions that college freshman debate in Philosophy 101. Jesus’ stories, instead, are centered down in the muck and the mire of life. Jesus tells stories about things like anger, justice, disappointment, fear, money, jealousy, forgiveness, relationships – you know, the things we all deal with on a daily basis. 

Those stories, those words, they become the habits around which our lives are made intelligible. This happens because Jesus’ stories are always about himself, and if we take seriously the claim that we have been incorporated into His body, then they are also stories about us.

Here’s a parable that Will Willimon tells which, of course, riffs on one of Jesus’ parables:

“There’s a barber who, after a day of cutting people’s hair for money, goes out to a hospital for the mentally challenged and cuts hair for free. A friend of his is an accountant who, after a long day of serving people’s financial interests for money, goes out at night to cruise local bars, to pick up women for one night stands, and to enjoy himself as much as possible. Both men, the barber and the accountant, are apprentices, people attached to some larger vision of what life is about, why we are here. One is attached to Jesus. The other is attached to consumerism and selfish hedonism. So the interesting question to ask them is not the abstract ‘What do you believe in?’ But, instead is it the concrete question, ‘Whom are you following?’”

Faith is about following.

Jesus says to the disciples, then and now, “Take up you cross and follow me.” When we respond to that call, it means that Jesus will lead us place, places we might not ever imagine.

Flannery O’ Connor once said, “Most people come to the Church by means the church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all.”

Which is just another way of saying that Jesus meets us where we are, not where we ought to be. But then the Lord takes us somewhere else. That journey might look like spending a few hours on a Saturday morning helping with a yard sale in a church fellowship hall. Or it might look like volunteering over with Kid’s Soar helping kids with their education. Or it might look like serving as an usher on Sunday mornings helping to embody the love of God in your interactions with others. 

Or it might look like something we haven’t even thought of yet! If it is guided by grace, or moved by mercy, or filled with faith, then it is probably some joyful part of the journey. What we do in our service, which is but another word for discipleship, whether we’re volunteering with a local organization or helping at church to bring about a new vision of the kingdom, all of those things form us while we are doing them.

Discipleship, then, isn’t something we ever really finish; discipleship is an adventure – there’s always more to do. Which, in the end, it what makes it so fun. Amen. 

On The Road (Again)

Luke 24.13-24

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name of Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hope that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were are the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the woman had said; but they did not see him.” 

I haven’t been here all that long, but I have been here long enough to hear a lot of questions about why we do what we do as Christians. Perhaps we have so many questions because some of us having been coming to church for so long that we know longer know why we do what we do, or we are new enough that we just assume this is what we do without knowing why we do it.

And yet, everything we do, and I mean everything, has a purpose.

Throughout the month of October we’re going to look at some of the different things we do as disciples and we’re going to talk about why we do them. Today we begin with why we worship the way we do.

For the last 2,000 years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering to worship God. From the secretive upper rooms of the first century and the time of the Acts of the Apostles, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to contemporary gymnasiums with folding chairs, to the comfort of our couches via the internet, worship is what we do as Christians.

Worship follows a liturgy. Liturgy comes from the Latin Liturgia which means “work of the people” and it is the work we do when we worship. You might not know it but our liturgy has four distinct parts regardless of whether we’re in the contemporary or traditional service: Gathering – Proclaiming – Responding – Sending Forth

These four parts have connections to the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but they can be specially connected with the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

So today, we’re breaking up the sermon into four little mini sermonettes in order to see the connections between the strange new world of the Bible and our world today.

Jesus gathered the disciples on the road, Jesus proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them, the disciples responded by breaking bread and sharing a cup during which their eyes were opened to the presence of God, and then the disciples were sent out to proclaim what they saw and heard.

So, we begin at the beginning – Gathering. 

But, when does our worship actually start? Is it when the candles are finally lit? Is it when I step up to make an announcements? Is it when the live-stream starts?

Worship, believe it or not, begins long before we even enter the building. God is actively and intimately involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in our thoughts while we’re making our way to church, in our conversations in the parking lot, and even in the silence as we sit in the pews before the first note it played and before the first word is offered.

And, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we bring our experiences and our thoughts and even our anxieties to church. They are not meant to be left outside of our doors! They are very much a part of how we worship because speaks into our experience. That is: church is not some reprieve from the greater world even though it can be – church gives us the vocabulary to understand the greater world around us.

God then continues to gather us as the candles are lit. The light here is a reminder for us of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness, the light that came into the world in order to transform the world, a light that strengthens us in our worship and our discipleship. 

Similarly, the music in our time of gathering centers us and proclaims, literally, that we have entered something different, in space and in time, than what we were doing before. The melodies and the words and even our movement are part of how God encounters us and gathers us for this work.

Because worship is work. Or, perhaps better put, worship is a habit. We do it over and over and over again to retune our minds and tone our bodies in order to be God’s people in the world. 

This is how God gather us every week, just like God in Christ gathered the disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever. So, let’s get gathered…

Luke 24.25-27

Then he said to them, “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

After Jesus gathered the disciples on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on and on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. And yet, they were still unable to recognize who he really was.

The second part of our liturgy is dedicated to Proclamation, sharing words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, but we also do it because God’s Word is alive and still speaks to us and our experiences today.

Our scriptures, more often than not, come to us on Sunday morning from something called the Revised Common Lectionary. The lectionary is a three year cycle of readings for every Sunday on the liturgical calendar and actually unites our local churches with all sorts of other churches – there is a very good chance that what we proclaim from the Bible on any given Sunday is also what is being read in other churches both locally and globally. 

We boldly read and proclaim God’s holy scriptures in the knowledge that God will someone speak through them to us about who we are and whose we are.

However, the sermon, unlike everything else in our liturgy, is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted, some are sad and pensive, and some are bold and demanding, but they are always determined by the scriptures to which they point.

Karl Barth put it this way: the one thing preachers must do in preaching is open the eyes of their churches to the treasure of scripture that is spread before us, and then gather those treasures and pass them on to the congregation. 

In other words, preachers dare to speak about God. And God, bewilderingly, chooses to speak to us through preaching. 

This is how God proclaims God’s Word every week, just like God in Christ proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples on the road to Emmaus. So, let’s hear what God has to say to us today…

Sermon: A one-sentence sermon – God meets us on the roads of life, proclaims the Good News through likely and unlikely places, is revealed when we eat at the table, and sends us to the share Good News to all who will hear it. Amen. 

Luke 24.28-32

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. And, while they gathered around a table, Jesus took bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. And then, and only then, were their eyes opened to the Truth in their midst. It was only in responding to the words on the road, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, were they able to recognize how their hearts had burned within them.

The third part of our liturgy is Responding. We do this on any given Sunday by offering our tithes and our gifts back to God, we listen to an anthem or a particularly moving song, we pray and consider how we might continue to respond to what God is saying, but the fullest and most faithful way we respond is by sharing the same meal that Jesus shared with the disciples on the road.

The holy meal is worthy of its own sermon series, but suffice it to say that when we share the bread and when we share the cup – that’s what being a Christian is all about. Through the power of the Spirit we are connected in the meal to all who have come before us, and we are connected to all who will feast long after we’re gone. It is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to which all of us are beckoned in our deaths, and it is where we are consumed by that which we consume. 

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by offering ourselves and feasting at the table just like Jesus did with the disciples from the road. So, let’s respond to the Lord…

Luke 24.33-35

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to be one of those two disciples who sat at the table with the Lord when the fullness of the moment was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what that was like for, whenever we gather to feast, we experience the same. 

In worship our eyes are opened to the power and presence of Jesus in our midst.

The disciples were so moved bye their experiences of being gathering on the road and of hearing Jesus proclaim the scriptures, and responding to the truth at the table, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard.

When we are confronted and met by the power and glory of God in worship, we can’t help but go forth to share the good news with all who will hear it.

Each week we “end” our worship with a benediction and a song but our worship doesn’t really end – instead we take what happened here with us into the world as people who live and speak the praise of God.

This is how we are sent forth week after week, just like the disciples who ran to tell their friends what they saw and heard. So, let us prepare to be sent forth into the world…

To Hell And Back

Mark 9.38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?

Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith! 

So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?

Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.

We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject. 

And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.

The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.” 

We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big   columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?

Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”

And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”

But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”

But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”

This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school. 

Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.

A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.

Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.

To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident. 

Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.

Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna. 

Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again. 

That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps. 

We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.

It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now. 

And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna. 

It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.

One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.

Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners. 

That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.

Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!

Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.

Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.

The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity. 

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. 

And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.

Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins. 

Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.

Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.

Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.

We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.

The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.

But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do. 

But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.

All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition. 

Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.

In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.

Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.

Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.

That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.

Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.

Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen. 

The Story Within The Story

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Esther 7.1-6, 9-10; 9.20-22, Psalm 124, James 5.13-20, Mark 9.38-50). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the conundrum of context, Lupin, sacrificial honesty, reading between the lines, the manifestation of memory, hermeneutical tools, The Brothers Zahl, stumbling blocks, and selfishness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Story Within The Story

If You Ain’t First…

Mark 9.30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

We love this little anecdote from the Gospel of Mark because we love thinking about children in church. 

Literally, we enjoy actually seeing children among our ranks and it gives us hope for a future not yet seen. But even more so, we love to think about children being in church because it naturally corresponds with our imaginations regarding Jesus as a simple, lovable, leader of those who walk in the ways of life.

But this story, these handful of verses right on the other side of the Transfiguration should stop us dead in our tracks, because, like the disciples, we don’t really understand what Jesus is saying and we are too afraid to ask him.

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. 

From where? 

Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, as the one to save and redeem Israel. But then as soon as Jesus predicts his own passion and resurrection Peter offers a rebuttal.

“Excuse me, JC, but that’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”

“Get behind me Satan, for you’re stuck with a worldly imagination and not a divine imagination. If you want to join me on this world turning upside down endeavor, then you need to get you world flipped right now – those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their lives on account of my name will save them.”

And then Jesus has the bright idea to take Peter, and a handful of the inner circle up on top of a mountain upon which he is Transfigured and flocked by Moses and Elijah and a voice cries out, “This is my Son! Listen to him!”

They come down from the mountain with all sights trained on Jerusalem, Jesus heals yet another person in need and then, while passing through Galilee, Jesus drops some truth on his would-be disciples again.

“Listen, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and I’m going to be killed. And three days later I will rise again.”

But the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask for elaboration.

Apparently, however, they had something else to talk about along the journey because by the time they make it to Capernaum Jesus asks, “So what was it that you all we arguing about on the way?”

They say nothing because they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.

Jesus is on his way to the end, to the cross, when all his disciples can argue about is cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God, they want to know who is the greatest.

These disciples have heard Jesus teachings, they’ve witnessed his miracles, and they’re still clueless.

“Pay attention,” Jesus says, “if you want to be first, you have to be last.”

And then he grabs a kid (from where?) and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes God.”

In the strange new world made possible by God in Christ, the master is oddly the one who serves, the greatest is the least, and the first is the last.

Luke and Matthew have this same story in their respective gospels, the dispute about greatness. They, too, record Jesus claiming that whoever wishes to be first must be last, but then they add, the great among you shall be like the youngest – one cannot enter the kingdom unless they do so as a child.

So, Jesus seems to say, we’ve got to welcome one another like children, and we’ve got to start acting like children.

That sounds good and fine, and even nice. But it makes me wonder if Jesus actually spent any substantive time around children…

I mean, this isn’t very good advice.

Can you imagine what would happens if all of us respectable adults started acting like children? Or, perhaps worse, what would happen if we let kids run the show we call church?

You know, my first week here, I asked our Youth what they would change if they could change one thing about the church, and you know what they said?

One of them made a strong case for installing a Hot Tub outside our gathering area!

Another one argued for us to renovate our back set of stairs because, if you ever need to use the bathroom during the service, everyone in the sanctuary can hear you walking down the stairs.

Seriously, and get this! Another one said that they would make us actually love each other and our neighbors.

Kids! They don’t know what they’re talking about! We can’t trust them with the church!

Soon enough, we’ll all be relaxing in hot tubs and actually living like disciples!

Jesus says if you want to be first, you have to be last. Which, in a sense means the whole apparatus called church is caught up in a confounding community in which the people with no qualifications are in charge, and those with all the power and prestige in the world have to take a back seat to the whole kingdom thing.

Did you know that the Methodist Church grew every year until we started requiring pastors to have Masters degrees. Interesting isn’t it?

You start letting the people with the right pedigree up into the pulpit and it runs counter to the strange machinations of the Lord.

In the Gospels, Jesus is forever going from place to place, talking fast, dropping one bomb after another without giving anyone much of an opportunity to sit with and in this strange new world. 

Notably, when Jesus calls the disciples he does so without a screening process, there’s no resume evaluation committee, he doesn’t stop to check anyone’s connections of legacy. All he says is, “Follow me.”

And then, later, he says, “Start acting like children.”

Who can know the mind of God? God is God and we are not. The finite can never truly comprehend the infinite. But there really is something to this bizarre proclamation, something that rings true even today.

When I was in the third grade, I was marched up to the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and some well-meaning Sunday school teacher handed me this Bible. It’s a tradition among mainline Protestants to give away Bibles to children, to kids, once they’re old enough to handle it.

But have you have read the Bible? There’s a whole lot of stuff in this book that is way beyond PG-13. 

A woman rams a tent peg through the skull of a foreign general. (Judges 4.21)

A late night pre-marital rendezvous results in the eventual birth of King David. (Ruth 3.4)

And I won’t even say this one out loud, but go check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.

Yet, the church gives away Bibles to 8 years olds as if to say, “Good luck!”

But this is why the call to behave like children stands as a beacon of wonder in the church today, because children often reject the rugged individualism that our culture is so obsessed with. Children, unlike adults, cannot survive on their own and they always seem to exist as a group. 

Children take their Bibles, they read these stories, and then they bring their questions to one another and to the church. 

We, that is adults, on the other hand, feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community that teaches what it means to be who we are.

We’re so consumed by the idea of needing to think for ourselves that we’ve never dared to think, like children, of what it means to think together.

The witness of the church, straight from the lips of lips of the Lord, is that we cannot know who we are until God tells us. And then, and only then, can we live into that reality when a community of people persist in proclaiming that truth over and over again.

The world might try to label us based on external or even internal circumstances. You’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat, you’re fat, you’re old, you’re stupid. On and on and on.

But God, in Christ, through church, tells us again and again that we are the baptized, that we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone, we’re not labeled by what we wear or what we do, we are only who God tells us we are.

I’m not sure exactly how it happens, or even when it happens, but at some point we, adults, foolishly believe we have nothing left to learn. 

Children, thankfully, remind us that there is no limit to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from God.

Oddly enough, we never really think for ourselves, no matter how much we believe we do. We are all captives to the thoughts and the instructions of others. We might tell children to think for themselves, we can even tell ourselves to do so, but all of us, eventually, will think like someone else.

Entire industries exist for the simple and sole purpose of indoctrination. All usually under the auspices of encouraging our intellectual freedom.

The never-ending push for individualism, for solitary adult like behavior, presents a version of the world as if people are actually capable of being alone, which forgets that we owe our entire lives and our ability to think, to other people.

Independence might be the carrot on the string dangling in front of our faces, but in the kingdom of God, dependence is the name of the game. Because, in the end, our insatiable desire for autonomy actually leaves us lonely and without any story by which we can make sense of the condition of our condition.

The Gospel, on the other hand, calls us to a dependent life upon which our hopes and dreams stem from being part of something bigger than ourselves in which God’s story renarrates our own.

In other words, the church, at her best, is an antidote to the loneliness of the world, and the loneliness all too many of us feel. It’s here, among the baptized, that we learn we have a story, they we are not alone, and that we are incorporated into something that is not of this world.

It’s not that we have an antidote – the church is the antidote.

What we do – worship, prayer, sacrament, mission, it is all of a piece in which the story of God reveals to us our dependence upon God and upon others. In this community of faith we live out the story revealed in the strange new world of the Bible and this becomes the training ground for those who call ourselves Christians. It’s in our living together, our being together, that we cultivate the habits necessary for understanding who we are and how we can live in the world.

Welcoming those like children implies a willingness to welcome ideas from the very kinds of people (and places) that we would never dare to imagine. It means being open to a future that we cannot yet conceive on our own. It means getting out of the way of the Spirit, and letting it rip.

If you ain’t first, you’re last – so says the world. From the time we’re young adults until the day we die its always this break-neck competition for firstness, greatness, foundness. But in the Kingdom of God Jesus does his best work, his only work really, with the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

People like us. 

Expect The Unexpected

Mark 7.24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned to the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Jesus is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He sets out for the region of Tyre, Gentile territory, in which he will be a stranger in a strange land, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. 

But a woman hears about him and she bows down at his feet.

Jesus is a Jew. She’s a Gentile.

Jesus wants to be alone. She wants help.

It’s here, outside the confines of Israel, beyond the realm of the covenant, out on the margins of life, Jesus is encountered by the woman’s desperation.

“Please,” she begs, “heal my daughter!”

As one outside the people Israel, she’s probably bent down at the altars of countless gods before, hoping against hope for her daughter’s sake. And somehow she hears of this Jesus, and bends down yet again.

And Jesus brushes her off. After all, he has come for the lost sheep of Israel. He’s got plenty of work to do among his own people. It wouldn’t be fair to give what belonged to God’s children to the dogs, to those outside the covenant.

“But sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs left by the children.”

A sly smile stretches across Jesus’ face. “Indeed,” he responds, “for saying that you may go – your daughter has been healed.”

Jesus had a way of attracting desperate people, and he had a way of loving desperate people. 

Jesus miraculously reaches out beyond all the perfectly good reasons for not doing so, and brings about a new reality that we never imagined possible.

And it really is miraculous. But here’s the kicker – the so-called Syrophoenician woman, and most of the other recipients of grace for that matter, don’t receive the miracle because of what they believe. At least, not really. A miracle, by definition, is an unwarranted and undeserved gift of God. God in Christ has this knack for making outsiders into insiders, for reaching beyond beyond the boundaries of propriety, of meeting people where they are and not where they ought to be.

God meets us in our mistakes, not in our triumphs. God meets us in our sins, not in our successes.

Which is to say – the woman gets it! Her line about “even the dogs under the table” shows that she has caught a glimpse of the way grace works in the world – there’s always more than enough Jesus to go around even for those who don’t deserve him.

Because none of us deserve him. 

She understands, in some way, shape, or form, that this is the way God has determined to be God – through mercy. God, with open arms and a never ending table, desires for all to receive a taste of grace in order that the world might be transformed, transfigured even. 

Somehow, the woman knows that mercy might begin with Israel, but she also knows, through Jesus, that God’s mercy doesn’t end with Israel.

In other words, God likes crowded tables.

There is no sinner so great that they cannot be forgiven by God. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

The woman has faith enough for Jesus to meet her in her desperation, and it changes everything.

But that begs the question – What, exactly, is faith?

Some might imagine that it means, first and foremost, that one says yes to a series of creedal propositions concerning who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Something like the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Or, perhaps, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, whatever that might mean.

And yet, we don’t hear Jesus saying anything about any of that with the woman, nor does he put any prerequisites on the deaf man with the impediment in his speech before he heals him.

Think about the thief next to Jesus on the cross. While the crowds ridicule the Messiah with nails in his hands the thief merely says to Jesus, “Remember me.”

When God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, when God brings about the resurrection of the dead, I’m going to find that thief. I can’t wait to ask him how it all worked out for him. Because, can’t you just imagine the other smug Christians walking around with their resurrected noses in the air looking down on the thief? Can’t you imagine them confronting him, “Well, you were never baptized, you never stood up and affirmed the creeds, you didn’t tithe to your local church… On what basis did you get in?”

And the thief says, “The man on the middle cross said I could come.”

Faith isn’t about what we do, faith is about what is done to us.

In the end, faith is really nothing more than trusting Jesus to do what he said he will do.

Why did the woman trust Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe she heard about him through the grapevine, maybe she ran into someone who had a taste of the loaves and the fishes. Scripture doesn’t tell us. But somehow she learned, and in her desperation she went looking.

The words about the Word continue to spread, even today. We have them right here in scripture, sometimes we can find the Word in sermons. The Word always finds its way onto strange paths, even to those who don’t go to church every Sunday and to those who don’t read the Bible.

There are always small crumbs falling from the rich table where God gives the bread of life.

And that’s exactly how faith works – it kind of shows up out of nowhere. It has nothing to demand, it earns nothing and deserves nothing. Faith simply says, “Lord, have mercy.” For faith, real confounding faith, knows that if Jesus helps, then it is only by grace. Grace is given only to those who stand under judgment – so it is with faith even today.

I came across a story a few years ago that has haunted me ever since. 

A woman, in the early 90s, found herself in the fetal position on her dirty living room floor one night. She was strung out, hoping her husband would return home with their next fix, but also knew that if he did return, he wouldn’t share it with her. Their baby was somehow asleep in a dirty crib in the next room over and she had a terrifying moment of clarity. She was afraid that if someone found her as she really was, they would take her son away. And she was even more worried that her son needed to be taken away from her.

And so there she was, rocking back and forth on the floor and in her hands was a tiny slip of paper with a phone number on it. A few years before, her mother sent her the number through the mail for a Christian counselor to try to help her out of the hole she had dug for herself. Over the years, in moments of terror, the woman would pull out the number but she never worked up the courage to call in.

Until that night.

The phone rang and rang and eventually a man answered it, clearly having been woken up from sleep. And immediately the woman said, “I’m sorry for calling so late, but my mom gave me your number and said that you might be able to help me.”

The man said, “Tell me what’s going on.”

So she did. She admitted things to him that she hadn’t really even admitted to herself. I’m a drug addict. I’m a terrible mother. I need help. 

She went on and on and the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice. He just kept encouraging her to share what was on her heart and soul.

They talked on the phone until the sun rose in the morning. And the woman, now having made it through the darkest night of her life, said, “You know, I’m kind of surprised you haven’t given me any scriptures to read or prayers to pray, isn’t that what Christian counselors do?”

He brushed the comment aside but then she continued, “No, seriously. You’re really good at this. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And the man said, “Please don’t hang up, and listen to me for a minute. You know that number you dialed, the one your mom gave you a few years ago for a Christian counselor? Wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but they eventually finished their conversation. And her life didn’t change immediately. But she says that after that night, having encounter a stranger who listened just for the sake of listening, her life changed. Slowly but surely, her life changed because she discovered, for the first time, that there was unconditional love in the universe and some of it was for her. 

She goes around the country now, telling her story, and this is how she always ends it: This is what I know, in the deepest darkest moments of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in. 

Faith, obviously, teaches us a lot about the Lord, but also a lot about who we are. There’s not a way for us to encounter God without coming to grips with the condition of our condition, no matter how good we might seem on the surface.

We should want to love our enemies and never be angry with all the trouble makers and cheaters who make our lives so miserable. But we can’t do it. We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, we are not as we ought to be. We are miserable offenders. We are not worthy to come to this table.

But that is the heart of grace.

We don’t deserve the help and the forgiveness offered to us by God.

People, since the time of Christ, have earnestly desired to follow, we’ve prayed for pure hearts and pure love and pure faith. And then, we don’t get it. Instead we wrestle with our doubts and our shames and our hurts and our pains and we realize that we are not what we can or should be. It drives us to despair and desperation. And then the unexpected happens – Jesus finds us. We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And we see all things anew. We can’t do what we need to do, but the Lord can through us. 

God takes away our sins, not in part but the whole, nails them to the cross, and we bear them no more.

God has established a kingdom in which forgiveness never ever runs dry, and where we are always invited to the feast where even the tiniest crumbs convey the fullness of grace. 

One of the strangest parts of being a Christian is coming to grips with the fact that we would not know this trust had we not, at some point, been desperate. 

And that’s faith – it’s expecting the unexpected. It’s calling out for help from the one who shouldn’t help us, and yet does. Amen. 

A Place At The Table

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things. 

One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.

And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands. 

Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t. 

So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”

These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.

How does Jesus respond?

“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”

And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:

“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”

It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”

Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.

Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.

Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.

Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.

And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?

If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”

We are what’s wrong with the world.

Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.

How can we fix what’s wrong within us?

Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.

Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.

And while some people love it, others hate it.

Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”

It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.

Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.

The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.

The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?

The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.

And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.

There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.

Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.

And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”

A small uproar ensued.

And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.

Hmm.

And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.

What, then, are we called to do?

*Ladder Demonstration*

In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.

Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. 

Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?

The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.

And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.

Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.

The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!

When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.

Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.

In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news. 

There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.

It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!

In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…

Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”

And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.

In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen. 

Making Melody

Ephesians 5.15-20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

The priest sat in the deep of the ship as the storm raged above. He tried his best to remain steady as the ship rocked back and forth with every gust of wind and the waves were relentless. Supplies and cargo rolled in every direction and panic was grabbing hold of the passengers.

A nearby mother with a tiny infant nestled in her arms begged the priest to baptize her baby right then and there in fear that they would not survive the storm. Everywhere he looked all he saw was terror and fear.

And then, strangely enough, he heard singing coming from a group of Moravians, German Christians. Meanwhile the main mast split in two but the sound of the tiny little choir reverberated and resonated deeply in the wooden hull of the ship.

Days later, when the sun finally returned in the sky, the priest found the group of singers and asked why they were not more afraid during the storm.

They replied, “We are not afraid to die. We are prepared because we know God will never let us go.”

Afterward the priest was deeply moved and wrote in his journal: This was the most glorious day that I have yet seen.

It was 1736 and the priest’s name was John Wesley.

Music had always been a part of Wesley’s life but something in him changed that day. Today, the people called Methodists are those who know what it means to sing our faith in large part because of what took place on a ship long ago.

Music is a truly remarkable thing. It can make us laugh, it can make us cry, it can bring forth emotions we didn’t even know we had access to.

If someone puts on the Vince Guaraldi Trio I am immediately transported to Christmas Time Is Here, Charlie Brown, and all the other things that make that season the most wonderful time of the year.

If someone starts spinning some Supertramp or Queen or Fleetwood Mac then my entire extended family will start flipping tables and chairs until we’ve made enough space for a dance floor.

Even Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the 20th century, when asked by a student what he learned after an entire career in theology he responded: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”

Music is powerful stuff, and Paul tells us that being filled with the Spirit necessarily results in the making of melody.

Years ago, while on a mission trip to New Orleans, I was tasked with spending the afternoon in a nursing home and proctoring a session of Bingo. The youth and I tried our best to liven up the place a little bit but the whole thing was tragic. Residents of the memory care unit were staring off into space, using the laminated cards to fan themselves, and totally unconnected from just about anything.

Until we found a forgotten and worn out hymnal on a shelf in the corner. I pulled the youth close and we started singing all the great hymns we knew without even really needing to look at the hymnal.

By the time we made it halfway through The Old Rugged Cross, every eye in the room was on us, and when we rounded the second to last verse of Amazing Grace some of the residents were singing with us, and when we landed the last note of Great Is Thy Faithfulness, more than a few people had tears in the eyes.

Including the orderlies and assistants who later told us that it was the first time they heard many of the residents actually say anything at all.

The science is all there about how our neural pathways change, literally rewrite themselves, whenever music is performed or consumed. Music changes things and gives us access to things we otherwise wouldn’t have.

But this is nothing new.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible we discover how music rests at the heart of what it means to be connected with the divine. Moses and the Hebrew people sing songs of praise after being delivered from slavery to the Promised Land, David plays the lyre in order to calm the anxieties of King Saul, and Paul and Silas are in the middle of singing when an earthquake sets them free from captivity.

Music is often the gateway to unanticipated blessings.

Paul writes near the conclusion of his letter to the church in Ephesus about being careful about how they live and to make most of the time they’ve been given. This is not merely a call to “seize the day” but more a recognition that life is a gift and that we have much to be grateful for. 

When the Moravians were singing on the boat – they weren’t being fools living in denial of the situation they found themselves in, they were not naive. Instead they held fast to the promise made to them in Christ that nothing in this life, not even a storm upon the sea, can ever separate us from the love of God.

It’s all too easy to take most of Paul’s letters and turn them into an exhortative exercise. As in, someone like me will stand in a place like in order to get people like you to start behaving yourselves. Which is all good and fine, but that’s not actually what the letter is doing.

Paul doesn’t tell the Ephesians to do this that and the other in order to be Christians, but rather he tells them to do all these things because they are Christians. And that’s an important distinction. Paul urges them to make the most of their time, and put away foolishness, and sing with one another not to become Christians but because they are Christians.

All of the stuff we do as Christians, from praying to singing to serving isn’t to get somewhere with God, or to earn God’s favor; we do these things because, in Christ, we already belong to God. Living like this is just what kind of happens when grace grabs hold and refuses to let go; we can’t help but make melody together.

So lets do it…

The first music was percussive. Drums were used to tell stories and eventually communicate over distances of space and time. But somewhere along the line, it was discovered that if you changed the tightness of a drum it would create different pitches – pitches that could eventually become a melody.

Strictly speaking, a melody is a sequence of single notes that are musically satisfying. What makes the connection between the notes satisfying is how they relate to one another, something we might call harmony – which is exactly what we’re going to try to produce right now…

[We broke the sanctuary into four quadrants and gave each section a note to sing C-E-G-C in order sing a harmonic chord)

As we come to the conclusion of our series on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, it’s notable that Paul didn’t start that particular church. In fact, they were strangers to one another when he shows up in the book of Acts.

In other words, they didn’t pick him.

Sound familiar?

And yet, what wildly wonderful good news! God delights in gathering together people who otherwise have nothing in common save for the fact that Jesus calls them friends. Paul reminds us again and again and again that we, with all our differences, can actually make melody and harmony together because God is in the business of making something of our nothing. 

In many ways, God is the great conductor of an orchestra we call the church in which we are all given instruments to play however we see fit, all while God keeps us in rhythm with each other. When we begin to see, and to hear, how we make music together, it starts to reshape everything else about our lives. 

Strangers become sisters and others become brothers.

We, who were once far off are brought near by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We, who have no business being close to God at all, are incorporated into Christ’s body to be Christ’s body for the world.

And it’s because of all this work done by God for us that we can give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Gratitude, like music, changes things.

We can certainly go about day to day complaining about particular individuals who drive us crazy, we can lament the need to mow our lawns, we can even grumble about having to help our kids with their homework.

Or, with gratitude, we can reframe it such that we get to be connected with the strange and wondrous and confounding human beings around us, we get to spend time outside communing with creation, and we get to sit down with our kids and watch their minds grow and change before our very eyes.

Music and gratitude are not distractions from the harsh truths of life. Instead, they give us the means by which we can experience all that life offers knowing all the while that God is, in fact with us. 

In the end, Paul is right – it is not only possible, but even necessary, that we should “always and for everything” give thanks. God transforms the darkest night and the most frightening storms into glorious day and beautiful seas. 

God can even take a ragtag group of people called church and make a melody. Amen. 

Forgiven To Forgive

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 

I am convinced that the crucible of Sunday morning worship doesn’t actually happen in this space, but takes place in the 5-10 minutes immediately following the service, and the email inbox on Monday mornings.

Yes, what we do in our hour together is powerful and faithful and transformative. We gather, we proclaim, we respond, we are sent forth. That’s all good and fine.

But it’s in the time after our time in here that really shows what happened during our time together.

The Sunday morning debrief, otherwise known as the receiving line following worship, is  wonderful, bewildering, and terrifying.

More often than not someone will make a comment about the weather or about lunch plans. A few of you have noted, as of recent, that it hasn’t rained since I arrived in town, so thanks for trying to pin that on me. Good stuff.

Occasionally I’ll hear something profound like, “I really heard God speak today” or, “You really gave me something to think about.” Good stuff.

But every once in a while I hear a comment that cuts through all the rest. Someone, usually waiting until most people clear out, will step forward and say something like, “I didn’t like it. But I’m not sure which part I enjoyed less, the sermon or the scripture.”

And, frankly, I can’t blame those who feel that way. Have you read the Bible? Be careful! There’s some wild stuff in there.

Two female bears descend from the wilderness and maul 42 young boys for making fun of a bald headed prophet (2 Kings 2).

A preacher goes on a little too long while a young man dozes in a window and then he falls out of said window to his death (Acts 20).

God commands a prophet to walk around naked for three years as a sign against foreign nations (Isaiah 20).

And those are just the first three that come to mind!

But even Jesus has a penchant for strange stories.

God is like a shepherd with 100 sheep. And, when one sheep goes missing, the Good Shepherd delights in leaving the 99 behind in order to find the one who is lost.

That’s a quaint little story, one we teach to our children. But you know what happens when you leave the flock behind to go in search of the one missing? It only guarantees 99 more lost sheep! That’s no way to run a shepherding business.

God is like a sower who sows seeds all over the place regardless of the soil upon which the seeds land. 

That’s another nice one, it’s good imagery for those who enjoy gardening. Except, if you ask anyone who has spent any time with agriculture, that’s no way to do it. It’s a tremendous waste of seeds if you toss them onto the sidewalk and what about tiling the soil and moisture management? God, apparently, doesn’t have a very green thumb. 

Or how about this one: 

Two men enter a temple to pray, one a Pharisee – a man committed to the word of the Law, attentive to the demands of scripture, he gave a tenth of all he had to the poor and needy, prayed, fasted, and kept himself clean. He could’ve run for office without fear of anyone finding a skeleton in his closet. He was proud of being who he was.

The other man was a reprehensible tax collector, a publican, taking money from his own people and giving it to the empire, a political traitor, he was dirty. The kind of man no one made eye contact with. 

And that day the Pharisee saw the good for nothing tax collector and declared, in prayer, “Lord, thank you that I am not like him!” Meanwhile, the tax collector, with fear and trembling, prayed, “Please God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And the tax collector walked away forgiven, justified.

I mean, Jesus, what kind of ship are you running? That’s not fair! You keep telling stories like that and no one will want to do any of this religious stuff. It’s irresponsible. The parable of the publican and the pharisee is all wrong. It’s the Pharisee that should walk away forgiven, he’s done all the right things. And the the publican, he should’ve been thrown in jail, or at the very least, kicked out of town by the very people he swindled.

You know, two weeks ago I decided to retell the parable of the prodigal and one of you came up to me after the service and said, with good intentions I think, “Well, I can’t believe you said the F word in church.”

Friends, I confess that for the briefest of moments I had to think back – Did I, a preacher of the Word, use such a word in my sermon?

But before I had a chance to respond this person said, “Forgiveness. What a dangerous word: forgiveness.”

Paul writes to the budding church in Ephesus about the positive and negative consequences of the great shadow that God casts upon the lives of disciples. When God grabs hold of us, everything changes whether we want it to or not. Somewhere along the line we discover that God, bewilderingly, has given us a sacred and indestructible trust – we are stuck with the body of Christ. 

It’s not easy being stuck with people, especially with pharisees and tax collectors. It’s a challenge to be among such individuals, and yet here we are, surrounded by sinners and scoundrels alike. 

But it is when discipleship becomes challenging that we know the mercy of God is at work in our lives. The weight of all these weighty expectations that Paul drops on us: put away all your wrath and bitterness and slander and malice, be kind and tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you – the call to this kind of life is for those who know they stand in and on God’s grace alone.

Put another way – It’s only the Spirit of freedom that give us the freedom to forgive.

Why does the publican walk away forgiven while the Pharisee doesn’t? We can try to insert reasons – perhaps the publican was a man of the people, maybe he was kind in spite of all his tax collecting. And maybe the pharisee was a religious bigot, a viper, a terror to the community.

But Jesus doesn’t provide an answer to those sorts of questions. 

Forgiveness is an odd thing, and I don’t need to tell you that most of us don’t believe in it. Give us the good ol time religion, we’ll read with kids, and purchase school supplies, and feed the hungry, and all sorts of stuff. But forgive the one who has wronged us?

No thank you.

That’s irresponsible behavior! You can’t just let people get away with stuff, we can’t be too soft on sin!

What makes forgiveness so difficult?

Once, when Jesus was teaching, the disciples said, “Wait a minute JC. What you’re saying is too much for us. We need you to increase our faith!”

And what was the topic of conversation? Going the extra mile? Turning the other cheek? Praying for our enemies? No. Jesus was talking about forgiveness.

So Peter speaks up, “Lord, perhaps we should put some limits on this whole forgiveness thing. How does 7 times sound?”

“No,” the Lord replies, “I tell you: 70 times 7 times.”

And Peter, the rock of the church, says something like, “But Jesus, if we forgive that many times, then we’ll go to our grave forgiving.”

“Right,” Jesus says, “You’ll go to your grave forgiving.”

We can’t do it Lord, increase our faith!

Forgiveness comes at a cost – a cost for the one offering forgiveness and for the one receiving. To offer forgiveness implies a willingness to truly see those who have wronged us as fellow sheep in need of a shepherd. And to receive forgiveness implies a willingness to admit that we are people who have wronged the other sheep in the fold.

Jesus routinely criticized the religious leaders of his day for all sorts of nonsense. They were hypocrites and slanderers and thieves and they kept heaping sins upon the backs of those who kept the faith. And then Jesus, God in the flesh, kept passing out forgiveness to those who asked for it and even for those who didn’t know they needed it!

Why then, do we insist on holding our grudges, big and small, when our Lord, the Good Shepherd, is forever out and about beating the bushes of life looking for some lost sheep, some tax collector, and even a pharisee to bring them back in?

Forgiveness is hard.

And yet, it negates and fulfills all righteousness.

In the end, we’re all publicans and pharisees. We facilitate between lives of honesty and lives of denial. We hold on to our anger toward one another and we also foolishly assume that no one could ever be angry at us.

The worst kind of lostness is not knowing how lost we are at all.

The worst kind of sin is to believe that we are without sin.

The worst kind of unforgiveness is to presume that we don’t need forgiveness.

But we are lost, each and every one of us. We’re stuck in the bushes of life, far removed from our shepherd, for the things we’ve done and the things we’ve failed to do. And yet, God keeps insisting meeting us where we are, in the midst of our sins, and never ever stops.

Forgiveness is dangerous stuff, but it gets even wilder because God forgives us before we even have a chance to repent. 

Consider the sheep, it’s probably going to get lost again and again and again. The sheep doesn’t say, “Oh my shepherd, I will never ever get lost again so long as you rescue me.” The sheep just says “Baa!” and the shepherd comes.

Consider the sower, scattering seeds this way and that before the soil has a chance to get itself in shape to receive the seeds that are the Word and God never stops sowing.

Consider the publican, he walks away forgiven but we don’t hearing anything about whether or not he mended his ways. He could go back day after day, 70 times 7 days, and he would walk away forgiven each and every time.

Forgiveness surrounds us in the church, it beats down upon our lives. It’s in the strange new world of the Bible, its in the prayers we pray and the songs we sing, its in the water with which we baptize and it’s in the bread and the cup that we share.

If we ever confess, it is only ever a confession to waking up to what we already have.

In other words, we are forgiven not because we make ourselves forgivable, but only because we have a Forgiver.

And because we have a Forgiver, the only One who can really offer it in the first, we can do impossible things. We can, to borrow the language from Ephesians, put away all malice and anger and strife and fear because we are members of one another, we are one body, we are Christ’s body. 

Look at us! We’re different people from different places with different faces – we are unique from one another in unfathomable ways and yet, we are all equal in this – we are sinners who have been forgiven.

In the end, the sheep who stray happen to be all of us, pharisees and publicans alike. Each and every single one of us here are in need of forgiveness, and each and every single one of us have someone we need to forgive.

It isn’t easy – it might even be dangerous. But there is something much much worse than forgiveness – a life of hatred, resentment, and selfishness.

It’s outrageous stuff, forgiveness. It just also happens to be the way Jesus runs the kingdom. Amen.