Stuck In Advent

Isaiah 64.1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned. Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. 

In most churches there are two types of people: 

There are those who, seeing the purple paraments and the tree and the wreath and hearing the scriptures about sin, judgment, and wrath think to themselves, “Thank God! It’s finally Advent again!

And there are those who, seeing and hearing the same things think to themselves, “What is happening? Where’s the Christmas spirit? I thought this was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year…

Advent, for better or worse, is a habit. And it takes a whole lot of courage and consideration to get used to this season.

Because outside of the Christian community, Advent is just an excuse to speed up toward Christmas – the decorations have been on sale since before Halloween, Black Friday begins before Friday, and just about every online retailer is constantly bombarding all of us with reminder to purchase our presents now before its too late!

Advent, in the church at least, teaches us to delay Christmas in order to rejoice in it fully when it finally arrives. 

Advent habituates us into seeing how the message of Christmas vanishes if we are not willing to walk toward the shame and pain that is all around us. 

Advent reminds us that we need the light of the world because we’re stuck in the darkness.

Which is why Advent always begins in the dark…

Isaiah, appropriately, depicts the stark nature of this liturgical season with a perceived absence of God. 

God, can’t you just come down here and start shaking things up! We could do for some trembling mountains and boiling rivers! We remember the mighty deeds with which you delivered us from the snares of death. And yet, for years and years no one has heard or seen or experienced anything divine except for you, and work in and through those who know what it means to wait. But you were angry with us and our miserable estate. You looked down upon our sinfulness, our wanton disregard for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. We’re unclean. All of our supposedly good deeds are like a filthy rag. Yet, O Lord, you are the Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. We are the work of your hand. So don’t be exceedingly angry with us Lord, and do not remember our sins forever. We belong to you.

The language in our appointed scripture passage is not for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not what most of us are used to this time of year. We’d prefer to hear about hope, and love, and joy or maybe reflect on the theological value of The Grinch, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Home Alone.

And, to be fair, even though it’s not what we would necessarily prefer, the words of Isaiah are already echoed in our living in the world…

Tables were set this week for Thanksgiving with empty seats either because people could not travel in light of the Coronavirus, or because they are part of the quarter of million people who have died in this country because of the pandemic. Our holidays have the potential to both bring out our gratitude and our anger. We can be thankful for what we have while, at the same time, be filled with rage because of how the world continues to spin while we suffer.

In spite of travel restrictions and warnings about gatherings with too many people, airports across the country swelled as they always do during this time of year which has led many epidemiologists to intone – “It’s fine to have a big family gathering right now so long as your prepared to bury someone by Christmas…”

And it’s not just the pandemic that brings all these things into focus. More people suffer from depression at this time of year, more people end their own lives at this time of year, more couples get divorced at this time of year, more car accidents happen at this time of year, I could go on and on and on.

So here, in the midst of a world drowning in bad news, it’s not hard to imagine raising our clenched fist to the sky and shouting, “God! Where the hell are you?”

That is an Advent question.

It is perhaps the Advent question.

This isn’t the easiest stuff to contemplate and mull over at this time of year. I rejoice in setting up the lights on my house, and tuning the radio to the old familiar Christmas hits, and quoting along with all my favorite holiday movies. And yet, to so engage in this festive atmosphere can be a denial of the reality of this life.

Advent, fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, requires us to look straight into the heart of darkness. Particularly when we are afraid that we might see ourselves in the darkness.

Isaiah reminds us today that even the best of us are distorted and unclean – all that we do can be compared to a filthy old rag. We, all of us, chose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. Whether it’s leaving a nasty comment on social media, or dropping a scathing critique of a family member, to avoiding the apology and reconciliation we know, deep in our bones, that we need to do.

To confess the condition of our condition requires a constitution made possible only by the community called church in which we are reminded who we are over and over again.

We are, of course, beloved children of God, crafted in the image of the divine, fearfully and wonderfully made. And, at the same time, we, all of us, are sinners desperately in need of grace.

That is why we begin the church year with Advent, a season that begins in darkness. We, unlike the crowded ways of life, know the truth of ourselves, that there is nothing good in us, that we all fade away like leaves.

Therefore, the authentically hopeful Advent spirit is not looking away from the darkness, it is not filling our lives with fluff in order to deny the truth. 

It is, instead, praying for Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the conviction to look straight into the muck and mire of this life.

For, in the end, that’s exactly where God chose, and still chooses, to show up for us.

Jesus Christ, for whom our hearts long for and are prepared for, is the One who identifies not with the people who’ve got it all figured out, and have the perfect decorations on the house, and have all the presents already wrapped under the tree. 

Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Who, if we’re honest, also includes all the people who seem like they have it all together on the surface. But under our masks, we are all the same – sinners in need of grace.

Jesus, thanks be to God, comes to take on our shame and pain by being born into this world, he shows up in the midst of our darkness, and gives himself up to die the brutal and dehumanizing death of a slave. 

There’s a reason Jesus spent his earthly ministry among the marginalized, because they were those who had been crying out for rectification. 

There’s a reason we nailed Jesus to the tree after all his healing and teaching – no one wants to be told they’re a sinner. 

So we killed God, or at least we thought we did. Despite our best efforts, the grave could not contain the Lord, and he rose on the third day in order to save us from ourselves. He taught the disciples about the way, the truth, and the life, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father.

But that is not the end of the story. In fact, it is the beginning of the end. For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people. The church lives in Advent and we are stuck in it. We are a people between, and out of, time. We worship the once and future King Jesus Christ. We live in the light of his resurrection while anticipating his return to transfigure the cosmos into a new heaven and a new earth. 

We, to put it bluntly, are a people who know what it means to wait.

We are ripe with bad news in the world right now. Between the never-ending political in-fighting and civil unrest and an extremely communicable virus, there’s plenty of horrible things happening. And it always seems to coincide with this season we call Advent. But we also have the benefit of knowing the story behind the story. When we pick up the paper, or flip through the news, or doom-scroll on Twitter, we can rightly observe, “No wonder God had to send his Son into the world.”

Because Jesus is the only hope we’ve got.

Our hope won’t come from the world. It will never come from the next political candidate, or the next policy initiative, or the next fiscal plan, or the next diet, or the next pharmaceutical breakthrough. If our hope could come from the world it would’ve happened a long long time ago. We don’t have the power on our own to fix what is in us, despite what every commercial tries to sell us. 

No peloton, no diet, no queer eye makeover can transform us into our dream-selves.

No job, no paycheck, no material possession can fill the hole we feel in the depths of our souls.

No gift under the tree, no light on the house, no curated Christmas carol playlist can cover up the truth about who we really are.

The comfort we so need and seek must come from somewhere else – in a burst of power breaking upon us from beyond us altogether.

The joy of Advent then comes from a different place. It comes from the Lord who chose to do the inexplicable for a people undeserving. It comes from the Son who chose to live by forgiveness rather than vengeance. It comes from the Spirit who chooses to move in and through us even though we’re nothing but a bunch of filthy rags.

God will come again, God’s justice will prevail over all that is wrong in this life, God will fully destroy evil and pain forever and ever. 

Advent, this blessed and confounding season in the church, is all about looking straight into the darkness, its about seeking solidarity with those whose lives are nothing but darkness, all while living in the unshakable hope of those who expect the dawn to break in from on high.

To follow Jesus it to recognize that we are a people stuck in Advent, and the only way out is through the Lord who delights in making a way where there is no way. Amen.

King Jesus

Matthew 25.31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

The Lord Jesus Christ is Lord and King over all creation!

Easter and Christmas Eve are remarkable moments in the liturgical year, but there’s nothing quite like Christ the King Sunday. 

Today, for Christians, is our New Year’s Eve, it’s time for champagne and fancy clothes and bad renditions of Auld Lang Syne.

It is our once-a-year opportunity to look both backward and forward. We look behind us to the story of Jesus as we followed his moves from a manger to meeting the disciples to ministering with the last, least, lost, little, and dead to table-turning to Holy Week to Easter to Pentecost and to the Ascension. And then, as the first Sunday of Advent comes a-knockin’, we look forward on this day to the second coming of the Lord, to the re-arrival of the once and future King.

In church lingo, we often refer to Jesus as the Lord, but we don’t live in a world of lords so to call Christ as such can feel a little empty handed. And yet, to confess Christ as Lord is to express faith in One who was, is, and will be the ruler of the cosmos.

But, when we talk of Jesus, we love to speak of him as a teacher, or a healer, or a rabbi, or a sage, or a spiritual guru, or the perfect moral exemplar. And all of that stuff is good and fine, but if that’s all he was, is, and will be, then he is only one of many and he isn’t really worth our time.

What makes Jesus Jesus is the fact that he is God in the flesh, dead on the cross, raised from the dead, master of all things.

He, to put it rather pointedly, is our King.

Our King, according to the strange new world of the Bible, was born as Jesus from Nazareth in the reaches of Galilee. He was poor and had no standing in the world whatsoever, but he went out talking about the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, befriending the friendless, and it attracted a whole lot of attention. And for good reason – he spoke to a people who, for centuries, lived through exile, defeat, abandonment, and foreign occupation all while waiting for the promised Messiah.

And so it came to pass that, after a flirting with popularity and controversy, the religious and secular authorities (church and state) finally got their acts together and put his little ministry to an end.

He was betrayed, beaten, abandoned to die alone on a cross, and buried in a tomb.

Later, his discredited would-be followers started moving from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean, and they delivered the news (we call it the Gospel) that this crucified man was the Lord and King of the universe; that even after his horrific and degrading death, even after being left dead behind the rock, he was resurrected and now rules at the right hand of God.

He’s the King.

And we pause on this proclamation for a moment because this runs counter to just about everything we think we know about power and glory and vindication.

It’s even more confounding that this One, this King, can speak to his followers as he does to us in our texttoday. These words comes to us from his final moment of teaching before his arrest, execution, and resurrection.

Listen – When the Son of man comes in his glory, he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gather all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Think about how strange this is! Jesus was born to nothing, he didn’t graduate at the top of his class, he didn’t have a full ride to Jerusalem University, he held no bank account, he had no job or mortgage or stock portfolio. And this man, who was about to be judged guilty under the guise of law and order, tells his followers that he is going to come again at the end of all things to determine the fate of every single human being who has ever lived.

Jesus is about to go on trial and he chooses this final teachable moment to tell those within earshot about the Great Trial, the one in which he will be the Judge.

Jesus will judge humanity, and its not just all of humanity that will be there – you and I are going to be there too.

Now, I know that sounds a little strange, but with talk of divine courtrooms and eternal Kings, it can can all feel a little above us. But this Jesus comes to us, to live among us, and, ultimately, to judge us.

Which leads us to the parable at hand, the parameters of separating the sheep from the goats.

These words are fairly well known among well-meaning Christian types – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… just as you did to the least of these you did to me.”

Generally, when we refer to this final teaching from the Lord, we (that is: the church) use it as a way to encourage more do-goodery from congregations. We hang it over the heads of those who follow Jesus in order to convince folk like you to serve at soup kitchens, donate gently used articles of clothing, and, at the very least, drop a few extra bills into the offering plate.

And yet, in looking over the parable, the response from those who are told they are about to inherit the kingdom is remarkable – they are amazed! They are amazed because they didn’t even know they had ministered to the hidden Christ among the least of these. That they are vindicated in their goodness is strange considering the fact they were not even aware they had done anything good at all!

On the other side, appropriately, the response of those on the King’s left are similarly surprised. They have no idea they had neglected to do the goodness so described by the Lord. 

Surprises are in store for everyone, apparently. 

If we are ever in the mood for self-congratulation, Jesus seems to say, the we are precisely those who have not done what we were called to do. The moment we think we’ve saved ourselves is the beginning of our end.

And if we think we can rely on explaining our lack of goodness away for lack of Jesus’ obviously identifiable presence, it becomes the end of our beginning.

There is therefore good reason to fear this parable – for it to leave us scratching our heads rather than comforted in the knowledge of our vindication. 

Because, who among us can present a laundry list of more good deeds than bad deeds? If we take Jesus seriously, we need only think of adultery to have committed it, we need only think jealous thoughts to have stolen from our neighbors. 

The end and beginning of discipleship is the recognition that, as Paul puts it, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understand; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

This, to put it bluntly, is a rather terrifying prospect. But that’s exactly what makes the parable so good. 

For all of its terror, it is also the last laugh in Jesus’ ministry of salvation – it is the bestowal of the Kingdom of God on a bunch of dumb sheep who not only didn’t know they were doing good things for Jesus, but they also never knew they were faithful to him.

The language of separation remains, of course, but Jesus tells us the King will separate them one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and, lest we forget, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. 

And the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but he also lays down his life for the goats as well because on the cross he draws all to himself, which is why all nations will be gathered in the end.

Remember – Jesus came to raise the dead, not to teach the teachable or fix the fixable.

What the Gospel stresses, what Jesus proclaims, what we are called to keep at the forefront of our minds, is the fact that Jesus is both Lord of the universe AND he identifies with the lowest and the least among humanity. And it is precisely the combination of both things that makes his final teaching ring clear. Otherwise it just descends into a Santa Clausian nightmare in which “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice, Jesus Christ is coming to town!”

That’s not what Jesus is saying here! The division of the sheep and goats is not based on who is good and who is bad. If that were the case, then we’d all wind up among the goats.

It’s based, instead, on who the Shepherd is and what he’s been up to this whole time.

For, from the foundation of the cosmos, the triune God has been engaged and involved in the good work of drawing all into the salvific work of the cross and resurrection. The great story of God with God’s people has been one of rectification, not damnation. 

The only thing we have to do, particularly since we don’t even know that we’re doing good things when we’re doing good things, is to take Jesus at his word and trust him.

Because, in the end, our King Jesus cares so much for the last, least, lost, little, and dead that he is willing to die for people like you and me who deserve not one parcel of his grace, replacing our unrighteousness with his righteousness, becoming the judged Judge standing in our place.

Our King, counter to every other king in the history of all things, looks upon our miserable estate, takes all of our sins, and nails them to the cross upon which we hung him.

And he leaves those sins there forever.

No one can earn or deserve salvation. No one can even know that he or she is saved. We can only believe it. We can only trust it.

You know, for all of the talk in the church of doing this, that, and the other, for all our talk of who is in and who is out, for all our talk about what is good and what is bad, this final teaching from Jesus offers a different understanding of the way things were, are, and shall be forevermore – we, even the brightest and most faithful among us, we don’t know what we don’t know, we are incapable of doing what we’ve convinced ourselves we have to do, we are, to put it simply, sinners in need of grace.

And even if we can’t rest in the trust that Jesus is good to his Word (for he is the Word), it’s all still Good News because Jesus is in the raising-of-the-dead business and he is very very good at his job. Jesus is the Love that refuses to let us go, he is the fatted-calf slaughtered on our behalf, he is the Divine Father rushing out to meet us in the street before we can even open our mouths to apologize. 

And he also happens to be our King. Amen. 

How Odd Of God

Matthew 25.14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the one talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

A businessman decides it’s high time for a vacation so goes down to the bank, takes out all his assets and calls three of his employees to a meeting.

Look,” he says, “I’m getting out of town for a bit. Hawaii should be nice this time of year. And while I’m gone, I’m entrusting all that I have to the three of you.” 

He drops a overstuffed duffel bag in the lap of employee number one and says, “There should be roughly five million dollars in there.” He tosses a briefcase to employee number two while saying, “two million.” And to employee number three, he slides a manilla envelope across the table and says, “one million.”

Before walking out the door with his Hawaiian shirt tucked under his arm and thoughts of strawberry daiquiris dancing in his head he says, “Now remember, that’s all that I have. See you when I get back.

Immediately employees one and two start wheeling and dealing. They’re sending email after email, scanning through the Wall Street Journal, and can barely keep track of who they’re on the phone with. 

Employee number three, however, does the prudent thing, the smart thing. He gets into his car, checks his rearview mirror constantly, and heads for the woods. He pulls off on the side of the road, noting a particularly funky looking tree that will help him find the spot in the future, trudges off into the woods, digs a big hole, and buries the envelope. 

Eventually the businessman returns home with a nice tan and a few extra pounds around his waistline. He calls the employees to a meeting. 

Employee number one arrives with a few extra duffle bags, employee number two has upgraded from a briefcase to a duffel bag, and employee number three shows up covered in mud, with a shovel over his shoulder, and the same (albeit dirty) manilla envelope.

The boss kicks his flip flopped covered feet up onto the conference table and opens his hands as if to say, “So how’d it go?

Employee number one steps forward and says, “Boss, I took the five million you gave me, I invested some of it in highly volatile markets, purchased some real estate, started a few local business, and today I am proud to say that I was able to double what you gave me into ten million dollars.”

“Hot tamales!” the boss exclaims. “Well done! Well done! You’ve been very faithful, so I’m giving you a promotion and the fancy office at the end of the hallway! And tonight, we’re going out to celebrate!

Employee number two steps forward. “Boss, I took the two million you gave me and I called up my bookie and made some bets. At first, things didn’t look so good, I had a great feeling about this one horse race and nearly lost it all. But then I wisened up, made some smaller bets on some different races and sure enough I was able to double what you gave me, so here’s four million dollars.”

“Yahtzee!” the boss bellows. “Awesome sauce! You’ve been faithful like you’re co-worker, so I’m giving you a promotion as well. You’re now the head of your department, and you can take my old office. Oh, and you can join us tonight for some celebratory drinks. And, if we’re having a particularly good time, maybe you can call up your bookie and we can make some bets together.”

And then employee number three steps up. “Hey boss,” he says sheepishly, “Here you go. I kept your one million safe – so safe that I buried it in a field and it never saw the light of day. To be clear – I did this because I know you. I’ve been working here for twenty years and I know that you can be one tough cookie. I know that you take over departments that are underperforming and you box out other local businesses. So I thought it would be wise to play it safe. Because if you’re the kind of boss that I know you to be, then I knew you would go one quite a tare if I lost what belongs to you. And so, dear boss, I am returning what you gave to me just as you gave it to me.

And he drops the dirty envelope on the table.

No,” the boss begins, “No, no, no, no, no. You just ruined the buzz of my vacation! If you knew I was supposedly so though, that I take what doesn’t belong to me, that I expect a lot from those who have received a lot, why didn’t you at least put the money in a Savings Account? A measly 4% interest is still better than 0%! Now you’ve got me all fired up. But do you know what really grinds my gears? I invited you into a relationship with me, a relationship you didn’t deserve one bit. A million dollars is a lot of money! But I trusted you with it. It was one remarkable gift. But what did you do with my gift? You decided to be more afraid of me than the risks. You played it safe because of some imaginary fear. And now, instead of being entrusted with more responsibilities around here, you’re stuck with what you started with.”

The boss stands up and starts pacing around the room.

It’s silent for the briefest of moments as the employees’ eyes follow their boss back and forth.

Then he says, “Because I am crazy with grace, with trust, I’m taking the one million away from you and giving it to the guy you made ten million. I’m doing this to remind you, and everyone else who works here, that it was never about the results. Don’t you see? It was all about the gift. All that matters was that you use it, not that you use it well or poorly. You could’ve made another million with what I gave you, or even two cents. Hell, you could’ve blown all of it on one stupid bet for all I care; at least that way you would’ve been a gambler after my own heart. But you just came in here, telling me that I couldn’t be trusted with whatever you came up with, and now you have to deal with the consequences. If you can’t live with my generosity then you can get out of here. Pack up your office, because you’re fired.

This is a story for the end of the Christian year. 

We rebel against the trends of the world and the supposed signs of the times, because God has remade time in his Son, Jesus Christ. We’re not quite to Advent, but the scripture readings from All Saints until Christ the King start to really hit home a message that, if we’re honest, we’re not quite sure how to feel about. There is a sense of urgency with the 5 bridesmaids stuck outside the wedding feast (last week) to the one talented man kicked out into the outer darkness (today). 

It takes a certain amount of Christian fortitude to face the revealed Word in the Strange New World of the Bible, because we’re all ready to sing about the most wonderful time of the year, but what’s so wonderful about the parable of the talents?

We don’t like this parable. That we don’t like it is indicative of the fact that we, mostly, identify with the third servant (or employee in my version). 

He’s the little guy. He’s practical and prudent. He’s smart to take care of the enormity of what was handed to him.

And for all of that, he gets thrown into the outer darkness.

This, then, is not a beloved parable.

In other places, Jesus told much nicer stories.

You know, like the one about the father who rushes out into the street to welcome home his wayward son, of the one where a poor little widow is praise more than all the rich people in worship, or even the one where, in order to pay some taxes, Jesus tells the disciples that they can find a coin in a fish’s mouth.

We like those stories because the last, least, and lost become first, best, and found.

But we certainly don’t like this one with the man trembling in fear with his one talent in his hand only to have the master take it from him and kick him out the door.

So, what do we think of this master?

After all, that’s the question that lingers upon completing the story. Sure, we might wonder about what happens to the servant stuck in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth, but it certainly isn’t going to be Good News. But what about the master? Who is he to make such crazy decisions?

Is the master a hard-hearted miserable old miser who truly reaps where he doesn’t sow?

Or, is he an extravagant, albeit reckless, boss whose faith in his servants is exceeded only by his ridiculous generosity?

He gave them all he had.

Is it really so strange that he expected them to be just as reckless with his money as he was?

Notably, the master of the servants/slaves/employees praises the first two precisely for their faith and the doubling of their talents seems to have more to do with the talents themselves than with the efforts of the two who put them to use.

I embellished in my own retelling of the story, but in the strange new world of the Bible all we learn is that they “went off and traded.”

Without having received all that money in the first place, they wouldn’t have been able to do much of anything.

And then the master has the gall to say it would’ve been better for the talent in the ground to have been put in a savings account to make a fraction of a percent.

Which, taking the parable seriously, implies that the master, our Lord, isn’t some bookkeeper looking for the most productive results, but rather he rejoices in the giving of the gifts. 

As has been said many times, the parables are less about us and more about the one telling the parables in the first place.

And this parable tells us that, in Jesus Christ, grace will always do its job so long as we trust it.

But the one with the talent in the ground doesn’t trust himself, and he certainly doesn’t trust the master.

He, to put it pointedly, has no faith at all.

On the other side, the master is foolishly full with faith – giving all his money away for nothing just for the sheer joy of giving it away. 

And, in the end, that’s what all the parables are all about – the reckless and wondrous gift of God in Christ Jesus. 

It’s the party that’s always waiting to pop off, the one to which we’ve been invited for no good reason.

It’s the fatted calf out on the grill waiting to be consumed by the prodigal who did nothing but come home in faith.

It’s the champagne and the caviar for wedding guests who did nothing but put on the robes handed to them by their host.

It’s the full pay for next to no work at all to tomato pickers who just said yes to a ridiculous promise.

It’s the lost sheep found at the edge of a cliff who was found in its lastness, leastness, lostness, and nearly deadness. 

But this is a parable of judgment. However, the only reason that judgment comes at all is the sad fact that there will always be fools who refuse to trust a good thing even when it is handed to them on a silver platter.

The final servant, covered in dirt from digging up the buried talent is afraid of his master. But we need’t fear God – In Christ Jesus we discover that there are no lengths to which God won’t go to prove to us that there are no restrictions on the joy he wants to share with us.

There’s no reason to fear God, unless we’re afraid of having a good time.

Jesus had some strange ideas about how to run things. He delighted in stories of employers who gave unfair wages, farmers who scattered seeds indiscriminately and all over the place, and parents who forgave their undeserving children.

And in this parable, the master delights in giving it all away just to see what the servants come up with through a ridiculous gift.

In the end, the master is the God we worship.

This is who God is. 

How odd. Amen.

Like A Thief In The Night

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Judges 4.1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30). Lindsey serves as the Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including talented theology, judging Judges, transformed leadership, reoriented posture, Advent all the time, problematic language, ecclesial encouragement, paradoxical parables, and justice in the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Like A Thief In The Night

Time After Time

Matthew 5.1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kings of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The day after the 2016 presidential election:

Thousands of angry citizens in California gather to protest against the election of Donald Trump. Though initially peaceful, the protest eventually turns violent as the crowds begin attacking the police and lighting dumpsters on fire. As tear gas is fired into the crowd, a chant starts to rise, “Kill Trump, Kill Trump, Kill Trump!”

Meanwhile, a woman walks into a Wal-mart in the Midwest while wearing her religious hijab. She goes up and down the aisles picking out her items when another woman walks up, grabs her by the shoulder while pointing at her hijab and says, “That would look a lot better around your neck! This is our country now!”

Meanwhile, a man is driving through a suburb of Chicago when a crowd of young men surrounds his car, pulls him from the vehicle, and drags him through the streets. They attack him because he has a Trump sticker on his bumper, and in the videos taken by on-lookers you can hear the young men shouting, “You voted for Trump, and now you’re going to pay for it!”

Meanwhile, white students at a Junior High School in Michigan form a human wall to block minority students from entering the building. There are shouts of “go back to your country” and “we’re going to make America great again.”

Presidential elections tend to bring out the worst in us. 

Or, to use Paul’s language, it’s times like these that we are reminded “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”

Time after time, it seems this is our fate. We, that is Christians, are content to gather, whether online or in-person, with people of differing political persuasions so long as we never address those differences and then, after an election, we hope things will tone down and we can get back to living life.

And yet, as Christians, we are already living in the time after time. God in Christ made, and still makes, time for us and has quite literally changed time forever.

It’s just that sometimes we don’t act like its true.

Today Christians across the globe are gathering for All Saints. All Saints is a day set apart, a different time, in remembrance of the dead – it is an opportunity for the church to offer witness to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives. 

It is a radical moment in terms of the liturgical calendar, rivaled only by the radical words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel.

The so-called beatitudes have always been a source of comfort and hope for the people called church. Though, at times, we have inverted them to be descriptions of how we’re supposed to behave. We lift them up over the heads of dozing Christians and explain that if they want to join the community of saints, this is how you have to live.

But what Jesus describes in his Sermon on the Mount, both in the beatitudes and in the descriptions of behavior following, like turning the other cheek and praying for one’s enemies, they don’t describe what “works.”

Seeking righteousness in a world full of self-righteousness, and praying for the person persecuting you, tends to lead to more self-righteousness and more harm.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount isn’t a to-do list to make the world a better place. Instead, it is a description of who God is. 

The poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, they are blessed not because they’ve earned it or deserve it, but simply because it is God’s good pleasure to do so. 

To put it simply, the idea behind this crazy thing called church is that we might worship the Lord as well as learn what it means to exist as a beatific community in exile where the mourning, the meek, and the merciful are blessed.  

The people called church are in the world, but not of the world.

The people called church are constituted and bound not by political documents, but by the Lord of heaven and earth.

The people called church are a community that has learned that to live in a manner described by the Sermon on the Mount requires learning to trust others to help us live accordingly.

To put it even simpler terms: the object of Jesus’ words to the crowds that day, and to us today, is to create dependence – it is to force us to need one another.

But, most of us don’t want to need anyone else. We’ve been spoon fed a narrative of self-determination since birth and we can’t stand the idea of having to rely on others.

And this is why the beatitudes will never make sense to those outside the people called church. Jesus’ words are only intelligible, and therefore advisable, in light of the cross and the empty tomb.

Otherwise, they are garbage.

But in the church, we are reminded over and over again that we are dependent on one another and the Lord, and that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can make it through this thing called life on our own.

The church is at her best when we can speak and hear the truth about the condition of our condition, that we are sinners in need of grace, that we are all in need of help and mercy, and that we all need one another far more than we think we do.

But that is not how we are used to hearing about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If we hear about it at all, it is usually a brief reflection about how there are merely suggestions for how we should live or they are only meant for the super faithful among us, the Mother Teresas and the Mister Rogerses.

In short, we’re told the Beatitudes describe the saints.

The challenge for us, unlike most sermons proclaimed and received today, is that we cannot divorce this message from the messenger. Because, unlike preachers today (myself included), Jesus did not just say these words about some group of people sometime in the future; he, in himself, is the inauguration of the new time.

Jesus is the Messiah of the beginning and the end. Through his death and resurrection he has made it possible for us to live according to these confounding words not by our own effort, but by the Spirit moving through us.

And, saints (that is: all disciples) are not those who are the super best Christians of all. Saints are simply those who have already died in baptism to be raised into a new life where the impossibility of Jesus’ words not only become possible, but become real. 

Which is just another way of saying, we’re all in this crazy thing called church together.

Presidential elections may bring out the worst in us, but they also remind us of who we are: sinners in need of grace. Contrary to how the talking heads might want us to think, the world does not hinge on our elections. God has been God a whole lot longer than we’ve been picking and choosing leaders, and God will be God long after we cast our final votes.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus is Lord – that means we believe that God is God regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. And, pertinently, it means we believe God is calling us to live according the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which includes praying for our enemies.

Can you imagine? Christians praying for the people they disagree with?

Sadly, that’s at the heart of what it means to follow the Lord and it has been so absent during this election cycle, and the one before it, and the one before that one, and so on. Instead of praying for and loving our enemies, voters have been intimidated, people have been attacked, and families and churches have been divided.

And, perhaps we’d like to blame our politicians for this tumultuous season. But the problem goes far deeper than those running, and selected, for office. 

The problem is us.

Rather than seeing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve viewed each other through the names on our bumper stickers.

Rather than listening to and praying for those of different opinions, we’ve just shouted louder into the fray.

Rather than confessing Jesus as Lord and living accordingly, we’ve fallen prey to believing that what happens on Tuesday is more important than what happens on Sunday.

Our election of leaders will always pale in comparison to God’s election of us, precisely because we do not deserve it. We’ve been elected to salvation through Christ in spite of copious amounts of evidence to the contrary.

And Jesus calls us to a life of humility in which we pray for those whom we hate.

Jesus constitutes a people who are his body on earth to be for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Jesus, high in the air with the nails in his hands and feet, says, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

And, if we’re honest, we have no idea what we’re doing. 

We don’t know how to be Christian in America, we don’t know how to hold our Christian identities and political identities in tandem, and we do not know how to love the people we hate.

But we do know this: Jesus is Lord – and he won’t give up on us.

So today, in spite of the world spinning as it does with fightings and fears within and without, we give thanks to the Lord our God who makes a way where there is no way, who has created a new community of love in his only begotten Son, and who elected us to salvation. Amen. 

The Problem Of Not Having A Problem

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head it this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. 

The Pharisees weren’t on board with Jesus. His fame had already spread through Galilee, rumor of a Transfiguration was weaving its way through the hoi polloi, and he entered Jerusalem, rather dramatically, on the back of a donkey.

Which is to say nothing of his table turning, religion rebuking, or demon demolishing.

And the Pharisees find themselves in a situation where they could no longer stand for the man who was upending all the powers and principalities which benefitted them the most. So they come up with some schemes to trap Jesus in his words and, hopefully, turn his would-be crowds of disciples against them. 

They begin with flattery, of all things: “Hey Jesus! We know that you’re kind and charming and sincere and faithful and loving and caring and, and, and…” It’s as true as a description as anyone could ever hope for. And, weirdly enough, the Pharisees speak a truth about the Lord without know exactly what they’re saying.

They build him up and butter him up in order to bring him down.

“And because, Teacher, you are all these wonderful things, we have a question: It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

This is a remarkably clever question for the Pharisees to ask because there’s no good answer – Jesus is put into an impossible situation. 

If Jesus says that taxes shouldn’t be paid, it would make him a rebel against the empire and the target already on his back would only grow larger. 

If Jesus says that taxes should be paid, he will appear to be a collaborator with Rome and would quickly lose his credibility as a prophet.

But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. At least, not directly. Instead Jesus does what he has done so many times before – he answers the question with a question of his own.

“Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites? Give me one of the coins for the tax…” 

Someone reaches into a pocket and presents the denarius which results in one of the best known sentences from the Gospels: Jesus says to them, “Whose head is this on the coin?” And they say, “The emperor’s.” So Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they hear this, they are amazed and they leave.

Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, we Christians have not been amazed by Jesus’ answer and we have misappropriated it in all sorts of ways. For, more often than not, we have tricked ourselves into believing we know exactly what Jesus meant with his rather inexplicable response.

For example: Many of us today, that is Christians, assume that we can, and have, two loyalties: to God and to Country. We are told, of course, to never let our loyalty to the state infringe upon our loyalty to God, but its never clear when or if such a conflict will ever happen. So we keep on doing the things we do and saying the things we say such that, today, many of us Christians are usually Pharisees but don’t recognize ourselves as such.

Which is just another way of saying that a whole lot of us American Christians are more American than we are Christian.

But, back to the passage at hand…

Notice: Jesus, himself, doesn’t carry the coin used for the tax and he has to ask someone else to provide it for his little teachable moment. 

He does so, in all likelihood, precisely because the coin carried the image of Caesar, and to carry it and use it was in violation of the 2nd of the 10 commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down and worship them” (Exodus 20.4-5). 

Jesus’ response, then, seems to be done to call into question the carriers of the coins for having them in the first place. And, to make matters even more contentious, the Pharisees in question were known for their stark and zealous observance of the Law!

But we, more often than not, treat this little moment as a way to ease our consciences when it comes to the relationship between church and state. Countless pastors have stood in places like this and used Jesus’ words to say some version of, “You have to pay your taxes to the government and you have to tithe to the church because Jesus says so.”

And yet, Jesus’ use of symbolic irony does not convey a recommendation to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that we should all learn to live with divided loyalties. Instead, he is saying to the religious elites that the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong

Just as Jesus knows and sees no distinction between politics and religion, between church and state, neither does he know any distinction between government, economics, and the worship of God.

The people who seek to trap Jesus with this question about whether or not to pay taxes are revealed by Jesus to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says earlier in the gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

And here Jesus reminds the Pharisees and the crowds that you cannot serve God and the emperor.

Sure, we think, that’s fine for Jesus to say to the people way back then, but we don’t have an emperor today so this doesn’t really apply to us anymore. We, after all, have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

And yet, it doesn’t take long to look through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or evening news to be bombarded with the truth: The people, whoever they may be, often turn out to be hungrier for power and loyalty than emperors. Emperors can just get rid of the people who disagree with the them. People in democracies have to convince others to be on their side, by any means necessary.

Okay, sure, we think, even if the people who rule the land are indeed sinners and lust for power, this still doesn’t really apply to us because we have a separation of church and state. In fact, Jesus is the one who came up with it in the first place right here in this passage!

And yet, there really isn’t a separation here, that is to say, in the United States. Take a look at a dollar bill (In God We Trust), or go through the Pledge of Allegiance (One Nation, Under God), or consider that, since 1973, the majority of Presidential Speeches have ended with a religious phrase (God Bless America).

Here in this country the so-called separation of church and state often leads to a legitimization of what the state is doing while simultaneously sequestering the church in the mythical realm of the private.

It’s why so many pastors have stood up in pulpits telling their congregations how to vote (even though we’re not really allowed to) and have encouraged a political way of being that has far more to do with a Donkey or an Elephant than it does with the Lamb of God.

I don’t know if any of you have noticed this but, to me, it feels like a whole lot of us are currently living on the edge. Between the pandemic and economic insecurity and cultural unrest and a seemingly never-ending presidential election season, there’s just a whole lot of tension. And then, to ramp up the anxiety, we stick the signs in our yards or on our bumper stickers, we scroll through different social media platforms to like the political posts we agree with and to respond, rather negatively, to those that run counter to our political way of thinking.

We’ve drawn our lines in the sand about where we stand.

And yet, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we seem to care a whole lot more about the Kingdom of America than the Kingdom of God.

And that’s not to say we can’t care about what’s happening in country, or that we shouldn’t get involved in decisions and campaigns and votes. 

Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor.

Its just that we do all of that so easily without considering that our truest citizenship doesn’t come from an old document signed by some men in 1776, but from God Almighty; that we live not under the banner of Red, White, and Blue, but under the cross upon which Jesus died for me and you. 

And this isn’t unique to the US of A – for two thousand years, we Christians have tried our best to make sense of having a king who rules from that aforementioned cross. And so we have twisted his words and actions to make Jesus an acceptable king for the likes of us and others. We’ve even claimed that he is “on our side” all while accruing power in whatever ways we can.

Yet, whenever we try to make Jesus fit into our image of what the world should look like, or, more specifically, what this country should look like, we lose sight of his call to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Because, behind Jesus’ brief and immensely important sentence is the fact that, as Christians, we believe everything already belongs to God! 

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees creates a problem for them, and for all of us. We might not want our lives to be further problematized at a time like this, but Jesus loves creating problems – and to recognize that we have a problem is to begin to follow the Lord. 

We might believe that we’ve got this all sorted out in our lives and in our culture but, as Christians, we know we have a problem when we do not have a problem. 

One of the deepest problems with idolatry, and any sin for that matter, is our presumption that we will know it when we see it. We believe that we have the faculties and the power to know, on our own, what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is faithful and unfaithful.

But most of the time what we really need is a Savior who can stand in front of us, dangle the truth right in front of our eyes, and leave us amazed. Amen. 

The Great And Terrible Mystery

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Brian Johnson about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 33.12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, Matthew 22.15-22). Brian serves at Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including TNG, immutability, puppy dogs Jesus, James Cone, defined justice, discipleship as imitation, taxes, the drug of political affiliation, and space communism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Great And Terrible Mystery

Gentle As A Lamb

Philippians 4.1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 

Stand firm,” Paul writes to the church in Philippi. “Don’t give in to the pressures that surround you. Don’t be like other people with their judgments and their hostilities. Remember: You’re Christians. So act like it. Try being gentle. Don’t sweat the small stuff. God is close by. God listens to your prayers. And, in the end, if you find anything, true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and excellent, think about those things. Do what you learned and received from me and the God of peace will be with you.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything.

Thanks for the advice Paul.

But, have you seen the world recently?

It feels like the ground is crumbling under our feet, from police brutality, to a never-ending Presidential Election season, to the fact the the Coronavirus has infected some of the most powerful people in the country who work in the White House.

So, Paul, we appreciate your not-so-subtle nudges here at the end of your letter. But gentleness, and a spirit of non-anxiety, just doesn’t quite cut it right now.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves from loving these suggestive lines from the apostle. Perhaps some of us even have them on perfectly crafted Etsy prints adorning our living room walls.

They all sound like pretty good ideas. After all, who wouldn’t want Christians to be more gentle and less anxious?

Particularly in the moment we find ourselves in! 

Just take a gander at the evening news sometime and note how those who call themselves Christians often comport themselves. Generally, they’re either the ones pointing out the signs of the times as God’s wrathful judgments falling down upon all of us, or they’re spending their time calling into question the behavior, words, and actions of other Christians for not being faithful enough.

So, if you’re like me, living in moderate comfort, usually surrounded by like-minded people, gentleness sounds not only like a nice idea, but a needed one.

Maybe, then, Paul was on to something. That, considering the condition of our current conditions, the best thing Christians can and should do is be gentle toward others.

Thanks Pauly! We’ll get to work on it right away.

Furthermore, we hear Paul’s recommendations of gentleness as a confirmation that whatever it means to be Christian is pretty much the same thing as being a good person.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all more gentle, regardless of whether or not we confess Jesus as our Lord?

And this line of thought makes sense considering that among the many Christianities that exist, the majority of them don’t like to highlight any differences between those who are, and those who are not, Christian.

Its why, on more occasions that I can count, when I’ve asked parents about why they’re choosing to have their respective children baptized they almost always respond with, “We want to raise them in the church so they know what it means to be a good person.”

Which is fine. Except, there’s a teeny tiny little problem with assuming that, in the end, Christianity is just about being nice.

And the problem is this: Paul wrote this letter from behind bars!

If we want to assume that what Paul writes about gentleness is generally recognized as a good thing, something that would make all of us and the world a better place, then how the hell did Paul get himself arrested?

The same question can be asked of Martin Luther King Jr. For, if what Dr. King really wanted was a world where we all just got a long, where we shared a little more love and cared more about the content of character than the color of skin, then why did somebody murder him?

The same question can also be asked of Jesus: For, if Jesus just wanted us to merely love our neighbors as ourselves, and spread a little more kindness in the world, then why did we nail him to the cross?

That Paul writes these words, these admonitions, from jail challenges our manifold presumptions about gentleness being as innocent as we might assume it is.

Many years ago in a small Southern town a meeting was held among the white folk in the community about the fears of integration. The small auditorium was packed to the brim with all of the well-regarded types, the business owners and country club members, and they focused their entire conversation on how to save our schools, how do we keep them out of our schools? One by one angry speakers rose to call for a boycott, or resistance, or even a show of force against the changing times in order to protect ours from theirs.

In the back of the audition stood an old, half-broken Baptist preacher who had baptized, married, or buried just about every one in the town at one time or another. He came late to the meeting that night and listened intently to the unrest among the present community.

After a hour or so of the crowd’s racist tirades, he raised his hand and asked for the microphone. The crowd made way for their beloved pastor as he, with dignity, made his way to the podium. He stood before the microphone and let his eyes slowly sweep across the room before saying, rather boldly, “You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

The crowd sat in nervous silence until a man in the first row shouted, “Well, that’s not very Christian of you, Reverend.”

To which the preacher lowered his head an said, “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, white or black, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Go home and read your damn Bibles!”

Again, there was silence. 

He continued, “Looking over this assembly, looking at your faces, I this night have realized that I am the worst preacher in the world.”

A muffled gasp came forth from the gathering.

“If you think that anything in our faith justifies your presences here, that the sentiments expressed tonight are in any way exemplary of the way of Jesus, then I have failed miserably in my work as a preacher. I have poured out my life for nothing.”

Then, with the auditorium reduced to stunned and uncomfortable silence, the preacher walked to the back of the room and slammed the door as he left. 

The presider over the meeting made a rather awkward attempt to resume, but for all intents and purposes the evening was over. Slowly, people drifted out.

A few months later the school integrated without incident. 

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

Paul, writing across the centuries to us today, continues on after his apparent call to kindness with this: Keep on doing the things that you have learn and received and heard and seen in me.

To be honest, gentleness is not the first characteristic that comes to mind when thinking about Paul. Paul was a frenetic ball of Spirit-filled energy who never backed away from a theological fight that he thought needed to be fought. 

And neither is gentleness the first thing that comes to mind when considering Jesus. 

Of course we have these images of a gentle Jesus in our mind, going after the one lost sheep, and of gathering the children close, and sharing one last meal with his friends. 

But in order to save the one lost sheep Jesus leaves ninety-nine to fend for themselves, before gathering the children close he had overturned all of the tables at the temple, and after eating bread and drinking wine with his friends he was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and left to die.

To be fair – Christians are those called to gentleness, but our gentleness must be true. And truth often requires conflict and confrontation.

Notice: Paul doesn’t recommend that the Philippians should try to be gentle. Rather, he says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Those who follow the Lord do not become gentle, but rather are formed into gentleness by being made citizens of heaven, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. 

That citizenship, the truest any of us will ever have, means that Christians are a people bound and consisted by the Lord and not by the powers and principalities of this life.

Christian gentleness is not letting your crazy uncle get away with his racist rambling without calling into question his behavior and the institutions that formed him in that way.

Christian gentleness is taking the time and making the effort to make sure that all voices are being lifted rather than just those that already hold all the power even if it means calling into question those who hold the power, how they got it, and why they’re unwilling to let it go.

Christian gentleness is showing up the the first and the last, the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, that all might come to know there is a better way not in us, but in Jesus.

Paul calls the readers of his letter to imitate him and the Paul we are called to imitate was baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit. That baptism means that death, and the fear of it, no longer ruled Paul’s life. What mattered to Paul, more than anything else, was knowing Jesus Christ.

And knowing Jesus makes all the difference.

Knowing Jesus is knowing that all the stuff of this world crumbles away when compared with the glory of God.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a willingness to be combative about the things that really matter.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a truth about ourselves and the world that other would rather ignore.

In the end, there is no good in us. In spite of our attempts to be gentle, we mostly rest contented to do nothing or we take it too far and use our faith as a bludgeon against others. But the gentleness Paul writes of does not begin or come from us alone – It’s from Jesus.

As the Christ Hymn at the beginning of the letter goes: God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

That is exactly the gentleness Paul believes has re-formed the Christian community in Philippi and across the world. Gentleness first comes from God.

Consider, Paul ends this section with another laundry list not of things to do, but things to consider. For, it is Jesus who determines our understandings of truth, honor, justice, and purity. 

Jesus’ truth is known in the silence that refuses to accept the empire’s power in the person of Pontius Pilate.

Jesus’ honor is made known in the humiliation of his cross.

Jesus’ justice is found in the refusal to abandon the least of these to their own devices.

Jesus’ purity is discovered in the joy of the resurrection of the dead.

Paul commended these things to the Philippians, so that they (and we today) might live in peace, rejoicing always, and resting in the Good News even in a world that knows no peace, joy, or rest.

We are formed not by being or trying to be better people, but instead we are formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus might’ve been as gentle as a lamb, but he was also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And what could be gentle about that? Amen.

In The Know

Philippians 3.4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 

A young man was singular in his focus – He wanted nothing more than to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He woke up every morning for years to exercise, he maintained a perfect Grade Point Average, and he wrote letters to his political representatives asking for their endorsements for the Air Force Academy.

And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he went for his annual physical as a senior in high school he learned that he was colorblind which meant his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were gone. Forever.

A man worked tirelessly for years starting as a dishwasher and eventually made his way up through the restaurant ladder. He did all of this with the hope and dream of one day opening his own restaurant. He saved every single penny he could, crafted the perfect business plan, and finally, after years of hard work, received the bank loan he would need to make his dream come true. 

And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he finally got the new restaurant ready to open, the grand opening happened to fall on the same day that the Governor required all restaurants to close because of the Coronavirus and within a few week his line of credit was gone and the restaurant was forced to close before it ever opened.

A woman lived for her family. She brought her children to church every week, sat with them night after night helping with homework, and was even happy to be a listening ear to her ever-complaining husband. She did all of the right things and was the envy of all her peers.

And, all was well until it wasn’t. In spite of her living for others, putting their needs in front of her own, her husband still ran off with his secretary leaving her, and their children, behind.

The truth of the matter is, sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off.

Life is not nearly as simple as we would like it to be, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no guarantee that we can make our wishes come true.

Paul continues his letter to the church in Philippi from behind bars with a reference to those who might offer counter-interpretations to the Gospel as he had delivered it. Like we still do today, he rolls out his resume that those reading might know who they should really trust.

Look,” he writes, “If you should be listening to anyone, it should be me! Check this: I have more reason to be confident than any of these false teachers you may of encountered. I was circumcised when I was eight days old, I’m a member of the people Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews – I’ve never given into the temptation to assimilate to the ways of the others around me. I kept the faith of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob. And even more than that, I was Pharasiac in my observance of the Law doing all of the right things and avoiding all of the wrongs. But wait, there’s more! I persecuted the church! I made sure they knew they were wrong while the rest of us were right. I was completely and totally blameless under the Law!

Notably, of Paul laundry list of qualifications, the majority were given to Paul at birth. That is: none of them were achieved by personal effort nor could they be taken away. They are marks of prestige that came simply because Paul was born in the right place to the right people.

He was born, we might say, with a religious silver spoon in his mouth.

But then he comes to the Law – A Pharisee. This, unlike all the previous qualifications, was not something given to him at birth but rather something he chose and worked tirelessly toward. Being a Pharisee meant observing all of the commandments, it required unending commitment, and it was all about maintaining purity by staying away from anything deemed unclean.

And still, Paul has more to add: A persecutor of the church. Not only did Paul separate himself from all the bad in the world, he attempted to eradicate uncleanness whenever he found it, particularly in the early gathering of people called the church.

As a Pharisee, as someone under the weight of the Law, Paul undoubtedly would’ve looked on the idea of a crucified Messiah as an unspeakable offense, something remarkable scandalous. So much so, that it provoked him to launch a campaign of terror in hopes of rooting out the would-be followers of the one who died on the cross. 

And then comes the cherry on top – Blameless under the law. This, for Paul, was more important than anything else. All that he had done, all the rules and dietary restrictions and zealous violence, was done in the name of righteousness, of cleanliness, of religiosity.

“But,” and this is a very big but, Paul says, “whatever gains I had I count as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Paul’s world was completely upended by God in Christ.

Everything he thought he knew about what was right and true and good and beautiful was turned on its head because of the one on the cross.

Perhaps it was an instantaneous and miraculous deliverance wrought on the road to Damascus, or maybe it took Paul years of re-education to learn the truth, but nothing would ever be the same.

In Christ, Paul discovered that righteousness through ritual observance, or moral purity, don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God. 

For, Jesus, as God in the flesh, delighted in eating and drinking and having fun with sinners. 

Jesus, as God in the flesh, regularly and routinely went to be with the people Paul only saw as unclean. 

Jesus, as God in the flesh, mounted the hard wood of the cross to take away the sins of the world, the very sins Paul was using to judge who was in and who was out.

Paul, with his entire religious resume, was bombarded with a delightful truth: every alternation means to perfection, or salvation, or righteousness crumbles because, on our own, we can’t save ourselves. 

Now, on the other side, only one thing matters to Paul – knowing Jesus Christ.

This is a truth that some of us come to discover whether we want to or not. Because all of our righteousness, all of our good works, don’t lead to much of anything in the end. If we could fix ourselves and the world, if we could right all of the wrongs, we would’ve done it a long long time ago. 

However, as it stands, we’re still stuck in the land of the dead.

And yet, that where Jesus does his best work.

The Good News of the Gospel, spoken to us today through the apostle Paul, is that no matter how hard to we try to rework ourselves, no matter how worried we are about getting into heaven because of our choices, and our commitments, and our convictions, we are saved and already home free before we had a chance to get started.

Or, to put it another way, God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ will always and forever be greater than our own.

And knowing Jesus Christ, him crucified and resurrected, is the name of the game. To confess Jesus as Lord is to know God in all of God’s humility, coming to dwell among us, to die because of us, and to rise for us. 

Knowing Jesus Christ is discovering that all other means to salvation, whether explicitly biblical or not, pale in comparison to what God has already done for us. 

Knowing Jesus Christ is resting in the Good News, the best news, that grace is not expensive, its not even cheap, its free. 

Paul, writing to the early church, reminds those who want to follow Jesus that we all fall prey to the temptation to see one another through our efforts and our failures. That, when left to our own devices, we delight in measuring the worth of others through outward signs of religiosity, spiritual disciplines, and moral observances.

For, that’s exactly what Paul’s life was all about until Jesus showed up. He relied on the Law to show him what was right and wrong, and therefore who was worthy and unworthy. 

It’s akin to how, today, we determine everything we think we need to know about someone else by the kind of job they have, or the car they drive, or by the name of a political candidate stretching across a bumper sticker on the aforementioned automobile.

What Paul was unable to see, that is until Christ blinded him and gave him new vision, was that, under the Law, all of us are unworthy, all of us are in need of help, all of us are sinners in the hands of God.

And, AND, that no matter how hard we try on our own, all of our effort will be like sinking sand when compared with the actual condition of our condition. Our righteousness cannot make up for our sinfulness.

Paul, then, writes to the Philippians because he nows lives in a world constituted by grace and not by works. He encourages them to rest in and rely on Christ’s faithfulness because that’s the only thing they really need to do. All the outward signs of sanctimonious piety don’t mean much when the Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world.

Notice: the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or the select few who manage to accuse a CV as detailed and glowing as Paul’s.

The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!

The Cross is God’s great and forever declaration that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus which, because he died for the sins of the world, includes each and every single one of us.

In another letter, to another church, Paul reminds the people of God that the Law exists to accuse us, to demonstrate to us what we’re really like until, while we are still sinners, grace comes and liberates us from the curse of sin without a single condition attached.

Or, to put it another way, there are no “ifs” in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus, while hanging on the cross, did not demand improvement.

Jesus, while hanging out in the tomb, doesn’t wait to break free until we all get out acts together.

Jesus, while hanging out by the right hand of the Father, doesn’t guilt trip us into more moral obligations in order to get a ticket into the Supper of the Lamb.

Instead Jesus lives, dies, and is resurrected in order to rectify and redeem the world, including us, in spite of us.

And the best news of all, Paul reminds us, that even if we continue to rebel, even if we do everything in our power to keep making a mess of things, Jesus Christ has already made us his own!

No mistake, no sin, no disappointment, no failure, and no rebellion can hold a candle to the love of God in Jesus Christ that draws us home and refuses to let us go.

So, maybe you’ve got reason to be confident in the flesh, perhaps you’ve done all the right things at all the right times in all the right places. But all of that is rubbish in the end. The Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Preaching Like God Is Speaking

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3.4b-14, Matthew 21.33-46). Teer serves as one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including robust theology, circuity, abundant coffee, God’s Top 10, sinful clergy, Karl Barth’s Gottingen Dogmatics, sabbath observance, Pauline swagger, parabolic utterances, and enjoying the fruit of the vine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching Like God Is Speaking