Wednesday, October 7, 2015


At the Garner house, we splurge on a cable package that allows us to watch all the kid channels like Nick Jr. and Disney Junior and all the sports networks like ESPN17, but we don't spring for any of the movie channels. When people talk about their favorite shows on HBO or Showtime, I just smile and nod and say, "That sounds interesting," because we don't get those channels. We do, however, get a lower-class set of movie channels--not the kind that spends money on creating original series that win scores of Emmys but the kind that buy the rights to one or two big-name films and then show them every night for a few months.

One of those films has created a rift in our family. Every time I see that No Country for Old Men is on, I stop flipping through the channels to watch it, and Elizabeth sighs and says, "You know that I don't like this movie. Should I go into the other room and read?" That's not a genuine offer, of course. It's wife-speak for "Hey, dumbass, for the umpteenth time, I don't want to watch this; turn the channel!"

But when she's not home--or not paying attention--I get sucked into that slow-playing drama of life and death and decision. I can watch any two or three minutes of the film and be glad that I did. One scene that sticks with me is the moment when Llewelyn Moss is in the Mexican hospital and talks to Anton Chigurh on the phone. The latter has been hunting the former, trying to get back a large sum of money that the latter had stumbled upon and kept for himself. In a cool, unemotional tone that is indicative of Chigurh, he gives Llewelyn a choice. He can either bring the money back and save his wife's life, or he can keep running until Chigurh finds him and kills him and then goes to kill his wife. As he says on the phone, "That's the best deal you're gonna get. I won't tell you you can save yourself because you can't." Although dark and sinister, there's a principled fatalism that dominates the film. It's a hard look at reality that I find penetrating.

We encounter a similar sort of fatalism in today's reading from the Old Testament (2 Kings 22:14-23:3). King Josiah has directed that God's temple be refurbished, and, during the construction project, Hilkiah the high priest discovers the Book of the Law--an ancient, long-forgotten testament to what God had asked his people to do. When Hilkiah read it, he took it to the king and read it to him, and the king's reaction was powerful: he tore his clothes. He knew that those words meant trouble because his people had been doing just about everything that the Book of the Law had told them not to do. So the king sent the priest to ask the Lord what should be done. The prophetess Huldah offered a remarkable response:
Thus says the LORD, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants-- all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the LORD. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.
Forgive the long quotation, but, to me, it reads with as much drama as No Country for Old Men. What will happen? God is going to come and bring disaster upon his people. They have gone astray in the worst possible way, and there will be a punishment for it. But the king, whose heart was torn when he discovered the sin that he and his people had committed, would not see this disaster but, instead, would die in peace before the terrible events unfolded. I hear God saying to his people, "You can't avoid the consequences of your actions, but I respect your repentance."

On the surface, that's not a very Christian thing to say. (And, perhaps, it shouldn't be since it's from the Hebrew bible.) But, if we dig a little deeper, I wonder what we might discover in this story.

Remember, of course, that these histories weren't being written as they unfolded. They were written generations later as a testament not only to the past but also as an instruction for the future. This isn't, therefore, a passage that speaks to the futility of repentance but to the power of reform. Even when all of God's people are headed down the wrong path there is still value in turning around and searching for God.

We often diagnose a crisis with the benefit of hindsight. What got us into WWI? Maybe we shouldn't have allowed Hitler to spread across Europe unchecked. No wonder the dot-com bubble burst. Stronger levies and a clearer evacuation plan are necessary in places like New Orleans. Of course poor regulation on complex derivative securities and too-big-to-fail financial institutions led to a sharp decline. As the events unfold around us, we only get a glimpse of what is happening and why we are powerless to stop it. Afterwards, however, we can pick the problem apart and figure out what to do next time. That is the witness of Josiah's story.

No matter what 2 Kings says, I don't believe God works as simply as to bring disaster upon his people as punishment for their sin. I think it's more complicated than that. I think there are geo-political, economic, cultural explanations for the collapse of the Judean kingdom that, to an ancient ear, are inseparable from the economy of sin and punishment. But remember how the story ends. Even though calamity ensues, God preserves a remnant of his people. God's promises are not defeated even if his people are sent to Babylon in captivity. Even in the Old Testament, humanity's sin is not the end of the story. And that brings me back to Josiah.

In a long history of wicked leaders, we celebrate Josiah for his period of reform. The temple was cleansed. The covenant was renewed. The false worship was purged from the land. And, for a time, everything was as it should be. Josiah reigned and died after a period of renewal. And, eventually, God's people forgot what it meant to belong only to him. And the neighboring nations invaded and besieged Jerusalem and defeated the people of Judah. But they didn't forget Josiah. And they didn't forget the power of repentance.

Jesus Christ is our testament that sin is no match for the power of God. The resurrection is a reminder that repentance will always have value. We might not be able to avoid the earthly consequences of our bad decisions. Those of us who destroy our bodies through the abuse of alcohol aren't magically given a new body when we stop and repent--at least not in this life. But we do believe that even our broken bodies are made new on the other side of repentance. We are called to remember the power of reformation. No matter how dark things get, God's forgiveness will win the day. Remember the power of God's mercy. Seek a period of renewal. Return to the Lord and his covenant. And know that your remembrance is not lost to God. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Bad Side of Good

What separates you from God? Perhaps, considering Paul's resounding affirmation in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God, a better question would be to ask what inhibits your ability to experience God's loving presence in your life. Sin, of course, is the short answer. But what does that mean? What gets in the way of our discipleship? What prevents us from knowing fully the love of God?

Maybe it's alcoholism or the abuse of narcotics. Maybe it's lust or pornography. Maybe it's prejudice or bigotry. Maybe it's gluttony or laziness. Maybe it's pride or ego. Maybe it's self-centeredness or cold-heartedness. Or maybe, as Jesus puts it in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:17-31), it's wealth or possessions. Take a minute and think about all of those things. And take a minute to think about which ones plague your life. Think about which vices I haven't mentioned. Think about them and ask yourself, "What's so wrong with that?"

A glass of wine can be wonderful. Pain-killing drugs can be miraculous. Love, including sexual intimacy, is a gift of our createdness. Familial ties and closely knit communities should be celebrated. Food is necessary for life, and rest and relaxation are in too short of supply these days. Confidence and self-awareness are spiritual assets, and sometimes it's best to have tough skin and not let the abuses of this life break us down. And having wealth, of course, means a safe place to live with enough food to eat and the security of self-preservation. What's wrong with any of that?

When people come to me and confesses a struggle with something like alcohol, I usually ask them to what extent that issue has begun to inhibit their lives. What makes your drinking a problem? Is it interfering with your professional life? Is it damaging your personal relationships? Is it getting in the way of you being the person God has created you to be? There is no exact number of drinks per day that makes a person an alcoholic. Instead, an individual, with the guidance of the community to which the individual belongs, must figure out on her/his own where the line between "social drinker" and "alcoholic" lies.

With most of the vices that inhibit our relationship with God, there are distinguishable lines where a potential good becomes sinful. Though there may not be clear and exact definitions, society as a whole has figured out more or less where those boundaries are. Although not unique in this way, wealth stands out as one good-turned-bad where society hasn't figured out where to draw the line between blessing and curse, and, as demonstrated by Jesus' conversation with the man who asks him what must be done to inherit eternal life, it's a problem that isn't new to our generation.

Money is power. Money is independence. Money is freedom. Money is opportunity. Take away money, and so many things that we enjoy disappear. We like those things. We want those things. And, because we haven't learned how else to have them, we accumulate wealth as the means by which we obtain those good things. But God has another plan. God's power, God's independence, God's freedom, God's opportunity are always more substantial than what we can acquire with our own means. And those things can't be bought. In fact, as Jesus makes clear in his instruction to the man who is searching for eternal life, money actually stands in the way of us getting them. Why? Because our dependence on money has inhibited our ability to learn how depend on God instead of ourselves for those good things.

The rich people, whom Jesus describes as having a harder time getting into heaven than the camel who attempts to fit through a needle's eye, aren't those who obsess about wealth. They aren't the super-rich who have more money than they can spend. They are us--all of us--those who don't know where to draw the line. Most of us know how to limit our consumption to one or two drinks. We know to take oxycodone only when we're recovering from surgery and not when we're feeling anxious about work. We know that sex within the bonds of marriage is a beautiful thing and that sex outside of marriage is a misplaced search for affection. But most of us don't know what it means to depend on God alone because we haven't learned to let go of our possessions.

Let go. Let go of your wealth. How much? Should you sell everything and give it to the poor? Maybe. If that's what it takes to learn to depend only on God, then, yes, you should sell it all. That level of self-dispossession isn't right for all of us, but all of us are called to let go of enough of our wealth to discover what it means to depend only on God. That sort of poverty is a spiritual discipline. We take on that discipline in order to learn what the world cannot teach us. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot take care of ourselves. We cannot protect ourselves. Only God can, and that's a lesson we must become poor to learn.

Monday, October 5, 2015

What Jesus Said

If you want to make sweeping categorical statements about who does and does not get into heaven, it helps to be Jesus. He's pretty well accepted as an authority on the subject. For some reason, though, preachers who quote Jesus and give their congregations the exact same message that Jesus delivered to his audience are often chastised for overstepping their bounds. Imagine that! If Jesus says it, we have two thousand years of interpretation to filter out the parts we don't really want to hear (e.g., Jesus' teaching on divorce in yesterday's gospel lesson). If the preacher says it, however, he or she is often labeled as a "radical" or a "liberal" and, before long, is asked to pack up and move on.

In the end, Jesus wasn't very popular with the powers that be either, so maybe the preacher who declares this Sunday that "[it] is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" will feel some level of comfort when she or he is being nailed to a proverbial cross. Of course, the preacher could hide behind a claim of analogy or metaphor or hyperbole. After all, if you boil it all down, the point behind many sermons is basically, "Jesus didn't really mean that." Or maybe the preacher could point a rhetorical finger at the "truly rich," of whom perhaps only one or two calls the congregation a spiritual home (perhaps not for long). Or maybe it's time for the preacher to let Jesus say what Jesus says and be the prophet who shares in his message instead of the pastor who softens the blow.

Truthfully, I've been waiting for months--literally for months--for Mark 10:17-31 to come along. Back in the spring, I searched through all of the gospel texts in September and October, looking for one that offered a clear message of stewardship for our fall focus, and this one is perfect. There are so many beautiful pieces in this passage. The man kneels down before Jesus and calls him "good teacher" as a sign of true, deep, hopeful obedience. The man really, really wants to get it right. Isn't that true of most of our congregations? Jesus outlines the big commandments, to which the man responds, "I've kept all of those since my youth," which is the response that most of us would give, too. Jesus looked at the man and loved him--the only time in Mark's account that Jesus is said to have loved someone--and only then gave him the painful teaching that follows. This is the chance for the preacher to love his/her congregation while sharing with them a tough teaching.

The truth is that our wealth gets in the way. We are rich. All of us who have a place to sleep and food to eat and enough money left over to buy our kid a Christmas present are, by the world's standards, rich. You can argue with me about that, but, call it what you will, if you fit into that category, Jesus is talking to you. Our possessions get in the way. We must become radically self-dispossessed. You cannot enter the kingdom of God if you are clutching onto anything other than the cross. What will it take to let go of everything else?

Stop trying to figure out a way around Jesus' tough teaching. There are no loopholes here. If you want to be a part of God's kingdom, you must let everything else go. The only question is how you can do that. This Sunday's sermon is about finding a way to let go of everything except the cross. It's about stewardship. It's about living lightly. It's about trust and faith and spiritual growth. It's about discipline and sacrifice. It's about learning that the only thing that can get you into heaven is Jesus and that the only way to truly learn that is to stop depending on yourself and cling only to him. It's about selling everything you have, giving it to the poor, and following Jesus. But don't blame me. I didn't make it up. Jesus said it first.

Friday, October 2, 2015

On the Other Hand

Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:2-16) is ostensibly about divorce. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether divorce is permitted; Jesus responds with a question about the Law of Moses; and a rabbinical conversation/debate about the interpretation of scripture ensues. We are told by Mark that the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus with their question, so we know the emphasis behind the question isn't as simple as "We want to know what you think." As I've already written this week, we shouldn't ignore these words. They're important. We might not like what they say. They might have their origins in an ancient context that is remarkably dissimilar from our own. But Jesus offers an unequivocal teaching on divorce and remarriage (i.e., it's adultery) that we can't afford to ignore.

Today, however, I want to leave divorce aside and ask whether there's a more important lesson for twenty-first century Christians wrapped up in Jesus' exchange with the Pharisees. I wonder whether the presenting issue of divorce masks the more important and relevant point in this passage--that scripture doesn't always agree with itself. Maybe the most important thing for the preacher to do on Sunday is leave the congregation scratching their heads wondering how to make sense of the bible--an invitation to a deeper, more intentional, always relational reading of scripture.

Here's my shocking exegetical revelation for the day: the bible is inconsistent with itself. Sometimes it tells us to love our enemies, and other times it tells us to kill them all--men, women, children, and livestock. Sometimes it tells us to approach our brother or sister and point out to them their spiritual wrong, and other times it tells us to remove the plank in our own eye before attempting to pull out the speck in our neighbor's. Sometimes it tells us that impregnating a girl gives the baby's father the opportunity to purchase her marital rights from her father, and other times it tells us that merely looking at a woman with lust is equivalent to adultery. Sometimes it tells us that divorce and remarriage is permitted, and other times it tells us that it is strictly forbidden. How will we read and digest and believe the Word of God?

Jesus is asked about divorce, and he responds by asking the Pharisees what the Law of Moses tells us. They reply with Deuteronomy 24 in mind, reporting that Moses allows a man to issue a certificate of divorce. Jesus, however, appeals to Genesis 2, concluding that "from the beginning of creation" men and women have been created to dwell together as one flesh--a union that cannot be separated. (On a side note, I'd suggest a difference between "cannot" and "should not" be separated as a way of distinguishing between when divorce is reasonable and when it is not--all hinging on the question of whether a marriage is, indeed, a true image of God's love for the world.) Bottom line: Jesus plays the Genesis trump card.

Consider that Jesus isn't telling the Pharisees that they've misquoted the bible. He's not telling them that they're wrong. They are, of course, correct. They know the scriptures as well as anyone. But Jesus chooses to prioritize the Genesis 2 mandate over the Deuteronomy 24 prescription on the basis of "hardness of heart." As Jesus understands it, the law regarding divorce was written because human beings weren't able to live as God intended them to live. That law, therefore, takes a secondary place behind the law of creation--the most basic, pre-Genesis-3, before-the-Fall understanding of how we are supposed to live--the way we were created to be.

That approach makes sense to me, but, if it weren't Jesus making the argument, I could easily take the opposite side. Who gets to decide which parts of the bible to ignore? Deuteronomy 24 is clear. It's unambiguous. It's practical literature with clear instructions in it. Genesis 2 is a story about human nature. It's not a textbook for marriage. Jesus uses an argument to discount one part of the bible in favor of another. His teaching, therefore, has less to do with divorce than it does with reading and interpreting scripture.

Jesus shows us two critical things: 1) it's ok to let go of one part of the bible if there is another part that trumps it and 2) we should be honest and transparent in how we make those interpretive decisions. Think the death penalty is wrong? Then you should be clear about how you decide to dismiss those parts of the Old Testament that call for justice through execution. Think war and violence are always wrong? Then you should explain how passages about forgiveness and turning the other cheek take precedence over passages about God's victory over the oppressors. Think divorce and remarriage is ok? Then you should explain how Jesus' interpretation of the scriptures isn't valid anymore.

We have a great opportunity--this Sunday and beyond. We have the chance to be open and honest and thoughtful in our reading of scripture. We have the chance to say to the world that we know that the bible is a potentially confusing text. Even Jesus wasn't always consistent in how he interpreted the Hebrew bible. There is still life in these ancient words. They are still for us. They are still the foundation of our faith. If we can't say that, we need to stop calling ourselves Christians, sell our churches, and spend our Sunday mornings at Starbucks.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Nobody's Business?

On Monday, I wrote about the difficult passage facing preachers and congregations this Sunday. Mark 10:2-6 must rank among the absolute least favorite for those who climb into the pulpit week after week. I've preached on many a challenging text, but Jesus' unqualified condemnation of those who divorce and remarry is perhaps the hardest. It forces the preacher to engage the reality of the text and attempt to straddle the first century, in which these words were first spoken, and the twenty-first century, in which they are now heard. It ain't easy, and that was my least I thought it was.

I disseminate my blog posts through social media, usually using a tweet that is linked to my Facebook account. In a shameless attempt at self-promotion, I try to think of a catchy, perhaps controversial message of fewer than 140 characters (including the link to the post) that will grab people's attention. On Monday, I tweeted, "Who's ready for a sermon about adulterous divorcees? _Sigh_ Jesus doesn't make the gospel easy." Anyone who has spent more than 27 second with me knows I'm a smartass. I can't not be sarcastic. Twitter doesn't allow italics, so that "_Sigh_" was a way of me letting everyone know that I, too, find this text difficult. No, social media isn't the best medium for delivering sarcasm, but I thought that was pretty clear. If not, just read the post. There's nothing in it that suggests that I would look forward to (or even consider) offering a condemnatory sermon. But one of my followers on Twitter (@dennykeane) replied to my tweet, writing, "it's none of your business with the 'adulterous divorces.' Stick to the Gospel of love and mercy." I didn't have a chance to compose a post yesterday or Tuesday (tough week), but here's my reply.

I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is all good news and all grace. I believe that God is merciful beyond our comprehension. I believe that all Christians are called to share God's good news of forgiveness and reconciliation and salvation through Jesus Christ. And I also believe that Jesus said what he said--"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery"--and that we need to take him seriously. In other words, I believe that the gospel is one of "love and mercy" and that the gospel requires us to take sin seriously. The good news depends on us hearing both at the same time.

The Pharisees approach Jesus and try to trap him by asking him a question about divorce. Jesus' reputation for holding a high view of holiness had spread (see last week's lesson on cutting of whatever limb causes you to sin), and they wanted to see if Jesus would contradict the Law of Moses, which has very clear and permissive (if you're a man) rules for divorce. Jesus, neither taking the bait nor shying from a rhetorical fight, puts the question back to them: "What does Moses say?" When they reply with the expected permissive answer, Jesus appeals to a higher authority--the Law of Creation: "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'" That's a rabbinic strategy on which I'm not an expert, but I sense that Jesus is pulling out the big guns. It's the kind of rhetorical appeal that doesn't invite much conversation even though there's more explaining to do.

If that weren't tough enough, the disciples, in a private moment, ask Jesus to be sure he meant what he said. "Um, Jesus? You said some pretty tough things back there. Were you being serious, or were you just proving a point?" We'd like Jesus to reply and give us some wiggle room. We want a pastoral answer rather than a theological one (see Steve Pankey's excellent post from Monday on the difference). But he doesn't give us even an inch of relief. Instead, he doubles down and makes it as plain as can be: if you divorce and remarry, you're an adulterer--period.

So, back to the twitter reply I received from @dennykeane, whose business is it? Jesus isn't likely to throw the first stone, but he forces us to confront the demands of the kingdom. You will be holy. You will live a life befitting God's kingdom. You will not cause a little one to stumble. In Sunday's exchanges with the Pharisees and disciples, Jesus reminds us that a pattern of divorce and remarriage is a human reality that obscures our view of the holiness of God's kingdom, and that is as true today as it was back in the first century. We cannot afford to lose sight of that, and I think that's the preacher's business.

Brokenness, failure, infidelity, sin--they are all realities in this world, and, thanks be to God, they are all absent in God's kingdom. As Jesus makes 100% clear, our hardness of heart is the reason Moses/God gave us the rules concerning divorce. Those rules are not, therefore, descriptions of kingdom life; instead, they are a recognition of what isn't the way it's supposed to be. If we pretend that the brokenness of this world--including the corruption of marriage--doesn't matter in the kingdom sense, we lose sight of the power of God's promise to make all things new. That doesn't mean that God loves adulterers any less. That doesn't mean that forgiveness isn't real. That doesn't mean God's mercy has any limits. But it does mean that divorce and remarriage isn't the way God wants the world to be. We cannot shy away from that. That proclamation is my business, and I won't back down from that.

It is our job--all of us who follow Jesus--to proclaim the universal invitation to God's kingdom and the uncompromising demands of kingdom life. Do sinners go to heaven? Absolutely. Can anything separate us from God's love? Absolutely not. Is sin a reality that we must confront and from which we must repent in order to experience the fullness of God's forgiving love? Without a doubt. Is it my business (and yours) to share Jesus' difficult yet ultimately hopeful message that sin is real and that God's forgiveness is even greater? Yes, yes, yes. On that, we cannot waiver.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Hardness of Heart

And all the RCL preachers just looked at this Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:2-16) and thought, "Uh oh. I wonder if I could preach a sermon on the Old Testament text."

Let's not beat around the bush. Here it is. It's what we're dealing with. On Sunday, like it or not, we are going to hear Jesus say, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Boom. Drop the mic. Exit, stage left.

I don't know about you, but, as a preacher who often stands in the pulpit in front of many divorced and remarried people, my instinct is to start looking for explanations. Divorce isn't the same now as it was then...In that culture, divorced women would be particularly vulnerable...Jesus says lots of hyperbolic things like 'if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off'...Let's talk about the little children at the end of the lesson instead.

As a preacher and as a student of the bible, there are two divergent directions that I feel the need to explore. First, how might this text not really mean what we think it means? Would a twenty-first century Jesus who knew how divorce works in our lives still say the same thing? Are there cultural barriers that we can't see through that might otherwise change the tenor of this difficult text? And, second, what if this text means exactly what we think it means? What if divorce and remarriage is the same thing as adultery? What if our church has been mistaken in allowing the remarriage of divorced persons for the last several decades? I'm not actually preaching this week, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't wrestle deeply with this text before Sunday.

Over the coming days, I'll explore these in more detail, but, for now, here are some mitigating and aggravating points that will guide my thinking between now and Sunday:
  • Matthew gives us the infidelity exception, which Mark leaves out. Does this matter?
  • When is a marriage not really a marriage? We don't use annulments in our church, but the principle might still apply. Surely Jesus doesn't want an abusive relationship to persist.
  • What is adultery anyway? Given Jimmy Carter's admission in his Playboy interview, maybe we need to worry less about divorce and more about fidelity.
  • Given the Pharisees' question and the ensuing argument, in which Jesus and his opponents cite two contradictory passages in the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 2 and Deuteronomy 24), might this passage be more about the nature of marriage as a spiritual union than the regulations regarding divorce?
  • When Jesus says that the law (Deut. 24) was written because of their "hardness of heart," is he prioritizing a "spiritual" law over a "practical" law? Does this change how we read the Old Testament?
  • Why does Mark follow up with the bit about receiving the kingdom as a little child? How is this teaching on divorce related to the teaching about children?
  • Should the church have a much clearer and more distinct theology of Christian marriage (as opposed to secular/legal marriage) and get out of the wedding business except when the couple understands their marriage to be primarily an image of God's love for the world? How do we distinguish between the two (other than, perhaps, what Jesus says about divorce)?
As you can see, there's lots of work to do. Prayers, indeed, for preachers and congregations a like.

God's Transforming Call

September 27, 2015 – The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I’m not sure you’ve noticed, but a guy named Francis has been in the news lately for having made his first-ever trip to the United States. Thousands and thousands of people have flocked to see him—even if only to get a glimpse of his Fiat motorcade as it buzzed down the highway. And those of us who haven’t left our homes to try to get a peek at the Bishop of Rome have seen video clips of him laughing with the President and addressing Congress and the United Nations and stopping his car to bless a disable child on the side of the road. All of us seem to love him. It doesn’t even matter whether you’re Catholic or even Christian. Our whole nation has caught Francis Fever.

Perhaps that’s because, in a refreshing sort of way, Francis seems to transcend the politics that usually dominate our media coverage. And he does so by making everyone happy and everyone angry all at the same time, ensuring that no one is able to claim him as their own. To the delight of liberals and the fury of conservatives, he regularly calls for an end to human-caused climate change, for a solution to the refugee crisis, for the redistribution of wealth to benefit the poor, and for the abolition of the death penalty. And, to the delight of conservatives and the fury of liberals, he refuses to legitimize same-sex relationships, to revisit the role of women in the church, to accept the remarriage of divorced persons, and to loosen the church’s position on abortion or birth control. In short, he’s managed to infuriate both Rush Limbaugh and Gene Robinson, and that’s saying something. And, given that he’s the successor of St. Peter, the rock on which our Lord built his church, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that Francis sounds as hard to pin down as Jesus himself.

If ever there was a gospel lesson that portrays a Jesus who is kind, gentle, and accepting and, at the same time, stern, harsh, and condemning, it’s this one. It starts with John—yes, John, our patron saint—who gets all upset that someone else is using Jesus’ name to cast out demons. Perhaps those of us who call St. John’s our church home can identify with our namesake, who wasn’t about to let an outsider get away with using his master’s reputation for his own exorcizing purposes. “Teacher, we tried to stop him,” John explains, “but he just wouldn’t listen.” But instead of intervening as John had hoped, Jesus looks at John and said, “Why does that make you so upset? No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. If he’s not against us, he’s for us.”

What a remarkable and unexpected philosophy for a religious movement: whoever is not against us is for us! John, on the other hand, embodies our instincts, which are exactly the opposite. Those of us who have walked with Jesus as his disciples expect others to do the same. If you want to call yourself a Christian, you’d better be a follower of Jesus—like us. Who do you think you are using the name of Jesus, which is to say our brand, to suit yourself? Stop wearing that cross necklace just because everyone else is. If you want access to Jesus, get in line with the rest of us. People like us know what it really means to be a Christian. You can’t just do whatever you want; you’ve got to do it our way.

But Jesus says no. His movement isn’t exclusive. You don’t have to do it his way. He refuses to stop anyone who’s having success. He refuses to turn anyone away. He isn’t worried that someone will misrepresent who he is and what he stands for. He trusts that anyone and everyone who encounters the power that he represents will be transformed by that power. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Sure, try it your way. If it works, great. If not, try something else.” It’s that kind of openness and accepting spirit that makes the Jesus movement distinct.

But don’t confuse “if it works, great” for “anything goes” because, when it comes to following Jesus, those aren’t the same thing. Jesus might not mind it if you find him by your own path, but, once you’ve found him, he has pretty high expectations for what your life should look like. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God [maimed or lame or blind] than to be thrown into hell.” Those aren’t the words of a gentle teacher who lets his pupils get away with whatever they want. They’re the words of a prophet who means business.

Jesus might welcome anyone into his company, but that doesn’t mean that his company is for everyone. Anyone is welcome, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. Jesus has such a high understanding of God’s kingdom that, instead of letting us adapt it to fit our lives, he forces us to shape our lives completely according to the principles that the kingdom represents—principles like sacrifice and humility and holiness. On these he is uncompromising. The bar for admission is as low as the ground itself, but the standard for participation is through the roof. Many are called, but few are chosen. Everyone is invited, but only a handful belongs. I remember Jesus saying something about it being easier to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle, but maybe he was just joking.

But with Jesus, it’s always good news. The good news is that God welcomes everyone into his kingdom. God loves everyone—the whole world—unconditionally. No matter who you are or what you believe or what you’ve done, God loves you perfectly and completely. But the rest of the good news is that God isn’t going to leave you where he found you. Jesus said, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus knew that there is irresistible power in his name. Anyone who comes into contact with that power must be transformed by it. The same power that grabs us wherever we are transforms us into full citizens of God’s kingdom. The same power that rescues us from our life’s dead end recasts that life into one befitting God’s kingdom.

The good news is for everyone. If you’ve never heard that God loves you no matter what, let that unconditional love fill you from top to bottom. And, if you’re familiar with that good news but recognize that it still needs to reshape you into the disciple Jesus is calling you to be, then submit again to the power of Jesus’ name. Call upon him and be transformed. Give yourself again to Jesus and let him shape you into a child ready for the kingdom. No matter where you are, God is calling you. And, no matter where you are, God isn’t going to leave you there. God has bigger plans for all of us.