Monday, March 28, 2016

Sermon for Easter Sunday, "Finding Easter, " Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-18

Sermon 3/27/16
Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-18

Finding Easter

            I have always thought preaching on Easter Sunday was one of the hardest days to preach on, one of the hardest sermons to write. See, I'm trying to set you up with low expectations right from the start! I’ve told some of you about the various adventures I’ve had during children’s time, and two of my most memorable come from Easter Sundays, both from the same church, in fact. I can’t remember now which order these really happened in, but I’ll tell you the good one first. I had this little boy – 2 or 3 years old. He was a busy boy during worship. Sunday School was before church, so he was with his mom during worship, and he might say or do anything during children’s time. But on Easter Sunday that year, I asked the kids if they could tell me the story of Jesus, and the kids all kind of looked at me blankly, until finally he stood up, and said in one big breath, “They came to the tomb, and the soldiers were asleep and the stone was rolled away and Jesus wasn’t there because Jesus was alive!” The whole congregation burst into applause. He totally got it. His mother was beaming. But there was also the year I was telling the kids about Jesus rising from the dead, and one little boy said, loudly, no need for a microphone to carry it through the sanctuary, “Eww, gross! He was buried and then rose up! Gross!” I thought I might as well quit then, since I’d clearly lost children’s time that day. And I’ve always thought his reaction was maybe more compelling than the adult reaction. He, at least, was shocked. Surprised. He reacted, deeply.
How do we react to Easter? Do we react? Sometimes I wonder how much of an impact Easter makes on us. Jesus is risen, but didn’t we know that already? We celebrate new life – but do we feel any differently on Monday than we do today? We are celebrating resurrection – but I wonder if we don’t find ourselves struggling with death and decay instead of birth and life, even as we still have “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” stuck in our heads. How do you react to Easter? In our closing hymn we’ll sing the words, “Every day to us is Easter.” It is meant to remind us that we always live in the fulfilled promise of resurrection. But I wonder if we’re singing it with a different tone of voice, “Every day to us is Easter.”   
            We heard two accounts of the resurrection today, from Luke and John. We’re probably more familiar with John’s intimate one-on-one encounter between Mary Magdalene and the resurrected Jesus. But there are a couple of particulars in Luke’s telling that stand out to me. In Luke’s account, a group of women come to the tomb of Jesus to dress the body with the traditional spices and oils. This group includes Mary Magdalene, who is a woman who was healed by Jesus, Joanna, who is the wife of a member of Herod’s court, Mary the mother of James, and “the other women,” unnamed by Luke. But when they arrive, they find that the stone has been rolled away. They enter the tomb, and find that there is no body there. And then suddenly, two men in dazzling clothes are standing with them. We’re meant to understand that they are messengers from God. The messengers ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” as if the women are crazy for expecting to see Jesus in the tomb. “He is not here,” they continue, “but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that … on the third day [he would] rise again?” And suddenly, they do remember. The women, who have been with Jesus just as the twelve have, remember his teaching, remember Jesus saying he would suffer and die, and rise again. And as soon as they remember, they stop looking for Jesus in the tomb, and instead go and find the disciples and tell them everything that’s happened. The disciples, however, don’t react, really. Instead, they hear in the words of the women “an idle tale” and don’t believe them. In fact, that nice phrase “an idle tale” is actually much more direct in the Greek. The disciples believe the women’s story is nonsense, rubbish, useless, silly trash. That’s actually a more literal translation! And so most of them, nearly all of them do nothing. They don’t react at all. But Peter, at least, is inspired to check it out for himself. He runs to the tomb, looks in, and sees the linen burial cloths. He goes home, amazed. And that’s where our text ends. For now.
            John’s account of the resurrection focuses in on Mary Magdalene in particular, and in John’s account alone, we witness the resurrected Christ. As in Luke, Mary has come to the tomb and sees the stone rolled away. She doesn’t see Jesus where he had been laid, and so she goes to tell Peter and another disciple. They run to the tomb, and also witness the empty grave, the linen clothes lying there. But they return home. Mary, however, stays, weeping, still looking at the tomb. It is then that she sees God’s messengers, who ask why she is weeping. She says that Jesus has been taken away, and she doesn’t know where they’ve laid him. And then Jesus speaks to her. She’s not expecting him to be there, alive, speaking to her. She mistakes him for a gardener. But finally, he speaks her name. And her eyes are opened. She calls him teacher. And Jesus instructs her to go and tell the others what she has witnessed. She does. She tells them everything, saying, “I have seen the Lord.”
            In all of the gospel accounts, it is the women who come first to the empty tomb. It is the women who first announce the good news. They’ve been with Jesus all along, in the background, never wavering, even through his death, through the crucifixion. The men consider them unreliable witnesses. The testimony of women had a pretty low standing in Jesus’ day. In many legal settings, women couldn’t testify, witness, on their own. Only men had a place in court, in giving a legal accounting of events. The women witness the resurrection first – and the disciples think they’re making stuff up.
            But see, the women finally remembered, because of the question the messengers ask them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” When they’re asked that, they remember all that Jesus had taught them – Jesus would be resurrected – and so Jesus would no longer be where they had lain him, no longer bound by the tomb, no longer bound by death. When Mary at last sees Jesus, he is not in the tomb, but outside of it, in the garden, in the place of life, not death.
            I wonder, when we are searching for Easter, for our reaction to Easter, I wonder if we don’t know how to react because we are like the disciples, or like the women before they remember what they already know – we are like people who are looking for the living among the dead. Still looking for Jesus in the empty tomb. It’s hard to react to the absence of something. We’re thrown off. We expect to find Jesus, there where we left him. And when he’s not there, we get stuck.  
There’s a video that I’ve seen going around that I just love. It’s a video of an orangutan at a zoo, in his enclosure, and a man, a zoo visitor sits on the other side of the window. The man is showing the orangutan a magic trick. He has a piece of fruit, which he places into a Styrofoam cup, and he puts a lid on the cup. He shakes it all around, and then, out of sight of the orangutan, he drops the fruit out of the cup. Then, he shows the orangutan the cup again, and opens the lid, and shows him that the cup is empty. And the orangutan looks totally surprised, and literally falls over in astonishment, it thinks this trick is so amazing. The orangutan cannot imagine how the fruit is not where he saw it last.
I love that video. But I’m hoping we can have a bit more sense than the orangutan. If we’re not “getting” Easter, perhaps it is because we keep looking for Jesus, who is alive, among the dead. We’re looking in a tomb for someone who promised that death could not stop God’s reign. Writes one seminary professor, “Following God is like painting a picture of a bird in flight.  By the time the brush touches the canvas the bird has moved on and the picture doesn’t represent it anymore.” Easter is about following this God who isn’t where everyone expected, in the grave, finished, conquered, but about God who is alive, giving life to us. I wonder if we are so used to expecting death and failure and endings in our lives that we can’t turn our heads away from the grave.
Easter isn’t about where Jesus isn’t, though, as much as we’re astonished by an empty tomb. The heart of Easter is about where Jesus is. I think about graduations – it is so hard for students not to think of graduations as endings. The end of high school, or college. The end of homework, the end of classes. Even probably the end of some relationships, as people move into new places, into new directions. But graduations are always more formally called Commencements. They are beginnings, not endings.  
Sometimes we treat Easter like an ending. It comes at the end of the season of Lent. It’s the end of the 40 days. The end of whatever you might have given up these past several weeks. The grand finale of special worship services after an emotional holy week. But Easter isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. And that is in fact, the message of Easter. Death is not the end of Jesus’ story. Jesus’ crucifixion is not the end of what God is up to in the world. The empty tomb is not where we’ll find Jesus. Instead, we find Jesus sending us out. “Go and tell.” We find Jesus asking us to be witnesses: “I have seen the Lord.”  
If we’re looking at the grave for Jesus, for God, for meaning, for the next step, we’re looking at the wrong place. That’s what God’s messengers tell the women at the tomb. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” You’re looking in the wrong place. Don’t expect Jesus to be here, where you left him.
We are called to be witnesses. Stop looking for Jesus among the dead. Start looking for Jesus among the living. And then testify to what we see. Because there are a lot of folks still looking among the graves. Have we seen Jesus? The tomb is empty. But Jesus is alive. Not where we left him at all, thank be to God. How will we react?

(1) Dr. Christopher Duraisingh, as quoted by TJ Tetzlaff,

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, "New Commandment," John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Sermon 3/24/16
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

New Commandment - Maundy Thursday

            On Maundy Thursday, we gather to remember two significant events that Jesus shared with his disciples. Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount Jesus sharing a Passover meal with the disciples and reimagining the symbols of bread and cup for them to be Jesus’ very body, broken for them, Jesus’ very blood, poured out for them. It is a foreshadowing of the breaking and bleeding of his body that will happen less than twenty-four hours from the time they share in the meal. It is a way that Jesus makes them – and us – a part of this breaking and bleeding. We, the body of Christ, are broken and poured out too, as he calls us to be the body of Christ for the world. Jesus says this is a new covenant he makes with us, a sign of forgiveness, and he calls us to remember every time we’re at the table together.
            In John, we get a different story, deeply meaningful in its own way. Jesus is sharing Passover with his disciples. John tells us that Jesus, knowing that God had put all things into his hands, that he had come from God, and was going to God, possessed with all that comforting knowledge, Jesus gets up, and ties a towel around himself, and begins to wash the disciples feet. We don’t know how any of them received this gesture, except for Peter, who questioned, seemingly with disapproval – “Lord, as you going to wash my feet?” Jesus tells him Peter will understand eventually. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter declares. Jesus tells Peter that if he wants to be part of Jesus, to share with Jesus, Peter must be washed by Jesus. Peter swings like a pendulum then, saying, “Well then, wash my hands and head too!” But Jesus tells him that the feet are enough.
            After finishing the footwashing, Jesus says that he has set an example. If we call him Teacher and Lord and mean it, we ought to do what he does – wash one another’s feet. Because we’re servants, messengers, not greater than the master, the one who sent us. As Christ’s servants and students, we’re meant to do what he does. Then Jesus says that we’re to follow the new commandment he gives us: to love one another. Just as Jesus has loved us, we’re to love one another. That’s how we’ll show that we are disciples. That’s where we get the name “Maundy Thursday” from. We get the word mandate from Maundy – a new mandate, a new commandment. But we know that, right? We’re supposed to love one another, and follow the example of Jesus? Aren’t we taught that from childhood? Love God, love one another. That doesn’t sound very new. But the way Jesus says it, and the significance he gives to it by adding it with this footwashing – he’s telling the disciples that he’s telling them something different – or to do something differently – than he’s seen from them so far.
            One of the traditional Maundy Thursday worship practices, then, is a footwashing, where the pastor or other leaders of the congregation wash the feet of those in attendance, or at least the feet of a symbolic few. Every year since Pope Francis became the pope in the Catholic Church I have watched videos of him washing the feet of an ever widening circle of people, in a traditional that used to include the Pope washing the feet of 12 Catholic men. But the pope has now washed the feet of women and girls, the poor, and those of different faith traditions, or no faith tradition. This year he washed the feet of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian refugees living in shelter in Rome. Have you ever had your feet washed by someone? When I was just about to be ordained, the Bishop, Bishop Violet Fisher, invited all of us to be ordained to a retreat for the day, and she washed our feet. I remember people feeling awkward and uncomfortable – what about those who had worn stockings? What if we felt embarrassed by our feet? What if our feet didn’t smell like perfume? But she washed our feet.
            I’ve been thinking a lot about this strange practice – footwashing – and what Jesus means for us to learn from it. We talked a bit about his practice a couple weeks ago, when we talked about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet. Footwashing was common, because of the hot, dusty climate, and long travel on foot with only sandals for footwear. You washed your feet when you entered a home. But you washed your own feet. Or a slave washed them. A humble task. A menial task you wouldn’t ask someone else to do unless you considered them of such low status that it wouldn’t matter if they washed your feet.   
            What, in today’s world, is like footwashing? Jesus tells us to wash one another’s feet, to do for one another what he does for us. But we don’t wash feet today in the same way. It is no longer common practice. And so I’ve been wondering, what is an "equivalent" to footwashing today? I think about the place washing one's own feet had in Jesus' society, and who would usually wash someone's feet (Not a peer! Certainly not your Teacher!), and I wonder if we have anything other practices today that would be as compelling. If Jesus was demonstrating this kind of sacred act of servanthood today, would he wash feet, or would he do something else? I posed these questions on facebook and got some excellent answers. “Helping someone pack and move.” “Hearing a confession.” “Cooking and serving [someone] a meal.” “Getting the Upper Room ready for the meal … [The] hot sweaty work of moving tables, scrubbing floors, cleaning the bathroom, taking out the garbage.” “Clipping someone’s toenails.”
One pastor colleague wrote, “Our sense of physical space is so much wider/bigger than in the days of footwashing as a regular part of people's lives. I think of the ways we experience those intimate, humbling moments- I fed an 88 year old woman at the hospital yesterday, coaxing her one bite at a time. Her eyes looked at me with such trust and weariness.” Another said, “This question makes me think of the hierarchy of servants at Downtown Abbey. I cannot imagine Lord Granthem shining the shoes of his footmen.”
            Another: “On a mission trip to Baja California last summer, working with kids of migrant farmworkers, we treated many of the kids for lice by putting mayonnaise in their hair, letting is sit for an hour, and then washing their hair and combing it out. It was a strange and intimate experience, and much more beautiful than I'd expected.”
A friend named MaryBeth wrote, “The parallel that has seized my imagination is helping elderly folks care for their feet. My mom can't reach her feet to cut her nails and I'm terrible at it (and I live 250 miles away from her.)” And another responded, “I was thinking what MaryBeth said. Then I was watching the people doing pedicures while I was standing in line at Walmart tonight. That would make it to my list.”
            Another: “Thankless tasks: baggage handlers, bagging groceries, pumping gas, serving fast food, custodians. Jobs that people don't notice until they are done incorrectly [at minimum wage]. I think many volunteer opportunities or jobs that care for people are given recognition in prestige or honored by their peers, but would we notice who was doing those jobs that are done while we check our phone/daydream/talk to [our] companions?” (1)
            At the Greenhouses in Rochester, one of our nurses said that she always looks at the feet of the elders who live in the house. At the memorial of one of our elders, she commented on how devoted the daughter was to Helen, who had died, which the nurse knew because Helen’s feet always looked beautiful and soft and cared for. An act of love from daughter to mother.
            Jesus says that this is how we demonstrate love as his disciples: that we would offer the same acts of loving service – the sometimes menial or difficult or dirty or back-breaking or humbling tasks that we would normally only even consider for someone who was as close to us as our closest of family members. This is how Jesus loves us. Enough to wash our feet, enough to serve us in any way that’s like it. Enough to do that for every person, every child of God.
            Who do we serve? Whose feet will we wash? Whose nails will we clip? Whose bathrooms will we clean? Whose fast food will we serve? Whose hair would we comb for lice? Whose floors will we scrub?
            Jesus offers us the commandment – that we serve one another, that we are known, marked as disciples because of the way we love. He does this, says this, washes feet on the very night that he will be denied and betrayed and abandoned by the same people whose feet he washed. Clearly, there is nothing that can disqualify you as a recipient of the serving, loving hands of Jesus. So too he commands us.
I think the footwashing of Maundy Thursday catches us in a conundrum. We feel, whether we’ll admit it or not, that there are others who are unworthy to be served by us. Sure, we’ll wash some feet if Jesus tells us we must – but we want to pick whose feet we wash. While that might be serving, we’re not serving like Jesus is. And if we don’t or won’t do it like he does, then we’re making ourselves, the servants, greater than our master, Jesus. That won’t work.  
            And on the other hand, we feel we’re unworthy to be served by Jesus. Would you be able to let Jesus Christ kneel before you and wash your feet? The thought brings tears to my eyes. How could we be worthy of such an act of love? We can’t get the right answer because we’ve asked the wrong question. Worthy of Jesus washing our feet? He doesn’t do it because we’re worthy of it or not. That’s not a question that’s on Jesus’ radar. He does it because he loves his disciples. Because he loves us. Because he loves me. Because he loves you. Jesus loves us. All of us. 
            We all love. But what’s new about the new commandment is that Jesus says we’re supposed to love one another just as he has love us. In other words, we love through humble service. We love even those who would deny and betray and ditch us. We love even those who no one else seems to love. We love especially those who no one else seems to love. We love those who have wronged us. Those who we think we’re better than. Without conditions and qualifications and counting the cost and figuring out who is worth it. We love as we serve. Just as I have loved you, Jesus says, you also should love one another. When we do this, he says, people will know we’re his disciples. They won’t need to ask. We won’t need the label. They’ll know. They’ll see it in our love. Tell me, who knows you are a Jesus-follower, just because of how you love? Amen.


Friday, March 18, 2016

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C, "Lent: Treasured," John 12:1-8

Sermon 3/13/16
John 12:1-8

Lent: Treasured

            Can you think of the time that you were most full of thanksgiving? A time when your heart was just overflowing with gratitude? When you couldn’t stop giving thanks to God for the miracles that unfolded? Once, when I was little, through a strange series of events, my mom thought, very briefly, that I had been kidnapped. I was actually out riding my bike around the streets of Westernville. But she’d lost track of where I went after delivering the newspaper on my street, and she thought she saw me in a van driving away from the house. I was oblivious to her terror, until my big brother found me and brought me home. I can still remember exactly how alarmed his expression was as he rode on his bike to find me. And I can remember my mother’s thankfulness that I was found, even though, to my mind, I hadn’t really even been lost. Only when I got older could I begin to imagine her fear and understand her overwhelming joy at being wrong. Her gratitude. When do you remember being most completely full of thanksgiving?
Today, 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’ of the ones who were there in Mark’s telling complain about her extravagant actions. We might even think of her as prodigal, like we talked about last week – reckless and extreme in her use of costly resources.  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 is brother to Mary and Martha, and already in the gospel of John we’ve encountered these sisters. Earlier in John, Martha is busy trying to prepare dinner for Jesus, and wanting Mary to help, but Jesus says Mary, listening at his feet to his teaching, has made a good choice. And then, Lazarus falls ill and dies. Jesus weeps for his dear friend. But he talks with Martha about being the resurrection and life, and Martha seems to understand, and Jesus raises Lazarus, dead and in his tomb for days, from his grave. Our text for today happens essentially immediately following the raising of Lazarus. Jesus is now back in their home, dining with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, along with the disciples. John clearly shows Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha as people with whom Jesus is very close. They are dear friends. Martha is (again) 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, and we can almost smell the rich scent as we read. 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’ hand. 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. Jesus had just raised her brother from the dead. He was dead. Mary was weeping over him, crushed, devastated, and Jesus brought him back to life. I can only imagine that Mary is feeling more thankful than she has ever felt in her entire life. Her gratitude – her brother was dead, and now he’s alive again – can we even imagine? In context, it is no wonder that Mary pours out a bottle of perfume on Jesus, no wonder she wipes his feet with her hair. It probably seems like hardly enough, in fact. Mary, already a disciple, a student of Jesus’ teaching – well, her commitment to Jesus had just increased 100 fold. What might you do in thanksgiving in exchange for your loved one brought back to life? Her deep motivation is to serve Jesus completely, to devote herself to him and his teachings entirely.
And then we have Judas. Judas has always been the most intriguing disciple to me, stemming, as I think you know, from my longtime love of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Ever since I first saw the production in junior high, 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, Judas is good at masquerading as a follower of Jesus. 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.
Judas has his eye on what following Jesus is costing him – literally and figuratively, it seems. But Mary, she can only see that she has gained everything from following Jesus, and thus is willing to spend more. What does it cost 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. Free grace. Costly discipleship. We understand this paradox better than we think. We know the saying that the best things in life are free. Love, for example, a most treasured thing – it’s a free gift we share with one another. But love is also very costly. If we love someone, that love will cost us a lot – patience, courage, commitment, strength. But, when we love, truly love, despite the cost, we don’t spend our time tallying up how much we’ve spent. Love is free, and costly. But we experience it, I hope, as a gain, not a loss, as a gift, not an expense. So it is with grace: Grace is free, but our response to grace, a life of discipleship, is costly. But in the way of Jesus, as we lose everything, spend everything, give everything to following Jesus, we always seem to come away with more than when we started. We gain life, even as we lose it in discipleship. 
I think 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 right now. After what she’s experienced, she would spend anything and spend it with joy in her heart – because the gift Jesus offers – has given her – is a priceless treasure.
Somehow, after years with Jesus, Judas looks over everything, and sees only his losses. Mary sees only what she’s gained. After getting her brother’s life returned to her, she can hardly see anything else. What about us? What do you see when you look at your life with Christ? Perhaps we haven’t experienced our loved one being literally brought back to life. But I think that Jesus is resurrecting us, if we let him, all the time. Bringing life to us where there were only dead places in our hearts. What value can you place on the gifts Jesus gives us? What gratitude stirs in your heart for one who can bring life out of death? How far will you follow the one who can do that – bring life out of the death in your life? Each of us must discover the cost of following Jesus, what we’re willing to spend. Judas receives 30 silver coins to betray Jesus, and Mary spends a year’s wages on perfume for Jesus’ feet. Mary was willing to give all for her discipleship – but Mary makes the better deal, doesn’t she? She chooses discipleship, which costs everything, but she gains everything. Judas gets 30 silver coins, but loses his whole life. 
What is it costing you to be a disciple? 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. But it’s worth every penny. Are you willing to pay the price?


Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C, "Lent: Found," Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

Sermon 3/6/16
Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

Lent: Found

There are a couple things that I think are important for us to remember as we study a parable as familiar as this one, the one we know as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” First, we should remind ourselves that the world “Prodigal,” which actually doesn’t appear anywhere in the text itself, doesn’t mean “lost” or “wandering” – although because of this parable we have sometimes come to use the word that way. But actually, “prodigal” means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant” or “having or giving something on a lavish scale.” We call a child genius a “prodigy” because they have intelligence on a lavish scale. Someone is prodigious if they produce a lavish or excessive amount of something. So the Prodigal Son may indeed be lost and wandering, but the focus of the title is on the fact that he’s excessive, reckless, and wasteful.
The second thing we have to remember is that the titles of Parables aren’t part of the Bible. They’re something we add on later. They’re very old, for sure, but they represent an interpretation. At some point, someone heard or read Jesus’ parable, about a father and two sons, and determined that the focus of the story was a reckless, extravagant son. But we could have just as easily called it “The Parable of a Father and His Sons,” or, “The Parable of the Cranky Older Brother,” or “The Parable of the Sacrificial Fatted Calf.” The title we use tells us to focus on a certain point of view in the story – but Jesus didn’t tell us what to focus on in the story – not with a title anyway. It’s hard to “unhear” the title we’ve given the parable for so long. But our best hope at understanding deeply why Jesus shares these words involves trying, as much as we can, to “unhear” what we think we already know.
So, we start with the first part of this parable. The beginning of chapter 15 of Luke tells us that tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus and his teaching, and the Pharisees and scribes, the religious elite, are grumbling, saying, with outrage, scandalized, “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them!” In response, Jesus tells a string of parables. The first one is about a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and searches diligently for one who is lost. The second is about a woman who has 10 coins, and searches diligently for one of the ten that is lost. And then he turns next to this parable, beginning, “There was a man who had two sons.”
Jesus tells us that the younger of two sons says to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Basically, he’s saying to his father, “Give me whatever I would inherit from you if you had already died.” If that sounds rude, it’s because it is. His behavior is tacky, hurtful, disrespectful. But the father complies. We aren’t privy to his reaction to his son’s request. The son takes his money and gets out of town.
Immediately, he squanders everything he’s just received through reckless living, and, unfortunately, this coincides with a famine in the land. He’s suddenly quite desperate. He goes to work feeding the pigs of a local farmer. And he realizes he’s looking rather longingly at the food the pigs are getting to eat. And suddenly, it occurs to him: People who work for his father have food and then some – but here he is, starving, and feeding pigs. So he comes up with a plan: He’ll go back home, and to his father: “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.” And with his plan in mind, he heads back to his father’s house. We never hear anything more about the younger son once he’s been greeted by his father. We don’t know how he reacts to his father’s welcome, or his brother’s anger. So what we have to think about is this: his decision to leave home, and his decision to come back again. 
Many times, we read of or think of this story as a story of repentance. After all, the younger son turns back and heads home, and turning around and going back in God’s direction is at the very core of what it means to repent. But, although we like to read it into the text, there’s nothing in this parable that tells us that the young man feels sorry about what he’s done. Instead, we really only see that he has enough sense to suspect that he’ll find some degree of mercy at his father’s home. He gets more than he expects, undoubtedly. But out of all the places he might look for help, he’s most confident that he will get it from his father. 
So what if the younger son doesn’t come home because he’s repentant? What if he hasn’t turned over a new leaf? What if he’s as much of a jerk when he gets home as he was when he left? As I was thinking about this, I was thinking about how much emphasis we put on our ability to be good. We strive, I hope, to be good. We admire true goodness when we encounter it in others. But Jesus never seems to talk about people’s goodness. In fact, one time when a person refers to Jesus as good, Jesus says that no one is good but God alone. What Jesus does commend in others is their faith in God. Again and again when Jesus offers healing, he will says, “Your faith has made you well.” Faith, not goodness. Faith, deep confidence in the power of God, in the love of God, in the healing work of God in the world – this Jesus commends. In this parable, which of these two sons has faith in the love, or at least in the mercy of their father? The “good” son? Or the “bad” son?


I don’t suggest that we give up on seeking after goodness. But I do suggest that we continue to wrestle with – and let go of – our idea, our insistence that we can access God’s love, or more of God’s love, or more of God’s love than that other guy at least if we could just be good enough to deserve it. 
We’re going to skip ahead a bit in our passage, past the father’s greeting of his returning son, to take a look at the older son, the big brother in this text. After the younger son has returned home and been warmly greeted by his father and taken off to a grand party, the text shifts focus to his older brother. The older son is in the field, walking back to the house, and he hears music and dancing. He calls a slave over to ask what’s going on, and the slave tells the older son: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” This makes the son angry, and he refuses to go inside. So, the father comes out, begging him to come in and join the party. But, the son will not be comforted. He says, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” We’ll get to the father’s response in a bit.
Now, we don’t get much insight into what life was really like for the older son, but it seems unlikely, from what we do see, that the father treated his older son like a slave, or failed to celebrate him in any way, ever. But it should be clear enough that this older son is very, very bitter, and very anger. When I think of him, I think of another of Jesus’ parables where a group of people is upset when someone else gets more than most think they deserve. In the Parable of the Workers in the Field, the owner asks his workers, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Undoubtedly, the brother seems to be full of envy to the point of bitterness that his father is so generous with his younger brother. How about us? Are we envious, because God is generous? Envy is discontent/ill-will/covetousness because of what others have. To be envious because God is generous, we either have to feel like 1) We don’t have what the other person has. (Example: They have ice cream and I don’t.) or 2) Someone gave the other person part of what belonged to me – it was mine, and I want it back. (I had two scoops of ice cream and someone took one of my scoops and gave it to them.) In the older brother’s case, his response to his father’s welcome of his brother suggests that either he believes his father loves his brother, and does not love him, or, his father loves his brother, and that love detracts from the love his father can give him.
I find the older brother endlessly relatable. Are we envious because God is generous? Yup! And what this means is that either we believe that other people being receiving God’s love and unconditional forgiveness is something we don’t have for ourselves, or something that only we should have, without having to share it with others. And either way, we’ve got a problem.
I think this goes back to the “being good” thing. We’ve tried to be good and others haven’t and they still get loved! But the fact that this truth drives us crazy? It suggests that our goodness is only for the sake of a reward, rather than an act of love. Our striving to “be good” is not an act of selflessness, not a gift to God, not an act of faithfulness if we’re in it for the reward.
Maybe each of us is a different kind of older brother. Maybe some of us really believe that we are unlovable, and are jealous of the love God showers on the younger brothers in our lives. And maybe some of us really believe that God’s love for us is somehow lessened because God loves others as whole-heartedly, as prodigiously as God loves us.
But I think that’s why we think of God’s relationship to us as akin to the love of a parent for a child, rather than say the love of a spouse for a spouse. Our understanding of love between spouses would indeed mean that the impact of the love would be lessened if duplicated. If you love your spouse and your five other significant others equally, that love doesn’t seem very strong. But no, God’s love for us is like a parent for a child. It can’t be divided or subtracted just because all of God’s children have it.
The older son is a prodigal too – because he’s being recklessly wasteful with the love he has, has always had, will always have from his father. He can’t see and doesn’t value what he’s been surrounded with and supported by all his life. And now he sees all that he has as diminished in value because his father has offered it to his brother too. Maybe he’s been very good, all his life. But he doesn’t have any faith in the love of his father, though his father has always been faithful. What a waste!


Finally, we take a look at the Prodigal Parent. The father who is reckless with love and forgiveness and welcome. Offering it without even needing to be asked.  
When he sees his son coming home, he is “filled with compassion.” I’ve talked to you about that word before – compassion – and how often it is used of Jesus in the gospels. It means that your insides are literally moved and twisted up with the level of care and concern you have. He runs to his son, hugging and kissing him. He cuts his son off before he can even finish his prepared speech – the father doesn’t care, doesn’t need it, isn’t interested in it. It doesn’t matter. Instead, he plans a celebration: his best robe, a ring, new sandals, a feast, a party. For, as he says, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” He doesn’t receive an apology. He doesn’t ask for explanations. He doesn’t place conditions on his son’s returns or offer expectations of future better behavior. He just demonstrates in every way he can think of that he can think of nothing better than having his son back.
And then we see him with his older son. The father pleads with him. He’s begging him to understand. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.” He can only try to explain to his son the impossibility of his feeling anything other than overjoyed that his younger son has returned. Any other reaction is unthinkable. Just as anything other than his total love of his angry older son is unthinkable too. 
I can tell you that my mom’s favorite thing in the world is when all of her kids are together in one place and happily spending time together. And I can tell you that the most paralyzing thing for her is when her children aren’t getting along. We tease her, have teased her forever about which of us is her favorite (me, obviously.) But truthfully, we all know that there’s no such thing for her. Or rather, we are her favorites – each of us. Not split between the four of us, but each of us, 100% her favorite. There is no choosing sides.
That’s how much God loves us, and then some. Beyond our imaging. Beyond comprehension. God loves us perfectly. 100%. Not divided. Never wavering. Even when we run away. Even when we don’t deserve it, which is pretty much always. Even when we’re envious. Even when we waste God’s love feeling angry and bitter about who else gets invited to the celebration. Even when we’re unfaithful. Even with our feeble attempts at goodness. Even when we think we’re better than everyone else. Even when we’re not really sorry, and just hoping for a home-cooked meal. Even when we call God’s love into question, or throw it back into God’s face. Even when we hurt God and hurt each other over it.
God is the true prodigal, after all. Reckless with forgiveness. Wasting mercy on those who deserve none. Extravagant with love. Thanks be to God. Amen.