Difficult And Untried

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Beth Demme about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 11.1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21.1-6, John 13.31-35). Beth is a Licensed Local Pastor in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good things from Twitter, The Sin of Certainty, the scope of God’s grace, cutting off communication, God’s presence, practicing praise, revealing Revelation, lines in the sand, closeness, and loving like the Lord. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Difficult and Untried

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All Is Lost

Matthew 18.10-14

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. 

I was sitting around a table with a bunch of adults who had agreed to give up a week of their summer to take a group of youth on a mission trip to Raleigh, North Carolina. We had successfully made it to our site and as the kids were preparing to sleep, or at least pretending to, and the adults had to figure out where each kid would be working during the week, and what project they would focus on.

We ultimately decidedly to do it via a random lottery so that every person had a fair chance at any of the missional opportunities. One group would be spending most of the week working in a nursing home providing fellowship and entertainment for the residents. Another group would be doing simple carpentry for low income housing on the economically challenged side of town. And still yet another group would be responsible for keeping tabs on a group of younger kids through a very inexpensive summer camp program.

It took thirty minutes to separate all of the children appropriately, and as we prepared to leave the room the director informed us that we had omitted one important step in the process – we, as the adults, had to sign up for sites as well.

I, being the remarkably gifted, faithful, and holy pastor that I am, elected to pick last and was stuck with the glorified babysitting opportunity.

So the following morning I drove a large fan full of hormonal teenagers to meet with the program at a local museum. We were given very little instruction other than go inside, don’t lose anybody, and come back to the main entrance at 3pm. I decided to separate the more responsible teenagers and assigned groups of the camp participants to them, and then ended by striking the fear of God into them, “Do not lose any of your kids.”

And then I let them go.

Which, admittedly, was a big mistake.

Hours went by, I kept an eye on my little group and kept stepping on my tiptoes through all of the exhibits to see if I could see any of the other kids, many of whom I barely recognized from our brief encounter in the morning. And sure enough, when 3pm rolled around, a group of sweaty kids congregated by the main entrance, and I started a head count.

After I tapped every single head, I decided to start over again, just to be safe, and it was only after the third count that I had to admit the truth. 

We were missing one kid.

I immediately interrogated all of the students on the mission trip and berated them for losing a child in their care, but the clock kept ticking, and we needed to get the kids back to their families, and we were still missing one kid. 

I had a few choices: 

Send all the kids back through the museum with the charge to find the one who was missing, at the rick of losing more. 

Cut my losses and pretend like I didn’t know one was missing. 

Or leave everyone behind to find the kid by myself.

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Jesus predicts his passion for the second time, the Son of Man must be handed over, killed, and in three days rise again. And in response to the Lord’s declaration, the disciples enter into a lively discussion, what we might otherwise call a fight, about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God.

And why do they respond this way?

Because they’re idiots.

Jesus has just told them that he, the Lord of lords, Son of Man and Son of God, is going to die.

And they, apparently, can’t stand the idea of it, so they jump quickly to, “that’s fine and all, but how about we talk about who will be your next-in-command when you finally get the throne…”

Jesus then gives them one of the all time great theological punches: “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be last, whoever is the least among you will be the greatest.”

It’s like Jesus just wants these disciples to get it through their thick skulls, that the work of God in the world is done by losing and not by winning. God loves taking the least likely and making them the objects of transformation. God has a knack for making something out of nothing.

Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, we hate.

Maybe hate is too strong of a word. We can be on board with Jesus’ project of being with and for the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. But then we struggle with the idea of labeling ourselves in any of those categories. 

We, like the disciples before us, would rather be part of the first, the great, the found, the big, and the alive.

Think about it, even the way we practice religion is all about the myth of progress. We preach and teach a religion of “doing” and “earning” and “finding.” 

We are consumed by what we consume, and what we consume most of all are these fabricated version of our possible future selves. 

There’s a reason that self-help books are always at the top of the best-seller lists.

We are constantly works in progress.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to be better – it’s just that in spite of our desires for approval and change and growth, the work of the Lord remains steadfast.

Jesus saves losers and only losers. 

He raises the dead and only the dead. 

He finds the lost and only the lost.

The last, least, lost, little, and dead receive more of Jesus’ joy than all of the winners in the world.

And we can’t stand it.

And now we arrive at the parable. 

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What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?

I stood by the main entrance the museum with a cacophony of kids when I, reluctantly, decided to head back into the museum by myself to find the one who was lost. I strictly ordered the youth from the church to keep an eye on the rest of the group and prayed under my breath with every step that nothing would go wrong.

Within ten minutes I had combed most of the museum – I flew through all of the exhibits and the kid was nowhere. I started shouting his name and even asked a few strangers to help me look. I was honestly starting to lose hope when I passed by the gift shop and I saw the kid sitting on the floor in the corner flipping through a picture book.

I promptly picked him up and prepared to march back triumphantly toward the entrance, and that’s precisely when the fire alarm went off.

So we ran, along with everyone else to the nearest exist, on the opposite side of the museum and we walked around the building looking for the rest of our people and they were all gone.

That’s the thing about going off in pursuit of the one lost sheep – the only real result will be ninety-nine more lost sheep.

Ultimately, going off for the one is pretty bad advice. It puts everyone else at risk, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found in the end.

For me, it took the better part of another hour to round up everyone as they had dispersed in different directions when the fire alarm sounded. We were almost two hours late in terms of returning home, and I made a vow to leave the sheep finding business to Jesus.

This story, this parable, just like the rest of them, is strange – it points at something greater than the sum of its parts. The lost sheep declares, oddly enough, that we are saved in our lostness. 

Unlike a novice pastor, even if a hundred sheep get lost it will not be a problem for our wonderfully weird Good Shepherd. Our Lord rejoices and is in the business of finding the lost.

And here’s maybe the craziest thing of all – the lost sheep does nothing to be found. No amount of good works, or faithful prayers, or money offerings, brings the Shepherd out into the wilderness. The sheep does nothing except hang around in its own lostness. 

And to make things all the more prescient – a lost sheep, in all reality, is a dead sheep. Without the shepherd, the sheep has not a chance in the world.

We might love the idea of always doing more, or finding that one right book or list or program that will finally enable us to be who we are supposed to be. But the parable of the lost sheep is a deadly reminder for us that we need not do anything to get God to love us, or find us, or even forgive us. 

God is determined to move before we do – Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. 

It is our lostness that is our ticket into the dinner party of the Lamb.

The parables of Jesus, though they greatly vary in form and even in function, they do point again and again to the fact that God acts first and God acts definitively without conditions. 

Well, there might be one condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit we are lost.

We’re all lost.

We’re lost in our ambitions, in our sins, we’re even lost in our faith. Last Saturday, a young man walked into a Synagogue and started shouting. He killed one and injured three others. And when these things happen, and they happen all too often, we are quick to point out how isolated the attacker was, or how damaging the ideology was that led to the violence. But this particular young man was a faithful Christian, he attended a Presbyterian church nearly every week.

His manifesto in defense of his actions against the Jews came from some of the theology he acquired in his church.

His is a radical example of lostness. It is extreme. And yet, all of us here, whether we want to admit it or not, are lost as well.

Which, paradoxically, is Good News. It is Good News because when God is given a world full of losers, a world full of people lost in our own journeys, lost in our own sins, that’s just fine. Lostness is what God is all about.

We may be determined to do whatever we do, we can try all we want to save ourselves, but it will largely only result in us becoming more lost. Thanks be to God then that the Lord’s determination will always exceed our own.

God is determined with an unshakable fervor, to raise the dead – to find the lost.

We can all be better, of course. And I don’t mean to knock self-help programs and books so much. But we are a people who have fallen for the greatest trap in the world and we believe, foolishly, that God is going to close the door in our faces unless we do enough.

We are a people moved by guilt. 

When the truth is entirely different. 

God isn’t waiting around for us to become the most perfect sheep. 

If God is waiting for anything its for us to admit our lostness, that we are dead in our sins. Because when can see the condition of our condition, then we begin to experience the joy of having no power over ourselves to save ourselves or to convince anyone else that we are worth finding.

And even if we can’t admit how lost we are, the shepherd will look for and find us anyway. That’s kind of the whole point. 

This beloved parable, and the image of Jesus returning to the fold with the one lost sheep over his shoulders, is but another reminder that our whole lives are forever out of our hands, that we really are dead, and that if we are to ever live again, it will only be because of the grace of a Shepherd named Jesus. 

Who will never stop looking for us. Amen. 

Death and Taxes

Matthew 17.24-27

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The church is weird.

It is weird for a lot of reasons, least of all being that people like you and me are part of it.

The church is weird, at least according to the world, because we worship a crucified God and boldly proclaim that death has been defeated in the person of Jesus Christ.

Add to that the fact that we dump water on babies telling them they’ve been baptized into Jesus’ death and every month we proudly eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood… I don’t know if things could get much stranger.

Last Sunday was Easter which, or course, is one of the more bizarre Sundays in the church year. We looked around the sanctuary and saw people we’ve never seen before, we remembered the shadow of the cross from Good Friday, and we triumphantly sang “Christ Is Alive!”

And yet here we are, a week later, on the other side of the resurrection story. We, like the disciples before us, are experiencing the whiplash of discovering a strange new world that has been changed, for good, by Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the event that shatters all of our previous expectations and assumptions and it is the lens by which we read the entirety of the Bible.

As I said last week, if the Easter story were not included in the holy scriptures then we would’ve thrown out our Bibles a long time ago.

But now we jump back into the story, back into the ministry of Jesus. We have pressed the rewind button to re-enter the realm of the bizarre.

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This act of worship through which we proclaim the Word of the Lord is often nothing more than entering the strange new world of the Bible and hoping that we can find our way through together.

Or, to put it another way, if you thought Jesus rising from the dead was crazy, just check this out…

A bunch of tax collectors went up to Peter as soon as the disciples reached Capernaum and asked, “Hey, does your guy pay the temple tax or not?” Peter said, “Yeah, of course he does.”

But then when he got to the house where Jesus was staying, Jesus brought it up before Peter got a chance to open his mouth. “What do you think Pete… Who do the wealthy and powerful tax? Do they take money from their own children or from others?” 

Peter replied, “From other people.”

So Jesus said to him, “Then the kids are free to do as they please. But, we don’t want to scandalize the collectors of the temple tax, so why don’t you head on down to the sea and go fishing. When you hook your first fish, look inside it’s mouth, you will find enough money to pay for you and me.”

What?!

This feels incomprehensible. And, upon reading the story, it’s no wonder that the disciples were such a group of bumbling fools. How can we blame them when Jesus tells the chief disciple that he can find his tax payment inside of a fish’s mouth? 

Over and over again in the gospel narratives, the disciples struggle to make sense of what they see and hear from Jesus. Sure they witness miracles, and experience profound truths, but they are also bombarded with a strange new reality straight from the lips and actions of their Lord.

He was weird.

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The weirdness is as its fullest when Jesus comes to the realization, or perhaps he has it the whole time, that the kingdom of God is inextricably tied up with his own exodus, his death and resurrection. 

The parables, therefore, are seen in their fullest light on this side of the resurrection. I have made the case before that for as much as we want the parables to be about us, they are about Jesus. That’s one of the reasons that Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw or heard until he had been raised from the dead.

Of course, upon first glance, the money in the mouth of the fish might not sound like a parable. For whenever we hear the word parable we are quick to jump to the good samaritan or the prodigal son – we conjure up in our minds the stories Jesus told.

But this is a parable that Jesus lives out.

What makes it parabolic is that it points to something greater than its parts and it leaves us with more questions than answers.

The tax collectors were out to find the temple tax, the didrachma. It was a two-drachma tax expected of all Jews and it amounted to about two day’s pay. But they weren’t simply looking to collect – they are asking a question to discern what kind of person this Jesus really was. 

“Does he pay the temple tax?” is but another version of “Does he follow the Law?”

Peter, ever eager to jump in without thinking much about what he was saying, assures the collectors that Jesus in fact pays his taxes and then he returns to the house.

And Jesus, who was not privy to the conversation, questions Peter upon his arrival, “Who do the powerful take their taxes from? Their own families, or from others?”

And Peter responds accordingly, “From others.” 

And that was good enough for Jesus who says, “Then the children are free.”

Before we even get to the miraculous and monetized fish, Jesus is establishing something remarkably new through the spoken truth of this parabolic encounter. Jesus and his followers in whatever the new kingdom will be are under no obligations to the old order represented by those in power. 

The former things are passing away and Jesus is doing a new thing.

The children are free from taxes; they don’t have to do anything. Which, to our Americans ears starts to sound a little disconcerting. Some of us will immediately perk up in our pews when we hear the news that Jesus is apparently against paying taxes, while others of us begin to squirm when we think about what would happen if we all stopped paying our taxes.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

Parable Definition

Jesus and his disciples do not have to do anything because they are God’s children, and only God has the right to tax God’s creatures. This wasn’t money for public school education, or for infrastructure repairs, or national defense. This was for the Temple, the religious establishment, the same Temple that Jesus eventually says he has come to destroy!

But then he moves on from words alone to the action of the parable, the part that, if we’re honest, leaves us even more troubled than with questions about our taxes. 

Jesus says, “But you know what Pete, we shouldn’t scandalize the tax collectors so go catch a fish, and inside you will find a coin that will be enough.”

Interestingly, the coin in greek is a STATER which was worth exactly four drachmas, which would perfectly cover Peter and Jesus’ contribution.

And how to the temple tax collectors respond to the aquatic audit? 

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

What about Peter’s response to actually catching a fish with a coin in its mouth?

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

All we’re given is the parable.

Jesus knows that his own death will be at the heart of the new order, the kingdom of God. And in this strange and quixotic moment, he shows how free he and his disciples are from the old political and religious and messianic expectations and decides to make a joke about the whole thing.

And for the living Lord this is nothing new. He was known for breaking the rules, and eating with sinners, and questioning the authorities. But now, in this story, Jesus lives and speaks into the truth of his location being outside all the programs created by those with power to maintain their power.

He is free among the dead.

He is bound to the last, least, and lost.

The coin in the fish’s mouth is the great practical joke of God’s own creation against the powers and principalities. 

It’s but another version of saying, “You think all of this religious stuff is going to save you? You think your morality and your ethics and your economics are enough? Even the fish in the sea have a better chance than all of you!”

The children are free.

Free from what? The children are free from the religious forms of oppression and expectation. Whatever religion was trying to do during the time of Jesus, and sadly during our time as well, cannot be accomplished by our own religious acts but can be and are accomplished in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The children are free.

The parable of the coin in the fish’s mouth is far greater than an episode by the sea or even a treatment on the levying of taxes. It is a profound declaration of freedom.

But herein lies one of the greatest challenges for us.

Because when we hear the word freedom we bring all sorts of our own definitions to that word. We hear “freedom” and we see red, white, and blue. We talk about freedom in terms of getting to do, and say, and believe whatever we want without repercussions.

But Jesus brings a radically different version of freedom – freedom from religion; freedom from the Law.

Religion, in the many ways it manifests itself, often only has one thing to say: people like you and me need to do something in order to get God to do something. We need only be good enough, or faithful enough, or merciful enough, until we tip the scales back in our favor. But this kind of religious observance, which is most religious observance, traps us in a game that we will always and forever lose.

It’s bad news.

But Jesus comes to bring Good News. 

I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.

Again and again in the gospels Jesus stands against what the established religious order was doing and trying to do.

The Devil offers him power over the Temple during the temptations and Jesus refuses.

Jesus rebukes the hard and fast rules of not eating with sinners, and of not helping others on the sabbath.

After he enters Jerusalem, with the cross ever present on the horizon, he marches straight into the temple and flips over all the tables of the money-changers.

And even in his death, as he hangs on the cross, the veil of the Temple is torn into two pieces.

The old has fallen away and something new has arrived in its place. 

Jesus says he doesn’t want to scandalize those trapped in the Law and by religious observance but his cross and resurrection are fundamentally scandalous. We are no longer responsible for our salvation. We do not have to be the arbiters of our own deliverance.

We are free!

Truly and deeply free!

Jesus has erased the record that stood against us and chose to nail it to his cross!

Jesus has taken the “Gone Fishin’” sign and hung it over the doorpost of the ridiculous religious requirements that we have used against one another and ourselves.

Jesus has come to bring Good News.

The children are free. Amen. 

Enough Is Enough

John 12.1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep if for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

“How are you?”

A rather innocuous question and one that we drop all the time. So much so that we aren’t really asking because we want an answer, but because it has become a filler. 

We ask the question and we are asked the question in the grocery store line, while we’re sitting in the waiting room, and even when we’re passing the peace on Sunday morning.

And how do we usually answer the question?

“I’m fine.” “I’m good.” And the best of all, “I’m busy.”

“I’m busy.” It’s almost as if it’s become a reflex these days to respond with our busyness. And it’s not untrue.

Take one of my day’s this week as an example. Woke up early to get breakfast and coffee ready, rushed out the door with my kid in tow to get him to preschool on time. Drove straight to church to start going over financial documents, sermon prep, phone calls, emails, and then had to leave to get home in time to get my kid to soccer practice, which went late, we didn’t have time to cook dinner so we had to grab something on our way home, just to get him to bed late knowing that it would be another crazy day tomorrow.

So, if you had asked me how I was doing this week, I’m sure that I would have made a comment about how busy I am. 

And then I picked up a copy of David Zahl’s new book Seculosity. 

In it he writes about how our busyness has become a new religion. “To be busy is to be valuable, desired, justified. It signals importance and therefore, enoughness. Busy is not how how we are but who we are – or who we’d like to be.”

When we feel busy, we make connections between what we do with who we are. Which, of course, is a problem.

And today, many of us cannot imagine who we are outside of what we do. So we build these ladders out of whatever we have around and construct scoreboards of our own design measuring everything we do against everyone and everything else. 

And we never feel like we have, or have done, enough. 

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We chase after the elusive “enough” when in our heart of hearts we know that we will never really have enough. The perfect meal leaves us hungry mere hours later, the perfect spouses ages with time and knows how to cut through our armor, the perfect children grow up and rebel against our wishes, the perfect church gets a pastor or a program or a piety that rubs us the wrong way, and on and on and on.

We just can’t shake the feeling that there’s always more for us to do.

In the prelude to his Passion, on the eve of Palm Sunday, Jesus arrives in Bethany and goes to the home of Lazarus. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha decide to throw a little dinner party and the disciples gather around the table to kick up their feet. The food is brought out, and probably some wine, when Mary walks over with a pound of Chanel No.5 and pours the entire bottle out on Jesus’ feet and she wipes them with her hair. 

And then Judas jumps up from his seat and screams for everyone to hear, “Woman! What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you sell this perfume for a year’s worth of salary and give the proceeds away to the poor?”

Jesus, ever calm, merely replies, “Judas, leave her alone. She bought it so that she could use it for my burial. There will always be poor people, but I won’t be here forever.”

What a story and the details are incredible. But perhaps most interesting of all is how some of the details just sit there without elaboration or explanation. 

The home of Lazarus is casually mentioned, you know the guy who Jesus raised from the dead! I don’t know about you but I have a hard time imagining a guy once dead just merely sitting around at the dinner table – the miracle made possible for him through Jesus seems to demand more demonstration than hosting a dinner party.

Martha served the food. Apparently Martha hadn’t quite learned her lesson as the constant busybody from a previous interaction with Jesus and continues to preoccupied with the comings and goings in the kitchen.

And then Mary takes a pound of perfume. A whole pound (!) and begins pouring it on Jesus’ feet. Today, perfumes and colognes are often contained in tiny one ounce bottles, so we have to broaden our minds to a pound of this stuff being poured out.

In Matthew and Mark’s version of this story the woman anoints Jesus’ head, a prophetic witness to his the truth that he is the King and Messiah in the midst of the empire ruled by Caesar.

But here in John’s version, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet – another kind of prophetic act. Though in this scene, it points to his imminent death, as he is anointed ahead of his burial. 

Mary, unlike the inner circle of the disciples and unlike the rest of the crowd who have been following him, sees Jesus for who he is. She comprehends and accepts what others can not – Jesus will die.

But then Judas goes off the rails.

You know, the one about to betray Jesus!

Why are you wasting that perfume when we could’ve sold it to help the poor?! And he drops the fact that they could’ve sold that pound of perfume for 300 denarii, which roughly equates to a year’s worth of wages.

Which, alone, begs our consideration.

How in the world did Mary procure such an expensive quantity of perfume? Where did the money come from? How long had she been holding on to it?

And, of course, scripture doesn’t provide us any more details than the ones on the page. We are left with a scene of a wasteful woman and a nonchalant Jesus.

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Judas, for good reason, gets a bad rap in the Bible. After all, he is the one who ultimately hands Jesus over to the authorities. But can we but not sympathize with him in this moment? He’s certainly not wrong, they could’ve sold that perfume and given the proceeds to the poor.

John, makes sure that we know what Judas was really up to with the narrative interruption: He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.

Even still Mary seems to be wasting what she had, and it could’ve been used in a different way, perhaps an even better way…

Throughout the gospel according to John, Jesus regularly provides blessed abundance. When he and the disciples arrives in Cana he creates 18 gallons of new wine to keep the wedding party going. By the Sea of Galilee Jesus produces enough food to feed the 5,000 with plenty of leftovers. After fishing all night without anything to show for it, Jesus instructs Peter to put his nets in one more time and he pulls up such a haul that the boat begins to sink.

The abundance made possible in Christ is offered to those in need. Whether its food, or wine, or companionship, Jesus provides. But at this particularly weird dinner party, the abundance is reversed. 

It is a prelude to the passion. Mary anoints him ahead of time for the burial he is to receive. 

Again and again people ask something of Jesus: Lord, give us a sign, heal my daughter, feed the hungry crowds. And Jesus obliges over and over. 

But here, less than a week away from the moment of his crucifixion, John tells us that Jesus turns his attention to different direction: the cross.

Much of religion today focuses on that which is useful, practical, and cost-effective. We spend most our time thinking about and planning upon what we should do in order to achieve what we want to do.

This type of fanatical religious observance has been on display in the last week, though not inside the church – it has been in the frightening dedication of wealthy parents who bought their children spaces in elite colleges.

Have you heard about this? An agency, for a steep price, could procure a diagnosis from a psychologist that would enable your child to take the SATs over two days rather than a few hours. And a hired proctor would be provided to either help guide the students to the right answers, or simply fill out the test on their behalf.

For another fee, the agency would hire someone to take online high school classes under the name of student in order to boost their grade point average.

And still yet for another fee, coaches at elite universities would take a bribe to say that they needed a particular individual for their team, regardless of whether the high schooler had ever played the sport or not.

The news broke through a number of arrests and articles and the overwhelming response wasn’t one of shock and awe but one of, “meh, sounds about right.”

I mean, who are we to blame those ultra wealthy parents for doing everything in their disposal to help their children? (sarcasm)

But they, and we, suffer from the Judas-like fixation that enough is never enough. We move to a particular neighborhood only to start planning out the finances required to move to an even better neighborhood. We enroll our children in after-school programs and we aren’t content with their participation until it garners them a spot on the best team, in the best social group, or at the best school. We work until we are able to retire and then spend most of our retirement wondering is we really saved enough.

The frightening truth that Judas hints at with his question is that there will always more work to be done. The question isn’t what needs to be done, but whether we know what enough looks like.

Now, this is not as some churches have foolishly used as a claim that frees us from caring for the last, least, and lost. We don’t have to help the poor, and we aren’t freed from helping the poor, we get to free the poor because of what happens to and through Jesus.

The anointing of Jesus’ feet is a recognition that the week will end with those feet being nailed to the cross. In that most of God’s triumphant condescension, Jesus does for us what we could not. Jesus is sent into a world that did not request him and yet acts entirely for the world’s benefit. Were it up to us alone, even with our best intentions, the poor would get poorer and the rich would get richer, the hungry would starve and the filled would bloat. 

Enough would never feel like enough.

But Jesus lays down his life for God’s people not because he is asked to do so, but because he chooses to give himself for us. 

We can, of course, initiate new programs to fee the hungry in the community. We should do that work. We can also give away clothing to those in need, or start offering micro-loans to small local businesses, or help teach individuals and families how to budget their money.

The list could go on and on and on.

And it would never be enough.

There will always be more for us to do, but the one thing we could never do has already been done for us. The work of Christ, life-death-resurrection, provides all the enoughness we could ever really hope for. It is the sign that though we are unworthy, Christ makes us worthy, though we have sinned, Christ offers pardon, though we feel empty, Christ proclaims that we are enough.

Because Christ is enough. Amen. 

Alive In Death – A Baptism Homily

Ephesians 5.1

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Dear Carson,

I hope someone takes a few pictures today, because you’re definitely not going to remember any of this. And even if if there are no pictures to mark the occasion of your baptism, I hope some that are present will tell you the story. And even if none of those people remember anything about today, I’m writing you this letter so that one day, you might be able to look back at this decision that was made for you, and you can begin to appreciate how strange it all was. 

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When I stood before your parents and brought them into their wedded bliss, of which you are a result (you’re welcome by the way), I told them that marriage is a mystery.

And I meant it.

Couples, even those as in love as your parents, have no idea what they’re doing when they get married. They think they know what marriage is supposed to look like or even feel like, but it will always be one of the most profound mysteries we will ever encounter in the world.

And Carson, make no mistake about it, what we will do to you and for you today has been to willfully place you in the path of another mystery – one even greater than the strangeness that is marriage.

Your family and friends have gathered together in one place to see you cutely baptized in the water as countless others have been before you but, to be honest, there’s nothing very cute about what is going to happen.

Baptism is nothing short of baptizing you into the life of Jesus of course, but also into his death.

In time you will come to find that to be Christian, is to be weird.

Sometimes the strangeness is so pronounced that I find myself bewildered that people even want to become Christians. What I mean to say is: Who wants to willingly give away part of their gifts just to bless other people? Who wants to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them? Who wants to worship a crucified God?

Apparently we do.

The fact that your parents have asked me to baptize you is both a testament to their faith, and their foolishness (at least according to the world). To get all of these people together, friends and family, and make them sit and listen to someone like me wax lyrical about the virtues of death and resurrection, to commit your life to something you will faintly understand, is to participate in perhaps the most counter-cultural thing any of us can ever do.

While the world tells us to do all we can and earn all we can and change all we can, baptism tells us otherwise. 

Instead, today marks the beginning of your bewildering journey into the discomfort of learning that your life no longer belongs to you, neither does it belong to your parents, nor to the rest of us.

You’ve already done, earned, and changed all you can because you belong to God.

Now, Carson, there are some who would prefer that I not speak about death at the moment of your baptism, and I don’t blame them. You will come of age in a world just like the rest of us in which we are constantly denying the one truth – none of us make it out of this life alive. So, some of us will mark your baptism as a rite of passage, something to measure the time of your infancy.

But your baptism, and all baptisms, are actually quite dangerous.

Baptisms are dangerous not because of the water involved, but because in so doing we are setting you against the powers and principalities of the world, and incorporating you into something that will come to drive you crazy.

Carson, I asked you parents to choose the scripture for the occasion of your baptism, just as I asked them to pick the passage for their wedding, and they didn’t disappoint. These words from St. Paul have been used for centuries to encourage those newly in their faith about what their faith is all about.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

So, Carson, I am here to tell you to do all of that stuff. Imitate God, live in love, whatever that might mean. In other places Paul lengthens this list to include putting away falsehoods, living by humility and gentleness, and learning to speak the truth in love.

And all of that is good stuff, but more important than hearing a list like that is for you to hear this: don’t you ever think for one second that it will earn you anything. 

In fact, by doing those things it will probably make your life harder.

Let me explain – If you want to live in love like Christ did then you will have to do all sorts of nice things, but you’ll also be expected to do some terrible things. The love that Jesus held for others certainly led to him feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and befriending the lonely, but it also led to him turning the tables over in the temple, and praying for his enemies, and eventually it led him to the cross. 

My point, Carson, if there is one at all, is that you can try and try and try and no matter what you accomplish, whether for good or ill, it will never ever negate or change what is done for you and to you today, in Christ.

Paul tells us, again and again, that Christ has already given himself up for us.

That “us” is always bigger than we imagine because it includes all of us.

The person of Christ was a fragrant offering to God such that all of us would be forgiven. 

Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to live like Christ because you won’t be able to – none of us are.

We do not deserve what has been done for us. 

This hits home today because Paul is affirming that you are forgiven in your baptism for all of the sins you’ve already committed. Which, to be clear, are few and far between at this point. Save for that one night that a bunch of people were over at the apartment and you had multiple blowouts in your diaper. 

But this baptism of yours forgives you of all your sins. Not just those that came before, but an entire lifetime of sins yet to come.

In the strange waters of baptism all of us confront the confounding truth that we are all forgiven before, during, and after our sins.

And we are forgiven for one reason, and one reason only: Jesus gave himself up for us. 

In time you will come to discover that this claim is paradoxical in the eyes of the world. You will be bombarded throughout your life with the fallacy that there is always more you can do to earn the approval or the love or the acceptance of others. But you are already precious in the eyes of God and there is nothing, quite literally nothing, you can do to earn, or accept, or even fathom the forgiveness made possible to you.

We, your family and friends, are here with you to simply and fully declare that you already have it. Period. Full stop.

However, lest you discover this letter as a middle school and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that living in love doesn’t matter. I hope you do live by love. But my greater hope is that you don’t fall prey to the foolish believe that whatever you do in that love isn’t enough. 

You are enough.

And, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter when you read this letter, you will fail to understand what was done to you today. None of us really knows what we are doing when we are baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just like none of us know what we’re doing when we get married.

It’s only something we can figure out while we’re figuring it out.

Carson, on some level I’m actually grateful you won’t remember any of this. You might wake up and realize one day that being a Christian isn’t all that its cracked up to be and you might even blame me, your beloved pastor uncle for ushering you into it. But, like most of the things that determine our lives, we don’t really have control over our baptisms.

I’m also particularly grateful that you won’t remember the first time we met. In time you will learn that I’ve known your mother longer than just about anyone on this earth and when she introduced me to your father, I knew she had finally found someone willing to put up with all of her craziness. Though, by now, I know that it goes both ways.

Anyway, when I found out that your parents were bringing you into this world, I began counting down the days until I could hold you in my arms. And, I know this will sound selfish, there’s just something indescribable about being invited into the covenant of marriage between two people, particularly when you love them as much as I love your parents, and then knowing that their covenant has resulted in new life so much so that I feel bound to you in ways both tangible and intangible.

So when the day finally arrived that I got to see you in the flesh, I patiently waited as you were passed around the room and waited until you became fussy with all of the forced baby talk and pinched cheeks from the adults, and I swept across the room, took you out of one of your grandmother’s arms and declared that I would take you into the other room to calm you down and rock you to sleep.

But I was honestly just being selfish.

I wanted to hold you close and whisper the promise of faith into your tiny little ears.

But I never got the chance. Because as soon as I was out of earshot on the other side of the house, and I looked down into your eyes, you looked right at me and I started crying. I cried and cried all over you, to the point that I was worried I would have to wipe you down before handing you back to the family.

Carson, I was overcome by the emotions of the moment because I was filled with a sense of profound gratitude. You are, in lots of ways, a miracle. And not for the simple miracle of child birth and such, but you and your life is a testament to the miraculous ways in which God has stitched this world together. You are the result of a love not only between your parents, but also an entire community of individuals who helped to bring them together, and a God of such immense love and mercy that we have been blessed by your existence.

You, to use Paul’s language, are a beloved child of God.

Carson, in my family, which is beautifully bound to your family, we have a habit of calling one another precious lambs of Jesus. It’s cutesy, and religious, and even a bit weird, but it also points toward the truth of this moment. You are baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, you are led into it like a sheep guided by the divine shepherd. In the water offered to you God will bring you into a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

It is my hope and prayer, precious lamb, that you come to discover that God neither exists next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

So welcome Carson, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

The Death Of The Party

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…”

There was a man that had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family. The little grocery store had been passed down generation after generation. It was a staple in the community and the family knew the names of nearly every customer that walked through the doors. 

The father had been good to his sons as much as any father can. And one day the younger son walked into the shop and back into the office to find his father going over the inventory.

“Dad,” he said, “I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

The father responds by dividing the assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes in on some investments to give him his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son has blown all of the money in Atlantic City. At first he was careful with his bets at the roulette wheel, but the more he lost the more he spent, on booze, and girls, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happened so fast that before he left the casino he was begging the owner for some work. 

“Sure,” the owner said, “We’ve got a new opening in our janitorial services and you can start right away.”

Within hours he had gone from being the wealthiest individuals in  he casino, to picking up the trash from the now wealthiest people in the casino.

And with every passing day, and every emptied trash bag, he contemplates pulling the scraps of food from the bottom just to provide some sort of sustenance. He had taken to sleeping outside behind the casino in a place where no one would find him, and he would wash his uniform every morning in the sink of one of the public restrooms. 

And finally he came to himself.

He realized that even his father’s employees back at the grocery store had food to eat and roofs over their heads. 

In the midst of accepting the condition of his condition he starts working on his confession. “Dad, I really messed up. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please just give me a job at the store.” 

So he packs up the little that he has, and leaves the casino without even picking up his paycheck.

And how does the father respond when this prodigal returns home?

He’s sitting by the window, listening to his older son now barking out orders to everyone in the shop before retiring to the back office, and then the father catches a glimpse of his youngest boy walking down the street. And he reacts in what would seem an unexpected way: he bolts out the door, tackles him into the street, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy whispers under the tidal wave of love, “I’ve really messed up, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Shut up,” says the father, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party.” 

He grabs the boy by the collar, picks him up, and starts barking orders to everyone in the store to get everything ready. “Hey Joe, pull out the beer.” “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “George, do me a favor, find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got and start roasting it on the grill out back.” “It’s time to party, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”

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And the beer caps start flying, the the radio in the corner get turned up to full blast, and everyone starts partying in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the time sheets, making sure that none of his employees are trying to swindle him out of some money, and he hears the commotion on the over side of the store. He catches a glimpse of George with beer foam stuck in his mustache running out the back door with what looks like a leg of lamb, and he shouts, “What in the hell is going on?”

George skids to a halt in the hallway, and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home, and your father told us to party.” And with that he runs out the back door to get the grill going.

The older brother feels his fists tightening and he retreats back into his office and he slams the door.

And with every passing minute, and as his rage increases, the party just gets louder on the other side of the door. The older brother tries to distract himself with the work before him, but he eventually gives into his feelings and throws the ledger across the office and puts a hole in the wall.

And that’s when he hears a knock at the door. 

His dad steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles something like, “What’re you doing back here? You’re missing the party.”

But the older son is incredulous. “What do you mean ‘what am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job. Look, I’ve been working live a slave for you for years, and I have never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me, you’ve never told me I could go home early. But this prodigal son of yours returns home, having wasted all of your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

And the father sobers up for a moment while listening to his son lamenting his present circumstances. And maybe its the beer, or maybe it’s just his own frustration that causes him to shout back in return, “You idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve been working for yourself. The last I checked you were the one in charge around here.”

The older son stands speechless. In all his years he had never heard his father speak so freely.

And the old man continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him his inheritance, well I gave you this. And what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by the rules, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, and you’re clinging to something that isn’t real.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now. Listen! All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And look at yourself – you’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the party that’s bumping in the other room. We’re all dead and having a great time. You, you’re alive and miserable. Keep complaining all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”

The father turns to go rejoin the party, but before he crosses the threshold he turns back to look at his older son and says, “The only reason you’re not already out there having a good time with the rest of us is because you refuse to be dead to all of your dumb rules about how you’re life is supposed to be enjoyed. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and die already. Forget about all your stupid rules and just come and have a drink with us.”

This has to be the most well known story that Jesus tells in the gospels. And, strangely enough, the whole thing is about death. The first death takes place right at the very beginning. The father is asked to effectively commit vocational suicide to give his sons their inheritance prior to his biological death. The second death happens when the prodigal wakes up dead, or rather dead to the life that he once had back home. Reduced to the shame of working for nothing he comes to himself and realizes that whatever life he thought he had is gone forever.

So he returns home to a moment of profound judgment and grace. It is a bizarre reunion, and the son realizes that he really is dead, and that if he is going to have any new life at all it will be through his father who willingly died for his behalf.

Notice, the confession on his lips, the one he planned for, follows forgiveness. Only after being tackled to the ground by his father does he come into contact with the completely unmerited gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive him.

Confession, at least according to Jesus, is not something we do to earn forgiveness. The best we can ever do is open our eyes to what we already have and then respond with our confession. 

In the church we talk about forgiveness all the time and we do so without recognizing the true weight of our forgiveness. We say things like, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” and it’s true. We are forgiven not only for the sins committed before the confession, but also for a who life of sins yet to come. And this is only possible for one reason: Jesus died for us.

Which leads us to the third death – the fatted calf (or the lamb in my version). This is Jesus Christ himself in his own story. What does a fatted calf do? It sits around waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. I don’t mean to sound so crass, but this is what Jesus is saying. 

This whole story, the beloved tale of the prodigal son, isn’t about our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God having a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.

But, lest we forget about the older brother, he shows up in the story to show the Father how foolish he is. When in fact, the greatest fool of all is the one who stayed home. He’s the fool because he refuses to die – not literally, but to his crazy sensibilities about the world and about his work. 

He is so convinced, too convinced, that doing all of the right things will be enough to save him. His refrain is “I did everything I was supposed to. I stayed home. I took care of my responsibilities. I planned accordingly. I was perfect.” And yet his life is anything but perfect. And he cannot stand the idea of his father throwing a party for his brother who deserves nothing.

But we all deserve nothing. 

Grace is a crazy thing. Jesus tells this story and whenever we hear it we are quick to read ourselves into the story. We can think of times when we’ve been the prodigal, and we made bad choices. We can think of times when we’ve been the Father, waiting to receive the one asking for our forgiveness. We can even think of times when we’ve been the older son and we’re just so angry that someone else gets something for nothing.

But this story is really about the party and the craziness of grace. The party is already happening. Jesus has already marched to the top of Calvary. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We were lost but then God found us. 

And the best part is none of us deserve it. Amen.

 

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The Difference That Makes The Difference

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Grace Han about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [C] (Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32). Grace is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Alexandria, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the burden of pastoral responsibility, the connection between fear and disgrace, permission to move on, the spiderweb of the Bible, counter-cultural humility, unpacking reconciliation, and living the prodigal life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Difference That Makes The Difference

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