Monday, March 29, 2010

Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday, "Palms and Crosses"

Sermon 3/28/10, Luke 19:28-40, Luke 22:14-23:56

Palm/Passion Sunday Meditation

Today we celebrate Palm/Passion Sunday. Passion Sunday used to be celebrated as its own Sunday during the fifth week of Lent, before Palm Sunday. But when the common lectionary was developed, the common set of texts we use each week, Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday were joined together in one Sunday, for a few reasons. First, a practical reason: these days, less and less people celebrate the full Holy Week - people might attend on the Sundays: Palm Sunday, and then Easter. However, missing Holy Week - Maundy Thursday and Good Friday - means missing the middle and very important part of the story - the trial and crucifixion. How can you have Jesus' resurrection without his death? If you go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, from triumph to triumph, you miss a lot of the reason for the celebration next Sunday. Celebrating Palm/Passion Sunday together means you get the whole story.
But I think there's a deeper reason to have these two themes share the same Sunday morning space. They are poignant enough alone, full of meaning. But together, with their stark contrasts, these texts hit even harder. Palm/Passion Sunday together is a day of irony, of juxtaposition, of bringing two things together that don’t seem like they should go together. Irony is when there is a contradiction between an action or expression, and the context in which the action or expression occurs. The two passages, then, that we read today, are full of irony. Contradictions. We find disciples who were following Jesus’ command, coming into Jerusalem with him, and those same disciples denying and betraying him as soon as things got too difficult. We find crowds with Jesus in both passages, crowds shouting. First, “Hosanna,” but then, “crucify him!” We find powerful leaders – Pharisees and High Priests – seemingly scared of Jesus and the power this man from Nazareth seems to have – and yet they were the ones with the power to arrest Jesus and put him on trial. We find Jesus called a king – first a king who is blessed because he comes in God’s name, and then a king of the Jews, those very words serving as his death sentence. We find Jesus, condemned and killed as a criminal offering forgiveness from the death chamber, the cross. We find speakers of truth, people strangely aware of who Jesus really was, in a thief on another cross, and in a centurion, a Roman participating in the crucifixion. Contradictions. Irony.
We’ve been living with these contradictions and juxtapositions throughout Lent. Why do you labor for that which does not satisfy? Isaiah wonders. We seek abundance, and we seek to be filled, but we continually try to fill ourselves with things that have proven again and again to leave us empty. Why? We want to be disciples but we’re unwilling to actually follow where Jesus leads, always sure we’re heading the right direction already on our own. We’ll spend our heart and soul treasuring things that wear out, but we count the cost the God asks – those same hearts and souls – as too high, even for the real life God offers. We deeply need to be forgiven for our sins, yet we hold on to the sins of others so tightly, resenting God’s free love, as if it might run out. We are full of contradictions.  
I’ve always thought that Jesus got himself crucified because he refused to be the kind of Messiah the people expected him to be. They wanted a revolutionary, didn’t they? Someone who would come in and free the Jews from Roman occupation. Someone who could be a grand king in the line of David, their favorite king in their history. I thought that they just didn’t get what kind of Messiah Jesus was saying he was. I thought it was a case of mistaken identity. Jesus is not who they, or who we, thought he was. But if this were the case – if they wanted Jesus to be a certain kind of Messiah – if they were trying to force his hand – wouldn’t they realize sooner than his crucifixion that Jesus was not responding in the way they had hoped? If Jesus wasn’t the Messiah they were looking for, couldn’t they just ignore him? Couldn’t they just let him fade out of focus? Why did they act with such violence? Why was there no voice – no voice – standing up as an advocate for Jesus – no one who tried to save him from this death?
The more I think about it, the more I mull over the events of Jesus’ life in my mind, the more convinced I become that the reason we go so quickly from the crowds welcoming Jesus to the crowds yelling for his death is because they knew, and we know, exactly who Jesus is. For once, it seems everyone in the story is united in their actions towards Jesus. All of them, all of them, are united in their abandonment and rejection of Jesus. It is not just the Jews who act against him, but also the Romans. Not just the religious leaders, but also the common ‘regular’ people. Not just Judas, who we can readily write off as corrupted and evil, but also Peter, the faithful disciple, and the others, who never even get mentioned during all of Jesus’ trial, beatings, and crucifixion. Not one who Jesus healed, not one who Jesus forgave, not one who Jesus broke bread with speaks for him, acts on his behalf, save perhaps one of the criminals crucified alongside him, until it is too late.
I often wish I could have lived in Jesus’ day – sat on the mountain to hear him preach, traveled with him as he visited places where others would not go, helped him share God’s love. I like to think that surely, surely I would not be part of the crowds yelling for his death. But what reason do we have to think otherwise? Honestly, I think we’d like to get rid of Jesus, even still, even today. Not because he’s not who we want him to be. But because we’re afraid we know exactly who he is.
This Jesus we crucify is one who just won’t let us be. And that is the most logical reason for us, with those we read about, to want to put Jesus to death. After all, Jesus is only a threat, a real threat, if he is who he claims to be – the Messiah, the one anointed to bring good news, preach repentance, and announce that God’s kingdom is already here on earth, right now. If Jesus is wrong, or lying, or crazy – he’s not a threat. It is because we believe him that he frightens us, and we seek to get his voice out of our heads and hearts any way we can.
If Jesus is the Messiah, then we really are supposed to love our enemies, count as our neighbors those who we think little of. If Jesus is the Messiah, then we really are called to give up the material things that we call treasures, and trade them for treasures of a different kind. If Jesus is the Messiah, then we really are supposed to go where God calls us, follow where God leads, no matter how inconvenient it is, how difficult it is, how painful it is. If Jesus really is the Messiah, then we’ve got to make changes to our lives, right now.
Theologian Dorothy Sayers writes, "I know that I can stand in here and sing praises to Jesus one day, and walk by on the other side of the road as he lies in a gutter the next. I know that I can be lost in wonder and praise at the gracious mercy of God one day, and then turn around and make the most callous judgment of someone the next day, just writing them off, rejecting them entirely without showing any sign that the grace I have been shown has begun to rub off on me. I know that some days I can sing in here "Brother, sister let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you," and then walk out and treat you as though I was born to rule and you're lucky to have me in your company." If Jesus is the Messiah, then we have to face all the contradictions we’ve built up in our lives.
So wouldn’t it be easier, much easier, to get rid of Jesus? Wouldn’t be easier just to live as we’re living, as basically good people, without worrying about all those changes that will just make people think we’re behaving strangely anyway? Wouldn’t be easier to turn Jesus in to the authorities, and let them take care of it? Wouldn’t it be easier to pretend that we never knew Jesus? Wouldn’t it be easier to fade out of the story? Wouldn’t be easier to blend in with the crowd?
            “Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!”
            Let us pray:  …

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Leadership Training with Gil Rendle

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a learning/training day with Gil Rendle, part of a training for leaders as United Methodists in most of New York State prepare to become one annual conference instead of four this July. I found Rendle's presentation to be very thought-provoking, churning thoughts not only on what we will do as a new annual conference, but what we do/can do in my local church.

Here are some notes and my comments mixed, hope you can decipher!:

Rendle notes that our UM membership has been declining for 40 years. We've been in the wilderness for 40 years, but in the wilderness, God can bring about change. We can manage incremental change - we can handle that because we can control it. But deep change - we can't control deep change, and deep change is what we need.

He talked about Friedman and family systems and the idea that "we've grossly overrated the power of information to change people with no motivation to change." That's pretty applicable in all areas of life, don't you think? I can't help but think of my favorite line from Tracy Chapman's "Change" - "If everything you think you know makes your life unbearable, would you change?" What is our motivation for changing the way we do church?

He points to CEUs as one system that was implemented to 'fix people' - 'If we only had better leaders' - just make them get more education, and the churches will be fixed... He says, "I was not trained to make disciples, I was trained to make members," of his own training for ministry, noting how we're set up to fail at our own mission of disciple-making.

He says that when "things are getting out of control, the natural response is to make more rules." But good leadership is: Not about doing things right, but about doing right things. I think we've particularly been struggling with this in my local church - are we trying to do things right or do right things?

Management satisfies. Leadership (well done appropriately) dissatisfies. That’s how you affect change. Unless we are dissatisfying, church will not change.

North American Hospitality: Fix things up just the way we like them, invite people in, and are happy until they want to change the channel. That's not biblical hospitality, radical hospitality.

Technical work – known solutions to known problems.

Adaptive work – can’t do technical. You don’t more to action. You move to learning. Have to learn to act. Deep work.

He said, "Who are we? What are we supposed to do? We think we already know the answer. But we know who we were, not who we are." In my first congregation, we once did a project as part of our stewardship campaign that asked people to identify the 'visionaries' within the congregation. To name people. And the congregation did - but it named mostly people who had died in the past years. They knew who they were in the past, but not their current identity.

Rendle says we are asked for leadership, but only rewarded for management in our systems. After all, asking the ‘why’ questions translates into a longer meeting! Whenever the system doesn’t know what to do, it does what it knows.

"Pastoral mode is one of our default modes – tries to manage everyone’s feelings, care for everyone." This is a big one for me personally. I have a very hard time not trying to make sure everyone is getting along and feeling ok. It's hard to say: I'm sorry you're not with the change that is taking place," and then just move on. I'm learning! Rendle notes that not all the Israelites make the journey out of the wilderness.

Church metaphor we love/live by (but is obviously bad): We have to learn how to build a new prison, using the bricks from the old prison, without losing any of the prisoners.

How do we prepare leaders for congregations we haven’t yet met, when we still require conformity of leaders?

The system get whatever it measures. How much, how many, how often measures. In absence of measures, get the same as before, or chaos. Have to measure something, but we’re using faulty measures. At the same time, you can't just have no measures. If you don't like the ones in place, alright, then what *do* you want to be measured on?

Our stated desired outcome: Improved relationship with Christ, enabling change in the world.

But: If you can’t measure output, you’ll measure input. (i.e. "I worked x hours." Not bragging. Just trying to show what we put *in* to system since we don’t know what we're getting out. And we feel we've never gotten enough inputs.)

Long established organizations have 2 missions: Public – what you say you do. Private – what you actually work on. The Private is always the satisfaction of the strongest constituent voices. School: Public – educate children. Private – satisfy parents, teachers, administrators. Students don’t make list.

Church: Public – making disciples. Private – satisfy clergy, congregations, interest groups. Disciples don’t make list.

Was: Whether clergy and congregations were happy.

Takes us from output position, buts us into input positions. We’re expendable resources. Can’t be deployed for our satisfaction but for the church’s mission.

When a system doesn’t know what went wrong, it wants to know who went wrong.

If you go at your work at a technical level, you might get all your tasks done, but it won’t matter.

When a paradigm shifts, everything has to go back to zero. Look for the purpose sentence in Discipline, and stop reading.

Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent, "Extravagant Cost"

Sermon 3/21/10, John 12:1-8, Philippians 3:4b-14

Extravagant Cost

I can hardly believe it, but today is the last Sunday in Lent before Holy Week begins. Next week we celebrate Palm/Passion Sunday, and then spend the week remembering the events in Jesus’ life that led him from being celebrated and praised by the crowds to be being jeered as he suffered and died. And then, just two weeks from today, we celebrate Easter. How can we be here already? At least from my perspective, this journey of Lent has gone quickly. We’ve been talking about extravagance. The over-the-top abundance of God that we’re trying to make room for, by getting rid of some of the empty extravagances we’ve filled up on instead. We talked about God’s extravagant grace, as we heard Jesus speak of Jerusalem like a mother hen to her baby chicks. We talked about the Extravagant Feast, as we heard Isaiah’s call to feast on that which satisfies. We pondered God’s extravagant love and forgiveness, as we heard about the Prodigal Son and the Cranky Older Brother. Today, before we step into Holy Week and the frantic pace of the last leg between here and Easter, it’s time to stop and consider one more aspect of our journey, and of God’s extravagance: cost. What is the cost of this journey that we’re on, and are we willing to bear the cost? Pay the price? What’s the cost of all God’s extravagance?

What things cost is actually at the center of our gospel lesson today, as we read of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. This story of Jesus being anointed appears in all four gospels in some form, though there are significant differences in all the tellings of it. In Mark and in Matthew, Jesus is said to be dining at the home of Simon the leper when an unidentified woman anoints his head. All the disciples in Matthew’s account, and just ‘some’ who were there in Mark’s telling complain about her extravagant actions. In Luke’s account, Jesus is eating with Pharisees, when a woman called ‘a sinner’ comes into the house and weeping, wipes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. There is no mention in Luke of the cost of the ointment the woman uses, and Jesus responds to criticism from the Pharisees with a parable about hospitality and forgiveness.

But here in John’s gospel, in the version of the story we study today, we find some different, interesting details. Here, we read that Jesus is visiting with Lazarus in Bethany just before the Passover, just before Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem. In other words, this occurs on the brink of what we have come to call Holy Week, just where we are now. Lazarus has already been raised by Jesus from the dead – just raised, in fact, in the previous chapter of John’s gospel. John clearly shows Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha as people with whom Jesus is very close. They are dear friends. Martha is preparing dinner, and while Jesus and Lazarus talk, Mary takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, and anoints Jesus’ feet. She wipes them with her hair, and we read that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. In John’s account, it is Judas who raises a fuss. We’re told that this is because he was the treasurer of the disciples, and was looking to steal money from their common purse. He criticizes Mary’s actions – “why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Jesus answers: “Leave her alone. She bought it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

In Jesus’ day washing your feet and anointing them was a common practice, as common as hand-washing today. People traveled on hot and dusty roads, and washing and anointing sore and dirty feet was just part of daily custom. A host would provide hot water and sometimes ointment and oil for arriving guests. But the guests would wash their own feet. The only one who would wash someone else’s feet was a slave. So for a person to voluntarily wash and anoint another’s feet would communicate a message that they were devoted enough to the person to act as the person’s slave. That’s what Mary is communicating to Jesus – extreme, complete devotion and commitment to Jesus, putting her life in Jesus’ hands. (1) Otherwise, we can make no sense of her actions – for a woman to touch a man in this way in public, for a woman to let down her hair in public, for a woman to engage in what would have been considered inappropriately sensual – Mary must have had a strong motivation to act this way. And she did – her motivation was showing her complete commitment to serving Jesus.

And then we have Judas. Judas has always been the most intriguing disciple to me, stemming, I’ll admit to you, from my longtime love of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar and the crush I had in junior high on the actor who played Judas in the Salt City Playhouse production. Ever since then, I’ve always wondered exactly what made Judas do what he did – what were his motivations? And I’ve always felt that we better pay attention to Judas, because we’re not always so far from taking actions to betray God ourselves. The gospel writer John, however, doesn’t share my sympathetic look at Judas. For John, Judas is just the betrayer, plain and simple. But even from John’s straightforward presentation, we can learn something about ourselves. In this text, John sets up Judas and Mary to clearly illustrate two paths. Mary and Judas are symbolic of two paths we can choose. Mary shows her complete devotion to following Jesus. Judas, on the other hand, shows self-interest in the guise of caring about the poor. His argument sounds good – Mary’s act of devotion is quite extravagant – she spends a year’s salary on perfume for a man’s feet. But John lets us know what he sees in Judas’ heart.

Through John’s eyes, from his perspective, we see that Judas is good at being a fake-follower of Jesus. Think about it. For years, Judas followed Jesus, heard him preaching, was sent out by Jesus to be in ministry himself with the other disciples, and no one suspected him to be any different than any of the other disciples. We can guess that Jesus saw into his true heart, but nowhere else do we find the other disciples questioning him or wondering what he is doing among the twelve. He blends right in. And yet we know what John tells us: Judas’ motivations are all wrong. He’s looking out for himself and his own interests. Mary is the true follower. (2) Mary and Judas here are symbolic of the two paths we can choose, as they both look at what following Jesus will cost them, and what they are or are not willing to pay.

What does it cost to follow Jesus? The gospel lesson ties right in with our text from Isaiah a couple weeks ago. You remember that Isaiah asked us, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” And we talked about the conundrum, the human predicament that has us longing for that which satisfies, that living water, that rich food, that which truly fills us, but constantly choosing things that leave us empty instead, because we’re not ready to make the turned-inside-out changes that actually following Jesus brings to our life. And now, we find ourselves facing another dilemma, as we take a close look at the cost of discipleship, and asking ourselves: just what are these turned-inside-out changes that Jesus is talking about? What is required to follow Jesus? On the one hand, we know that grace is free. God’s love is offered to us without price. That’s a promise God makes to us, and keeps. But on the other hand, discipleship is also costly. Jesus says, “take up the cross,” that instrument of my death, and follow me. That’s a costly path he’s calling us to take. So while grace is free, we’re also talking about costs today, and trying to figure out how it all fits together.

Mary sees that following Jesus will cost her everything, and she’s willing, ready, to pay that price because Jesus offers life, real, abundant life in return. She’s seen this gift of real life with her own eyes when her own brother Lazarus was raised by Jesus, and when Jesus told her sister Martha that he was the resurrection and the life – not for later, at some distant time, but for here and now. Judas, however, represents someone who sees how much discipleship costs and is not willing to carry his discipleship to its conclusion. Jesus and his ministry – they are leading down a road that Judas is not ready to go. He sees the cost of discipleship as being too high, and so he tries to pretend, to slide by, to masquerade as someone ready to go the distance, but who doesn’t actually, in the end, change his life after all. Are we like Mary, willing to pay whatever it costs to be a disciple, or are we like Judas, pretending, masquerading as disciples? This is the difference John wants to point out between Mary and Judas. They might both want the same things – to experience the life that Jesus talks about. But only one of them is willing to pay the price to get it.

As people of faith, we know that the gift of God’s love and grace is free, offered to us without price. At least I hope that by now we know that. It wouldn’t really be a gift if it wasn’t free to us, offered freely by God. But everything in our Christian faith is filled with paradox – the kinds of things Jesus talked about all the time – the first being last, the humble being exalted. The same paradox holds true in our journey of discipleship. You know the saying that the best things in life are free? That’s true of course – love is a free gift we share with one another. But at the same time, love is very costly. If we truly love someone, that love will cost us a lot – patience, courage, commitment, strength. So it is with grace – it is a free gift offered to us by God. But our response to this gift will cost us something – perhaps all that we have.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this strange paradox in his most famous work The Cost of Discipleship. “Cheap grace,” he writes, “is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of [one] will gladly go and sell all that he [or she] has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all [her] goods. It is the . . . call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows [Jesus].”

The apostle Paul uses this same kind of language – this language of paradox in our reading from Philippians today. “Whatever gains I had,” he writes, “I have come to regard as loss because of Christ . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the . . . call of God in Christ Jesus.” This season of Lent, we are pressing on toward the goal – the prize – that we find in the Easter resurrection. We are so close to reaching the end of our journey. Now is the time, now is your chance to stop and ask yourself: What will it cost you to be a disciple? Will you pay?

For each of us, that price, that cost, is both totally unique and totally the same. What changes have to take place in your life for you to actually, really, 100% follow Jesus? Each of us would answer differently. But how much Jesus wants of us? The cost of discipleship is our whole lives, our whole selves, offered to God, a response to the extravagant grace we’ve been given. The cost is high – extravagant. But it’s worth every penny. Are you willing to pay the price?


(1) Exegetical notes from Brian Stoffregen,

(2) Ibid.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent, "Extravagant Love"

Sermon 3/14/10, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Extravagant Love

I told folks at our Ash Wednesday Service this year about the reason I chose “Extravagance” as our Lenten theme, and now I will share it with all of you: When I met with my clergy friends to some Lenten worship planning a few weeks ago, we were talking about today’s gospel lesson: the famous parable of the Prodigal Son. I dazzled my colleagues with my wisdom, sharing with them that though we usually think of “Prodigal” as meaning “lost,” it actually means “extravagant.” Over time we’ve come to think of it as meaning wandering and lost, because in the parable the prodigal son is the wayward younger child who squanders his fortune and has to come, begging for forgiveness, back home. But the word “prodigal” actually refers to his extravagant behavior – he burns through his money, he squanders his inheritance – he does nothing in moderation. And that behavior is prodigal behavior – extravagant behavior. After I dazzled them with my wisdom, one of my colleagues noticed that you could interpret many of our texts for Lent with the key word “extravagance.” And so as we looked at the texts for the season, we began to focus in on how each text talks about extravagance. That’s how we came to our theme for Lent this year.

But actually, I think calling this parable The Parable of the Prodigal Son shows that we’re already missing the point Jesus is trying to make with us. Whenever we read the gospels, hear Jesus’ teaching, I think we should assume that Jesus is talking to us, preaching to us. So we have to see ourselves in the story. But sometimes, I think we put ourselves in the wrong role in the story. When Jesus tells this parable, the first verses of our passage tell us that he told this parable, and the ones that are in between put not part of today’s lesson, in response to the Pharisees, because they were grumbling about Jesus’ dining habits. He spent a lot of time eating with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees couldn’t believe a holy man would spend his free time with such low-class people. It is in response to the Pharisees’ comments that Jesus tells this parable. He’s talking to them. And so, this parable isn’t so much about the younger brother as it is about the older brother, and what he does. But we, over the years, can’t seem to help but see ourselves in the dramatic role of the wayward younger child. We’ve been lost, we’ve wandered away from God, and God has welcomed us back. That’s good – that we feel that way, welcomed by God. But here’s the thing: for most of us, for those of us that have been in the faith for years, maybe even for most or all of our lives, we’re much more in danger of being the older brother than the younger. That’s the behavior Jesus is really warning against in this parable. And so, I think, we should probably think of this as The Parable of the Cranky Older Brother instead of The Prodigal Son.

Let’s review the story. Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes a story of a man who has two sons. The younger asks for his share of the family property, a request that would be akin to saying something like, “I wish you’d hurry up and die, Dad.” But the father makes no remarks – just does as he’s asked, and the younger son leaves home, and immediately sets about squandering his money in “dissolute living.” When it’s all gone, a famine strikes the land, and the young man finds himself literally wishing he could at least eat the food of the pigs he’s feeding. He decides that he’d be better off back at home, at least working as a servant for his father. So he heads home. But his father sees him “while he [is] still far off,” and runs to him – something that an elder Jewish man simply would not do, and accepts a brief apology, something else also not typical or expected, and proceeds to shower his lost-but-found son with welcome and forgiveness. But the older son is resentful. He’s been at home, pulling his weight, living a good life all this time, and he can’t believe the younger son is getting off so easy. He tells his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you,” which I can only imagine is hurtful language to the father, and continues to point out that he’s never been thrown a good party, yet the bad son gets welcomed with gifts. The father explains that the son has it wrong, or has missed the point: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” but your brother was lost, and now is found, and so we celebrate. (1)

Just this past week I was talking to a couple of people in the congregation about how different my siblings and I are from each other, how different we were growing up, and how amazing it is that children brought up in the same family can have such vastly different experiences. By the time I was in high school, I was already planning on heading to seminary after college, and I was, well, a bit of a goody-goody two-shoes. I can probably count the times I got in any sort of trouble on one hand. My brother Todd, who thankfully is not here to defend himself, was another story. Todd, although graduating third in his class from high school, almost had to go to summer school before graduating so he could make up all the gym classes he’d missed from essentially choosing to spend his days sleeping in rather than getting up and going to school on time. And the number of times he was sent to his room, or banned from phone or computer use, or generally grounded, well, who can count that high?

And sibling rivalry – that’s something that doesn’t really go away just because you get older. When Todd was in college, my mother was buying a new car, and she decided to give the old car to Todd. After all, the rest of us all had vehicles, and after struggling financially for a long time, my mom was finally in a place where she could afford to give Todd the car rather than trade it in. But the rest of us weren’t too happy – sure, we all had cars. But no one gave us the car – we had to buy our own! And here was Todd, trouble-maker of the family, with a car handed to him for free. I think my mom was shocked that we complained about Todd getting the car. For some reason she thought that the rest of us being well into our twenties would put us past any such complaining. But I’ve tried to explain to her: you are never too old for sibling rivalry. Joking aside, though, none of us actually think, or would want to believe even, that our mother loved any of us more than the others. She’s always given everything she has to her kids. And sometimes she has more to give than other times, true. But we never doubt that she wants to give us everything.

If you’ve never experienced sibling rivalry though, here’s another story for you. One of my favorite camp stories growing up was always the story of the warm fuzzies and the cold pricklies. The story goes like this: a village of people lived in a warm and loving community where everybody got along, where there was kindness and compassion and justice. And every villager had a special bag, and inside it were warm fuzzies. Warm fuzzies were cottony little puffs that just made you feel good. And every time villagers would meet, they would give each other warm fuzzies. Until, one day, a sorcerer came to town, and he started telling all the villagers that they should be careful about giving away their warm fuzzies so easily, because they might run out. They should be more careful about who they were giving them to – maybe only for special people, favorite people, on special occasions. Instead, they could give out cold pricklies, which would never run out. Only the cold pricklies just made people feel sad. But sure enough, once the sorcerer gave everyone the idea that their warm fuzzies would run out, people stopped giving them out, and would only give out cold pricklies, which no one really wanted. This went on until one day the princess of the land came to the village. The first villager she saw tried to give her a cold prickly, which she wouldn’t accept. Instead, she gave the villager a warm fuzzy, and he was so surprised that she would give him something so valuable! The villager said, “Why should we give away all of our warm fuzzies? Shouldn’t we keep them for ourselves?” But the princess said, “Every time you give away a warm fuzzy a new one is created in your own bag. Don’t you see? The more you give away, the more you will have.” Slowly, the villagers started trying what the princess said, and gave away warm fuzzies again. And sure enough, their bags never seemed to be empty.

God talks to us, Jesus teaches us, about loving our neighbors. And somewhere in that statement – that command – we forget about the loving part, but focus in on our neighbors nonetheless, and spend a lot of time worrying about our neighbors’ relationship with God, our neighbors’ actions, our neighbors’ choices, even when we don’t get nearly as much energy to our own relationship with God. Somehow, when we’ve been a part of the community of faith, we run the risk of becoming gatekeepers, monitoring what everyone else is doing, who is coming and going and how. And I think that we must be worried, somehow, at the core, that God’s extravagant love and forgiveness has some sort of limit, some fixed quantity, and can be used up on people who haven’t worked hard enough, in our minds, to get it. And so we watch, making sure no one else is getting too much of God, so that there’s not enough left for us, the faithful, the patient, the enduring disciples.

But we’re missing out, missing the best part. In the parable, the father says to the older son, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” That’s the gift given to those who have been long-faithful – that we’ve always been with God, always known the richness of God’s gifts, always understood that we were loved and forgiven and given grace. But God’s love, forgiveness, mercy when we’re sinful – that’s limitless. No end. No running out. And thanks be to God – because if mercy and forgiveness is only given when it is deserved, we’re all in trouble. There’s no quota on God’s forgiveness, no “while supplies last.” The kind of love Jesus calls us to calls us to rejoice, not begrudge, when one more person experiences God’s welcoming arms, even if that person didn’t find God’s arms in the same way we did.

"Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'" So Jesus told them this story, about two sons, both loved by their father. A story about you and me, loved by God. A story about the people in the pews and the people outside these walls, loved by God. Whether we’ve wandered far off, and have lost our way, or whether we’ve stayed on course, but have lost heart, God is waiting to welcome us home. Amen.

(1) Notes here are from Chris Haslam,, for Lent 4C gospel text.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, "Extravagant Feast"

Sermon 3/7/10, Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9

Extravagant Feast

A couple of weeks ago I visited my friends in Annapolis, Maryland and had the opportunity to attend church with them and Bible Study with them. Their pastor focused on the gospel lesson from Luke that Rev. Underwood used with him sermon while I was away – the passage that records Jesus’ temptation and time in the wilderness. This pastor talked about the things that we do, the habits we form, the practices we get into that we use to cushion ourselves, protect ourselves, comfort us when we’re upset, or stressed, or angry – what are the things that we use as our coping mechanisms when life becomes in some way too difficult. He suggested that during Lent, when we talk about ‘giving things up,’ what we should be giving up are those things – those coping mechanisms that we use to get through when things are difficult. He serves as a part time pastor, and a full time counselor, focusing on those who are struggling with addictions. In his work, he sees that those who become addicted are those who rely more and more on these habits and coping mechanisms, even when they no longer satisfy or do what they were intended to do, even when they start to harm instead of help. When our coping mechanisms hurt us more than they help us, when they leave us more empty instead of satisfied or renewed, there’s a problem. Lent, he said, was a time to fast from our quick-fix methods, to see the issues in our lives that are underneath, that we’ve been covering up.

Along the same lines, a friend recently directed me to Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon online on the same text. (1) She’s a well-known and admired contemporary preacher. She suggests that we all have things that we retreat to, that we use as a buffer, when we’re not ready to face the real world, which she compares to the wilderness in that gospel text from Luke. She calls Jesus’ time in the wilderness his “wilderness exam,” which he passes, and she says that it’s an exam that we all have to take in our lives. For Jesus, she said, passing the exam freed him for ministry, freed him from anything that would distract him from his purpose. Taylor says that we also should seek this wilderness time, “not because your regular life is bad, but because you want to make sure it is your real life--the one you long to be living--which can be hard to do when you're living on fast food and busyness.”

She continues, “in a culture of plenty I am impressed with anyone who decides to make it without anesthesia for a while--to give up whatever appliances or habits or substances they use to keep themselves from feeling what it really feels like to live the kind of lives they are living. I mean, almost everyone uses something--if not anesthesia, then at least a favorite pacifier: murder mysteries, Facebook, reruns of Boston Legal, Pottery Barn catalogs . . . I'm not saying those are awful things. I'm just saying they are distractions--things to reach for when a person is too tired, too sad, or too afraid to enter the wilderness of the present moment--to wonder what it's really about or who else is in it or maybe just to make a little bed in the sand.” For Taylor, Lent is an invitation to enter the wilderness, and discover our real life.

At our midweek communion study service last Wednesday, we were talking about this very matter. We talked about all of the images of bread and wine and water that Jesus uses throughout the gospels. We pray each week for God to give us our daily bread. Jesus talks about being the bread of life, and when he shared the last supper with his disciples, he wanted them to understand that as physical bread gives them life and as food was necessary for one’s very survival, so is Jesus: Christ gives us our very life and we are dependent on God for our survival. But we also talked about how that was an easier message to communicate to Jesus’ contemporaries, who actually did rely on things such as bread for survival. Today, we noted, it’s hard to even go an hour without being offered five kinds of food, none of which are likely to be made of ingredients particularly necessary for your survival. Quite aside from important questions that raises about our physical health as a society, I wonder what this culture of too-much does for our spiritual health. How can we understand that Jesus is what gives us life if we are too stuffed with stuff that doesn’t even satisfy to possibly have room in our lives for this deceptively ordinary meal that Jesus seeks to share with us?

This is the conundrum that Isaiah addresses in our Old Testament lesson. Why, when one choice will benefit us, bring us good things, fill us, nourish us, help us grow, and the other choice will either harm us outright, or at least not do anything for us, why do we also choose the latter? Isaiah writes, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” He continues on, and in Isaiah’s words you can hear almost a sense of bafflement over our human predicament. What is good is available to us. What is satisfying is free to us. God offer these things to us as a gift, without price, free for all. Why, then, do we still chase after other things? Isaiah asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

Folk-singer Tracy Chapman is probably my favorite musician. A song of one of her more recent albums is called “Change,” and in it, she poses this question: – “If everything you think you know makes your life unbearable, would you change?” In other words, if what you are doing, how you are living, the life you are experiencing – if all of that is leaving you empty, would you change? It seems like an obvious answer – of course we’d change, right? Of course we would choose instead what satisfies and gives life. And yet, we know from experience, sometimes painful experience, that it isn’t true. We keep choosing what which does not satisfy.

And so, we must answer Isaiah’s question. Why aren’t we choosing that which satisfies? That which offers life? Why aren’t we choosing this ‘good food’ that Isaiah talks about? I have my suspicions. A young woman that I mentor told me one year that she was struggling with what she gave up for Lent that year. She wasn’t struggling because she was failing to keep her promise, finding it too hard. She was struggling because she found it too easy, too doable, or at least, too possible. And she’s also found it a bit rewarding. She felt good about the choice she made every day. And she struggled with that because: if the new practice she cultivated during Lent was actually rewarding and doable and livable, and not hard and terrible and difficult, what excuse would she have when Lent was done to return to her old ways? Not having that excuse anymore scared her a little bit.

So why aren’t we ‘spending our money’ on only the good food of life that Isaiah describes? Why do work for that which doesn’t satisfy? The answer can only be that we fear that our experience of God, of real life, of actual satisfaction, will totally mess up our lives – ruin our plans, mess up our plan of coasting along without much effort, without giving too much of ourselves, without committing in any significant, full way to the gospel, to the path of discipleship the Jesus lays out for us. We fear that when we come to the waters our thirst will indeed be quenched, just as promised, just as Isaiah describes, just as God covenants with us. We fear that it is all true! And this truth will leave us with no choice but to act and respond to God’s call with our whole selves.

Let me share with you one more quotation – this one from Marianne Williamson. She wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.” (2)

It is true – following God, drinking deep of the waters, eating the bread of life, filling up on the grace and love and life God offers – it will change your life, change your world, change everything. It will require more from you than you’ve been willing to give before. It will strengthen you to serve as you haven’t before. And it will satisfy you, bring you life more real than you’ve ever had before. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. Everyone who thirsts: come to the waters and drink. Everyone who hungers: come to the table. Amen.


(2)(2) Marianne Williamson, from A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles.

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent, "Extravagant Grace"

Sermon 2/28/10, Luke 13:31-35, Philippians 3:17-4:1

Extravagant Grace

I’ll start by admitting to you up front that I had a hard time writing my sermon this week. Originally, I’d been thinking that my friend Richard, who was scheduled to sing a concert here yesterday, would also be singing during worship, and we’d talked about just doing readings around his songs, on the theme of Extravagant Grace. We’ll talk more about that theme in a few minutes. But the important part is: originally I wasn’t going to preach a sermon today. So back last month when my colleagues and I were talking about the texts for Lent and how we would preach on them, I didn’t worry much about the strange gospel lesson for today. I knew I wouldn’t be preaching. But then, as I spoke more with Richard, we realized that he would probably only sing a few songs today – and so I started to make space for a short sermon – but I was still thinking of focusing primarily on his music as the message of the day. But finally, on Friday, Richard had to make the decision not to be here this weekend due to damage to his home from the snowstorm in the New York City area. And suddenly, this tricky text I’d been ignoring came back to the forefront. And I just wasn’t feeling it. I couldn’t get into this text, and couldn’t make it relate to the theme that has been working so well for our other Lenten texts.

Our theme, for those of you who weren’t able to attend our Ash Wednesday Service last week, is Extravagance. Though we consider Lent a time of fasting, penitence, reflection, and repentance, I want us to consider what all that reflecting helps us to see more clearly: the abundant and extravagant love God has waiting for us.

But then we’ve got this kind of strange gospel lesson or today, that doesn’t fit as well, in my mind, as our other lessons over the next week. It’s a short passage. Jesus has been teaching and travelling, teaching as he journeys from place to please. And now, Jesus is in Jerusalem, and some Pharisees, shown here in a more positive light than usual, come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill Jesus. We don’t know exactly what sets Herod off, but if Herod is a King, and Jesus is a charismatic leader who seems to draw crowds wherever he goes, who teaches with a different authority than Herod can muster, and who can heal and do miracles, we can guess that Herod was threatened by Jesus. But Jesus is not swayed from his purpose. He says, “Go and tell that fox for me” that I’m busy casting out demons and healing people, and that my work isn’t done until it’s done. Jesus is very clear about his plan, his purpose, and his identity. Jesus casts himself in the role of a prophet, knowing that it is in Jerusalem, a city with a history of rejecting prophets sent to it, that Jesus must complete his journey, which he knows will end in his own death. Today we tend to confuse prophets and fortune-tellers. We think prophets are people who predict the future. But prophets are actually truth-tellers. In the Bible, they were people who would call attention to the truth that no one wanted to hear, and talk about the potential consequences for ignoring the truth. This sometimes made prophets very unpopular, especially when they were critical of political leaders. Jesus casts himself in that role – he has come to tell the truth about God and God’s kingdom and how God calls us to live. And some people really didn’t want to hear it, and, like Herod, felt threatened by how Jesus was calling them to change their lives.

Jesus responds to his rejection in this passage by lamenting over Jerusalem. He certainly took no joy in people who would not listen to him. He took no joy in those who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand his message about God’s love and grace. And so he laments, and speaks about how he’s longed to gather Jerusalem to him like a mother hen gathers her brood. And after his lament, Jesus notes that he won’t be back to the city again until the day we know as Palm Sunday, when he’ll be greeted, albeit briefly, with triumph and celebration.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” For me, this image is focal point of this passage. When Jesus uses this imagery of wanting to gather the people of Jerusalem like a hen gathers her brood, his words tell us a lot about the kind of relationship he seeks to have with us. As I was preparing my sermon, I asked one of my friends for his thoughts about this text, and he responded, “Have you ever been around chickens? Let's just say a mama hen gathering her chicks is not a cuddly bird. [Hens] actually do [a] sweeping motion with their wings and then sort of sit on their chicks! [It] brings a whole new meaning to ‘like a mother hen gathers her chicks!’” In other words, a hen gathering her brood is a protective parent protecting her children, making sure no one else is interfering, and making sure that her chicks are doing what she wants them to do, even when the chicks have other ideas. This parent-child image works for our relationship with God on many levels.

If you aren’t as familiar with a how a hen gathers her brood and tucks them safely and soundly under her wings, then we can perhaps relate to the same behavior in our own human parent-child relationships. Of course, I think immediately of my nephew, Sam. Sam is 2 ½, and he challenges my brother and sister-in-law with his frequent refrain: I want to do it myself. Sam is really into testing his boundaries right now, pushing the limits. If he’s in trouble and has to stand in the corner, he’ll inch out, step-by-step, just to see when Mommy will catch on. And the other day, when he was being particularly mischievous, my brother asked him: “Sam, are you trying to make daddy mad?” “Yes,” was the answer. “Why?” “Because I’m naughty.” At least he was honest. Sam’s parents have to strike the right balance – they have to set limits for Sam, and they also have to let him grow and explore and sometimes make his own decisions, something he will do more and more as he grows up. But even as Sam grows, they’ll want to protect him and keep him safe, and will wish more than anything that they could make things good for him in his life.

So when I think about this passage from Luke, and what Jesus says, I notice several things. Jesus says that he has often, many times, wanted to gather the people of Jerusalem like a hen gathers her brood, but that the people were not willing. And we also have Jesus, in this same passage, talking about Herod as a fox – an animal that would particularly pose a threat to chickens. Jesus speaks as a parent who wants to protect children from danger. And Jesus speaks of this as an ongoing condition, an ongoing way he feels about the people – he doesn’t just write them off when they don’t listen. He longs for relationship, and longs for the people to respond to his repeated invitations. We also note, though, that Jesus isn’t forcing this relationship on anyone. He’s not going to force the chicks under the hen – as much as he longs for it, he won’t make anyone follow him. The choice is always up to each one of us. And finally, even if we won’t follow, even if we won’t be gathered, Jesus can’t turn off his path to wait for us. We don’t have to go with Jesus if we don’t want to. But he does have to go.

We see God’s extravagant grace, over-the-top grace, in God’s longing desire for relationship with us, in God’s never closing the door on us. We see God wanting to be in relationship with us even when we, like Sam, just outright seem to want to be naughty, or when we insist on doing things ourselves, even though with God’s help we’d get along a lot better. God’s extravagant grace comes in ultimately letting us make our own decisions, even when our own decisions leave us with messes we end up blaming on God. But ultimately, we see God’s grace when we see that Jesus will journey to Jerusalem even when we won’t go with him. Jesus will make the journey that gives all for others, that sacrifices self, that makes first last so that we might live – Jesus makes that journey whether we will go with him or not. Gods’ gift of life and love to us doesn’t depend on our gracious response to the gift, thanks be to God.

Still, Jesus is longing, offering again to gather us in, gather us together. Longing for relationship. In Lent, season of renewal and repentance, we have a chance to again follow on this journey, even if we haven’t gone before. Are you willing? Amen.