Lent 1(A): Bound in Sin and Held in Grace

Lent 1(A): Bound in Sin and Held in Grace

Romans 5:12-19

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The church tradition of my upbringing (non-denominational; vaguely Baptist) didn’t use the lectionary. I probably only learned what it was in college or in seminary, and I’ve been enamored ever since. At its most romantic, it pushes us as preachers to preach on a variety of texts that we might otherwise never willingly choose. (In actuality, the lectionary skips some complicated texts itself, and we still get to choose between passages if we want, so it’s not a perfect system.) So, when Modern Metanoia branched out beyond the Gospel texts, I was ready to go big or go home. I was ready to pick the text I’d be least excited by. I was ready for God’s revelation to break forth through a passage I would normally struggle with.

And so here we are—with a passage from Romans about sin and Adam and condemnation.

I think it is important to admit that we sometimes struggle with texts as preachers because it lowers the barrier for others to fall in love with the Bible. Writer and speaker Rachel Held Evans was particularly good at this—openly wrestling with difficult texts not because she didn’t like the Bible, but because she loved the Bible.

So, what is this sin-weary feminist who is uneasy about the times we only reference men in the Bible to do with a text all about sin and death?

First, Brian Peterson suggests that we contextualize this passage for those who understand that this passage does not rely on the literal transmission of sin and death from Adam to the rest of us.[1] For contexts that understand the earth as existing for billions of years, it is important to note that death has been embedded in the cycles of nature for as long as earth has been here. Instead, the death and sin connection embedded in the Genesis story is one of the spiritual consequences of sin—sin is not what God wants for us. Sin points to broken relationship with God, ourselves, creation, and others.

Second, this passage points us to a larger story than what we see now. To me, the beauty of this passage is that it reminds me of the sin and redemption cycle that is bigger than my own personal experience. I have entered into a story that started before my character had a line and it will continue longer than I’m on the stage. Sin and death were a part of the world before me and will persist after me, but so has the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.

While this passage names individual characters in the story—Adam and Moses—these names are placeholders for the rest of us. One person’s sin is all people’s sin, and one person’s grace can save us all. The gospel message that breaks forth when I read this text is that the story is bigger than me and so we are all in this together. Since the story is bigger than me, it is not just about me. It is not just about Adam or Moses, either.

Sin has bound us together, but grace holds us altogether as well. Many stories in one. I cannot separate myself from your sin, and you cannot separate yourself from mine. Our collective experience of grace and life for all insists on this.

What I walk away from this text with is more questions. What does it mean for my life if I really am connected to what pains and troubles you? The Gospel text for this week is about the temptation of Jesus. What if the temptations we experience were shouldered in community, rather than in the privacy of our own relationship with the Tempter? Are there ways that we could address sin collectively so that we may experience grace communally? (This must be done with safety in mind, to the extent it can be, of course.)

I’ve seen the alternative—parishioners isolated with the demons that haunt them. I’ve experienced glimpses of divinity when grace abounds between people that have shared their shame and received acceptance. How might the church transform if we move beyond individual stories of sin and grace to recognizing our place in a much larger narrative that puts our sin and redemption in relationship with everyone else’s? I’m not sure, but I’d like to find out.

[1] Peterson, Brian. “Commentary on Romans 5:12-19.” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3181

 

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

Ash Wednesday (A): Letting Go

Ash Wednesday (A): Letting Go

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

A confession seems appropriate to begin a reflection for Ash Wednesday. So, here it is: I struggled to write this piece. No, it wasn’t procrastination or ‘writer’s block’ or that I was too busy. I honestly believe that it is about my own wrestling with the texts and the truth of this day in the life of our faith.

After all, Ash Wednesday is a hard day in the life of the Church.

In fact, one of the best sermons I have ever heard proclaimed on this day involved the preacher wondering aloud why we flock to churches to hear the stunningly honest proclamation of this day–you are dust, and to dust shall you return. These are sobering words, for they reveal our deepest truth as human beings. We are impermanent.

As I ponder this the appointed text from Matthew’s Gospel, I am reminded that, over the course of seven years of marriage, my spouse and I have lived in six different homes across three states. To write that is almost painful. However, along the way, through each move, we’ve learned quite a lot. We have strong opinions about moving companies, detailed plans for how best to pack, and a deeper appreciation for the ways that communities enable us to feel at home.

We have also been amazed at how quickly we amass ‘stuff’ in each placed we have dwelt. Even when we haven’t lived in a place very long, belongings seem to multiply quickly, and, before we knew it, every corner of storage space in the house is filled.

In the Gospel lesson appointed for Ash Wednesday, Jesus tells those gathered on a Galilean hillside not store up treasures on earth, where they rot, rust, or are stolen. Instead, Jesus bids them, store up treasures that will last, heavenly treasure. Treasure, he says, will lead the heart.

I’m always amazed that we read these verses, and the ones that precede them, on this day in the Christian tradition. Of all days, this day contains one of the most ‘treasured’ practices–the imposition of ashes upon one’s forehead. With a very public display of piety, so begins a forty-day sojourn in a wilderness of penitence, fasting, and self-denial.

Yet, Jesus’ warnings before his instruction on treasure storage focus on piety and prayer, suggest a much more private posture toward the actions we Christians will take on this holy day.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…”

“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…”

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face…”

Like many who have read Matthew’s Gospel before us, I don’t believe Jesus is arguing that we should never pray in public, that we should never share our fasts with another person, or that we should stop placing our offerings in those shiny brass plates on Sunday morning. However, I do believe Jesus’ words call us to some deep reflection about our lives, our faith, and our treasure.

Maybe this day isn’t about putting on ashes, or anything else for that matter; perhaps this day, and the invitation to enter into the season that follows, is about what we need to take off or with which we need to part ways. After all, everything, including us, is impermanent.

In reading this Gospel passage on this sacred day, at the dawn of this holy season, Jesus’ warnings seem to invite us to travel lightly in the trek that lies before us. As the depths of winter begin to give way to the blooms of spring across much of the country, and the layers of cold weather attire give way to warmer days and lighter jackets, our faith might also do well to shed a few layers and be renewed by this hallowed journey toward resurrection.

What do we, as individuals, need to shed in the days ahead?

Perhaps it is a sense of shame at having not kept up a life of prayer or an addiction to the voices of various media that leave us in a haze of confusion and doubt.

What do we, collectively, as a people of faith, need to part ways with as we travel the familiar road of Lent?

Perhaps it is an attachment to the sacred symbols of tradition or a fear of taking a risk amidst a world that too often bids the Church play it safe.

Together, the soft, flaky ashes upon our foreheads and these ancient, familiar words of Jesus, invite us into this holy season, and call us to take stock of our individual and collective lives. Let us not fear shedding a few layers of whatever weighs heavy upon us in these days, that we might discover what truly matters, what really lasts–the eternal love of God.

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege is the Rector of St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. In his spare time, he is an avid reader, a runner, and a lover of golf. Andrew is married to Amanda and they share their home with their daughter, Eleanor, who was born in 2017.

Maundy Thursday (C): A Daring Love

Maundy Thursday (C): A Daring Love

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

John’s Gospel text, appointed for this evening in Holy Week, invites us into the dining room of a home somewhere in the city of Jerusalem. It is not a familiar setting, for us or for Jesus and congregation his friends sitting around the table. From the other Gospel writers, we know that this is a borrowed table in the home of an unnamed resident.

The night that brings them around that table is the night that is different from every other night—the night that, for first-century Jews, the night of remembering the story we will also read from the Exodus. This night is a moment to pause and to recall with thanksgiving the great faithfulness of God who acted in mercy toward the people of Israel, bound for generations in slavery in the land of Egypt. It is a night to remember an identity.

And yet, all over again, this night is about to become different from every other night. Even as the twelve are around the table, Jesus is setting in motion a new remembrance; a new act of God’s mercy.

The sacred ritual that will mark this new, old remembrance is an act of humility; a chore reserved not for the leader of the movement but for the servant of the household. By removing his outer robe and wrapping the towel around his waist, the night became new and different all over again.

As the simple sound of pouring water strikes the bottom of the basin, one can almost sense the tension that must be present in the room.

What is he doing? Has he forgotten?

No, in fact, he is remembering who he truly is, as he attentively washes and tenderly dries the first pair of feet, then the next, and the next.

Simon Peter, for those in the room and, truly, for all of us, names the tension. To Jesus he wonders aloud, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus, in reply, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

And, in response, “You will never wash my feet.” Just like that, so many of us find, in this old Gospel lesson, a person with whom we can relate. Not me. Not my feet, Lord.

You will never wash my feet that haven’t had time to receive a pedicure.

You will never wash my feet that have walked around in these shoes all day long.

You will never wash my feet that went to the gym during the lunch hour.

Lord, you will never wash my feet.

To this, Jesus issues the most difficult of his responses: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Tough words, for the disciples around the table and for us who hear this text some two millennia later.

Their Lord and Teacher reminds them of his place among them; an example that they have seen and should go forth to imitate themselves—servants are not greater than their masters and messengers are not greater than their senders. But the teaching, the message, he tells them, is in this mandatum, this new commandment:

That you love one another.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

All that Jesus has showed them, all that he has taught them, all that he has sought to share with them in their journey has been summed up in this single and simple way: Love one another.

It is a daring love.

But let’s be honest about what the disciples either did not or could not say in that sweet, solemn moment: Loving one another like this sounds well and good; but when put into practice, it is not as simple as Jesus makes it sound.

Love one another.

Love one another and bear each other’s burdens.

Love one another and feel one another’s pains.

Love one another and allow the possibility of being hurt.

Love one another and open yourself to being understood in your depths.

Love one another and make amends where you have wronged the other.

Love one another and put your arm around the one who cries, who hungers.

Love one another and be willing to love even to the point of washing one another’s feet, as Jesus has knelt to wash those of his closest friends, his tender hands touching their dusty, calloused feet.

It is daring because this kind of love bids the invitation to open up to be seen for who one really is; to experience the type of intimacy that everything around warns us to guard ourselves from; to be vulnerable enough to look into another person’s eyes as they wash with water the calloused skin of a bare foot.

Love such as this is not easy because it is the type of genuine love that does not come cheaply.  This love comes at a cost; at a great expense. But in and through and by such love, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Do we dare love so deeply?

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The Rev. Andrew Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

 

 

 

 

Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Luke 23:1-49

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

If you’re looking for ways to spin the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the story of salvation, read no further, because that’s not what I’m going to offer here. In fact, I’d like to suggest that the crucifixion itself is not a story of hope and salvation, that it was never meant to be, and that trying to pretend like it is will always do more damage than good, leading us inevitably into moral and theological error.

And yes, I do still consider myself a theologically orthodox Christian.

A great deal has been written over the past century on the subject of atonement theology, and far more qualified theologians than I have already done the work of deconstructing the heresies associated with the idea of “substitutionary atonement” –the idea that Jesus “had to die” on the cross in order to pay the price for human sin by satisfying God’s wrath against all humanity for disobeying him in the Garden of Eden. It’s unnecessary for me to repeat all the criticisms of this theology here, but I highly commend Elizabeth Johnson’s excellent new book Creation and the Cross, along with Brock & Parker’s lengthy but thorough historical analysis in Saving Paradise.

 Suffice to say, while many people in the U.S.—Christians and non-Christians alike –still believe substitutionary atonement to be a core tenet of the Christian faith, most people with even the slightest bit of theological education or awareness of Western history know that the idea was not part of the Christian faith until Anselm of Canterbury proposed the doctrine in the 11th century, which was right around the same time that we find the earliest images of the crucifixion showing up in Christian art.

In other words, for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, there were no images of Jesus dying on the cross, and no references to Jesus’ death or the crucifixion event itself as being constitutive of salvation. Apparently, crucifixion is not necessarily the core of Christian faith.

Many mainline clergy and theologians have long since rejected Anselm’s child-like notions of the need to appease the abusive wrath of a parental deity with a blood sacrifice. But most still attempt to re-frame the crucifixion in “positive” terms, spiritualizing it as a metaphor for “kenosis,” self-sacrifice, or non-violent resistance. They attempt to reject Anselm’s doctrine while still retaining a framework that places Jesus’ death at the center of the faith. And yet, we still end up with a theology that is built around—and dependent upon—violence. This is a theology that teaches that the ends can justify the means—a theology which can only perpetuate and enable cycles of abuse and oppression by glorifying suffering and victimhood in such a way that encourages people to stay in abusive and oppressive relationships.

While Christians of the first millennium seemed to reframe everything in the context of life—incarnation, resurrection, and the redemption of the world—the crucifixion-based theologies of the second millennium dealt only in death, shifting the focus to the next world while giving up on this one. At the end of the day, this is a theology of despair, and has accordingly encouraged and contributed to the despair and death of far too many women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who have found themselves defenseless on the wrong side of a power dynamic. Rather than experiencing God as one who calls us out of patterns of human violence and into new and redeemed life in Christ, many victims of violence believe that God is pleased by their suffering, demanding the erasure of selfhood for the sake of redeeming oppressors.

This is not the Gospel. It is nothing more than codependency writ large, and then reframed as a religion. This does not point the way to salvation. It is simply a defense mechanism that makes suffering more bearable by spiritualizing it and reframing it as altruistic.

I am convinced that no matter how you spin it, there is no way to frame the crucifixion narrative as positive or necessary without falling into this morally and theologically debased trap. I am also convinced that we do not need to frame the crucifixion as positive or necessary in order to be grounded in the Gospel Truth.

The story of the incarnation constitutes our hope and salvation. The story of the resurrection constitutes our hope and salvation. But the story of the crucifixion is a tragedy nothing more. It is the tragic story of a pattern that plays out in our world every single day, over and over again—in workplaces, in courtrooms, in classrooms, in churches, in living rooms, in bedrooms –a pattern in which the people most responsible for harm are the ones most shielded from having to take responsibility for it. A pattern in which oppressors look like victims, and innocents are framed as villains. A pattern in which those with power can wash their hands of blame, while the masses find easy scapegoats that can satisfy the desire for “justice” in ways that avoid addressing underlying power dynamics and allow us to return to the safety of the status quo. It is a pattern in which victims are left with no recourse but to accept whatever blame is foisted upon them, knowing that if they try to defend themselves, they will only invite more blame, and more suffering.

This is what makes the story of the crucifixion matter. And this is why it is important to tell it in all its vivid, excruciating detail. Not because it is a story that constitutes our redemption, but because it provides us with the recognizable context that makes resurrection matter. This is the hell that we are saved from – a hell that the poor and the oppressed know well, and will immediately recognize. It is a hell that must be named, because so many people are in the midst of it right now. We see crucifixion in abusive relationships. We see crucifixion in the structural racism that is built into our criminal justice system. We see crucifixion in the religiously-motivated dehumanization of LGBTQ people. We see crucifixion in bizarre stories like the one recently reported by the NY Times in which an innocent kid with codependency issues became the scapegoat for the tragic death of his friends, while the landlords and the city officials responsible for ensuring the building’s safety washed their hands of it.

The crucifixion is a story that needs to be told so that the people who find themselves living in this hell can understand that even though this is what happens, this is not God’s will, and they are not alone, and no matter what happens or how they are made to suffer, this is not the end. The crucifixion only has meaning through the lens of resurrection, and that this is the only way in which we can frame it through a lens of hope.

On Palm Sunday (and Good Friday) we must resist the urge to skip ahead to Easter by giving the crucifixion narrative a happy spin, or trying to frame it within a theology where violence is part of God’s plan, and realize that we tell the story of crucifixion so that we can name the truth about who we are as human beings, and the kinds of insanity that we are saved from, through a faith that would never call us into this kind of death, but always calls us into new life beyond death.

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Kristen Leigh Mitchell

Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.

 

 

Good Friday(C): A Long Look in the Mirror

Good Friday(C): A Long Look in the Mirror

John 18:1-19:42

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

Preacher Fred Craddock advised lectionary preachers to “distinguish between lengthy readings that are single narratives and those which consist of collected teachings. The key is to be sensitive to the integrity of the text – that is, its inner most unity, whether it is one verse or fifty.”[1]

So what is a preacher to do about the Gospel selection for Good Friday? The pericope is over 80 verses long! On one hand, it is easily broken down into smaller narratives. There’s Jesus’ arrest in the garden and then the questioning and trials (first in front of Caiaphas, then Pilate). We overhear Peter’s three denials of being a disciple. Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial could each be a specialized attention. It would be reasonable to give a nod to the entire reading, but then focus on just one of those scenes. There is enough material in each of them for a sermon.

But in the context of Good Friday, slicing-and-dicing the text into smaller chunks isn’t particularly effective. To hear all eighty verses is to walk the entire road with Jesus. We should sit with the gravity of it, if nothing more than to note that even just reading it elicits tension and grief, even anxiousness to get it over with. Sunday’s coming, right?! Some of us might also admit beginning to count all the opportunities there were to stop the madness or at least join Jesus in the fray. Take your pick of the people who interacted with Jesus in the passage: the disciples, Caiaphas, Pilate, Peter, or anyone in the crowd. Where was their compassion, and, for the disciples, where was their conviction? Even though we know how the story ends, there is something about reading the entire narrative that elicits frustration over the abandonment and suffering of Jesus, maybe even a little judgment.

Why didn’t Peter admit to being a follower of Jesus? Why didn’t Caiaphas use his position as high priest to apply divine wisdom to the situation? Why didn’t Pilate listen to his better angels? Why didn’t anyone in the crowd do some fact checking? All of which low-key implies that we might have responded differently. Most of us are too humble to admit it out loud, of course. Just as we are sure we would have been marching with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement, we are certain we would have been right there beside Jesus through it all. There is, of course, an easy way to find out what we would have done in their shoes: take a long look in the mirror.

If we wonder what we would have done in the garden, whether or not we would have been peacemakers in the face of violence, we might reflect on our current behavior. What we are doing now gives us the answer. Are we offering a theological response to war? What about gun violence in our own neighborhoods? How about peace between our own relatives?

If we wonder how we would have answered the question of loyalty posed three times to Peter, we should consider to what extent we are willing to be inconvenienced in order to follow Jesus. What we are doing now gives us the answer. We are usually happy to be generous, as long as it doesn’t impact whether or not we can afford another cable station. We are typically willing to help a stranger out with gas or a meal, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our morning Starbucks run.

If we wonder what we would have done during Jesus’ trial, we might evaluate our connections to our neighbors and neighborhood. What we are doing now gives us the answer. How much do we know about the single mom living across the street? Have we exchanged more than a superficial hello with the family next door? If they were in trouble, would we know enough to step in and offer help? We might be interested in what’s happening to them, but that’s different than being invested in them.

As we sit with such a heavy text, let us use it as a mirror. Whatever we might have done in the garden, at the trial, or at the foot of the cross, we are already doing. Or not.

[1] Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 91.

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The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.

Lent 5(B): An Uncomfortable Meal

Lent 5(B): An Uncomfortable Meal

John 12:1-8

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

I hate it when my thoughts are given voice by the villains in stories. It’s just the worst.

Every time I read this passage about Mary’s extravagant and symbolic display of affection and devotion, I get uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I’ve awkwardly stumbled into a very romantic and intimate moment between Mary and Jesus. Just imagine, you’ve been invited to a dinner at Lazarus’ house, which is already kind of strange because Lazarus died. But now, Lazarus is alive again somehow and willing to host a meal at his home with his sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus is listed as the host of the party, but Martha serves all the food. Then Mary pulls out some incredibly expensive perfume and rubs three-quarters of a pound of it into Jesus’ feet, lets down her hair, and rubs his feet again with her hair. This is so intimate.

Feet are intimate. Hair being let down is intimate. This is all very intimate. I can only imagine how awkward it would have been to be present for such a moment. Because of that, I know I would have had a million thoughts in my head about how inappropriate it was. The easiest to justify is that the use of three-quarters of a pound of pure nard was wasteful. If you’re going to make the dinner party uncomfortable, at least be thrifty. At least make an attempt at maintaining some holiness and decency.

Then Judas voices my discomfort and I feel a wave of shame wash over me.

The parenthetical verses explaining that Judas was the disciple who betrayed Jesus (12:4) and that his concern for the poor was a lie (12:6) don’t help either. Judas’ concern about the inappropriate use of perfume had nothing to do with any real care for the poor. He was concerned only about his comfort in a weird and intimate moment. Judas was concerned about his own desires for material wealth and the comfort that his position afforded him. Seeing a real and tangible display of affection for Jesus disrupted that sense of comfort and demonstrated a threat to Judas’ way of life.

I don’t really want to be too hard on Judas here. I think Judas represents more of us than we would like to admit. He’s a part of a new movement of religious hopefuls that are eager to overthrow the roman occupation and rebuild the Kingdom of God with power and wealth that had last been seen by Solomon. The only model for a new kingdom that any of have ever known is built with wealth and power, not with submission and love. His motivation is very human.

But, it isn’t the way of Jesus.

And that is the tension we stand in.

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we are on the edge of the most dramatic and overwhelming weeks of our year. We are about to worship through the very real tension between our expectations of a new King that will overthrow an oppressive empire and the let down at watching him be crucified by his own religious community in the very same week before the drama of resurrection on Easter Sunday. This story about Mary’s intimate love for Jesus and Judas’ discomfort with her wastefulness is a perfect reminder of this tension. Mary is able to worship Jesus sacrificially and wholeheartedly as the Lord of life who can transcend death. And Judas is stuck wanting some benefit for himself.

So, this Sunday, I think it is important to do the important work of just sitting with this tension. For me, I do still kind of wish Jesus would use the power of God to just fix everything. I am disappointed that Jesus’ ministry was cut short after just a few years. I wonder what would have happened if he were willing to play by the rules of society. I imagine our world would look very different.

But, then again, it probably wouldn’t. As it turns out, humanity is already too good at using power and wealth to get more power and wealth. That is a cycle that seems to perpetuate itself. Mary demonstrates a drastically different way of pursuing life. She just loves extravagantly. Jesus shows a new way of life. He becomes a servant to the world in order to disrupt the cycle.

Preaching this scripture is weird. It’s a little too intimate and if you read it wrong, it can sound like Jesus doesn’t care about the poor. But I think that is a good reason to wrestle with this passage. It is a perfect reminder for all of us to reconsider the motives of our faith. Thank God for that.

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parrish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.

Lent 4(C): Prodigal Grace

Lent 4(C): Prodigal Grace

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr.

Economics has long been called “the dismal science,” and, for me, the Parable of the Prodigal Son conjures memories of economics class in college. I am not what one would call, “a math person,” but rather someone much more interested in the roots of suffering than the root of an integer. In a nutshell, I’m bad at math, and I’d rather not do it to any great extent.

Imagine my horror on my first day of economics class. Numbers and equations, graphs and charts all spelled “doom” as I calculated that I needed four full semesters of this stuff to graduate college. Yet, somehow, from all these numbers I gleaned that there exists a “supply” of goods to be sold and a “demand” for them to be bought, and a good’s price depends on where this supply and demand meet.

Generally, as the demand for something increases, all other things being equal, its price increases. More people want something, so it becomes more expensive. As supply increases, the price of an object decreases. Because there is more to sell, and the same amount of demand, the object becomes cheaper. For example, if there are a ton of apples rotting in a warehouse, they are likely to be sold at a lower price than if apples were rare, juicy, and in demand. Or something like that.[1]

Early on in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer rails against what he calls cheap grace. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares,” he writes.[2] For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is the disease by which the Christian comes to rest on their laurels. With cheap grace, a Christian is led to believe “the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.”[3] Cheap grace produces no change of life, no discipleship, but rather becomes a throwaway commodity, an abundance of rotten apples.

After despairing at the abundance of cheap grace, Bonhoeffer establishes the concept of costly grace. He does this by metaphorically limiting its supply, saying, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.”[4] The pastor writes that, because God’s sacrifice on the cross cost much, therefore grace itself costs the Christian much, even their life. Now, Bonhoeffer is rightly calling for Christians to display some sort of counter-cultural living and oppose the Nazi regime. His argument calls others to live like grace changes something. Costly grace is precious and rare. Costly grace is eight juicy granny smith apples when everyone wants to bake a pie.

Even the great Bonhoeffer cannot escape the laws of supply and demand, and Jesus paints a picture of extremely cheap grace. The supply is literally unlimited, driving its price down to zero. In this week’s parable, the youngest son wastes everything he has, spending himself into poverty. The father lavishes love, forgiveness, and—yes—money on his returned son by throwing an extravagant party. Only the older brother, who lived a life of moderation, wound up angry and corrected. I can hear the older brother yelling, “Cheap grace!” as he argues with his father.

This week, in the midst of our Lenten discipline, I will relish the opportunity to celebrate grace that is prodigal. Prodigal grace is neither cheap nor costly but rather hyper-abundant. From the Magnificat to the breaking of bread in Emmaus, Luke announces that Jesus brings the world into God’s economy. This economy is not bound by the earthly laws of supply and demand, for one could argue that the demand of sin is eternally high. God foolishly and enthusiastically showers us with grace upon grace, believing like the parable’s father that our life is worth celebrating. Yet, in God’s world, that which is abundant remains extremely valuable; a precious gift.

While many may wish for grace to be cheap, many others still prefer it remain too expensive for most to afford. The weekly churchgoer, faithful though they may be, may likely see themselves as the prodigal son, the forgiven one. However, their actions may be more like the older brother, preferring that the price of God’s love remain out of the reach of “those people.” Some may even quote Bonhoeffer down their noses, demanding to see signs of costly grace. This parable, however, reminds us that even (especially) the spendthrift, the disrespectful, the prodigal remain loved and celebrated and welcomed. Perhaps the change that Bonhoeffer wishes grace to cause is the movement from self-righteous brother to extravagant father.

I may not know economics, but I have an understanding of prodigal grace. Prodigal grace changes lives, however freely given it is. Prodigal grace provides homes for those who can’t seem to pay their bills on time. Prodigal grace welcomes refugees even though they overstayed a tourist visa. Prodigal grace prays with a prisoner after their guilty verdict. Prodigal grace puts one’s life on the line for those persecuted in Nazi Germany. Prodigal grace is priceless, lavished on those who can’t afford it. Prodigal grace offends the pious. Prodigal grace even forgives the bad joke at the end of an essay. How do you like dem apples?

[1] For information on this phenomenon from someone who actually understands this, Khan Academy has a little crash course. https://www.khanacademy.org/economics-finance-domain/microeconomics/supply-demand-equilibrium

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), Apple Books.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

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The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr.

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.