A couple of weeks ago, Rob made a comment about me not liking Paul, and I protested and Rob kind of rolled his eyes. It's one of those things I don't want to be true, so I don't like it being pointed out by others.
I want to like Paul, because I fundamentally agree with him. I agree with him about the urgency of the Christian gospel for the salvation of humankind. Not in some theoretical, theological explanation of God, but in the universe-bending reality of Jesus’ resurrection: the annihilation of death's power over life and the subsequent loss of power we have over one another.
We may take each other’s breath, but no one and nothing may separate us from God. A world full of people who know that, Paul said, will be a new creation. It’s Paul’s ways and means that give me so much trouble – and the way so much of the really mean-spirited, localized things he said got printed in the same size font as his fundamental explanation of the gospel. That’s what makes him so difficult to like. His bedside manner, we’d say if he were a surgeon.
Along with all my own issues with ministers, he drives me nuts for the same reason so many do – how he takes himself so seriously, for one. A few years ago a new minister arrived here on the east side of town. The day he moved into his office his church had a roof leak, and rain water poured through his office ceiling, all over the boxes that had been delivered. I thought it would be hilarious to take him over an IU golf umbrella as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift, you know, the very first time I met him. He did not find it hilarious at all. He only stayed a few years. We never really connected. Tom just didn't get me.
Paul wouldn't have gotten me either. He'd have had no interest in getting me. Paul had no interests apart from preaching the gospel. He had no family, no hobbies, no particular place that he called home. (He does – weirdly – have a Facebook page, maintained by a guy named Seth, no doubt a seminary student who takes himself very seriously.)
Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the peacemakers. Not Paul. Paul was loud, overbearing, and argumentative. He was prone to violence before his conversion and not averse to it after. Dialogue and compromise were not his go-to solutions. He was way more likely to ask forgiveness than permission. He was not big on second chances for people who screwed up. He had nothing to lose and heaven to gain, as he said more than once, which made him either crazy brave or stupidly reckless. Or both.
His authoritarian personality was aimed at a single target: the total reconciliation of humanity with God, achieved in the event of Jesus Christ. Which left him no time or patience for anyone who imagined the gospel had to do with less, be they his enemies or his beloved churches.
Let's pray: Help us be like Paul where and when being like him furthers your purposes, O God. May the urgency with which he shared the gospel infect your church today. Amen.
Do keep in mind that Paul is the same person after his conversion that he was before. A high-born, well-educated Jew, a religious leader with power in the Temple system. Before the Risen Christ got hold of him (Acts 9), Paul was profoundly sure that the Christ-followers within Judaism were a threat so urgent and insidious to the faith, he personally sought and delivered their death warrants. Jesus decided, “Hey, I want that guy on my side.” So he struck him blind and terrified and sent him to stay with some Christ-followers until he decided what to do with him.
Significant time passes between chapters 9 and 13. Paul goes to Jerusalem to join up with the original disciples – Peter and his bunch. He's genuinely surprised they aren't excited to include him. If there is one distraction to Paul's ministry, it's this – his relationships with the other apostles.
Eventually they do work together, but the originals never truly accept him as a brother. There's always this tension. Grudges, miscommunications. He brags in a way that is so annoying – and yet sort of sad, embarrassing almost: Paul making his own case for how he's as good as them.
He reminds me of a high school kid we knew when our kids were young. Carl and I worked the band booster tent at high school football games years ago. One night, right by our tent a boy picked a fight with a smaller boy – and lost. Carl broke them up, but the bigger kid's nose was already smashed in, blood everywhere. I took him by the arm and brought him to the tent. He was angry, crying (like high school boys do, you know – angry that they are crying), and yelling at me, “I'm fine. It doesn't even hurt!” Just spitting blood with every word. I know it, I told him, just let me see if your teeth are okay. I cleaned him up a little so he could go to the parking lot and finish the fight.
Paul doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as he did when I was a baby minister, before I saw enough of how the world is – how hurting people imagine no one will notice how much they’re hurting if they sound loud or tough or smart enough. I think a good therapist could have really helped Paul find some peace and stability, maybe even some real friendships.
The book of Romans is dense writing from near the end of Paul's ministry, as close as anything the Bible has to Christian theology. The seeds of that theology are right here – decades earlier – in the 14th chapter of Acts. Mimicking Jesus’ marching orders in Matthew 10, church leaders send disciples out in pairs to various regions to preach, teach, and heal. Barnabas gets paired with Paul. (I'd love to know how that happened.)
Nevertheless, they go, using the same general plan Paul will follow for the rest of his career. Arrive in a city and locate the gathering place where people worship: synagogues in Jewish towns; temples or academies in Greek places. I tried to imagine where Paul would go now, in Western societies. Where do thinking, worshipping, unchurched people gather? Cyberspace, eh? Maybe Paul would be in his room in front of his laptop camera. His own YouTube channel? Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, having just been chased out of Iconium by some offended Jews.
Two details matter here. The huge one to be addressed as we move through Romans – for lack of a better title: Anti-Semitism, the New Testament church history. Second: what happened in Iconium. They had preached in a synagogue there, and a bunch of people believed their message about Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles. But some of the Jews who did not were offended. Offended the message was offered to Gentiles too, as if they were equally entitled to it. A message they themselves did not want, yet were convinced that it ought not be available to their Gentile neighbor. So convinced, they are willing to commit violence to block their neighbor’s access to it.
Paul and Barnabas make a run for it to this town Lystra, where they plan to do the same thing again. It's not clear if they are in a synagogue or not, but among the listeners are followers of the Greek gods. Paul is preaching along when he notices a man who, he can tell, has the faith to be healed. I've no idea what that means but I think it's amazing.
The guy is triple crippled, Luke says: lame, born that way, had never walked. Luke wants us to really believe this is a miracle. Paul tells him to stand. He stands. He jumps. He walks. Triple healed. And the crowd goes wild! Hermes and Zeus have come down in human form to their very own village. They rush to pay proper homage. A priest is fetched. And bulls, for the sacrifice that must be made – right now. Can you imagine the party they are about to throw?
The text goes by fast, so it's easy to miss what doesn't happen, what would so easily happen had any other preachers been there. Remember the sons of Zebedee? (Mark 10) They asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he came into their kingdom. They'd have probably bickered about who got to be Zeus. Think if Paul and Barnabas had said Yes. Think of the leverage such a position would have allowed, the platform and protection for their preaching and their ministry. I can imagine lots of ministers seeing that offer differently than Paul and Barnabas did.
Paul protests immediately, “We are mortals just like you.” And he circles back, preaching his way to the one story he came to tell. He might have made some headway even. It's easy to think so, if we stop reading here. But the text has no break. Those same Jews from Iconium who were chasing them catch up. And they get their say with the crowd. And because folks are fickle, then and now, they win them over.
This time we don't get details, only that the crowd picked up rocks and stoned Paul and Barnabas until they believed they'd killed them. Because they could, same as folks still do everywhere, every day – kill the folks who suggest that everyone deserves to have what by all rights only belongs to some. Maybe not with literal stones.
There are folks in supposedly free countries right now casting votes to take away people's rights. Because they wear suits and speak English and don't throw actual rocks doesn't make it different. Folks are just as dead because of an embedded kind of prejudice that exists at so deep a level within our hearts and our human culture that we have no words nor name for it. So deep and urgent is our need to keep that injustice dormant within and among us, there is little we won't do to drown the mention of it out loud.
You know why Paul was so irritating? Not because he said something so outrageous, so false, so wrong. He said what everyone knew and feared and couldn't bear to face. This world as it is cannot stand in light of the love of God, the love of God for God's creation.
The way human beings regard each other is something other than the very fiber of creation. It may be who we are, but not who we were created or are destined to be. We are God's. And God is making all things right, from the greatest to the least.
The living Christ got hold of Paul and he could not go back to not knowing. And nothing anyone said or did bothered him enough to try. That people know, was all that mattered to him. And so he found his place. I look forward to reading him with you.
Let's pray together.
Today we are looking in Matthew 9, laying it side by side with Matthew 28, which may have been Jesus’ last word to his disciples – but not his only word – concerning the ministry to which he has called them.
Every sermon Jesus preaches is like a pizza we're all sharing. We take up our slices and spend the first ten minutes (or 2,000 years) picking all the olives off because, God forbid we eat what he serves. In Matthew 9, Jesus is preaching, teaching, and healing. Most folks listening love everything he says and does. A handful, the most religious in the bunch, don't. They call him “Satan's servant.” Doing the devil's work, they say. Eventually, they’ll say he's dangerous. And they won’t be wrong. A Christ-like church is dangerous – preaching, teaching, and healing whatever folks come along.
Such a church is dangerous to an empire used to keeping its power by keeping folks helpless and harassed. Such a church is dangerous to organized religion too, if that religion hopes to stay cozy with the empire. All of which is to say, insofar as the Great Commission really is a thing, Matthew 9 is where it sings to me.
Let's pray, God of all life, that we might realize that all life is all one thing. The life that pulses in our hearts is the same which gives birds flight, the same which makes our food grow. Wherever life meets life, may we regard and treat it tenderly, reverently, gratefully... and always in your name. Amen.
Verse 4:23 through 9:38 might be called “Matthew’s Ministry Field Manual” – Jesus showing and telling what he wants the church to do and be. Watch me. Listen to me. Then go, say, and do that. What he does, chapter 4 to chapter 9, is preach, teach, heal. At the beginning and the end of the section Matthew says (it's practically verbatim), 35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. Crowds gathered everywhere he went.
Now I’ve no doubt Jesus was a good preacher, and everyone loves good preaching. But you and I both know it wasn’t the preaching drawing those crowds: it was the FREE healthcare. He cured every disease and every sickness, Matthew writes. Every single one was a pre-existing condition. Jesus never asked for prior authorization. No deductible to be met. “Every disease and sickness brought to him” is how the text reads.
The crowds were amazed. They marveled. Who wouldn't be? Cubans, maybe. Dr. Paul Farmer, of Partners in Health, says Cuba has the best healthcare system in the western hemisphere. You should read Tracy Kidder’s book about Dr. Farmer, by the way, called Mountains Beyond Mountains. Citizens of countries with universal healthcare might not be as amazed as us that Jesus was a fan of universal health care. He healed every body; every disease; every sickness. The crowds marveled. Representatives of the religious establishment – not so much. They see the same thing and call Jesus “Satan’s tool.”
Don't miss this. Don't miss religion saying out loud in their most religious voice that healing poor people is the devil's business, that relief from suffering, that human compassion, that common decency has nothing to do with the religion they represent.
The text records no direct reply – just moves the camera back to Jesus, staring at the crowds while we read his thoughts. Harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. There is his reply. The religion which ought to protect and defend them, doesn't. Instead, religion is just another pack of wolves, in cahoots with the Empire, feeding on the weak and helpless. Matthew says it turned Jesus’ stomach. Actually, stirred his bowels is the closer translation for the word “compassion.” It's the pain of love – when other people's suffering hurts us.
In Jesus’ time emotions were thought to live in the gut. We say they live in the heart, but only because we think ourselves more polite. Don’t miss that what turns God's gut is a two-part tragedy: his beloved sheep are so harassed and helpless; and his shepherds are allied with the wolves.
The shepherd metaphor was not born in the New Testament, nor first in reference to Jesus. All through the First Testament, the king of Israel was repeatedly called their shepherd – along with the prophets and the priests. Remember Ezekiel 34, a text I've sometimes preached at Thanksgiving:
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd…. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill… with no one to search or seek for them. … 9 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10…I am against the shepherds; … I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed [my sheep] with justice…. 27 They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord…. 28 They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29…they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations…. 31 You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God. I, the Lord, have spoken.
Six hundred-and-eighty-five years, give or take a few, between Ezekiel and Jesus. Different empires. But God's sheep seemed to be doing no better. How about now? This little sliver of Matthew sings to me in the way it latches what Jesus said in the Beatitudes to what he did as he traveled through cities towns and villages – and to his expectations of us, the church, people claiming to be his, here and now. His explanation to his example to his expectations. A clarity to our mission and our task that informs as to the nature of our business here. We preach; we teach; we heal – according to our gifts, interests, resources, and the needs of the sheep in our midst.
Now, Jesus mixes his metaphors more than any preaching student would ever get away with. In his mind's eye they are sheep, but in his spoken lesson they are a field crop in need of harvesting – and by farm hands, not shepherds. Pray that more will come, Jesus tells his disciples. There's so much to be done, so few here to help. I have turned this verse over in my mind at least a hundred times, looking for a door or window into it.
Why does Jesus tell us to pray for more workers? It was George Buttrick who helped me get the tiger by the tail. He was a Presbyterian preacher and teacher. He pastored some churches and then taught at Andy D’s school – Harvard – for decades; then at mine – Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – until his death in 1980. About this passage he wrote (I'm paraphrasing): In calling us to his field, Jesus calls us away from the field of ambition, where the workers are many and the harvest not worth carrying away.
Of all the reasons Jesus tells us to pray for more workers, maybe the most obvious is also the truest. It’s hard and we would rather not do it. We’d rather serve our own wants, while avoiding the suffering of others. Jesus knows this about us. Knows that over the long haul of church, it will take lots of us to do this work, since harassed and helpless appears to be a permanent state of affairs. Other people’s suffering hurts us. We are human beings. We don’t like hurting, and we aren’t yet enough dependent on Jesus for the grace necessary to bear such hurt. But like our religious ancestors, in the first testament and the second, we have found a way to reconcile our compassion and our self-defense and call it faith.
Just as Jesus spoke to Jewish disciples neglecting the call of their prophets, Matthew speaks to a church neglecting the call of the Christian gospel. The split we see in the crowds listening to him that day we now carry inside ourselves, inside our life together. One part of us – a big part – is, like the crowd, amazed at grace, grace freely bestowed upon all people for no other reason than that God wants it so. Another part of us, like the religious representatives of the time, persists in wanting to keep the security we already have regardless of the suffering around us.
Carl and I have a friend named Sarah. Sarah has two little girls, ages 4 and 6. Recently before school, she and the 6-year-old had this conversation: “Eleanor, go make your breakfast.” To which Eleanor replied, “I want a bagel.” Sarah said, “Ok. You know how to make a bagel, yes?” And Eleanor said, “Well, I don't want to waste my time.” These two parts of us, compassion and selfishness, vie for our energy and time. The text calls us back to honesty, reminding us that the absence of grace in all its forms – health, knowledge, justice, decency – is hurtful to God. And so God deems that it shall not be. Death is to be defeated in all its shapes and venues: sickness, poverty, and injustice; mistreatment and abuse.
We cannot help Jesus defeat death upon a cross. Neither do we need to. That business is done! But we can love people here and now. Kindness, justice, and humility are well within our reach, should those be the tools we choose to work with. I totally get Eleanor. How easily do I reconcile the importance of some work with the surety that it's someone else's job? Jesus barely tells his friends to pray for help, then he gives the job to them in the next chapter.
I’ll end with this, a story from this past week. If you don't think people in our society are harassed and helpless, then you clearly have not met anyone trying to get enrolled in Medicaid. Medicaid is a program designed by wolves, to care for sheep. You can see the conflict of interest. As best I can tell, the mission of the program is Do a little as possible with as much paperwork as possible; the strategy is stall them until they die. And yet, inside that den of wolves, and throughout the systems connected to it, there are shepherds who are outsmarting those wolves right and left. Joan is a caseworker for the Social Security Administration and she is a wily one, let me tell ya. She coached me on how not to coach a client on his paperwork in such a way that I knew exactly how to coach him. I felt like a secret agent!
There was also a doctor, a nurse, two pharmacists and another random citizen and a banker, none of whom scored any personal or financial gain from their shepherding ways, all of whom could have spent way less time and energy and still have done their jobs. I have no idea if they call themselves Christian. I'd call them Christ-like. In the struggle between compassion and self-protection, they have chosen compassion as the driver of their lives. They have discovered compassion to be the better life. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes compassion turns our stomach.
But, friends, the pain of love is what makes us human. To the degree that others’ suffering doesn't bother us, we are also becoming less human. Humans forfeiting their humanity eventually turns into genocide. But well before that, what we have is a world of folks who are forever helpless and harassed. Like sheep without a shepherd. Like food crops withering in a field. And that, friends, is a stupid, evil, violent waste of something as beautiful as a human being. A waste that hurts the heart of God – or gives her diarrhea, depending on one's literary era. And will hurt our own hearts too, the more obedient we become, the more like Christ we pray to be.
Would you pray with me?
Matthew 28:16-20 still makes me itchy, more so than all the rest of the Bible put together. But it's not the Bible at all – it's me. And it's also church. And I don't know if it even counts as a sermon to explain that, but in case you grew up anything like me (and the fact that you've found your way here suggests that maybe you did), maybe my story will somehow connect with yours and give all of us back what ought to be a joyful text this Sunday after Easter – a text that clarifies and confirms what our lives and our life together are about now, as we step from here into eternity.
Let's pray: May it be all joy, O God, to know you in your risen-ness. May we treat it as our privilege to love others – knowing you already do, just as you love us. That all we need from you is done. Ours is to live by faith – in kindness, justice and humility, among all people, everywhere. Amen.
What text is this? What's it called? Does your Bible page have a chapter title? The Great Commission. The Great Commission is the church's language for Jesus’ charge in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples.” In my white, western, Protestant, evangelical experience, Great Commission specifically referred to Jesus’ command to tell the gospel to the ends of the earth.
The Baptist world of my teenage and young adult years had Great Commission campaigns. The names of two which I will never forget, sadly, were Bold Mission Thrust and Laypeople for Christ. I asked Ben what the words bold mission thrust made him think of. Combat, he said, or space exploration. In Baptist lingo, it was a plan to tell the gospel in person to every person on the planet by the year 2000. I asked him about laypeople for Christ, and he just said, oh that's really just awful. That said, nobody did it better than Baptists in the 20th century. Hospitals, schools, food security. And churches, thousands of churches. Millions of new believers the world over.
But that story has a backside, if you will, in which this same Great Commission language was used by the church in the west as a front for her collusion with the political and economic powers that invaded, colonized, murdered, enslaved and robbed Africa and the Americas for 400 years. If this sounds too awful to be true, I'll direct you to the Doctrine of Discovery. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/content/doctrine-discovery-1493
The thing about the Great Commission – Jesus didn't say it, right? It's not red on your Bible page, is it? If it's there, it's like a chapter heading. Church history doesn't quote the term until about 1650. And then only rarely for 200 more years, when along came an Englishman named James Hudson Taylor. Ever heard of him? He was colorful, apparently. Anybody know what happened in the 1840's that has to do with China? The European opium market opened up. And an 18-year-old Christian man in England heard the Lord tell him to go tell Chinese people about Jesus.
For three years he studied Chinese and rudimentary medicine. At 21 years old, he got on a boat and sailed to China. He stayed 51 years, coming back to England every few years to recruit more missionaries. He was thought shocking for wearing Chinese dress; for growing a pigtail; for refusing to spend his time translating Chinese for English business people and diplomats. He was critical of other missionaries who did, who, in his opinion, spent too much time with white people when they should be with Chinese.
Folks thought it appalling that he sent single women into the interior alone to work. His missionaries were to live on what they were given – never to beg for support from others. He started his own missions organization, which is still operating today. He wrote, China is not to be won for Christ by quiet, ease-loving men and women. … The stamp of men and women we need is such as will put Jesus, China, [and] souls first and foremost in everything and at every time-- even life itself must be secondary.
Apparently what made him colorful was Reverend Taylor's conviction that when Jesus said go make disciples of every nation He really did mean GO! The same way Jesus emptied himself of the things of heaven to come to us, he [Taylor] emptied himself of all things English. “Go!” was not just Go! “Go!” was also “Stay!” Taylor died in China in 1905. He was 72. In between he recruited hundreds of missionaries, established hundreds of mission stations. He never solicited for money, and tens of thousands of people heard the gospel. In his pond, he is very, very famous – like the Underwoods in Korea. I'm attaching a link about him to this sermon, so you can read more: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/missionaries/hudson-taylor.html .
It's no good regretting – only being better. I wish people like Reverend Taylor were my earliest associations with the Great Commission. I wish my earliest understanding of this text in which Jesus is charging his apostles had focused on the scene more than the chapter title. At most, all a child needs of this text is, here is Jesus giving the grown-ups one last job before he goes back to heaven.
But that is not the children’s sermon of my childhood. I called my friend Angela to check myself on this, for fear I was overstating it. (You also can judge for yourselves.) The Great Commission upon which I was bottle-fed went something like this: Boys and girls, the eternal destiny of your friends, family, and neighbors is in your hands. Do I have a witness?
Theologically, that isn’t true. Spiritually, it is abusive. When parents poison kids it's called child abuse. When theology poisons people it's called spiritual abuse. It's all trauma. But the thing about trauma is that to the traumatized it's normal. Just like, to a kid who doesn't know different, child abuse is, simply, home or mommy or love. To a baby Believer, whatever his or her age, spiritual trauma is the same thing as faith.
Let me see if I can explain it in a story. By the time I was twelve, I was overwhelmed with anxiety about my friends who might be going to hell. Along with my dad. And some neighbors who were devout Catholics, yet claimed to never have heard that Jesus is supposed to be your personal Lord and Savior. Your PLS.
It sort of makes me laugh now, but it was not funny then. It was terrifying. (I might have been a wee bit of a sensitive child.) As I knew it, the Great Commission demanded – DEMANDED – that I tell every person I met that Jesus loved them very much and if they didn't accept him as their PLS, he'd have no choice but to let them go to hell when they died – them and all their loved ones too. He didn't want to, of course. He simply had no choice. At no point in my childhood did my brain say to myself, “That is horrible.” Or, “That is stupid.” Or, “That doesn't even make any sense.” Why? Because I was a kid! And because good grown-ups were saying it – the Pastor and my Sunday School teachers. People who spoke for God.
My brain couldn’t say it. But you know what did, ALL THE TIME? My belly. My gut. My nervous system. From the time I was twelve years old, the thought of telling people Jesus would be sad to send them to hell, but he would, made me feel like I was going to throw up and cry at the same time. A response as automatic as yanking my hand off a hot pan. In both cases, my body was telling myself, DON'T DO THAT! YOU'LL HURT YOURSELF! But, of course, that was not the message I got. The message I got was that obviously I didn't love my Jesus or my friends enough to be brave. – I need to hear if this is making sense to anybody.
One time in 7th grade I decided I was not going to be a horrible, terrible person anymore. I was going to tell my friend Joy that Jesus loved her and didn't want her to go to hell. Joy was about as much of a criminal personality as I was in the 7th grade. Neither of our mothers let us wear make-up or go to movies after dark. Nevertheless, her eternal destiny was at stake – and up to me. Not up to Jesus, mind you – the one who had already died and risen for her; up to me and the cafeteria conversation I had planned. I would tell her on a certain day and lunch time.
I sweated and almost threw up all morning. I had barely started my prepared speech before Joy blurted out, “Do you want to know if I'm saved?” ”Yes,” I practically panted. “Oh sure,” she said, “way back when I was 8.” I was hung over for days after. Which happens with trauma. But there was a new feeling too that I wasn't expecting, that I didn't understand for a long time. The feeling is relief, the sensation that my friend Joy can now be crossed off the list of people who haven't heard the gospel. Not because she's saved, but because she had her chance.
I remember a seminary chapel speaker who said that no one deserves to hear the gospel twice until everyone has heard it once. A person could definitely hang a meaningful ministry from that. On the other hand, I can't shake the sensation that Jesus crossed no one off his list. The sensation that he would be disappointed to see us doing so, racking up the numbers as we go. Which is a whole other rabbit I don't have time to chase. Back when I was 12 – and 25 – it upset me more to tell someone “Friend, Jesus loves you enough to send you to hell” than it did to think that person might actually go to hell. Does that makes sense to anyone here but me? You know why? Because it is a lie. It is a cultivated, well-told lie, told not always for love of the world – the nations, to use Jesus’ word – but to pacify our own fear.
Friends, once we know a lie is a lie, telling the lie is worse than the lie. Untold, lies die. Jesus doesn't send children to hell for their lack of information, information withheld by other children. That's stupid. If it weren't stupid, it would be horrible. When my brain didn't know anything at all, my belly and my nervous system, my soul, my heart of heart of heart, knew that was a lie and begged me not to tell it. Because my soul wants me to be okay, not burned or traumatized. I don't blame my preachers and my teachers – unless they also knew it was a lie. But the ones who did helped me see it and say so. Nothing, ever, is all just one thing, is it? So much Christian love and ministry has been bequeathed under the Great Commission banner. And so much harm.
My mind goes back to Hudson Taylor, the white man in Chinese clothes and a pigtail, who learned to be a midwife when men really didn't do that kind of thing. Colorful, I tell you. I wonder if he'd say, Oh, the Great Commission, yes. That is Jesus’ charge to his apostles and disciples just before his ascension, a summary of their three years of apprenticeship overlaid with his own death and resurrection, which they at the time still barely understood. His will for their lives, you see: Do for others what I have done for you. It will terrify you sometimes. Make you crazy . Bring you joy. It will take everything you have and more. I will be with you every single moment. Let us begin.
Would you pray with me?
Have you ever made the mistake of letting yourself be relieved that some crazy episode of your life was over, just to find out it wasn't? Once upon a time, I had a five-year-old and a nine-month-old baby who nursed morning, noon, and night. Also, my mom was really, really sick. I was sure that's why I felt so exhausted all the time. Then I got queasy. Then I realized I hadn't had a period forever. In my denial, I was convinced it was because I was nursing all the time.
Have you ever been amazed, because that next thing was so much better than anything you might have imagined for yourself? In my case, I was pregnant – again. Where would we be without Emily?
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the graveyard inclined to imagine that the hardest part was over. They'd seen him arrested, tortured, killed, and buried. They arrive at the grave under heavy guard against disciples like themselves. In chapter 27, Pilate agreed with Temple leadership to guard the grave so disciples can't steal the body and make Jesus their martyr. There's an earthquake. And angels. And guards who fall down dead from fear. Unlike their brother Peter, who always comes up with something to say in such sacred spaces, Mary and the other Mary do not say a word. I like believing it is because no words suffice.
Let's pray: You have come back to us from the land of death, and we don't begin to know how to speak of it. May our fearlessness suffice. Amen.
Here's something I wonder: I wonder if, when Mary Magdalene saw and heard the angels, she wondered if her demons had come back. I wonder if she won- dered, when Jesus spoke to her, if he was real; if he was a dream; or if he was the return of her nightmares. I wonder if she wondered, even for a moment, if Jesus having left her meant her healing was gone too?
This thing that we profess believing – Jesus rising from the dead – you do know, it sounds to some like mental illness? I was in a garden graveyard and both some angels and Jesus spoke to me. Depending on your provider, you may get medicine for saying that or asked to lead a Bible class.
Matthew says Mary and the other Mary were both afraid and full of joy. I like imagining them pregnant with these fraternal twins, fear and joy. Snuggled together in their mamas’ hearts, sucking one another's thumbs. Fear has its pleasures, don't you know? And joy its terrors too. They are not always as dif- ferent as they seem. Both are thrilling. Both are the feeling of something about to be, but not yet. Something imagined but not confirmed. And there is pleasure and terror in the not knowing – and longing. Did any part of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary imagine that their beloved friend would be there to greet them? Was it too fantastic even to say out loud?
In John, the women go to anoint his body. Here they go empty-handed. It's dangerous to be there; they go anyway. They are terrified; they go anyway. Maybe they have no idea why they go; and yet, they go anyway. We can't discount their joy, I think, however afraid we would have been. They let joy drive them to the graveyard that day, when fear might just as easily have had the wheel.
Joy drives Easter, friends. Not death. Not fear. Not anxiety. Not anxiety's little sister, stress. All four were put to death on Good Friday, so now life and joy and grace persist! Joy! Rightly celebrated, Easter marks our transfiguration. Rightly practiced, church – our life together – bears witness to our transfiguration. To be human is to be set free by the love of God in Jesus Christ. Free from death. Free from the fear of death. So death has no say-so over us. Death does not drive our day. Death does not drive our hearts and minds.
Easter ought to be the easiest Sunday to preach, except I don't know the words. “I know this is going to sound crazy” is the truest and yet worst thing I can think of to say. I know the world appears to be going to hell in a handbasket right now, but there is no reason to be afraid. God loves us more than we can imagine, you see. And has worked the whole thing out.
We are not by ourselves here. Not left to our own wits or strength. There is room for us to be SOOO courageous, since our futures have been secured: to love each other hugely; to get all up in evil's face; to do right by the least of these; to ease other people's suffering; to take up their causes, so they might taste the goodness of the Lord this side of the veil. I told you it would sound crazy. And still, they are the truest words I have.
Finally, I suppose, I don't understand anything that has to do with God, Yet, some- how in my bones I know God loves what God made. And when we watch for it, we see it everywhere, this love of God seeping from the very pores of time and space.
I saw a baby at the store this week, who kept waving at a stranger. “Hi!” the baby said. “Hello!” said the stranger back. But the baby wasn't finished. After three or four hi/hellos, the stranger was transfigured into a goofy woman playing peekaboo behind a post in the middle of the Target store. The baby would just die laughing. They didn't know each other five minutes earlier.
I could cry at the perfect holy joy of it. It's tiny. It's silly. Then again, Easter lends itself entirely to the language of fools. May our joy suffice.
Would you pray with me?
At its heart, Jewish Passover celebrates a successful slave revolt in ancient Egypt. An insurgency. A rebellion. The enslaved people, the Hebrews, executed a divinely- designed plan, forty-hundred years in the making, by which they walked out of the country, led by the Pharaoh’s own adopted son. The entire Egyptian army failed to capture them.
Matthew re-creates the image in Matthew 21. In Jesus’ time, every spring at Passover time, the Roman governor of Judea, a man named ___?___ (Pontius Pilate) left his palace at Caesarea and traveled east to his palace in Jerusalem, escorted by a cavalry regiment of Roman soldiers – a show of force in a time of potential trouble. Their mission was peacekeeping. Peacekeeping, sigh. Empire gas-lighting language. Order that has nothing in common with peace, known for enslaving half the people therein and ruling the rest with an iron fist.
In that particular year, 29 CE give or take, as Pontius Pilate made his journey from the west, a Galilean rabbi set out from the east, an unarmed man accompanied by a parade of palm-waving peasants. He will not fight, we say, but neither will he dodge. Nor negotiate. Who will bend the knee? Who will have the throne?
Let’s pray: Peace. We wish, O God, hardly knowing what we wish for. Not to be afraid. Not to feel ashamed about the suffering caused by the very systems that render us so privileged. We mostly know peace enforced by soldiers, armed to their teeth and toenails against people who hate us, who would kill us if they could. We pray to know the peace you died to give us, armed with nothing but your creative, loving grace. Loving grace that breaks fear and hate and selfishness. Loving grace that calls forth laughter, faith, and courage, the very currency of peace, O God, unlimited and free. Amen.
The city was in turmoil, Matthew says. It’s Jerusalem after all. Then Jesus went to the Temple. We know the point of the gospel, that Jesus picked a fight with the ruler of darkness over who would bend the knee. And he won. Death lost. Death bends the knee to life forevermore. But the point doesn’t make the telling unimportant. So, as for the telling, why do all four gospel writers include Jesus’ Temple tantrum and why do the synoptics all link it with his final entry to Jerusalem?
If Jesus’ fight is with the rulers of this world – to be specific, with Rome – why does he visit the Temple before he visits Pilate? Why does he fire his first round, if you will, at religion, instead of empire? Could be he’s cleaning up his own backyard first? Judaism was his own religion, after all. But then again, religion itself was his own, I suppose. And instead of the backyard, he tidied the front porch, the courtyard of the Temple, where even Gentiles and women were allowed to walk around. He shows up and announces in verse 13, my Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.
The layers and layers of imagery in that sentence! He’s quoting Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. The Temple was the spot on the earth that marked where Eden was planted. The spot on the earth that remembered where Abraham took Isaac for sacrifice. The meeting place of heaven and earth in Jacob’s dream. A house of prayer, given into the care of men who have, Jesus said, made it into a den of thieves.
You know who lives in dens? Foxes, in the woods behind my house. They keep their babies, their kits, in their dens. And you know what else? The chickens they steal from my henhouse, when I accidently leave the door open – which is okay, because they are foxes. Stealing chickens is what they are born and bred to do. You know who doesn’t live in dens? Leaders of institutional religion. They live in nice houses. They work in fancy buildings, with steeples and stained glass with Bible verses. Their job – our job – is to pray, to teach, and to serve. Yet, Jesus says, in the Temple in Jerusalem at Passover, Is not the fox loose in the henhouse?
But this is the chicks walking into the foxes’ den, voluntarily. Jews came from everywhere and stayed a few days. They had Temple offerings and sacrifices to make. Animals purchased from vendors vetted by the Temple. No doubt farmers paid for that privilege, farmers who bought booth space in the Temple courtyard which, naturally, could only be purchased with Temple coin. So they had first to go to the moneychangers, who had also bought vendor space, which they recouped in exchange fees. Temple coin wasn’t good anywhere else, naturally, so it had either to be left as offering or changed back – again at a fee, no doubt.
Rome may well be who Jesus was after, but Religion was his first stop. And that feels really, really important to me. The Temple is first. Religion is first. The clergy are first. Prayer is first. The people at the top of the prayer pyramid, the ones most accountable for praying – weren’t. And would have been better off, had they only been not praying. But they were being worse than not praying. They were robbing the very people they were supposed to comfort and to lead. Worse than an Empire that enslaves is a religion that robs the poor souls they might have blessed. Sit with that. Sit with that a long time.
Jesus comes to save the world, and in his triage, the ones who most need saving are the ones who think they’re saved already, neck deep with the empire in the abuse and exploitation of people entrusted to their care, using God as their explanation. But Jesus wasn’t having it. His Temple “tantrum,” if you will, is not a fit of anger. He hasn’t lost control. Nor has he discovered something other people don’t know. Everyone knows. Just like everyone knows – in every age knows – that power and money drive everything, including the meaning of words like peace. Oppression and injustice count as peace, to the ones who make the rules. Jesus discovers nothing new, only points to what everyone can see already and says: Not. In. My. House.
For their part, Temple keepers are so offended to be called out as corrupt, they join forces with Pilate. Not because they are Jewish, either, friends; please don’t hear me say that. Because they are people with some power in a land where most people have none. They do exactly what people like them always do – religious people who will suck the hind tit of the empire, no matter how much it costs us in holiness, decency, or faith. We’ll trade most anything for power, then find a way to make ourselves look righteous. Jesus sought no endorsements from anyone, certainly not politicians or priests – people useless to him in this fight.
Think of it: in his fight against evil and corruption, religion is against him. Do you understand what I'm trying to say, my friends, as I'm not sure that I do? Maybe that winter is coming in ways we don’t yet understand. In this looming showdown as to who shall have the throne – Pilate or Jesus – we know we’re only pretending not to know, going through the motions of treating Jesus like an underdog. But we know he wins, and next week will be Easter! Have we yet taken seriously that it is us whom Jesus visits first, on his way to save the world? Us – whose lost-ness seems to have upset him most? Or, at least, first?
Apart from our long-awaited TV shows, we have trouble with the whole idea of kings. And thrones. And bending the knee. Which leaves us easily passing off these priests and scribes as folks who should have known better, missing what Matthew means the church to see and hear. We are temple now. We are the house of prayer. And if we’ve come to know the meaning of his passion – this world’s need of grace – none need it, none need Him, more than us. We who think we know it all. Who’ve written stories to justify everything we do. If he’s talking to the people of his religion, then he must be talking to us, to me.
Every one of us worships something. Thrones and bended knees or not, we are subject all the same. May we be subject to the God of grace, come to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dr. Kate Edgerton-Tarpley is an alumna of IU and UBC, now a university professor in California. Chinese history is her specialty, and she also teaches world history. She once had a student who attended the first day of the semester and the final, which he failed. He then came to her office hours and begged her to give him a D-. She refused. He continued begging, until eventually his wife called, harassing Kate for a D. Kate did not budge, saying, “I do not hand out grades willy-nilly. My students earn their D’s fair and square!” At the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, “The Sheep and Goats” is Jesus’ last lecture – the one in which the professor answers the inevitable question, “Will this be on the final?”
Let me tell you how that works, Jesus says. The Son of Man will gather together panta ta ethne, “all the nations” – All the Gentiles, The whole world, All the nations – and sort them out like a shepherd sorting sheep from goats. Not a hard job, really; they don’t look that much alike. Which is interesting to think about. The nations who do God’s will look nothing like those who don’t . . . to the Son of Man. I wonder if goats and sheep look different to one another? If they are surprised to find out they’re different?
We moderates get all itchy about this passage. We love social justice texts and hate hellfire eschatology, so Judgment texts like this put us in a bind. We like long essay tests with which to show off our exegesis and preen our mastery of nuance. But that is not this test. For this test, we show up ready to present ourselves, only to be handed our grade. We’ve already passed or failed, and there is nothing else to do. Nothing to do but receive our inheritance, that which has been ours from the beginning of the story.
Let’s pray. Good God, we pray to live as people who have read your word, heard your voice, and know your will. Amen.
Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited is theological and exegetical analysis of being black and Christian in 1930’s America. Specifically – how to live alongside the white Christians who mistreated them and still BE Christian. A glance at the book suggests that the disinherited are black people – those disenfranchised socially, economically, and politically. Such an assumption, however, requires ignorance of Dr. Thurman’s primary text, which is the gospel of Jesus. Because in the gospel of Jesus, Matthew 25:31-46, the disinherited are not the victims of disenfranchisement but, rather, the enforcers of that disenfranchisement. Not the have-nots, but the haves. Not the weak, but the strong. And not ALL of the strong. Some of the strong.
Are half the nations sheep? Two-thirds? Three-fourths? Like so much in this passage, we are not given to know. It is an after-the-fact passage, like after the professor’s grades are turned in. They are what they are. “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” Actually, you CAN throw a fit if you want, but it’s not going to change anything now. It’s the hardest part of preaching this text – not preaching what isn’t here. Not preaching the argument Jesus won’t have on Judgment Day. I’ve written and thrown away pages and pages of that argument. I have so many questions, so many points I want to make. About social justice. About what sheep do right and goats do wrong.
Thursday night, the deacons’ meeting helped me get over it – Deacon Jodi’s devotions, actually. About a mystic who prayed for fifteen years to know what God was trying to tell her. Love, God finally said, if you really want to know. Did God finally say it or did she finally hear it, I wondered. The difference doesn’t matter. Faith takes however long it takes. We can fight this text till Judgment Day, but on that day we won’t fight it any more. We will understand that we’ve no more sway over God than do these sheep and goats – animals beside whom we think ourselves so much smarter.
This text is the same text today that it will be on Judgment Day – however long it takes us to come around. But we will come around. And by us, I do mean panta ta ethne, all of us. We cannot count ourselves among those who did not know. We’ve known since the first day of class what would be on this test. Remember? The Beatitudes? Jesus ends where he began, with kindness toward the weaker ones: the hungry, thirsty, needy, sick, the refugee, and the prisoner.
You may be surprised the test is already over, but you cannot possibly be surprised to discover what material would be covered. So please don’t pretend you are. Don’t pretend you are by pretending the story is about something that it isn’t. Live the life that Jesus is going to know that you lived or not. Be kind. Be decently kind. Be dignifyingly kind. Be seriously, intentionally, actively, wildly, materially, hugely kind. Be riskily kind. Be boldly kind. Be bravely kind. Be crazy kind.
Because, in the end, the inheritance that all of us believe we’re after anyway goes to those who understood that kindness was all that very really mattered to God in the first place. Within the veil and the transaction of kindness is where God is always found.
Would you pray with me?
The trouble with myths, according to G. K. Chesterton, is the temptation to confuse them with the reality to which they are trying to point. A portrait of Queen Anne is one of his examples. It is not her, he wrote, no matter how perfectly it captures her posture and expression. It can never be her – which is useful for thinking about parables too. Especially the ones we hate, like this week’s and last.
The kingdom of God is among you, Jesus said, and yet kingdom of heaven is as far removed from our lives and Jesus’ first hearers as Queen Anne was from Chesterton’s. It can be tempting to imagine that she really looked like the portrait. Or that Bible times really looked like coloring book pages. Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this, Jesus said – but ought not be confused with this, I wish he’d also said – and is definitely NOT to be confused with what you know of the world already.
Let’s pray: Could it really be, O God, that you’d have us think of ourselves as married to you? Asked to trust your promises to have and hold us forever? In sickness and in health? For richer and for poorer? If so, then we are going to need your help, O God, in not confusing what we’ve known so far with what you are asking now. Our vision is poor and we are foolish. We pray for faith to stay faithful, to want what you want us to have. Amen.
Matthew 25 opens with Jesus commuting between Bethany and Jerusalem every day (rather like being back and forth between Unionville and Bloomington), within a few weeks of Passover and the palm branch parade, Jesus preaching his heart out to anyone willing to listen. Wooing them, seducing them, tempting them to give themselves entirely to him. Entrust themselves to him, body and soul. Their past, their present, their future. Entrust themselves to his promise that he already loved them – they didn’t have to earn it; that he’d already saved them – they had nothing to fear. Trust and trust and trust alone. They had to learn to trust him. Trust the promise. Body and soul. Awake and asleep. Every moment. Every day. Forever.
How to live now, in this world, as we will live then and there in the kingdom of heaven – with parables Jesus explained what this life looks like. Like a wedding, for example, a wedding to which the groom was really, really, really late. In those days, the wedding guests gathered at the bride’s family’s house and waited for the groom to come and fetch her. Then they all processed to his house for the wed- ding celebration, the feast, which lasted for many days. Our traditional wedding ceremonies are reduced versions of this ancient practice.
The Greek says “he was delayed” or “he tarried.” Night came. The guests went to sleep. They slept for hours. He finally showed up in the middle of the night. And then, rather than wait until daylight, he wants the wedding to go on immediately, have all his guests travel in the dark. None of which makes any sense at all, mind you. But it is not the groom who is foolish, of course. No, it’s the women, the bridesmaids, the five who realize their lamps have burned out. No more oil. They try to borrow some from the five wise girls who tell them, “Sorry. You’ll have to find a dealer if you want to buy more.” They are fools, remember, so they go.
The groom, THE REASON for being together, THE ONE they have all gathered to meet, FOR WHOM they have all waited all along, finally arrives. And the first thing these five do is panic. The second is ask for help from people with no help to give. The third is run away from the groom. What is the big thing Jesus wants people to hear? to do? Give me your whole self. Give me your whole life. Give me your future. Trust every moment, every event, every sorrow, every joy, every fear, every problem, entirely to me. Trust me to deal with it lovingly, trust me to know and to do what is best for you, no matter what.
Yet, the foolish girls in his story did what? They turned away. They turned to the dealers of the world to provide what they really didn’t need anyway, if following the groom was their goal. Weren’t there plenty of other people on the same journey carrying light? More importantly, wasn’t the groom himself there to show them the way? Why didn’t they stay?
The church reading and hearing this gospel for the first time was about thirty years old, filled with disciples who had been led to believe by Paul and the other apostles that Jesus would be back really soon to take the church to heaven with him. Thirty years was long enough for the old ones to start dying, to “fall asleep” as the New Testament often calls dying. They were tired of waiting – and worried. Their understanding of the gospel, of discipleship, didn’t accommodate such long delays. Into their waiting, Matthew resurrects this wedding parable.
Have you ever waited so long for an inevitable bad thing to happen that, when it finally did, it felt kind of good just to have it over with? I’ve a friend who hated being pregnant so much she thought childbirth felt wonderful. Have you ever waited so long for some inevitable good thing to happen that, when it finally happened, it felt bad? Or disappointing? I’ll let you think about it for a minute.
Even in his presence, in the midst of a celebration funded by the groom, to which they were all invited and welcome and wanted, five girls believe they need to DO SOMETHING else to be included. They didn’t trust the groom. They didn’t trust the groom’s plan. They DID ask their friends to share. But think about it. Do the math. There still wouldn’t have been any additional light, right?
Why was the groom so late? Only the groom knows. Therein, friends, is the essence of trust, isn’t it? Of faith? Of discipleship? Basing our words, our decisions, our attitudes and our expectations on promises, without the benefit of complete information. We simply don’t get to know all we want to know, like the time and date God is going to show up and fix this or that situation. Jesus said to everyone who would – and WILL – listen, “Trust me. With all that you are and all that you have. Forever.” And either we do or we don’t.
And the ones who do, the disciples, the ones who do show up, even we get sleepy and tired, and grumpy and doubtful. And we fail. Repeatedly. Everyone. Positively everyone screws up eventually. He loses his keys. She misses a meeting. She forgets to make an important call. He says hurtful things. She mooches off other people’s time and stuff. They fail to prepare. They oversleep. Even the wise girls slept. Suggesting that, as much as I wish otherwise, wisdom is not, in fact, the same as punctuality and preparedness. If the wise girls had been really wise wouldn’t they have anticipated the needs of others? Wouldn’t they have wanted to do whatever they could to make sure everyone was included?
The thing is, friends, I’m just not sure how to preach about Jesus’ second coming. I believe in it. I expect it. But it’s not on my mind all the time. I don’t wake up hoping it’s today – or dreading it either. But what do I know, friends, is that every person is waiting for something, waiting for God to show up, or do something, or stop doing something, to accomplish something or end something. And some people have waited a long time. Others have waited a long, long, long, long time. And some have waited longer than they ever imagined a person might ever have to wait, longer than seems compassionate or decent, if God is good and loving.
And while it’s tempting to equate wisdom with being organized and prepared, maybe – honestly – it’s more about trust. Trust that takes the shape of being patient and present. Trust that understands the real reward of being patient is greater patience, the capacity to wait even longer – in confidence that what is promised IS what will be, and will be in God’s time, for God’s reasons. Trust that does not give up on God and turn to the world for what the world MAY promise, but will never deliver.
The foolish girls finally arrived at the wedding, only to discover they’d missed it. Now they were the ones who were too late. “I never knew you,” the groom said to them – which sounds horrible, but to whom? Not to the ones who had stayed close to him. They were on the dance floor, or in the buffet line. Does he mean, “I’ve never seen you before. You were always somewhere else, doing something else, trying to make something else work because you thought I wasn’t coming”?
Maybe the only ones to whom it sounds so terrible are the ones who didn’t trust him, who turned away to look for light someplace else, who waited as long as they could stand to wait and then, for whatever reason, decided not to wait any longer. Maybe they came to believe the darkness was simply too dark, that he’d never find them in such darkness, so they had to help him find them, help him find his way to them. Maybe they were thinking “Better to be busy at something than faithful at nothing.”
And maybe that’s what made them most foolish of all, because maybe the very heart and soul of faith is doing nothing when there is nothing to do but wait and trust, to be patient and present, for as long as it takes for God to keep God’s promises, confident that no time is too long, nor any darkness too dark, for God to find us, and love us, and carry us home.
Would you pray with me?
The parables in which Jesus sends people to hell aren’t my favorite. Nor when he says, Many are called, few are chosen!
Things around here are bad enough, I shout at no one in particular, when I’m supposed to be studying. Jesus himself sounds different now, here in the third week of Lent, Year One in the Narrative Lectionary. (Jesus didn’t choose the year, we assigned him.)
He sounds different because he’s talking to a different set of folks. He’s in Jerusalem now. Instead of disciples, he’s speaking to spies – spies who are taking notes. But not for an exam; for evidence, building a case against this Galilean rabbi they suspect of inciting peasants to rebellion against Rome.
They are defenders of their faith, they believe. Even though his crowds have changed, Jesus’s format hasn’t. Still parables, same theme: the overwhelming, never-ending, precious grace of God. But grace sounds different preached in hostile places which, interestingly, are religious spaces. Grace is now stripped down to subtext and cloaked in judgment.
Let’s pray: Learning to receive your grace as is, O God; to let ourselves be welcomed as we are – the good, the bad, the weird, the embarrassing, the broken; to accept your grace as it is, O God – absolutely just: this is the challenge of our faith, our prayers, and our life together. Amen.
I went to seminary in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, to a seminary when and where – I kid you not! – there were spies in my theology classes. Russians? Nooooooooo. The NSA? Nooooooooo. The fundamentalist contingent of the Southern Baptist Convention? Yesssssss.
Southern Baptist spies spying on a Southern Baptist seminary. Yessssss. Literally – of course! (You’d have to be there to get that joke!) There were men who quit their day jobs, got endorsements from their home churches, enrolled at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and moved their families to Louisville, to serve as agents in the project (or conspiracy, depending on your perspective) to take over the entire SBC leadership, including the boards and faculties of the seven seminaries – since, where is the liberal menace always rooted? The academy. And no one was more dangerous to the SBC, apparently, than my seminary professors. Which is hysterical to anyone who has ever met ANY seminary professors.
It makes me laugh now, but at the time it was such a big thing. The profound violation. Classrooms are sacred space. Some professors were so badly shaken by it. Others were so righteously angry and awesomely brave. They ALWAYS knew who the spies were. Frank Tupper would say, “Son, come put your tape recorder on my lectern today. Your bosses won’t want to miss this!”
Jesus’s spies knew he was on to them too. Matthew says so in chapter 21, when Jesus told them tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. It wasn’t a compliment. In fact it was, just not to them. They wanted to arrest him. But in addition to being offended and mad, they were cowards, afraid their base would turn on them. But Jesus has come for a fight with the enemies of God’s unconditional grace, and a fight he will have.
So pours up a third parable. And with it these spies find their spines. What happens when the misery we fear is more agitating than the misery we have? We change. With this parable about a wedding, the spies change – from wanting to arrest Jesus to an active, organized plan involving multiple actors and engagements, narrated over the remaining chapters of Matthew’s gospel, as well told as a BBC crime series. In all their secret meetings and plot twists, not once do Jesus’s enemies even suspect they are the ones being played.
The wedding supper – THE Bible party of parties: food, wine, food, wine, and more food. The wrap-up image for the entire Christian Bible is a wedding supper hosted by a king for the Lamb and his bride, in Revelation, chapter 21. Allegory through and through, of course, written by the Apostle John who opens Jesus’s public ministry at a wedding – the wedding at Cana. Wine. Wine. And more wine. Because for all that God has done so far, the best is yet to be. Just like when our children marry, we know that life will carry on, beyond the border of our own.
Once there was a human king, Jesus’s story begins, whose son was getting married. All the A-list people in town were invited, but no one wanted to go. So they politely declined. The king put out a second invite, this time including the menu, and “ gosh darn if I don’t have to work that day,” said nearly everyone on the A-list. The rest were so offended to be asked again, they seized and killed the messengers, lest the king not take the hint this time. “Not only do we not want to come to your party, sir, we don’t want to be invited!”
To what might you be invited, that the invitation itself would offend you, make you want to kill the mailman? The king took the hint. Matthew says he was enraged, called up his army to wipe out those murderers and burn the city down. Yikes! Can you think of anyone who might actually have done a thing like that? Rome, right? In 70 CE? Why might Matthew refer to Rome in the middle of a Jesus parable? Hang on to that for later….
Having annihilated his A-list guests, the kings puts out his third invitation – anyone still breathing, good and bad alike. He has found his people, the wedding hall is jammed – with Baptists, no doubt; none are more faithful when free food is at stake. Folks are dancing and eating and laughing. Everyone is dressed to the nines. The bartenders are busy. The caterers are busy. But there is this one guy, off by himself . . . looking sketchy. You know the look, when someone seems not to know where they are. Have you ever been that person?
This isn’t my story, but my good friend’s. He is so open and unpretentious and crazy, things are always happening to him. He was dropping off his kid for a class at Ivy Tech, and they had to hunt for the room it was in. As he was leaving, he heard an event going on and he recognized the piano music. The musician was a friend of his, so naturally, he thought he’d say Hi. Well, then he noticed this awesome buffet, so he got a plate.
Then he saw someone he knew and started talking to them, and they said, “Wow, I’m so surprised to see you here.” And he was like all, “Oh yeah, I heard so-and-so playing piano. This is so cool.” Then someone called the room to attention and started talking. And my hilarious, naïve friend realized he was at a fancy political fundraiser to which everyone but him had been invited and was expected to write a check. So he had to casually work his way to a side door and get out without looking like he’d just figured out that he wasn’t supposed to be there.
I do not know how the sketchy man in the parable got in without a wedding robe. But he did. And he was the only one. “How did you get in here dressed like this, friend?” The implication being that everyone else did have a wedding robe, whatever that means, that good and bad alike had come through the front door and the changing room where the robes were handed out.
Maybe he slipped through the locker room in his street clothes. Or maybe came through some other door, having no idea what he’d been invited to. The question just hangs there, “How did you get in here, friend?” Friend doesn’t say a word. Speechless, goes the text. The parable turns mean. Bind him hand and foot. Toss him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Many are called; few are chosen.
And we are left to figure out what to do with that. Thoughts? Either the king is a sociopath or something else is going on – something that lands this speechless guy in street clothes in the same place as all those folks who refused the first two invitations. Any ideas? ‘Cause I’ve got no answers.
I have one idea. Working backwards I notice that in this parable and both parables in chapter 21, Jesus sorts characters into two groups: receivers and rejecters – sons receiving or rejecting direction from their father; workers receiving and rejecting orders from their master; guests rejecting and receiving invitations to a feast.
Some promise fealty, then aren’t faithful. Others make no such promise, then turn out to be faithful. Is that what Jesus means by good and bad alike? The disciples who think they will go to the cross with Jesus, but don’t. The Pharisees who oppose him, but end up believing he is the Christ? What we do know is that finally, finally, finally, finally, finally, the wedding hall was full. The kingdom of God, that is. Everyone is there.
Does Jesus mean us to imagine no one is any place else? That this party is all there is anywhere? That everyone who ever lived and breathed is now included in the good and bad alike? So that every person everywhere finds themselves tempted to move to the music of grace, because there is no such thing as saying no? as saying no to grace? But there he stands, eating his vegan snack, refusing to dance. And God will not force him. Because a truly graceful God wouldn’t MAKE us accept grace we didn’t want.
See, I do kind of get a guy who goes to a party and then realizes it’s not the party that he thought it was. I tell myself I’m all for this all-inclusive grace. Then you know what happens? I get seated at a table with this very nice pastor who starts telling me all about his ventriloquist ministry – I promise I am not making this up – and I am nodding and smiling, but inside I am just dying. I am all sweaty and nervous, and I feel guilty because I feel so embarrassed about preaching in the first place and when you add in ventriloquism I just can’t stand it.
So I totally get somebody looking around at who else has been invited to this gig and thinking Oh man, and then feeling like a jerk for thinking Oh man. And if they understood him, which they clearly did, it’s no wonder these spies listening to Jesus got so upset. Matthew calls them chief priests and Pharisees, but that’s probably just Matthew’s veiled way – his own parable language for Jewish Christians who didn’t want to party with Gentiles. Can you baa-leeve how they let their goat cheese touch their hamburgers? Seriously, how gross is that?
The parable does turn mean, but only after the guest tries to rewrite the invitation, so that it’s for whatever party he thinks he’d like better than this one. “How did you get in here, friend?” For him to say a word is to admit he is where he is – to accept the invitation as is! Because there is no language for saying No to a party he’s already at.
The words are harsh for sure: seized and bound; weeping; gnashing teeth. They’re Bible talk for hell – the only place God isn’t. Also known as nowhere. Darkness, though that’s a word I’d trade for emptiness. Where God isn’t, is the grace-less place, the accommodation of the ever-graceful God who won’t force grace upon us even when, once tasted, grace isn’t what we want – if you can imagine that.
Would you pray with me?
I've had my nails done twice a month by the same person for years. She's fewer than ten years younger than me. She works seven days a week, ten hours a day on six days of the week, six hours every Sunday. So does her husband, who also works at the same salon. They have a sixth-grade daughter. Every other year she takes a month off to visit her parents in Vietnam. Every other trip (every four years), the whole family – three people – can go. For the past several months she has been in treatment for breast cancer. She had another surgery on Thursday and was at work yesterday.
I tell you this, to remind ourselves that in this economy most of us showed up last and got paid first. And yet, when we hear it read out loud, with whom do we most identify? If you aren't sure, then say out loud right now the thought that first comes to mind: Some worked all day, some worked an hour. “Wow, that is so not . . . FAIR?” And there it is. The granddaddy of all bad words: FFFFFFFFAIR. We read it as if we work 67 manual labor hours a week. As if we are the ones breaking our backs for minimum wage. As if we've earned everything we call our own. Maybe today we could take another listen and see what else might ring true.
Let's pray. We have so much – most of all privilege and opportunity. May our gratitude take the shape of generosity – of spirit and material things too.
This parable starts out much like the one last week: Jesus gives a teaching the disciples don't understand. Then Peter, having never heard the saying, Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt, pipes up as their spokesman. In this case, Jesus has been talking about the difficulty rich people have in the kingdom of God. The disciples are dismayed by this, since they had always been taught that being rich was a sign of God's preference. To their dismay, Jesus says, “I know, right? But what is impossible for humans is possible for God.” And Peter says, “Okay look, we have left everything and followed you. What, then, will we have?” – Peter’s version of “ Hey, that's not fair!”
It just makes me cringy – like some episodes of The Office, when Michael Scott is especially clueless – ‘cause you know Jesus is about to dog him with something painful. And then we end up realizing we are just as confused and clueless as the disciples and as cringy as Peter. A landowner needs grape pickers. Backbreaking work, which is why I picked this photo for our bulletin cover. At the Oliver vineyards, the pickers don't have to carry them like this; tractors pull carts through the rows. I doubt Palestinian pickers use those even now.
You know the details: the landowner hired workers at four different times throughout the day. At evening when it was time to pay, he first paid the ones who'd come to work last. Paid them the same as he'd promised to pay the ones he'd hired first. We aren't given to know what the 12 noon and three o'clock shifts got. I assume the same – a denarius, 20 cents, enough to feed a family for a day. The ones with tenure quickly do the math, they will get $2.40! More than a week of groceries!!
Turns out, no. They got what they negotiated – 20 cents. And when they received it, what do these lucky workers do? Grumble, the Bible says. They grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Isn't that just like the labor class? Agree to certain terms, then grumble about it later? They weren't grumbling when they thought they'd get paid more.
But now that they are getting what they were told they'd get, suddenly it seems like so much less. Now the economics of this are real. Should the landowner pay whatever he wants to his pickers? Is that what we believe? But now that they are getting the same as the one-hour workers, it feels wrong, unjust. Why? Take the money out of it. Now, why? For no other reason than that people they think less of are being paid the same as them. And they cannot stand it. You have made them equal to us.
Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, the cross. We have left everything, Peter thinks, the way recent college graduates think they worked hard in college. He hasn't. But he will. Sit with that a minute. Or a year. You have made them equal to us. Who do you want not made equal to yourself? White supremacists? Because if the story hits us as, “Wow, that is so not fair that the people who hardly worked got paid as much as the ones who worked all day,” then, friends, there has got to be someone.
In that first story I told, about Than (not her real name) – I suspect her reaction to this story would also be, “Wow that's not fair!” since she lives this story every time I waltz in there for my little “Me Time.” We chat about our families and cooking, but I'm under no illusions who I am to her. She calls me Ahn, but Bread and butter might as well be my name.
Like last week's parable, Jesus chooses money to teach us the math of grace, the currency that can't be earned. You'll never give up enough to earn it, Peter, but if you will listen to what I'm telling you and watch what I am showing you, you might just learn to trade in it this side of heaven. What is it that Jesus needs us to hear? Let’s start again. The landowner hired four crews that day. Assuming the work day was twelve hours (grape harvest season in Galilee June/July), Crew One worked twelve hours, Crew Two worked six hours, Crew Three worked three hours, and Crew Four worked one hour. Everyone got their twenty cents.
Save the landowner, all of those workers were unemployed when they got out of bed that morning. Yet by 6 PM, Crew One had promoted themselves to shareholders! They aren't jealous of Crew Four, are they? Of whom are they jealous? It says plainly in verse 15. Are you jealous because I am generous? They're jealous of the landowner, of his power to decide who gets what.
Peter doesn't want Jesus to decide what Peter gets. Peter wants to decide what Peter gets. But not just Peter – everyone else too. I think like I’m Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I know what should be done to everyone about everything! Just like I love being generous. It makes me feel wonderful to be generous, to tip, to help, to share. I'm not bragging, I'm confessing. Because the generous one is the one who has and the one who decides who gets what I have. To be generous is to be powerful, even if that generosity is well meant and comes from a desire to love Jesus. To love being generous is also to covet, in some way, power over other people that doesn't belong to me. Or us. Crew One says, you have made them equal to us. Wow, does that sting!
For all our talk about equality and justice, wow, does that sting! It stings me that my first reaction to this story is not, “How awesome that the latecomers got to feed their kids the next day too!” But even more, it stings that it has taken so long to understand, “Wow, I AM one of the latecomers.” This parable is first and foremost for Peter and his brothers, who for all their grumbling would have nothing were it not for Jesus having come along and found them when they were day-laboring fishermen. And it is for us, who can claim no better apart from the grace of God.
Not one of us got here by ourselves, amen? Most of us get way more credit than we deserve. Amen? Any of you ever say to yourselves, if these people knew what a hack I am at this? The hardest thing about the parable may not be that “the last shall be first,” but rather, at the end of the day the last and the first are exactly the same. And our task is to learn to live, to walk and to talk, to ourselves and one another, convinced it's true.
Would you pray with me?
There once was a billionaire who shook down his neighbor – threatened his life! – for a tiny debt, for one six-hundred-thousandth of the amount he had already inherited that same day. For his wickedness the billionaire was arrested and given a life sentence of hard labor. The story is made up, of course, by Jesus. He called it a parable of what the kingdom of God is like. He told it in response to Peter's question about exactly how forgiving Jesus expects church people to be toward one another. Jesus told a made-up story, and church people have been working the numbers ever since.
Let's pray that grace might come to us like rain, soaking us through, saturating every nook and cranny of our existence, overwhelming our capacity to keep any kind of count – grace that never, ever thins or grows scarce. Abundance, O God, that abundance might be our mindset and our heart's resting place, so we need not cling, in jealousy, resentment or pride to what we can, by your abundant grace, let go. Thick skins, O God, help us grow them. Tender hearts, O God, help us keep them. Amen.
Only Matthew tells this parable (with its long introduction!), Jesus reciting Deuteronomy 19:15, mixing in church language, to talk about community, essentially. What to do when someone in the community is stirring the pot? Ruffling feathers. Causing trouble, maybe, like Carl's Aunt Pearl. She makes chess pie and then gets her feelings hurt when no one except Carl and Janet eats it because it really is icky like raw eggs. So you invite her to make a different dish – but she keeps making the icky eggy pie and then getting all mad and ugly about how folks don't eat it – even though Carl and Janet are just slurping it up every month.
So then, Jesus says, a couple of people should go, talk about it, see if something can be worked out. If it is still something that can't be lived with, the whole congregation asks her to reconsider how she is about her pie (it’s not about pie – she’s a bully!) and if she won't, and the church body can't live with the situation, the third step: church her. Tell her, her attitude about the pie situation is poisoning church fellowship. Request that she change or leave. Then enforce it.
Where two or three are gathered, I am there, Jesus says – a text we generally use to reassure ourselves of God's presence in small groups, when maybe Jesus was pointing out that just one person never gets to speak for God. But the thread Peter pulls from all that is . . . ? How much of that pie do I have to stomach? How many times? Peter wants to know, as many as seven?
Folks who know the Torah hear Peter pretending not to know the Torah only requires three – one of those “teacher’s pet moves” of his. We definitely know better. This is not our first day in Jesus math. Not seven, says Jesus. Seventy-seven – or 490, depending on which ancient manuscript one prefers. Does he say forgive 77 times? or 70 x 7 times = 490 times? I've heard Bible study arguments about this so fierce you'd have thought the moon and stars hung in the balance.
Jesus math is crazy because it is not numerical – it's moral. Ethical. Spiritual. And always, always, always – hyperbole. Thus, the billionaire. It doesn't even sound like a parable until the currency is converted. Ten thousand talents equals ten million first-century dollars, which equals $7 billion currently. 100 denarii equals $20 first-century or $11,000 currently.
On the Forbes list of the 400 richest, numbers 63-73 are in the $7 billion range. Any guesses? Christy Walton. Jim Jones. Ralph Lauren. Meijer Foods. David Green of Hobby Lobby. My two favorites: an engineer who invented a one-piece car bumper; and a scientist who invented a pancreatic cancer drug. However, at my salary $7 billion equals 140,000 working years. $11,000 equals 3.5 months.
To talk about sin – or guilt – of all the metaphors he might choose, Jesus chooses debt. Debt is numerical; you can write it down like a number. But God knows it feels moral. And what else? What does debt FEEL like? sickness? threatening? endless? deadly? embarrassing? shameful?
In Jesus' parable the debt is monetized. But are there other kinds of debt? Anybody here owe your boss anything? An e-mail? A report? What about your professor – or your students? Have you got your grades caught up? Are any folks waiting to hear back from you about anything? Got anything around your house you told your spouse you'd take care of? Do you love having this brought up? Just how much do you expect me to let go and go and go, God? And yet, what is so interesting is that Peter asks, as if he is the king. As if he is the one owed $7 billion. Is he?
Is that how Jesus means him to hear it? Okay Peter. Okay church. Here's how forgiveness works in the kingdom of God. The king of the kingdom gives you more life than you could ever earn in one hundred thousand lifetimes. Free and clear. You didn't earn it. You don't deserve it. And yet, he wants you to have it. It's yours. Go – have it. Live it. Enjoy it. Of the three, he does one. He goes. But he doesn't live – at least not the one-hundred- thousand-lives kind of life he has just been given. And he doesn't take any joy in it.
Apparently, all he can feel is exactly what he felt before – as if he is still owed something more, when he believed there was debt to be paid: afraid; deprived; disadvantaged; without; wanting; needing; poor; empty; abandoned; knee-deep in a river dying of thirst (as the song goes).
$7 billion. 140,000 lifetimes. He declines to believe it. So deep is his attachment to – what? His own ego? His own need to prove that he CAN? Rather than accept that he simply IS – loved, worthy. He happens upon a client, a customer – one who owes him one-six-hundred-thousandth the amount he's just been forgiven.
One-six-hundred-thousandth. It's like owing someone the dirt on a penny. He threatens to kill him. How poor does a person this rich have to feel to kill another over money? But debt? It's all debt, isn't it? All the greed and fear and injustice and corruption. It's all a matter of us being so sure we are owed something that we simply cannot do without. And if we are believers, if we are Peter, or if we are the church, it is our utter and complete failure to believe the gospel that by the work of God in Jesus Christ, all those accounts are long settled. We are free. And being free, we are owed Not One Thing – From Anyone Ever. Amen, friends? Amen.
But whether or not we live like we believe it is entirely up to us. The Bible billionaire didn't. His fellow members were appalled. They told the king, and back to prison he goes. Not for the debt this time, mind you, but for being a jerk. The Voice (a translation I sometimes check – sort of like the Amplified Bible) reads, “You slovenly scum, you begged me to forgive your debt, and I did. Surely you should have shown the same charity to a friend who was in your debt.”
Slovenly scum! Do you think Peter realized Jesus was talking about him? Do we? Christian brothers and sisters, having been forgiven a debt we could not pay in ten thousand lifetimes, asking Jesus straight-faced how many times he expects us to forgive one another. Is seven okay, Jesus? Would seven suit you?
And Jesus says, “How about 77? Or 490?” As if to say, there is no end to my expectations; I expect you to forgive each other again and again and again and again. Because, there is no end to the well of forgiveness I have set down in my kingdom. It's not money. It's not food. It doesn't lose value and it doesn't spoil. There is absolutely, positively no end to it ever.
But only if we live like it. And friends, if we don't, then what are we doing here? If not for the distribution and delivery of grace, what are Christians even for? If not for the exchange of the gospel between us, the grace of God in Christ Jesus, why go through all this business of pretending? To pacify our pride? To convince ourselves of virtue?
Honestly, I'd really rather travel. Or read. Or stay home and sew and pet my dog. Because people drive me crazy. I love them. And they drive me crazy. And I love them. But by God's grace, we are bound here for good reason. Because we have been more than set free just for ourselves and for one another. We are set free for a world that has no idea yet, how good God has been to it. It's our privilege to be the ones to show them. Would you pray with me?