Grace Is For Losers

Matthew 21.28-32

What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. 

What do you all think?

There’s this guy with two kids and there’s yard work to be done. So he wrangles them out of bed and says to the first, “Hey, grab a rake and start working on the leaves.” The kid pulls the covers over his head and says, “No way Dad.” But later he changes his mind, and goes outside to rake up the leaves.

The father also tells his second kid to get out on the lawn and the kid responded with a, “Yessir” but as soon as he got outside, he got on his bike and spent the day riding through the neighborhood.

So, which of the kids did what the father wanted?

The first who, though the call of the bed seemed so strong, actually went and raked leaves?

Or the second who, though he said he would do it, actually spent the day doing whatever he wanted?

Truly I tell you, the people begging on street corners, the economy stealing stockbrokers, the pregnant teenagers, and the squanderers of inheritance are all going into the kingdom God ahead of you.

Ahead of us.

What must we do to be saved?

It’s an interesting question, particularly for those of us habituated in a world of meritocracy. 

Do we have to be baptized? 

Is there a certain percentage of Sundays that we have to be engaged in worship? 

What amount of money demonstrates a salvific commitment to Kingdom of God? 

How many wrongs do we have to right to wind up in the right place, in the end?

That question, for some, lingers above most of what we do whether its a truly theological reflection, or we’re merely thinking about how good we have to be in any given moment.

And, in some places/churches, the question is answered with a list of things to do and a list of things to avoid.

Preachers may or may not speak about it explicitly, but it definitely shows up in preaching and teaching and also on our individual Facebook statuses and our trite little tweets – we implicitly affirm a whole host of expectations.

I’ve said it before, but the church has become a version of the next best self-help program where people like me say to people like you, “Hey, the mystery of the Kingdom isn’t nearly as mysterious as we make it out to be, and if you want to be part of it, there’s some things you all need to start working on.

“Now, you might want to write all this down, because it’s important: You 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 sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, and STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

And, at first glance, this brief little parable about who actually does the work of the father seems to support a view in which we have work to do.

God in Christ has given us commandments and, well, we better follow them accordingly.

Doing, then, is the end all and be all of a life lived in Christ.

But, what if that’s actually wrong?

And by wrong, I mean dead wrong.

Notice – Jesus tells his story, dangling it out for the scribes and Pharisees and us, and then he ends with a reference to the salvation of tax collectors and prostitutes. And, by doing so, Jesus seems to be saying that salvation comes not because these disreputable characters suddenly become respectable and law-abiding and even good, but simply because they believe.

Salvation, according to Jesus here in his little aside, comes only by belief, by faith, by trusting in someone else to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own.

But, that’s exactly the problem because it all sounds too easy – it sounds too simple.

Is Jesus telling us that anyone can just stroll through the pearly gates just for having a little faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed? They don’t have to do anything else? They don’t have to right all the wrongs and only make good choices and be perfect all the time?

That sounds a little unfair doesn’t it? I mean, what about all of us who have worked so hard, and done all the right things, and followed all of the important rules?

Everybody getting in gratis feels so wrong – it runs counter to everything the world runs on.

Which, in the end, is exactly what makes it right.

No matter how much we talk about grace in the church, and no matter how much we sing about it in our hymns, we don’t really like it. It’s too… free. It lets squandering sons and delinquent daughters get into the Kingdom for nothing, all while disregarding the good people. 

You know, people like us. People who drove to a church parking lot on a Sunday afternoon.

So, we continue to offer words of encouragement about how much God loves everyone and forgives everyone, but then, for some reason, we make it good and clear that the aforementioned everyone have to clean up their act before God will do all the loving and forgiving.

We do this because we want to make it abundantly clear that church is for good people, and the world is for bad people.

Which only goes to show that we, sadly, have more in common with the Scribes and the Pharisees and than we do with those who are getting into the kingdom first. 

We’ve confused the Good News of Jesus Christ for the bad news of works-righteousness.

We’ve failed to see the how offensive the Gospel is, because we’ve tricked ourselves into believing in ourselves rather than believing in Jesus.

The problem with grace is that it doesn’t sell – it doesn’t give us a list of things to do to fix all of the disappointments we feel here and now. It’s not a Peloton that promises to slim our waistline, it’s not a mindfulness technique that guarantees to lower our anxiety, it’s not a book that insures we will feel happier on the other side. 

Grace works for losers and only losers, and no one wants to hang out with losers.

No one, that is, except for Jesus.

The world of winners, people like us, will invest in myriads of moral absolutes, and truck loads of self-improvement seminars, and heaping baskets of do-goodery. 

But the world of winners, people like us, refuses to opt-in for free forgiveness because that threatens to bring in all of the disreputable types.

Thankfully, however, the Holy Spirit has a knack of reminding us, all of us, that we’re all unworthy, that we’re all up the creek without a paddle, that we’re all in need of some saving.

And we can’t save ourselves.

God’s plan of salvation is that we trust Jesus. That’s it. God has already forgiven us, God has already reconciled us, God has already raised us up with Jesus. And, to make it even better, God has thrown away the ledger against us forever.

Our sins were nailed to the cross and God left them there.

If we want to keep believing the kingdom works on works, that there’s something we have to do to get what God is offering, we can absolutely believe that. But that’s not the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection. 

In the end, we are saved by grace for free. We do nothing and we deserve nothing. It is all one huge and hilarious gift. Thanks be to God.

God’s Great But

John 16.33 (ESV)

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

“Our online worship numbers have gone down week after week even though I keep telling my people to invite more people, and to pray harder, and to read their Bibles. None of it seems to work… I feel like I’m losing my religion.”

“If my son doesn’t get the classes he needs this year, then he’ll never get into the right college and it will ruin the rest of his life.”

“Every time I leave the house I feel anxious about the possibility of catching Covid from someone else not taking the proper precautions.”

Those are three sentences I heard from three different people (a pastor, a parent, and a parishioner, respectively) in the last week. The lingering tribulations and anxieties are quite perceptively present these days and it can feel like there’s nothing we can do about any of them. Whether it’s turning on the news to see another protest, or pundits arguing about the Presidential Elections, to doom-scrolling through Twitter, it seems like the foundations of life are crumbling under our feet 

Or, to put it another way, the world feels like its falling apart.

“I have overcome the world” says Jesus near the end of his earthly life in John 16. And, frankly, that’s the message of the Gospel – The child born to us and for us in the manger, the One nailed to the cross, the One resurrected and delivered from the grave has overcome the world.

Notice: Christ does not say we have overcome the world. Instead, he says, “I have overcome the world.

Not us. 

Whether we’re good or bad, foolish or clever, powerful or weak, we could not (and can not) do what Christ has already done.

It makes all the difference in the world that Jesus says these very words to his disciples, and therefore us. They ring throughout time as a reminder that no matter what tribulations or anxieties occur, Christ has overcome the world. 

And those anxieties and tribulations will come. Jesus doesn’t say we might face hardships, but instead states it as a plain fact: In the world you will have tribulation.

There is tribulation among young people today: tribulations about who they are, their very identities, and fears about what life will bring in the future with all of its rampant uncertainty.

There is tribulation among older people today: tribulations about bodily ailments and infirmities, economic concerns about how to live on little, and thoughts that more lies behind them now than ahead.

There is tribulation among all regarding the pandemic: tribulations about other people and what they can transmit to us willfully or ignorantly, fears over whether life will ever feel normal again, and the ever ticking number of people who have died because of COVID-19.

And the same One born to us and for us, the One beaten, betrayed, and abandoned, the One delivered and resurrected, declares the truth of our tribulations. Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat what life is like, he doesn’t promise sunshine and rainbows. He speaks honestly about the condition of our condition, but then shouts into all of our anxieties: But take heart.

The powerful and glorious But! God’s great Nevertheless! It shines like a beacon in the midst of a tumultuous sea. In the world you will have tribulation – But take heart!

“Take heart,” contrary to how it is often explained, does not mean just think of something else. Nor does it mean run away from your troubles. 

“Take heart” means lifting up our eyes to the hills and see where from where our help comes – it comes from the Lord.

“Take heart” means taking up our hearts with those who have the strength to carry us in the days/weeks/months/years when we feel weak, when the tribulations are too much for us to bear on our own.

“Take heart” means bearing one another’s burdens because no one should have to go through this life on their own.

“Take heart” means resting in the Good News that God has already written the end of the story and we know how it ends.

A Necessary Alterity

“The church has become so fully identified with the ‘American Project’ that our writers have had little cause to heed any unique and distinctively Christians witness in the churches.”

So wrote Stanley Hauerwas in response to his perceived lack of a (decent) Christian corpus of fiction. And, frankly, I agree with him. Take a look at the “Christian” section in a bookstore and you’re likely to find a various assortment of pseudo-romance-theological novellas, a selection of “How To Get Closer To God” self-help books, and a handful of leftover seminary textbooks.

All of which don’t tell us much about faith, let alone the object of our faith: God.

An exception to this rule is/was Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor’s fictive tales are some of the most “Christian” pieces of fiction I’ve ever read because they don’t hold any punches. They are, to put it in theological terms, decisively Pauline in that they affirm the depravity of humanity while also pointing to the unrelenting grace of God.

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Just as baptism resembles nothing so much as drowning and eucharist appears as a kind of cannibalism – while both events are the very means of life temporal and everlasting – so will Christian fiction be characterized by a necessary alterity, since the central Christian premise is that the world made and redeemed by God is constantly interrupted and transfigured by revelation.”

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice got together (online) last week to talk through some of these things and if you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A Christian Reading of American Literature

Buying The Farm

Matthew 13.44-46

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 

When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand

Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand

Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band

Check into a swell hotel, ain’t the afterlife grand?

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale

Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long

I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl

‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town

Then as God as my witness, I’m gettin’ back in show business

I’m gonna open a nightclub and call it “The Tree of Forgiveness”

And forgive everybody ever done me any harm

Well, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics

Buy ‘em a pint of Smithwick’s and smother ‘em with my charm

Yeah when I get to heaven, I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm

What are you gonna do with time after you’ve bought the farm?

Those are some of the lyrics from John Prime’s last recorded song before his recent death. And, I haven’t been able to get them out of my head. For one, the chorus is pretty catchy and I feel just the right amount of naughty for singing about drinking Moscow Mules and smoking cigarettes. But mostly because of the bit about watches in heaven.

I mean, what good is knowing what time it is when you’ve already bought the farm?

Buying the farm, incidentally, is an expression that came into existence around the time of World War II during which the insurance payout on a soldier’s death often afforded the opportunity for a surviving widow to pay out the mortgage on the homestead – ie. Buying the farm.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which a man found and then subsequently hid again. Jesus, in all of his parabolically paradoxical wonder, does some of his best work in hiddenness, in the not-yet-to-be-understood. 

It’s why the parables leaves us scratching our heads instead of really understanding the subject at hand.

Even the earliest disciples struggled with the stories. After Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection for the third time, not the second nor the first, scripture tells us that the disciples did not understand any of these things, and they did not know what Jesus was talking about.

The mystery of the kingdom, even when its most literal details are all spelled out remains inaccessible to their understanding.

Which means we’re in good company with the disciples.

God is God and we are not.

Or, as the psalmist puts it, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

But Jesus is hellbent on bringing us closer to the hidden mystery, even if it means we’re none the wiser on the other side.

Ultimately, Jesus says, the mystery of the kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field; it is something worth selling anything we must in order to enjoy having it at all.

Most of the time when we read these two brief parables in tandem with one another, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, we think of them as proxies for our individual responses to Jesus’ kingdom. That is, each of us have the ability and the responsibility to go out seeking the kingdom and must be willing to pay whatever price for it. 

But, it’s more than that.

Because the two who are so willing to go and sell everything for the mystery is just as much about the whole church as it is about the individuals within in.

It’s about the church’s relationship to the world in which it finds itself, and how in the world they relate to one another.

Right now, in the midst of a pandemic that is keeping us from gathering in-person with one another, the lines have become more blurred than ever about where the world ends and where the church begins.

And this is Good News.

What makes the advent of our current time such Good News for the church is the reminder that the church is not a club of insiders who happen to have a monopoly on the mystery that is the kingdom made incarnate in Jesus Christ. The church is not about our respective identities, or good behavior, or particular income brackets.

The church is a sign to the world of the mystery by which the light of the world has already shined upon all of creation.

Let me put it another way: For far too long the church has operated as if it’s this specific enclave that has access to salvation that the world does not, that people outside the church have to come inside and be just like us in order to have access to the one we call the Lord.

And there’s some truth to it – “there is no salvation outside the church” is a prevailing theological understanding across the church. But that language implies that everything is already perfect inside these walls and everything is damned outside. It leads churches to believing we are the paragons of virtue, the arbiters of everything that is good and right and true. And therefore we believe that evangelism, whatever it is, is all about making outsiders look like insiders – its all about getting people out there, in here, so that they can look, act, and speak like us.

What that ignores is the fact that the church isn’t full of perfect people – its full of sinners!

But that’s not how we act.

Instead we put up signs about how welcoming we are, and we’re only really welcoming so long as people start assimilating the moment they join the club we happen to call church.

Or we take the latest buzzwords and create slogans for our websites about tolerance, but we don’t tolerate anything outside what we consider worthy.

Or we invite people to church implicitly assuming that it’s our job to fix our friends/neighbors/co-workers so they can have perfect lives just like us!

All of that is false advertising.

It’s like putting a cake in the window of a running store – it only confuses people about what our business really does.

Similarly, whenever we market the church as a bunch of perfect people only getting more perfect, we deceive people as to what we are all about.

Notice – the discoverer of the treasure in the field goes and buys the whole thing. He doesn’t bury the treasure off in the best corner of the lot only to purchase that small portion. He buys the whole thing!

The church doesn’t exist as an a priori negation of the world, nor does it stand off as an exclusive country club for only the best of the best – the church is filled with the world whether we like it or not.

And the sooner we start liking it the better off we’ll be, because without it none of us would cut it.

The church is not perfection here on earth because its filled with a random sampling of all the broken people the world has to offer, the very people for whom Christ died, people wading through the waters of baptism to live in the light of the resurrection recognizing that we deserve not a single beam of it.

Rather than only procuring the best part of the field, the man buys the whole thing complete with sink holes, poison ivy, weeds, and thorny bushes. 

The same then holds true for the church – if we can’t bring ourselves to buy, that is: bring in, every different condition of our condition, the smart and the stupid, the good and the bad, the holy and the unholy, then we can’t even pretend we’re the church at all.

But why all this insistence of the all-ness of the mystery of the kingdom? Why isn’t it just for the choice and select few who maintain moral purity at all times?

Well, in addition to the totality of the field purchased by the parabolic figure, and the willingness of the merchant to sell all he had to buy the pearl, the power of the mystery is hidden in the most universal of all things: death. 

Now, bear with me for a moment: I know we don’t want to have to think about death any more than we already do. Though, I will note that just about every single product in the world is designed and advertised to make us think we can live forever.

But Jesus does his work, his best work, in the mystery of his own death, its in the darkness of a seed buried in the ground or treasure in a field or a man in the tomb, that the world is forever turned upside down. 

And, for what its worth, though Matthew tells us that man bought a field, there’s no reason to think the field wasn’t a farm. And, in the end, we all buy the farm.

Some of us get stupidly rich, some of us get horribly sick, some of us lose people we love, some of us write book, some of us teach others how to read or write books, some of us lose ourselves, and some of us throw it all away because of one foolish mistake, but every last one of us dies in the end.

Every single person, whether Christian or not, whether good or bad, will someday come into possession of the field of death in which Jesus has hidden the treasure of his salvific work.

As has been said from this pulpit on a number of occasions, the kingdom of Heaven will only and forever be populated by forgiven sinners. Hell, whatever it may be, exists only as a courtesy for those who want no part of forgiveness.

The entire world will buy the farm.

And the best news, the Good News, is that we are saved by meeting the Lord in his death. 

Some of us participate in Jesus’ death here and now in the deadening of ourselves in the waters of baptism, whereas others experience it only at the end of their days, but Jesus comes to raise the dead. That’s his mysterious work. And there’s nothing on this earth that can stop him from doing it.

But, that’s not how we often talk, as the church, as Jesus’ body, in the world right now. Instead, we take this profoundly powerful and mysterious Kingdom and make it out as if there are only two types of people in the world – the completely right and the dead wrong.

And, again, the purchaser doesn’t buy only the best looking parts of the field. He procures the whole thing!

Which leads us to the parable of the pearl of great price.

The merchant is looking for something and he knows not quite what he is looking for until he finds it.

Or, perhaps, it finds him.

All of us, in different ways, are merchants of our own desires – shopping day and night for that which we don’t quite know or even understand. 

We adopt the latest culturally relevant habit because we believe it will make us whole.

We go and buy the latest Apple product because we convince ourselves it will finally bring order to the chaos of our lives.

We look for the greener grass over the next hill because surely life must be better than whatever this is.

And then, if the miracle of miracles occurs and people stumble into the church (or online during a streamed service) looking for something, what does the church offer in turn?

Hey, um, here’s the mystery of Jesus Christ all wrapped up nice and neat for you, the in-dwelling or his kingdom, but… if you want any part of it, you’re gonna need to shape up. So, uh, write this down, you 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 sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.

If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher ethical stands, they might be converted from something, but not to the Gospel.

I mean, who the hell would sell everything to buy all of that?

That whole list is undoubtedly filled with good things, things that we should probably all work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations. He says, “Come to me all of you with heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

The work of Christ, the hidden mystery of the kingdom, frees us from the sins that shackle us to a world in which we will never really feel home in.

Our home, instead, is in the kingdom. It is the kingdom – a kingdom built on love, freely offered and given to each and every single person past, present, and future, and the only thing anyone ever has to do to have it is buy the farm.

Because purchasing gladly at whatever cost is the heart of these two brief parables.

It is an utterly precious and priceless mystery – something to be enjoyed.

At the very least, there should be smiles in the church, not grimaces. We should be hearing Good News, not bad news. We should relish in our freedom, not in our burdens.

For, Jesus as the mysterious kingdom is already buried and hidden in the world. The church just as the good fortune of sharing that Good News with anyone and everyone whenever we can. Church, at its best, is nothing less that joyful discovering the truth that’s always been there, the truth that meets us where we are, that Jesus has already done for us far more than we could ever do for ourselves.

In the end we don’t have to sell everything we have for the field or for the pearl because, as the old hymn goes, Jesus paid it all.

Therefore, the grace of Jesus Christ is actually free. It’s not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.

And that’s exactly what makes the Good News so good. Amen. 

The Story We Didn’t Choose

Acts 7.55-60

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Something happened to Stephen.

What exactly? Well, scripture doesn’t give us much.

All we know is that he was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the earliest days of the church. He was full of the Spirit and, apparently, had the face of an angel, but he was eventually dragged before the council and accused of blasphemy.

His response to the accusation?

Stephen tells a story, in fact he tells the story of scripture from Abraham to Jesus.

And it gets him killed.

Final-Acts-Graphic-16x9

The lectionary text for today doesn’t give us the whole speech from the first martyr, but the speech sealed his fate. Stephen repeats the history of God with God’s people and points them to the truth of Jesus’ lordship. But that is enough for those who gather. So much so, they cover their own ears and rush against him, drag him outside of the city, and stone him to death. 

Such is the fate of those who choose to speak the truth.

And the truth Stephen told was a story that he would not have picked on his own.

After all, why would anyone tell a story that would get them murdered?

Something happened to Stephen.

And the something that happened, was Jesus.

This is who Jesus is, Stephen tells the crowds, the long awaited and exalted Messiah who rules now and forever. Jesus Christ is Lord.

We call that a confession. For, to confess the Lordship of Christ is to affirm there is no other lord over our lives. It means that our allegiance is to Jesus and to no one else. It means we cannot remain as we are.

Which sounds good and fine until you consider the countless others that are constantly vying for our allegiance even today, and how stuck we are in our ways.

For instance, we like to talk about the Freedom of Religion in the US. It means we’re free to exercise our faith, so long as we do so within certain limits. It means that you and I can say and do and believe and act according to a tradition, and that we are somehow protected in our practice. 

And yet, this Freedom that we hold so dear has often resulted in religiosity being confused with national allegiance.

The terms “good American” and “good Christian” have become tied to one another without us having to consider whether or not those things have anything to do with each other.

Bible-and-Flag

Part of our presumed goodness, as Americans or Christians, has a lot to do with not upsetting the status quo; a certain delight in things remaining the same and never calling anything into question. Politeness and kindness and deference have become virtuous in a way that those behaviors are called upon to be emulated from the time we’re children whether its in a public school classroom, or tucked away in the furthest reaches of a Sunday school lesson. 

But this story of Stephen is an ever ringing reminder to us practitioners of polite and civil religion that once there were Christians who did things we would never imagine – who quite joyfully parted with possessions, their families and friends, and even their very lives in order to remain faithful.

There was a time when Christians spoke the truth.

But now we’re addicted to whatever lies disrupt our lives the least.

The vast majority of us live under the tyrannical presumption that each of us get to do pretty much whatever we want whenever we want to whomever we want. And we have the gall to call it the pursuit of happiness. 

In this distorted view of reality, every person gets to make up his or her mind based on the presumption that our choices are made free from the influence of others.

It doesn’t take long to look around and see how much we really are under the influence of other people and other things. Our diet of media consumption alone says a tremendous amount about what we think, believe, speak, and act. 

Christianity, on the other hand, reminds those of us with ears to hear that we don’t really have minds worth making up. Precisely because we regularly chose to do things we know we shouldn’t. 

And we do it all the time.

We struggle with the choices we make, and the stories we consume, and even more the stories we tell.

And it’s not just a matter of which grocery store to shop in and what television shows to watch. We’re talking about what’s good, and true, and beautiful.

But how in the world could we ever be expected to know what choices to make?

That’s, actually, kind of the point of the church. The church grabs hold of us and says, “Look, you don’t know what powers and stories have you under their control, so we’re going to make you part of this story instead, the story of Jesus.”

We might like to think that we had something to do with all of this, that we chose Jesus in our time of need. But the truth is, we don’t get to chose God, nor would we on our own.

I mean, why would anyone willingly sign up for turning the other cheek, and giving away 10% of their income, and reaching out to the last, least, lost, little, and dead?

God chooses us, in spite of us.

God happens to us.

Just like God happened to Stephen.

And we can read this story of his willingness to proclaim the truth, we can encounter the punishment that rained down upon him by the crowds, and we might feel tempted to just remove ourselves form the wider society. If people aren’t ready to hear about Jesus, why bother risking life and limb? And, without even realizing it, we find ourselves back in the position of doing whatever we can to maintain the status quo and to avoid upsetting the apple cart at all costs.

But, turning things upside down is what we do. 

Or, at the very least, it’s what Jesus does.

A Christian is someone who calls a thing what it is. Which is just another way of saying that Christians tell the truth.

And we don’t do much of that these days.

Instead, we want to hear about God’s love, and mercy, and grace.

Which is all true and good and beautiful.

But we often talk about those things at the expense of telling the truth.

We want everyone to be happy all the time.

But how in the world can anyone be happy in a world of such horrific and terrible violence? 

How can anyone be happy in a world in which an innocent black man can be murdered for no other reason than the color of his skin? How can anyone be happy knowing that what happened to Emmett Till is still happening even in 2020? How can anyone be happy when an indiscriminate virus is actually discriminately affecting certain people more than others?

As Christians, our call isn’t to happiness. Particularly when one’s happiness is usually achieved through someone else’s suffering. 

Our call is to a life of adventure. The Good News of Jesus Christ tells us again and again that we’ve been grafted into the strange new world of the Bible through the work and the life of Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, think about a time you received a gift you didn’t want. Perhaps you were hoping to get a new bicycle for your birthday but instead you got a book. Maybe you hated the book because you really really wanted that bike, but then one strange rainy afternoon you picked up the book and were immediately transported to another world. And, low and behold, you were trained to have wants you didn’t know you should have.

That what the church is all about – it’s an adventure we didn’t know we wanted to be on.

The adventure of Christianity is a life of truth telling.

We tell the truth and we have to the truth told to us.

That’s the name of the game. 

And, frankly, it’s not something we would really want on our own. It’s something that happens to us. It happened to Stephen all those centuries ago. It has happened to countless saints over the years who, unexpectedly and inexplicably, stood up and said things they never would’ve on their own. 

Without those who tell the truth, we are doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes over and over again.

It has been rightly said by many people in many places that America’s original sin is racism. 

This is the truth.

It has plagued every single moment and every single decision and ever single interaction. It festers in the foundation of all that we hold dear. And we still carry it with us in all of our comings and all of our goings even today. 

And rather than confronting the truth of the condition of our condition, we act like it’s not real.

But it is.

I alluded to it already, but a few months ago Ahmaud Arbery went for a jog one afternoon and it ended in his death. Two white men saw him run past their lawn and decided to chase him down with weapons in a truck. 

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That’s racism.

That’s sin.

And it’s not some isolated incident that happened in some far away place.

That racism happens whenever someone locks their doors when driving in particular neighborhoods, whenever someone crosses the street because of someone walking toward them, whenever someone has a knee-jerk reaction to whatever they might classify as other.

And we, more often than not, cover our ears whenever the term racism is uttered. And, to be clear, when I say we in this instance I mean those of us who are white. It is precisely our white fragility, to use a term that has come into vogue as of recent, that results in black bodies being locked up in prison at a staggeringly disproportionate rate, punished in schools for lower offenses than their white peers, and buried in cemeteries for committing the crime of running while black.

Christians need to be judged for their complicity in systems that are racist. 

Christians need to speak the truth about what is right and wrong and good and evil in our society.

It will obviously create conflict and not everyone will be happy, but at least we’ll be talking about things that really matter.

Like Black Lives, for instance.

Because right now, black lives don’t seem to matter at all to those of us who are white.

Otherwise it wouldn’t have taken months of discourse and social media upheaval before Ahmaud Arbery’s attackers were arrested. 

Christianity isn’t a story we would choose on our own because it requires so much of us. It calls us to look into the mirror and realize that when we read a story like the one about the stoning of Stephen, we are less like Stephen and more like the crowds who covered their ears and rushed forward. Christianity forces us to come to grips with our own sinfulness and our inability to transform ourselves.

After all, that’s why we call Jesus our Savior. It implies our need to be saved, and in particular our need to be saved from ourselves.

But we don’t like the idea that there’s anything wrong with us. So instead we trade out the Gospel of Jesus for the Gospel of the status quo. We say pithy things like, “Jesus was killed because he wanted us to love each other.” 

But that’s crazy.

Jesus wasn’t killed because of his talk of love – Jesus was killed because he challenged the powers that be. He was killed for telling the truth.

That is the story given to us, a story that confronts us.

It’s what happened to Stephen

It’s what happens to us.

Whether we want it or not. So be it. Amen. 

A Sermon On A Sermon

Acts 2.14a, 22-32

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

One of the reasons many of us actually enjoy reading the Bible, and in particular the Gospels, is that we enjoy good stories. There is just something so captivating about the way Jesus enters Jerusalem, or how he was able to reel in the crowds with his parables, or the way he fed the 5,000 while they gathered by the sea. 

Now, that’s not to say that every book and passage in the Bible is quite so captivating. There are gaggles of genealogies with their relentless “begats”, and lots of laws that read as fun as watching paint dry, and poems that pontificate on and on and on.

But the stories? They’re pretty good.

Stories, whether they’re in the Bible or not, are remarkably powerful things. 

In fact, the very first words I ever said in a sermon the first Sunday here at Cokesbury were these: We are the stories we tell.

Stories are how we understand what’s happening in the world around us, stories are how we teach the young lessons about who they are and how they are to behave, stories are everywhere and they are who we are.

Here’s an example, and I stole this one from Jesus.

There’s a Dad with two sons. He’s done well for himself and his boys, but one day the younger son says, “Dad, drop dead. I want my inheritance now.” And the father gives it to him. The kid leaves town, and blows all the money at the local casino and finds himself face down in a dumpster after drowning his debt-filled sorrows at the bottom of a bottle. He comes to his senses, there in his inebriated state, and decides to go home where, at the very least, he could work for his dad and be in better shape than in the trash. Just before he gets to the front door, his father tackles him to the ground, smothering him with kisses, and making declarations about the party they’re going to have. The boy doesn’t even get a chance to apologize before the keg is tapped and the music is bumping. Cut to the older brother, outside the house mowing the lawn. He hears the music inside and can’t believe his eyes when he peaks in a window. His good for nothing little brother is back and he will have no part of the celebration. But then the father comes outside, grabs his older son by the shirt collar and says, “Would you get over yourself and come inside for the party. Your baby brother was dead, but now is alive! We must celebrate.”

The end.

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That’s a good story. It tells us about who God is, and we can immediately identify with a character in the story. There are moments in our lives when we feel like the Father waiting for a wayward child to get back on the right path, or we feel like the younger son knowing we’ve made mistakes and are trying to figure out what to do next, or we feel like the older brother frustrated that someone is getting something for nothing. And, in the end, the story tells us that God is preparing a party for us, and is willing to drop dead to make it happen.

Stories have the power to unlock our imaginations in ways previously unimaginable, they can completely upend and deconstruct our notions of the world.

Stories can build us up and they can destroy us.

Stories can make us laugh, think, cry, and everything in between.

Stories are powerful things.

But speeches, and in particular sermons, are another thing entirely.

I mean, I am grateful that anyone, ever, listens to the proclamations that come out of my mouth on a weekly basis. And now, while we are in the throws of social distancing and stay-at-homes orders, my gratitude for those who listen is even greater. Moreover, I am forced to hear my own voice week after week as I post the services online so I appreciate it all the more that people actually listen.

And yet, I know and recognize that the conventional sitting back and listening to someone wax lyrical for fifteen minutes is no one’s definition of a good time. 

Think about it like this: the average television sitcom is roughly 22 minutes long, in total, with commercial breaks interspersed. Even in the midst of something designed to keep and maintain our attention, we’re tempted to tune out or check our phones at least 3 times in the midst of an episode. 

When we’re all together in person for worship on a Sunday morning, remember when we used to do that (!), most people are kind enough not to check their phones in the middle of the service, unless they’re tweeting about how incredible my preaching is or they’re really good at hiding what they’re doing.

But now, now all of you can listen to me for two minutes and then open up a new tab to check on the weather for the rest of the afternoon, or browse around on Amazon, or, weirdly enough, you can pull up another video of another pastor doing roughly the same thing I’m doing right now!

And here, in the wake of Jesus’ remarkable resurrection, his defeat of death, we’re launched in the Acts of the Apostles. Sounds pretty good right? We’d love to hear about all the Apostles did in the days right after the Good News turned the world upside down. We’d love to catch a glimpse of the beginnings of this thing we call the church. We’d rejoice in knowing what it was like in those earliest gatherings that would eventually set our hearts on fire.

In short, we’d love to hear a good story.

But Acts, even named as it is, contains roughly 28 speeches/sermons which account for nearly 1/3 of the whole book.

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Surely Luke was smart enough to know that what we really need is a narrative, a beginning, middle, and end – some drama and some stakes and some story.

Do we really need pontificating and preaching?

Alas, we are stuck with the Bible.

The strange new world of the Bible.

We didn’t get to hear it in the reading today, but before Peter speaks, before he ascends to the great pulpit of public proclamation, the crowds have accused him and his cronies of being drunk very early in the morning.

That tells us something about the condition of their condition. It is the day of Pentecost after all, the Spirit has descended upon them with a great rush of wind and flames of fire and they can now speak in a multitude of languages. The probably sound like they’re slurring their words.

But I like to imagine the scene with a little more flair. 

Picture in your mind the best wedding you’ve ever been to. The happy couple out there in the middle of the dance floor, a band that just keeps playing the right songs to keep people grooving, that crazy uncle is over in the corner struggling to stay vertical on his third-too-many scotches, and a gaggle of young cousins are sneaking extra pieces of cake when the rest of the adults are too busy dancing and drinking to notice.

Can you feel the joy of that moment? That feeling as if nothing in the world matters outside that celebration?

That’s how I imagine the disciples. I see them stumbling out of the upper room drunk on the Good News that is setting them off on an adventure they can scarcely imagine. 

But when the crowds see it, they see a bunch of good-for-nothing drunks stumbling around in the early morning streets.

They are accused as such, and that serves as the perfect cue for Peter to start preaching.

His sermon, if we would like to call it that, tells a story. And not just a story but the story. Jesus lived, was killed, and was raised. Peter takes the story and interprets the gospel in the midst of it.

That, in a sense, is what every sermon is supposed to do. Sermons take scriptures, weaves them together with the power of the Holy Spirit, and then speaks them toward, and on behalf of, a people in need of Good News. 

And, though we don’t often think about them this way, sermons really can upend us more than even the best stories. They can cut to our hearts in ways that stories can’t because sermons, at their best, are God’s proclamation to us.

Good sermons, rare that they are, are more than what is said, and to whom it is said. The way it is said can make all the difference.

Peter jumps right to the point.

“Hey! You all listen up cause I’ve got something to say. Jesus, the Lord, the guy who did a bunch of incredible things like feeding the hungry and healing the sick and breaking the sabbath, you all handed him over to death. You crucified him on the cross. But God raised him up, let him loose on the world again, because the tomb could not contain him. Look, we all know that David was great, truly a king and prophet. But when he died, they buried his bones in the ground and they’re still there. But Jesus was raised! And of this we are all witnesses!”

That’s a sermon. 

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The way we, the church, read and hear this proclamation is that it is a fulfillment of a promise. That the God of Creation has been with us through thick and thin and will remain with us even to the end. And the end now has no end in Christ Jesus.

How do the crowds hear it? Disruptive inebriation and scandalous preaching.

This sermon from Peter draws a web that can only be seen on this side of the resurrection; it connects dots that have been there all along. The empty tomb becomes the lens by which Peter, and every subsequent disciple, begins to see the story we call the Gospel. The linking of time and space with scripture it, in a sense, all that a sermon is ever supposed to do.

But what, exactly, makes what Peter has to say so scandalous? Why are the crowds perplexed by the scene unfolding before them? What makes preaching, then and now, so powerful and profound?

In just about every part of our lives, from our jobs to our spouses to our children to even the ways we try to portray our perfect versions of ourselves on social media, it’s all transactional. If I do this, what can I get out of it? If I give you something, what will you give me in return? If I post this picture, what will people think about me?

And here, in a sermon on the other side of Easter, Peter presents the Gospel without cost. 

This gift, the gift of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is free.

It’s not expensive, and it’s not even cheap. It’s free.

And that is wildly irreligious and scandalous.

When everything in life comes with a cost, the fact that Christ brings new life for free is a staggering thing. Peter preaches, strangely enough to so many of our Christian ears, without exhortation. There’s no to-do list at the end of the sermon, no ten ways to apply the scripture to your life this week, no how to be the best version of yourself.

It’s just grace.

It’s a story about what Jesus has done.

For us, and in spite of us.

Anything other than that way of preaching is unqualified bad news. 

When the church actually proclaims the Good News of Jesus, of him crucified and resurrected, we will cease to be some bureaucracy selling spiritual snake oil and instead we will be a party, perhaps a wedding party, tumbling out of the venue trying to wake up everyone we can find to the fact that they’re at the party already. 

When Peter preaches to the crowds that day, it’s like he’s telling them it doesn’t matter whether they’re the younger son who threw his life away, or the older son whose disappointed with the life he settled for. It doesn’t matter because Easter started a party that will never stop. Death has been defeated. Jesus is alive. 

Come in, and have some fun. Amen. 

Different

1 Samuel 16.1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

True terror is waking up one day and realizing your high school senior class is running the country.” That’s one of my favorite quotes from Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is known for books like Slaughterhouse 5 and Breakfast of Champions, and other quotes quotes like, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And yet, for a pastor to love the writing of Vonnegut is saying something, considering the fact that he was an outspoken agnostic humanist.

Or to put it a little more concretely, another one of his more famous quotes is: “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

I hope the joke was on Vonnegut though, and that he’s now rejoicing in the glory of the Lord, lapping up the Supper of the Lamb that has no end.

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Anyway. When I was younger, I came across another quote of Vonnegut’s that, for obvious reasons, has really stuck with me: “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.

To me, this quote resonates right now particularly since we can’t actually go to church with the threat of the Coronavirus looming over public gatherings. The church is a people who gather together who cannot gather together right now. And still, the sentiment of the quote rings out whether we are meeting in-person or not. People don’t come to church to hear a preacher ramble on about a particular Biblical text, or offer up droning announcements, or even to say the prayers that they could say on their own whenever they want. 

People come to church because they want to discover something about the Lord.

At times, this hoped-for-discovery is concrete – in the midst of uncertainty, people look for solid ground – in the midst of a diagnosis, people look for hope – in the midst of sorrow, people look to the Lord who will hold them when it feels like they can’t hold it together.

But at other times, it’s a little different.

Whether we would be able to articulate it or not, many of us gather as the people called church with one question on our minds: “What is God like?”

And, scripture does not disappoint.

This is, perhaps, why so many people flock to Jesus’ parables; they are all attempts at encapsulating the character of God in a story, such that upon hearing it we might catch a glimpse at the answer to our question.

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In today’s passage, the choosing and anointing of David, we encounter the Lord who cares more about one’s heart than one’s outward appearance. If any line from this scripture is known by Christians it is that one. That particular line was even reappropriated famously by Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

God, strangely and rather bizarrely, chooses David as the next King of Israel. To bask in the audacity of such a call is difficult for us, because we know what will happen to this shepherd boy. We can’t hear about his calling without already conjuring up the defeat of Goliath, the dancing before the Ark, and the domination of the territories that would result in the power of Israel.

And, more often that not, when we hear this story (if we hear this story at all), the boys of Jesse are paraded before the prophet Samuel and it’s all about David, and why David was selected, and how he would become King.

But this isn’t a story about David.

It’s a story about God.

A God who see more than we could possibly ever see.

A God who delights in making something of our nothing.

A God who delights in choosing the people we wouldn’t, to change the world.

So, why are you tuning in to this livestream? Or, why are you listening to it later? Are you here to hear my preachments? Or are you here because you want to hear something about the Lord?

God still speaks all the time. God speaks to us through Word and through Sacrament. God is made manifest in the means of grace and the hope of glory. God is there in the waters of baptism, with us in the bread and the cup, and with us in our each and every breath.

But God is not like how we so often think.

I mean, imagine God in your minds for a moment… What do you see? Is it an old man with a long flowing beard resting on some puffy clouds? 

That’s Hallmark, not the Bible.

God is, for lack of a better word, different. 

God is foolish, according to the ways of the world, because God sees something in David, something that no one else could see, not even Samuel.

And that’s because God is different.

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God is like someone stuck in between being a teenager and being a full adult. For those of us in the throws of adulthood, I know this can sound a little off-putting, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. God seems to make a whole bunch of mistakes, always trying out the wrong people for the wrong job, always seeing the world through a too glass-half-full attitude.

And yet we love to make God into our own image all the time, whether it’s in our art or in our words or in our preachments or prayers. Albert Schweitzer once said that every time we go looking for God, it’s like we’re peering down deep into the bottom of a well, and though we think we see something down there, what we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves. 

But if you are brave enough to jump down into the well, down into the strange new world of the Bible, you will find a God who rebukes our desires to make God into our own image.

God is God, and we are not.

Think about it, God is like someone stuck in this never-ending youthful time of idealism even though everything in the world is screaming the contrary. 

Who would be the best person to put in charge of the budding nation Israel? Surely a major modern general, or a lifelong diplomatic politician? “No,” God says, “I want that ruddy boy out wandering around with the sheep. The one who keeps whistling without a care in the world. I want the one who will throw it all away because of a rooftop peeping session. I want the one no one else wants.”

Are we sure we can even trust God?

On Pentecost, the beginning of this strange thing we call church, someone had too much to drink according to some people on the street. Furniture was tossed all around in the upper room, and there was the distinct smell of something burning wafting around in the air. People could barely understand this ragtag group of individuals who tumbled out into the busy streets with nothing to proclaim but the Good News of a free ticket of grace.

That was God’s idea of a good time.

One of the best stories Jesus ever told, a story squarely about God, is about two boys who were terrible to their father. The younger tells his Dad to drop dead and give him his inheritance and the older one resents his father for not throwing him a party even though he lived in his Dad’s basement. And the father, in the end, pulls out all the stops and throws the party to end all parties for the younger wayward son, and begs the older one to just relax and have a good time.

It’s no wonder so many of Jesus’ stories end with parties, often filled to the brim with the lame, maimed, and blind, people with whom many of us wouldn’t be caught dead.

God is all over the place, frenetic in disposition, and often rambling on about new ideas and is constantly inviting us to join the ride. Frankly, God invites everyone to jump on the crazy train that is careening out of the station toward a destination only God knows where. 

And on this trip, God notices all the things that we’ve stopped noticing – blind beggars, and widow’s coins, and children willing to share their lunch. God screams for attention and keeps pointing out the mistakes of the pompous, the self-righteousness of the wealth, and the injustice of the powerful and the elite. 

God even has the gall to proclaim that only kids get in to the kingdom, and that its virtually impossible for a rich person to get in. And, to make it even more confounding, God rounds that one out with the whole, “But nothing is impossible for God.”

I wonder why no one took the time to explain to God how the world really works. Surely, a disciple or a prophet or even a stranger could have informed the Lord how to behave properly and stay in line. Or, at the very least, God should’ve taken a good hard look in the mirror and decided to shape up.

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But no. God just keeps bumbling around hanging out with the disreputable types, spending the morning with the sick and those of ill repute, lunch with the tax collectors, and then late night snacks with the questioning religious authorities. 

God shows up with friends at a party uninvited, encourages everyone to drink the good wine, and then rubs hands together until the wine overflows, only to move on to the next venue where God is similarly uninvited.

And, because God behaves this way, people will often approach the Lord at these parties, words will be said, voices raised, and even faces smacked. But does God ever raise God’s voice, does God bring the smack down on those who lean toward violence? In short, does God act the way we would act?

Never.

God is like someone who wants to know us better and has plenty of opinions for how we should be living our lives. In fact, God wants to know us better than we want to know God. God never stops inviting us to the party and even though we reject the offer more often than not, the offer always stands.

Some of us have even said, “No,” to God as politely or as emphatically as we know how, and God keeps calling us the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

God is intense, passionate, unbalanced, unfair, and a little too honest. God is always pushing the envelope, testing the boundaries of what we might call “proper behavior.” God is the one who sees a vision of the world that even on our best days we could never properly imagine.

And we wonder, why can’t God just calm down about all this stuff? If God really wants to be the God of all people, wouldn’t it be better it God toed the line and stayed unbiased about the comings and goings of the world? When will God relax and start acting like the God we want?

But, again, the story of scripture is not a story about us. It’s about God. 

The Lord saw David’s heart and choose him, even though David would mess it all up in the future. We would hope that God would make better choices than picking a murderous adulterer to be the king of the nation, but then again, God chose to dwell among us and to redeem us and to save us.

And, though it pains us to admit, even though God came to usher in a new vision of the world, even though God came to set us free from our bonds to sin and death, something about God’s attitude and disposition made us want him dead. 

God is different. But that’s what makes the Good News good. Amen. 

On The Fence Inside The Big Tent

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent [A] (1 Samuel 16.1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5.8-14, John 9.1-41). Alan is a United Methodist pastor serving First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including DBH and universalism, wider circles, Saved By The Bell: The College Years, a terrible Karl Barth impression, the story behind the story, having eyes to see, being stuck in a groove, the theologies of Methodism, and the miracle of evangelism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: On The Fence Inside The Big Tent

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Grace Is Confounding

Devotional: 

Luke 18.9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that why were righteous and regarded others with contempt…

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A professor of mine in seminary liked to tell a story about what happened to him one Saturday night while he was still in the ministry. He was dutifully working at his desk putting his final touches on the sermon for the following morning when he received a phone call from the local police department. A married couple from his church were having a rather large shouting match and a few neighbors called the police and they in turn called the preacher. He reluctantly drove over to their house and was bewildered to discover three armed officers huddled behind their vehicles as if a shoot-out was about to occur. When the preacher questioned the ranking officer about the situation, the officer calmly replied, “These two get a little too drunk once a year and have it out for each other, they should be done soon enough.” And he was right.

Within the half hour the preacher was walking through the front door to see two of his most dedicated lay people drunkenly asleep on different pieces of furniture with cuts and bruises all over the place. And then he left when the police said there was nothing more they could do.

My professor said that he tried to block it out of his mind until the following morning, when he walked down to collect the plates from the ushers during the offertory, and he almost dropped the collection when he noticed that the husband was serving as one of the ushers with his cuts and bruises out for everyone to see. 

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For my professor, this moment perfectly embodied Jesus’ parable of the publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee goes into the temple bragging about all of his holiness and faithfulness and gives thanks to God that he is not like the publican, the tax collector, the sinner in his midst. Likewise the publican enters the temple, humbly bows, and says, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus ends the parable by saying the publican is the one who went home justified.

For my professor, in the moment, he couldn’t believe the nerve of the man to show up in church knowing what had happened the night before. It just wasn’t right – it wasn’t proper. But then he was struck by the message of the parable: The gift of grace is only God’s to give – no matter how prim or proper we are, no matter how many acts of holiness we can trot out on a Sunday morning, God’s grace is poured on those who need it most (all of us).

And, to make matters worse, my professor realized that he, himself, had become the Pharisee proudly displaying his faith on his sleeve and even partially thanking God he wasn’t like his church member! He would end his story by saying that as he lifted up the plates that morning he could almost hear God whispering in his ear: “Two men went up to the temple to pray one Sunday morning, the first a Methodist preacher, the second a drunken, disappointing, and overly aggressive husband… the latter went home justified, not the former.”

Grace Is Messy

Jeremiah 18.1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the world of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation of a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoke, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.  

Metaphors can be messy.

And don’t get me wrong, metaphors make the world go round. We use them ALL THE TIME, even without realizing it. Some are obvious, like saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” And “He has a heart of gold.” We say those thing to imply something about the nature of something using words or descriptions that aren’t real or even possible.

When a big cloud rolls overhead we know that domesticated animals are not going to fall down upon us and we know that if we looked inside the chest of even a truly decent person we’ll find blood and muscle and sinew, not one of the most valuable substances on the planet.

And yet we grow comfortable with metaphors because we use them all the time. But every metaphor has a limit and every metaphor can be messy.

Jeremiah speaks of a vision and moment given to him by the Lord about the potter and the clay. This has been a beloved scriptural metaphor for millennia and communicates a lot about who God is and what God does. Like a potter with clay God knows God’s creation intimately, gently, and purposefully. God desires the best result from the work put in. God shapes and molds exactly the way God wants to.

It’s a good and fine metaphor. Like all metaphors it expresses something with words that help bring about a different or perhaps fuller understanding.

But this metaphor is really messy, in more ways than one.

Here’s the good: God as the potter harkens back to some of the earliest verses in scripture about God forming Adam out of the earth, out of dirt, perhaps even out of clay. We, as the creation of God, are formed and shaped in the image of God to live freely and fully on the earth. 

And, like clay, God’s fingers can smooth out any and all of our imperfections such that by the end of our formation, we are exactly as God intended us to be.

Moreover, God never gives up on God’s art. No matter how much we resist the shaping, God can always leave us out to dry if we are too wet, or add a little more water if we are too dry. God can even smash the clay back into a ball and start all over again if God wants.

But our God, the divine potter, will make beauty of our brokenness.

Sounds good right? 

Well, here’s the bad: God as the potter implies a total control over creation such that if there is something wrong with the world we’re left with a question: Why didn’t God fix it? We, the creation of God, formed and shaped according to God’s purposes, do all kinds of bad and horrible stuff on the regular. And even if we are met with moments of malleability, most of us continue to do things we know we shouldn’t or avoid doing things we know we should. Which means that either God isn’t a very good potter, or God desires us to be bad.

Moreover, the Jeremiah texts makes it abundantly clear that God looks specifically at our wrongness and threatens to bring evil upon us unless we amend our ways. God therefore stops seeming like a potter and instead appears like the divine torturer waiting to bring down punishments until we get in line. 

Metaphors are messy. And every metaphor has a limit. But this is the one communicated to Jeremiah by God, and by Jeremiah to us.

When we read these words, when we imagine God sitting down at the wheel fashioning each of us in our own unique way, it’s hard not to feel like we all need to shape up. The potter has seen our messed up characteristics, our choices, decisions, words, and is going to do whatever the potter can to get something out of our nothing. Which, though it sounds hopeful, is also kind of terrifying. 

It’s terrifying because the potter can destroy the clay whenever the potter wants. So, friends, we need to start behaving ourselves and hopefully prevent the destruction that God is holding over our heads.

Or, to put it in simpler terms, if we don’t fix what’s broken in us, God is going to smash us into oblivion.

Today, if we think about potters, we usually conjure them up in our minds as pensive, kind, and gentle people. My sister is a ceramicist and in her daily life she is nice and loving, but when she sits down at her pottery wheel, she is anything but. She becomes her own force of nature, throwing her whole body weight into the machine and into the clay until something comes out of all the effort. Clay splatters everywhere and she had to construct a make shift wall around the wheel just to make sure clay didn’t fly all over the room.

Working with clay is an inherently messy endeavor. You’ve got to get not just your fingers but your arms and whole body into it. And one false move can bring the whole thing down. If the clay is too dry it won’t move under your fingers, if the clay is too wet the clay won’t hold its shape, if the wheel spins too fast the structure will fall in on itself, if the wheel spins too slow it won’t remain symmetrical. 

And Jeremiah, with this metaphor, speaks to the people of God a word about their clay – they need to fix themselves. And not just themselves as individuals, but as a community. God desires the reshaping of the community such that the community can serve God’s purposes in social, political, and even economic ways. 

And God is gonna get what God wants. God means to shape us in ways that we can barely even imagine and definitely in ways that go way beyond what we typically think about in terms of church maintenance. I mean, does God care about the fact that we just celebrated 60 years as a church? Probably. But does God care about the ways we interact with the community such that everyone can hear the Good News? Definitely.

God works in our lives all the time, drying us out when we’re so soggy with our own self-centeredness, dropping the water of compassion on us whenever we feel alone, or hurt, or afraid. God even uses people like us to be the drying or watering agents for the people around us, both familiar and strange. 

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And God has to do this work over and over again because there is something fundamentally wrong with our clay, with us. We can call it sin, or selfishness, or any other number of things. In this text Jeremiah draws attention to the fact that our clay is messed up because we can resist the hand of our potter. We can choose to align with God’s purposes or we can go against them.

But if you’ve noticed, I’ve already started to shift the metaphor around a little bit. That’s why its so messy. You see, Jeremiah makes it abundantly clear, through the threats of destruction, that we’ve got to change the condition of our condition. Jeremiah speaks about the choices being made that affect not only the present but choices that will have consequence in the far and distant future. 

The difference is this: Who is ultimately responsible for shaping the clay? Is it the clay itself, or is it the potter?

Because here’s where the metaphor gets the messiest. If the responsibility is solely on the clay, well then friends, prepare yourselves for destruction. Sure, we can make little changes in our lives, we can try to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and body, we can try to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can put a little more money in the offering plate than we did the week before. We can reach out to our literal neighbors and invite them over for dinner. We can volunteer at the local homeless shelter. We can donate canned goods to local food pantries. We can do all sorts of stuff, stuff that will make the world better around us. But at the end of the day, we’re still the same clay.

We will always be sinners in need of God’s grace because that’s who we are. God, in ways that are confounding, chose to make us free. Free to act with God or against God. It is a beautiful and messy gift but one that make life all the more interesting and exciting. We are not puppets being pulled along by some puppeteer up in the sky (another messy metaphor). 

We are dirt. Dirt that has been given life by God.

Should we try to be better and do all sorts of good things? Absolutely. The world would do well to have some more decent acting people in it. But, at the end of the day, we can’t change our clay. Only God can do that. And that’s where the metaphor of the messy potter with the messy clay comes into its fullest. 

God is determined to shape communities whose ways of worship and prayer and life-living bear witness to the redemptive and graceful purposes of God. This isn’t something we can, or have to, do on our own. God is God because God is the one who can always make something of our nothing. God can raise new and beautiful things even out of our ruinous self-indulgent and indifferent practices. 

It’s not up to us on our own, but it’s God who works in and through us to reshape the world around us. God speaks to us through the words of scripture, or a song, or a stranger so that we can start to imagine a new and different world. God uses people and places and things to dry us out or wet us down until we start to spin smoothly on the wheel of the potter. 

Working with clay is messy. If you’re not careful, and frankly even if you are, clay can get everywhere and into everything. It is messy. And so is grace.

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As the unmerited gift of God, grace is given to all regardless of earning or deserving. Which means that grace is there for the best of us and for the worst of us. That’s a ridiculously messy theological proposition! In just about every other part of our lives we make it all about what we’ve done or deserved. We judge people on what job they have or what school they went to or where they go on vacation or what kind of clothes they wear. But in the reality of God’s kingdom, none of those things matter. Grace is given regardless of circumstances. It is not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.

At the end of the day, a potter will step away from the wheel covered in the art that was used in creation. Even in the world of messy metaphors there is something beautiful and strange in the knowledge that our divine potter became clay for us in the person of Jesus Christ. 

God was willing to take on exactly what makes us what we are so that the artist and the art would become inextricably tied up with each other, forever.

It doesn’t get messier than that. Amen.