God's always "hooking us," pulling us back: back to the Word, back to the Meal, back to the Font...back to the community.

This blog is for the purpose of sharing around each Sunday's Bible readings & sermon at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.

Get Sunday's readings here. We follow the Narrative Lectionary.
(In the summer, we return to the Revised Common Lectionary' epistle or Second Reading here.)

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

April 16 -- Easter Sunday

Growing up in Houston TX, we always used to have our Spring Break during Holy Week and this next week after, i.e. the first week of the Easter Season.  (I’m reminded of that because this year, that’s how it fell for our kids.)  

Back then, for me, this schedule always made the first week of Spring Break really about church, at least later in the week and at night.  We’d go to all the services.  I would often go home scared after Maundy Thursday, even crying myself to sleep because they did such a good job at recreating the story for us, slamming the book, running out into the darkness, I remember pondering, even as a little boy, the ways that we all betray Jesus.  Made me cry.  And Good Friday was always somber, even at home, we were pretty quiet all day.  Mom would always relay the events to us like they were unfolding in real time.  About 9 o’clock, “This is when Jesus was taken before Pilate.”  At about 10 o’clock, “This is when Jesus was whipped, given the crown of thorns, and brought in front of the crowd.”  At about 11, “Ah, this is when they shouted ‘crucify him, crucify him!’...And now he’s started walking up the path.”  She rehearsed the events like a biblical scholar, even though later in life, I never found those times matching up...didn’t matter.  She was remembering the story.  She was putting that Passion story together for us.  

Saturday was a quiet day too.  Although, Saturday was when we started packing our suitcases...  

I always had trouble sleeping on Holy Saturday night.  I’d go to bed actually thinking about Jesus being raised from the dead -- kind of confusing, creepy, as well as anticipatory and exciting.  We’d always be really exited about all the festivities of Easter morning.  Even more, to be honest, we’d go to bed excited and thinking about Easter Sunday afternoon, when we would be packing our little station wagon and driving out across East Texas, into Louisiana.  We aimed to get all the way to Biloxi, Mississippi on Easter Sunday night.  You see, we were going the Disney World for the rest of spring break -- not every year, but those few years headed for Disney World were the best!  

What I’m thinking about this Easter morning is remembering.  When I would finally fall asleep on Holy Saturday, somehow in the haze and dreams of sleep I would forget what the next day had in store, even when I first work up on Easter Sunday!  All this good stuff -- honestly, between Easter at church and family and vacation, it couldn’t get any better -- and still I’d forget, for a moment, even when I’d wake up!  

Do you know that moment?  When you wake up, but you haven’t yet come to?  When you haven’t yet remembered what’s in store for you today?  That moment can last a few seconds, like it did for me as a kid...and that moment can last for years:  [pause] 

How we can forget.  We can forget the stories that have brought us to this point.  We can forget the blessings that are right in front of us.  We can forget the relationships that mean the most to us, like we’re in some kind of haze.  We can forget the forgiveness, the grace, the peace, and the invitation that God plainly and lovingly has for us.  

If the opposite of forgetting is re-membering, then maybe we should call forgetting “dis-membering”.  Everything falls apart.  Isn’t that what seemed to happen in our Passion narrative of Holy Week?  Everything falls apart, everything is dis-membered.  [pause]  But then there’s that light that sparks when we come to:  [just remembering]  “Oh, yeah!!”
The disciples in our Easter story today were awake -- they were out and about, the women disciples namely were even up bright and early...but they hadn’t yet come to.  The women at the tomb had forgotten/dis-membered, the other 11 disciples had forgotten/dismembered, Peter himself had forgotten/dis-membered.  But Easter...is the day and the season (50 days, actually) of re-membering.  [You/we should do an activity of remembering during these 50 days of Easter -- scrapbooking, or record some family stories, or review your bible stories (narthex art), remembering is Easter business, even more than eggs and baskets and bunnies!]  

And it’s the angels call us back to memory, and once again give us a new song.  Angels in Luke’s Gospel are always giving us a new song -- Remember them at Christmas (“Glory to God in the highest…”)?

And today: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you?…”

Remember?  “Oh, yeah!!”  I love when our kids remember something right in front of us, because their little eyes light up, and a smile grows across their face when they come to.   [And getting so jazzed.]  “Oh, yeah!!” I’m sure that’s what happened to me too, when I woke up on those vacation, Easter mornings as a child.  “Oh, yeah!!”

This is what happens to us, when we respond, “Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia.”  Our eyes light up, the smile creeps across our face.  “Oh, yeah!!”

Can’t you just see that happening to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women who were with them?  “Oh, yeah!!!”  Excited!!  They ran out to tell the others.  Now, it didn’t take right away for the men [no comment].  They said it was an “idle tale”, a dream.  But eventually, I’m sure, it happened to them too.  “Oh, yeah!!” 

And can’t you just see it happen to Peter.  The smile didn’t go creeping on his face just yet:  He ran back to the tomb and found the linen grave clothes thrown all over the floor.  And then…”Oh, yeah!!!!”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, Easter is about remembering.  Easter is about being put back together by God.  The lightbulb goes on, and we are re-membered, as we remember.  (We are remembered, even as we forget.)  This is our God!  Conquering death so that we might be put back together.  Forgiving our sin, so that we may now turn and love one another, forgive each other in response.  This is our God!  Putting us back together.  Easter is about remembering.  So that we may go and tell our sisters and brothers who have forgotten, who have been forgotten; so that we may go to those places where dis-remembering has taken place.  [pause]  Where things have fallen apart, where lives are lost, and stories are lost, and joy is lost.  Christ rises from the grave so that stories can be told anew, lives can be restored, hearts can be put back together, and joy can be found.  

This grace and mercy, this new life is ours because of Christ Jesus.  The risen Christ is the spark that lights the fire of faith, the Easter fire that burns in our hearts and kindles our imaginations and our courage to go and be the disciples of Jesus for this new day.  The flame of love and welcome and grace rises from this altar, this font, this book, this community.

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  “Oh, yeah!!”

Now don’t forget it.  AMEN.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

April 9 -- Palm Sunday

"As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”   This is the Gospel of the Lord?"

What is Jesus talking about here?

It’s as if the change is already happening.  The shift from the joy, the praise and the fun of Palm Sunday -- from “Jesus, our King!” to “Jesus, what are you talking about?  Jesus, I’m not really sure, but I don’t think I like it.  Jesus, you better watch yourself.  Jesus, I liked you, but you’re starting to make me a little nervous with this crazy talk, even a little mad.  Jesus, be careful.”  It’s as if the shift is already happening.
So here’s the backdrop:  This is the week of the Passover, and people are flooding into the city.  Political tensions are high.  Extra Roman security forces are shipped in, including Pontius Pilate himself (he didn’t live in Jerusalem, he lived in Caesarea), but this is a big week and Pax Romana needs to be enforced, because tensions are high.  The air is electric.  Anything can happen.  Ever been in a situation like that?

Interesting too, Luke’s Gospel was written, we think in about 80AD (about 50 years after this “Cloak Sunday” -- that’s 10 years after Jerusalem was in fact destroyed, desecrated, annihilated by the Roman Empire.

So, these heightened scenes before us today -- cheering crowds, nervous Pharisees, “Jesus, be quiet”, and then Jesus’ prophetic statements and even actions -- driving out the people selling stuff in the temple -- are all very political, and religious.  Tensions are high.  This is an edgy Sunday.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, with the cloaks spread on the road is exciting, but so quickly, almost immediately the ones who are shouting, “Blessed is the king” will turn on him and, in only 5 days go over the edge and condemn him to death, shouting, “Crucify him!”  This is an edgy Sunday.

And yet in the center of it all is this Christ Jesus.  The one who’s been healing the sick, welcoming the outsider, and the outcast.  Preaching peace, teaching love.  Mercy and grace, remember, always having the final word.  Even amid all the tension, on this edgy Sunday, Christ is present, steady, strong and calm.
Did you catch the reference back to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel?  Seems like a long time ago, but I know you remember the angel’s song in the shepherd’s field on Christmas Eve: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”  Did you catch the song the people sang today?  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory to God in the highest!”
The crowd has learned the Christmas angels’ song!  For as broken as this all is -- we see the turning of the crowd -- but for the moment, let’s notice that the people have become the angels: announcing peace and the reign of God.  (I know examples exist in your life too, where everyday people sing the angels’ song -- announcing peace and the arrival of God’s reign, even with immediate evidence to the contrary.)

They’re announcing peace, for the moment, the Pharisees are trying to keep the peace.  That’s different.  But both are well intended!

(Notice the role of the Pharisees here.  They’re actually looking out for Jesus, for the moment -- it was the “chief priest and scribes”, it says in vs47 who were looking for a way to kill him.  The Pharisees weren’t mentioned there. Pharisees always remind me of us Lutherans.  Shhh, don’t rock the boat, just keep the rules.  “Tell the crowd to quiet down,” Jesus.  This is getting too tense.)  The Pharisees are trying to keep the peace, to quiet this raucous down, even to look out for Jesus.

Today, things are on edge.  And at the same time, God’s people -- crowds, Pharisees -- are all trying to do what’s best.  Some are trying to protect, some are trying to praise and sing.  And Jesus is at the center of all of it.  Calm, loving, strong, prophetic.  Even as everything’s about to all go over the edge, tumbling down into Holy Week.

The location of Palm Sunday is at the edge of a cliff.  Things look beautiful for a moment, there are indeed some good things...but they keep moving, and tumbling into this week, everything starts to fall apart: the crowd changes their angelic song.  Their lyrics of peace fall apart.  They lose the song.  The Pharisees do in fact turn on Jesus, along with everyone else.  Peace and mercy will appear to be lost, as the passion narrative continues to the grave.

This is our story too:  Things may look beautiful for a moment, there are indeed some good things in our lives, in our church, in our world...but things keep moving, and tumbling into this week, everything starts to fall apart:  the crowd changes their angelic song of peace.  Fear and force takes over.
The Pharisees will turn on him as well -- even us good church people, who don’t like to rock the boat, just want to keep the peace and the rules...we Pharisees will turn on him as well, lose track of the fact that God has indeed arrived, and is deeply present in our joy and in our sorrow.

True peace -- the kind angels sing about -- peace and mercy will appear to be lost, as the passion narrative continues to the grave.
But we know how the story ends.

And it’s got nothing to do with us.

It’s got everything to do with God.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

April 2 -- Zacchaeus

You know Donald Trump is Zacchaeus, right?  

After last week’s scripture lesson, I was tempted again to start thinking, “Yep, Jesus definitely favors the poor over the rich.  Lazarus goes to heaven.  Rich man goes to hell…” No question.  

Yep, I got it.  I don’t like it, when I consider that I’m probably a little more like the rich man than the poor -- eating sumptuously...pretty often.  Walking past those in need.  Falling into the tip-top percentages of the world’s wealthiest people with my income and privilege.  Yep, Jesus loves the poor not the rich…Got it.  Lazarus goes to heaven.  Rich man goes to hell...no question.  [But it was our kids who had the question…Micah...]

Jesus surprises us again with mercy beyond compare...and calls the rich, wildly unpopular tax collector down.

You know that’s Donald Trump, right?  Rich, wildly unpopular tax collector?  I don’t have to convince anyone that he’s rich.  Now he’s a tax collector, as our latest Chief of State, you might say that he too is our chief tax collector.  And now, record-low approval ratings this week:  36% as of Tuesday. (Average for presidents since the 1950’s in their first quarter is 63%.) Gallop

Can you imagine what that must be like?  People hate him!  I pretty much hate him.  I know Republicans who hate him!  His own party!  Can you imagine what that must be like?  Up in a tree all by yourself.  He acts like it doesn’t bother him a bit, and I have little hope that he’ll ever show an ounce of vulnerability or sensitivity -- it’s one of the reasons he’s so despised... 

And yet, we have a God who enters our town and “passes through it,” as the text says.  We have a God, Jesus the Christ who looks up at him, and says, “Donald, hurry and come down.  For I’m must stay at your house today.”

This is not meant to be offensive to those of you who may be Trump supporters or at least Trump defenders; this is offensive to all the Trump haters, all the Trump dis-approvers, which seems to be the majority, even if Zacchaeus might be calling those reports fake news. 

Donald Trump is Zacchaeus!  And Jesus loves Donald Trump, Jesus loves rich, unpopular, tax collectors, too!  [What, no grumbling, like in the text?  No “Ah man, he has a gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!”?]  

This is our God!  Mercy.  Grace.  Forgiveness. Welcome.  Offered to everyone.  Just when you think, you understand Jesus, he goes and does something like this.  And there’s more where that came from, remember?  The criminal he pardons on the cross? [pause] As they’re hanging together in excruciating pain?  “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus in our story -- it’s very important to note -- makes the first move here:  First he comes through town, then he finds Zacchaeus up in that tree.  Zacchaeus doesn’t call out to him, Donald Trump doesn’t approach Jesus and invite him to dinner.  Jesus makes the first move toward him, just as Jesus always makes the first move toward us.  

(That’s the idea behind infant baptism, btw.  We don’t get a say in it!  It’s already done!  Salvation has already come to this house!)   Very important to note.  Our merciful and loving Christ has already invited himself to Trump’s house, made the first move, offered salvation, forgiveness, hope, love, mercy and healing:  “Hurry and come down from there!” 

“Come down, Zacchaeus, from this high place where you have been defrauding, oppressing, leaving behind, climbing on top of those who have little, climbing on trees!  Stop it!”  God says this to us too: we’re all pretty rich in this country.  (What did I say last week?  $40,000/year = wealthiest 0.57% globally)

“Come down from there, brother, sister.  If you really want to see me, climbing up high into the tree won’t help.  If you really want your sight restored, then come down and open up your home.  Don’t hide up there.  Share in community down here.”

The first part of our text today is about a blind man.  But once again -- ah, Luke is so good! -- we see that that there are actually two blind men in our reading today.  (Remember the parable of the two lost sons?) Two blind men here, and one of them is named Zacchaeus.  

And Jesus heals both of them!

Jesus makes the first move.  We just get to respond, sisters and brothers in Christ.  Because Jesus passes through our town too.  Calls us down from being up high above (or at least separate from) the rest.  Jesus re-members us too.  Jesus re-connects us to one another.  Challenges us by inviting himself over, and in so doing salvation arrives.  We just get to respond.

Zacchaeus, in the story, responds...immediately: “Lord, half of my possessions, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone,” Donald Trump says, in the Gospel of Luke, “I will pay back four times as much!”  Can you imagine!  When the poor have good news brought to them, or simply food.  When the downtrodden have justice returned to them, equality, a place at the table, a level field, a restoration of stolen funds, then walls are torn down, trust is rebuilt, enemies become friends and the world starts looking again like God first created and intended it to be: a garden.

“Leave that tree in the garden alone, Zacchaeus.  Let it be, Donald, don’t climb all over it, and use it to get ahead or above others.  Let’s go eat together instead.”  

He too is a “son of Abraham.”  In Luke chapter 13 Jesus called a woman a daughter of Abraham -- that woman who had an unclean spirit that had crippled for 18 long years, and she was bent over.  She was bent down, below the crowd.  Zacchaeus had climbed up, above the crowd.  And both of them are granted salvation from Jesus.  This is our God!  

Just when you think you understand, Jesus forgives and grants salvation to “that one” too!  That’s amazing grace...when people start sharing, start connecting, forgiving…when the wealthy let go, and poor receive justice...when we truly see each other.  

God is in our midst, as this good work begins anew today.  God in our White House, in our Senate and House, God is in our Supreme Court, and in the halls of our state capitols.  In fact, Christ passes through all of our town and stops.  God invites us down too, enters our homes and our lives anew.  And now we can’t help but respond!  

Thanks be to God...for salvation has already come to your house!  AMEN.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

March 26 -- Rich Man & Lazarus

Grace to us and peace from Jesus Christ.  AMEN.

How would you tell this story to children?  [pause]  Maybe somebody asked Charles Dickens that question once.  Friends, we need to be careful not to explain away this story...not to round out the edges.  Let this sting, sisters and brothers in Christ.  Let it bite.  Say ouch, grimace: Jesus is speaking in no unclear terms, right?

Jesus tells this story after a series of parables, and that’s important to remember here.  The lost coins sheep and sons, the dishonest manager, and now this.  And remember, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees...who are convinced that they can coast into the bosom of Abraham, with very little humility, with very little mercy, and very little generosity.  That’s the capital for Jesus: humility, mercy, generosity.  Not money.  

So just to drive the point home, he tells them this vivid parable about a rich man and Lazarus.  And isn’t Jesus a master of storytelling, setting up these graphic contrasts?  

Purple linens could only be afforded by the extremely wealthy.  And he feasted sumptuously every day.  Again, only a small percentage could eat like that.

And the Pharisees would have been right with him, like, “Good for him.  I know that guy.  He takes me out to lunch once every week.  Good guy.”

By the way, there’s a website called globalrichlist.com, where you can see how rich you are compared to the rest of the world.  Did you know that a person who brings home $40,000/year is in the top .57% of the richest people in the world?  If you make $40,000/you would be the 33,982,065th richest person on this earth, only about 34 million who are richer than you are! Might seem like a lot until you realize 7.5 billion on the planet.  In one hour, you make ~$20, as compared to someone in Ghana who makes $.08 for the same hour of work.  Would take 53 years for the average laborer in Indonesia to earn the same amount.  Your monthly income could pay the monthly salaries of 179 doctors in Pakistan.  (taxes?  Zacchaeus coming next week:  25% --> $30G = top 1.23%, globally)

So, Jesus introduces this rich man, feasting sumptuously.  Just enjoying life.  Living well, making $40,000/year...let’s just say.

And then he contrasts the man clothed in nice stuff with a man clothed in sores.  Hungry.  At his gate.  Day in, day out, more like a fly than a human being.  An eyesore for the rich man and all his friends.  “Sorry about him,” the rich man might have said when the Pharisee would come over for lunch.  “Get outta here you old beggar!  Shew, fly!”

Jesus goes on, but before he does, he gives the poor man a name:  Lazarus.  Scholars note, that in all of Jesus’ stories and parables, he never gives his characters names (fathers, sons, widows, shepherds, managers, servants..).  The Jesus names the poor man, Lazarus (which we know from the Greek means “God helps”).  Lazarus would have gladly, the text says, eaten the nasty scraps left over (ever take home left overs and look at them the next day…?)  But he gets nothing handed to him in his earthly life.  Maybe he annoyed the rich man once or twice, at least then he’s getting some attention.  For the most part, Lazarus was just invisible.

Know any body like that...Lazarus, I mean?  Probably not, because the Lazarus’ of this world are those we don’t even see...those we can’t even call to mind, much less name, when it’s time to pray.    

But God knows every name.  (try learning a name this week?)
God calls the Lazarus’ of this world by name, and draws them close.  They will rest at last in the bosom of Abraham, and woe to ones who do not care for them.  These are Jesus‘ words, not mine.  
This stings.

It’s interesting too: It seems to me to be pretty wonderful news that the poor will be drawn in to God’s loving, safe, protective arms at the end of the day.  That seems something to celebrate, and just stop there.  God names the poor and draws them in to the bosom of Abraham.  Thanks be to God.  But given those statistics about who’s rich and who’s poor, I don’t know about you, but I find myself hearing this text and still not giving thanks for the salvation of the poor.  I hear these statistics and rather than being grateful for their salvation, I’m getting more concerned about what this means for me!  What about that poor rich man?  What about me?  What about all those people I know and love who have lots of money?!  Isn’t it interesting that the world’s poor, billions of people literally are going to be gathered into God’s arms, and I still can’t be grateful for God’s glory, love, power and mercy?

This is a tough one today, deep into our Lenten journey.  Lazarus is carried up...and the rich man is buried down.  And from the flames of Hades, he cries out.  By the way, we get a lot (all) of our imagery of hell from a literary masterpiece, Dante’s Inferno (14th c. Florence, Italy).  Interesting study: this is not the word “hell”, in today’s text, it’s Hades.  Hell is the translated word in the bible for gehenna.  That was the heap of trash outside the Jerusalem walls and that was always burning, because it was constantly fueled with trash.  But Hades was the third and bottom tier, that the people of Jesus‘ time believed in.  There was earth, there was heaven, and there was Hades.  Common understanding that came from the Hellenistic influences and ancient Jewish influences…

Lazarus is in Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man is being endlessly tormented in Hades.  

Where is the hope in this passage, if one has some money?

This is a lesson for the Pharisees, who just weren’t understanding mercy and compassion of God for the last, the least, and the lost, and so Jesus is driving it home.  
The hope is that we get to listen in, eavesdrop on Jesus driving home the point, and we get to learn.  How is the Holy Spirit working in us as we don’t skip over this story?  As we let this story sting us a little (or a lot)...before passing the peace, before putting our pledges, tithes and offerings in the plate, before going home and having a sumptuous lunch.

I’ve said before, beware of the Gospel of Luke, it could change your life.  How is God working on us?  On you?  ...to be the people, the community of faithful followers in this day, in this part of the world?  The Spirit is stirring, unsettling, untying our hands, unlocking our treasure chests.  Someone has been raised from the dead, and so now everything is different.  

We are blessed and we are sent and we can now see those in need at our gates.  And it’s not just about tossing a coin now, or even a couple bucks, it’s about our whole attitude towards those who are different.  One scholar calls it our “fundamental neighborliness”.  She says our “fundamental neighborliness is the barometer of the soul.” 

God is with us now -- let me be clear: we have a loving God.  There’s more time to grow.  God is a loving parent, sitting and watching as we learn a new lesson (I think of parents lovingly observing their children putting a new concept together in their classroom).  Holy Spirit is here, moving in this place, reaching into our hearts and our souls and rejuvenating, re-booting our “fundamental neighborliness” for Christian living and speaking to one another, and caring for the least, the lost and the Lazarus.  

God’s grace abounds, friends of Jesus, and we are the vessels of that grace and compassion.  

Let us give thanks, as we eat the Body and Blood of Christ...as we learn, as we re-envision, as we share the wealth.  Let us give thanks, Amen.      

Sunday, March 19, 2017

March 19 -- Lost Sheep, Coins & Sons

Sisters and brothers in Christ, I’m going to liken every single one of us here today...to the older brother in our Gospel text.  

Usually, I want you to put yourself into these stories.  Who do you identify with?  But today I’m going to tell you: You’re the older brother.  Why?  Because you’re here at church.

Now maybe there have certainly been times in your life when you’ve identified more with the reckless younger brother.  I’m sure many of us can relate to the father as well.  (Although, I’ve been reminded by theologians and preachers that none of us can be the merciful parent in this story.  Ultimately -- and the point of the story is -- only God can be that…even if you’ve rejoiced at a child’s homecoming or struggled through the pain of a loved ones reckless behavior.)

No, today, you’re the older brother.  Because you’re here.  And because we can all relate to bitterness.  Hard-heartedness.  Hard, diligent work through the years.  Doing the right thing.  And wanting everything to be fair.  Because there’s a word we all need to hear from our God again this day: mercy.
Quick recap of the famous story.  Little brother, “brattily,” demands his share of the family inheritance.  Goes out -- goes far from home -- and blows it.  Until he arrives at this scene with the pigs.  Couldn’t be any lower than that, especially, remember, for a Jewish audience: Swine are unclean, defiled creatures.  He’s hit rock bottom.

But there in the pig pen, he comes up with a plan.  “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worth to be called you son; treat me like one of you hired hands.‘  So he sets off…”  
Note: there is no sign of or word for “repentance” here!  The Greek word for repentance metanoia that we’ve seen before in Luke’s gospel -- nope.  The closest we get is that it says, “When he came to himself…” Lots of great discussion on what that means.  (from “sobered up” to “discovered who he was”)

I’m convinced, especially given the two parables that precede this one -- the lost sheep (stupid) and the lost coin (dead, inanimate) that that son is pretty much in that categories...plus he’s un-repentant and maybe even preparing to manipulate his father all over again.  “Here’s what I’ll do:  I’ll say this to my father…”  He rehearses his lines, like an addict, says what he needs to say to get his next hit.  He’s a reckless, self-centered, stupid, lost, worthless son.  That’s the image Jesus is so vividly painting in this story.  (Love that painting in my office, but John August Swanson’s depiction of the prodigal son is way to beautiful.)  This kid is lazy, dangerous trash.

And that’s intentional build-up for the rest of us who are far from lazy, dangerous trash.  We haven’t gotten to us yet.  Maybe you have been in the pig pen, but you’re here now.  You’re the oldest son today. 

So I don’t even have to tell you to “imagine” the father lavishing mercy on this deadbeat, mooching, manipulative, robbing younger brother.  Yeah -- you know, one commentator reminded me that the fatted calf, the ring, the robe all the stuff the father gave that youngest son was actually the inherited property of the older son’s, right?  The whole story starts with “Father, give me my share of the inheritance…”  So, everything else belonged to the older brother.    

I mean, there is so much here for that older brother to feel bitter about.  
Think of all the bitterness that you carry, sisters and brothers in Christ.  That’s the whole project this Lent here at the cross -- to acknowledge the bitterness, the hard-heartedness, we bear, and to bring it forward and leave it at the cross.  

Ever been jealous when an act of compassion was directed at someone you didn’t think deserved it...AT ALL.  “Why should they get that -- they haven’t done anything to deserve it!”  

“Why should my deadbeat sister, my lazy brother, my mean neighbor, my late-coming co-worker, my corner-cutting employees, those other Lutherans, that other side of our community -- why should any of those robbing, cheating, lazy, ungrateful, spoiled other people (Samaritans) get the fatted calf slaughtered for them, get a party thrown in their honor…[slowly] when I haven’t even gotten so much as a small goat?!”

Lord, it is hard to be gracious.  Like God is gracious. 

I’m starting to think this is really a story about the lost older son.  We know know where this is going with the youngest, by the time we get to the third story.  First it’s the lost, dumb sheep.  Then it’s the lost, dead, inanimate coin.  So we know what’s going to happen to the prodigal son.  He’s going to be found!  They all get parties thrown for them!  The real gift and twist of this story is the way the father treats the oldest.

And this what God says to us, People in Church:
“You are always with me.  And all that is mine is yours.”
Let that soak in this week:  God is always with us.  God has always got us-always had us-always will.  [Baptism of Emma!]  Since you were in your mother’s womb, God has held you in love, grace, mercy and peace!  And all that I have is yours.  

God has entrusted this earth to us to do with it as we please, to manage it as we like, to care for it.  The planet is our family farm.  God’s trusted it to us.  (This is stewardship, btw.)

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of ours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”

[My friend Kevin Womack’s prayer]  “Give us eyes to see what you want us to see today.  Give us hearts that are soft and ready to receive what you reveal.  And give us courage to apply what what we see and understand to the way that we live for you every day.  I pray all of this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God invites us out of our hard-heartedness, Christ calls us to let go of our bitterness -- pay attention to when you’re feeling bitter this week -- and instead God calls us to celebrate and rejoice.  Come join the party.  

This grace is amazing which means it’s for everyone:  it is for the healing of the nations, the breaking down of barriers that divide, the joining hands and joining hearts of sisters and brothers who are different.  This grace is amazing which means it’s for everyone: it is for you and for me -- the lost and the lonely, the broken and the bitter, the angry and the afraid.  

This grace is for all.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

March 12 -- Second Sunday in Lent

Educator, principal and professional counselor, Dr. Kristin Meyer of Waverly, Iowa does an interesting exercise with her graduate students:  She asks them three questions.  The first: “What would you do if you were given $1,000,000?”  The second: “What would you do if you were given 10 years to live?” And the third: “What would you do if you were given 3 hours to live.”  She reflects that the answers to the first question were usually about “things”, the answers to the second about “experiences”, and the answers to the third were about “people” (relationships). *

It’s interesting to think about what comes to the surface when given an ultimatum.

Jesus gives an ultimatum in verse 5 of this Lenten Gospel lesson for today: repent or parish.  It might be hard to find Good News there, at first glance, but let’s unpack this a little bit, looking at what happens before and the parable that follows. 

The people are trying to figure out why some bad things have happened to their people.  In one example, some people had been to Pilate’s cruel and unusual, empirical punishments, meant to strike fear and submission into the hearts of the Jews.  In the other a tower falls and kills 18.  Whether that was because terrible wind or heavy rain...or just bad engineering, those weren’t the people’s concern.  In both cases, people are wondering if the victims here were worse sinners than everyone else.  If God was punishing them.

Perhaps we can relate to that...even with the advances we’ve made in engineering and predicting weather patterns.

If something bad happens to someone, especially when it’s to someone we don’t know or like very much, it may be tempting to say, “Hmmm, I wonder what they did to deserve that.”

My own, dearly departed grandfather -- it grieves my heart to share this with you -- Grandpa, pastor and mentor for me (pectoral cross, pulpit quote) -- I’ll always remember, we were all together in Nebraska in 2004 when those terrible tsunamis hit the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia.  And I still remember him shaking his head and asking, “I wonder why God is punishing them.  They must have done something.”  I think he was trying to find a way to explain it...  

(Isn’t it complicated when our beloved heroes aren’t perfect?)

Jesus seizes the moment to say NO to the people, to Grandpa.  [slowly]  No, they don’t deserve punishment any more than the rest of us.  Sometimes things just happen.  Your mom’s cancer diagnosis, the tragic death of a family pet, the loss of a job, the cross-country transfer away of a beloved family member, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, getting caught in the crossfires.  Sometimes things just happen, and to get trapped and bogged down with the “why is God doing this”, Jesus teaches here, is to miss the point. 

The point is what we do with what we have left.  The point is the ultimatum.  What comes to the surface when we think about the time and the resources we have left?  Is it about things?  Is it about experiences?  Or is it about relationships?

Repentance is what Jesus calls us to in the season of Lent.  
And repentance is about healing (salvus in Latin)...healing relationships.  If you only had a short time left to live on this earth, what repentance and reconciling needs to happen for you to die with a clear heart and a clean conscience, for you to die with a soul that is free and a mind and body that is full of love and deep peace?

It’s interesting to think about what comes to the surface when given an ultimatum.

Don’t get caught up with the “why” questions, Jesus says to us today.  Live as if you don’t have much time left.  

But we keep falling again and again, for the lures of the world, back into the why, just as the people of old did.  “What did they do/I do/we do to deserve this?”  And that always leads us to act out of fear: 

Our next episode starts with the Pharisees telling Jesus to run!   
(Like it’s nothing but predator and prey.)

But Jesus responds -- not with some kind of animal-instinct reaction, but -- with courage, calm, and love to face the fray.

He grieves that the Pharisees and us as well at times [slowly] just. don’t. get it.  And he expresses this longing to be a mother hen to us.  What a surprising and contrasting image!

Jesus calls Herod a fox, and then Jesus imagines himself as a mother chicken -- not a hunter that shoots the fox, a bear or a big dog that chases the fox back, even a protective wall that keeps the fox out.  No, Jesus here imagines himself as a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wing.  

Courage, calm, and love.  That is what we find this morning.  Jesus doesn’t run from the violence and the pain and the chaos.  Jesus stays with us in it.  And longs to cover us and to love us, like a chicken wing over her babies.  

That may not mean a perfect protection:  foxes kill chickens.  [pause]

But death doesn’t have the final say, with Christ.  This is not how the story ends, ultimately.  

So how will we live, given this ultimatum?...Repentant.  

A life lived is a life lived in repentance.  It’s an ongoing task.  To breath is to be in a state of repentance.  To inhale grace and exhale peace.  

Attentive to relationships and healing.  Peaceful and present, even amid the fray.  How will we, sisters and brothers in Christ, live?  Sheltered...in the gracious and loving arms of God.  Repentant and courageous.  Covered by Jesus’ wings of mercy.  AMEN.

* Love Beyond Measure: ELCA Schools and Learning Centers 2016-2017 Devotional Guide, 43.