Out of Love for the Truth

John 8:31-36

“Out of love for the truth and from a desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place.  Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.  In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

This was the introduction to the 95 Theses which Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Wittenberg University Chapel on Wednesday, October 31, 1517.   We sometimes think that nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the church was an act of rebellion, and in retrospect it was powerfully symbolic, but it was actually a normal practice.  The church door served as a kind of bulletin board for the academic community.  If you wanted to propose a debate, that’s where you posted the notice with the propositions to be discussed.

Luther didn’t intend for the 95 Theses to be a manifesto for rebellion.  He had no idea that his challenge to the practice of selling indulgences would spark a revolutionary movement that would sweep across Europe bringing enormous changes in religion, politics, education, and everyday life, but once that movement started, he gave himself to it body and soul because he was committed to the truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ.  The truth quite literally set him free from the heavy-handed authority of Rome—the Pope excommunicated him—but the truth also bound him to the proclamation of salvation by God’s grace through faith and to the authority of God’s word in the scriptures.

Out of love for the truth and from a desire to elucidate it…  

According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate, Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”  In some respects that seems like an almost ridiculous question.  We know what truth is.  We learn about truth almost as soon as we learn to talk.  Sadly, that’s also when we learn to lie, because we learn pretty quickly that the truth may reveal things we would like to keep hidden.  We learn very early on that sometimes truth has consequences that we would like to avoid, and that those consequences might be unpleasant or even painful.  

Truth, the dictionary tells us, is the true or actual state of a matter.  Something is true when it is in conformity with reality.  We say a thing is true when it is a verified or indisputable fact.  The truth reflects actuality or actual existence.  When we say a thing is a basic truth, we mean that it is an obvious or accepted fact.  

Truth means that my desires or imagination do not have the final word in determining what is reality and what is not.

There are twenty-seven verses in the gospels that contain the word truth.  Twenty-one of those verses are in the Gospel of John where truth is not only a central theme, it is anchored in and identified with the person of Jesus.  In John 1:14 we read, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  Three verses later, John puts aside the figurative language of the Word to make it clear who he is talking about: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

When Jesus sat discussing theology with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well, he told her that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  In chapter 14, not long after he has told Thomas that he, himself, is “the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth” and in chapter 16 he tells his disciples that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”  In chapter 17, as he prays for the disciples, Jesus asks that they would be sanctified or consecrated in truth.

“For this I was born,” Jesus told Pilate, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

In today’s Gospel reading from chapter 8 of John’s gospel, we see a hint that some of those who were listening to Jesus were unsure about continuing to follow him.  Some scholars think that this passage is indicative of tension between Jewish believers and Gentile believers in the community where this gospel was written, and John, the writer, is calling both sides back to the middle ground of the truth found in the person and teaching of Jesus.  

“Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word—if you remain faithful to my teachings, then you are truly my disciples.  And you will come to know the truth.  And the truth will set you free.”  When they protested that they were descendants of Abraham and had never been enslaved by anyone—apparently they forgot about their own history with Babylon and Egypt—Jesus went on to make it clear that he was talking about the truth setting them—and us—free from our slavery to sin.

But how does the truth set us free from sin?  

Martin Luther defined sin as being curved in on the self.  Sin is when I put my preferences, my desires, my ideas, my plans, my goals above and before everyone and everything else.  Sin is me, me, me, me, me taken to the extent that it harms or disenfranchises or marginalizes or disempowers or diminishes or neglects you, you, you, you, you.  Sin creates a false reality, an illusion centered on my desires, my fears, my imagination.  And that illusion is seductive and captivating.  It ensnares.  It enslaves.  It makes me believe that I am the center of the universe, that what I think or believe or even just want very, very badly to be true is what is real.

Truth disabuses me of that illusion.

Once again: Truth means that my desires or imagination do not have the final word in determining what is reality and what is not.

We are currently struggling through a time when truth is endangered in our culture.  There’s nothing new about that.  People have always preferred to put their own spin on facts that confront their biases or preconceived ideas.  People throughout history have taken refuge in denial when events or outcomes don’t fit the way they wanted things to happen or the results they wanted.  What’s new is how widespread this devaluation of the truth has become.  

When lies and spin become so prevalent that they begin to undermine any common understanding of basic facts, the world becomes a more dangerous place.  When people refuse to accept observable facts, when there is no longer the common cultural ground of truth based on fact, then there is no longer a starting point for discussion or compromise.  There is no way to move past confrontation and opposed binary positions that divide us.  When people lift up conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” as justification for their actions or opinions then we stand on the precipice of political violence. 

Sadly, we have seen clear examples of that lately.  It has become the sin of our society.

Sin convinces me that I stand apart from the rest of humanity.  But the truth, the fact, is that I am deeply and intimately connected to the rest of humanity and, in fact, to all of creation.  Standing apart is an illusion.  Rugged individualism is a destructive myth—destructive because it undermines and negates the relationships that keep us alive in every sense of the word.

“We must all overcome the illusion of separateness,” said Richard Rohr.  “It is the primary task of religion to communicate not worthiness but union, to reconnect people to their original identity “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Bible calls the state of separateness ‘sin.’ God’s job description is to draw us back into primal and intimate relationship. As 1 John 3:2 reminds us, ‘My dear people, we are already children of God; what we will be in the future has not yet been fully revealed, and all I do know is that we shall be like God.’”

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live in the imitation of God.  We are called to observe what God is doing all the time and everywhere and then do the same.  We are called to be generous because God is generous.  We are called to be creative because God is creative.  We are called to embrace diversity because God revels in diversity so much that no two things are exactly alike in the entire universe.  But above and beyond everything else, we are called to love.  Because God loves.  God is love.  And, as Richard Rohr has said, God does not love us if and when we change.  God loves us so that we can change.

That is grace—the grace that makes us whole, the grace that heals us, the grace that reunites us, the grace that saves us.  

Believe it.  

It’s the truth…and it’s the only thing that can set us free.

All That and a Bag of Chips

Luke 18:9-14

One time I was at a planning meeting for a popular annual youth event, and we were discussing adding some people to the planning team who we thought might bring some new energy and ideas.  One very talented and popular youth director had let us know that he would like to be part of the team and that he had, in his words, “some great ideas to transform the event.”  We all liked this guy, but at the same time, his over-the-top self-confidence was a little off-putting.  “Well, he’s very talented and capable,” said one of the women on the team, “but his ego walks into the room before he does.”  “Yeah,” said another, “he thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips.”  

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a man who seems to think he’s “all that and a bag of chips.”  In contrast, there is also a man in the story who is so ashamed of himself that he can’t lift his eyes from the floor.  

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NRSV)

On the face of it, this looks like the easiest of all the Jesus stories to interpret.  The point seems pretty clear:  Ego and bragging are bad.  Humility is good.  There.  Riddle solved.  Let’s go home.

But wait a minute.  I want to tell you this story again, but this time I want to take away Luke’s introduction and give you another translation of the ending.  

Remember, when Luke sat down to write his gospel he was drawing from a number of sources.  One of those sources was a unique collection of Jesus stories that Matthew, Mark and John apparently didn’t have, because those stories don’t appear in their gospels.  

If you read carefully, you may notice that when Luke inserts these stories into his telling of the life of Jesus, he often frames them with his opinion of what the story is about.  We saw this last week with Luke’s telling of the parable of the Widow and the Judge.  You may also notice that in Luke’s gospel, Pharisees almost always appear in a negative light and tax collectors are always portrayed as repenting and being transformed.  

These biases in Luke are so apparent that they almost amount to a binary formula in his writing: Pharisees bad, tax collectors good.  It’s important to remember, though, that the people who originally heard Jesus tell these stories fifty or more years before Luke wrote them down would have had exactly the opposite view:  Pharisees good, tax collectors bad.  In fact, tax collectors would have been seen as frankly despicable.  

Tax collectors were despised and regarded as traitors because they were considered  to be collaborators with the Roman oppressors.  In fact, tax collectors were so hated that they were frequently assassinated by a group of anti-Rome Jewish zealots called the Sicarii.  Some of the shock value of this story is that the tax collector even dares to come into the temple to pray.  

Pharisees, on the other hand, were generally admired.  People looked up to them as examples of how to live a righteous life.  They went above and beyond the requirements of Torah in order to increase the righteousness of all Israel.  They saw their fastidious keeping of the law as a kind of patriotic duty.  They believed that Messiah would not come until the nation was righteous enough to receive him, so they were extra conscientious about keeping the law to make up for those who were not.  The Pharisee in this parable would have believed that his extra righteousness could even compensate, at least a bit, for the tax collector’s treasonous collaboration with Rome, because they were both children of the covenant.

In our culture, in our day and age, we find the Pharisee’s prayer in this parable braggadocios and obnoxious.  ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  We tend to prefer our heroes a little humbler.

Gregory Peck and a friend were waiting for a table one night at a crowded restaurant and the wait seemed to be dragging on forever.  His friend became impatient and said to Gregory Peck, “Why don’t you tell the maître d’ who you are?”  Peck replied, “No, if you have to tell them who you are, then you aren’t.”

We like that kind of self-effacing humility.

The Pharisee’s prayer sounds like the opposite of that.  It sounds like he’s trying to remind God that he is one of the good guys, one of the important people, and he’s grateful that God made him a VIP.  It also sounds, at least to most of us, like he thinks he has earned whatever favor he has from God.

From that perspective, the Pharisee’s prayer reminds me a little of the table grace prayed by Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson in the movie Shenandoah:  “Lord, we cleared this land.  We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it.  We cook the harvest.  It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.  We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat.  Amen.”

As I said earlier, it’s easy to read this parable as a story of self-righteous arrogance versus self-deprecating humility with Jesus declaring the contrite tax collector as the one who is justified.  But let me tell you the same story in a different way and see what you think.

Two broken men went into the temple to pray.  One of them knew he was broken and one did not like to think of himself that way but there was an uneasiness in his soul, a feeling of unworthiness that he just couldn’t escape.  

The one who knew he was broken was a tax collector.  His job made him a pariah.  Everyone hated him and saw him as a traitor because he worked for the Romans.  He hated himself for doing it.  But times were hard and there was a family to feed and clothe and a job was a job.  So he was living a life he hated and had become a person he hated.

The other man, a Pharisee, wanted more than anything else in the world to be righteous, to know that God approved of him.  He worked hard at being righteous.  He went above and beyond what the Torah required.  He was as good as it was possible to be according to the law.  And yet sometimes he felt like an imposter.  Sometimes he felt like none of it was good enough to make God love him.  So he stood off by himself in the temple and quietly prayed a prayer that was half to God and half to himself.  “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like other people…(I’m not a bad guy)…like thieves, rogues, adulterers… (I’m not a bad guy) or like this tax collector… I live by Torah… I fast twice a week… I give a tenth of everything… (Lord, tell me I’m a good guy.)”  He finished his prayer—half self-talk, half talking to God, and sighed.  Everything he said about himself, to himself, was true. And yet he still felt somehow incomplete.  Like he was missing something.  Something important.

As the Pharisee was leaving the temple, he glanced over at the other broken man, the tax collector. He was standing off in a corner, away from everyone else, but the Pharisee could see that the man was beating his breast and his face was damp with tears as he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And here is where we need to retranslate the end of the story.  There is a little word in the Greek text, para, that has multiple meanings.  It’s a preposition.  Most of our English translations translate it as “instead of” or “rather than.”  So our Bibles end the story with Jesus saying, “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other.” They’re telling us that the tax collector is justified and the Pharisee is not.  But that little word para can also mean “along with” or “beside.”  

How do we hear it if the story ends with Jesus saying, “I tell you this man went home justified alongside the other.”  Alongside the other.

Maybe this is a story about both of them receiving grace.  Maybe this is a story about both of them finding some healing as they stand before God in the temple praying their broken prayers from the depth of their broken hearts, each in the only way he knows how to pray.  Maybe this is a story about what our way of praying says about how we understand God.

And yes, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  But maybe that means we will all meet somewhere in the middle under the umbrella of God’s love and grace.   In Jesus’ name.

The Works of Grace

Luke 16:19-31

One bright afternoon in heaven, three people showed up at the Pearly Gates at the same time. St. Peter called the first person over and said, “What did you do on earth?” “I was a doctor,” she replied.  “I treated people when they were sick and if they could not pay I would treat them for free.”  “That’s wonderful, Doctor,” said St. Peter. “Welcome to heaven, and be sure to visit the science museum!”  Then he called the second person over.  “What did you do on earth?” he asked.  “I was a school teacher,” he replied.  “I taught educationally challenged children.”  “Oh, well done!” said St. Peter.  “Go right in!  And be sure to check out the buffet!”  Then St. Peter called over the third person.  “And what did you do on earth?” he asked.  “I ran a large health insurance company,” said the man.  “Well, you  may go in,” said St. Peter.  “But you can only stay for three days.”

Some people think that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is about heaven and hell.  And in a way, maybe it is, but not in the obvious way.  Like all good parables, this story where the poor man is comforted after death and the rich man is left languishing alone in Hades is another one of those Jesus stories that should make us stop and rethink what we believe and what role that belief plays in our lives.

We Lutherans and many other Protestants are big on Grace.  This was Martin Luther’s big breakthrough after all—the understanding that we don’t earn our salvation, but that God’s love, God’s grace is what saves us. 

When I was in confirmation class many, many years ago, our whole class was required to memorize Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—  not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  The Lutheran curriculum we were following wanted to make it crystal clear that being saved was entirely dependent on God’s grace.  For most of us at that age, being saved simply meant that you get to go to heaven when you die, and no one suggested that there might be richer or more nuanced ways to understand it.

So Grace, we were taught, is your ticket to heaven and the only way in.  The formula was pretty simple.  You might do all the nice and good things it’s possible to do in the world, but that won’t get you into heaven because no matter how good and nice and helpful you are, you’re still going to sin.  You can’t help it.  It’s part of human nature.  And sinful people can’t go to heaven, because no sin is allowed there.  But, if you believe in Jesus, then God will forgive all your sins!   You get a free pass.  You get Grace with a capital G.

The problem with our Protestant theology of Grace is that too many people stopped with that overly simple middle-school understanding.  Too many people came to believe that all they have to do is accept Jesus into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior, and that’s it.  Done.  

This truncated understanding can lead to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a belief that what you do or don’t do doesn’t matter because God will forgive you for Christ’s sake simply because you say you believe.  This is like setting off on a thousand mile hike and stopping after the first 20 yards.  At best, “cheap grace” leads to a very shallow personal theology and a me-centered spirituality.  At worst it lays a foundation for an “anything goes” way of life with no sense of accountability. People who believe in this kind of “cheap grace” can sometimes do atrocious things, or leave very necessary things undone, and still think of themselves as “saved.”  

Many of us cling to the gift of grace promised in Ephesians 2:8-9, and rightfully so, but too many of us stopped reading too soon;  we failed to read on through verse 10 where it says,  “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (NRSV) 

I particularly like the way the New Living Translation renders verse 10:  “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

We are saved—rescued, healed, made whole, restored—by grace through faith.  But “through faith” doesn’t just mean that we intellectually accept the idea of grace.  Real faith opens our eyes to God’s grace at work in our lives and the world around us.  Real faith moves us to embody and to enact God’s grace.  Real faith moves us to do the good things God planned for us long ago.  If we don’t do those good things, then faith becomes nothing more than a security blanket of wishful thinking to wrap around ourselves on dark nights of doubt and fear.  As the Book of James says, “we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:24-26)

One of the themes in Luke and Acts is the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, and yet Luke doesn’t let us “spiritualize” things that put us on the spot.  The examples of the “work of the Spirit” in Luke and Acts, especially as that work plays out in the ministry of Jesus, are practical, concrete, and challenging.  As much as we might want to spiritualize the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it’s tough to explain away its central message, especially in light of what Jesus has to say about wealth and poverty throughout the entire Gospel.  

The Gospel of Luke emphasizes that the status of the rich and poor is reversed in the kingdom of God.  In the opening chapter of Luke, Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (1:46-55)

 In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and then “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” (6:20-25)

Luke makes it clear that “the poor” receive special attention in the ministry of Jesus and in the kingdom he is announcing. When he stands up to preach in the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah,  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (4:18)

When John the Baptist is in prison and sends one of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one they’ve been waiting for, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (7:22)

When he is a dinner guest at the home of a Pharisee, Jesus tells his host and others, “Don’t invite all your friends to your banquets, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” (14:12) – because that’s who is invited to God’s banquet (14:21).

When the rich young ruler asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life he is told to go sell all he has and give it to the poor. (18:18-30)

In Luke’s gospel Jesus makes it clear that having “treasures in heaven” is not just about piety; it is also about selling possessions and distributing wealth to the poor. (12:33; 18:22) 

In Luke’s gospel, conversion doesn’t just mean accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior or asking Jesus into your heart. When Zacchaeus the tax collector is befriended by Jesus, he gives half of his possessions to the poor and repays anyone he has defrauded four times over.  

Concern for the poor is a central part of the ministry of Jesus, but it wasn’t invented by Jesus.  Jesus himself stresses that it is the commandment of Torah.  In Deuteronomy, Moses states: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.  You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.  Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.  Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” (Deut. 15:7-11)

This parable of the rich man and Lazarus raises important questions.  We’re not told that Lazarus did anything particularly noble or good.  He was just poor.  So why is he carried away by angels to be nestled and comforted in the bosom of Abraham after he dies?   We’re not told that the rich man did anything particularly horrible, he’s just self-centered.  So why is he in anguish in the flames of Hades after he dies?

Lazarus benefits from the default of grace.  He is a descendent of Abraham, so he is included in God’s covenant with Abraham.  He hasn’t done anything to remove himself from the covenant so he will spend eternity “in the bosom of Abraham,” enjoying companionship with others who have kept the covenant.

The rich man, on the other hand, removed himself from the covenant when he failed to “open his hand” to the poor and needy neighbor on his doorstep.  He failed to even see Lazarus, much less see their kinship in the covenant of Abraham and the covenant of humanity.  Instead of using his resources to help Lazarus, he used them exclusively to feed his own appetites. He is condemned to live forever in the burning loneliness that he, himself, created.  By focusing only on himself during his life, he created a great uncrossable chasm which now separates him forever from the companionship of eternity. 

“Some people, we learn, will never change,” says Amy-Jill Levine.  “They condemn themselves to damnation even as their actions condemn others to poverty.  If they think that they can survive on family connections—to Abraham, to their brothers—they are wrong.  If they think their power will last past their death, they are wrong again.”[1]

There is a sad “too-little-too-late” moment at the end of this short story by Jesus.  The rich man, realizing that there is no reprieve for him, asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they don’t end up “in this place of torment.”  Abraham reminds him that Moses and the prophets have already warned them, and the rich man replies, “No, Father Abraham!  But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent!”  Abraham says simply, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”

“We are those five siblings of the rich man,” wrote Barbara Rossing.  “We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation… We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and hungry.  We even have someone who has risen from the dead.  The question is: Will we—the five sisters and brothers—see?  Will we heed the warning before it’s too late?”[2]

[1] Short Stories by Jesus, p. 271, Amy-Jill Levine

[2] Working Preacher.org; Barbara Rossing, Commentary on Luke 16:19-31, September 25, 2016

Entertaining Angels

Hebrews 13:1-2, 15-16; Luke 14:7-14

“Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (Hebrews 13:1-2, NRSV)

“The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor.  Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks.”  (Luke 14:12, The Message)

These texts this week reminded me of Eric.  I think about him a lot.  Eric showed up one Sunday night when we were doing Stories, Songs and Supper.  He stood at the church door and asked what was happening as he saw people gathering, greeting each other, laughing, and we told him, “It’s a thing we do called Stories, Songs, and Supper.  We share a meal then sing a bunch of old familiar songs, then someone tells a story, then we sing a little more.”  We invited him to come in and join us.  So he did.

I was pretty sure he was homeless, although to be fair, his clothes were neater and cleaner than most of the other unhoused people who came to the church.  Eric had a gift of gab and while we were eating he told us a bit about himself.  That’s when he told us that this dinner was special for him because it was his birthday.  So we all sang Happy Birthday to him.  After supper, he helped to clear the tables, then joined us in the sanctuary for the singing and storytelling. 

Eric showed up for worship the next Sunday morning and also joined in our Adult Education class.  He joined in with one of our small groups in the volunteer work they were doing with Lutheran Social Services.  In almost no time Eric became an important member of our little family of faith at Gloria Dei.

 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” we read in Hebrews, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Well,  Eric was no angel…but then again, maybe he was.  In ancient times the word angel had a double meaning.  It could refer to a supernatural being who served God, or it could simply mean a messenger.   Eric was, in and of himself, a message to us—a gift to us all at the little church with a big heart.

We learned a lot from Eric.  We learned a little about life on the streets.  We learned more than we wanted to know about our neighbors’ attitudes toward the unhoused.  We learned how the police and the justice system in our city respond to those who are experiencing homelessness.  We learned about our own attitudes toward those living rough.  Most of all, though, we experienced an energy and vitality that’s been missing since he left us.  All this because we welcomed one gregarious man into our party on his birthday.

“The next time you put on a dinner,” said Jesus,  “don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor.  Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks.  You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.” (Luke 14:12-14, The Message

“You will be—and you will experience—a blessing.”  Eric taught us just how true that is.

Jesus loved sharing meals with people.  Think about all the stories in the gospels that involve eating!  Jesus distributed food to multitudes.  Jesus dined with Simon the Tanner and Zacchaeus.  And, of course, there was that last Passover meal with his disciples.  After the resurrection he broke bread with the Emmaus travelers and cooked fish on the beach for the disciples.  Jesus shared a table with Pharisees even though some Pharisees had criticized him for sharing a table with “the wrong kind of people.”  “This fellow eats with tax collectors and sinners!”  There are so many Jesus stories that revolve around eating that some have suggested that his primary work was organizing dinner parties. 

Sharing the table—issuing a wide and inclusive invitation—this was one of the ways Jesus embodied the kingdom of God. 

“The gospel,” wrote Rachel Held Evans, “doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out.  It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome!  There’s bread and wine.  Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy, it’s a kingdom for the hungry.”

In the earliest days of what we now think of as the Church, many—maybe most—groups of Jesus followers were dinner-party groups—they organized their fellowship and worship around sharing a table, and everyone brought what they could to the banquet.  We see hints of this in 1 Corinthians 11 when St. Paul chastises the Corinthians for bringing their divisions to the table, but even more sternly for failing to make sure that the have-nots were included in the celebration when the haves were feasting.

“When you meet together,” he wrote, “you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper.  For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk.  What? Don’t you have your own homes for eating and drinking?  Or do you really want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor? What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!” (1 Cor 11:20-22, NLT)

The practice of early Christianity was centered around the table.  When it worked it was egalitarian, transformative, and beautiful.  When it didn’t it descended into another bad example of classism.  But the evidence suggests that most of the time and in most places it worked.  

The table of Christ was the one place in their world where they were all equal.  It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you lived in a mansion or sheltered under the eaves of the town hall.  It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you were a slave or a free person.  It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you were male or female—at least not in those earliest days of the Jesus followers.  

At the table of Christ, all were equal and all shared in what was brought to the supper—but most especially, all shared in the bread and the wine of Christ’s presence.

In his book The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism, Stephen J. Patterson has recovered what is believed to be the earliest baptismal creed of the Jesus followers:

“For you are all children of God in the Spirit.

There is no Jew or Greek,

there is no slave or free,

there is no male and female;

for you are all one in the Spirit.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because St. Paul quotes this creed in his letter to the Galatians with a slight twist at the end.  Instead of saying “for you are all one in the Spirit,” Paul writes, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

“The creed’s basic claim,” writes Patterson, “is that baptism exposes the follies by which most of us live, defined by the other, who we are not.  It declares the unreality of race, class, and gender: there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female.  We may not all be the same, but we are all one, each one a child of God.” 

In Journey With Jesus this week, Dan Clendenin described how a friend of his daughter wanted to invite everyone in her church to her wedding but the budget wouldn’t allow it.  So instead of having a fancy wedding meal for just a few family and close friends, they got the police to block off the main street in downtown Waco, Texas.  Guests danced in the streets and ate ice cream from a Baskin Robbins ice cream cart.  The wedding cake was under the gazebo in the park and they cut small pieces so everyone could get a taste.  The groom, a pastor, had worked a lot with homeless people and many of them showed up for the wedding,  then helped to clean up the streets afterward.  The little African-American girl who lived next door to the bride brought her mother and her grandfather along to the wedding.  The grandfather quickly became the center of attention as he danced to the street music and soon the college girls were lining up to dance with him.  Passers-by strolling on the street were invited to join in the party.  And everyone was welcomed as an honored guest.

This is what the kingdom of God looks like.  A celebration that’s open to everyone.

It’s a family of sinners, saved by grace, tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome!  There’s bread and wine.  Come eat with us and talk.

This is what the church of Jesus is supposed to be about:  radical hospitality.   

A kingdom for the hungry.

So let mutual love continue. 

But don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers.

Who knows… they just might be angels.

image © Hyatt Moore

Unresolved Melody

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

When I was seven years old, not long after we moved to California from Kansas City, a little black dog showed up at our door one night, whimpering on the front porch and scratching on the door to be let inside.  This adorable and pugnacious little Pekingese/Cocker mix of a dog didn’t have a collar or tags, and this was decades before microchips, so we had no idea where he came from or who his people might be.  We ran an ad in the paper and I went door-to-door for several blocks asking if anyone had lost their little black dog, but nobody claimed him. 

So we did.  We named him Barney. We got him his shots and tags, and he officially became our dog.

We loved Barney, and I’m pretty sure he loved us, too.  He would sleep curled up next to me in my bed.  He would snuggle up next to us on the couch when we were reading or watching TV.  He gave us lots of little dog kisses.  He loved to pull my sister and me up and down the sidewalk on our roller skates.  And he rode patiently in the car with us as we made the long car trip every summer back to Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas to see family.  He was in almost every way a perfect family dog.  But Barney had one bad habit.  An impulse, really.  If anyone left the back gate or the screen door open, he would be off like a shot, running as fast as his little legs would carry him, launching himself out into the world to have an adventure.  A few times he was gone for several days before some kind soul took him in and then called us to come pick him up.  

When Barney took off on one of his adventures, I’m sure it never crossed his little canine mind that we were heartbroken and worried sick about him.  And when he came home nothing was ever really resolved.  Dogs are very capable of showing regret, but Barney never did.  There was always a risk that he would take off and go exploring again.  It was just in his nature.  Some dogs are like that.  And so are some people.

We are all happier when people—and dogs—color within the lines.  We all secretly think that the world would be a better, happier place if everyone stayed in their lane and lived by the rules and boundaries as we know and understand them.  But the plain truth is that not everyone does.  Some people have different, looser ideas of what is acceptable and what is not.  Some dogs just want to see what else is out there.

Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling because Jesus was hanging out with and sharing meals with “tax collectors and sinners.”  They didn’t think it was appropriate for Jesus to be making friends with people who were not socially acceptable by their standards, and they told him so.  But Jesus didn’t respond directly to their criticism.  Instead, he told them a story.

“There was a man,” he said, “who had two sons.”  We all know this story.  We call it The Prodigal Son, although a better title might be The Two Brothers, or even The Over-Indulgent Father.  Amy-Jill Levine suggests that it could be called The Parable of the Absent Mother.  That puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it?   And it fits, since this is really a story about family dynamics.

Whatever title we use, we know this story so well that I wonder if we really listen to it.  There is a lot going on in this parable that could, maybe should, make us uneasy.  We assume that it’s about sinning, repenting, and forgiving.  But is it?  Or are we imposing our traditional understanding and ideas on this story and ignoring the ancient culture that heard it first, a culture that saw things very differently?

Was it a great sin for the younger son to ask his father for his inheritance?  Jewish law did not prohibit asking for your inheritance, so while it might have been considered foolish, it wouldn’t have been seen as a sin—at least not by the first century Jews who were listening to Jesus as he told this story.

Does the father sin by giving away half of his estate to the younger son?  Deuteronomy 21 says that the oldest son should inherit a double portion, but by the first century it was considered perfectly allowable for a man to divide his estate any way he saw fit.  So while the father’s actions in this parable could also be seen as prodigious foolishness, no one would think he was sinning.  In some circumstances he might even have been seen as prudent.  In The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, Ben Sirach counseled, “When the days of your life reach their end, at the time of your death distribute your property.”  Is the father in this parable, perhaps, nearing the end of his days?  Would that explain why he so readily indulges his son’s unusual request?  The wording in the New Revised Standard Version says that the father “divided his property,” but the wording in the original Greek text says that he “divided his life.”  How should we hear that—not that he is giving half his money or property, but half his life to this younger son?

After asking for his inheritance, the prodigal son doesn’t leave immediately.  “A few days later” he gathers up his things and leaves.  Jesus doesn’t say what happened during those few days.  Did the father try to talk his son out of leaving?  Did the older brother step in and try to talk some sense into him?  The story doesn’t say.  We don’t even know if he said goodbye.  

What the story does tell us is that he went far away—to a far country—somewhere out beyond the boundaries of Jewish law, somewhere far beyond the boundaries and expectations of the home and community he grew up in.  In that far-away place, out beyond the familiar restrictions of home and community, he squandered his wealth with reckless living.  When his money was gone and famine hit the land, nobody helped him.  He managed to find a job feeding pigs, but it didn’t pay anything and he was so hungry that he thought about eating the seed pods that he was feeding to the pigs.  Amy-Jill Levine points out that there’s a proverb from the rabbinic commentary Leviticus Rabbahthat says, “When Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent.”

This is the point in the story where this reckless young man decided that it was better to go home and eat crow than to starve to death in a pig stye.  Jesus, telling the story, says he came to himself.  He admitted to himself that he was not living the dream, having his best life.  He also seemed to realize that if he was going to go home, some sort of apology might be in order.  So as he walked the long way home, he rehearsed a little speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

Now this might sound like he’s repenting, but is it real repentance or is it conniving?  He already knows that his dad is inclined to be extravagantly generous.  And notice this:  he not going to ask to be restored to the full status of being a son, but he’s not volunteering to be a slave, either.  He’s planning to ask his dad to treat him like one of the hired laborers.  They get paid.  When you read his little speech carefully, he still sounds pretty self-absorbed.  There’s no remorse for how he has treated his dad or his brother.  His confession that he has sinned is generic at best.  Basically, as David Buttrick put it, what the prodigal is really saying to himself is, “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.”

He has rehearsed his little speech, but he never got to deliver all of it.  Before he even got all the way home, “while he was still far off” his father saw him and was filled with compassion.  His father ran to him, put his arms around him, kissed him, then started issuing orders.  “Get him some clean clothes!  Put a signet ring on his finger!  Get the barbeque going, and let’s celebrate!  My son was dead and is alive again!  He was lost and is found!”

And now the story shifts focus.  The older brother comes in from mowing hay all day in the hot sun and is surprised to find that there is a party going on because his younger brother has returned home.  This makes him mad, so angry that he refuses to go in the house.  His father comes out to plead with him, to beg him to come in and join the party.  And that’s when we learn that the relationship that is most damaged in this story is the connection between the father and the elder brother.  The older brother unleashes a tirade of pent-up resentment, and as he spews out his bitterness over years of being neglected and overlooked, the father realizes that it’s his older son who is truly “lost” to him.   For years the older brother has worked hard to be “the good son.”  For years he has been faithful to the family values.  For years he has faithfully contributed to the success and wealth of the family.  It’s clear from his outburst that he has a pretty low opinion of his younger brother, but it’s even more clear that his anger is directed primarily at his father.

In response to this flood of anger, all the father can do is try to reassure his eldest son that their bond endures.  “Child,” he says, “you are always with me.  All that I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice because your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  And that’s where Jesus ends the story.

As I said earlier, we have a long tradition of assuming that this parable is about sinning, repenting, and forgiving.  But is it?  As I read it again, I can’t help but notice that nothing in this story gets resolved.  It’s like a melody in the key of C that ends with a G7 chord.  Everything feels suspended.  The younger son never really expresses any remorse or sorrow, in fact no one in this family expresses any regret for the ways they’ve hurt each other.  The father gins up a party to celebrate the return of his younger son, but did you notice that he never actually speaks to him?  He does speak to his oldest son, but the story ends with the two of them still standing outside the house, outside the celebration.  

This parable leaves us with questions hanging in the air.  Will the two brothers reconcile?  Can the father repair his relationship with his oldest, neglected son?  Can he even persuade him to come into the house, to join the party?  Will the prodigal son stay and work for the good of the family, or will he be out the door again when someone leaves the gate or the screen door open?

When all is said and done, if it’s not about repentance and forgiveness, then what is Jesus trying to teach us with this parable?

In Short Stories by Jesus, her outstanding book on the parables, Amy-Jill Levine says that this parable actually guides us with straightforward advice: “Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household.  Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share their joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again.  Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one.  Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it.  Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.

“Instead, go have lunch.  Go celebrate and invite others to join you.  If the repenting and forgiving come later, so much the better.  And if not, you still will have done what is necessary.  You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation.  You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.”[1]

[1] Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, p.69

The Wine of Celebration

John 2:1-12

When Jesus’ mother comes to him during the wedding at Cana and tells him that the hosts have run out of wine,  Jesus says, “What concern is that to you and me?”  It’s really kind of funny to think of Jesus saying this to his mother.  “What does that have to do with us, Mom?”   I don’t know about you, but sometimes that’s how I feel when I read certain stories in the gospels, especially miracle stories.  My first thought at first glance is often, “Okay…but what does that have to do with you and me?”

Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana is often described as his first miracle.  But that’s not the word that the Gospel of John uses.  John’s gospel says it was the first of his signs.  Signs point to something.  Signs tell you that some kind of action is required or they alert you to something up ahead.  If you see a red octagonal sign, you put on the brakes.  If you see a sign that looks like a pointy-headed snake, a fat line that curves back and forth leading to a triangular arrowhead, you slow your roll because the sign has told you that you’re entering a stretch of road with tight curves. 

We refer to the sacraments as signs.  They are not symbols.  They don’t represent something else or invite us to think of something else.  The sacraments are signs of God’s presence and grace here and now.  They require action.  They require us to experience something.  Take and eat.  Drink this, all of you.  Put your head over the font or under the water and receive the Holy Spirit, then begin a whole new life in Christ and in the community of faith.  Right here.  Right now.   

When Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana, John’s gospel says it was the first of his signs.  The miracle itself, miraculous as it is, is not really what we’re supposed to looking at.  It’s pointing to something else.  So what are we supposed to see? What action is required in response?   What is being revealed about Jesus, and what deeper reality is Jesus revealing?  And is there maybe  something about us being revealed, too, in this miracle, this sign?

The word grace appears only four times in the gospels, all four times in the prologue to the gospel of John.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1.14)  “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (1:16-17).  Why does the word grace appear only in the prologue and not anywhere else in John’s gospel?  Professor Karoline Lewis suggests that if we take the Incarnation seriously, then once the Word becomes flesh, “the rest of John’s gospel shows you what grace tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like.”  

Jesus’ signs don’t just tell us what abundant grace is.  They show us.  Turning water into wine is a revelation, a revealing, of grace.  

In Jesus’ time wedding celebrations usually lasted a week and were essentially drinking parties.  There would be lots of food and lots of wine.  Friends and family might contribute food, but the wine was provided by the families of the bride and groom.  Running out of wine would be a huge embarrassment. It would indicate poor planning or poor finances or both.  

We can guess from little details that Jesus probably had some kind of family connection with the couple being married.  Jesus’ mother and brothers were there (2:12) and Mary seems to be comfortable giving orders to the servants, so maybe she was acting in some kind of semi-official capacity.  Maybe she was the wedding coordinator.  Whatever her relationship may have been, she was concerned for the reputation of the couple and the family.  For the couple, running out of wine would mean that their married life was off to a bad start.  The family would become the talk of the town, and not in a good way.  Jesus literally saved them all.  From embarrassment.

The guests were almost certainly poor people.  At least the majority would have been.  Most of the people Jesus knew were poor people, especially at this stage of his ministry.  These were people who worked in fields and vineyards, or fished, or tended livestock, or cut and hauled stones for Roman buildings.  These are folks whose lands have been plundered by ancient Palestine’s version of Big Agriculture—absentee landowners who did none of the work and kept most of the money.  Weddings were one of the few times these people could put all their troubles behind them and celebrate life.  A wedding was a time to drink, and sing and tell stories and dance.  But it would all be cut short if the wine ran out.  

The celebration was in full swing but it was all about to crash like a balloon being popped.  And then Jesus stepped in.  Grace stepped in.  Six stone jars full of water suddenly became wine.  One hundred twenty gallons of wine.  The best wine.  Exquisite wine.  Wine that would have cost them years of their wages.  Jesus turned water into wine so the celebration could continue.  

There was enough wine for everyone and then some.  There was abundance.  And everyone shared in it.  It wasn’t Pinot Noir for the better dressed and Rosé in a box for the rest.  Everyone, from the most prominent guest to the most humble  was served the best wine.  

This sign from Jesus doesn’t just tell us what abundant grace is, it shows us.  “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”  Abundant grace—it tastes like the best wine when you’re expecting the cheap stuff…or even just water.  Abundant grace feels like being suddenly rescued from the worst kind of embarrassment.  Abundant grace looks like all your favorite foods spread out at a banquet.  Abundant grace sounds like music that gets in your bones and moves you with its happy rhythm and makes you dance before you even realize your body is swaying and your feet are tapping.  Abundant grace smells like baking bread and cake and wonderful sauces and fresh strawberries spread out at the buffet.  

Abundant grace fills you so full of life and joy and relief that you want everyone to have it.  You just have to share it.  Taste and see the goodness!

“Grace,” said Robert Capon, “is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.” 

In the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, St. Paul scolds the Corinthians because when they gather together for their Agape feast, some of the more well-off persons are treating it as if it’s their own private picnic.  They have plenty of food and drink for themselves but they’re not sharing it.  Paul tells them that if they think their gathering is just about eating and drinking, then they should eat and drink at home because they’ve missed the point.  Then Paul reminds them that Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, broke bread and passed it out to everyone, then did the same with the wine.  When he said, “This is my body,” he was indicating that everyone who was sharing that bread with him was united to him, that they now would be the Body of Christ.  It’s not just the eating and drinking.  It’s also the sharing.  It’s the connecting of your life to mine and our lives to his.  It’s the unity.  So chew on that for a bit.  

Jesus turned water into a copious abundance of wine.  Embarrassment was averted. Joy was refueled.  That is what grace looks like.

What do the signs of Jesus point to?  Resurrection.  Life in all its fullness.  Joy—Christ’s joy in us so that our joy may be complete.  Light.  And Love. Grace upon grace.

And what does that have to do with you and me?  Well… we are the ones who get to drink this all in.  We are the ones who are still at the wedding, drinking the wine of celebration.  The best wine.  From his fullness we have all received—and are still receiving—grace  upon grace… so much grace that it has to spill out of us and overflow to others.  We are the ones who get to invite others to the abundant feast where the table is always full and the wine never ends.  That’s what all the signs of Jesus point to.  

Pardon Our Disruption

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Such an interesting story in the Book of Numbers.  The people of Israel are on the road between Mt. Hor and the Gulf of Aqaba.  They’re complaining.  Again.  They’re not happy with the food.  It’s always something.  Anyway, the people grumbled, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among them, and many Israelites were bitten and died.  That’s how the Israelites tell the story.

Nobody ever tells the story from the snakes’ point of view.  The way they see it, they were all just hanging about, minding their own snaky business in Snake Land when suddenly the whole nation of Israel showed up with all their noisy grumbling and complaints and pitched camp right on top of them, driving tent pegs down into their dens, breaking their eggs, chasing them with sticks, throwing rocks at them, hacking at them with swords… So yeah, they bit a few of them.  They were just trying to defend themselves.  They weren’t trying to kill anybody.  Why would they?  The Israelites were too big to eat…at least for those kinds of snakes.  

Moses prayed to the Lord to make the snakes go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes asked the Lord to make the people go away.  Maybe the leader of the snakes suggested that the Lord could tell Moses to put a big bronze snake up on a pole to remind the people that they were in snake territory, and that the snakes were there first thank you very much, so they should be careful where they were poking around and pitching their tents.  

Well, that’s not the way we get the story in the Book of Numbers, but then snakes never were any good at public relations, and they don’t come off too well in the Bible as a rule.  Still, it’s interesting that in this particular instance, even in the Moses version of the story, God is using the snakes to accomplish God’s business and that includes healing cranky, ungrateful people from snakebite… which they wouldn’t have got bit in the first place if they hadn’t been cranky and ungrateful and gone poking about looking for something else to eat when there wasn’t anything kosher out there anyway.

So, the moral of that story is be grateful for what you have, even if you’re a little tired of it.  And leave the snakes alone.  

Many, many, many, many, many years later, this story would come up again when Jesus sat down one night with a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus understand some very basic things about living in the love of God.  This was difficult for Nicodemus because he was a very smart and knowledgeable person, a teacher, in fact.  He knew the sacred writings of Israel backwards and forwards and upside down, but the things Jesus was saying mystified him.  He had a lot to unlearn.  The way he understood things got in the way of him comprehending things…if you grasp what I’m saying.  

Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus learn how to see and enter and experience the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus was trying to just get his head around it when he needed to put his whole heart into it.  

Nicodemus needed another pathway into the mystery.

It’s like this, said Jesus.  Remember when Moses lifted up that bronze snake in the wilderness?  It’s like that.  The Human One will also be lifted up.  And in the same way that people were healed when they looked to that bronze snake gleaming in the sun,  they’ll be healed when they look to the Human One, only they’ll be healed of something much more deadly than snake venom.

Have you ever wondered what kind of magic was at work in that bronze snake on that pole in the desert.  It was a powerful magic, stronger than any other.  When people looked at that snake on the pole, the light flashing off of it pierced their hearts and reminded them that they had complained against Moses and against God.  They had been in a desert, in a land of no food and no water, and God had provided for them.  But they were ungrateful.  There was poison in their hearts and it came out in their words.  The snakes biting them was a kind of metaphor for the way they had been treating each other.  And Moses.  And God.

When they looked at that bronze snake glinting in the desert sun, they could see a very unflattering image of themselves.  They could taste the bitterness of their ingratitude and the venom of their complaining.  So they repented.  And they were healed.  Because they also saw that God loved them enough to transform them.  They could stop being snakes, metaphorical or otherwise.  The magic, the power that emanated from that snake on the pole was God’s forgiveness and God’s love.  

And now the whole world is snakebit, Nicodemus.  People believe they are walking always and everywhere under the dark night of God’s judgment.  They don’t see that they have been always and everywhere in the bright light of God’s love.  They’re perishing.  Their souls are dying because they can’t let themselves believe they are loved.

Listen, Nicodemus.  God loves the world so much that God has given God’s only Son so that whoever believes him won’t perish, won’t fade into an everlasting death and nothingness, but will instead live forever in the light of God’s love.  

You think God is about judgment?   I’ll tell you about judgment.  God wants to bring everyone and everything, even the snakes, into the light of God’s love.  But some don’t want to come.  Some want to stay in the dark.  Some want to keep living in the deep shadows of hatred and fear, and us versus them.  Some have a greedy hunger in them that wouldn’t be satisfied if they swallowed the whole earth.  Some think they are the whole earth and don’t have room in their hearts for anyone or anything else.  They think they’re all that and a bag of chips.  Some, many really, want to keep judging others, because it’s the only way they can make themselves feel like they have any value, so they just keep living in the shadow of judgment…and the shadow of their own fears.

But the Son of God is not here to judge.  The Son came to heal.  To save.  To lead people out of the shadows.

The world has forgotten how lovely it is.  The Son of God has come to help the world remember, to relearn its beauty and its kindness.  

The world has forgotten that when God created everything God said it was good.  All of it.  Everyone.  Even the snakes.

The Son of God has come to help people remember Original Goodness.[1]

When they see the Human One lifted up, they will be reminded of all the ugly things that happen in a snakebit world, they will be reminded of how the venom in their own hearts and souls can wound and kill.  And then they will remember they weren’t made that way.  Then they will see the love of God.  They will see that the Son came out of love, not out of need.  And the love of God will transform them.  They will step back into the light of God’s love.

All of that is what Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to  understand.  And us.  It’s what he would like us to understand, too.

When you think about it, all of this is about disruption. 

The Israelites disrupt the generally sleepy life of the snakes when they pitch camp in their territory. The snakes disrupt the grumbly and quarrelsome life of the Israelites when they start biting them.  God and Moses disrupt the poisonous dynamics of fear and dissatisfaction when they set up the snake on a pole.  Nicodemus disrupts Jesus’ quiet evening when he drops by at night for a private interview.  In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus disrupts our understanding of theology and the scriptures, especially our understanding of how judgment works.  

God works through disruptions to transform things and people.

This week we observed the anniversary of two significant disruptions.  

Wednesday, March 10, was the 88th anniversary of the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.  Between 115 to 120 people were killed.  Damage was estimated at $40 million.  That would be more than $800 million today.  Two hundred thirty school buildings were either destroyed or declared unsafe for use.  Out of that disruption, though, came new standards for building safety, including specific codes for school buildings.  New methods of government assistance for disaster response and reconstruction were instituted, too, as people realized that these kinds of resources were needed when damage was too widespread or extensive to expect a city to be able to recover and rebuild on its own.  Essentially, we found new ways to take care of each other.  To love each other.

The other anniversary is one we’re all too aware of.  It’s been one year since we were all in church together, worshipping in our sanctuary.  Our building.  But we’ve never stopped being church.  The disruption of this pandemic has made being church more difficult in some ways, but it has also transformed us in some important ways, too.  Like all disruptions, it has taught us more about who we are and invited us to think about who we want to be, who we are called to be, as we move forward.

The Israelites weren’t the same people when they left the land of the snakes.  They complained less and were more grateful.  Life-as-usual had been disrupted.

Nicodemus wasn’t the same person when the sun rose the next morning as he was when he had sat down with Jesus in the dark of night before.  He had begun to understand both God’s love and God’s judgment differently.  Everything he knew, everything he understood had been disrupted. You might say he was being reborn.

We aren’t the same people we were a year ago.  All the patterns of our lives have been disrupted.  In a time when need and circumstances required us to stay physically apart you would think we would have made every effort to find ways to pull together, but all too often, as a nation at least, we let the polarity of our dysfunctional politics pull us farther apart.  We have seen the damage caused by the venom of our fears and anger.  But we have also heard the voice of Christ calling us together and helping us relearn our loveliness,  reminding us of our Original Goodness. 

We have seen the serpent lifted up in the desert.  But also the cross lifted at calvary.  Through earthquake or pandemic, polar vortex or politics…even snakes…  God’s love still flows to carry us through it all.  Together.

In Jesus’ name.

[1] Genesis 1:31

The Royal Law

Matthew 25:41-46

“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.  32 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,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 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;  35for 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,  36 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.’  37 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?  38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 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.’  41 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;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 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.’  44 Then they also will 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?’  45 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.’  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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.

I think it’s interesting to see how people react to this picture of Jesus as the king and judge of humanity.  Some people are all too ready for Jesus to return and get the judging underway.  Others—and I’m one of those—are content for him to take his own sweet time.  Yeah, there are a lot of things I would like to see repaired in this world, a lot of things where I would like to see the divine hand taking direct action, but then I remind myself that Christ is taking direct action through you and me and that, in fact, that is what this particular picture that Jesus is painting is really all about.

In one of our ELCA clergy Facebook groups this week, one pastor asked the question, “Where is the grace in this passage?”  That’s a really Lutheran question, and to their credit, a lot of our pastors did a pretty fair job of making a case for grace in this passage even though it is so clearly about judgment.  I was feeling a little bit contrarian, so I noted that the writer of Matthew was not a Lutheran and didn’t seem to be all that concerned about grace.  Righteousness, yes. Grace, not so much.  In fact, the word grace doesn’t appear even once in the entire Gospel of Matthew.

But that doesn’t mean grace isn’t in there.  Mercy is a kind of grace, and twice Jesus quotes Hosea and tells the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”[1]  In Matthew 18 he tells the parable of a slave who is forgiven a great debt, a story about mercy, grace and forgiveness and how we sometimes fail to pass that same grace along to others.  In chapter 23, Jesus again scolds the Pharisees for their lack of grace when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

In an odd way, there is even grace in this picture of the final judgment where the sheep are separated from the goats, even though the goats are sent away to eternal punishment.  To see that grace clearly, though, may take a bit of translating.

In Hebrew there are two words for “people.”  The word ‘am is used to designate people who are Jewish, the people of the covenant, our people.  Goy or goyim are people who are pagans or gentiles.  Those other people.  The same idea appears in the Greek of the New Testament.  Laoí is used for people inside the faith community or the church and éthne is used for people or peoples outside the faith community or church.  When this passage says “All the nations will be gathered before him,” the word that is translated as nations is éthne.  So this is a description of all those people who are outside the community of faith.  Those other people.  They’re the ones being judged.  At least that’s what’s implied in the language.

The implication of the language and the lesson for those within the community of believers, is that there are people who are righteous even among those who live by other beliefs and those who have never heard of Christ.  They are instinctively taking care of the persons in their communities who are in need, and in doing so, they are caring for Christ.  It’s specifically because they are not believers, not members of the community of faith, that they ask Jesus “When did we see you in these circumstances?”

So one way you might see grace in this passage about judgment, then, is that even though these “sheep” on the right hand were not people of the covenant or followers of Jesus, they inherit the kingdom because they lived lives of righteousness and compassion.  Christ, the king, surrounded by his angels, seated on the throne of his glory, brings in all these people who never knew him or knew about him because they simply acted out of compassion.

Having said that, it’s also a given that if you are part of the community of faith, a follower of Jesus, it is expected that you will also be feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger.  Those things are part of the way of life in the kingdom of heaven.  This kind of righteousness rooted in compassion—it’s who we are.  It’s what we do.  It’s how we, too, encounter Jesus.

Whether you read it as applying to insiders or outsiders or both, it’s tempting sometimes to read this passage as our Ticket to Heaven Punch Card.  Feed the hungry?  Check.  Clothing for the poor? Check.  Welcome a stranger?  Check.  Visit someone in prison?  Check.  If we do that, though, we’ll miss the point of everything Jesus had to say in Matthew’s gospel about the kingdom of heaven and about what constitutes real righteousness.  We would be like those scribes and Pharisees he rebuked in chapter 23, paying attention to the details but neglecting the justice, mercy, and faith at the heart of it all.  

Oh, and love. We would be missing the love.

In chapter 19 someone asks Jesus, “What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replies, “If you wish to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”  “But which ones?” he is asked.  Jesus replies, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness;  Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus repeats the commandment to love later in chapter 22 when he is asked what is the greatest commandment.  He replies, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself” he wasn’t inventing a new rule, he was quoting Leviticus.  Love your neighbor as yourself was an important ethic of the Jewish people.  Jesus broadened that ethic and applied it more widely by expanding the definition of neighbor.  Because “love your neighbor” was so central to the teaching of Jesus, it became the central ethic of his followers.

Saint Paul wrote in Galatians, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  Again, writing in Romans, he said, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[3]  James called it the royal law: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4]

What the “sheep,” the righteous who are rewarded in Matthew 25 are doing when they feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger is simply this: they are loving their neighbor.

In this picture of judgment in Matthew 25 we also see another portrait of love.  We see a king sitting on his throne of glory.  But this is a king who cares deeply for “the least of these” in the human family, a king who has compassion for those who struggle.  He cares so much about the struggling and suffering that how they are treated becomes the yardstick by which the others around them are judged.  We see a king who walks with them in their struggles and identifies with them.  With us.  We see a king who rewards those who show love and compassion through acts of mercy and assistance and kindness.  We see a king who defines “love your neighbor as yourself” as the heart and soul, the absolute bottom line of righteousness.

Love, real love, the kind that Jesus is talking about, the kind that comes from a decision and sticks around for the long haul, the kind that gives of itself… love is transformative.  It transforms the hungry into the well-fed.  It transforms the naked into the clothed.  It transforms the unemployed into workers.  It transforms the homeless into the housed.  It transforms the stranger into a friend. 

The other day I was listening to a TED talk by Andrew Solomon called Love, No Matter What.  His TED talk is about what life is like for families where one of the kids is different in some way, and in that talk he told about Clinton Brown.  

When Clinton was born he was diagnosed with diastrophic dwarfism, a very disabling condition.  The doctors at the hospital told his parents that Clinton would never walk or talk, that he wouldn’t have any intellectual capacity, that he probably wouldn’t even recognize them.  The doctors suggested that they should just leave Clinton at the hospital so he could die there quietly and not be a burden to them.

But his mother wasn’t having it.   She took him home.  And even though she didn’t have a lot in the way of education or financial assets, she managed to find the best doctor in the country for treating diastrophic dwarfism and convinced him to take Clinton as a patient.  

Over the course of his childhood, Clinton had 30 major surgical procedures.  Since he was stuck in the hospital during all that time, he had tutors.  It turns out he was not intellectually challenged at all.  He studied hard and became the first member of his family to go to college.  And because he could walk now, he even lived on campus and managed to customize a car so it would accommodate his unusual body.

One day his mother was driving home and she saw his car parked in the parking lot of a bar near the college that was popular with the students.  “I saw that car, which you can always recognize, in the parking lot of a bar,” she said.  “And I thought to myself, ‘They’re six feet tall, he’s three feet tall. Two beers for them is four beers for him.'” She said, “I knew I couldn’t go in there and interrupt him, but I went home, and I left him eight messages on his cell phone.  And then I thought, if someone had said to me, when he was born, that my future worry would be that he’d go drinking and driving with his college buddies …” 

Solomon asked her, “What do you think you did that helped him to emerge as this charming, accomplished, wonderful person?” And she said, “What did I do? I loved him, that’s all. Clinton just always had that light in him. And his father and I were lucky enough to be the first to see it there.”

She loved him.  She loved him enough to not leave him at the hospital to die quietly.  She loved him enough to find the best doctor.  She loved him enough to make sure he was educated.  She loved him enough to see him as a person and not as a condition or an anomaly.  Love transformed him.

“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.”  

Christ is with us and among us, always, waiting to see how we love each other and love the world…how we love him.

In Jesus’ name.

[1] Matthew 9:13, 12:7

[2] Galatians 5:14

[3] Romans 13.9

[4] James 2:8

The Guest at the Banquet

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:  2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’  5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,  6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.  7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

11  “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,  12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.  13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Fredrich Wilhelm I, king of Prussia in the early 18th century, had a hot temper and a short fuse.  He often would walk unattended through the streets of Berlin and if people saw him coming they would do their best to make themselves scarce, because if anyone displeased him for even the slightest of reasons he wouldn’t hesitate to thrash them with his walking stick.  One day an unlucky man who didn’t see him coming in time attempted to slide into a doorway to avoid the cantankerous king but his efforts were in vain.

“You,” called Fredrich Wilhelm, “where are you going?”

“Into the house, Your Majesty,” replied the nervous man.

“Into the house?  Your house?” asked the king.

“No,” replied the poor man.

“Why are you entering it, then?” asked Fredrich Wilhelm.

The unfortunate man, afraid he might be accused of burglary, decided to tell the truth.  “In order to avoid you, Your Majesty.”

Fredrich Wilhelm scowled. “To avoid me?  Why would you want to avoid me?”

“Because I fear you, Your Majesty.”

King Fredrich turned purple with rage and began to beat the poor man’s shoulders with his walking stick as he shouted, “You’re not supposed to fear me!  You’re supposed to love me!  Love me, you scum!  Love me!”

Do we sometimes see God as being like Fredrich Wilhelm—hot tempered with a short fuse, ready to punish for infractions large and small?

I thought about that as I read the parable in this week’s gospel lesson and how we have traditionally interpreted it.

I need to say before I go any further that this parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew is one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging for preachers and scholars.  Just about any way you approach it you will find problems and loose ends—pieces that just don’t fit.  No less a scholar than David Lose said, “This parable seems just plain nasty. Not so much because it’s difficult to interpret – it is to some degree – though mostly, I think, because we don’t like what it says—but rather because of the indiscriminate violence in the passage.  What are we to make of it?”[1]

As with so many of Jesus’ parables, we have traditionally interpreted this story of the wedding banquet as an allegory and assigned identities to the characters. 

In most of these interpretations, the king who gives the banquet represents God and the bridegroom/son represents Jesus.  

In one traditional interpretation, the original invited guests who turn down the invitation represent the people of Israel, and the people brought in off the streets represent the gentiles who are brought into the feast when Israel turns down the invitation.  

In one historical interpretation, the invited guests who refuse to come represent the Pharisees and the street people who take their place represent the new Christian community, those people first hearing and reading Matthew’s gospel.

There is another interpretation, David Lose calls it the “Lutheran” interpretation, which doesn’t dwell on those who decline the invitation or the street people who take their place at the table.  This interpretation focuses, instead, on the gracious generosity of the king who issues the invitation in the first place, first to the chosen, then in opening it up to “everyone they found.” 

In all these interpretations, the wedding robe is understood to be God’s grace which clothes us in imputed righteousness.  The guest who is thrown out into the outer darkness for failing to wear a wedding robe is understood to represent someone who refuses to accept God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

That’s pretty much how I’ve always heard this parable preached or taught.  These interpretations works well enough up to a point, but they’re not without their problems.  So let’s look at some of those problems, the things we gloss over if we keep hearing this story the same way we’ve always heard it.

Let’s start with the son, the guest of honor at the banquet.  If this is Jesus, in this story being told by Jesus, he is oddly passive in this story.  The son does nothing.  He does not deliver the invitation or announcement of the feast.  He does not supply the wedding robes which, in traditional interpretations represent being clothed in grace.  He does not intervene on behalf of the guest being ejected into the outer darkness.  He is utterly and completely passive.  Would Jesus have described himself that way?  Is that how you understand Christ?

What about the idea that those who first receive the invitation represent the people of Israel, the Jews, and the street people who take their place at the banquet are the Gentiles who would later dominate the church?  The people of Israel reject the king’s, God’s, invitation, so God destroys them. On one level, it’s easy to see how this fits. You can interpret the slaves delivering the invitation as the prophets.  You could argue that the destruction of the city is an allusion to the Romans having destroyed Jerusalem.  But remember, the first people reading this account in Matthew were Jewish Christians, probably living in Syria.  There is good evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.[2]  Even the people hearing this story in the Jewish Christian community of Matthew’s gospel still thought of themselves as Jews, as the people of Israel, but Jews who had received Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah.  Would they be likely to hear this as a story about God’s rejection of Jews and acceptance of Gentiles in their place?  Also, this interpretation leads all too readily to antisemitism—and has historically been used for that purpose.  Would Jesus, a Jew, be likely to tell a story with such a theme even if it wasn’t the main theme?

If we choose an interpretation that focuses primarily on God’s grace, then what do we make of the king’s violence?  If grace is our theme, how do we understand the king ordering one of the guests to be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth simply because he didn’t wear a wedding robe, especially since we are given no reason for why he’s not doing so?  And what do we make of that last line—many are called but few are chosen—when it seems like the many are staying at the banquet and the few, the one, really is being chosen for a rough exit?

If we take any of these approaches, we miss something else going on in this parable in Matthew.  There is a very similar story in Luke 14, a story of a great banquet, but it is a much milder story.  The host is a merely a man, not a king.  The invited guests make excuses, but no one is punished for not coming, except that they don’t get to taste the delicacies at the banquet.  No violence.  No wedding robes.  No outer darkness.  But in this story in Matthew those are the things Jesus is using to make a point.  But what, exactly, is the point he is trying to make?

If we look closely we’ll see that there is a lot going on politically in this story.  The host is not just a man, he’s a king.  That means that the invitation to the banquet carries a certain weight.  It is, in fact, a genteel form of command appearance.  The noted English Biblical scholar, Richard Baukham, put it this way:

The attendance of the great men of the kingdom at the wedding feast of the king’s son would be expected not only as a necessary expression of the honor they owe the king but also as an expression of their loyalty to the legitimate succession to his throne. Political allegiance is at stake. Excuses would hardly be acceptable, and the invitees (unlike those in the Lukan parable) offer none. To refuse the invitation is tantamount to rebellion. In refusing it, the invitees are deliberately treating the king’s authority with contempt. They know full well that their behavior will be understood as insurrection. This is what they intend, and those who kill the king’s messengers only make this intention known more emphatically. The king responds as kings do to insurrection (v. 7).[3] 

So… we have a king whose kingdom is in open rebellion.  Why?  In response to his envoys being killed he launches an all-out attack and destroys the rebellious city.  But the feast is all prepared and must go ahead.  He has to save face.  He has to show his political strength and force.  The aristocrats who were invited are out, so he turns populist.  He brings in people off the street.  It’s right out of the Roman playbook–bread and circuses, just like Julius Caesar.  Just like Augustus.  But when he sees one poor schmo who isn’t in formal wear he has him booted.

And now we’re back to Fredrich Wilhelm I.  Capricious.  Thin-skinned. Hot tempered.  Short fused. 

Is that how we see God?  

More importantly, since Jesus is the one telling this story, is that how Jesus saw God?

I don’t think so.

Quoting Jesus from just this Gospel of Matthew, we hear him say, “Your Father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (5:9).  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (6:8)  “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (6:26)  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (10:29)

Does that sound like the king in this parable?  Or is Jesus trying to tell us something else here?   

Is there a way to hear this parable where we hear Good News?  Is there a way to hear this short story by Jesus where we Gentile Christians don’t get a version Good News that’s just cheap grace at someone else’s expense?  As Debi Thomas put it, “— not the mingy Good News that secures my salvation and my comfort at the expense of other people’s bodies and souls — but rather, the Good News of the Gospel that is inclusive, disruptive, radical, and earth-shattering. The Good News that centers on the Jesus I trust and love.  What would it be like to look for Jesus and his Good News in this story?”[4]

What happens if we reassign the roles in our allegory?  

Credit where credit is due.  I am indebted to Debi Thomas for what comes next, an idea which has completely changed the way I see this parable.  In her weekly lectionary essay in Journey with Jesus she wrestled with all the difficulties in this parable and then arrived at a solution unlike any I’ve ever seen or read before.  I’ve shared her essay with several colleagues and we all think she’s on to something.

What if the king represents all the powers that be in this world, the powers that insist we conform to their norms—religion, politics, the boundaries of society—the powers that rise up to crush anything or anyone that steps too far out of line, that rejects and ejects those who don’t wear the garment of conformity?

What if all the people in this parable are just that?  People in their stratified layers.  The aristocrats and wealthy who get the embossed invitations to all that’s good in life and then everybody else—regular people who go about their lives making do but who sometimes get a fabulous break because the original guests are no-shows.

What if Jesus is describing the system as it was, and as it is—the way the world works, with its hierarchies of wealth and levers of power, with its struggles for control and its pressures to create and maintain business as usual?

And then, what if the “God” figure in this parable is the guest without a wedding robe?   What if Jesus is the one who refuses to wear the wedding robe, the garment of conformity?  What if Jesus is making a statement and saying, “I refuse to play along.”

When the king asked “Friend how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” the guest was speechless.  When Jesus stood before Pilate, he was speechless, too.[5]

What if the way to the real celebration was to opt out of the coerced party hosted by the powers that be,  to refuse to wear the clothes of conformity, to let yourself be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, just as the way to Christ’s resurrection was through the cross and the tomb, just as the way to eternal life is through death?

What if Jesus is the guest being forcefully ushered out of the party?  What would that mean for us as followers of Jesus?

Would you be willing to take off your robes of privilege, position, power and wealth to follow him into the outer darkness?   Would I?

Many are called.  Few are chosen.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

[1] In the Meantime, Pentecost 19, A Limited Vision, David Lose.net

[2] Was the Gospel of Matthew Originally Written in Hebrew?,  George Howard, Bible Review 2:4, Winter 1986

[3] Parable of the Royal Wedding Feast, Richard Baukham; Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall, 1996, p.484

[4] The God Who Isn’t, Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, October 11, 2020

[5] Matthew 27:12-14

On Being Squirrelly

My dear friend Pastor Brenda Bos filled in for me this morning. As she prepared to consecrate Holy Communion for us, she shared with us this poem from St. Francis:


I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments –

he got so excited and ran into a hollow in his tree

and came back holding some acorns,

an owl feather,

and a ribbon he had found.

And I just smiled and said, “Yes, dear, you understand:

everything imparts His grace.”