This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Palm Sunday [C] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Luke 19.28-40). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including intergenerational trauma, the whole story, Holy Week, difficult hymns, The Wesley Bros comic, responsibility, the elected reject, singing stones, choices (or the lack thereof), and the not normed norm. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Passionate Palms
Luke 15.1-3, 11b
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”
The strange new world of the Bible is downright scandalous.
I mean, the first two human characters in it, Adam and Eve, spend most of their time in their birthdays suits before they decide to cover themselves with a handful of fig leaves.
The patriarch of the covenant, Abraham, passes off his wife as his sister on more than one occasion to save his own behind.
David, the handsome shepherd king who brings down the mighty Goliath, orders the death of one of his soldiers after an afternoon peeping session with the aforementioned solider’s wife.
And those are just the first three stories that popped in my mine.
When Jesus shows up on the scene, the scandalous nature of the Good News ramps up to eleven.
He eats with all the wrong people, he heals all the wrong people, and he makes promises to all the wrong people.
In the beginning, Jesus attracts all kids of people. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the holy and the sinful, the first and the last.
But at some point along the way things start to change as do the people who find themselves listening to Jesus.
All the tax collectors and all the sinners come near to listen. The tax collectors are those who profit off their fellow Jews by upping their take for the empire’s pockets. And the sinners, well you can just imagine your favorite sinful behavior, and you can picture them near the Lord.
And so it is the last, least, lost, little, and nearly dead who hang on his every word. Not the respectable Sunday morning crowd we have at church. Not those who sleep comfortably at night knowing their padded bank accounts are safe and secure. Not the people who have all the powers and principalities at their fingertips.
No. Jesus has all the gall to hang out with the sinners.
And the Pharisees, the good religious observers (people like us), are concerned about the behavior of this would-be Messiah, and so they try to dissuade the crowds: “This Jesus is nothing but bad news! He welcomes sinners into his midst, and not only that, he eats with them! Can you imagine? And he calls himself the Son of God!”
So Jesus does what Jesus does best, he tells them a story.
There’s a man with two sons. The family business has been good to the family. The little corner grocery store is a staple in the community and the family know the names of just about every person that walks through the door.
And the father is a good father. He loves his sons.
But one day the younger son gets it into his head that he wants his inheritance right then and there. He doesn’t have the patience to wait for his old man to buy the farm so he marches into the back office and triumphantly declares, “Dad, I want my share of the inheritance now.”
In other words, “Drop dead.”
And the father really is a good father, so he decides to divide his assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes out some investments and gives him his half in cold hard cash.
Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of his money in Atlantic City. At first he is careful, a few passes at the roulette wheel, a handful of bets at black jack. But the more he loses, the more he spends on booze, girls, and more gambling,
His fall from grace happens so fast that he walks up to the closest pit boss with empty pockets and begs for a job.
“Sure,” the man says, “we’ve got an opening in janitorial services and you can start right now.”
Days pass and the younger son cleans out the trashcans throughout the casino. He’s able to stave off the hunger at first, but he hasn’t eaten in days and one particular half-consumed doughnut at the bottom of the trash can starts to look remarkably appetizing.
And that’s when he comes to himself.
He realizes, there in that moment, that he made a tremendous mistake. Even the employees back at the family grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their heads.
He drops his janitorial supplies and beelines out of the casino while working on a speech in his head, “Dad, I really messed up. I am sorry and I am no longer worthy to be called you son. If you can give me a job at the store I promise I’ll make it up to you.”
He says the words over and over again in his head the whole way home, practicing the lines like his life depends on them.
Meanwhile, the father is sitting by the window at the front of the shop, lazily glancing over the newspaper’s depressing headlines. He can hear his elder son barking out orders to his former employees, and then he sees the silhouette of his younger son walking up the street.
He sprints out the front door, spilling his coffee and leaving a flying newspaper in his wake. He tackles his son to the ground, squeezes him like his life depends on it, and he keeps kissing him all over his matted hair.
“Dad,” the son says, “Dad, I’m sorry.”
“Shut up boy,” the father roars, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party the likes of which this neighborhood has never seen!”
He yanks his prodigal son up from the asphalt, drags him back up the block, and pushes him in front of everyone in store.
“Murph,” he yells at a man with a broom standing at the end of an aisle, “Lock the front door and go find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got. We’ll start roasting it on the grill out back.”
“Hey Janine!” He yells at a woman behind the cash register, “Get on the PA system and call everyone to the front, and open up some beers while you’re at it. It’s time to party! This son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”
And the beer caps start flying, and the radio in the corner gets turned up to eleven, and everyone starts celebrating in the middle of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and comparing figures to make sure that none of his employees are swindling him out of his money, and he hears a commotion going on down the hallway. He sees Murph run past the door with what looks like beer foam in his mustache, and what looks like a leg of lamb under his arm, and the elder son shouts, “What in the world is going on?”
Murph skids to a stop in the hallway and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home! And your father told us to party!” And with that he disappears around the corner to get the grill going.
The older brother’s fists tighten and he retreats back to his office chair and to his ledger books.
Try as he might he can’t focus on his work. All he can think about is his good for nothing brother and all of the frivolity going on mere feet away. His anger grows so rapidly that he grabs the closest stack of papers and flings them across the room.
And then he hears a knock at the door.
His father steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles, “Hey, what’re you doing back here? You’re missing all the fun!”
The older son is incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘What am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job! I’ve never missed a day of work, I’ve been working like a slave for you and you never once threw me a party, you never told me I could go home early. And yet this prodigal son of yours has the nerve to come home, having wasted all your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”
The father sobers up quickly, and maybe it’s the beer or maybe it’s is own frustration, that causes him to raise his voice toward his eldest son, “You big dumb idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve only been working for yourself. Last time I checked, it’s your name on the back of the door, not mine.”
The elder son stands in shock.
And the father continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him the inheritance? Well I trusted you with this, the family business. And what does your life have to show for it? You’re so consumed by numbers and figures, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, all the while you’re chasing some bizarre fantasy of a life that doesn’t exist.”
“Don’t you, ‘But Dad’ me right now, I’m on a roll. Listen! All that matters, the only thing that matters, is that your brother is finally alive again. But look at you! You’re hardly alive at all. There’s a party going on just down the hall and you can’t even bring yourself to have a good time. Well, remember son of mine, complain all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”
The father makes to leave and rejoin the party, but he turns back one last time toward his elder son and says, “I think the only reason you’re not out there cutting up a rug with the rest of us is because you refuse to die to all your dumb rules about how your life is supposed to go. So, please, do yourself a favor, and drop dead. Forget about your life, and come have fun with us.”
And, of course, we know what we’re supposed to do with the story.
At times we’re supposed to identify with the younger brother, having ventured off toward a handful of mistakes, and we need to repent of our wrong doings.
At times we supposed to identify with the father, with our own wayward child, or friend, or partner, and how we have to pray for them to come to their senses and receive them in love.
At times we’re supposed to identify with the elder brother, when we’re disgusted with how some people get all the good stuff even though their rotten.
And just about every time we encounter this parable, whether in worship, Sunday school, or even a book or movie, the same point is made – find yourself in the story and act accordingly.
But that ruins the story. It ruins the story because it makes the entire thing about us when the entire thing is actually about Jesus.
If it were about us it would certainly have a better ending. We would find out from the Lord whether or not the elder brother decides to join the party, if the younger brother really kept to the straightened arrow, and if the father was able to get his sons to reconcile with one another.
But Jesus doesn’t give us the ending we want. We don’t get an ending because that’s not the point.
The point is rather scandalous – no one gets what they deserve and the people who don’t deserve anything get everything!
In Jesus’ parable we encounter the great scandal of the gospel: Jesus dies and is resurrected for us whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son, we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life with love. Like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteousness.
Contrary to how we might often imagine it, the whole ministry of the Lord isn’t about the importance of our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God have a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.
That’s what grace is all about. It is the cosmic bash, the great celebration, that constantly hounds all the non-celebrants in the world. It begs the prodigals to come out and dance, and it begs the elder brothers to take their fingers out of their ears. The fatted calf is sacrificed so that the party can begin. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross so that we can let our hair down, take off our shoes, and start dancing.
We were lost and we’ve been found. Welcome home. Amen.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Interior coffee shop: early morning.
Rain falls steadily against a window.
An assortment of customers in various states of caffeination are spread out among the tables and chairs.
A preacher sits alone in the corner. Computer and Bible are on the table, a subpar sermon is coming along splendidly.
He tries to focus on the matter at hand, but he can’t help but overhear a conversation from a nearby table.
“Can you believe he cheated on her?”
“Oh honey, that’s not the half of it. I heard he’s been living two lives between two houses with two different families.”
The preacher knows better than to eavesdrop, so he goes back to the flashing cursor on his computer. He’s able to jot a few ideas down, none of which will actually make it into the sermon. When, a few minutes later, he catches bits of different conversation at a different table.
“You know, the Ukrainians, they’re getting what they deserve. They elected that Zelensky and his liberal agenda. I think we would do well to have a leader like Putin here, someone tough who isn’t going to let anything get in his way.”
The preacher closes his computer and decides to leave before he overhears even more sinners talking about other sinners and their sin.
There are times when I like to think that we’ve come a long way since the time of our Lord, that we’ve progressed from some of our wandering recklessness.
And then I am reminded that, all things considered, not much has changed.
Do you think those Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will die like them.
What a grace-filled and hopeful word from the Word!
Robert Farrar Capon wrote that good preachers, and I would say good Christians, should behave like bad kids. We ought to be mischievous enough to sneak in among dozing congregations and steal all their bottles of religion pills, and spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the toilet.
Why? Because the church has drugged itself into believing that proper behavior is the ultimate pathway to God. We’re addicted to the certainty that, as bad as we might be, at least we’re not as bad as those other people over there.
There’s a reason reality TV is still such a favorite past time within and among the wider culture. We feel better about ourselves when we get to see other people behaving badly. It’s also why we’re quick to post photos of our perfect little families, even though they acted like animals while we were trying to get that perfect photo, so that everyone else will know, with certainty, that we have it all together.
But the sad truth is none of us know what we’re doing – some of us are better at pretending we know what we’re doing. But at the end of the day we’re all making it up along the way.
And yet, we can’t help ourselves from comparing ourselves to others in such a way that we are superior to their inferiority.
The crowds bring to Jesus their query; they want to know if people get punished for their sins – they want to know what it takes to be guilty.
And here’s the bottom line: if the God we worship punished us according to the sins we’ve already committed, the sins we’re currently committing, and even the sins we will commit in the future, then none of us would be around to worship in the first place.
Or, to put it another way: If every bad thing happens because God does it to punish us, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.
Over the centuries the church has been a place of guilt. Make em feel bad about their behavior, scare them about punishments in the hereafter, and they’ll show up in droves to hear about it all again next Sunday. And the same is true in our wider culture; we’re all keeping our little ledger books in our minds about who has done what to us.
But the strange new world of the Bible, the strange new world we talk about week after week, isn’t obsessed with guilt. No, if it’s obsessed with anything, it’s obsessed with forgiveness!
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!
The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!
What then, should we make of Jesus’ quip about repentance? “No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will die like them.”
Of course there should be repentance – a turning back, a return to the Lord. We’ve all wandered away from the Way. But repentance is supposed to be a joyful celebration, not a bargain chip we can cash in to get God to put up with us.
Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.
We can certainly feel guilty about our sins, and maybe we should. But feeling guilty about our sins doesn’t really do anything. In fact, the more we lob on guilt, the more likely we are to keep sinning because of our guilt.
The only thing we can ever really do about our sins, is admit them. It’s a great challenge to be able to see ourselves for who we really are, sinners in the hands of a loving God, and then take a courageous step in the direction of repentance. But if we ever muster up the gumption to do so, it will be because we live in the light of grace.
Grace works without requiring anything from us. No amount of self-help books, no number of piously repentant prayers, no perfect family, perfect job, perfect paycheck, perfect morality, perfect theology earns us anything.
Grace is not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free.
And, according to the wondrous weirdness of the Lord, grace is like manure.
Or, perhaps we should call it holy fertilizer.
This is classic Jesus here. The crowds approach with their question and his answer to their question is a story, a parable.
A man has a vineyard and in the middle of the vineyard he planted a fig tree. But for three years it produced not a single fig. So one day the vineyard owner says to the gardener, “I can’t take it anymore. This fig tree is wasting my good soil. Cut it down.”
But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Why not give it another year? I’ll spread some manure on it this afternoon and maybe next year it will have some fruit.”
Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned and yet, even in its simplicity there are a bunch of weird and notable details.
For instance, why does the vineyard owner plant a fig trees among a bunch of grapes? Do you think he was trying to develop a new, and perhaps bizarre, variety of wine? Or maybe he was going to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?
Strange. But perhaps nothing is stranger than the gardener. This gardener speaks in defense of a speechless fig tree.
And what does the gardener says, “Lord, let it alone for a year. Let me give it some manure.”
At least, that’s what it sort of says in our pew bibles.
But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN.”
Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”
Lord, forgive it!
These might be some of the most striking for from the strange new world of the Bible both because they proclaim the forgiveness of the Lord for not reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.
There’s a reason that, when we nail Jesus to the cross, he declares, “Lord, forgive them for they do not know what we are doing.”
Lent is the strange and blessed time to admit, we have no idea what we’re doing. That we are in need of all the grace and manure we can get.
The cross with this we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump because of us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.
It’s wild that Jesus has the gall to tell this story at all, and that the divine gardener offers to spread some holy fertilizer on the fig tree, on us.
Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, becomes the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be.
God’s grace gets dumped onto the fruitless fig trees of our lives and get co-mingled in the soil of our souls. It is messy and even bizarre, but without it we are nothing.
Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we’re doing.
For, if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all the world problems by now. But we haven’t.
We are fruitless fig trees standing alone in the middle of God’s vineyard.
We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.
And yet (!) Jesus looks at our barren limbs, all of our fruitless works, our sin sick souls, and he says the three words we deserve not at all: “Lord, forgive them.”
On Friday afternoon, the aforementioned Vladimir Putin addressed the people of Russia during a rally that was celebrating the 8th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. While Russian forces attacked Kyiv and blockaded civilians in other parts of Ukraine, Putin assured his people that Russia was forced into this war into to get the Ukrainian people out of their misery.
And then he said, “And this is where the words from the scriptures come to mind, ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.’”
That a world leader used Jesus’ words to justify violence and bloodshed is not unusual. It’s been done again and again throughout the centuries. Even here in the US, it is a familiar refrain whenever violence is on the table. Presidents Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton each used the quote at one point or another during their years in office.
But Jesus spoke those words before mounting the hard wood of the cross, not before going to war. Jesus laid down his life for his so-called friends who betrayed him, denied him, and abandoned him.
Jesus laid down his life for us.
And even with a crown of thorns adorning his head, and the cross over his shoulder, he still says, “Lord, forgive them.” Amen.
1 Corinthians 15.1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you — unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them — though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
I passed on to you as of first importance what I, in turn, had received.
Jesus died for our sins.
He was buried in the tomb.
He was raised on the third day.
He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once.
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me – the least of all the apostles.
And he called me (me!), the one totally and completely unfit for the church because I persecuted the church.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace for me has not been in vain. And all that I have done, it’s not me, but the grace of God that is with me.
To Paul, this was of first importance.
Not a list of required behavioral attributes of the people called church.
Not a top ten list of the most important beliefs to affirm if you want to join the club.
Not a dress code of what you can, or can’t, wear to church.
Not a political party’s ideologies you must identify with.
Not even a vision of how to make the world a better place.
For Paul, a story was of first importance – the story.
Jesus lived, died, and lived again and then he appeared to the disciples.
Chances are that you’re here because you have heard this story. More often that not we discover our faith not because someone gave us a list of things to believe in, but because in receiving the story we discover ourselves within it.
And let me tell you, it is one crazy story.
I mean, what was Jesus thinking?
Jesus does the most remarkable thing to ever happen in the history of the cosmos, resurrection from the dead, and what does he do first? He goes off to find Peter, you know, the one who denied him no less than three times prior to the crucifixion!
Jesus surely would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective. If Jesus really wanted to spread the Good News, he should’ve gone straight to the movers and shakers – the ones who get things done.
If Jesus came to turn the world upside down, then why in the world did he start with the people at the bottom?
Our Lord, the one we love and adore, the solid rock upon which we stand, didn’t knock on the doors of the emperor’s palace with holes in his hands, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple and wait for the crowds to bow in humble reverence.
The resurrected Jesus appeared first and foremost to the very people to abandoned him.
Let us rest in that bewildering proclamation for a moment – Jesus breaks forth from the chains of death and shows up for the ragtag group of would-be followers who failed him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.
Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his betrayers.
Jesus returns to us.
This is why the Good News is something that has captivated the hearts and minds of many for centuries. Jesus sees us more in us than we see in ourselves… Jesus does his work, his very best work, through people like us!
People who don’t deserve it one bit.
Think about Peter and Paul – Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer – a denier of the faith and a killer of the faith.
And even before all that, Peter was nothing but a dirty rotten fisherman, and he wasn’t even very good at it. Out all night and not a single fish to show for his efforts. And Paul? Paul was a tentmaker! How could that possibly help in spreading the Gospel?
It would’ve been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but it’s Good News because he rose for them.
The church can be a lot of things. Depending on which one you enter, it can be a safe space for spiritual reflection with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows and incense. It can be a transformative assault on the senses with a Technicolor light show and a bumping praise band. And yet, regardless of the trimmings and the trappings, the outward appearance and the theological architecture, the church usually falls into one of two categories:
A group of good people who weekly pat themselves on the back for being gooder than everyone else.
Or a group of people who come together to cope with their failure to be good.
The first group sounds nice, and it can even be nice, but only for a short time. Because, eventually, all the shiny proclamations about all of our goodness fades away when we come to grips with the condition of our condition. One day all of the things that used to bring us comfort no longer ring true because we know ourselves and we know the world.
Basically, we discover that our goodness isn’t good enough.
We need something (read: someone) to do for us what we can’t do on our own.
The second group however, it doesn’t sell.
What do you think would happen if we put this on our church sign: “Raleigh Court UMC, we’re bad and we know it.”?
That doesn’t compel people to wake up early on a Sunday morning, and it certainly doesn’t drive people to knock on the neighbor’s doors with invitations to worship.
And yet the story of Jesus Christ, the one Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians, is that God comes to us not because we are good, but because we aren’t. And when we start to see that, not just in the strange new world of the Bible, but in our very lives, it is the difference that makes all the difference.
For a long time in the church there was an aspect of testimony, of witness. After all, that’s what Paul is doing in the letter. He shared with them how God had worked in his life. Therefore Christians, for centuries, have carved out time and space to proclaim the wonderful works of the Lord by pointing to the ways in which they had experienced the remarkable love and work of the God who refuses to abandon us.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now.
I know this might be a tad uncomfortable – We’re Methodists. We like to talk about the Spirit moving, but it’s another things entirely to give ourselves over to see what the Spirit can stir up from within us.
Nevertheless, of first importance is the story that is our story. So, if you feel comfortable sharing how you have experienced the story of Christ in your life, how Christ has been the difference that has made all the difference, if you have something to share, I encourage you to come up to the microphone and proclaim that Good News…
And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
On Sunday I stood up and addressed the crowd present for the church’s Christmas Concert and attempted to make the case that we are the stories we tell and the songs we sing – The stories we tell are reflections of how we understand ourselves in the world and the same is true of the songs we belt out. I then suggested (read: demanded) that we know longer sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because it only reinforces an extremely problematic understanding of how we relate to one another.
I mean, it’s basically a date rape song. “Say, what’s in this drink?”
Go listen to it and I promise you’ll walk away feeling all sorts of gross and uncomfortable.
Had I been a little more bold, I would’ve also suggested (read: demanded) that we also no longer sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
The words to the song sum up how we all too often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” And then, whether we know it or not, we take these words to be Gospel truth and we believe that God is keeping a ledger against us and only if we have more ticks in the Good column than the Bad column will we receive an everlasting reward.
The same thing is true of how Elf on the Shelf has become such a popular pastime – the purpose of the Elf is to spy on the good and bad behaviors of children and then to report them to Mr. Claus so that the children will be rewarded, or punished, accordingly.
The same thing is true of so many movies and shows and songs that ask us to discern whether or not we, ourselves, have behaved in such a way as to make it on the Nice list or on the Naughty list.
But, according to the strange new world of the Bible, we’re ALL on the naughty list.
That is: all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.
And yet, that’s Good News. It’s Good News because, thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.
Jesus encounters the world’s (read: our) sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. Jesus has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Jesus saves not just the good little boys and girls, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of the world who He, in all his confounding glory, sets free in his death and resurrection.
Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.
But, of course, it sounds too good to be true!
In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not irresponsible. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hang over the heads of those who follow Jesus, how else can we possibly keep them in line?
Perhaps we have our theological wires crossed. We so often assume that we have to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (online or in-person), and read our Bibles, and say a few prayers, and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to punch our ticket to the great beyond.
And yet, so many (if not all) of Jesus’ parables, proclamations, and pronouncements have nothing at all to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.
The Gospel is not about how we justify ourselves – The Gospel is about how God in Christ justifies us.
God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and the cup to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and returns to Peter with outstretched arms after his denials.
God chooses to forgive, rather than condemn, the world from the cross.
That’s what grace is all about – it is the unmerited, unwarranted, and undeserved gift from God.
And if we can see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works/behavior or the expectation that good works/behavior will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.
Or to put it another way: we are all on the Naughty list and God still gives us the present of Jesus’ presence anyway.
Ruth 3.1-5; 4.13-17
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that is may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “ A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
In the days when the judges were judging, there was a famine in the land. That’s how this book in the Bible begins. It was a time of political chaos, with the Philistines pressing in on the boundaries of Israel. Sure, the Lord raised up Judges to help guide, shape, and lead the people, but by the time Ruth’s story starts, “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
What a proposition!
And it’s here against the background of nation rising up against nation, leaders failing again and again, and a famine on a massive scale, that scripture tells of a small little domestic tale with three primary people – Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz.
This is an ordinary story with ordinary people. It concerns the little hopes and dreams of a few people who easily could’ve been lost to the sands of time, and I think that’s why people gravitate to the story.
This little book shows what Karl Barth called, “the simplicity and the comprehensiveness of grace.”
Or, to put it another way, Ruth’s story is prophetic.
It is prophetic because it tells the truth of who God is in relation to God’s people.
So here’s the story:
Naomi and her husband are Hebrews from the village of Bethlehem (ever heard of it?). But when the aforementioned famine hits the land, they are forced to leave in search of food. They go into foreign territory where the Moabites lived, and during their time in Moab, their sons marry Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth.
And things are good, until they aren’. In short order all of the men are dead. Naomi is left in one of the most vulnerable conditions possible at the time – she is a childless widow with no grandchildren. Naomi believes she has been abandoned by God because of her fate and she has no hope in the world.
Before we jump to the meat of the tale, it is important to rest in the knowledge that this story begins in the dark. That is, the threats of fear, hunger, death, loom large over our people.
Naomi therefore urges her two daughters-in-law to stay in Moab because she will be returning to her homeland. Orpah agrees, and decides to stay. But Ruth, inexplicably, refuses to leave her mother-in-law.
Where you go I will go, your people will be my people, and all that.
To be clear, this doesn’t make any rational sense! Ruth chooses to align herself with hopelessness. She has every opportunity to seek out any opportunities, but instead she wills to be among those considered the last, the least, the lost, the little, and probably the dead.
The women, Naomi and Ruth, return to the land of Naomi’s people and the famine has ended, but their situation makes it such that they do no have access to the newfound abundance. And yet Ruth, living into her wild recklessness volunteers to enter the fields to glean barley. She takes on the mantel of a beggar with all of the humiliation and danger that it entails.
And then Boaz enters the story. Boaz owns the field from which Ruth seeks out sustenance. He catches her taking what has been left behind by the reapers of the harvest and he orders his men not to stop her and cast her into the darkness, instead he orders her to be protected by his men!
Why? If this were a Netflix series (which, for what’s its worth, this would be a great show), Ruth would be a beautiful young woman who catches Boaz’s wandering eye. But that’s not what scripture tells us. Boaz is not captured by her beauty, but instead by her fidelity, her faithfulness. Ruth wants to know why he is treating her so kindly and Boaz says, “I know what you have done for your mother-in-law, how you left everything you knew to become a stranger in a strange land – may the Lord bless you and keep you.”
Ruth returns to Naomi with her bountiful harvest, with tales of Boaz and when Naomi puts two and two together, she hatches a plan for the future.
“Get dressed up,” she tells Ruth, “and go down to the threshing floor where the men will be eating and drinking. Find out where Boaz lies down and go to him, uncover his feet, and lie down beside him.”
What reckless advice! Sending a young single woman into such an establishment with such instructions! And yet Ruth, as noted, is bold and daring enough on her own. So she agrees to the plan that will eventually shape an entire people.
Boaz, later, having enjoyed the fruit of the vine, lies down to sleep. Time passes and he wakes up to the young woman from the filed uncovering his feet (I’ll let you imagine what that means). The details of what transpire that night are unknown to us save for the fact that Boaz and Ruth get married, and they have a son whom they name Obed (which means worshipper).
Naomi, now a grandmother, rejoices with the other grandmothers in town as they huddle together taking turns holding this little child. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has given you this gift! May he be to you a restorer of life!”
Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David. The end.
What a story!
And yet, why do we tell it again and again and again? Sure, it can entertain, and it is filled with all the markers of a powerful tale. It’s got intrigue, and mystery, and love, and hope. But why do we dare to proclaim this as God’s Good News for the world?
Well, in part, we tell this story because without it there is no David, the great king of Israel, the one who defeated Goliath and the one who united the people of God.
But we also tell this story because it is a story about us.
At every turn there are choices being made that run counter to the notions of the world. Ruth chooses to remain in a hopeless situation, Boaz chooses to become a redeemer to a foreign beggar, and Ruth and Boaz together become bearers of God’s grace in a world that is otherwise run on violence, selfishness, and greed.
Our world, then and now, is full of famine and death and dereliction and a host of other evils. Often, like for Naomi and Ruth at the beginning, it can feel as if God has abandoned us. But then this story which is our story, reminds us that God’s blessing often come through the simplest, and yet the most profound, means.
When we reach out in love to help the other, it is the hand of God.
When we forgive those who have trespassed against us, it is the mercy of God.
When we are given hope in an otherwise hopeless situation, it is the power of God.
Today, there are still systems that actively reduce people to being among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. The great famines of scripture are made manifest by the powers and principalities that have no regard for our humanity.
And the church can break the mold of the world that continues to run on that devastation of destruction. The prophets, since the beginning, have been those who are willing to care for and reside among the most vulnerable. They did, and do, so because God is in solidarity with the “least of these.” The church has this blessed opportunity to provide a new image of a new community where there is space for everyone, where gifts are cherished, and where systems of oppression are called into question and rendered null and void.
The church, at her best, is a storied enterprise – that is, she exists because of the story and lives by telling the story – the story of us.
Here’s our story:
Time and time again, we reject that which is offered and given freely by God.
Paradise, rejected for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from the tree. (Creation)
Unified Community, rejected for selfish desires of power. (Babel)
So God set out to make a new people in a new land through Abraham and covenant. It is God’s hope to draw all people into this new people.
But Israel, like us, will have none of it! She is just as rebellious and foolish as we are. She worships at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next. And yet, even in the midst of ruin, Israel receives the very greatest gift of all – God in the flesh.
Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and full human, becomes all that God ever hoped for from God’s people – the obedient and faithful child, called out of Egypt, the new cornerstone of a new community made possible by peace, grace, and mercy, the Davidic king who exists to protect the poor and the vulnerable.
But we will have none of that either! On a tree in a place called The Skull, we nail God in the flesh, rejecting the elected One. He is buried dead and a tomb – utterly forsaken and abandoned.
But then, three days later, God gives him back to us. Jesus raises victorious not only over death, but also over all of our prideful attempts to become the center of our own universes.
That is the story that is worth repeating because it is a story that repeats itself. We reject God and God is determined to elect us. We destroy ourselves and God is determined to bring about resurrection. We get all sorts of lost and God is determined to find us over and over again.
In the end, that’s what prophets do – they tell the story, they tell the truth. They open our eyes to who and whose we are. And Jesus, the greatest prophet of all, is, in himself, the story for a people who have no story.
Therefore, when we read and encounter Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, we do so not as people to emulate literally. Leaving to go be a stranger in a strange land, getting dolled up for the threshing floor, is maybe not the best advice in the world.
And yet, we cannot help from identifying with these people.
Perhaps you’re like Naomi insofar as you feel like you have been abandoned and that you have no hope in the world. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you would be encouraged to reach out for help, or at the very least, accept the help that might be offered to you by others.
Or perhaps you’re like Ruth insofar as you have a little boldness in you but don’t know where to direct it. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you will take that first step toward someone in your life, and become the hope for them that they so desperately need.
Or perhaps you’re like Boaz insofar as you have been blessed to be a blessing to others. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you can open your eyes to the people in your life for whom you can be their restorer of life.
Or perhaps you don’t identify with any of them right now. But chances are, you will someday. That’s the beauty of story, we can return to the same story again and again and discover something new each time we do.
In the end, we worship an odd God. Consider: God chooses to align things such that Ruth, a foreigner with no hope in the world, became the great-grandmother of the great King David. And, how odd, that in the fullness of time, God chose to take on flesh in that same little town of Bethlehem, through Jesus Christ, the greater restorer of life, the ancestor of Ruth.
All that we are rests on the story found in the strange new world of the Bible. It is a story we recount week after week, year after year, because through it we discover who we are and whose we are. We must tell this story in order to know and to receive the Good News.
Ours is a storied faith.
So, like the prophets before us, like the prophet that is Jesus Christ, let us tell the story. Let us tell the story when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. Let us tell the story when we are received and when we are nowhere believed. Let us tell the story until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied! Amen.
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.
Fred Craddock was a preacher and then a teacher of preachers. Born and raised in rural Tennessee, Craddock’s contributions to the field of homiletics (preaching) are incalculable. At the heart of his homiletical teaching was a desire to bring the congregation into the sermon, rather than attempting to dump knowledge into the minds of the congregation. And, at the end of the day, Craddock was a great storyteller and his stories always pointed to the story we call the Gospel.
Here’s one of those stories:
“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about the church. Sometimes the preacher would call and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants – it doesn’t care about me. They just want another pledge, another name to add to the roll.’ That’s what he always said. Sometimes we’d have a revival. The pastor would bring the evangelist and tell him to go after my father, and he would just say the same thing: ‘The church doesn’t care about me, they just want another name and another pledge.’ I guess I heard it a thousand times, until I didn’t. He was in the veteran’s hospital, down to 73 pounds. They’d taken out his throat, put in a metal tube, and the x-rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, plants and flowers were covering every available surface, there was a stack of cards 20 inches high next to the bed, and even the tray that was supposed to hold the food he couldn’t eat was dominated by flowers. And every single one of those things were from people from the church. My father saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”
Church is, and can be, a lot of things. It can, of course, get caught up in the machinations of the world and start to use the methods of the world to achieve its ends.
Stewardship drives can get caught up in dollars and sense rather than bodies and souls. New membership classes can get caught up in filling the pews rather than transforming hearts. Even food programs can get caught up in making a good impression on the community rather than treating those who receive the food with dignity, love, and respect.
And yet, the church, even at her worst, exists for others. We are a community of people who seek to live out a commitment to loving God and our neighbors. We receive the Good News in order to become Good News ourselves. It might not seem like much, but a well timed card, or a phone call out of the blue, or even a hastily put together email can be the difference that makes all the difference in the world.
Hear the Good News: Christ has a knack for taking the ordinary and making them extraordinary – things like water, and bread, and wine, and even us. Thanks be to God.
When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.
Robert Farrar Capon was a master of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. He made his career as a priest, and then as a theologian, and then as a chef, and then as a little bit of all of them combined. His writing on the Gospels is refreshingly funny and yet profoundly serious and I find myself drawn back to his books again and again.
Perhaps my favorite work of Capon’s is his 1990 book The Man Who Met God In A Bar. It’s basically a modern retelling of the biblical Gospel story of Jesus, but instead of it taking place in and around Galilee circa 30-33 AD, it’s told as if Jesus was actually a short-order cook named Jerry in Cleveland circa the 1990s who finds Marvin (Peter) not in the middle of a fishing venture, but instead in an airport bar during a layover. The story is told from Marvin’s perspective as he gets caught up in something much larger than himself ripe with miracles, teachings, and even death and resurrection.
Capon delights in taking these familiar stories and flipping them slightly on their head so that we, the reader, can reproach the Gospel stories with a fresh and delightful appreciation. For instance, partway through the novel, Marvin gathers with Jerry and a whole crowd of people within the confines of a city park and Jerry goes on and on telling stories until he realizes the crowds look a little famished. Jerry remarks that it would be nice if they had some pizza and wine for everyone to enjoy. But, of course, that would cost a fortune. So Jerry calls over a little girl walking by the park with a pizza in her arms and decides to whistle up some miraculous food multiplication and begins to feed everyone in the park from that one pizza, with anchovies (Get it? Loaves and fishes!).
And then Capon brings the story home:
“Up to then Jerry just thought that people might take his miracles as a substitute for the message; after that though, the “might” disappeared in favor of “would.” He was finally convinced that any miracle he did would be practically guaranteed to give people the wrong impression… After the one with the pizza, especially since he did it on a day when he’d talked for three hours about the mess the old order was in – they got really serious about trying to put him in some position where he could do his miracles on a grand scale. The talk about him becoming mayor and president wasn’t just hot air; if he hadn’t gotten away from that crowd, sure as hell somebody would have organized something… All he kept saying, though, was how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously, he told them, they would still die eventually. The food they really need to be filled with was something that would make a real break with the old order – something that would actually bring in the New Order if they ate it. In fact, he said, unless they were filled with him, they would just stay dead forever. If they fed on him, though, he would raise them from death for good.”
Sometimes, retelling an old story in a new way allows us to see and receive something we would otherwise miss. In fact, that’s basically what we do every Sunday in church. We pray and we sing and we listen to the words that proclaim the Gospel, we feast on the bread and the cup that are offered to us without cost, and we are reminded that Jesus came not to bring us more of the same, but to make all things new. Thanks be to God.
And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are sometimes to help us think about making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar:
Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Australia who excels at making music out of the mundane. Her new single “Rae Street” is an almost stream of conscious reflection of the lives of the people who pass by her window in the early morning. The charm really hits when she’s able to jump between making a profound declaration about the need for society to change, and yet, the most she can muster is changing her sheets. The song is anthemic for anyone who struggles to make sense of it all and for anyone who hopes for something more, whatever that might be.
Orla Gartland is a quickly rising indie darling from Dublin. Her new single “You’re Not Special, Babe” is a reflection on growing up in a time of chaos and is a reminder that we all go through the same kinds of things: good times, bad times, strange times. The title, and the chorus of the song, can come off as a little mean-spirited but in interviews she claims it’s meant to be a comforting message! To me, that sounds rather Pauline – “None is righteous, no, not one.” Thanks be to God then that we worship the Lord who comes to make something of our nothing.
“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from Sufjan Steven’s collaboration with Angelo De Augustine. The song is based on the 1987 German film Wings of Desire in which angels listen to the thoughts of people in Berlin. One of the angels is so moved by the experience that it chooses to become mortal in order to feel and live as a human. The song conveys the themes of mortality and wonder from the angelic/human perspective with catchy harmonies, finger picking guitar, and eventually a subtle glockenspiel which make a brain melting thought experiment rather approachable.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.
It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.
I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.
Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”
I was hooked.
“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”
“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”
Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?
We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.
We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.
And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.
Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means.
Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.
God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.
Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.
This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.
And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!
Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.
Put simply: It’s all about God.
And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.
Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.
We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them.
We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”
If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.
To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith.
Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.
Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”
That’s some pretty good theology!
And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”
You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.
It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.
We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should.
But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.
That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own.
God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around.
Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.
Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.
Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.
Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.
And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free.
God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”
The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.
The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!
For us, by the cross.
And through us, by the Spirit.
In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.
If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.
Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.
And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.
There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand.
Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.
Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.
He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.
I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.
And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.
In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.
And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.
The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the dead man’s insults and I grabbed her my the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated the man.”
“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”
“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”
“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”
“Well, that’s certainly one way…”
“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”
“Uhh, that might’ve been…”
“Well then so be it!”
And with that she marched right into the sanctuary to worship.
Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense.
But that’s why God is God, and we are not.
We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.
The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.
Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things.
Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”
That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things.
Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1.3-14, Mark 6.14-29). Our conversation covers a range of topics including family ties, Money Heist, liturgical dance, food, the heart of the psalter, embracing the unknown, grace in parenting, theological adoption, absent sermons, and the story within the story. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Faithful Consequences