Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Good Friday, Year B

Readings for Good Friday, 4/3/15:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42

Isaiah 52:13-53:12:
  • Here Isaiah describes the suffering servant, and no surprise, we easily see Jesus reflected in this image. Isaiah seems to focus on the theme of how this servant will be what no one is looking for, but what everyone will give attention to when revealed.
  • "by a perversion of justice he was taken away." This sentence particularly strikes - if we apply this to Jesus, we read that it is an act of injustice that takes Jesus away to death. Do we remember to think of it that way? We get so caught up in his sacrifice, in God's plan laid out, that I think we forget that what happened to Jesus, even if it worked for our good, was wrong!
  • "It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain." Eek! I hope not. I'm not sure that this is ever God's will, exactly, or that way that God would hope and desire for things to turn out. I think God works through human deeds of pain and hurt, but I hope God doesn't will them on us. 
Psalm 22:
  • "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" These words, which open the Psalm, are found on Jesus' lips on the cross. Some say he was reciting the Psalm, to comfort others. People don't like to think about Jesus feeling forsaken by God. But I think it is ok to believe Jesus felt alone in that moment - because despite his feelings, he had faith enough to follow through with what he believed was God's call for him.
  • Surely, we've all felt forsaken by God sometimes. Alone. Finding "no rest" as the Psalmist describes. The scene the Psalmist describes is one of fear and desperation to feel God's presence. Have you experienced this? When? How? Did you find God present there?
Hebrews 10:16-25:
  • These first two verses are more or less quoted from Jeremiah 31:33-34. Notice, though, that the author of Hebrews has the laws in our hearts but also written on our minds. I like the imagery.
  • "let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds" - Another good verse. We often provoke people around us, but usually when we do so, it is not in a good way! Here, we're encouraged to provoke each other in a positive way, a way that inspires serving God. Good advice!
John 18:1-19:42:
  • from John we get part of the Passion from Palm/Passion Sunday, only from John's perspective instead of Matthew. Double check for what is different in each text. As with that text from Matthew, I find this one hard to comment on - it's such a story, it is so big, literally and theologically.
  • This text has several pieces, or vignettes. Judas betraying Jesus to the authorities. Peter denying Jesus. Jesus on trial before Pilate. Jesus beaten. Jesus crucified. And an "epilogue" of sorts. Any part could be an area of specific focus, though 'time' wise, Good Friday's focus is the crucifixion.
  • To me, what jumps out as full of possibilities is Pilate's question: "what is truth?" John does not record Jesus giving an answer. How do you think he would have answered? What is your answer?

Lectionary Notes for Maundy Thursday, Year B

Readings for Maundy Thursday, 4/2/15:
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10), 11-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10), 11-14
  • God describes to Moses and Aaron the Passover, which is the festival that centers Jesus' meal with his disciples as we celebrate Maundy Thursday.
  • "this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly" Ready to go. Ready to move. Prepared. Imagine if this was always the way we were, in terms of readiness to respond to God's call.
  • The Passover is a hard one to stomach (no pun intended.) It is hard to imagine a plague of killing firstborns all through the land, isn't it? But it is a festival, a "remembrance" that becomes so crucial in the identity of Judaism, and even in the events that shape Christ's last days. Death, blood, lamb, sacrifice. The ways the symbolism of the Old Testament events and New Testament events overlap and tie in here is important.
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19:
  • "I love the Lord, because he had heard my voice." I wish I knew Hebrew - I'm curious about the "because" word here. Do we love people "because" of something? Or does our love, even for God, go deeper and beyond a "because."
  • "I will pay my vows to the Lord" This phrase is repeated in this Psalm. It seems the Psalmist feels he must pay God back for hearing his voice, his supplications. Does God need to be paid back? Want to be paid back? I don't think God wants to feel "owed" as much as loved.
  • "loosed my bonds" - what has you bound up?
1 Corinthians 11:23-26:
  • Remember that Corinthians is written before the gospels are written, so Paul's account here is actually an earlier account of the "Last Supper" than we find in the gospels.
  • "as often as you drink it" - I think Jesus had in mind even more than our communion ritual, though I find that meaningful. "As often as you drink it" says to me that we are to remember and be guided by Christ as frequently as our daily task of eating: all the time.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35:
  • "having loved his own who were in the world, he love them to the end." I like this editorial sentence of John's. He seems to emphasize the close bond shared by Jesus and his disciples. How painful these last days must have been for him, knowing that even his closest friends would not seem him through his ordeal.
  • "the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas" Poor Judas. I've mentioned before my Jesus Christ Superstar inspired love of Judas. I always wish I could get inside his head. What would make you betray Jesus?
  • "you also ought to wash one another's feet." Serving one another. I've tried, in a small group, to do a foot-washing before. I find people pretty resistant: either embarrassed to have someone touching their feet, or worried about hygiene, clean towels, clean water, etc. Guess we're not willing to get Jesus' point anymore.
  • "by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." If this is true, how many of us can be identified as disciples by our actions? Not as many as should be...

Lectionary Notes for Palm/Passion Sunday, Year B

Readings for Palm/Passion Sunday, 3/29/15:
Mark 11:1-11 (Palms), Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (Palms), Isaiah 50:4-9a (Passion), Psalm 31:9-16 (Passion), Philippians 2:5-11 (Passion), Mark 14:1-15:47 (Passion)

Mark 11:1-11
  • This is a passage that aches to be visually depicted in our congregations. That's why, I think, we wave the palms, or have processions on Palm Sunday. We need to see it, experience it, and be part of it. In our church, the choir and the children process in the opening hymn, waving branches. Do you have some visual marking of this text?
  • "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there . . . " Not necessarily Jesus prophesying, as some have interpreted. Just Jesus telling them of the plans he has made ahead of time. We never seem satisfied with things just happening in the realm of the natural - we always seem to want to add a supernatural element to scripture, as if it is not powerful enough otherwise.
  • Make sure to compare Mark's text with Matthew's and Luke's account of events. What do you notice that is different? What's the same? Significance?
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29:
  • Gate/entry imagery - This is good Palm Sunday imagery - entering in to give thanks to God.
  • "The stone that the builders reject has become the chief cornerstone." Such a powerful verse, used to describe Christ by the prophets. But good for us too: when others reject us, God accepts us. In God, we can become the cornerstone, not a rejected scrap. Hope!
  • "This is the Lord's doing." Giving credit where credit is due. We're not so good at that many times.
  • "This is the day that the Lord has made." This is such a popular opening to worship. Why do we like this verse so much? I think it does a good job of truly reminding us of the fact that each day is God's precious gift to us.

Isaiah 50:4-9a:
  • "The tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." Sustaining the weary with a word. That's a gift; that's power. Who can accomplish this feat? Isaiah, apparently! :) But seriously - perhaps this is the gift we're called to live into as preachers. With God's Word, we can sustain the weary.
  • "I gave my back . . . and my cheeks . . . I did not hide the face." Let us not think that there is nothing of Jesus' 'turn the other cheek' teaching in the Old Testament, that the OT only speaks of 'an eye for an eye' - this passage show us its just not so!
  • "I have set my face like flint." Nice image.
Psalm 31:9-16:
  • "My eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing." This verse jumped out to me personally one year when our congregation had lost 5 dear parishioners all close together in time. The congregation as a whole seemed to be 'wasting away from grief' in body and soul. I think grief often comes in groups like that, so much all it once that it seems difficult to bear. I have to notice, though, that this psalmist is speaking about very individual grief that comes not from loss of others, but from a seeming rejection by others. This reads almost like a school kid who is being picked on by everyone. I don't mean to make it less important because it is such a personal pleading. God knows we all have personal pleading. But an observation...
  • This psalm comes in all three years of the Passion Sunday readings. How come?
  • "I have become like a broken vessel." Nice imagery, given all the biblical language about potter/clay/jars/vessels. Last year I attended the Northeastern Jurisdictional UMW quadrennial meeting in Baltimore, where the theme was 'vessels for mission.' We talked about empty vessels and full vessels. Refilled vessels and pouring out our vessels. And cracked vessels. What shape is your vessel in right now?
  • "My times are in your hand." Giving God our times. That simply, that completely.

Philippians 2:5-11:
  • "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."
  • "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" I find this such a unique statement. Imagine if Christ had used his equality to exploit? What would that look like? Perhaps this is what the devil was tempting Christ to do - to exploit his equality.
  • "emptied himself" Emptying ourselves.
  • "every knee should bend . . . every tongue should confess." Hm. This is one of those passages often used by people who are seeking to convert non-Christians and those of other faith traditions as proof or encouragement about the task at hand. Frankly, it makes me a bit uncomfortable. If the idea is that people will ultimately be moved to worship Jesus even against their will, I'm not sure I'd want to see that display...

Mark 14:1-15:47:
  • I guess you have to ask: why this huge, all encompassing text, when much of this material will be included later in Holy Week? The answer, on the practical side, is that the sad fact is many in our congregations won't be back again until Easter Sunday - won't be at Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. They need to know how we get from Palm Sunday to Easter Morning. But on a deeper level, for me at least, nothing beats the contrast of starting a sermon with the joy of the Palms and ending with the reality of the cross.
  • This text as a whole is almost too huge to comment on, hence my note at the top of this page on my practice of just reading/hearing the text. It is the story. How can we elaborate? I guess I'm not going to try!

Sermon, "Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Seventy-Seven," Matthew 18:21-35

Sermon 3/22/15
Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Seventy-Seven

            I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m part of a clergy Bible Study group, where I meet weekly with some of my colleagues for study and reflection. Right now, we’re reading a book together called Questions God Asks Us by Trevor Hudson. In the book, each week, we examine together a question God asks of someone in the scriptures. This week, we talked about the question God asks of Cain, just after he has murdered his brother Abel. God asks, “Where is your brother?” We talked about how this question implies that we have responsibility for one another – not just our friends and loved ones, but our society as a whole, and in particular, those who are our enemies.
            As we were discussing this, a few in the group shared that they don’t really feel that they have anyone that they’d call an enemy. Now, this is great for them, but I found myself a little skeptical. Here’s the challenge I raised: Jesus talks all the time about how we’re supposed to treat our enemies. He tells us we’re supposed to pray for them, forgive them, love them. And I think it would be pretty easy for us to read the scripture and say, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about that part, because I don’t have any enemies!” And so we can check Jesus’ teachings off our list as “does not apply” because “me – I don’t have any enemies! Sure, people maybe I don’t get along with from time to time. People I’d rather not see, or talk to, or interact with, or be around … but not enemies, right?”
            I shared with them about a challenge my co-pastor at Liverpool UMC gave to the congregation while we were serving there together. He asked people to pray every day for 30 days for the person who was their enemy. For a person who they didn’t like very much. For the person that they were in conflict with, avoiding, disliking, whatever. You know – the name that pops right into your head as soon as the subject is brought up. Pastor Aaron told us to pray for that person every day – simply for God to bless them. Nothing more, nothing less. And indeed, I shared that my immediate reaction was a bit like Job’s reaction I talked to you about last week – “No, I don’t want to do that!” Because I had a feeling – a knowing – that if I prayed for my enemies every single day that God would change not them perhaps, but me. And I was perfectly content holding onto my anger and resentment. How we forgive enemies, how we love them – maybe it changes them – but that’s not the part we’re responsible for. We will be changed by loving and forgiving as Jesus teaches.
            So, do you have enemies? Before you say no, let me ask you some follow up questions. Are there some people that when they talk, you’re prone to roll your eyes a bit behind their back? Is there someone whose behavior you pay particular attention to, even though you aren’t really friends? You always know what this person is up to – what they’re doing or what they’re failing to do that you do or don’t like? A person you’re likely to talk about to others? That person whose face popped into your head as soon as we started talking about this?
            On the other side of questions from the ones God asks us in the scriptures are the questions people ask of Jesus in the gospels. I’ve noticed two main categories of questions people ask Jesus. The first one is easy: people ask Jesus something like, “Huh? What do you mean? I don’t get it. Can you explain that?” People ask this question to Jesus a lot. But it’s the second category I want to focus on today. The second question people ask Jesus goes something like this: What’s required? How much is enough? What do I have to do to still be ok, “in,” doing “enough” to please God? They show up as questions like this: Which commandment is most important? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Is it right to pay taxes? Who is my neighbor? What reasons are ok for a man to give to divorce his wife? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Why don’t you and your disciples follow the rules? How often do I have to forgive – is this enough? And Jesus’ answers to these questions comes to us in parables about the kingdom, about what the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is like.
            Our text for today is a perfect example of one of these exchanges. The topic is forgiveness. And the question is how much/how often/what is required. Peter wants to know how much he’d need to forgive someone else in the community of faith who sinned against him. And Jesus answers with a parable about the kingdom of heaven.
Before our text for today, the disciples have asked Jesus some questions, and he has responded, teaching about not being stumbling blocks for one another, talking about it being better to enter God's kingdom without a foot or hand rather than to stumble and stray because of it. He speaks about conflict in the community, recommending a course of action if someone has sinned against you. And then, perhaps in response to this teaching, Peter asks Jesus: ╩║Lord, if another member of the faith community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?╩║ Now, the way Peter asks his question gives you an idea that he thinks he is being pretty broad in his suggested response. As many as seven times? Peter asks and lets Jesus know he thinks seven times is a lot. See, Peter is learning, even though he stumbles. He is learning from Jesus and has learned that Jesus is pretty extravagant sometimes – not when it comes to having things and possessions and money. But extravagant about his relationships with others. Jesus is pretty extravagant with his compassion, justice, and mercy. Always going farther than anyone else was prepared to go. Peter, I suspect, thinks he will impress Jesus, by saying he suspects you might need to forgive someone up to seven times if they sin against you! Seven times!
             Jesus replies, “Nice try, Peter. Try seventy seven times. Seventy seven.” Not because Jesus actually wants us to count up to 77 in the number of times we forgive. But because Jesus wants us to stop counting. Because we’re asking the wrong question. Jesus tells a parable, about the kingdom of heaven, saying, “It’s like this. A king wanted to settle his debts. He called forward a slave who owed him 10,000 talents. The slave could not pay, so the king prepared to sell the slave, his family, and his possessions to make the payment. But the slave begged for mercy and patience, promising to pay. The king had mercy and cancelled the entire debt and released the slave, beyond what the slave asked for. But later, the same slave encounters a peer who owes him a small sum of money, a hundred denarii. He violently demands payment, and when his peer can’t pay, and begs for mercy, the slave denies him mercy, and has him thrown in prison. When the king finds out about it, he calls the slave before him. ‘How could you not show mercy to your fellow slave, as I showed you mercy?’ Finally, the king hands the slave over and requires payment for the debt.” Jesus concludes, saying that this is how it will be with us if we do not forgive one another.
            As you know, I’ve had a small group from the church working with me on my research project. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about outreach, charity, and justice. In a Bible Study session, we talked about justice and righteousness – they’re almost use synonymously in the Bible, and I understand their meaning when I think about how we justify text in written documents – papers, newspapers, magazines, books. You can make the margins all line up evenly – that’s justified text – or you can let the lines end in a jagged sort of way, all out of line – that’s unjustified. Personally, I always like both of my margins justified. When we talk about justice and righteousness, we’re talking about getting things set right, set in a right line with God’s vision for us. Justice is when God’s will is fully carried out here on earth, when everything we do, and all of our relationships, are in a straight line, lined up with God’s hopes for us.
We talked in our study about how charity is optional – we can choose to give or not give to others as we will. But justice is what God requires. Yes, we can fail to achieve it, fail to participate in it, but justice – that wholeness and right relationship – is God’s aim and intention for our world. Justice is a requirement of God’s world when it is set right. But God doesn’t stop there. Throughout the writings of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus, it’s clear that we’re meant to love justice, just as God loves justice. It’s required for God’s vision of wholeness, but God’s true hope is for us to love and seek after justice and wholeness because we want to realize that same vision of the world that God wants. Real justice isn’t when we seek out the minimum we can do and still get by. It is when, instead, full of love for God and one another, we seek after justice as a way to have the world, and our hearts, set right in line with God.
God keeps asking us about our relationships with one another, and we keep responding to God with questions about what the least is that we can do and still “get by.” How many times must we forgive? Who is our neighbor? What’s required? We’re already asking the wrong questions! As soon as we wonder first about the requirement before or even instead of seeking out the love and grace that motivates forgiveness, that motivates our relationships, that motivates our following Jesus, we’re asking the wrong question, and we’ll never find the answer that satisfies. But, how can I show love to my enemy? How might forgiveness changes lives and set us free? How is God’s grace transforming me? What miracles will forgiveness work in the world? What is the kingdom of God like? What would it be like to experience the kingdom of heaven, God’s wholeness, God’s right relationships, on earth? Those are the questions that will keep our lives in an endlessly unfolding conversation with Jesus, as we experience the kingdom that is already at hand. Amen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

Readings for Fifth Sunday in Lent, 3/22/15:
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34
  • "new covenant" - I wonder how many times in the scriptures God tries to renew a covenant with God's people. How many times would you try again with someone who had betrayed, neglected, hurt, or forgotten you?
  • "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." This is God wanting a real relationship with people, for God to be the one to whom the people belong. Imagine, if God's law is on our hearts, within us, perhaps we can learn better to live by its spirit and not by its letter. God is trying a different approach in this new covenant - a law of love we carry inside of us.
  • "they shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest" - God is for all - not just for the knowledgeable and educated, who have power to teach others - God is for all.
Psalm 51:1-12:
  • Ah, a favorite psalm. And like Joel, an element of confession. This psalm is one I'm mostly likely to use if I'm feeling the need to come before God in a confessional mode. Do you have a confessional prayer in church every week? We do not, and I think as Protestants, we sometimes get nervous about confession, even corporate. But even if we don't share sins with a priest, confession is a necessary part of our relationship - any healthy relationship, really.
  • Where I disagree with the psalmist, (thought to be David writing after the sin with Bathsheba) is in his claim: "against you, you alone, have I sinned." Rarely do our sins only affect God - that's the worst about them - our sin hurts others. David's sin, for instance, resulted in a man's death, and a child's death, according to scriptures.

Hebrews 5:5-10:
  • Check out Genesis 14:17-20 and Psalm 110:4 for context about Melchizedek. 
  • I don't usually think of Jesus as a "high priest." What priestly functions do you see Jesus filling? How is Jesus priest? The author gives his answer in verses 7-10.
  • :8 - I also don't think of Jesus as one who had to "learn" obedience, but as one who simply was obedient. But maybe there is more power in thinking of Jesus learning to obey God through his faithfulness to God's plan for him. What do you think?

John 12:20-33:
  • :24 - This verse is often used in funeral liturgies/readings. We probably don't think of grain dying when we plant it, but grain becomes something entirely different when it is planted. Are you willing to be planted, to be come something entirely different?
  • :25 - Compare this verse to Mark 8:35 - Is Jesus saying the same thing in each passage?
  • :27 - "Now my soul is troubled." I think the only other place Jesus makes a similar statement is when he is praying in the garden before his arrest. I think it can be a brave thing to share when your soul is troubled.
  • :27-32 - Jesus makes so many "grand speeches" in John's gospel, so different than his style as recorded in the Synoptic gospels. What do you think John is trying to communicate to us about Jesus?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

Readings for Fourth Sunday in Lent, 3/15/15:
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9:
  • I think this is one of the strangest passages in the Bible. Making a serpent of bronze to fend off poisonous snakes seems strangely idol-like to me, but God commands Moses to do this. And the snakes that are biting people were sent by God to begin with! I really don't get it.
  • The people are again complaining to Moses - why did you take us from Egypt? They do this literally countless times. How do you think Moses keeps the faith? Their complaining no doubt wears on him.
  • How do we act like the people? Complaining about what is new and reminiscing for the 'good old days'?
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22:
  • Steadfast, according to is "Firmly fixed or established; fast fixed; firm. 2. Not fickle or wavering; constant; firm; resolute; unswerving; steady. God's love for us is constant and unwavering. Take comfort!
  • Verses 17-18 match up with our text from Numbers today.
  • Do you believe that God causes our illnesses as a punishment from sin? That theology is certainly present in the scriptures, and here in this Psalm. Jesus tried to lead people to a different way of thinking, but even today, many associate sickness with punishment. What do you think?
Ephesians 2:1-10:
  • a typical flesh/spirit argument going on in the first verses. The fleshly desires are bad and sinful. This argument seems so dismissive of the human God-created physical selves and tangible, bodily experiences that we have? Is it really so bad to be 'in the flesh'?
  • God, rich in mercy. Jesus . . . immeasurable riches of his grace. Great phrases. What kind of riches do you want?
  • "by grace you have been saved." - This cannot be said much more clearly. How are we saved? By grace! Not be what we do or don't do - we'd never make it that way. Not even by how strong our faith is. We respond in faith, but we're loved and saved by God's grace.
John 3:14-21:
  • In verse 14, Jesus is referring to the passage we read in Numbers today. The serpent that Moses lifted up prevented the people dying from the poisonous snake bites. Jesus makes a parallel argument about his effect on people.
  • :16 - Try this to look anew at the most famous verse of the Bible - where it says "the world," insert your own name. "For God so loved Beth that God gave his only Son . . .so that Beth who believes in him . . ." Then trie it with the name of the person you like least. God so loved them too!
  • :17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." This is an important verse, and I think it helps us ground verse :16, instead of using verse :16 as an exclusive litmus test type verse. Not to condemn. To save. I hear to many Christians in the condemning business. Less in the saving business.
  • :20 - what in your life would you not want exposed to light?

Sermon, "Forgiveness: Sibling Rivalry," Luke 15:11-32

Sermon 3/8/15
Luke 15:11-32

Forgiveness: Sibling Rivalry

            We’ve been talking this Lent about forgiveness and reconciliation, and sometimes, when you start thinking about a certain issue or topic, you start to notice every time it is mentioned, every time it comes up in conversation, and suddenly, it feels like everyone is talking about what you’ve been thinking about. I read a couple of interesting articles recently. One of them talked about the issue of shame, and in particular the practice of public shaming that we engage in in our social media-focused culture. The article talked about weighing the benefit we have through social media to draw attention to abuses that otherwise stay covered up, with the way we can destroy a person’s life over one mistake that used to be just something someone could recover from. For example, a young woman recently complained about the new job she was about to start on twitter. Her boss found out, and fired her, also on twitter. But since this all happened on a public forum, it went viral – it was trending, meaning everyone was talking about it on social media. So, some unwise choices were made, but in a normal context, the young woman might have been able to apologize, and the boss might have forgiven her, and everyone could have moved on. Instead, this incident will probably shape this young woman’s life forever. (1)
            Another article outlined a  psychology professor’s forgiveness strategy, which he calls REACH: Recall the incident, Empathize with the person who wronged you, give them the Altruistic gift of forgiveness, Commit yourself to public forgiveness, and then Hold on to that forgiveness. The psychologist found that practicing forgiveness is good for your health. It reduces anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Forgiving people improves sleep, and decreases dependence on medications. (2) Practicing forgiveness is good for you.
Of course, we come to our study of forgiveness and reconciliation from the perspective of Christ-followers. What do we know about forgiveness from the scriptures, from the example of Jesus, from our relationship with God? How do we, in the church, practice forgiveness and reconciliation? Today we turn our attention to a probably familiar parable, usually known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Prodigal is a word that we have come to think of as meaning lost, because of this parable. But actually it means extravagant. Someone who is prodigal in their behavior spends lavishly and wastefully. In this parable, we find two sons. The younger asks for his inheritance – basically he asks for what he would get from his father in the event of his father’s death. It was just as rude a thing to ask as it sounds like. But the father assents, and gives the younger son his portion, and the younger son wanders off and lives a prodigal lifestyle – he spends all his money in lavish living. When a famine hits, he realizes he is in trouble. He gets a job, but it isn’t enough, and he finds himself thinking he wishes he was fed as well as the pigs. So he decides to go home, and beg his father’s mercy, offering to be treated like a hired hand.
However, when his father lays eyes on him, he is filled with compassion for his son, a word that means literally that his insides are twisted up with feeling for his son, and he embraces him, kisses him, and orders the best robe, and a ring, and sandals, and a fatted calf to feast on, and a general celebration to be held to welcome this son back home. As he says, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
The older son, however, isn’t so excited at the turn of events. When he hears what has taken place, he’s angry and upset with his father, and he refuses to join the party. His father pleads with him to understand, but the son won’t listen. He says he’s been on his best behavior all along, and he’s never gotten this kind of celebration. And yet, the younger son, who squandered everything in selfish living, gets the best of the best. It isn’t fair!
His father answers his complaints saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” We don’t know what happened after this in the parable Jesus tells. What do you think? Did the older brother ease up? Did he join the party? Or did he hold on to his anger? What would you do?
Figuring out why Jesus tells a particular parable can help us understand the meaning we’re meant to glean from it. Jesus shares the Parable of the Prodigal in a series of teachings about lost things that are found – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then, the lost son, found again. And he begins telling these parables right after we hear that tax collectors and sinners have been coming to Jesus to listen to him, and that the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders of the day, were grumbling at Jesus, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” At the end of the first two parables about what is lost being found, Jesus says something like, “And so also there is this much joy in heaven when one sinful person repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” I’m not sure there are any among us who need no repentance, but many of us, at least, have an existing, ongoing relationship with God. Certainly the scribes and the Pharisees would have fallen into this category. But why does Jesus eat with the sinners? Because he’s on a quest to find the lost, not the found! And though this phrase isn’t repeated at the end of the parable of the prodigal son, we get the idea. When someone is found by God when they’ve been lost, God is overwhelmed with joy. But, are we? When someone who was lost is found by God, do we rejoice? 
            This parable, the way we know it, the way we label it, puts the focus on the prodigal son, the younger son. But the names of parables aren’t part of the scriptures themselves – they’re just what we’ve named them later on. And I think we got the name wrong here. I think this parable might be more aptly called “The Parable of the Self-Righteous, Unforgiving Brother.” And I can say this because I related so much more to the older brother than to the younger. Maybe some of you really connect with the younger brother, squandering away his blessings, and returning to God after leading a wayward, wandering life, feeling God’s open arms welcome you home. But for many of us who have long been rule-followers, church-goers, trying, if imperfectly, to follow Jesus for as long as we can remember, we’re really more like the older brother than the younger. And so I wonder, how do we react when the younger brother shows up at home, and the father bends over backwards to welcome him? Do we want others to receive forgiveness? From us? From God? Do we want others to be let off the hook? Or does the forgiveness they get lessen what God has given to us? One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Jonah. You might think of him as the guy that ends up swallowed by the whale. But the reason Jonah ended up there is what strikes me. Jonah was told by God to warn the Ninevites to repent. And Jonah heads the other direction. Why? Because he knows if he tells them to repent, they will, and God will be merciful and show them forgiveness. And Jonah doesn’t want them to be forgiven! He thinks God is too easy on them. And when, indeed, God does forgive them, Jonah basically throws himself onto the ground to pout. And this is one of God’s prophets! Truth is, I don’t think we’re so excited when God showers other people with forgiveness. Why is that?
            I think our reluctance – sometimes our unspoken or unacknowledged reluctance – to see the wholehearted, joyful forgiveness that God offers someone is first because we forget, like with many things God offers us, the difference between a gift and a reward. We treat forgiveness like it is something that we must earn. A reward God will give us if we are good enough and deserve God’s forgiveness. And we believe this because this is how we try to forgive others. Only if they deserve it. Only if they have earned it. Only if they make it up, repay us, woo us, appease our anger, do enough to get back into our good grace. Then, then, we forgive. And so we expect God’s forgiveness to be like ours: imperfect and conditional.
            Forgiveness is a gift. A gift. Free. Offered freely. Not because it is earned or deserved. But because it is a gift that the giver chooses to extend! Forgiveness is a gift! When we attach strings to our forgiveness, as reasonable as they might seem, it isn’t really forgiveness. It would be like cancelling a debt but not really cancelling it – still requiring repayment after all. Forgiveness must be a gift. If we think we can earn forgiveness from God, we’re in trouble. And of course, God deeply desires us to learn to forgive others in the way that God forgives us. I think that’s mentioned in one of those prayers we like. Something about forgiving our sins as we forgive the sins of others? If we’d like to receive God’s forgiveness as a gift, we also ought to offer it is as one. I know that’s a challenge that will require extraordinary strength. But thankfully, we know a God who will help us learn to extend it. 
            Because God loves to forgive us. That’s what these parables tell us. God loves to forgive us, and we do our best when we learn to love what God loves. God never seems to have the attitude of “you should be so grateful to me” when extending us forgiveness. Instead, God says “I’m so excited to renew this relationship with you.” God loves to forgive us.
            I think it breaks the father’s heart a little when the older son is so upset about the forgiveness extended to the younger son. Because of course, the father has been showering him with kindness and love and gifts his whole life long. But none of it seems to matter in light of the welcome home party for the younger son. The older son acts as though everything he’s been given up until this moment counts for nothing.
            Are the gifts that God gives to us only valuable in comparison with what God gives to others? Is the grace and love and forgiveness God gives to us only valuable if no one else receives it? I worry that sometimes we treat God’s gifts, and God’s forgiveness like it is a limited-edition item that loses value if too many people get it. But friends, our God is a God of abundance. There’s no scarcity here. Nothing that will run out. And the value of the gifts we receive are in no way diminished when everyone gets a piece. On the contrary. In the way the Kingdom of God works, everything is just right when everyone is welcomed home. The puzzle is complete when the coin is found, and the 100th sheep rejoins the fold, and our younger brother who drives us a little crazy is welcomed home. Nothing makes God so full of joy then to welcome someone back. God loves to forgive, and charges nothing for it. Thanks be to God! Let us go and learn to do likewise. Amen. 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

Readings for Third Sunday in Lent, 3/8/15:
Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

Exodus 20:1-17:

  • The Ten Commandments - all the rage in the last couple years with courtroom battles. People have spent a lot of energy defending these commandments. Are they worth defending? Do we follow as well as defend? While I don't feel they need to be posted in our courtrooms, I think they are still pretty important for us.
  • The ones I am most drawn to are the first commandments. God is God and our only God. We might not worship other deities, but sometimes we're in danger of worshipping our possessions, our work, our culture, or our country. We may not make golden calf idols, but we idolize plenty of things, don't we?
  • "Remember the Sabbath." This is so hard for me. We're recently started a twice-weekly prayer chapel at our church - 30 minutes to be still and be with God. I find even that hard. My mind is always racing over my to-do list. How do you keep Sabbath?
  • Coveting - that's another commandment that I think is so important. We always want what we don't have, no matter how much we do have. How do we live a life of gratitude?

  • Psalm 19
  • "The heavens are telling the glory of God." These famous words from the Psalm are often set to music.
  • This imagery of the sun "like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy", this personification of the sun draws to my mind Greek/Roman mythology, and no doubt made contemporaries of the psalmist think of similar images of sun-gods in other religions. The difference? Here the sun is put into place by God, not a god in itself.
  • God is more than gold, sweeter than honey. A simple message - but reminds us of things we put too often before God in our lives.
  • "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations..." This verse is often used by pastors before they begin preaching. I like it, but if there's a way to use a Bible verse too much to the point of over doing, this one makes it on my personal list!

  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25:
  • "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing..." I don't know what to make of this verse, because I too often see it used as a "Jesus is the only way, see?" tool. But let's revamp it. An instrument of weakness is made into an instrument of power. That is what God does to things. Gives them a whole new life, and a whole new meaning.
  •  That theme carries into the whole passage - God doesn't just change meanings of things around, but meanings of people. We're flipped inside out by this 'foolishness' of Jesus Christ.
  • Compare this passage with the value of Wisdom we see in Proverbs. I think Paul is discounting being worldly-wise instead of God-wise. Better a fool for God than wise for the world?

  • John 2:13-22
  • "my Father's house a marketplace." Maybe we don't have malls in our churches (maybe!), but how do we take the holy out of our holy places? Churches often play dangerous games with marketing and commercialism. Where do we draw lines?
  • "he drove all of them out" - this is one of few times we see Jesus so confrontational. When in your faith are you moved to be confrontational? What is worth making a scene?
  • In verse 21, John gives his take on Jesus' words in verse 19. What would you think Jesus meant?