Tuesday, April 30, 2019

It Bears Repeating

John 20:19-25
2nd Sunday of Easter

What is the Easter Bunny’s favorite restaurant? IHOP.
How does the Easter Bunny travel? By hare-plane.
What is the Easter Bunny’s favorite type of music? Hip-hop.
Knock, knock.  
Who’s there?
Some bunny.  
Some bunny who?
Some bunny has been eating my Easter candy!

So last year, we stopped doing Holy Humor Sunday.  I started getting the impression that I was the only one who was into it still, so I tried an experiment: I decided that we’d skip it one year and see if anyone complains.  Needless to say, no one complained.  Which is fine; that’s how I learn; but those awful, awful jokes were my passive-aggressive revenge for you letting me kill Humor Sunday.  

And actually, it’s not the end of the world; I’ve even discovered there’s a good point made in letting it go.  There is something important that happens on the Sunday after Easter: you find out who is serious about all this.  The people who are lingering around an empty tomb, the people who are holed up in an upper room, the people who are talking about “things” on a lonely road, and people who go to church on the Sunday after Easter; those are the people you want to talk to.  Those are the serious ones.  

And as joyous and fun-filled as the news of a Risen Savior is, those who are called to tell that story need to be serious about it.  So no, I’m not actually bitter about having to cancel Humor Sunday; because those who show up for Easter Sunday… and then the Sunday after need the reminder that it’s time to get serious about it.  

Today we find the followers of Jesus exactly where we left them on Easter Morning: scared and hiding in a locked room.  They had good reason.  The powers at be were out to get them just like they got him.  You can imagine it, right?  Sweating it out; occasionally checking to see if the door was really locked; checking the peephole; looking out the window. 

If you’ll recall, much like it was for us last Sunday, Jesus had a lot more fans not long ago.  When Jesus rolled into Jerusalem a week before, there were crowds, and cheering, and palms, and a parade.  Now, it was twelve and maybe a few more.  Where did everyone go?  Where was Thomas, even?  

Mary had come to tell them that she had seen the risen Lord, but who are you going to believe?  Some grieving, maybe delusional woman, or the death you saw?  What is it that’s going to shape your actions: hope that can’t possibly be possible, or real and determined authorities who want to hang you on a tree next?  What are you going to believe?  

What is the most mind-blowing and extraordinary thing about what Jesus does next is not that he now walk through walls, it’s what he brings.  He brings peace; and a lot of it.  

Peace is an elusive thing; these days and all days.  For those unsteady few, there were reasons not to be at peace.  In their exact circumstance, there were reasons to be at anything except at peace; but peace is what Jesus speaks.  What strikes me here is that Jesus doesn’t just say it once; as if it’s an easier thing to say than find.  Peace is a word that bears repeating; especially when it’s the very thing we’re lacking.  It will need to be spoken to us more than once and it may take more than that.  

Yes I, your holier-than-thou pastor has a hard time believing it too.  “Peace be with you,” Jesus says, but it’s easy for him to say.  There is literal un-peace in our world, much less our hearts.  Conflict and violence everywhere; natural disasters; racism; politics; crummy neighbors; crummy family members.  “Peace,” he says, but peace is inherently hard to find.  How are we supposed to find peace?  How do we empty our minds of all the worry, fear, resentment, and pain that living in this sin sick world brings?  How do we find that peace that Jesus calls us to?  One man said that he had been told that one way to achieve inner peace is to finish the things he's already started.  He said, "Today I finished two bags of potato chips and a chocolate cake.  I feel better already."  This outlook perhaps can give us temporary peace and helps to relieve stress—probably not your waistline—but when Christ shows up, he says, “peace.” 

But Jesus is never is just talk.  A man doesn’t get up from the grave just to talk.  No, Jesus hasn’t come to talk; he’s come to breathe.  John gives us a different Pentecost experience but the point is the same: it isn’t just words, it is the Spirit that breathes them.  I have questions about the ways the Bible speaks of God’s Breath, but I know what it does: the Breath brings something into being that wasn’t a moment before.  What is it that our Savior breathes into them in this moment?  Peace.  Peace that doesn’t just make them feel better; some days, quite the opposite.  Peace; peace of the One who walked away from his grave so that one day we could walk away from ours.  Peace that the Presence of our Risen Savior would abide with us always.  Peace to know and experience that Presence, even as we are shaped to do his work in this un-peaceful world.  

I used to watch Popeye the Sailor when I was a kid; remember Popeye?  I don’t think they can make cartoons for kids like that anymore.  There were some questionable themes: he was always being brutalized by his nemesis, Brutus; beating up Popeye and trying to steal his girl, Olive Oyl.  And then there would be that moment Popeye had enough: “That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!”  Then you remember what he’d do, right?  He’d pull out a can of spinach, pop it open, down the thing whole, and suddenly—filled with superhuman strength—he’d beat up Brutus and put things right.  

They say cartoons influence the behavior of children.  I’m here to say that the Popeye cartoon made me neither violent, nor a fan of canned spinach.  But more to my point: by the time the next Popeye cartoon came on, Brutus was up to his same antics, and Popeye would eventually need to power up with another can of spinach.  That is not so with the Breath of Jesus.  The Peace that Jesus breathes into us is a power that sends us into this world as already more than conquerors.  We have the peace to know that, not only do we have a promise of life everlasting, we have our Savior’s presence to walk with us in this life as well.  

Friends, we are never alone.  If your heart is troubled today—and why wouldn’t it be—take hold of the peace that has been breathed in you.  Remember the promise of Easter joy; stand firm in the promise of an ever-present Savior; and then go into this world, breathing out the peace that you have received.  Knowing that Jesus has shown up to give us peace, let us repeat that peace it again and again.

Time to Run

John 20:1-18
Easter Sunday 

What was Mary doing?  Up before the sun; all by herself; what did she hope to accomplish by the tomb of her friend?  Clearly, she did not expect what she found there, but what did she expect?  

One needs to keep in mind the way that John tells this story: if you were with us at our service on Holy Thursday, where we left off in our readings from John are exactly where we pick up the story today: “They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” That was on Friday.  Suddenly, in John’s telling of this story, it’s pre-dawn Sunday morning.  What happened with Mary in between?  Were the friends and followers of Jesus in hiding?  Were they grieving?  Maybe both.  

It seems as if it was Mary who emerged first, but still we don’t know why.  And by the way, there are a few Marys in the Gospels so for clarity: this is the Mary from Magdala, whom in the Gospel of Luke, had been healed by Jesus and was among a group of women who traveled with and were supportive of the disciples.  This Mary, what did she hope to find?  Maybe even Mary didn’t know.  Maybe just to sit by a grave, as we sometimes do, and try to make sense of a thing that doesn’t make sense.  We don’t know what was going on in Mary’s mind, but here’s the thing: because of what she found there, we now have hope that someday we can just ask her.  

Of all the Gospels, the way that John tells the story of the Resurrection, might be my favorite.  There is something inherently comical about John’s telling.  And why not?  This is pure comedy in it’s own weird way!  Comedy is all about the surprise ending, right?  Like, what did God say after creating the first man?  “Wait, I can do better.”  It’s the silliness of the surprise that we enjoy, and what’s more surprising than an empty tomb?  I mean, and hear me out, maybe not in that moment; but when Mary told this story, years down the line, I bet they laughed about it.  This story is all comedy.  

A pastor-friend of mine suggested earlier this week, that women should always be the ones to preach the sermon on Easter morning.  I love that idea.  I know that won’t ever happen as long as I, a male, am your pastor; but I love the idea.  I mean, I imagine our elders would have something to say if I tried it: “So on Easter Sunday—the Superbowl of Christianity—you’re going to let someone else preach.”  

But I like what it remembers: it remembers that the first ever Easter sermon was preached by a woman.  It wasn’t a long sermon (that’s always nice), but it was an important sermon!  Mary alone bears witness, first to the Empty Tomb, but then to proclaim, “I have seen the Risen Lord.”  The Resurrection story, at least as it’s told by John, centers on what Mary does.  Of course, the most important part of the story is that Jesus indeed has risen from the grave, but Mary is central in proclaiming that news.  It is Mary’s voice we need to hear on Easter morning. 

Like a lot of good comedies, according to John, there was a lot of running on that first Easter morning.  Mary comes to the tomb, only to find it empty, and then runs to tell Peter and the “Beloved Disciple” about it.  They in turn run to see about it for themselves.  I love how hyper-masculine all of this becomes: not that they didn’t just take her word for it, it’s a thing you’d need to see for yourself; but it’s the footrace.  At the end of the Gospel of John, we find out that this “other disciple” is the one who is telling this story.  In other words, in telling this story, about the Resurrection of Jesus, the other disciple not only feels it’s important for us to know they ran to the tomb, but that he ran a little faster than Peter did.  

What puzzles me a little is that all they experience is an empty tomb.  No angels, no Jesus in disguise, just the leftover, neatly-folded grave-cloths.  Think about it: Jesus could have easily shown himself first to Peter and “the other.”  They were right there too.  These were Jesus’ closest friends; these were men who would make up the foundation of the church.  Why didn’t Jesus show up then?  Why did Jesus wait until they had gone back home to show his risen self?  Again, perhaps these are questions for another time.  

As it is, Mary must have run with or right behind the disciples; she is right there at the tomb when they return home.  She remains, weeping. Then she (finally) bends down to look into the tomb herself; but, in the kind of surprise that comedy relies on, the tomb is no longer empty. "Where the body of Jesus had been lying," sit two angels.  Angels who as a ridiculously comical question, considering they’re in a tomb: “Why are you weeping?”  

Then, she turns around and sees—again, where nothing was before—a man standing behind her.  Some guy, must be the gardener; he asks her the same absurd question.  “I don’t know, I’m looking in an empty tomb where my friend is supposed to be.  

Again, in typical comedic fashion, the characters talk past each other. The “gardener” asks Mary whom she is looking for. Mary says, in effect, “If you you’ve put him somewhere, just tell me so I can put him back.”  

Comedy thrives on surprise and disguise, but they’re even more fun when we, the audience, see the punchline coming.  We’ve known it was Jesus all along; and it’s revealed to Mary when he calls her by name. Then she knows him. Then she calls his name: "Teacher," and reaches out to take hold of him, before he somehow gets away again, goes missing (or puts on another disguise), so she cannot find him.

“Don’t hold on,” he tells her; he needs to go away again for a bit.  “But go and preach for me.  Tell my brothers,” he says, that "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."  And the plot of the comedy is resolved… and yet, somehow it isn’t.  

The action of the play may be coming to an end, but the story is not nearly done. Jesus will also give his disciples the Spirit, breathing it into them, in the story that follows this one. This Spirit not only blows where it wills, but it will blow the followers of Jesus where it wills.  An Easter faith cannot hang on.

So Mary lets go. She goes and preaches, just like she was told.  Without training or a seminary education; she goes with the simple witness that she bears; she is the first to proclaim this wonderful news, least likely as she is.  She goes and tells her news.  

On this glorious Easter morning, we look to Mary; she is our example today.  Hers is the example we follow.  As we meet the Risen Jesus, may we too proclaim that we have seen the Risen Lord; and may we preach that beautiful message through our words, through our actions, and throughout our lives.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The First Processional

Luke 19:28-40
Palm Sunday 

Today begins the week we call Holy Week.  Today we come to the end of what is, for many of us, a long and somber season: a season of self-reflection; a season of sacrifice and penitence; a season of remembering the steps of Jesus as he made his way toward the Cross, but ultimately the Empty Tomb.  

As we come to the end of this profound season, entering into this yet somehow more profound week, we do so with a parade.  If we didn’t celebrate it the same way every year, it would seem strange, wouldn’t it?  This weighty week—that will hold for Jesus betrayal, torture, and death—begins with a parade!  

Even here, toward the end, Jesus continues to surprise us; although perhaps it shouldn’t.  Jesus has been predicting what was to come for some time now; heck, even his disciples can see the danger ahead; but he goes anyway and marches into Jerusalem by orchestrating a parade.  But it’s not just any parade, is it?  It’s the kind of parade that is recognized by the people gathered in Jerusalem as the entrance of the king.  And not just any king; this is the king that the prophets spoke about.  This is the king that will drive off our enemies.  This is the king who compels us to shout, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  This is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.  

But just who is this king?  As this week goes on we see that this parade doesn’t last long, does it?  He doesn’t drive off our enemies.  Our shouts of peace turn to “Crucify him!”  This one we thought had come in the name of the Lord seems later to be cursed by God, doesn’t he?  In the end, it seems that the Jesus we are looking for doesn’t always turn out to be the Jesus we get.  

One of our church friends told me that he likes to read the upcoming sermon texts and titles and try to predict what the sermons are going to be about.  I told him, “That may not be a very productive use of your time.”  Often, between the time I think I know what a message is going to be about when I write the title and when the sermon actually gets written, God comes up with a different plan.  Often, the title and the message are only vaguely related.  That’s not the case today, but it might not be what you think.  If I were you, I would presume that the processionals I’m referring to are this first one—the parade Jesus makes into Jerusalem—and that other one we remember at the end of the week—the one Jesus makes to the Cross.  But that isn’t actually what I had in mind.  

The two processions I’m talking about both happened around this same time during Holy Week.  In Jerusalem, at the start of Passover week, and at different ends of the city, there were (in fact) two kings riding in at around the same time.  From the east, came the one we know well: Jesus and his colt and the shouts of, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  But there was another parade happening at the west end of town.  That second processional was Pilate’s parade.  Pilate, draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power: horses, chariots, and gleaming armor.  Pilate would always move into Jerusalem, with the Roman army marching behind, at the beginning of the Passover week.  This festival, celebrating the power of God to beat the odds and liberate the people from oppression and captivity, always riled up at least a few.  Pilate showed up to make sure things didn’t get out of hand or insurrection would be in the air.  Two ends of Jerusalem, two kings, and two processionals; but who, by the end of the week, would wind up with the throne?  

If that sounds heavy with politics, it certainly was.  And I’m sorry, and I hate to even bring it up, but I have to confess that I’m already exhausted by the presidential election.  The puffing and preening; the criticizing and complaining; the name-calling and half-truths; didn’t we just do this?  

It can be a little entertaining, though; at least at this point in it.  At this point, it’s fun to watch all of the would-be candidates, who haven’t been president before, try to look presidential.  They say and do whatever focus-groups tell them people look for in a “presidential person”; but no one is really like that, so at first at least, they mostly come off pretty awkwardly.  

What do we look for?  What do we look for in a king, as it were?  Which end of Jerusalem would we be cheering for?  Some days, I’m not sure.  

About a month ago, the kids celebrated Dr. Seuss day.  If you don’t know, it’s now an annual tradition in schools across the country to celebrate on or around his birthday.  One of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories is Yertle the Turtle.  Yertle, of course, is a turtle, but not just any turtle; Yertle is the king turtle of his particular pond.  One day, while reflecting from his rock-throne on how he is the king of all that he sees, Yertle decides that he needs to see more.  So Yertle begins to stack up some of his turtle-subjects, making his throne, what he can see, and therefore his kingdom, that much greater.  Delighted by the sudden growth of his dominion, he orders even more turtles to be stacked up even higher.  And his reign is indeed glorious… that is until the turtle at the very bottom (named Mack) burps and Yertle’s kingdom comes toppling down.  

It’s one of those wonderfully subversive Dr. Seuss stories that has a message that isn’t really for kids.  It speaks about what happens in just about any political structure when the people on the top loose sight of the fact that their kingdom is built on the backs of someone else.  And all it takes for their kingdom to come falling into the mud is for those turtles on the bottom to decide they’ve had enough.  

I only bring up Yertle to point out that this is often the image we have of those who rule over us, isn’t it?  We may not have any experience with kings, but anyone we lift up on our shells will eventually need to be dropped back down to the mud because they inevitably forget why we lifted them there in the first place.  I mean, why do you think we put term limits on our presidents… and our session members?  The idea is that their terms will run out before they start stacking us on top of each other.  

When Jesus heads toward Jerusalem, the people clearly had high hopes.  The crowds that welcome him are ready and willing to be stacked as high as Jesus wants them to go.  Of course, it’s not like Jesus was discouraging this behavior; after all, he is the one who orchestrates this parade in the first place.  According to Luke, he’s the one that arranged for the donkey colt, this kingly symbol.  Those who were gathering in Jerusalem would see this sight and be reminded of the words of the prophet Zechariah and immediately know what the symbol meant: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and bearing salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  

This symbolism may not be obvious to us, but when a king wanted to show that he was ready for a fight—like Pilate—he entered on a horse.  But when a king entered a town on a donkey colt it sent a very different message.  It sent an image of peace.  It sent a message that this king’s reign was a reign of peace: the war was over; the enemies were no more.  Now if you think about it, this message was a bit premature considering that Jerusalem was still an occupied territory of the Roman Empire.  There had been no revolution.  The army was just on the other side of town!  Jesus was making these claims about his kingship, but he still didn’t really have the kingdom!  

Of course, we have an insight on all of this that the crowds along the parade route didn’t have, don’t we?  We know how this story ends, right?  Not just with the turning tides of popular opinion, but that persecution, execution, and resurrection were all part of the same plan connected to this parade.  We know that the kingdom Jesus proclaimed was more than just the one called Israel.  We know that his rule conquered even death itself.  We know that the kingdom he invites us into is beyond this life, and for that we do cry out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”  We get it.  We see his true purpose in this triumphant parade.  

And yet, I can’t help but wonder: is it beyond the realm of possibility to think that maybe, we might be cheering for the wrong king too?  The crowds in Jerusalem had all the right signs.  They had Scripture to tell them what this all meant.  And yet, don’t they seem a bit disillusioned when this king doesn’t turn out to be the king they thought they were cheering for?  

I guess what I’m trying to say is, just like they missed the fact that this king was the king of eternal life, what if he also could be for us, the king of more than just eternal life?  Not that I’m saying eternal life is not something worth cheering for, but it makes his kingdom much farther off, doesn’t it?  His kingdom may last forever, but sometimes we live as though it isn’t also here and now.   

This king—the suffering king we celebrate this week—is the king… of everything.  To paraphrase Dr. Seuss: this king, O marvelous He, is indeed the king of all that he sees… and he sees it all.  He sees us, right here and right now.  He sees all that we are and he sees the potential for all that we can be.  And although it does all belong to him, he does not build this kingdom on the backs of his subjects, for he gave his own back to build it.  He has built this kingdom by the giving of his own life.  He has built it by his body and his blood.  And while he has built this kingdom for you he also invites you to come and build it too.  

Let us welcome and celebrate our king today, this week, and every day.  And let us live faithfully in his kingdom, even in his kingdom here and now.

Time to Rest

John 12:1-8
Fifth Sunday of Lent

I was talking to a non-Christian friend this week about Lent.  Turns out, a season of self-sacrifice and penitence doesn’t exactly make easy sense in our culture.  Turns out, it doesn’t always make sense to those of us who practice it; making it a little tricky to explain.  I told her that it’s about finding an order to life that is outside ourselves.  That seemed satisfying to her, but her follow-up question made it tricky again.  She asked me, “Why is it that your God always seems to call you to sacrifice?  Is sacrifice what your God wants for you?  Does God always want us to go without?”  

I’m glad I have friends in my life that stretch my faith; those were good questions.  I think that, any other week, those questions might have stumped me.  But not this week; this week, I’ve been sitting with this story about Mary.  A story, not of self-sacrifice, but of extravagant giving; there’s a difference.  A story of a woman who, by the power of God in her life, was able to see a bigger picture.  A story about a gift, returned for a gift.  A bit like what we remember here at this Table.  

I told my friend, with some confidence, that no, it is not always about self-sacrifice.  Sometimes, finding an order to life that is outside ourselves, leads us to rest and to share in God’s extravagant giving; sometimes God leads us to celebration.  

Today, as we follow Jesus toward the Cross, he leads us to a home in a suburb of Jerusalem; a place called Bethany.  It’s a home Jesus knew well: the home of his old friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  By the way, this all happens right before he would walk into Jerusalem for the last time.  The parade that we will celebrate next Sunday.  

So what does he do before that, he rests in the home of his three friends.  These three were not exactly his disciples, at least not in any formal sense.  They simply seem to be his friends.  The Gospels tell of his disciples and those others who followed.  They tell us of his allies: people like John the Baptist and Nicodemus.  They certainly tell us about his enemies.  But we rarely hear about friends.  So before he continues down the difficult road before him, he rests with his friends.  

Just days before, Jesus had worked a miracle at their house.  Lazarus was sick so they sent for Jesus across the river.  If you know the story, you know how Jesus came intentionally too late.  Lazarus was dead: so dead he stank, so dead that Jesus stood in front of his tomb and wept.  Then Jesus called Lazarus from the dead Lazarus stumbled out with his death-shroud trailing after. 

So they open their home to Jesus; of course they do; wouldn’t you?  They take him in, they make him a dinner, and they give him space to rest.  Maybe Lazarus was still recovering from his four days in the tomb; that would take some time, I would think.  Maybe Martha was making a stew.  Meanwhile, Mary was up to something.  Martha was of course used to this: Mary disappearing when there’s work to be done.  Maybe, with supper on the table, no one even notice Mary come back with a jar in her hands.  The Gospels don’t record her saying a word; she just knelt at the feet of Jesus and broke open the jar.  I’m told the smell of pure nard is a sharp scent, halfway between mint and ginseng.  Then, as everyone in the room noticed her, she did four remarkable things in a row.

First, she loosened her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does.  Then she poured perfume on Jesus' feet, which is also not done.  The head, maybe—people do that to kings—but not the feet.  Then she touched him—again, a single woman rubbing a single man's feet—also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair.  A surprising, extravagant, and scandalous act, end to end. 

Stories like this one can be found in all of the Gospels.  And it’s one of those cases where it’s hard to tell if the writers are remembering it differently, or if sort of thing happened a lot to Jesus.  At any rate, John is the only version (if you will) where she is named. Here, her name is “Mary,” she’s a friend of Jesus—not a stranger, not a notorious sinner—but a friend.  So why this public, scandalous, and excessive display? 

Judas states what probably others were thinking: "Why wasn't this perfume sold for a whole lot of money and given to the poor?"  It’s a good point, but Jesus, who loved and cared for the poor, doesn’t agree.   

"Leave her alone," he says.  "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."  As if to say, “Just this once, let her look after me, because my time is running out.” 

We don’t know what was going through Mary’s mind when she did what she did.  Maybe it’s simple gratitude for the life of her brother.  We do know that Jesus reads prophecy into this act; this was a message from God.  Out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant.  The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt about whose death it was, Mary's prophetic act revealed the truth.

When Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure nard in her hand, it could have gone either way.  She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king.  But she did not do that.  When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees instead and poured the perfume on his feet, which could only mean one thing.  The only man who got his feet anointed was a dead man, and Jesus knew it.  "Leave her alone," he said to those who would have prevented her.  Let her finish delivering the message. 

So Mary rubbed his feet with perfume so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year, an act so lavish that it suggests another layer to her prophecy.  There will be nothing economical about this man's death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life.  Yet, in him the extravagance of God's love is made flesh.  In him, the excessiveness of God's mercy comes into our world. 

This bottle will not be held back to be kept and admired.  This precious substance will not be saved.  Just like Jesus it will be opened, offered and used, at great price.  It will be raised up and poured out for the life of the world, emptied to the last drop.  Before that happens, Jesus will gather his friends together one last time.  At another banquet, around another supper table, with most of the same people present, Jesus will strip, tie a towel around his waist, and wash his disciples' feet.  Then he will give them a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. 

At least one of the disciples will argue with him, while others will wonder if he has lost his mind.  Perhaps a few will remember Mary’s prophecy from a week before.  

At home in Bethany, the storm clouds gather and Mary gives the forecast: it will be bad, very bad, but that's no reason for Jesus' friends to lock their hearts and head to the cellar.  Whatever they need, there will be enough to go around.  Whatever they spend, there will be plenty left over.  There is no reason to fear running out—not of nard or of life—for where God is concerned, there is always more than we can ask or imagine—gifts from our lavish, extravagant Lord.  Gifts we remember as we gather around this Table.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Road to Nowhere

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Fourth Sunday of Lent

At our Friday morning men’s group, I was telling one of the guys that the sermon was going to be based on the Prodigal Son story.  I don’t know if he was kidding or not, but he asked me, “Do you have a bold, new take on it?”  

I said, “Not in the least.”  

I know this story.  I know that there is only one place this story ever goes.  I mentioned at the beginning of Lent that I’ve noticed the theme of traveling in our Scripture lessons this season.  This one is more obviously so.  We know the journey of this lesson; where it’s going is not a surprise to us.  Like most of the stories in the Bible, there are things that we can learn along the way, but the point of this story—it’s journey’s end, as it were—is always going to wind up in the same place.  As the parables of Jesus go, this one is pretty straightforward.  That’s why, if you’ve heard me preach from this text before, be advised: this one is going to sound a lot like that one.  

We know this story far too well for it to surprise us, and that’s okay.  As we travel through this familiar story again, the only surprise we might find is which character we’re supposed to learn from, and that’s okay.  It’s okay because this well-worn story is simply meant to be a reminder.  Rather than leading us to some new and exotic place, this story simply leads us back home; back home to the truth that we are simply called to love as God loves.  

When was the last time you ate with a “sinner”?  And I don’t mean your run-of-the-mill sinner like we are gathered here this morning; I mean someone scandalous.  When was the last time you broke bread with an honest-to-God heathen?  When was the last time you spent time with someone who would make the rest of us question your judgement?  Maybe it’s been a while.  Maybe it’s been since you were a heathen yourself.  I only bring it up because it seems that Jesus did that sort of thing all the time.  

Luke fifteen begins with a description of the crowd gathered to hear this story; and there are two distinct audiences, aren’t there?  The first crowd is made up of the infamous “tax collectors” and other assorted “sinners.”  And then there are the religious people who become offended that Jesus would spend time with “those people.”  

This story is clearly aimed at both groups, but the point of this story lands only with one.  By the way, you might have noticed that we skip some verses in our reading today.  Before Jesus tells this parable he first tells a couple of other famous parables: there’s one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin.  Two parables about the joy that is found when something is lost, but then found.  He ends those parables by saying, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  Two stories that almost plead with the stiff-necked religious fogies to see this from God’s point of view; but do they?  

I wonder what the “sinners” thought about all this.  I imagine they’d been called that before by the religious people; I imagine they knew their place.  How would they hear these stories?  How do you hear the story of the so-called Prodigal Son?  If you’ve been called a “sinner” lately, I have good news: God’s been waiting.  God has been watching out for you.  God’s been ready: ready to run to meet you; ready to put clothes on your back; ready to put a ring on your finger; ready to put food in your belly.  God’s been waiting.  

The picture of God this story paints is life-changing.  I think I’ve mentioned before that, calling this story the parable of the Prodigal Son, leads to some misunderstandings.  I know I’ve used the word “prodigal” incorrectly.  I care too much about words and their meanings not to at least acknowledge that.  I’ve been using it like it means something like “wandering” or even “disobedient” because that’s what we think of when we think of the prodigal son; and we all wander and we are all disobedient so we are all like the prodigal from time to time and in our own ways.  But the word “prodigal” actually means something more like: one who wastes resources recklessly or extravagantly.  

And sure, the younger son in this story certainly fits that description, but that being said, there is no one in this story more prodigal than the father.  This story could just as easily be named “The Parable of the Prodigal Father”.  And that is centrally what this story is about.  To those who were grumbling about the company Jesus kept, Jesus reminds them of what God’s love and mercy looks like: it reckless and lavish toward anyone who will receive it; whether they deserve it or not; especially when they don’t.  

No, this story is good news for sinners.  For those who identify with a younger brother—the one who clearly made some bad choices—for those like that brother, this is a joyful story about a God who never gives up on us.  But I’m going to venture a guess: I’m guessing most of us are not in that crowd.  Maybe we once were, but I’d also guess that was a while ago.  There are only two possible audiences for this story and if we’re not in the “sinner” crowd, there’s only one other option.  For most of us here this morning, Jesus is telling us this story as if we’re that older brother.  Not that we are, mind you.  I was just telling someone the other day: I like being the pastor of a church that understands that when I’m having coffee with someone down the street, I’m not just goofing off.  No one here ever grumbles about the company I keep.  But we still need to hear this story, because we are religious people; as such we do have certain tendencies.  

And as we hear this story—told as a warning to people like us—notice how it ends.  It ends in a question, doesn’t it?  The older brother, standing outside of the party, is perhaps rightfully upset.  He says, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”  There’s a lot we could unpack there: things like having an attitude toward a life of faith that feels like slavery or calling your long-lost brother “this son of yours.”  But instead, look again at what the father is doing.  Again, the love of God is shown as lavish and reckless.  He comes out and pleads with the older child to join the party.  He says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours [did you catch that?] was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  

Somehow this older brother—who apparently had served his father every day, who never went anywhere, and never so much as partied with his friends—somehow, had never picked up on what was important to his father.  That’s where our warning lies: we who gather to hear His Word; we who go into this world to serve him; do we know His heart?  

I heard a story once that I want to be true; it probably isn’t, but I wish it was.  It supposedly took place in a church in some hippie town like Durango.  

The way the story goes is, one Easter morning, a young hippie-looking kid wandered into church.  He was not in his “Sunday best” clothing, much less in clothes worthy of Easter Sunday.  Apparently, he didn’t even check to see when worship started because he wandered in as the pastor was about to start the sermon. 

Now to his credit, the kid was at least trying not to be distracting as he wandered around, looking for a place to sit.  But like I said, it was Easter Sunday and the place was packed.  So he kept creeping farther and farther down the isle toward the front of the church.  And of course, the closer he got to the front, the more he became the center of attention.  Finally, came to the very front pew… and there was still nowhere to sit.  So, not knowing any better, he just sat down on the floor.

Well, you can guess what kind of reaction this caused.  No one knew what to do: the pastor was doing his best to ignore the situation; the ushers were afraid of making things worse by asking him to leave; everyone was just waiting for someone else to do something about it.  At this point, not even the pastor was paying attention to the sermon

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, one of the oldest, most faithful men of the congregation got up and headed down the aisle toward the young man.  The old man slowly and silently lumbered down toward the hippie and finally bent over as if to talk to the young man.  But instead of talking, his bending turned to kneeling, and the next thing anyone knew he was down on the floor with the hippie.  And there he stayed throughout the rest of the service.

Like I said, I can’t say this story is true.  Frankly, knowing the followers of Jesus, it doesn’t sound like us most of the time.  But I want this story to be true because it should.  We need the warning Jesus levels against us today because we so often forget the heart of the God we serve.  A heart that doesn’t condemn the sinners, but meets them, welcomes them, and shares a meal with them.  The story Jesus tells us today ends before we know what the older brother is going to do.  There’s a reason for that.  We are left with a question: what are we going to do?  Will we join the party that God is throwing for the lost of this world?  Will we remember the heart of God—a heart that rejoices when the lost are found?  Will we follow our Savior’s example and go to lunch with someone scandalous?  

May we remember the love and grace that once welcomed us and may we share that love and grace with those around us every day.