Thursday, January 18, 2018

The First Goose in the V

The First Goose in the V--January 19, 2018

"Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, 'Teacher, I will follower you wherever you go.' And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' Another of his disciples said to him, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' But Jesus said to him, 'Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead'." [Matthew 8:18-22]

As a rule, Jesus never calls anybody to do anything that he himself hasn't done first.

That's important to say out loud and to see, because otherwise these words of Jesus from Matthew's gospel will seem impossibly harsh and even cruel.  And yeah, obviously, these are difficult words to hear coming from the mouth of Jesus, the same mouth that says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."  These are difficult words especially to hear in a culture like ours, one that has spent the better part of the last few decades trying to make Jesus into the champion of "family values" and to turn Christianity into just a religious form of parenting advice.

And yeah, but stick a pin in that for a moment.  We'll need to talk about how much we may have sanitized Jesus to make him sound like he will never claim higher allegiance than your job, or your country, or your personal political preferences, or your family... when in fact, Jesus regularly insists on a higher allegiance from us than we give to any of those other pieces of our lives, higher even than all of them put together.

But first, we can only hear that rightly if we are clear from the starting gate that Jesus does what he calls us to do, and he has done it first, for that matter.  He doesn't send us out as spiritual guinea pigs to test things ahead of him. We are not Jesus' cannon fodder to bear the brunt of the difficulty so that Jesus will come out after the smoke has cleared and the guns are silent.  Jesus does the hard thing, and he does it first.  Jesus is always the first goose in the flying V who bears the hardest headwinds while pulling us along to follow.

So when he reminds a would-be disciple that following him will mean abandoning the old connections and comfort of home, he points to his own situation:  "Even foxes have holes, and birds get nests, but I am a homeless wandering rabbi.  Following me will mean the same kind of homelessness."  Jesus himself doesn't have a permanent mailing address (wow--just think for how much of our country's history Jesus would not have been allowed to vote if he had lived here, as someone who was neither white nor a real-estate owner!).  So when Jesus tells those he calls that they will be summoned to be ready to let go of what they called "home," it isn't like he is a fraternity member hazing a new pledge, or that Jesus is grandfathered into the club without having to make the same sacrifice.  

In fact, Jesus' homelessness is itself the reason for the homelessness of his followers--to be a follower of Jesus is to go where Jesus goes.  And if Jesus has no home, but rather keeps wandering like a drifter dependent on the welcome of others, then yeah, we should expect that following him will also mean surrendering the comfort of a particular place or of nicely-accumulating equity to save up for a nice condo by the beach in our retirement.  If you want to be where Jesus is, then that means actually being where Jesus is... which means being ready to pick up and where Jesus goes next.  

The same, really, is true with the other would-be disciple who asks for the chance to wait to bury his father.  Even though Jesus' words seem terribly harsh, it is at least worth considering that Jesus has done the same first.  Jesus didn't stay rooted in Nazareth where his family all lived, and he didn't just pick up with the family business and keep the messiah stuff to the weekends as a hobby.  He knew that his calling meant leaving some of that security and familiarity behind--even when surely the expectation of the day was that a good son would have stayed close to home to inherit the family business or house, and to take care of Mary (and presumably Joseph, for as long as he was in the picture), and to be a good older brother to all of his brothers and sisters.  Jesus was willing to endure the social scorn of not being a "good son," as well as losing out on inheriting the house and homestead or whatever else was a part of that picture.  So, yes, as hard as it is that Jesus tells a would-be follower, "Let the dead bury their own dead," those words come from someone who has put his money where his mouth is, and who has a mother (at least) waiting back at home while Jesus has picked up and gone to live his own calling.  

So where does that leave us?  

Well, on the one hand, it leaves us with good news--we are invited to be where Jesus is, and there is something compelling, something wonderful, something downright beautiful, about being wherever Jesus is.  Just look at the stories--where Jesus shows up, parties break out and everybody (I mean everybody!) is included there.  Where Jesus shows up, mercy transforms stingy hearts.  Where Jesus shows up, the piously proud and puffed-up are taken down a few pegs and brought back down to earth.  Where Jesus shows up, the poor have good news spoken to them.  Where Jesus shows up, the dead are raised, the outcasts are welcomed in, and those who had been shamed into silence are invited into conversation over a cup of water at the well.  All of that is to say, wherever Jesus is is the best possible place to be.  

And if that's true, then when Jesus says, "To follow me, you risk losing the familiarity and security of a building called "home," he isn't adding a price tag to his call--he is simply being clear about what he is calling us into.  You want to go where Jesus goes?  Well, that's a moving target--he shows up in all sorts of unexpected places you would not have guessed a respectable messiah should go, and he does not hold office hours.

But if we had it in mind that Jesus' calling on our lives was just for an hour on Sunday mornings or would leave our priorities, our politics, our loves, and our security untouched, well here is the wake-up call.  Jesus calls us to a new kind of life, not simply to be our weekend hobby.  

Today, on this day, what things that have kept us feeling comfortable and secure might we have to leave behind, in order to be where Jesus is?

And by the same token, what amazing wonderful adventures might begin on this day for us by being where Jesus is when the party breaks out all around him?

Lord Jesus, we hear your call.  Give us the faith to trust that you are worth it, and give us the courage to leave behind the familiar, the comfortable, and the secure to be where you lead us.

You Don't Have to Like It

You Don't Have To Like It--January 18, 2018

[Jesus said:] “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” [Matthew 20:1-16]

I will tell you six of the most important words I have learned as a parent of young children.  Are you ready for them?  Okay.  Here goes:

You don't have to like it.

There they are.  Six words' worth of crystal clarity.

You don't have to like it. You don't have to like it.

Now, I guess at one level, those are words that I need to hear myself from time to time as a parent.  I need to be reminded that being a dad or a mom is not a hobby or a pastime, done only for the sake of how fun it is or how happy it might make you on any given day.  That ain't the point.  And it is not the sort of thing one has the right to quit doing just because it is hard or you are tired or you don't want to have to be the bad guy telling children it's time for bed or no more cookies for the night.  In such moments, yeah, I guess those six words of clarity are aimed at me:  "Hey Steve, guess what?  You don't have to like it.  It's still your job... your role... your calling, in this moment and this place and time to love children, and that is not dependent on whether you like doing it at the moment."

But more often, I find that those same words are part of the underlying logic of teaching my son and my daughter how to be human in our particular branch of the human family tree.  In other words, I find that a good bit of parenting--of forming children into a particular way of life so they can be good and wise and loving mature adult humans--is teaching them that there are some things we do in life whether or not we "feel like" it, and whether or not we like it.  And there are some things that are true about how we "run" the household that are not up to their votes or their liking or disliking.  Being loving to one another is not up for debate--that is how we treat one another in this household.  You don't have to like it--that's just how it is.

So, for example, if one kid got to have a special treat in school and the other is left without, well then, yes, Mom and Dad reserve the right to find some other kind of treat to give to the one with nothing, even though that puts an end to the gloating from Child #1 (and to be honest, sometimes it seems like the gloating is more the point for them than whatever the piece of candy or cheap colored plastic is that they are bickering over).  In moments like those, I get to be the dad who says, "I know you are upset that your sister gets something as well as you getting something.  You don't have to like it--but that is how we do things in this family.  We don't gloat about having when someone else is going without."

Or, when Mommy is sick or tired and needs to go to bed early after a rough day or a nasty flu bug, sometimes the conversation has to be had with the kids:  "I know you don't like helping clear the table and doing the dishes with me, but right now we need to let Mommy have a break and that means we're going to do the clean-up.  You don't have to like it--but that's how we do things here.  We take care of the one who is feeling sick."

I'll bet you can supply your own instances from your own family life as well.  Sometimes it's teaching the kids that even when someone else is mean or rotten or unfair to them, we treat them back with respect rather than meanness--when they go low, we will go high.  Sometimes it's about our collective responsibility to clean up after ourselves, or the limits of how much television or candy can be consumed in any single twenty-four hour period.  Sometimes it's the insistence that we will be holding hands and praying before we eat, and that means we will wait for everyone to come to the table rather than scarfing down the macaroni before everyone is seated.  Whatever the particulars, I'll bet you have had the experience in your own life, whether on the giving end or the receiving end, of the sentence, "You don't have to like it!  But this is how it is..."

And as much as that might sound like a harsh line to take with children, ultimately I think it is freeing, for the children and the grown-ups alike.  It is a reminder that we are called into families in this life, whether biological, adoptive, or the spiritual kind of family we call Church, that shape us for a particular way of doing things, a particular way of life.  And in the household, or the "economy," of God's family (the word "economy," remember, comes from the Greek word for "house" or "household"), God reserves the right to be gracious more than we deserve, and beyond what we think other people deserve, too.  That is the kind of community God calls us into. 

That's one of the things I love about this story from Matthew's Gospel.  The landowner knows perfectly well what he is going to do all along, and in fact he is the one who creates the "crisis" and tension in the story by setting up the pay line the way he does.  He has called the workers into his kind of system, his kind of order.  When he hires them, they agree to "whatever is right," and that means letting the landowner be the one to determine "what is right."  They are expecting that it will mean getting more than other people, but the landowner all along knows that he is planning to pay them all the same wage at the end of the day--enough to feed their families the next day.  Even just the hiring itself so late in the day is more than the workers are "owed," and perhaps they should have gotten a hint from that at the beginning that this landowner reserved the right to do things differently than they might have expected. 

But once they have been called into his vineyard, they are now also being called into the landowner's way of doing business.  And at the end of the day, as they look at their paychecks and see that they don't have a case for claiming they were cheated, but also as they look bitterly to see that the landowner has made them all "equal", the ones first hired hear the landowner's response:  "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?"  "Didn't we agree on exactly what you got in your paycheck?"  "Are you envious because I am generous?" All of which boils down to, "You don't have to like it, but I choose to be gracious."  The landowner has called them, not just into a day's work, but into a particular way of living, a particular ordering of the household, a particular "economy" of grace.

We should be honest about this ourselves.  To be called by Jesus is, in much the same way, to be called into God's particular way of running things--what Jesus so often called "the Kingdom of Heaven," or "the Reign of God," if you want to be a bit more accurate.  To be called by Jesus is not just to throw on a jersey for Jesus' team (with embroidered crosses on it, I guess?) while still getting to keep our old way of thinking and acting.  To be called by Jesus is to be called into his way of doing things, and that will include our (sometimes grudging) training in the economy of grace.  It will mean that we get used to God running the universe beyond what we deserve, and beyond what we think "those people" deserve," whomever we imagine "those people" to be.

And, like being in a family, it means that sometimes--wonderfully, blessedly!--God says to our stingy, self-righteous hearts, "You don't have to like it--but this is how we do things in this household."  And so Jesus teaches us, like children learning their family's ways of managing the house, to shape us into his own likeness--whether or not it's what our self-bent spirits would have picked.  

He says things like, "You don't have to like it, but in this household, we do good to those who wish us ill.  We will not return evil for evil."

He says things like, "You don't have to like it, but in this household, we admit our mistakes rather than digging in our heels and pretending we weren't wrong."

He teaches us to tell the truth in the face of hypocrisy, and yes, to the face of hypocrites, but also to own up to our own hypocrisies as well.

He teaches us to welcome the last, the least, the left-out, and the lost... and to see that "we" are "those people," too.

He teaches us to surrender ourselves, to lay our lives down for one another, and even to offer up ourselves for the sake of our enemies, rather than insisting on protecting "me and my group first."

He trains our eyes to see a new kind of household--a "beloved community," to use Dr. King's phrase for it--that God is making, one which includes people from everywhere, and to see that beautiful variety as its glory.

Jesus does all these things because we have been called into his household, and whether we like it or not, this is how God does things in the family.  But Jesus teaches them to us as well so that they will become our practices, our way of thinking and doing, and our character.

You don't have to like it when God is gracious beyond your expectation.  But you are--inescapably--part of a family in which the head of the household not only practices such grace, but trains up all the children in the family to do the same.

Lord Jesus, you have called us into this family, into this household, into this economy of grace--shape us in the likeness of your way of doing things, into your way of loving.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Walking After You

Walking After You--January 17, 2018

"Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.' So he told them this parable: 'Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'" [Luke 15:1-6]

The Christ who calls never stays put.

This is a vital point if we are going to really understand what the "call" of Jesus is like.  Jesus doesn't stay put in his comfortable chair, just twiddling his thumbs hoping we'll come to him, and he doesn't just stand in place and call our names, either.   When Jesus calls, he is on the move... to reach us.

We need to be clear about this because I think a fair amount of classic Christian hymnody has given us at best an incomplete picture, and at worst a downright wrong picture.  Countless Christians, for example, have sung the lovely hymn (and it is lovely in its own way), "Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling," whose refrain famously goes, "Come home... come home, you who are weary come... Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling, 'O sinner, come home'."  And for as far as that goes, that's all well and good.  But if we are picturing Jesus just sitting on the front porch calling for the cat to come in for its saucer of milk, we are missing the thrust of Jesus' way of calling.  Jesus isn't just "softly" speaking our names from the front door, unwilling or unable to go beyond the welcome mat, but actively leaves the ol' homestead to come out and find us when he calls.  He doesn't stay put, hoping that we'll come to our senses, or waiting for us to accept a good deal when it's offered, or assuming that we are well-enough to get up from the ditch and come to him.  Jesus is on the move, coming out to find us while our name is on his lips.

So let me confess to you that there is another song that comes to mind when I hear these words from Luke's Gospel, and they aren't found in any hymnals... trust me.  There's a song from the band the Foo Fighters (yes, the same band with former Nirvana drummer turned band-leader Dave Grohl... yes, a guitar-driven, loud-noise-making, post-grunge rocking band), which has the line, "If you walk out on me... I'm walking after you," over and over again. 

If you walk out--on me, I'm walking after you.  

If you walk out on me, I'm walking after you.

That's the way Jesus pictures himself calling after us.  There may well be something soft and tender about it, but it is not anemic.  Jesus is neither timid nor unwilling to cross the threshold of the house to come out looking for us as he calls.  Neither is there any sense that he is like you or me in a grudge-holding mood, indignantly crossing his messianic arms and grumbling that he might forgive us and take us back... if we'll come back first with remorsefully with our tails between our legs and do some groveling.  No, that's the way we tend to "forgive" (although it can barely be called forgiveness in that case), in some kabuki theatre performance of exaggerated sorries and stern looks. 

That's the way we talk so often, isn't it? "If HE would come back on his hands and knees and beg for another chance, maybe I'll forgive for the broken promise."  "If SHE would admit she was wrong, I would consider inviting her to the family birthday party, but I won't be the first one to make amends... I'm waiting for her to show a little initiative."  And of course, the reason we do things that way is that you get to hold onto a little more power, a little more prestige and respect if you are the one holding court and waiting for sorry and sad-faced penitents.  It is far more dignified, far more respectable, isn't it, to stay put and wait for the guilty to come to you asking for another chance.  

But that's not how Jesus describes himself.  He doesn't stay put in a position of respectability.  He decidedly does NOT say, "I will be holding office hours from a quarter past three til half past four, and if you want to make your apologies, or audition to get back on the team, or answer my call, you can come and see me then to show me you have what it takes.  Rather, Jesus' kind of calling is always on the move.  He, like the shepherd in his story, goes out to find the ones who are so lost, or caught in the ditch, or turned around, that they would never even know to come back to the shepherd, much less how to get there.

I honestly don't know if any actual shepherds in Jesus' day would have done what Jesus describes.  I have read some commentators attest that what Jesus describes was standard practice of the day, and I have read others who swear up and down that no shepherd in his right mind would risk 99% by leaving them unguarded for one wayward sheep.  And to be honest, I find that there is great wisdom in not speaking on a subject when one doesn't know one way or the other.  (I learned, years ago, from a wise lady who lamented about preachers telling farmers how sheep are supposed to be raised or fields are supposed to be planted, based on their "take" on a Bible story, when they have never gotten dirt under their fingernails from any actual farm labor.) So let's bracket out for a moment whether anybody in Jesus' day would have thought it a good idea to leave the ninety-nine sheep behind to go hunting after another.  It's not about whether anybody else would have done it--it's about what Jesus would do... and does do... and has done.

And most assuredly, Jesus does get up off his seat and actually go searching while he calls us by name.  Jesus leaves behind the decorum and dignity of sitting and waiting for us to come back to him, and instead, even when we walk out of him, there he is... walking after us.  Walking after you.  Walking after me.  

That really changes the picture of how we relate to Jesus, doesn't it?  So often, Christians have fallen for promoting (or maybe mis-promoting) the Gospel by painting this scene of approaching Jesus like the Giant Floating Head of the Wizard in the Emerald City, like Jesus from a distance calls us and we are the ones who come running, hoping that we have done enough to get our trip back to Kansas or a new heart by bringing the Witch's broomstick as proof we've done what he asked of us.  So often, we present the Gospel as an "if-then" sort of deal:  "If you come to Jesus, he will let you in...."  or "If you can find your way in, he will open the door to you..." or "If you will realize that you were lost and get yourself back home, Jesus will leave the light on for you."  But that just ain't how the real Jesus operates!

Instead of a dignified, or even awe-inspiring figure waiting for us to come to him, Jesus abandons all decorum and goes out looking for us.  That means that Christianity is very little about "finding Jesus" and much more about "finding yourself found by Jesus."  Despite the fact that plenty of religious voices over the years have insisted on asking people, "Have you found Jesus?" (although to be honest, most of them only in the last two hundred years--this isn't the way they talked back Jesus' day), Jesus insists that he was never lost.  He was never the one missing.  And for that matter, even if we lose track or lose interest in the so called "tax collector and sinner" crowd, Jesus never has.  

So often, we take this scene from the gospels and assume that the "tax collectors and sinners" are other people--not us, of course!--and that at most, Jesus will allow THOSE people to come to him if they can work their way to find him, while WE (you know, we "good people") just stay off at a distance and watch them come to Jesus.  And from there, we picture that as how church works, too--"outsiders" and "sinners" and "those people" are allowed in, we guess, as long as they come TO Jesus.  And so we figure that THEY are supposed to come TO us in church buildings.  "Invite a friend to church," we say, which is really code for, "because we sure aren't going out to bring Christ's love out there to where people actually ARE!"  But that isn't how this story goes, is it?  Jesus doesn't pick a central location and wait for people to come to him, and he doesn't insist that they have to be looking for him in order for him to be looking for them.  In fact, just the opposite is true: even when we walk out on Jesus, he's walking after us.

The calling is for you... and the calling is for everybody else you didn't think was worthy.

The seeking is for you... and the seeking is for the people who aren't already seeking for Jesus.

The walking is to find you... and Jesus is walking after every last one of us, too.  Because Jesus just won't stay put.

Lord Jesus, come and meet us, come and find us, come and bring us to your side... and lead us to rejoice with you as you draw all people to yourself, too.

The Pleasure of Your Company

The Pleasure of Your Company--January 16, 2018

"Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”  [Luke 14:16-24]

In the end--and, please, know that I mean this in the most wonderful way--in the end, it's not about you.  The call, that is.  It's not about you.

Or perhaps, I should say it this way: it's not about "you" in terms of your qualifications or assets or "what you have to offer".  It's not what you bring that matters... it's just your presence.

This is one of those times in the Christian faith where the bad news is the good news in the end.  For us when we are stuck in the illusion that Jesus calls us to come to the party on some kind of merit-based system, it will sound like bad news to realize that Jesus didn't invite you because of your resume, skill set, or raw talent.  It will mean giving up the false premise that our place at God's table depends on our ability or social position, or what we think we have to offer that God "needs." And once that happens, we'll realize that our well-curated lists of accomplishments were worthless currency.  That has a way of deflating our egos, which is never a fun thing.

But at the same time, this is deeply good news, too.  It is freeing, it is assuring, it is reliable--because it doesn't depend on what we bring to the picture.  When Jesus calls us to the party, it's not because he needs some ability that we bring--like I'm the only one in the history of the universe who can put up streamers or blow up balloons--but because Jesus is determined that the party go on, despite the efforts of the self-appointed "big deals" and "important people" to try and poop it by not attending.  For the sake of the party, the hall will be filled.  For the sake of the joy of the celebration, everybody is drawn in.  For the sake of having a good ol' time and because it is a terrible shame to waste a good dinner, the host of the party has his staff bring in anybodies and everybodies and the nobodies that the world overlooked.  

See, somewhere along the way, I suspect most of us got this all confused.  Maybe every last one of us besides Jesus.  Somehow we get it in our heads that we got to where we are by our skill set or our raw talent or our own supposed greatness. Somehow we convince ourselves that MY place at the table is because I must have some ability, some innate je-ne-sais-quoi that makes ME vital to God's enterprise.  And of course once I have taught myself to believe that lie, well, I get all bent out of shape if I think of someone else being included out of mercy, or sheer hospitality, or divine delight.  I'll get in a big huff if "they" are allowed to come to the party without being one of the "acceptable" people, the "talented" people, or the "well-connected" people who can offer something back to the host.  I'll cry out that it's unfair... that it's not right... that it flies in the face of justice and righteousness and all that is good to let "those people" come to the table for free.... all because I cannot recognize that I am only at the party myself because the host graciously drew me in.  It's like that line of Frederick Buechner's as he defines what "grace" is all about:  "The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you."

Ah, that's closer to the mark.  You and I are here because the party would not have been complete without us.  We find ourselves at God's great big dinner table, along with the rest of the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame (and, as Matthew adds in a parallel version of a story like this, "the good AND the bad"), not because there's nobody else who knows how to eat shrimp like me or can dance the Funky Chicken like I can, but because the sheer joy of the party requires people to celebrate, and so the call goes out far and wide.  It isn't about me--at least in the self-centered sense that my resume  got me in the door.  It's not about my ability, or for that matter about my neediness, because I am not just here to be God's pity project, either. 

You'll note that the host of the party doesn't invite the poor and the lame in order to make himself feel better, or to look good in a photo-op, or to get leverage over them, or to buy off their favor.  It's not that God "needs" someone to patronize in order to be God, and so God makes a world full of miserable wretches just to have objects of pity to show off to.  It's not about me, either way, in that sense.  It's in a sense, all about Jesus, the center of the party--and because it is all about Jesus, in a secondary sense, it can be all about us, the anybodies and nobodies who are all welcomed to the party regardless of what we bring with us.

While I'm not a terribly formal guy when it comes to fancy parties and etiquette, there's something I really like about the old-fashioned way they word dinner invitations or wedding announcements.  You know how it goes:  "The pleasure of your company is requested..."  That's it.  It's not that I get to the party because I was better than the person next in line.  It's not that I get to the party because I'm better, or have more usable skills, or am better looking (definitely not that), or because I am more influential, or come from a more respectable neighborhood, or because my family was richer, or because of where I was born.  It's not about me, in any of those senses.  It is, rather, that we all find ourselves drawn into the party, "compelled," in the words of Jesus' parable, by Jesus' call, simply because Jesus himself "requests the pleasure of our company."

And once we are clear about that, I can all of a sudden stop being such a preposterously bone-headed crank making a fuss about why "those people" are allowed in to the party without anything I think is worthy of offering, because I'll realize that I am only at the big table myself because of God's joyful grace.  All of a sudden, I'll see that the ONLY people here at the party are the "poor" and the "crippled" and the "lame" and the "blind" and all the rest of the huddled masses, as the old poem goes.  There ain't nobody but us anybodies at the party.  And what makes us worthy to be here at Jesus' feast is not what we think makes us great.  It is Jesus' own joyful will to celebrate, and to include us in the celebrating, because the party wouldn't be complete without us.

Jesus has requested simply "the pleasure of our company," from every last one of us, from the nameless faces from far away to the face I see in the mirror.

Lord Jesus, as you call our name to come to your party, grant us the grace to get over ourselves and simply to hear your joyful invitation to be in your presence with nothing but our own presence.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Drawn to Jesus

"Drawn to Jesus"--January 15, 2018

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” [Mark 1:16-18]
The nets are the key.
When we picture Jesus calling disciples, quite often we picture the wrong kind of fishing accessories, and it messes with our theology in all kinds of unexpected ways.  They used nets, not reels and hooks.  That’s a whole different picture of fishing.  It’s not a literal bait-and-switch, where you have to lure a fish in, get it to chomp down on the bait you are offering, and then trick it and catch it with the hook that had been there the whole time.  With nets, you pull the fish in—you grab a hold of them and draw them in with one great sweeping motion.  And there’s no trickery—just the scooping, sweeping draw of the net.
That detail helps us to get the scene right for the story with Simon Peter and Andrew there at the shore.  But more than helping our sense of historical accuracy, the nets are part of the picture of what Jesus is all about.  Jesus himself is drawing these two ordinary guys—who were just inheriting the family business of fishing—into a new life as his followers.  His voice alone—his calling to them—is what compels them.  And so, in just one fell swoop, Simon and Andrew’s lives are changed forever by the call of Jesus, with no trickery or deal-making. 
There is no carrot and no stick.  Isn’t that interesting?  Jesus doesn’t threaten and Jesus doesn’t lure—he just summons.  There is no “if-then” condition-making:  he doesn’t say, “Follow me, and there will be a prize in it for you,” and he doesn’t say, “If you have been good enough or will promise to be good enough, I will let you follow me.”  He just up and calls them, “Follow me,” and they cannot help but do exactly what he says.  Jesus is compelling that way.
He speaks, and his word by itself calls them forward, the same way God spoke the Word in the beginning, “Let there be light…” and the universe simply came into being in a flash.  God never has to bribe the sun to shine or threaten the earth to turn—the world simply obeys God’s creative Word.  And so Jesus’ Word has the same power.  Jesus himself is like a net, drawing Simon and Andrew in before they have earned it, before they have proven themselves, and without waiting for them to work up the nerve to move first, either.  Jesus just draws them in.
In fact, Jesus uses that very idea, the picture of being “drawn in,” himself when he talks about the cross.  In John 12, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth [a reference to the cross], I will draw all people to myself.”  The verb Jesus uses there for “to draw” is the same verb used in Greek to describe hauling or dragging in a net.  Interesting—Jesus doesn’t have to do a soft-sell or a bait-and-switch, just to speak, and his compelling invitation pulls these two men in to be Jesus’ followers.
But of course, that’s not where things end.  Jesus doesn’t just draw in one round of disciples like a net and then leave the next generation of Christians to be “tricked” in with rods and reels (or Power Point screens or church coffee shops or promises of material wealth or whatever else it is that churches sometimes use to try and make themselves look good and sound relevant).  Jesus tells these first disciples, Simon Peter and Andrew, that they will now be “fishing for people,” too—but again, remember the image they all have in mind is nets that haul in all sorts of fish together, not the sneaky, deceptive, worm-on-a-hook approach we usually think of.  They will now be part of God’s great sweeping motion, too.  They will now all be a part of God’s compelling call to others who haven’t heard it yet.  They will be part of how Jesus keeps on “drawing all people to himself”. And so will we.
You and I have been called, summoned, drawn by Jesus to be his followers.  He did not use any bait and switch trickery to get us—he simply calls us as we are to be his own. Jesus seems to think that his offer—of a life lived at the meeting point of God and humanity—is worth it, just like that. And like the light first shining at creation, how could we do anything other than answer Jesus’ call?  For people who have come to know the compelling love of Jesus, you look back on your life and think, “How could I have not answered this call?”  You and I have been drawn to Jesus.  But it is also true, then, that Jesus uses us to draw others.  We become fishers for people, too—called to call others, caught up in the motion so that others will be caught up with us, too.  We don’t have to trick people.  We simply echo the compelling call of Christ.
Lord Jesus, call us again and make us to answer.  Let us be your faithful followers and fishers.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Impatient Caller

The Impatient Caller--January 12, 2018

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  [Luke 19:1-10]

Jesus doesn't wait to be asked.  He is rather too impatient a caller to be a polite messiah.

Did you notice that?  Jesus does not wait for the man in the tree to ask him to come, or for an engraved invitation, or for Zacchaeus to work up the nerve to climb down and request the pleasure of Jesus' company at a dinner to be given in his honor.  None of the usual protocols or rules of etiquette.  None of the expected quiet dignity of a respected public figure. 

Instead, Jesus invites himself over and crashes the party, because Zacchaeus will never muster the courage to take the first step on his own.  Zacchaeus, after all, is on everybody's hit list.  Like Levi, whose story we looked at earlier this week, Zacchaeus is a tax collector (a reminder that Levi wasn't a one-off, or an exception to the rule, but that Jesus made a habit of including outcasts and sell-outs). That's an unpopular profession in any era, but especially despised in this setting, because it meant that Zacchaeus was a collaborator with the much-hated Roman empire, with the implicit backing of Roman soldiers when he presented your tax bill to you. So there was no way of knowing whether or not your money was just lining the tax collector's pocket, or actively enriching the empire for the privilege of having their soldiers occupying your land.  But either way, it was a racket.  And that meant Zacchaeus, whose wealth came directly from the livelihoods of others, was a public target for spite and hatred. 

As short as he may have been, Zacchaeus walked around wearing a giant, unmistakable bull's-eye on his back.  So it's no wonder that Zacchaeus figured that the closest he would ever come to the popular rabbi visiting their town was to see him walk past from up in a tree.  Just think about the physical arrangement of this scene--Zacchaeus has physically removed himself from being able to have one-on-one conversation with Jesus, because he's convinced he's unworthy of it, or that he is unacceptable in Jesus' eyes (because he is unacceptable in everyone else's eyes).  

But that doesn't stop Jesus.  It never does.

Jesus doesn't wait for Zacchaeus to make the first move. He stops right in his tracks, looks up, and puts himself in Zacchaeus' social debt by asking to come to his house.  Jesus becomes guest, and Zacchaeus will be the host.  Most folks in town won't have anything to do with Zacchaeus, much less give him the satisfaction of letting him be the celebrated center of attention at a dinner party.  And, you know, who among us would blame the rest of the townspeople for doing that?  We who live in the age of the boycott protest, who are constant customers at the buffet of outrage we call social media, we who are tempted to "unfriend" or "unfollow" the bitter, estranged relative or former co-worker who goes off on unhinged, hateful rants without provocation, our way of dealing with people we deem unacceptable is to turn the cold shoulder, or publicly shame them, or to write them off forever as hopelessly embittered.  Let's be honest here: we would have all "unfriended" Zacchaeus if we had lived in Jericho. We would have written him off as "too much in bed with a despicable government," or "too crooked and corrupt," or "disloyal to his countrymen," or all of the above.

And this is what makes Jesus' calling to Zacchaeus all the more amazing.  Jesus is not stupid.  Jesus is not unaware.  Jesus knows both what Zacchaeus is complicit in, and what everybody else thinks of him... and what they'll think of Jesus himself if he dares go to dinner at the home of "one of those people," a hateful, crooked tax collector. 

And not only that, I don't even think that Jesus would have disagreed with that assessment of Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was a rotten sell-out who made his livelihood selling his people out to the empire and getting a cushy living doing it.  This isn't one of those situation where the crowd is just being prejudiced or mean--their collective verdict about Zacchaeus being a rotten imperial extortionist wasn't very far off the mark at all.  This wasn't a situation where the facts weren't in, or one could legitimately debate those facts.  There really weren't two sides here, and nobody, not even Zacchaeus himself, was there protesting that deep down he was a good feller with a heart of gold. Zacchaeus really was just a terrible, self-serving, misanthropic jerk, who had learned to keep everybody else at arms' length--both because it made it easier to bilk them if you didn't have to look them in the eye, and because it was safer in case they started to throw punches or wanted to slap him in the face.  Jesus wasn't so na├»ve as to think, "Well, maybe he's really a swell guy who is just misunderstood."  No, like the Grinch, Zacchaeus was "a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce." You and I know people like Zacchaeus--people we wouldn't want to be seen at a table with, or would be embarrassed to be seen talking to in public because their whole conduct seems so terrible.  And it is also quite possible that someone else who knows you (and me) would put you on a list like that, too.  I have a feeling I'm on more than a few people's Zacchaeus list, myself.  

We wouldn't have anything to do with a crooked money-grubbing sell-out like Zacchaeus, if we had lived in Jericho back them.


Jesus calls him anyway.  

Jesus calls him, despite the fact that Zacchaeus brings nothing but a shriveled up heart and tight-fisted hands.  

Jesus calls him, well aware that Zacchaeus has made terrible choices and doesn't deserve more than to have to live with the consequences of those choices.

Jesus calls him, knowing full well that Zacchaeus doesn't have the nerve to even ask Jesus first for hope, or mercy, or a forgiveness, or a new beginning.  If Jesus had to wait around for him to approach first, he'd still be waiting there outside of Jericho by the sycamore.  

And that is where everything changes.  The call--like the Creator's voice to the chaos at the beginning--has the power in and of itself to bring something beautiful from the mess that was Zacchaeus' heart.  The call itself, "Come down, so I can have dinner at your house," brings transformation.

But let us put to bed once and for all any ridiculous notion that Jesus, either there in Jericho or at this very moment, is waiting for us to take the first step or invite him into our lives, our hearts, or our dining rooms.  He is not.  Jesus always takes the first step... because we never will.

As much as we might want to set ourselves apart from crooked old Zacchaeus, we are up the same tree right there with him.  We are crooks and sell-outs, sinners with shriveled hearts, and left to our own devices, we would stay that way forever.   For that matter, we are all so fearful of what other people think of us that chances are, we will never work up the nerve to come to Jesus because we don't want to risk seeking him out, only to be rejected again.  It's quite a double-bind.

So, because we can't come out of the tree ourselves, or because we won't out of fear, Jesus calls to us.  And because we would never dream of imagining that a respectable rabbi would darken our door if we asked, Jesus just invites himself over.  He invites himself over to our hearts.  His call sets it all into motion.  When everybody else in town would have just stared and pointed, or referred to him as "That godforsaken cheating tax collector!" Jesus calls him by name.  "Zacchaeus, I'm coming to your house.  Let me have dinner with you--friend to friend."  And the call itself has the power to transform.

Note that Jesus doesn't phrase the dinner idea as a conditional proposal.  He doesn't say, "Hey, if you would make a few changes in your life, I'd be willing to reward you with a celebrity dinner with me!"  There is no trading of good behavior first for a dinner party appearance and a selfie.  There is only grace that comes from Jesus' calling.  Before any promises of making amends with the people he had cheated, before any promises or payments to make restitution, there is simply the gracious call: "Zacchaeus, put on the coffee. I'm coming to your house."

It is a humbling thing to admit that we are all--every last one of us--up a tree like the friendless tax collector, paralyzed by our own baggage and fear to ever come to Jesus on our own.  But it also allows us to be honest, too, to recognize grace in front of our faces, too.  

We find ourselves at table with Jesus, not because we were bold enough to invite Jesus into our homes or our hearts first, but because Jesus invited himself over.

We find ourselves face to face with Jesus, not because we were respectable and religious, but because Jesus is the sort who looks up into tree branches and summons the sell-outs to eat with him.

We find ourselves called by name, called beloved, and called a child in the family, not because we've earned it or made it happen, but because Jesus' call has that kind of power.  

He calls himself a guest at Zacchaeus' table, and all of sudden, so he is.  He calls Zacchaeus acceptable as a host, and at Jesus' say-so, he becomes just that.  He calls Zacchaeus a son of Abraham, and even though everybody else thought God surely would have disowned him, Jesus' knows otherwise.

And this same Jesus has called you beloved... and now dares you to speak the same call to people all around you, who have been told they are unacceptable, who have been told they are beyond hope, who have been told they come from the wrong place, or look the wrong way, or don't dress nice enough for church, or are too messed up to belong.  And now Jesus taps you and me on the shoulder and says to us, "Would you invite yourself over into that person's life for me?  I would like to use your voice to call them by name."

Lord Jesus, let us dare to believe we are what you say we are, and let us offer our own eyes to look up in the sycamores for people whom you love, too.

An Offering of Failures

An Offering of Failures--January 11, 2018

"Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennersaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, 'Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.' Simon answered, 'Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.' When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, 'Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!' For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Smion. Then Jesus said to Simon, 'Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.' When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him." [Luke 5:1-11]

Let's get any confusion out of the way: Signing on with Jesus is not an easy walk to better and better opportunities. Jesus calls to the point of exhaustion.

Sometimes, quite literally, he calls our name and points us to the very place where we feel most frustrated, most futile, and most like failures.  That is precisely what happens with a fisherman named Simon (whom we also likely know by his nickname, Rocky--well, "Peter").  Jesus calls him, with no hint of what will happen next, to the very spot where Simon Peter feels most frustrated, most futile, and most like a failure.

So let's get rid of any illusions from the get-go that being called by Jesus is your ticket to success in business, better position in the community, or higher-achieving children, and a well-behaved dog, to boot.  Let's not even assume that we will always have a warm, fuzzy, peaceful feeling about doing what Jesus' calls us to, or that we will know we are "doing it right".  None of these actually borne out by the way Jesus' actual calling of people works.

Watch the story again as it plays out here in the gospel according to Luke.  And notice how, for Simon Peter's part, he is brutally honest, and yet willing all the same, to do what Jesus calls him to do.  "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch," was the instruction, and Peter just lays it out that this feels like a pointless exercise, as well as a waste of time, energy, labor, and resources.  "Master," he says, being as polite as he can, "we have worked all night and caught nothing."  My western Pennsylvania ears cannot help but think he added under his breath, "Just saying."  But, he continues, "If you say so, I will let down the nets."

What is critical to note at this point is that nobody has made any promises of success yet, and Simon Peter's response is not based on any guarantees that this time it will be any different.  Simon Peter doesn't say, "Well, I know that you're the Son of God [he doesn't know that yet], so I know you'll make a miracle happen [he doesn't know that yet, either], so this should be easy now."  And note that Jesus, for his part, has not said, "Simon Peter, this time you'll catch something, because I am using my Messiah Magic."  Jesus just dares Simon Peter to answer his call--not even (and this is vitally important to see), not even to trust in the promise of a miracle yet... because there is no promise.

Jesus doesn't say, "I promise it will all work out and be a success in the end, despite the evidence, so just trust me more than your senses tell you."  Jesus basically says, "Do what I call you to do, regardless of whether it succeeds or not."  Jesus does not say, "Even if everybody else thinks this will end in failure, I'm your ace in the hole, and I'll make sure this project turns out right."  Rather, Jesus says, "Do what I call you to do, nothing more and nothing less.  I haven't called you to succeed by your own definition of success. I have called you be faithful."

And that--again, no more and no less--is what happens in this story.  Simon Peter doesn't get a great catch of fish because he believes in himself, or even because he trusts that Jesus will give him a great catch of fish.  No windfalls, lucky streaks, or miracles have been promised.  Rather like Schoedinger's famous imaginary cat in the box, Simon Peter has to be thinking about both possibilities at the same time: he could go out there and catch something without any indication that will be the outcome, or (the more likely outcome, by the evidence) he could go out and catch nothing. It's not a more "pious" or "devoted" perspective to expect a miracle where none has been promised.  It's not that the great catch of fish is a reward because Simon Peter had such strong faith, either. The question is simply whether Simon Peter will answer Jesus' call without knowing what will happen when he does.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to say that we don't really have "faith" until we "obey."  Part of what he meant is that faith is not simply expecting the outcome you want to have happen--faith, at least in this context, is a willingness to trust the One who calls you enough to do what you are called to do, even when you don't see how it will turn out.  I have seen the slogan before, posted on supposedly inspiration plaques and pious posters and such, that says, "Faith is not believing that God can, but being certain that God will."  That line totally misses the point, honestly.  That's not how it goes with Jesus and Simon Peter--nobody tells Simon that there will be a great catch of fish, if only he'll trust it.  No, in fact, Jesus deliberately does not say what the outcome will be, other than "put your nets out for a catch." He doesn't tip his hand about the overflowing nets, or the eruption of the divine that is about to come.  When it comes to Jesus' calling, faith is not about expecting a certain outcome--it is about trusting a Person, regardless of how things play out the way we think, or hope, or wish.

Sometimes you pray for healing... and the healing doesn't come.  It doesn't mean that we aren't supposed to pray, and it doesn't mean that we didn't believe hard enough.  It means that our calling is the same as always--pray for those who are in need.

Sometimes you work really hard on something you are convinced will make the world a better place... and it crumbles before your eyes.  It doesn't mean that you weren't supposed to attempt it, and it doesn't mean that God was thwarting you.  It means that our calling is the same as always--pour yourself into what you are convinced matters, and let the chips fall where they may.

Sometimes you try and try and try to get through to someone else... and it just seems like their ears or their heart are closed off.  It doesn't mean you weren't supposed to keep speaking with love and with grace and with honesty, and it doesn't mean that God has written that person off.  It means our calling is the same as always--keep showing up and speaking like Christ.

Sometimes you see an area in your own self, your own personality, that you not only wish to improve on, but actually work quite hard on... and you slip and you mess up and you fail.  It doesn't mean that you give up on trying, and it doesn't mean that God has given up on you, either.  It means that our calling is the same as always--to let ourselves be shaped into the likeness of Christ.

How did Kipling put it?  "If you can make a heap of all your winnings, and risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss--And lose, and start again at your beginnings, and never breath a word about your loss..."  Following Jesus runs that kind of risk.  It did for Simon Peter, who says right out loud to Jesus, "I have been trying and trying at this and failing--and now I am not just tired, I am tired of failing!  It feels futile and pointless, if I can be honest.  But, okay, for you, Jesus, I will fail again..."

And maybe that is the key here.  It's not believing for a miracle when no miracles have been promised. It is the offer of our failure, rather than of our successes.  We are great at offering our successes to God.  We have our own heavenly Show-and-Tell over the things we do well at: "Here Jesus, look at what a good job I did on this today!  Look at how I was nice to that person today!  Look at how I served at the church this week!  Look at how my kids are doing so well in school!  Look at how well I am doing!"  We are terribly afraid of offering our failures.

But that is what Simon Peter dares to do--not by his own initiative, mind you.  He's still dog tired and embarrassed that a professional fisherman has come up empty-handed in front of the visiting rabbi.  But when Jesus calls him to offer up his failure, he does it.  He offers up his futility.  He offers up his frustration.  Now that is something for Jesus to work with.

There is a line of Richard Lischer's, from his fantastic book, The End of Words, that has stayed with me over the years.  Lischer is writing about the difference between a "profession" and a "vocation"--that is, a calling.  He writes that the thing about a real vocation is that “you have to die to enter a vocation” It is something that “calls you away from what you thought was best in you, purifies it, and promises to make you something or someone you are not yet."  We usually assume that Jesus calls us to something that we are good at, or where our best talents can shine, where we can reflect God's glory by turning our raw ability into success after shining success.  But that is not how it goes for Simon Peter... and honestly, maybe that is never how it goes.  Instead, the place Jesus calls Simon Peter is the point of surrendering what he thought he was good at, and letting Jesus use the willingness to offer failure. 

Only at that point does Jesus extend the real call: "Now you'll be fishing for people."  Only at the point where Simon Peter is kneed deep in failure, futility, and frustration, can Jesus use him.  The folks who just want to use Jesus as their divine power-source for success on their own agendas or dreams are missing the point.  Jesus can only use us, any of us, at the point of our exhaustion--the place at which I am fully spent, the point at which I run out of "me" to brag about, and where all I have is my empty hands.

Where, honestly, is Jesus calling you on this day?

Lord Jesus, call us where you will, and give us the grace to offer you our failures and frustrations rather than just trying to show off our success.