Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Art of Discipleship: What Sun Tzu Didn't Write (But Should Have)

He saw the worst of it firsthand – felt it with his own body. The First World War was no walk in the park; and the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history, most certainly wasn't. And he was there. It was his third time on the front lines, this captain – Captain Liddell Hart. On the first day, his battalion was essentially exterminated; the British Royal Army lost over 57,000 men that day. Captain Liddell Hart survived. During the next couple weeks, he was hit three times. But he kept fighting. Until the gas warfare nearly claimed his life, and he was sent away from the front lines for good.

He spent the remainder of the war away from the ferocity of action – after recovering, Basil Henry Liddell Hart trained new volunteer units and wrote booklets about the process of infantry drill and training. Nearly two years after he was so horrendously gassed at the Battle of the Somme, he married his assistant adjutant's daughter. And seven months later, the fighting was done on the Western Front. Early in the morning of November 11, 1918, in a carriage in the French field marshal's private train, representatives of the French, British, and German governments signed a ceasefire agreement – an armistice – to officially go into effect six hours later, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The world was exhausted by the incredible carnage of the war. A year later, President Wilson issued a message commemorating the anniversary as “Armistice Day.” Congress made it a federal holiday in 1938, and it was renamed as Veterans Day in 1954. We observed it yesterday – a day of solemn remembrance.

As for Basil Henry Liddell Hart, his talents did not go unnoticed. He became a military correspondent for a couple major papers, wrote books on military strategy, even became an unofficial advisor to the prime minister, and after the Second World War carried out extensive interviews with captured German generals. But in the wake of yet another exhausting round of war, he wrote that “civilization might have been spared much of the damage suffered in the world wars of this century,” if only the military readership had familiarized themselves with just one book. And although Basil Henry Liddell Hart was a pastor's son, he wasn't thinking of the Bible. He meant another book. That book would later become a favorite of the American general who drove the Taliban into hiding in Afghanistan and overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. That same book is now taught as part of the curriculum of the war colleges of the US Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force – yes, all four of them. And I have it in my hand this morning.

It was written by a Chinese general and mastermind, known often to history as Sun Tzu, who may have lived around the time of Esther. Written on slips of bamboo, his book wasn't translated into French until 1772 or into English until 1905. And the whole book has commonly been understood as being about one key thing: How to decide whether or not to go to war, and how to win if you do, preferably without even having to fight a battle. And to this very day, over two thousand years after it was written, that book is still being read and studied by the generals who hold command over our armed forces.

Four or five hundred years after the book was written, thousands of miles west in a place called Galilee, a crowd gathered around another teacher, a man named Jesus. The crowds had come in hopes of learning from him a few tidbits of teachings to apply to their lives, and call themselves his students. But Jesus challenged them with a couple short stories. One was about a man building a tower, and how any sane person undertaking a building project is going to calculate the overall cost before they start – because a half-finished tower is just a waste, and its builder is a laughingstock (Luke 14:28-30). But the other parable is interesting, too. “What king, going out to meet another king in war, won't sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who doesn't renounce everything he has can't be my disciple” (Luke 14:31-33).

I've always thought that was a strange and confusing parable. It doesn't sound very much like the other parables you read in the Gospels. It's all about how the decision to follow Jesus as a disciple is a lot like the decision a king makes to launch a military campaign – both require serious thought, calculation, and sacrifice, because they can be such costly endeavors. How do you make a decision like that? Only by taking it seriously and with a great deal of care. And that has me thinking this morning. If the life of a disciple is an enterprise that Jesus compares to a military campaign, what if Sun Tzu had been there that day in the crowd? What would Sun Tzu, this brilliant military strategist, have said or done? What if he believed and followed? What if he'd written the book he should have written: not just The Art of War, but The Art of Discipleship?

The truth is, some of his insights are profoundly applicable to what Jesus tells us about taking up our cross and following him. And so this morning, Sun Tzu is going to teach us a bit about The Art of Discipleship. From the very beginning, Sun Tzu had said that the art of war is vitally important, for it is “a matter of life and death” for a state and so can't be neglected: “It is imperative to examine it,” to think very carefully and clearly about it (1.1-2). And the same is true for discipleship. It is literally a matter of life and death for your body and your soul. Too often, the church is willing to soft-peddle discipleship: Jesus is comforting, Jesus is kind, Jesus is nice, if that's what you're into. In today's culture, the life of a disciple of Jesus – what's popularly known as “Christianity” – is thought of as a fine option – or, for some today, not so fine – but still an option, one item on the menu to be chosen by personal taste, of little ultimate consequence or relevance for the remainder of life; it's seen as one quirky hobby to be enjoyed moderately and quietly. And there are plenty of churchgoers, or 'private Christians,' for that matter, who buy in to that idea. But that isn't what discipleship is. Sit down at a restaurant, and no item on the menu is a matter of life or death. No hobby can make you alive or get you killed. But discipleship can. This is life-or-death serious, and we need to pay attention and quit playing games.

No, discipleship is a matter of life or death – it is a momentous decision, as big as a declaration of war – and so it requires the same amount of thought. Sun Tzu writes that the general who wins victory makes many mental calculations before the battle starts, and the general who loses makes only a few – so he bids you decide which kind you'd rather be (1.24). Jesus tells his would-be disciples in this crowd the same thing. And Sun Tzu tells us that, if someone is deciding whether or not to go to war, there are five conditions, “five constant factors,” that you have to take into account (1.3). And they're the same things we need to weigh carefully for the prospect of following Jesus. After all, an authentic disciple is nothing else, Paul says, than “a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).

So first, there's the terrain – literally, the condition of earth – meaning “distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death” (1.7). And that's seldom encouraging. Because if you want to follow Jesus, he'll lead you a long way. It will be tiring. You'll be lugging a cross. Not every patch of ground you cover will be easy to keep your footing on. Some will be slippery. Some will require climbing. Some will be filled with people who mock you, take advantage of you, bankrupt you, hurt you – there's plenty of peril out there for disciples of Jesus. There are large numbers arrayed against you in the world – powerful forces, human and otherwise, that will resist you. In some contexts, being a disciple will very literally mean being ready to die at any moment. Don't believe me? Visit a little Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where twenty-six of our brothers and sisters in Christ were gunned down last Sunday as they worshipped.

For the rest of us, “in [our] struggle against sin [we] have not yet resisted to the point of shedding [our] blood” (Hebrews 12:4), and yet we do have some difficult and draining terrain to cover sometimes, don't we? And make no mistake, if you start that journey, there will be points where you look at the distance yet to go and want to give up the march. There will be sections where you're squeezed tight and have to abandon some supplies. There will be parts where it's easy to trip, and at the very least you are guaranteed to get scuffed up and sweaty. That's a very real cost, and Jesus does not want us to be ignorant of it. If you are in at all, you are in for the march, the long haul. You cannot, like the crowds tried to, come for the parts you want, the level meadows and refreshing brooks and mountaintops with easy slopes, and resume 'normal life' the rest of the time. The Christian life is no highlight reel. And there is plenty of risk involved. Jesus wants you to think very clearly about that before you start, and not to lose sight of it once you're underway. “Count the cost” (Luke 14:28), for “the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (1 John 5:19).

Second, there's the weather – literally, the condition of heaven – which, Sun Tzu says, “signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons” (1.6). And this isn't a rosy picture either. Paul told us, “Look carefully, then, how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). The days are evil. These can be dark times. He elsewhere refers to our era as “the present evil age,” from the power of which God sent his Son to deliver us (Galatians 1:4). We live between the First Coming and the Second Coming of Christ, and these are “the times and the seasons” (1 Thessalonians 5:1). Within them, some seasons are brighter, and some are dimmer and grimmer. Some seasons are cold, and other seasons are hot. Sometimes things are still, and sometimes there are storms. Some of us here have been through especially stormy, frigid, dark seasons of life over the past year or two – seasons that make you question the cost. As you contemplate being Jesus' disciple, you have to grapple with the challenges posed by these times and seasons. Because these seasons may cost you a great deal, and you have to decide whether it's worth it to answer his call if he calls you into the storm, into the fire, into the hot desert or the freezing wasteland, in the dead of night or the blinding noonday. Jesus does not want us to be ill-prepared to face these kinds of conditions; he tells us to think about the cost beforehand.

From all that, the cost is readily apparent. And to hear just those factors, it seems like only an idiot would enlist for this. But you haven't yet heard the rest. The third factor Sun Tzu mentions is the leadership, the qualities of the top-ranking commander of the forces, whether he has virtues like wisdom, trustworthiness, benevolence, courage, and more (1.8). And the top-ranking commander for disciples is none other than Jesus Christ. Is he courageous? Above all others: he marched to certain death for us, to suffer the due penalty for our sin. Is he benevolent? He is kinder to us than we could ever grasp, because he loves us unyieldingly. Is he trustworthy? All his words are “trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:5; 22:6), and in him we place our total faith and trust. Is he wise? To those who hear the call, Jesus Christ is revealed as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), who “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). You could not ask for a better leader than Jesus.

The fourth factor we hear about from Sun Tzu is the way, the 'moral law,' the Tao, the underlying principle that brings the people into alignment with their ruler (1.5). In the American armed forces, maybe you'd say that patriotism fills that role. What's the saying – that our soldiers don't fight because they hate what's in front of them but because they love what's behind them? And that principle, that cause, unites the soldiers – and ideally the citizenry – with their leadership. But what unites disciples with their leader is something far more potent than patriotism. What unites disciples with Jesus is the Holy Spirit, who produces love and all his other fruit (Galatians 5:22-23); and this Holy-Spirit-generated love “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). You could not ask for a stronger principle of victorious harmony than the Holy Spirit.

And then Sun Tzu bids us to consider one more factor: method and discipline (1.9). And on the one hand, that means the chain of command, whether the officers are capably directing the soldiers in accordance with the king's strategy, and are able to bring in sufficient supplies so that the soldiers are sustained throughout their campaign. In terms of the art of discipleship, it's a question of whether church leaders, the 'officers' among the disciples, are actively directing the church members in keeping with Jesus' strategy and are feeding the people with Word and Sacrament. A few Sundays ago, we commemorated the Reformation, and the Reformers agreed that this feeding with Word and Sacrament, this active direction, was the mark of a congregation truly belonging to Christ's church. Am I directing you in line with the King's overall strategy and mission? Are you being fed with Word and Sacrament here? These are the questions you should be asking if you want to be Jesus' disciple here.

But when Sun Tzu talks about method and discipline, he means more than just the chain of command. He also means the unity of the army – he insists that it's unity, not size, that yields strength (3.14c) – and also whether the troops conduct themselves in a regulated manner (1.9). And so it is with discipleship. First of all, it requires us to maintain unity – to move as a unit – and that can't happen if we visit and drop out according to our own individual tastes. Those of you who served in the American armed forces will remember how important it was to be present at roll call and to keep your post. Why would it be different in Christ's army? And yet we seem to think lightly of being absent without leave, and there may well be names on our roster who will yet receive a dishonorable discharge from Heaven's Commander-in-Chief. If you aren't willing to accept the responsibility of showing up and manifesting unity, Jesus warns, you can't be his disciple.

But there's more to it than that. Troops have to conduct themselves in a regulated manner. So do disciples. We live under discipline, and that's a challenge for us. Jesus tells us that his discipline may separate us from our families and even from our own lives (Luke 14:26). He tells us that his discipline may require us to renounce and give up everything we own (Luke 14:33). He tells us that his discipline may lead us on a march of shame that could get us killed (Luke 14:27). He outlined the content of his discipline in his Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in his teachings. To be Christ's disciple means to obey Christ's discipline. Soldiers are not free to pick and choose. In a well-functioning military, soldiers maintain the rigors of their discipline, the rhythms of the soldier life, which holds them accountable and forges them into what none of them could individually be on their own. And so it is with disciples. Jesus has laid out for us, through his own words and through the inspired teaching of his prophets and apostles, and through sensible and Spirit-prompted application throughout thousands of years of church history, a wiser and more powerful discipline than any other. It is demanding, and yet his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30). You could not ask for better; but we have to live it.

There's plenty that goes into The Art of Discipleship. And we could go on, because Sun Tzu has other lessons to teach us, other lessons we can apply. “A victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory” (4.15). “Do not swallow bait left by the enemy” (7.25). “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and you know Earth, you may make your victory complete” (10.31). Another time, perhaps. Jesus tells us to count the cost, to deliberate on whether we can achieve the goal that discipleship aims for. The terrain is rough, and the weather is often bad; but we have the best leader, Jesus Christ, and the greatest principle, love in the Holy Spirit – and their victory is assured, in spite of any terrain and any weather. If we hold to our discipline and “endure to the end” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13), then the cost will be well worth it. But you have to think that through and make a commitment, a choice. But as you do, know this: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith” (1 John 5:4-5). Persevere in your faith and your discipline, with thanks to God. Glory to the Father and the Son and the Spirit, one God, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Three A's: Amnesia, Assault, and Arithmetic

The envelope must have crinkled as he ripped open the top. The sheet inside – a statement from the royal loan agency – was folded in thirds. Gordon unfolded it – and screamed. He should never have placed a bid for the contract as the province's tax collector, responsible for turning over the revenues to the king. Because he had been an utter failure – shirked his duties in every way. Now he was on the hook. But even so, Gordon couldn't believe he'd managed to drag it out this long, this far; he couldn't believe he was so far under. He'd known he had a debt to pay. But he'd ignored it, put it off. And now the king expected a pay day. Gordon opened his eyes, wishing desperately that they'd see something else. But there the figure was again. His total debt. There was the 'one,' followed by a string of altogether too many zeroes. Ten of them. You know what number a 'one' followed by ten zeroes makes? Gordon knew. Ten billion dollars. That's what he owed. And he didn't have it.

The next day, an armed escort arrived. The king didn't mess around – didn't take a chance of Gordon fleeing. It was time for all debts to be settled. And so six soldiers marched Gordon into the royal palace. And Gordon fell to his knees, admitting he didn't have the money. He knew what the custom was in this place – for debtors and their families to be sold into slavery, to have everything they own confiscated, to have their entire lives ruined by the debt. Gordon begged. Gordon pleaded. Gordon wept. What he blubbered made no sense. “Just give me more time, I'll come up with the money, I promise!” He was a pitiful sight, and his words were nonsense. A spare ten billion dollars isn't something one fishes out of the couch cushions.

He was a pitiful sight. So pitiful, the king felt bad for him. Gordon kept begging, making every sort of terrible argument, all manner of cockamamie excuses, until finally Gordon was reduced to crying out, in heaving sobs, “I have nothing, I have nothing, have mercy!” The king's heart was moved. And so the king rose from his gilded throne, marched past his guards and down the steps. He came to where Gordon was and knelt down with him. And the king placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered consolingly, “I will have mercy on you. Listen, this is an incredibly large debt. It's clearly impossible for you to pay. But not for me. I'll cover the costs of it; all I ask is that you remember this. I'll cover the cost and suspend your debt; I won't demand payment from you for it, since you can't give it. So go in peace. Back to work with ya, eh?”

A rejoicing, grateful Gordon felt the crushing weight of his turmoil roll off his shoulders at the king's bidding. He was a free man. The soldiers released him from custody. And you'd think it would make all the difference in Gordon's life. After the weekend, he went back to work at the royal tax agency. Passing by the water cooler that very Monday, Gordon spotted Eric. And the sight filled him with rage and resentment. A month ago, he'd loaned Eric a thick wad of cash – $600 – and so Gordon confronted Eric. “When am I going to see that?” Eric protested he didn't have it; he'd blown it all, he was broke. “Not good enough,” Gordon muttered through gritted teeth as he slammed Eric against the wall by the throat. Eric squeaked out, “Come on, man, just give me another month to come up with it!” Gordon refused. That very day, Gordon retained legal counsel and had Eric arrested in a debtor's prison until Eric's friends and family could come up with the money. Serves Eric right, Gordon thought to himself. But when the king heard that an employee of the royal tax agency had been jailed in debtor's prison, he was shocked and concerned. When he read the court transcript and found that Gordon had filed the charges, the king was furious. And so the king revoked his verbal offer to assume Gordon's debt. If Gordon wants to live in a world where people get what 'serves them right,' then so be it, mused the king. His soldiers arrested Gordon that very day. And soon Gordon was in a cell down the hall from Eric's, until such time as Gordon could gather the ten billion dollars for his release – and not a penny less (Matthew 18:23-34).

Ten billion dollars... Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being ten billion dollars in debt? I mean, my student loans are no small change, but they're a lot less than ten billion! But that's just the sort of extravagant picture Jesus used when he told the parable on which the story of Gordon, Eric, and their king is based. When Jesus told it, the tax official – a 'servant,' he's called – has a debt of “ten thousand talents,” we're told (Matthew 18:24). The footnotes in your study Bible might explain that, for a poor manual laborer, even one talent is about the equivalent of twenty years of wages.

But we also know that the sum total of tax revenue that Herod the Great's administration took in – from all of Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Idumea, and Peraea, all the multiple provinces under his rule – in a given year was about 900 talents. And so realize that, when Jesus is describing the indebtedness of this civil servant, the picture he's painting is one who somehow manages to owe the equivalent of almost twelve years' worth of the national budget. Can you wrap your mind around that? I sure can't!

Why do you think Jesus paints such a ludicrous picture into his story? There's nothing realistic about a tax official managing to owe eleven or twelve years' worth of the national budget! This may be more money than they had in circulation; some commentators suggest this is the largest sum of money that could be expressed in language at that time without doing multiplication! But Jesus uses this financial exaggeration as a symbol of our very real debt before God. No real tax collector owes the king ten billion dollars, no real civil servant owes the king ten thousand talents, but no tamer figure, no lesser scale, can capture the extent of how deep our sin goes. Calculate our sin in numbers and put a dollar sign on it, and you're looking at a number like this one.

The truth is, each and every one of us, each and every relative or neighbor, has gotten those notification letters with the royal seal, whether we realize it or not. We owe, and we owe big, for all that we've borrowed, all that we've done that merits a penalty fee or a fine. Facing God, each and every one of us is ten billion in the hole, at least. – deeper than we could ever hope to escape. And when that comes due, the pretense of being good, upstanding, a responsible person – that'll be all stripped away. Our sin-debt is vast orders of magnitude beyond our comprehension, and there's no denying it. And yet our King's heart was moved. He got off his throne, he descended to our level, he knelt with us in our blubbering shame, and when we confessed we had nothing to give, he touched us, he showed mercy – and he showed mercy by agreeing to personally eat the cost of our debt. That is the gospel message. That is how the kingdom works: In mind-boggling mercy from the King. We had a debt we couldn't pay, so the King paid a debt he didn't owe, back into the royal coffers.

But it's after that where the parable takes a sharp turn down a dark road. A servant of the king, forgiven his ten-billion-dollar debt, accosts a fellow servant for a measly six hundred bucks – and takes him to court and has him thrown in jail for it! It makes no sense: Hasn't the first servant stepped into a new world of mercy-getting and mercy-giving? Forgiven as much as he has been, shouldn't he be extra willing to forgive? Yes – but he suffers from a bad case of selective amnesia about it. He forgets he's entered a new world of mercy. Once seemingly in the clear himself, he goes right back to his old patterns of resentment and ruthlessness.

And how often we see people – how often we see believers – and sometimes the believer we glimpse in the mirror – do likewise! We develop a selective amnesia, where we conveniently forget how much we owed to our King. Our selective amnesia blots out the hefty degree of what he's forgiven in us. We begin to have a sense of pride that can be offended; a sense of entitlement that demands satisfaction; a greed for gain at others' expense, when we should be rejoicing eternally just to be in the clear. And just like the first servant in the story, when we nurture a selective amnesia about our debt, we're likely to assault those we see as owing us. Oh, it isn't always a physical assault of violence. But when we think someone owes us, has wronged us and not made up for it, we assault them verbally with our words of biting criticism. We assault them socially with our exclusion. We do it emotionally, attitudinally, even if it's only a sense of resentment we nurture in the quietude of our own hearts. There, in the secret place, we assault them with our feelings. They may not even notice it consciously, but it's our assault all the same – because they owe us something.

Amnesia – the first 'A' – leads to assault – the second 'A' – and that brings us to the third 'A': arithmetic. Jesus spun this parable because Peter approached Jesus one day, while he'd been teaching about how to handle sin in the disciples' community, and suggested a guideline to forgiveness: he could imagine himself forgiving a person all the way up to seven times, if Jesus told him to (Matthew 18:21)! When you think about it, that sounds like a lot to forgive somebody for the same sin, over and over. Compared to the next verse, it sounds petty. But Peter thought he was being very generous; he thought he was about to get a congratulatory pat on the back from Jesus for saying it. Because the common opinion of the rabbis of the time was to set the bar lower than seven, at two or three. We have multiple warnings against forgiving somebody more than three times. “If a man sins two or three times, forgive him. But a fourth, do not forgive him” (t. Yoma 4.13) – you find that in early collections of rabbinic law. And in twenty-first-century America, it might be a rare person who even live up to it.

But Jesus is having none of it. Because when he thinks about his Father's mercy, he doesn't see biblical poetry about God rescuing someone two or three times (Job 33:28-29), or God punishing Israel for four transgressions (Amos 2:6), as establishing a limit to mercy. Jesus knows full well that he was sent to pay a far greater cost than for just the fourth sin or the eighth sin, a greater cost than merely a $700 debt. He was sent to bail us out of a hole deeper than all the wealth of creation. That's the measure of our debt. And our debt, unthinkable as it is, is orders of magnitude less than the King's mercy. So when Jesus hears the speculations of the other rabbis, or even the self-satisfied musings of his dear friend Peter, Jesus holds it up to his Father's mercy and deems it far too little. Holding a fourth or even an eighth sin against our neighbor, our brother, our sister, and drawing a line in the sand beyond which our mercy won't pass, falls way too short.

In Genesis, when Lamech twisted God's offer to protect Cain with sevenfold vengeance, Lamech proposed unmitigated revenge: seventy times seven, a symbol for the unyielding completeness of his wrath (Genesis 4:24 LXX). So Jesus inverts it: if Peter proposes being the anti-Cain who offers sevenfold forgiveness, Jesus calls him to be the anti-Lamech who forgives, not just three, not just seven, but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:22). Unyielding completeness in mercy and forgiveness toward those we see as owing us. Anything less, any limit at all we might concoct, is selling God's mercy short – betraying the forgiveness he extended to our far greater debts we owed to him. And the King is deeply grieved when those in his employ assault each other and when those he calls his family bear a striking resemblance to his bitter enemies. Jesus offers his parable as an exhortation to forgive without limit, and as a warning: “So also my Heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Perhaps we should take that seriously.

Jesus warns us that, if we don't take up a lifestyle of mercy and forgiveness, the King may well be within his rights to reinstate our own debt and enforce it after all. If you had to stake your eternal destiny on whether you forgive those around you who sin against you... where would you be headed? And yet, here's the truth. Over the past three years, as I've gotten to know the wonderful people of this church, as I've rejoiced with you and mourned with you, I've noticed that for some of us, this verse, this parable, should cut very deeply. Because in some of our families, there are cases where we refuse to release debts, real or imagined, that have been incurred by our own relatives and professing fellow believers. There are so many forms it can take. Friction and hurt feeling between siblings. Turmoil in marriages, where one spouse won't overlook the other's perceived flaws and infirmities. Resentment against harsh insults and opposition from stepchildren or parents. Longstanding grievances against unpleasant aunts, uncles, neighbors, co-workers, even other congregations. Think long and hard about any broken relationship in your life, one where you're owed something different than what you got.

That's the story of the unmerciful servant, right out of Jesus' lips. And let me tell you, it's not worth it. It's not worth it to not forgive. It's not worth it to try to recoup your losses and collect on all those petty debts. Release them. Let them go. Don't set boundaries to your forgiveness. Keep reminding yourself of the mercy of God – the mercy he showed you when he wiped your ten-billion-dollar debt clean with the blood of his Son, when he ate the cost himself. And for all the lesser debts you're owed, go and forgive likewise.

Does that mean there's no way to resolve hurtful issues? No. This parable is mainly about what happens inside the disciple-community, what we call the church – it's between those who claim to all be believers, brothers and sisters in the Lord, children of one God as Father. And right before Peter made his proposal, Jesus had just explained the right way to resolve these issues. If a fellow believer wrongs you, go and humbly show them that they've sinned against you (Matthew 18:15). If they don't listen, enlist a couple other believers to mediate with you (Matthew 18:16). And if that doesn't work, take it to the church, which has authority from God to handle it – Jesus says so, and you can read it for yourself (Matthew 18:17-20). But for your part, release the debt: it has nothing to do with you anymore. Release the debt without regard to how big it is, or how repetitive the figures, or how many times it's been incurred. Don't be like the unmerciful servant. If the King has forgiven you, let imitation be your sincerest form of thanks. Seventy times seven – no limit. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Pros and Cons of Obnoxious Prayers

Two men like that could scarcely have been more different. And yet, one Ash Wednesday evening, the both of them stood in the same sanctuary in the First Baptist Church of Somewheresville. They didn't arrive at the same time, and certainly not together. Not even close on either count. Thurston was one of the first ones there. He made sure of it. Dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit, he strolled to the second pew, sat near the center aisle. It was a couple pews in advance of where most folks felt comfortable sitting. There was plenty of room in that big sanctuary, you know.

Everybody knew Thurston. Thurston sat on the borough council. Thurston was a board member here. If you needed help, you turned to Thurston. Thurston wouldn't let you down. See, Thurston always went above and beyond the call of duty. Thurston budgeted ample resources for generosity. Every Sunday morning, you could faithfully hear the offering plate go clunk when it came by Thurston. Same for every special offering – half of what went into the plate at the back of the sanctuary fell out of Thurston's hand. Above and beyond – always Thurston's motto. He knew the Bible backward and forward, up and down. Celebrated every holy day with exacting precision. Ran a successful business, and gave his employees their Christmas bonuses without fail. Thurston was articulate – he volunteered to preach whenever the pastor went on vacation, and half the congregation sometimes wished the pastor wouldn't come back so they could keep Thurston! He was a fountainhead of moral advice. He avoided all the classic vices scrupulously – never smoke, never drank, never gambled, never danced. (Hey, it was a Baptist church, after all.) Faithful and supportive of his lovely wife. Everybody knew Thurston. A man without scandal, trustworthy and true. A role model to the whole church.

Thurston was a real stand-up guy. So Thurston stood up. And Thurston prayed. Words flowed off Thurston's tongue. “Almighty and Everlasting God, I thank thee most highly and most heartily that thou hast seen fit to bless me in multitudinous ways. Thou hast prospered me, and thou hast extended mine borders. I thank thee, O Lord Most High, that thou hast made me who I am. For surely I could have been raised differently; I could have had a weaker character; I could have had less opportunity; I could have taken less initiative. But God, my God, I am not like other men, those who disappoint thee or disobey thee. O God, I am not unrighteous. O God, I am not an adulterer. O God, I am not a thief. O God, I am not a murderer or gangster. O God, I dress well. O God, I am not a drunkard, nor a smoker, nor a gambler, nor an addict. I stand for thy values, I write letters to my Congressman, I quote thy words to him. Thy favor is upon me, as all my dealings and all my prosperity doth abundantly attest, O God of heaven. And so I thank thee, O God, that I am not like those many other men – weaklings, reprobates, hypocrites, judgmental, militant, bigoted, promiscuous, greedy, bankrupt, rapacious, traitorous, and unreliable. I thank thee especially, O God, that I am not like him,” prayed Thurston, noticing out of the corner of his eye as a bedraggled figure crept sheepishly toward the back pew. “For I, O God, pray three times a day. And I, O God, hold vigils to take America back in thy name. And I, O God, never fall short of a full tithe. I am chaste, truthful, virtuous. Whatever thou hast asked for in thy word, I render it double unto thee. And so, Almighty and Everlasting God, this is my confession: I thank thee in advance for another year of reward and plenty. Look down from thy holy habitation in heaven and bless me, as thou art bound by thine promise so to do.”

And Thurston sat down. Thurston shares a great deal in common with a story Jesus once told – a story we heard read this morning. Thurston, had he lived in first-century Judea, would have been a card-carrying Pharisee. It's easy for us to forget, given the dim view of Pharisaic spirituality that prevails in the Gospels, that to most Jews of the time, the Pharisees were spiritual rock-stars. They were superheroes. They avoided obvious vices. They had their hearts set on renewing Israel and paving the way for the Messiah through national righteousness. They scrupulously obeyed the Law of Moses – the one in the parable went above and beyond the Law, carrying out acts of piety so intense, as if to put God somehow in his debt. The Pharisees held sin at the greatest distance by building a 'fence' around the Law, carefully steering clear of any infractions. And they held themselves out as an example for others to imitate. Thurston would've made a fine Pharisee; in fact, he did (cf. Luke 18:10-12).

The trouble here, you see, is that Thurston's prayer knows nothing of real grace or real mercy. It doesn't glorify God at all. Thurston's prayer glorifies Thurston. Thurston's prayer fits very poorly with Ash Wednesday, or any day of the Christian life. Thurston speaks volumes on his fidelity to the Law, his achievements, his fulfillment of the commandments. But the people Thurston distances himself from: he doesn't love them as himself, which is a pretty central commandment (Leviticus 19:18). And a prayer where Thurston's 'I' is the main active agent is a prayer that puts him at the center and God in a supporting role. Thurston's prayer is all about what he's earned and accomplished; Thurston prays for what he insists he deserves. Thurston's religion is business, a transaction: he keeps all the 'Thou shalt nots,' and in turn God must prosper him, and people must respect and admire him. Thurston looks down on others who don't meet his exacting standards – benignly, sometimes, but disdain and judgment all the same. Thurston has a lot going for him. Martin Luther describes his Pharisaic forefather as having “nothing but beautiful works,” such that he “appears to the world a paragon of godliness, a fine, pious, God-fearing, and holy man.” But Thurston's prayer is self-centered, prideful, loveless. It's not only obnoxious; it's an abomination, a blasphemy. And to the astonishment of all who heard Jesus, people like Thurston walk away dirty from the service – stained by sin, and in opposition to the heart of the God they claim (Luke 18:14).

But Thurston wasn't alone in the sanctuary. Midway through his prayer, another man entered the sanctuary. Ira didn't have much in common with Thurston. Ira didn't wear a three-piece suit. In most people's opinion, he wasn't “dressed for church” at all – in his grubby, wrinkled shirt, his hole-ridden jeans riding low beneath a couple inches of underwear, his grimy sneakers trailing mud behind him. Ira dressed the part of a teenager – it made him feel young again. He knew he'd squandered his life. He'd attended First Baptist as a kid. But that was then. After quitting the church, he'd spent some time as a radical activist – ah, the passions of youth. The Feds had a file on him, no doubt. In the years since, he'd rotated through plenty of avocations. Heroin dealer, for one. Ira almost didn't come today – couldn't bear to face church families who'd lost a daughter, a sister, a son, a brother, to his product. A loan shark he'd been, for a while, after lucking out in a poker tournament. But these days, he made a lifestyle out of dodging child support payments and taxes – doing odd jobs for under-the-table cash. Thurston was very proud of being nothing like Ira. And Ira couldn't blame him.

Ira sat in the far corner of the back pew, closest to the door in case he needed to cut a hasty exit – which was fine with most, who'd learned around town to keep a close eye on their watches and wallets when Ira was near. Ira knew good and well what other people thought of him. He used to be defiant about it. But the past weeks had driven it all home. He could hardly stand to look himself in the mirror when he brushed his teeth or shaved – tasks he reserved for special occasions. He felt like the bottom had fallen out of his life. If he were here to confess his sins, it'd take him from Ash Wednesday 'til Easter to even tell the half of it – and that's just what the drinking hadn't made too fuzzy to recall. After a week of close calls, Ira was desperate for someone to turn to. But Ira had no friends. And Ira couldn't blame them. So here he was, in the place no one expected – least of all Ira himself.

Ira listened with muffled ears to the close of Thurston's prayer. And he listened, in a way Thurston didn't, as the pastor led the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Words seemed to trail in and out. “To dust you shall return.” “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” “We have sinned by our own fault, in thought, word, and deed.” “Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people.” Ira's eyes filled with tears. He'd stolen more than he could ever give back – not just in money he'd appropriated, not just in evil causes supported with a hard heart, but in flesh-and-blood lives he'd broken and ruined. Ira did know his transgressions. His sin really was ever before him. He could harbor no illusions about his self-indulgent appetites and ways. And he could bear it no more. He thought he was about to burst. As if in a dream, he leapt to his feet, interrupting the litany of penitence, and with a downcast gaze and a heavy heart, he pounded his chest with a calloused hand and sobbed the words, over and over again: “God, mercy on me, on sinner!” He broke down in blubbering – an unattractive sight. The pastor unsteadily wrapped up the words of absolution – after which Ira fled (cf. Luke 18:13).

Ira's prayer was obnoxious. It was noisy. It was loud. It was intemperate. It interrupted the service. It lacked all social graces. It came in an ill-dressed and odorous package. It wasn't eloquent; it was barely English. And it came from the mouth of someone who has no reasonable expectation in himself of getting an answer. All that is true. But where Thurston's prayer was centered on himself, Ira's prayer left Ira as an afterthought. Where Thurston's prayer was bold, confident, proud, Ira's was humble – not in the way of our common false modesty, but in real emptiness of self. Where Thurston's prayer was par for the course, Ira's prayer was life or death. And where Thurston prayed for his just reward based on his goodness, Ira prayed for the mercy of God in spite of his own corruption. Thurston looked in the mirror and saw nothing to repent of; Ira saw nothing else. And as Jesus tells the tale, the tax collector – Ira's spiritual forefather, a traitor to the nation of Israel and a social outcast – was the only one of the two who walked away looking good in God's eyes (Luke 18:14). If Ira's prayer is an obnoxious one, well, it's the kind of obnoxious prayer God loves. Like Martin Luther once said: “We pray, after all, because we are unworthy to pray.” And that was Ira's prayer. Thurston's prayer was I-centered; Ira's was I-emptied, for the sake of God's mercy. Pray like Ira. Be obnoxious like Ira.

Before Jesus set the stage for the Pharisee and the tax collector, he spun another good yarn – told of a widow who was destitute and desperate, and a judge whose hunger for a bribe was keeping her down. This judge didn't have any awe for God, and he respected nobody but himself. And the widow came to him – she was being taken advantage of by all her neighbors, victimized by crime, hounded by the bank – and she made her case to the judge. And the judge said no. But the next day, there she was again. And the judge said no. And soon she was appearing everywhere. You can imagine it: at the mall, at the luncheonette, in the park, outside his house, there she must be, inconveniencing him. As his sleep ebbed away, as his patience wore thin, eventually he says to himself, “I'm sick of this. If giving her justice is what will keep her away, then fine, she can have it.” I guess they didn't have restraining orders in those days. But it worked. The widow was so obnoxious in pestering the judge loudly and constantly, day after day, that her obnoxious petition prevailed (Luke 18:2-5).

And Jesus told this story so that we might “always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). For if even an unjust judge will yield to the obnoxious pestering of a widow who cries out day and night, won't a good God give quick and sudden justice to his chosen children who pray the same way, never losing heart, never giving up hope of being vindicated when Christ grabs the wheel of this car careening out of control (Luke 18:6-8)? You see, the widow's prayer is certainly obnoxious. It's repetitious, it's loud, it's abrasive, it's a nuisance. And Jesus tells us that God is plenty responsive to his favorite nuisances. So go ahead and pester your Father. He's not too busy to handle your case, however big or however small.

And finally, after treating us to the widow, the Pharisee, and the tax collector, we see one last vignette in today's reading. Some people were carrying small children to Jesus – infants, toddlers, maybe leading a couple of elementary-school age his way – just because they wanted these kids to have some contact with Jesus. And yet when the disciples saw this, they appointed themselves bouncers, tried to interfere (Luke 18:15). Why? Why would the disciples think it wise to keep these children away from Jesus? Is it because they thought it would be a waste of Jesus' time, a drain on his energy after a long day of preaching?

Maybe. But here's another reason that probably went through their minds: Kids are obnoxious. Don't deny it – it's true! Have you ever spent time with kids that age – kids besides your own or your grandkids, I mean? They don't know how to shut up, and it isn't like they have much interesting to say. They have no sense of propriety. They'll dress themselves in all sorts of mismatched ways, if you let 'em. They can be loud. They like to scream. They cry at the drop of a hat – sometimes literally! They're brash. They say whatever they're thinking; they love to voice their opinions. They eat too much, and then they throw up all over you. They are, in a word, obnoxious – but quick to trust.

And Jesus tells his disciples off – says that these obnoxious brats are no waste of his time. Their obnoxiousness is the stuff God's kingdom is built on. If you want to get in on it, start over from here. Be more like them. Pray more like them – bold, daring, humble, obnoxious. When I was a daycare teacher, I'd usually ask some kids to volunteer to lead the daily prayers. They had no guile. There was none of the Pharisee's braggadocio. Their prayers could be sweet, they could be long-winded, they could be grating and tiresome and misplaced, they could be whispered, they could be shouted. They were, at their very best, blessedly obnoxious.

An obnoxious prayer like the Pharisee's prayer is obnoxious because it's hurtful – harmful to those around him, derogatory toward God's glory. But an obnoxious prayer like the tax collector's, the widow's, the child's – those are dangerous prayers, fierce prayers, prayers with all the rawness of wild faith. This week, the world will be observing the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation – a movement that coalesced when one obnoxious monk challenged the domesticated propriety and the prideful self-centeredness he saw all around him. He bade us to strip away the inessentials, to empty our blowhard prayers, to admit our thoroughgoing sinfulness, and to lean on nothing else than the mercy of God made near to every sinner in Jesus Christ. To cry out for grace alone through faith alone is an obnoxious thing – loud, unseemly, unpolished, impolite, repetitive, pesky. But in no other way can we trade our filthy rags for a righteousness we can't manufacture or manage. In no other way can we gain the humble love through which faith blooms. This week, go pray some obnoxious prayers. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Being Rich: Jesus' How-To Guide

The farmer whistled as he stood on a hill and surveyed the unrelenting white of his fields. He'd never seen so much wheat, so much barley, so many other grains. As if he'd planted some kind of super-seed, the field was choked solid with it – no bare spots, no dim patches, no gaps – and every stalk looked full to bursting. Turning to his other fields, every crop was the same way. He didn't know what he'd done right – he didn't know if he'd done anything at all – but whatever crop he'd planted this year, the harvest season had found plump and plentiful. On a normal year, he did quite well for himself. He had oodles. He was never dissatisfied. He'd bought up plenty of little family farms from his former neighbors over the years, so there was no shortage of fields in his name. But now every one was yielding like it'd been bathed in a miracle fertilizer or a growth hormone or... or... he didn't know what (Luke 12:16).

The laborers had been working for a couple days already to harvest it all – and it hardly seemed like they were making a dent. The sun rose, the sun set, the sun rose, the sun set – they kept hauling it in. And then they came to him. “Sir... Sir, Barn A is full.” “Sir, sir... There's no room left in Barn B.” “Sir – I mean, if you've got a moment – I hate to tell you, but we can't fit anything else in Barn C.” And the farmer looked out over his fields. A third were yet to be harvested. And all his barns were full. “What on earth am I gonna do? I can't just waste it. I want it all! Think of what it can do!” (Luke 12:17).

The farmer thought that over for a day. Wrestled with the possibilities. And he reached a decision. “I know, I know. Here's what I'm going to do. Boys, gather 'round. Get rid of Barn A, Barn B, Barn C. Deconstruct 'em. Dismantle 'em. I'm placing an order for more lumber. Time for an old-fashioned barn raising. How big? Oh... very big. Enough to stockpile a lifetime supply, that's how big. Tear down these barns. Build larger ones. Big enough to handle all this harvest. Big enough to store all this grain. Big enough to stash all my purchases. All my grain, all my goods. Big enough to hide away years of plenty for the days of famine. Big enough to guarantee my security. Bigger...” (Luke 12:18).

The labor teams went to work. The farmer watched with contentment and pride. Barn A2 went up. Barn B2. C2. Biggest barns on the block – like aircraft hangers. The farmer watched. The farmer watched, and he whispered: “I'm free. I'm set. I could retire. I'm safe. Even if my fields lie fallow for ages, even if it doesn't rain for three years – I'm set. I've got so much! I can withstand many years with these ample goods! And now it's time to enjoy the good things in life. I could use a vacation at the beach. I can finally relax. I want to lounge in a hammock stretched between two palm trees. I want to sip margaritas by the bay. I want to eat barbecue and steak. I want to sample the night life. I've been breaking my back out here for years. I deserve this. And thanks to this windfall, with a harvest like this, I can afford it and then some. I'll never go hungry. I'll never run out. This harvest – it sure is a lifetime supply. My safety net. Time to relax, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19).

The farmer sighed a sigh of relief as the sun dipped toward the horizon. He knew he was the envy of his neighbors. He'd done everything right, after all. He was fiscally responsible. He was planning ahead. He was setting aside an ample retirement fund. He was well-to-do and respectable. He could afford to live a little, and he deserved it. The sun sank a bit lower in the late afternoon sky. All was quiet. Until it wasn't. A sound like a jet flying low enough to give him a haircut. In the roar, he could barely make out the words that boomed like a jackhammer in his ear. “You fool! This very night, your soul is required from you! And these things you have prepared, this grain, these goods, all those plans and dreams... Whose will they be then?” (Luke 12:20).

No answer was given. But with a prophecy of his death before sunrise, the formerly satisfying sinking sun must have instilled a much different emotion in the farmer's heart throughout the following hour. Such was a scenario that Jesus framed for us: the story of a man who already has plenty, but when more gain comes his way, he doesn't even consider any option but expanding his storage capacity – his luck is his luck, no one else's; his blessings are private bonuses and yield security with which to savor his good fortune. A good harvest is all about him, you see.

And Jesus explains two important things about this story – two basic lessons on how to be rich. First, there's a key distinction. On the one hand, you can be rich toward self. You can treat yourself well. You can pamper yourself. You can spend it on luxuries, you can hoard it like a miser, whatever. You can be rich toward yourself. You can make your gain and your blessings all about you. You can lay up treasure for yourself – for your own use and your own purposes against a rainy day – or, in the farmer's case, the dreaded not-so-rainy day that won't end for a while. That's being rich toward yourself. And that's one option. But there's another one. The opposite of laying up treasure for yourself, like this farmer did – and most people throughout history would have applauded the farmer's fiscal wisdom, don't forget, and not seen him as foolish at all – but the opposite here is being rich toward God (Luke 12:21). And that's a different way to be rich. That's something novel, something radical.

The second lesson, Jesus explains, is that all these things the farmer has, all these things the farmer is daydreaming about – life is about more than living it up. Life is about more than earning. Life is about more than eating food and drinking drinks. Life is about more than relaxation and the good moments, and it's about more than work and toil. Life is about more than what you own. Life is more than a sum on a bank statement or a sequence of hours billed. Life is about more than that. Jesus says, “Take care and be on your guard against covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Maybe that's a better way to phrase it: not just that life is about more than these things, but that if you add them all together, even that doesn't qualify as actually living. You can stockpile as much as you want – that doesn't mean you're living. You can go on vacation to the beach, to historic sites, to cosmopolitan cities in every land hither and yon – that doesn't mean you're living. You can eat the finest gourmet food – that doesn't mean you're living. You can go to all the parties – that doesn't mean you're living. You can have the fanciest toys – that doesn't mean you're living. You can win all the trophies – that doesn't mean you're living. You can work out all the spreadsheets, you can spend hours budgeting, you can make smart investments, you can weave your best safety net to give you breathing room to do all this and take control of your life – and yet it doesn't mean you in fact have a life, much less that you can actually control it. All this doesn't amount to living. And your soul is at the bidding of Another who can recall it at any time. All these things, all the sequence of moments they bring – yet it doesn't amount to living.

It would be so easy for us to look at this parable, read the headline, and safely and smugly think, “Oh, this one is for the rich. Well, I don't much like them anyway. Good for me.” That's easy, to dismiss the parable as saying anything we don't already know and agree with. It's easy to dismiss its relevance to us middle-class Americans – even though each and every one of us probably owns more, and certainly enjoys a higher standard of living, than even the most prosperous farmer in first-century Galilee. We're so quick to assume we're not materialistic. We don't think of ourselves as greedy. But maybe we're too quick to dodge what Jesus is saying.

Why did Jesus tell this story in the first place? “Someone in the crowd said to him, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). This man in the crowd is a younger brother. His father has passed away. By law, his elder brother was entitled to a double portion, and they could split the property that way, 67-33. It was widely considered preferable, though, to keep the property intact and live there as equals, with the elder brother looking out for and protecting the younger. That was the advice of many Jewish sages in those days. But this younger brother doesn't want that. He doesn't want to do things right. He wants to be financially independent. Maybe he wants to move away. Maybe he's not getting along with his brother. He wants security of his own, not bound to any particular social tie. He's willing to embroil himself in a family conflict – and to drag Jesus into the middle of it – to get his independence and his security, some funds of his own, all his. And what Jesus saw is that this man was at the risk of organizing his existence – like his family relations – around what isn't life. He was putting something not life-giving at the center, and subordinating his family life to that prospect of gain with which he might “relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). Like the farmer in the story, this younger brother is making his existence about what doesn't amount to life; and that's the inevitable result of seeking to be rich toward self.

Financial responsibility is good. But it isn't life. And when we orient our existence around what isn't life and therefore can't give us life, we fall prey to the same foolishness as any idolater past or present. This isn't about just “the rich,” somewhere out there. This is about us. Because we dream like the farmer. We chafe like the younger brother. This parable is about us. We're embarrassed if our neighbors walk through our house and judge us as poor in their eyes – poor towards self. Shouldn't we be more embarrassed for the “great cloud of witnesses” to see us as poor in their eyes – poor towards God? “Such is the one who lays up treasure for himself” – anyone who makes their existence about what doesn't amount to life – “and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

Being rich toward yourself doesn't amount to a rich life, because it doesn't amount to a life. Enjoying the finer things, having plenty, a sequence of thrilling moments and memorable experiences, making a name for yourself and leaving a mark on those around you – those may be fun, there may even be some limited good there, but it isn't life, and it isn't being rich toward God. But Jesus is explaining a how-to guide for really being rich.

First, “seek God's kingdom” (Luke 12:31). As in, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). The farmer in the story was seeking big barns. The farmer in the story was seeking relaxation, food, drink, and merriment – somewhat fine things that don't amount to life. But the kingdom of God amounts to life. The kingdom of God is that long-lost world with God at the center and God in charge, a world that's healed and fixed and made right, a world made clean and whole, a world of goodness and beauty and truth; and just this world of lavish grace poked into our old world wherever Jesus went – and still does. The first step in being really rich is to put aside other concerns and make your #1 priority to chase after this kind of world – and the only path is the one marked by Jesus' footsteps – up to a cross and then out from a graveyard. Chase Jesus and his Spirit wherever they go, and other things will find you in their proper measure.

Second, Jesus advises us: “Sell your possessions” (Luke 12:33). The farmer in the story was building big barns so he could accommodate more possessions! As a sign of being rich, he wanted to expand. But Jesus says, if you want to really be rich, don't expand; contract. Virtually every single one of us has things we don't need. And nothing you own is neutral. Either it helps you or it hinders you. It enhances your riches or impoverishes you. We stockpile all these things – but when our soul gets recalled, whose will they be? And will they offer life and security to them when they couldn't waylay our soul here an hour longer? So Jesus advises us, “Sell your possessions.” Look over what you own. Don't ask, “Does this bring me joy?” Ask, “Does this help me seek the kingdom for myself and others – does this glorify God – or not?” Sell off the obstacles. That's what true wealth involves.

Third, Jesus continues his thought: “Give to the needy” (Luke 12:33). The farmer in the story was all about hoarding. He looked over his white fields, and his thoughts were all about, “How can I keep hold of more of this for myself?” Not once did he look over the fields and seriously consider, “This is more than I need right now. It must not all be for me.” The farmer wanted to hoard it. But really being rich doesn't mean hoarding; it means giving. Jesus explains that only those who give will thereby stockpile “moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34). We dare not let our heart be in our own frail chests. Better to keep our heart in heaven. And like St. Peter Chrysologus used to say, “The hand of the poor is Christ's treasury, since whatever the poor person receives, Christ receives. … O man, while on earth, give to the poor those things that you want to abide with you in heaven.”

Fourth, Jesus urges us over and over again: “Do not be anxious about your life...” (Luke 12:22); “Fear not...” (Luke 12:32). The idea of selling things, giving to the poor, all that – if you're really radical about it, it can be unsettling. Jesus tells us we don't have to be unsettled by it. Life is about more than the things over which we get anxious. Life is more than eating, more than drinking, more than having clothes and shelter. Life is more than a balanced budget and a 401(k). Life is more than opportunities; life is more than workdays and vacations.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Aim to be rich toward God, not toward yourselves. Sell what holds you back, give to those in need whatever God gave you for them and whatever you'd like to have forever, and set aside concerns so you can chase Jesus and his Spirit toward a world made right – and don't be afraid, even if only a few join you in the hunt, because your Father has his heart set on getting you there. Be rich toward God. It's his business to be rich toward you – in his kingdom. And that is how to truly be rich. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Prize by Surprise

“Wealth and wages make life sweet, but better than either is finding a treasure” (Sirach 40:18). That line from the Book of Sirach turned over and over in the mind of Ben, the hired hand, as he sweated beneath the sun. His body was overheated, sticky, and weary in the seemingly permanent heat that was ceaseless by day and apparently unending at night. He'd had dreams once – dreams of a life he could enjoy. Dreams of having a place to call his own. Dreams of farming his own land, instead of hiring himself out to farm this distant edge of a vast plantation not his own. Dreams of really being his own man. But life didn't turn out that way. He had to eat by the sweat of his brow – and then some. His daydreams were useless. But they got him through the long days of manual labor when there was no breeze to help. So he dreamed. And he dug at the soil.

And then he heard an unusual sound – clink – like instead of hitting dirt or hitting rock, he'd struck a patch of wood and metal beneath the sediments. Scratching inquisitively, he found a box – very narrow but two feet long and plunged lengthwise into the earth. He needed a break anyway, so he paused to pull it up. And when he opened it, his hands trembled so he nearly dropped it. He unfurled a stretch of canvas and saw something he'd seen in a textbook once, in that art history class he'd never finished – he gazed at the Renaissance painter Raphael's lost Portrait of a Young Man – worth a fortune – he thought he remembered an estimate of a hundred million dollars it might fetch now. Ben was so overwhelmed, he absentmindedly turned over and over the yellow gem in his hand, with all 126 of its facets gleaming in the fiery sunlight – the missing Florentine Diamond, unchanged since its theft from the last Austrian emperor in 1918. What room was left over in the box alongside those two fit in – it was overflowing with gold coins. There could not have been a greater surprise.

Ben looked around – no one in sight. No one could see him except maybe as an indistinct silhouette on the horizon. It was a vast plantation, after all, with few to work the spacious fields. And so, with his heart pounding in his chest, Ben carefully rolled the painting back up, slipped it into the box; gently placed the diamond in; and scooped gold coins in until they were all there. Wedging the box back into the crack whence it came, he dropped a few spadefuls of dirt over it, smoothed out the soil, and moved merrily along his way, with a barely concealable spring in his step – it was joy, plain and simple.

Ben hustled home – he had scarcely any time to think. He knew his neighbor had been wanting to buy his house – wanted room to expand, he'd said – so Ben hammered on the door and made a cash sale. Ben cashed in his few stocks and bonds. He emptied his retirement fund account. He sold his clothes, his favorite chair, everything in his house that wasn't nailed down – and a few things that were. Wasn't much – but when everything was put together, it was enough. Enough to march into the landowner's office. Enough to say he wanted a new start, some land on his own – and a plot of a couple acres at the edge of the plantation would be quite nice. Oblivious, the owner saw only a dumb peasant willing to fork out 190% of the plot's retail value – a winning transaction for the owner. He had no clue what had been buried there years before he'd bought the land himself. He signed the bill of transfer. Done deal.

In the days to come, Ben threw quite a few parties in celebration. His former employer was now, you see, the second richest man in town – a distant second, in fact. It had cost Ben everything he had – his home, his investments, his security in the future, his clothes, all his earthly possessions. When his brothers and sisters heard, they were ready to drag him off to the asylum. Why become homeless and penniless to get a couple acres of dirt? But as soon as the land and all its contents were legally his, he dug up the box. The cost was nothing next to the value of the prize. And thanks to the discipline to handle it wisely, Ben was set for life. “Wealth and wages make life sweet, but better than either is finding a treasure.” Amen, thought Ben. Amen.

If Ben were real, and if Ben were one of the relatively few Americans who still possess some basic biblical literacy in this day and age, Ben might have drawn a comparison to a teensy snippet from the Gospel of Matthew – a story from the lips of Jesus. Two stories, in fact. Jesus invited his students and the eavesdropping crowds to imagine two men. One, a refined pearl merchant on the hunt for quality merchandise, makes a stunning discovery: a seller who apparently has less refined tastes is willing to part with the biggest pearl anyone has ever seen for a price criminally cheap; so the merchant divests himself of all his stock and his personal possessions at a discount, and scoops up the bargain of the century. Or as Jesus tells it: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).

But Ben would have resonated even more with the other story, a story of a farmhand and some buried treasure: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). See, back in those days, people did bury their savings – no banks in Galilee, after all – and it wasn't outside the realm of possibility to uncover a stash hidden a couple generations ago, before the land changed hands a few times. Finders keepers, for landowners.

The dream of finding buried treasure was to them what winning the lottery is to twenty-first-century Americans – it's not likely to happen, but folks find it fun to daydream about. And if there were a fair and legal way to make it a sure thing, there's no cost within your reach that's too great. It's simple math – the jackpot outweighs your current assets, so if it can be a sure thing, you ditch your current assets and grab that jackpot. If the field holds a buried treasure worth more than all you own, you sell all you own and buy the field. Passing the opportunity by makes no sense. Dismissing the find of a lifetime is ludicrous. Dithering and dilly-dallying would be foolish. Deeming it just another day on the job would be absurd.

There's nothing humdrum about finding buried treasure. That's the moment that changes your life forever. That's the moment where your dreams come true, and a totally new life comes within your reach. When you find buried treasure, you don't just move along. You figure out how to get it legally in your possession. And when you find buried treasure, you don't shrug your shoulders and say, “That's pretty nice.” Your heart races, you grin, you leap and holler – you celebrate – you rejoice. And no matter what sacrifice it calls for to get it, even if it's everything you own, even if you have to sleep in a cardboard box for a month, no matter what worldly possessions or creature comforts you have to part with for a season to get that treasure – you know you'll look back once you've got your prize, and you'll think, “It was all worth it. I would have been an idiot to pass this up. I would have been an idiot not to take the deal. I would have been an idiot to forgo this treasure I found... a prize by surprise.”

Jesus told just such a story. And the point of Jesus' story here is that this is what God's kingdom is like. Have you ever thought about it like that? When people imagined God's kingdom, what they were thinking about was a healed world – a world fixed and made right – a world with God at the center and God in charge – a world and a society with God as King, who would finally reward his loyal people with victory, with top-dog status, and with every lavish luxury their hearts have ever dreamed of – who would finally crush all evil and cleanse all stains – that God would take charge and enforce his perfect will, to the benefit of all those who gained his favor.

That's what people meant when they talked about the kingdom of God – it was the world they were all waiting for, a world their ancestors had almost tasted in the days of David when Israel was humming along in working order, but which had clearly fallen into grave disrepair. And then Jesus came along and announced that the kingdom, this long-lost world, was arriving – it was showing up in strange ways wherever he went, in whatever he touched – like he said, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them; and blessed is the one who does not stumble on my account” (Matthew 11:5-6). This abundance, this healed world, this lavish grace – a new world poking into our old world wherever Jesus is. And those who follow him and live according to his vision get tastes of it now and, when the new world takes over fully, will enter it and enjoy it completely. That's the kingdom of God.

And what Jesus is telling this story for is to show us what a surprise this kingdom is. Jesus' new world pokes and prods at the fabric of this one in places you didn't think you'd find it. His lavish grace jumps out at you when you're not looking. You're going about your daily business, trudging through the dirt, lazily strolling the aisles at the corner store – and whoa, there it is! There's the kingdom! The kingdom shows up where you least expect – even at an execution on a hill outside Jerusalem – even in a locked-and-guarded grave. The kingdom is not content to be obvious. You'll find the kingdom hiding under a layer of topsoil. You'll walk face-first into it and break your nose. But there it is. The only question is: Will it be yours?

And when you crash into the kingdom, when you turn over the dirt and catch a glimpse, you need to understand: what you have just found, what you have just seen, is not merely one option among others. What you've found is not mundane. What you've found is incomparable. What you've found is an only hope. What you've found is riches beyond compare. What you've found is not worth trying to find a measuring system that can handle both it and what you've known before. The kingdom is of an incomprehensibly higher order of magnitude than all else you've ever known. Because the kingdom yields abundance. The kingdom yields peace and joy. The kingdom yields virtue. The kingdom yields wholeness. The kingdom yields eternity. The kingdom is divine – it is the very treasure of God. If you can think of the kingdom and dismiss it as unimportant, you ain't seen the kingdom. Every act of terror, every mass shooting, every tyrant's injustice, every mob's riots, every famine and drought, every scream of grief or silent pang of poverty – that's from the old world, where we're all grabbing at the crown. But the invitation to a new world stands open, and those who enter in will ultimately find that “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

The kingdom, the grace of God, comes knocking with a rare invitation. The grace is given freely – but to accept this free grace may well cost you, and cost you dearly. Like the man in the story, you may have to sell more than you bargained for. Entering the kingdom means doing the Father's will (Matthew 7:21). You can't see it unless you've got a new start to life, a new birth (John 3:3). You have to strip away all your pride, stoop down, turn around, become like a humble, helpless kid (Matthew 18:3-4). You've got to get hold of a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). You have to let the big sack of possessions roll from your back, or else you'll no more fit through than a camel can squeeze through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). And yet the most sinful and outcast, “tax collectors and prostitutes,” can find this deal within their reach (Matthew 21:31). But the pathway in is “through many tribulations” (Acts 14:22). And you'll find that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9) – those who cling to lives of “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry..., hatred, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy..., and things like these … will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

The grace of God comes knocking... but the kingdom's new world will cost you all that old-world junk, and more besides. A German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed under Hitler, famously wrote about this kind of costly grace. He said: “Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has. … It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.”

And that's the honest-to-God truth. And that's the measure of a true teacher: a true teacher will showcase the value of God's kingdom – and its cost. Lose out on either, and you've missed the message of Jesus. “Therefore every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). The kingdom treasure has more facets than the Florentine Diamond – it shines from all angles, all different but all beautiful, no matter when those angles were cut, whether in the era of Isaiah or the days of Paul. There's plenty in that treasure – and a true teacher is going to show you an endless parade of reasons to celebrate in finding it, but won't gloss over the price tag.

The truth is, even though God offers his grace freely, even though the gates of the kingdom are thrown wide to all who'll dump their old-world junk by the wayside and come near to slip on through, there are plenty who count the cost as too high. The Gospels are honest about that: folks invited to follow Jesus to the kingdom, but they make excuses – they want to cling to life as they know it. Not everyone knows an eternal investment when they see it. You can even sit in a pew, you can get your name on the membership roll, you can put a token bill in the plate now and then – but still not be buying the real treasure. Jesus tells another story: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age...” (Matthew 13:47-49). The Sea of Galilee was full of plenty species you could catch by trawling with a net spread between two boats. But not every species was kosher, not every fish caught was clean. When the net gets pulled ashore at the end of the day, some won't pass muster for the kingdom. The kingdom was within our reach, and yet there are those who don't know a treasure when it's right underfoot or staring them in the face. And only when the net's reeled in and the crops are harvested do we get sorted.

But what about now? Maybe you hear that story, and it makes you concerned. Well, Jesus probably meant it to. If you truly trust in him, if you proclaim him as the Lord who rescued you, if the truth of his resurrection is planted in your heart – then you've found a real treasure. It's already yours, by grace through faith... and when the end of the day comes and the new world crashes fully down, you'll enjoy it without any impediment. In the meantime, though, sticking to that path and following through is a costly endeavor. But if we've actually caught sight of the treasure, if we really understand, then the price doesn't seem so high, because we see how short it falls next to the surprise we've uncovered. And so we can sell all we've got with joy.

There are plenty of things we have. Many of them are obstacles in our progress toward the kingdom: demands on our schedules, demands on our energy, demands on our bank accounts, demands on our lifestyle – demands that proceed from society, from culture, from family and friends, from traditions, from desires, from all sorts of scripts we make up or accept and pursue. And when we lose sight of the joy of buried treasure, we struggle to sell those off – but that discovery, that sale, that blessed purchase, is just what the kingdom of God is like.

Do we rejoice to invest our time, gathering with fellow kingdom-citizens on a Sunday morning? Do we rejoice to invest our efforts, serving those around us with what they need? Do we rejoice to invest our paltry funds to favor those through whom our King accepts our gifts? Do we rejoice to invest our devotion in our King? Do we rejoice to invest our words to invite others to his treasure? If so, we're getting more than the bargain of a lifetime – we're getting the deal of eternity. Thanks be to God. Amen.