fools for Christ

an offer you can’t refuse

Weddings can be strange things.

I’ve told Banu I almost prefer presiding at a funeral more than presiding at a wedding.  Of course, it depends on how demanding the family is.  Sometimes it seems like everybody and their Aunt Edna has an opinion on how things should go.  Sometimes it feels like crowd control.

1 Mt 22Our Book of Order has something to say about this.  “The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the minister of the Word and Sacrament and the supervision of the session” (W-4.0603).  And notice that it uses the word “marriage.”  Too often, there’s more focus on the wedding than on the marriage.

But I mention how weddings can be strange things.  Banu’s and my wedding might fit into that category.

We decided to make our vows in Turkish.  Our Old Testament professor, who we asked to preside, wrote them down so he could pronounce them properly.  Things were going fine until I said a particular line.  As soon as it came out of my mouth, I noticed Banu’s sister, who was sitting in the front row, begin to quietly laugh.  Afterwards, I was informed that my intended statement, “I promise to love you forever,” actually had the meaning, “I promise to explode.”  At least, that’s the way she explained to me.

(Hearing the story later, a friend of ours told me since I messed up the vow, I didn’t have to keep it.  Banu was not amused.)

When I’ve done weddings, I sometimes tell the couple it’s not a real wedding if something doesn’t go wrong!

In Matthew 22, Jesus speaks of a wedding that is extremely strange.  Actually, this is the wedding feast, so it’s not just the wedding; it’s the party that goes with it!  And calling it “strange” is a vast understatement.  In fact, the entire parable is worse than strange.  You can’t help but notice the violence and craziness.  One writer has called it “this bizarre little story.”[1]

You’ll notice this isn’t a case of wedding crashers.  It’s the exact opposite.  The invitations have been sent out, but nobody wants to come!

2 Mt 22

I like how the story gets started.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (v. 2).  This is a parable.  The Greek word (παραβολη, parabolē) means “comparison.”  The kingdom of heaven may be compared.  Some say it’s also an allegory, a figurative story.  It has things which represent something else, so it’s not a direct comparison.  Maybe that lessens the embarrassment of what follows!

The wedding day arrives, and the king sends the word.  We’re ready to start!  Still, as you heard, no one shows up.  So he sends some more servants, and they describe the delicious food on the menu.  Everything is ready—we even kept in mind the vegans and the gluten-free folks!

Even this doesn’t work.  They go back to their business, and some of the invitees grab the servants and give them a sound beating; some of them are even killed.

Lance Pape, professor at Brite Divinity School, says “things go completely off the rails…  [T]he weirdness and violence are just getting started.”[2]  The king goes ballistic.  He doesn’t send any more of his servants.  This time, he sends his soldiers!  And they lay waste to the town.

While the fires are burning, the king says, “Forget those ungrateful fools.  Just grab people at random and bring them to the banquet.  And you know, let’s do that before the food gets cold!”

Okay, what do we have so far?  All of this is being compared to the kingdom of heaven.  If the king is supposed to be God, what does that say?  Is it like The Godfather, where Marlon Brando as Don Corleone uses the phrase, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  Is God a kingpin in the mafia?

3 Mt 22If it seems things can’t get any crazier, hold on to your hats, because they do!  The king sees a guest without wedding garments, and he gets completely unhinged.  Now in fairness, it’s been pointed out in Middle Eastern cultures it was common for guests to be provided with proper attire.  Maybe that’s true, and it would suggest the unfortunate fellow was guilty of refusing the king’s gift.  Still, we might be forgiven for thinking there’s a tiny bit of overreaction on the king’s part.

Bind him hand and foot!  Toss him out into the dark!  Let him wail and grind his teeth while experiencing the pain and the loneliness!  As I said—just a tiny bit of overreaction.

Having said that, this is the way the story is often presented.

Lutheran pastor Janet Hunt suggests another way to approach it.[3]  A big part of it is asking if the God of Jesus Christ in any way resembles the king in our parable.  I ask that question as well.

She wonders if those who refuse the invitation do it “as a sign of protest.”  Is it beyond the realm of possibility that the king is a tyrant?  His actions might seem to suggest so.  Could it be the people don’t believe he is worthy of the title “king”?  Maybe his motivation to have a big crowd at the banquet is to prevent suffering shame in front of everyone, to boost his ego.

Hunt also speaks more directly about Jesus.

She says, “I cannot help but believe that Jesus was, in fact, more like those who would never have been among the first invited…but would have found himself in the second batch of invitees.”  Jesus isn’t a part of the fancy crowd who received the first batch of invitations.  He’s part of the rabble, the ordinary folk.  That would seem to go along with the upside-down, inside-out way Jesus tells stories and engages with people.

She continues, “Indeed, as this parable comes to its conclusion, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is not the one without the wedding robe—the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on that wedding robe—who in behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

6 Mt 22.jpg

Hunt admits she might be way off base.  She might be dead wrong.  But she does offer a thought.  “[I]sn’t it just as likely that the kingdom of heaven is more like any one of us who refuses to bow to the powers that be when innocents suffer than like a king who throws his power around and destroys those who would not do his will?”  Maybe that’s the comparison between the kingdom of heaven and the parable.  I’ll leave you to mull over it!

I would like to go back to the thought of refusing gifts.

We come to the end, verse 14.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Many are called—many are invited to the party—but few are chosen.  Maybe they’re not willing to be chosen.  How many times have we been unwilling to be chosen?  I can think of way too many times I’ve been in that place!

I was baptized when I was 21.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I really opened myself up to matters of faith.  I made discoveries, but I too often wanted to control how they were made.  I even started going to church, though on an infrequent basis.  I knew I was being called to go deeper, to let go.  It was the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  But I didn’t want to be chosen; I didn’t want to go to that party.  I didn’t want to taste the food at that banquet.

Eventually I surrendered and submitted to the waters of baptism.  I RSVPed the Spirit and said, “Count me in!”  But that’s not the end of the story.  As the years have gone by, there are still parties I don’t want to attend.  There have been times when I have refused the king’s invitation.

Our friend Lance Pape chimes in.  “The doors of the kingdom community are thrown wide open, and the invitation extends literally to all.  But once you come in, there are standards.  You can’t go on acting like you are not at an extraordinary party.”  This party, this wedding feast, is serious business.

5 Mt 22

He says about the fellow without the wedding garment that “his problem is a failure to party.  The kingdom of heaven…is a banquet, after all, and you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program.  The kingdom music is playing, and it’s time to get up on the dance floor.”

In all honesty, I need to practice getting on the dance floor, but maybe learning to laugh at yourself and being a fool for Christ is the perfect first step in that dance.  There is plenty of sorrow and pain in the world, but accepting the invitation to the wedding banquet opens us to the joy of the Lord.

I would say that’s an offer you can’t refuse.





Lenten foolishness

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world?

There used to be a network called Current TV.  At the top of each hour, they had a brief show known as InfoMania, a quick feature of ridiculous things in the news.  It began with the chorus from the song, “Weight of the World,” by Pigeon John.[1]  (I was unfamiliar with him; I had to look it up!)  It’s a silly voice singing, “Sometimes I feel the weight of the world, and it’s so heavy and it’s bringing me down.”  For most people, that’s hardly a laughing matter.

There’s a book written by Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor.[2]  He lived 1 Ps 32
Germany from 1842 to 1919, so among the problems of the world he witnessed was the growing drumbeat all over Europe to go to war.  It ended with the calamity that we call World War 1.

Here’s something from the first chapter: “Even if our age has become riddled with evil, even if death runs rampant on the earth, we will not accept these as final facts.  We must not sleepily say, ‘It is the Lord’s will.  What will be, will be.’”[3]

In the face of the immensity of problems—the immensity of sin—sometimes we can get paralyzed.  We can retreat into a bunker mentality.  We fall prey to fatalism, which is to say, “We have no control over what’s happening.  There’s no use in worrying about it.  It’s just our fate.”

Our medieval brothers and sisters had a name for this affliction, or something very similar to it.  It was one of the seven deadly sins.  It’s our old buddy, “sloth.”  In Latin, it’s acedia, and it literally means “absence of caring.”  It’s more a sin of omission than commission.  It’s a failure to use our gifts for the service of God and for each other.  Unfortunately, America can be seen as a vast wasteland of sloth.  We’ve been given so much, and yet…

In the chapter “He Conquers Sin,” we read how Blumhardt addresses the social and political conditions of his day.  “Apart from God,” he says, “we will not be able to do away with the discord in our hearts and the discord between us.  Sick in mind and body, we have no hope of creating a healthy world.  Inwardly and outwardly unclear and confused, torn by emotions and passions, we cannot form a society of truth and justice.”[4]

Unless we ourselves are transformed, how can we hope to transform our community and our world?  We would be in the position of Jesus in our gospel reading, when “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Mt 4:8-9).

There’s a problem with that, though.  Something from within the creation (in this case, the devil—it could be a number of other things) can’t possibly bring about the change needed for a society of truth and justice.  It’s all part of the sickness.  Neither can the promises of politics or science or religion itself bring about a society of shalom.

So how can we break the cycle?  How do we welcome the power from outside of creation?  How can we find the healing for the sickness within ourselves and within our world?  Our psalmist seems to be onto something:

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (vv. 3-5).

2 Ps 32
Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

He realizes that he doesn’t have within himself what he needs.  People have said that he has been sick, he has been in pain, he has unconfessed sin, and who knows what else.  He begins his meditation by acknowledging, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (v. 1).  The psalmist has felt liberation with openness to God.

So it becomes a question of opening ourselves to God.  That can be easier said than done.  In his book, Blumhardt says, “The greatest obstacle to the kingdom of God is us and our clever solutions.  Self-will leads so many people and so many nations to destruction.  Not even our Christian institutions are very helpful.  Too much pride has crept into them.”[5]  Pride?  What is he talking about?

I remember a time years ago, when I lived in Tennessee.  The youth pastor at our church was talking about a meeting he attended with fellow youth pastors.  He said they were all trying to outdo each other by talking about how fired up their youth groups were.  I told him he should have said, “So what?  Our group raised somebody from the dead!”

Thankfully, in our churches, we’re not infected by that vying for power and prestige!

Is it possible that we don’t want to give up “our clever solutions”?  And if that’s so, why would that be the case?  I wonder, could it be a question of control?  Maybe that’s part of it.

Our writer suggests something else.  “This is actually what Jesus demands of us:  Fight against your own selves!”[6]  Earlier I mentioned fatalism, paralysis, when facing the problems of the world, including those we see on a daily basis.  We may want to just throw in the towel.  We may not even want to hear how things could be better.  We don’t want to hear about it, because that might take away our excuses for not getting involved.

However, as we might expect, the psalmist has a word from the Lord to us on that point.  “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you” (vv. 8-9).

So I guess it’s up to us as to how stubborn, how boneheaded, we want to be!  And I might qualify for being at the top of that list.

I’ll include one more quote from our friend Christoph to emphasize this.  “Even when suffering under terrible evil, we don’t devote our energies to getting to the root of it.  Instead, we skim off the nearest misery from the surface of our distress and bring that to God, saying, ‘Help me here, and then I will be happy once more!’  As though that could help.”[7]

I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I know that I’ve taken that approach.  It’s the approach that seeks a bandage on the wound, a temporary solution.  It’s a mentality that doesn’t desire true healing.  It says, “Just patch me up and let me go!”

What would cause such reluctance to whole-heartedly give ourselves to what, and who, we claim to believe?  Is it possible we realize we would really need to make some lifestyle changes?

I’m reminded of something I read several years ago.  Glen Bengson, a Lutheran pastor from Ohio (now retired), and a member of Bread for the World, tells the story of a visit by a doctor from Tanzania.

He says he “once visited our area for ten weeks, going from one congregation to another.  He was astounded at our medical facilities, not to mention the general level of wealth in the United States.  Visiting an emergency room with each patient area equipped with oxygen outlets in the wall, he told how his hospital, with 200 beds, had only two oxygen tanks, and one always had to be on ready in the surgery unit.  He heard the litany ‘God bless America’ and was puzzled.  ‘God has already blessed you so much.  Do you want more?’”[8]

3 Ps 32

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.  People often speak of things they’re “giving up” for Lent.  And there’s no question that there are plenty of things that we would be wise to give up.  But Lent is about renewal, repentance, reforming.  What better time to re-examine our lifestyles than during the Lenten season?

Since we’re still at the beginning of Lent, I want to sound a theme that goes with Ash Wednesday.  In Matthew 6, Jesus warns about “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (v. 1).  But earlier, in chapter 5, he says to “let your light shine before others” (v. 16).  What’s the difference?

I realize that there are plenty of ways to approach this, but here’s an idea.  There are many public displays of faith, be it leading prayer in a group, feeding the hungry, peacefully demonstrating, visiting the sick and the prisoner, whatever.  So if you’re hoping others will notice and think you’re spiritual, even if you are helping people, your motives are still messed up.

However, if you’re reluctant to live out your faith before others, that’s a different problem.  If you’re embarrassed and don’t want to look like a fool for Christ, then by all means, you need to do it!  This is the season for some Lenten foolishness!

4 Ps 32

And the more we get used to Lenten foolishness for Christ, the less imposing those problems of the world seem to be.  We take them in bite-sized amounts, which is really the only way things get done.  And we can sing along with the psalmist, “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (v. 11).

That’s a good song to sing, even if we feel foolish while doing it.



[2] Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor (Farmington, PA:  The Bruderhof Foundation, 2004).

[3] Blumhardt, 2.

[4] Blumhardt, 6.

[5] Blumhardt, 7.

[6] Blumhardt, 7.

[7] Blumhardt, 9.


forgive me if I act crazy

“If we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (5:13).  As we move along in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul continues to explain his actions—actions that have stirred controversy in the church.  In chapter 4, he speaks of the light from God stored in our frail bodies as “treasure in clay jars” (v. 7). 
Given that, sometimes the situation described in the opening sentence seems unavoidable.  In his paraphrase The Message, Eugene Peterson puts it this way:  “If I acted crazy, I did it for God; if I acted overly serious, I did it for you.”  Some people say that he’s talking about ecstatic experiences, such as speaking in tongues.  That’s a possibility, but I tend to think Paul is referring to stuff a little more mundane. 
Some in the church have compared him with the “super-apostles.”  Unfair and ridiculous expectations have been voiced.  In a somewhat sarcastic way, Paul is apologizing.  In the past, he spoke of himself and his associates as “fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Cor 4:10).
We are all treasures, but as treasures in clay jars, we are fragile critters!  There is a great danger of putting others on pedestals—and certainly of giving godlike status to anything or anyone.