The Road Goes On

Psalm 30

This psalm is one of Thanksgiving, one that expresses the kind of hope and gratitude that has been earned and developed over time.

A psalm that reveals not only the depth of pain we humans experience in life, but the joy that comes when we find our way beyond illness, beyond grief, beyond separation.
When we find ourselves blinking and adjusting to the light of a new day, a new opportunity.
When we can’t help but give glory to God as we begin the next portion of our journey. Because the reality is that the road of life goes on.   

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was on the road for much of his life…

Of course we know he traveled with Mary and Joseph from Bethlehem to Egypt and from Nazareth to Jerusalem on multiple trips to the Temple. For most of the years he spent teaching and healing, he and his followers walked all over the region around the sea of Galilee.

During Lent, we followed them on the road to Jerusalem, where he spent his final week before being crucified. He was placed in a borrowed tomb nearby, and that was the final place anyone expected to see him.

And now, just hours after the women discovered the empty tomb, were reminded that he would be raised back to life, and then told their story to the others. Just hours after Peter ran to the tomb to confirm their story.  Just hours afterward, Luke tells this story about Cleopas and his traveling companion, listen…

Luke 24:13-35

Luke doesn’t tell us, but I suspect these two companions left Jerusalem around mid-morning. After all, they were discussing the mysterious events of the early morning.  And, they were clearly still unsettled by them.  

I can’t speak for you, but I can relate to this story more than I can to many others told about Jesus’ followers.  This story resonates with me because Cleopas and his friend are doing exactly what I do with my friends when something leaves me (or all of us) confused and unsettled.

We spend time talking it out.
We go back over the things we can wrap our heads around.  The verifiable details.
We recount the things that were most unbelievable.  The most difficult to reconcile with those verifiable facts.
We struggle out loud with the things that cause us pain, that leave us unable to go forward emotionally.

So when Jesus joins them on the road, they assume he would want to be folded into their conversation. And because this is the biggest, craziest news these friends have ever had to process, it’s stunning to them that Jesus has no idea what they’re talking about.

Of course, they don’t know who they’ve just invited into the conversation.  Luke tells us that – for reasons we don’t ever get – they were kept from seeing who he was.

But surely anyone walking away from Jerusalem, any Jew in particular, would have been talking and thinking about the events of the past week.  You might say it was the talk of the town.

But apparently not this man.
And it stops them in their tracks.
Literally.

They stop and look at him. Dumbfounded.
Dude- seriously?
You must be the only person in Jerusalem for the Passover feast that didn’t hear about it…
Or maybe you just don’t remember… ??
How many glasses of wine did you drink during that passover meal?
Huh.  Really. Ok… well… where do we start?

Perhaps they took it in turns to fill in some of the details that Luke leaves out. I mean the conversation went on for 7 miles!

But the gist of it was this…
Jesus was as important to the children of Israel at this moment as Moses was in his.
He was an amazing prophet, wise, powerful, before God and in front of all the people.
He was a liberator.
He was our hope.
And they took him away – the chief priests and the leaders.
They took away the one who would save the people.
And they had him killed.
They didn’t do it themselves, but they handed him over in a way that made clear what they hoped was going to happen.
It was awful. Everything about that trial and crucifixion.  Awful.
What were we supposed to do… he was the one we just KNEW was going to turn the world upside down.
We had hoped at the very least…

Well, now where are we left after all this?
Do we continue on his path?
Following his teaching?
We’ve spent the last couple of days wondering exactly how we could do that without getting ourselves nailed to a cross.

And now – today – on the third day since all of this got started, things got even weirder… maybe a good weird. But definitely more confusing.

So it just seemed like a really good time to leave.
Get some space between us and Jerusalem;
between us and the danger.
Between us and the sorrow.
Between us and what might have been…
What might still be… ?

Jesus- incognito as he was – must have been enjoying this a little.  Pulling the story out of them with nods and mm-hmmms.  Even as he smiled knowingly on the inside.  

There was so much they hadn’t quite understood, that they hadn’t quite managed to connect between his teachings and their current situation.

And so eventually, he can’t help himself.  

Even as he remains hidden from their recognition, he takes them back to Scripture and begins to teach.
Starting with Moses and moving through all the prophets.
He reminds them of all they’d heard – from the time they were children in synagogues to the times he was with them on the plain and in the various synagogues of the region and even in the temple courts.

They continued on down the road, talking, walking, teaching and learning until they finally arrived in Emmaus.

Now, I do a lot of walking, and when I get deep into a conversation with someone, it takes a lot longer than usual to get where I’m going.  So it doesn’t surprise me that a walk that could have been completed in a matter of 2-3 hours (even faster if you’re in a hurry), took the better part of the day.

And because they had been talking for so long, it makes sense that they would ask this stranger to stay, to eat, for sure, and perhaps to continue the conversation.

Doesn’t it just seem right that Jesus would say “yes” and join them at table?
After all, so much of his ministry happened around tables…
So much of his ministry was about making sure that everyone had a place at the table.

And doesn’t it seem right that it is at the moment Jesus breaks the bread…
When Jesus is doing the thing that is most HIM,
When Jesus is reversing the roles of guest and host,
When Jesus offers hospitality and sustenance through the blessing and breaking of the bread…
THAT is is the moment when it becomes clear who is at the table.

It wasn’t while he was walking and teaching… though he was surely reinforcing all that he’d said about himself over the years.  And certainly the teaching would have felt at least a little familiar.

No- it was at the table.

Perhaps it was his unique way of blessing the bread
Or the way he held it and looked at it.
Or perhaps the fact that this guest so humbly had taken the role of host to serve them

Regardless, in that moment, their eyes were opened.
They saw him
They knew that all he had said, on the road that day and on all the roads they’d walked together before,
they knew – deep in their hearts- that it was true.
They understood that he had been with them all along.
And then, he was gone.

Yes, it was baffling and unexpected.
And yet, it was so HIM.

Of course, they had to go and tell the others:
We have seen the risen and living Lord.  Thanks be to God!

You know, every time we gather at the table – every time we gather at the font, for that matter – there is a long prayer. The prayer of thanksgiving we call it.

And I know that it is annoying sometimes to listen to a prayer that long because I’ve felt antsy plenty of times myself. After all, we ministers seem to enjoy the sound of our own voices… And mercy, but we can make worship inefficient with long sermons and longer prayers.

But that prayer does what Jesus was doing on the road that day.
It is meant to remind us of just how far back we can travel and still not find the beginning of God’s love and care for us.

The prayer is meant to help us to rehearse and retell the story of our liberation from slavery, of God’s promises kept, of our salvation in Christ and through Christ, who is not only a great prophet, but is also the Messiah.

That long prayer is meant to remind us that we are at the table of the host who knows and loves us best.

Many of you wondered, some of you aloud and in my hearing, why we would add communion in today, when we we shared the bread and the cup on Maundy Thursday and again at Easter.  And it will be the first of the month in a couple of weeks.

Why add in one more round of communion?
The truth is, we need to be at the table.  

We need to be nourished, spiritually nourished, if we hope to live faithfully in this world of ours.

In our noisy, fast-paced, efficiency-focused culture, we are taught or at least convinced to ignore our spiritual hunger pangs – those longings for communion with God and one another- that ought to lead us to the table more often, rather than waiting for our regularly scheduled meal.

Coming together in fellowship at this table is crucial, because It is around the table that we reveal the body of Christ, in all of its human, flawed but forgiven glory.

It is at the table we experience the presence of Christ,
where we experience the grace that abounds as it extends to sinners and tax collectors,
And as grace extends to preachers and retirees, to teachers and business owners, and everyone else who hears and responds to his invitation to come, eat, and remember.

Preparing the table, whether once a month, or three times in two weeks, is an act that embodies faith,

Preparing the table in an act that embodies hope and embodies love.
Gathering the bread and the juice, setting the table, offering an invitation…
Each step of the way we are re-membering, re-enacting the hospitality of these bewildered disciples and their beloved Jesus
our beloved Jesus.   

Their hospitality opened the door, literally and figuratively, to the opportunity to encounter Jesus at this meal.

They welcomed the stranger on the road,  and he opened the scriptures in new ways
They welcomed the stranger at the table, and he offered a revelation of his care for them.

Luke’s telling of this encounter with the Messiah tells us that an encounter with the risen Lord requires two parties.
There is Christ’s divine act to come and reveal himself.
But we have a part to play.
Without an openness and vulnerability on our part,
Without a spiritual willingness to risk and a physical willingness to welcome,
we may as well just close the door.

For our eyes will not see and our ears will not hear,
And our hearts will not burn in the telling of this very good news:
Christ is risen.
He is risen, indeed.

Inconceivable

Primary Scripture: Luke 24:1-12

If you’ve watched the movie adaptation of The Princess Bride more than once, you probably can’t help but hear the word  “Inconceivable” in Wallace Shawn’s voice.  He is the brilliant stage actor who has become at least equally well known for playing Vezzini, the self-proclaimed genius and leader of a trio of criminals in the film.

Vezzini and his partners in crime kidnap Buttercup, the titular princess, and find themselves crossing a channel in a boat at night: a time at which they don’t expect anyone else to be sailing.

And yet there is a boat behind them.  

Not to worry says Vezzini… Probably a local fisherman, out for a pleasure cruise through eel-infested waters. But a little later it becomes clear that the boat is following them.  And even gaining on them.

Inconceivable, says Vezzini.

They reach the Cliffs of Insanity- aptly named as they are insanely high and impossible to scale. But Fezzik, the giant in the trio, is strong enough to climb AND to carry Buttercup, Vezzini, and the third of the crimninals – Inigo… all at once.

As they climb, whoever had been pursuing them by boat begins to follow them up the cliffs, using the same rope Fezzik is climbing.

Again,Inconceivable

They reach the top… the man continues to climb

Inconceivable.

Vezzini then cuts the rope, sure that their pursuer would fall to his death… but when they lean over the ledge to look, there he is, clinging to the cliff face. And then he begins to climb again.

Inconceivable!

At this point, Inigo turns to him and says, “You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means”

I love that line…

Truth is, he’s definitely using the right word.  Every time the man persisted, it was illogical.  

The speed of his boat was beyond their understanding of sailing and physics.  It was beyond comprehension that anyone other than Vezzini’s strong man could climb straight up a cliff, much less quickly enough to close the gap between them. It was puzzling, unbelievable, confusing…  In a word – inconceivable.   

Luke never uses the word inconceivable as he describes the happenings on that first morning after what had been a tragic Friday and very long Saturday… but he sure could have.

Nothing was quite as expected.  

It’s easy for us to lose sight of that truth, having heard the story so many times, having gotten used to the idea, the miracle of it all.

But imagine living it.  In real time.

The women have been waiting, since sundown marked the beginning of sabbath and kept them from their work.  They knew what to expect, in terms of the process they would follow. The rituals they would complete.

They knew right where to look for the body. They knew what what they were about to see, and – I would imagine – dreaded the prospect of dressing a body that had been treated with such violence.  Especially seeing that evidence on the body of a man they loved.

Resolute, determined… they arrived.  The stone had been rolled away. Inconceivable

The body was gone…Inconceivable

Two men in really shiny clothes show up…Inconceivable

And truly, what the men had to say wasn’t much help in making sense of what they were experiencing.  At least not at first

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.“

Wait… what?  What does that even mean?
No… We aren’t looking for the living.
Jesus is dead.  That’s why we’re here.

How could the mind possibly conceive of a living Jesus?
They had seen him crucified. They had seen him, lifeless.
So had everyone else….

But the men were right.  Jesus had said those words…
He had talked to them more than once about his death to come. And he had spoken about three days… and being raised…  

But even after seeing Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead.
Even after seeing countless people raised from spiritual, relational, and financial death to new life in community with God. Despite knowing that Jesus had the power to heal and more…

But Jesus’ teaching about being raised to life?
It had been more than they could wrap their heads around.
It was beyond recall.
It was inconceivable.

Until they remembered for themselves. They remembered his words; they remembered him saying those words, and that was enough. They left the tomb and they went to tell the story.  

Can’t you see it?

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and several other women excitedly describing what had just taken place…

And the men’s response…

Psh… what?  Look… you all know we love you.
We’d all love to have Jesus back with us right now.
But come on…

For 10 out of 11 apostles… Jesus being alive was clearly inconceivable.
But the 11th, Peter, the one who had denied knowing and following him…
For Peter, It was conceivable.
It was plausible.
It was possible.

He had ears to hear.
He had eyes that were eager to see.
He believed enough to go to the tomb and see for himself.

And that spark of faith – Plausibility mixed with just enough hope and just enough love…It was enough to make it worth looking… And even worth the risk of being seen while he was at it.

See, faith is not about knowledge- at least solely about knowledge. Faith is an expression of courage-
the courage it takes to believe the unbelievable.
To conceive of the inconceivable.

Faith believes that there is life at the mouth of the tomb.
Faith believes that there is life in the words being spoken that morning.
That there was life in the words they had almost forgotten.

For the women and for Peter, faith is what told them that the words Jesus spoke can and should be trusted –  even though they made as little sense in the first light of this first morning of the week as they did while during the long journey to Jerusalem.

It took tremendous courage to go to the tomb, when the Roman powers who killed Jesus remained a very real, very present danger. Both for the women and for Peter

And they believed without even having seen the risen Jesus!

That’s the funny thing about Luke’s Easter morning account… Jesus isn’t there.
Not when the women arrive.
Not while Peter visits the tomb.

He is not among the dead.
He is alive and – presumably- out among the living

Among those who are actively worshiping God
Among those who love mercy and do justice
Among those who weep, who mourn
Among those who are pressed on every side
Among those in need of healing and yet trust that God hears them.
Among those with eyes to see, with ears to hear.

The sinners.  The tax collectors.  The cast-offs and rejects.
We still have a hard time believing that part… Perhaps we have a hard time believing Jesus is with them because we don’t want to be them.

But we do want to Jesus to be with us.
Clean, shiny Jesus; predictable, knowable Jesus.

But now that we’ve walked the road to Jerusalem:
The road that led us through the audacity of a Palm Sunday parade and the passion that cleansed the temple
The road that led us to an intimate dinner with a family of choice and the sorrow of betrayal, denial and arrest.
The road that led us to the cross and the deep sense of grief and powerlessness that death always brings.

We have arrived at the moment for which we have longed:
the day of resurrection!

And so now we must live.
Among the living.

We must believe it in our bones in spite of evidence all around us that the work of Christ is not done.

In a world that remains ravaged by loss and injustice, we are still challenged to believe in the power of the resurrection.
Not because it makes any logical sense
Not because we can science or logic our way to an understanding

We are challenged to believe the unbelievable, to trust the inconceivable, because the power of resurrection is the very power than can and will transform our daily lives.  As individuals and as a church.

The power of resurrection
The power of the God who created all,
The power of the God who loves all
The power that breathes life into tired bodies and newborn babies
That is the power that restores vision, renews faith and reconciles siblings in Christ that have long been separated.

I have no idea how that works.  But I have seen the power of resurrection at work. And you know what?
I don’t need to understand it in order to long to see it again.
In order to long for each and every one of you to experience it
In order to pray daily that we might – together – be the evidence of new life in this community.  

And so, when we sing Jesus Christ is Risen today, remember and trust, like the women at the tomb, like Peter, that the Christ we seek is the Christ who keeps promises.

And thus is we can trust that Christ is alive at work in the world.
In us
Through us
With us.
Now and in the age to come.

He is risen
He is risen indeed

You have arrived…

Primary Scripture Luke 19:29-44

As we have worked our way through Luke this winter and spring, we have had several opportunities to compare notes, so to speak, with the other gospel writers. We’ve seen places where Luke’s descriptions of Jesus’ ministry match up very closely with Mark’s and Matthew’s.  We’ve noted places where the parables or events were similar, but appear in a different order. And then we’ve paid attention to material that is unique to Luke.  

This week, as we remember the final week of the Messiah’s ministry and life, we will continue to focus on Luke’s telling of these events.  But the timeline would be very sparse if we counted solely on his witness. Like the other gospel storytellers, Luke comes to the story with a particular purpose and audience in mind. Both influence Luke’s determination for which details and conversations and events to include.   

For instance, Luke tells us that when they saw Jesus riding along on the borrowed donkey, people spread their cloaks on the road. No palm branches being waved.  No tree branches of any sort. Not even a sycamore branch in honor of Zaccheus.

We expect them, even though the palms only appear in John’s gospel – launching thousands warnings to young children and choirs about the dangers of palm fronds near other people’s eyes.  And just for the record… even John doesn’t tell us that children were the ones singing and waving palms. That tradition came much later.

No, Luke’s parade starts with cloaks on the donkey and continues on the road where he passes. And the farther he goes down the road, the more vocal the crowd got.

It must have been like the storms that roll through on a summer afternoon… the kind you can hear coming down the street… first it’s the drops on the sidewalk and then windows and roof, just loud enough to hear.

That would be the murmuring of the crowd as they turned from the road to the person beside them, pointing and half-whispering, “Yes, it’s him, Jesus.  The one from Nazareth.”   

Then the stories begin. And in the same way the rain becomes a steady pulsing beat as the drops grow heavier and more densely packed, with each testimony, the joy and excitement mounts until the shouts of praise ring out like peals of thunder!

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

Where are our Hosannas, you ask? Oh yes, John, Mark and Matthew include them… But Luke must have assumed that his people would know the story well enough to fill in that gap. Like we did with the palms.

But even without the Hosannas, Luke is referring to some pretty powerful, pretty cosmic stuff. On the night Jesus was born, his arrival was announced to the shepherds by a different multitude:  

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  (2:13-14)

It was a boisterous, joyful announcement. It may have echoed off the hills like thunder.

And now this second multitude was singing and borrowing the words of the angels:
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

We don’t know exactly who they were… this multitude, but there were clearly more than the usual people around. Certainly it would have included the twelve, the ones we are most familiar with, the ones Jesus was closest to.

But others have seen his deeds of power, too…  some experiencing that power directly.

Zaccheus and the blind beggar might have followed him through the mountains from Jericho.  After all, Jesus had just spent the night at Zaccheus’ house.

There were all those women, forgiven, healed, seen and heard — maybe for the first time in their lives experiencing true love and compassion. Knowing that they were the first on the scene in the garden on resurrection day, we can trust that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James were among the followers singing and crying out that day.

I wonder if the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Simon’s party… you know, the one known only as a sinner?… I wonder if she followed him to Jerusalem, or the woman who was cured of her twelve years of hemorrhaging when she touched Jesus’ cloak… Perhaps her cloak was among those in the street.

Jairus may have come, maybe even at his daughter’s insistence. After all it was Jesus who said to her, “Little sister, wake up”

Was there a tall and regal looking woman who had once been stooped over?  

Were there lepers whose skin had cleared and people unable to stand still after being healed of paralysis?  

We don’t know… but we do know this: multitudes sang his praises, longed to see him made King, and were painfully aware of the dangers they were in.And yet they persisted in their celebration… because they had seen it. They knew the glory of the Lord as it had been revealed in the person of Jesus.

And they would not be silent.  

Not when it became clear that they were not alone. That they were part of this multitude of people, all of whom had lived on the edges, in the margins, all of whom had been transformed.

The kingdom of God was near.
Salvation had come to them.
In the form of a man riding on the back of a donkey.

And with or without tree branches or palm fronds, the people were loudly and proudly honoring him.

They were treating him like royalty. Not that Jesus was entering Jerusalem like a king or prince. That would have looked very different.

These people would have been familiar with the spectacle of Roman military parades.  Not only in Jerusalem but anywhere the empire wished to remind its subjects of its power over them.

Or the processions of the various rulers set in place by the emperor, each empowered and expected (and probably more than happy) to maintain a sense of being set apart, set above the rabble.  

Not too high, mind you… otherwise they run the risk of …. Well, the very same risks that Jesus was taking in allowing the people to refer to him as king.

While Jesus is willing to deal with the consequences, there are some among the religious leaders in Jerusalem who are definitely not.  They are horrified by the prospect of the crowd drawing too much attention to Jesus, too much attention to the Jews.  They are more than a little scared for the lives of their people.  Not to mention their own lives!  

Shh… can’t you get them to be quiet?  I mean, what in the world, man?!  These are your followers, make them stop!

He couldn’t…
He wouldn’t…
And even if he did… the rocks would cry out.

Because this was so much bigger than church politics.
Bigger than the convoluted relationship between the church and state
Bigger than the challenges of being an oppressed people

Jesus arrival in Jerusalem is a divine visitation.  
This is God with us. Being with us.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.  Among the people of God.
And what has been seen cannot be unseen
What has been done and experienced, must be told and retold.

In Jesus, these people have experienced the reconciling work of the priest, they have heard the teaching of the prophet, and now they are ready to see the power of the King.

They have waited for one who would pick up the thread, who would return to the House of David and begin to reign again. They don’t need the powerful in the church to tell them where Jesus got the power to heal and transform. They already know. And they are ready to follow him.

John the Baptist had said it would be so back in Luke 3. When religious leaders claimed their special inheritance, said that they were in with God based solely on their lineage, John told them that repentance wasn’t optional and inheritance wasn’t guaranteed. And he said, “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

Plain old rocks, nothing special… made heirs to God.
And now, those stones had come to life!

People who had been treated like nobodies:
The sinners and the tax collectors
The blind and the lame
The unclean and worthless…
Today they were walking and shouting like somebodies!

It was glorious.
And Jesus was all for it.

No way was he shutting this down.

And yet, he had to have known.  After all, he had been predicting it for years, though more frequently as they approached the Jerusalem.

This was the beginning of the end.

And the reality of what that meant for Jesus was almost secondary to the truth that Jerusalem, the very heart of the people of Israel, would turn from a scene of triumph to a place of rejection. There would be no peace for Jesus in Jerusalem.

And he knew that Jerusalem would not experience peace either.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who offered the very peace for which all of humanity hungers had no words of comfort: And make no mistake, he felt no comfort in these hard words…

After all, As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it.
And he said “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”

The day will come when you are surrounded and besieged.
You will be crushed, and not a stone will be left on stone.

“…because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

On a day when so many people saw him – recognized the Lord in him – Jesus knew it would not last.  Because not everyone saw him… really saw the truth of him.

Not everyone was ready to follow his way of loving God and loving neighbors. Some found his popularity as distressing as his theology. Others were bound by law to assure that there were no threats – even small ones – to the powers of Rome.

And so the very stones that had come together to praise Jesus, they would be the ones that suffered.

There would come a time of destruction, when the Temple that stood proudly would be torn down, stone by stone. People would be scattered – physically and spiritually.

The stones would be weeping. Out of pain, grief, and fear.

And that, my friends, is the bittersweet truth of life, even now. Even as we experience joy, even as we have moments of quiet, even as we hold onto the glimmers of hope in our hearts, we don’t know lasting peace.

Not as a community,
not as a nation.
Not as a species.   

We humans are a violent lot

We can’t go a week without news of airstrikes, chemical weapons, arms races being reignited
We can’t go a week without shootings, bomb threats, and beatings
We can’t go a week without arguments between spouses that escalate into fist fights, children being harmed by parents.
We can’t go a week without someone seeing no other way out than harming themselves.
We can’t go a week without using our words, our relationships  and our influence to tear down someone else.

We humans are a violent lot

I suspect that as we begin this holy week, Jesus weeps still. Not just for Jerusalem, but for the hearts of his people everywhere. Because we can’t place the blame – at least not solely –  on the people here and around the world who don’t know Jesus.

I have to believe that the God in Jesus who wept at the thought of Jerusalem’s destruction, weeps whenever we choose to be a destructive force in the world.

And I have to believe that the God in Jesus, who is at work in and through us, would weep with joy to see us repent.

God in Jesus – would weep with joy to see us – each of us and all of us – re-oriented to the peace we are offered in the way of living that Jesus taught.

Confessing, repenting, choosing to follow again.

Then, and only then are we likely to hear the words “You have arrived at your destination.”

 

The View

Primary Scripture Luke 18:31-19:10

Jesus has just about made it to Jerusalem. It has been quite a journey since that day he set his face for the city, but they are now headed into Jericho, about 15 miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies. On foot, through mountainous terrain, however… The road gets longer as it winds its way to the city.

We don’t know how many days will pass between their time in Jericho and their arrival in Jerusalem. But our reading made clear that what awaits Jesus there is clearly weighing on his mind.

For a third time, Jesus shares a glimpse into his future: his death and resurrection.  And once again, those closest to him are in the dark. Unable to see what he means.

Taken together, these three predictions or teachings paint a fairly robust picture of what is to come. The first time, Jesus says that his suffering, rejection and death will come at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes in Jerusalem. Not as a result of what he is doing, but because of his identity.

The second teaching is much shorter, with Jesus saying that he will be betrayed into human hands.  And then in today’s reading, Jesus takes it further.  He will be handed over from the Jews into Gentile custody.  Those political powers will mock and insult him, physically abuse and ultimately kill him.

At every level, Jesus will be refused; he will be the messiah rejected by humanity so that what is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.
He will suffer and die.
He will rise.
All so that he might accomplish all that he was sent to do…
All that he might seek and save the lost.

And so, all of the interruptions and side trips and all of the interactions that seemed not to be in their itinerary to Jerusalem…  They were definitely part of his agenda.

It is no surprise then, as they enter Jericho, that the journey to Jerusalem is interrupted yet again… first by a blind man.

The blind man is a beggar by trade.  He sits on the roadside, listening for the sounds of people passing by. He asks, people give, hopefully enough that he can eat.  

It’s a pretty straightforward transaction. For him and for those who give.  

Almsgiving was a mitzvah – a good deed.  Offering the mercy of alms is a way to bless someone and perhaps receive a blessing from God in return.  

Everyone knew how the financial transaction worked.  There was honor in the giving, and there was shame in the sin that must have caused the blindness, along with shame in the need and in the asking.

The second interruption, was a bit different. As a publican by trade, a chief tax collector in fact, Zaccheus was also familiar with financial transactions. His work was not as much like an IRS agent as we might first assume.  The Romans generally did their own dirty work in that regard. They had plenty of mid-level overseers to keep track of what was collected and and military personnel to intimidate (or worse) as needed in the collecting.

No, Zaccheus was a more like a private contractor hired by the Roman government to handle international trade contracts and to collect the customs payments on goods that moved in and out of the empire. These jobs were fairly common in port cities and along the border, and Zaccheus apparently supervised others in this work. He had also been at it long enough to amass enough wealth to be known as a rich man.

If the blind man was at the bottom rung of the financial ladder, Zaccheus was accustomed to the view from the top. Not that his wealth meant Zaccheus was viewed any more positively than the beggar… at least not by most Jews. After all, he was a Jewish businessman profiting from the very empire that made all of their lives miserable. Let’s just say he would not have been invited to many dinner parties.

Tax collectors and sinners… they were regularly lumped together. Though for different reasons, this very rich man and this very poor man were both living on the margins of Jewish religious life.

And on this day in Jericho, neither of them can see Jesus
But they both persist.
And on this day in Jericho, Jesus sees both of them.
He sees the blind man, but not simply his poverty or his blindness
He sees Zaccheus, but not primarily his wealth

Jesus sees them and stops for them because Jesus sees what so many others have not.
Jesus sees men whose hearts see in him what so many others have missed.
Which is why the transaction between these men and the Messiah is nothing like what either of them have grown accustomed to.

For the blind man, Jesus offers mercy. But not the mercy of almsgiving that will allow him to eat for a day or two. Jesus offers mercy that asks the question, rather than assuming the answer.  What do you want?  

I want to see.
I want to know that I, too, can be forgiven.
That I am a child of God, beloved and worthy of dignity.
Jesus, Son of David, I want you to be who I believe you are.
I want you to be able to do what I believe you can do.
I want to see that… I want to see God’s glory revealed.

Jesus offers mercy that looks like forgiveness.  Forgiveness that looks like healing
The faith that the blind man offered up in those words… I want to see… that was faith enough.  

Salvation had come.
And it looked an awful lot like healing, wholeness and opportunity.
It looked an awful lot like Jesus.

And as Jesus moved on, the view from the no-longer-blind man’s spot was pretty amazing.

Zaccheus had worked awfully hard to catch a glimpse of Jesus. And he had tossed aside whatever dignity he had to climb up into the tree to get a better view.

When Jesus calls him down to talk, we actually hit some of the limits of translating ancient Greek into modern English. See, Luke uses a verb tense that can be rendered a couple of different ways, because it can mean both in Greek.

The NRSV has Zaccheus speaking in the future tense…
I will give half of my possessions to the poor;
I will pay back anyone I defrauded with four times the amount.

But it is also possible to translate Zaccheus’ words as
I have given away half of my wealth;
I have made things right by returning four times more than what was illegal gain.

A more complete understanding might be I have and will continue…

He may well be saying “I know what people say about me, why people despise me, but this is how I have done my job… this is how I will keep doing it. They really don’t know me. 

Scholars much smarter than me and my preaching friends have been arguing about this for quite some time.  But regardless of whether he is indicating a new change of heart or explaining to Jesus the truth of what has gone on, Zaccheus has shown a much better understanding of what it means to serve God, rather than serve his own wealth, than 99% of the people Jesus has encountered.    

As I reflected on what Luke was hoping to convey, it struck me that the translation we prefer might be shaped by the way we understand Jesus’ reply to Zaccheus.

Salvation has come to this house today

It’s hard to separate our understanding of Jesus’ words from the understanding of salvation that we have inherited here in 21st century America. Waves of evangelicalism have swept North America since the Puritan fathers arrived and the Great Awakening was stirred. The resulting focus on individual salvation from eternal damnation can make our relationship with God seem like a single transaction: In exchange for a “sinner’s prayer” we receive a ticket to paradise.  

This is, in fact, a relatively new doctrine. And it certainly was never the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Like the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus teaches that repentance happens again and again as our hearts are reoriented to God’s will again and again.

Jesus’ work was all about bringing wholeness right then, right there.  Offering forgiveness and healing, reconnection into community.  Saving their lives in this flesh and blood realm, often by removing any barriers to their being part of a family again…. even as he rewarded their faith in the God they could not see. The God we cannot see.

Doing that work meant being present for people in such a way that he – personally – was their salvation. Before, during and after his death and resurrection.

Seeing Jesus
Being seen by Jesus
Experiencing the reality of God’s love and grace simply by being near him.
That is salvation.

His presence was sufficient to shore up the faith of all who who had ears to hear. All who had eyes to see (even while they are physically blind!)

His passing through town, encouraged the faith of those who wanted to see Jesus badly enough to keep shouting when other would shush them or to make a fool of themselves by climbing up for a better view.

People still long to see Jesus,
to hear a word of hope
to be in the presence of the divine

They long to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

They need to hear assurance of grace and mercy
People still want the healing and wholeness that comes when we are loved and accepted just as we are

OK – Not just people.
Not just they.
You, me, everyone I know
We all cry out for mercy.

What do you want? Jesus still asks   

We want to see.
We want to be seen,
We want to be known,
We want to be loved.

Salvation still looks a lot like community,
Salvation looks a lot like the Body of Christ

And where, if not among others who have been in the presence of Christ,
Where, if not around the table…
A table where a rich man like Zaccheus, wearing his purple cloaks would feel welcome
A table where a poor man, who had begged for years in ragswould also feel welcome

Where,  if not here are we no longer lost?

Let us pray….

Pastor’s Note for April

I haven’t told a whole lot of people what really got me started on all this walking I’ve been doing.  Like most folks, I have known for years (decades even) what it takes to be healthy: regular exercise, a balanced diet, plenty of sleep, and time away from stress and responsibilities.  And like many folks, I was pretty much living at the opposite end of the spectrum for most of those areas.  And so, it was just a matter of time before I got the kind of news I heard right about this time last year.  

I had gone to an urgent care clinic for a sinus infection and my blood pressure was way out of control. As in, they wanted me to go directly to a hospital. Right that minute. Immediately, I was thinking about all the things I was responsible for and all the people I would be leaving in a major squeeze if I was in the hospital overnight. Or even for the next few days.  I didn’t have time for that. Who has time for that? 

So instead, I signed the paper releasing them from responsibility if I died before actually going to the hospital. Definitely not the smartest move I’ve ever made. Definitely not something I recommend.

But as I left, I thought to myself, Ok. Get past this crazy month – and if you’re not dead, it will be time to get serious about living.

I did exactly that. I managed to survive what was a really stressful, hectic few weeks, and then I got serious about making the changes I needed to make in order to live to see my 50th birthday.

There was a little bit of dying involved. I had to kill the idea – my own misguided belief that had somehow lingered since adolescence – that I was invincible.  And I had to take aim, one by one, at some of the habits that were making me sick. And I had to put to rest the biggest myth I had carried around: that I was not worth the effort it would take to make those changes.

I share this with you now because I want to say that we are past the point of antibiotics and rest. Becoming a healthy and thriving church again – it’s going to take a lot of work. A lot of energy and activity.  It will take persistence and trust in God’s resurrection power. It will take all the community and love we can muster when the inevitable misunderstandings and disagreements pop up.

But hear me, friends, when I say that this congregation is so very worth it.  You are worth all the effort it is going to take, all the pain we will endure, all the sweat and tears that are bound to fall. You are worth it because the church is God’s plan for the world to know all the love, grace, hope, and peace that we have experienced through Jesus Christ.  You are worth all that God has and will invest in you, and I am honored to be walking alongside you.

Of Walls and Chasms

Primary Scripture: Luke 16:19-31

Here, for the third time, Luke recounts Jesus using a parable involving a “certain rich man.”   There was the story about the Rich Fool in Luke 12, which Jesus told as a warning against all kinds of greed.

And in the passage just preceding today’s reading, at the start of chapter 16, is the story of the dishonest manager, followed by this warning: No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

In all three cases, Jesus shows how the relationship between these “certain rich men” and their wealth got each one into trouble. And among those listening to the story of the rich man and Lazarus?  The Pharisees, whom Luke identifies as “lovers of money”.  

When combined with the teachings about the lost ones… the lost sheep and coin and sons… it’s easy to see that Jesus isn’t looking to confront them for the sake of argument. I can hear a mixture of frustration and concern as he says they may be able to make themselves look good in front of other men, but that God knows their hearts, God sees their motives.   

Even if the people had been  fooled into thinking the Pharisees had everything right, God saw it for the evil that was at its core. Not that the men themselves were evil, mind you, but their focus on money and power and influence… definitely.  

These beloved children of God were so distracted by these things of the world, they had lost sight of God. They were blind to the ways that God needed them to be about the same business as Jesus – bringing the Kingdom of God into the world.

Jesus was concerned for the leaders of the synagogue and the way that they would shape the life of the people in their congregations, as well as the broader community.  It was in that context of love and concern that he told the story of two men who experienced life very differently.

The rich man had all he could possibly need and more.
Enough that he feasted every day…
Enough to live in a house with a wall around it and gates.
Enough to wear the finest clothes
Enough to walk outside and not even acknowledge Lazarus.

Lazarus had nothing.  No home, no food.
No family, or at least none to take him in and care for him.
No one but the dogs, and their company told the rest of the community exactly how unclean he was.
Perhaps someone dumped him at the gate where he sheltered
Perhaps in hopes that this rich man would share from his abundance.
But he never did.
Not on this earthly plain.

And in one of the few times that Luke refers to life beyond this life, he describes the anguish in which the rich man exists in Hades. It is a sharp contrast from the comfort that Lazarus receives in death.  

While Jesus doesn’t mention it directly, this story echoes his sermon on the plain, specifically the section in which Luke records the beatitudes –
Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
20 “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

Lazarus, who knew sorrow and poverty, who experienced hunger and exclusion…
day after day after day…  
He was no longer alone.  He was not just sitting near Abraham, but was close as a son nestled into the arms of his father. Safe, secure.  Held.  Loved.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,  for you have received your consolation.

There would be no intimacy, no care, for the man who had been so coddled in this earthly realm.  In his arrogance, even in that tortured state, he thought himself above Lazarus.  Who but a servant would come with water? Couldn’t he see the inversion promised in the prophecies at this point?

Apparently, he was still blind…

This man has been so “blessed” materially in life that he was insulated from the realities of what was happening outside the walls of his compound.  His daily bread was the equivalent of the celebration held upon the return of the prodigal son.  An extravagance he could afford, but at what cost to his soul?

His wealth had become an idol… his possessions and position had become more important than loving his neighbor and caring for the community.

Every day that he allowed Lazarus to remain just outside the walls, alone and starving, the chasm between the rich man and his potential welcome into that great cloud of faithful witnesses grows wider.

Is material comfort worth the loss of right relationship with God?  Is it worth being counted among the lost souls?  

That is the question Jesus is raising with this parable. Really, it’s not a threat, but a question.
That is the question left for us to answer as well.

Not only as individuals, but as a church, as a community, as a nation.

We are a culture that prides itself on rugged individualism and the myth that each person can make it from rags to riches on his or her own.

I suppose that such a capitalist system would naturally lead to a consumer-driven belief system – one in which we believe that God blesses us with material comfort and wealth based on just how strongly we believe, how much faith we have.

It also leads us to believe that we and our things are of greatest value, which means we need locks, walls, gates, alarms… ostensibly to keep people out. But eventually they keep people in, too. They train us to replace relationship with privacy.  And we go from knowing our neighbors, to fearing them.  

We aren’t so different from the rich man, in that we become insulated by fear –
Fear stoked by news reports that focus on the crimes and the scariest stories that bring in the most viewers… meanwhile actual crime rates are falling

We become insulated by our ignorance –
Ignorance fed by the harmful and insidious myths that surround poverty. Harmful because they allow us – even encourage us – to build our walls of misunderstanding, of distrust and of separation ever higher

Over and over again, data shows our social safety nets are full of holes, with millions of Americans dropping through them, but anecdotes about the tiny minority of people who game the system drive policy decisions.

Incidence of fraud among those who receive welfare or housing subsidies is no higher than the rate of those cheating on income tax returns in higher income brackets.

In every state where drug testing is mandated to receive assistance, the percentage of those found using is lower than in many middle class suburban neighborhoods.

The reality is that most households or families – regardless of how many people of what ethnicity in what combination – are one medical emergency from financial ruin.  People you know, perhaps even people in this room who look to be doing ok, have had to make choices in the last 3-4 months between paying for food, housing, electricity or medications.  

There are more people renting in our cities than ever before, and most of them can be evicted for no cause or for actions and situations beyond their control.

I recently heard an interview with a woman who had worked two jobs for years so that she could mover her children out of a large apartment complex into small house in a safer neighborhood.  They were doing fine until her oldest son was mistaken for someone else and became the victim of a drive-by shooting. She came home from visiting him in the hospital to find an eviction notice on her door- for a crime that even the police had made clear to the landlords that her family was not responsible for,

Hospital bills ate up the savings she might have used for a deposit on a rental unit in the area.  She wanted to keep her younger children in their neighborhood school, where friends and familiar teachers could help them deal with trauma, but eventually had no choice but to move into a shelter.   

I wish I could say otherwise, but stories like this are not uncommon… In her case, the catalyst was a shooting.  In other cases, it’s a critical illness that leads to hospitalization.

But many people and families live right on the bubble… all it takes is one major expense.
A hurricane deductible for home repair,
Or frequent high copays after onset of mental illness.
Or the death of a wage-earner in the household.
Or the collapse of the stock market and the subsequent draining of retirement savings

And because we don’t broadcast these situations to strangers, it is really easy to miss them in all but our closest friends or relatives.
When we don’t know our neighbors;
w
hen they become nothing but visual white noise, like the stack of old magazines on my side table that never make it to the recycle bin because I’ve stopped seeing them

When we don’t know and can’t see our neighbors, we aren’t going to love them well.
In fact, we can’t love them.
And that, my friends, is the evil that Jesus is teaching against.

Not only because the pain and damage we do when we withhold love from one another and our neighbors, but also because of the damage done to our relationship with God.

The higher and thicker and stronger our walls get, the wider the chasm between our hearts and God’s heart.

And there is collateral damage.
There is collateral damage to the church and to the hearts of those who hear our claims to be followers of Christ, but see the widening gap between his teachings and our actions.

This is why wealth is such a dangerous idol….
It truly can render the church incapable of healing the world,
incapable of bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ,
incapable of loving and serving God.

We can’t love both, Jesus says, it’s that simple.

So… where does that leave me, you might be asking?
Where does that leave you, Pastor Laura?
Where does that leave us?

Well… I’m not sure I have a simple application for what is clear and simple truth.  Except for this.  

Many years ago, I was challenged by a talk about stewardship.  It was one among many I heard at a retreat.  It wasn’t about how much we ought to give or where and when to give.  

It was about the reality that every penny we have has been entrusted to us by God.  And whether they add up to barely enough to pay the rent or we have enough to live in the biggest fanciest mansion in town, all of those pennies are passing through our hands back into the world.

That part I liked… the idea that God provides for me, even if I’d prefer God provided a little more month to month. And I felt pretty good about the concept that God might even trust me enough to let me decide how to use that money.

But then they went on to say that the best window into what we prioritize in life is our check register… I wrote a lot more checks back then.  Now I’d probably challenge people to look online at their bank statement.

Anyway, the idea was that our financial activities can be a window into our spiritual health. We just needed to look at how that money gets spent each month.
How much goes to me, my comfort, my desires?
How much goes back out to the community?
How much goes toward glorifying God in some way?  

The idea wasn’t to shame me or anyone else in the room that day… or to make us feel guilty for being at a retreat when others couldn’t afford the day off.  Nor do I share this to shame anyone here today.

The idea is that we need to think about our spending and our wealth. We need to look at the habits or patterns in our relationship with money, and see if those choices reflect what we affirm in our faith.

Yes, we’re going to pay for housing and the utilities that make it a home.  And yes, we’ll be buying food and beverages.  But as we worked through the different categories of a typical budget, a question began to form in my mind:

If there is only so much money at the end of the month (which already includes my tithe and special offerings), how can my basic spending become part of building the Kingdom of God?

Which of course led me to wonder….

Is my household feasting or eating our daily bread?  Are there others suffering because of the farming and hiring practices that bring our food to the grocery stores? Can I make different choices that might even bring about change?

Is my household using electricity and gasoline wisely?  Knowing I am driving a lot for work, are there ways to conserve for other trips around town? Is it time to look at a different, more economical car?

And looking beyond my front porch, might there neighbors- right around me – that I could offer a meal or a ride to the store so that they can use that food or gas money for a prescription or other need?

I know for a fact that there are ways that I overspend, and frivolously spend.
I know this in part because I go back and do this exercise a few times a year.  Color coding and looking closely at how I am sending all those pennies out into the world.  

I do this because I need that regular reminder to re-orient my heart toward my neighbors and away from my love for Dunkin Donuts coffee…

But guys – here’s the deal – even if I did better every day… even if I set aside all the money I spend on extras and meals out and toys…  I couldn’t put a dent in the needs of this city, much less this nation or the world.

That takes all of us.
All of our checkbooks.
I mean ALL all of us.

That takes changes to our budgets in our churches, our cities, our states and nations…

And here’s the thing… right now in most every level of government, decisions about how our collective funds will be spent are being made.  And at almost every level of government, those decisions are being made by some of the richest people in what remains the richest country in the world.

The decisions being made about health care, mental health care, the health of waterways and oceans, the protection of wildlife and forests, the use of all of our natural resources…

Decisions about how schools will be funded, whether or not there will be social safety nets like SNAP, Medicare, and even social security…

These decisions are being made by people who have long been well-insulated and separated from their neighbors. They are being made inside buildings with very thick walls.

These decisions are being made at a time when leaders claim to be followers of Jesus.

They are being made in a time when there are very few real relationships being maintained across ideological lines.

And the world is watching.
But the world isn’t just watching the leaders making these decisions.
People are watching the church

People who might not ever show up in this building are reading the words of Jesus – our Savior. And they are comparing those words to the actions made by people calling our nation a Christian nation.

You can bet they will be asking some hard questions- of us.
I pray that we are ready to answer them.

Because just like the rich man, like the Pharisees, we can’t claim ignorance-
We have the witness of the prophets, and their calls to acts of justice and mercy.
We have the commands of God from the very beginning to care for the earth and to care for one another.
We have the reminders throughout the New Testament letters that we belong to one another.
And we have the teachings of Christ, who is indeed risen from the dead, revealing the power of God over sin and the brokenness of the world.

But unlike the rich man… we have time.
There is still time for repentance.
There is still time for forgiveness.
There is still time for relationships to be established, for reconciliation to begin
There is still time for us to to join in God’s work as the kingdom comes near and God’s will is done in this time and this place

If we are ready for the work, ready for the challenge, there still room for travelers on the road to resurrection.  

Lost and Found

A sermon based on Psalm 95 1:7  and Luke 15:1-32

This week, we get three parables.

Three stories in response to the way that the Pharisees and scribes – who had ostensibly come out to hear Jesus teach and preach – were, in fact, mostly complaining.  Honestly, They had been grumbling for some time now about Jesus  and the company he was keeping.

If we turn back to chapter 5, we see that when Levi gave a great banquet in his house for Jesus, a large crowd of tax collectors were at table… which caused the Pharisees and their scribes to complain to the disciples, saying “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  (5:30)

And later, in chapter 7, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of their saying that John the Baptist had a demon because he abstained from  bread and wine, even as they called Jesus a glutton and drunkard and friend of tax collectors and sinners.  (7:33-34)

Obviously, there was a pattern developing…

The question keeps coming up… though rarely as a question from those struggling with Jesus’ obvious answer to their concerns…..

Who should be included?
Who should be included at table?
Who should be included in community…  in the people I count as family… ?
Who is included in the Kingdom of God?

And the unspoken flip side of the question… who may I exclude?
Because that gets us to the real question behind “Who is my neighbor?”

Who isn’t my neighbor?
Who
isn’t in?

See…  once I can identify THOSE people, the ones who aren’t my neighbors, then I need not do the work of loving them, nor feel guilty about treating them unjustly.

Tax collectors, Gentiles, and sinners of all ilk… those people had been excluded for a long time.  They were not among God’s people. Though some might have been, if not for the ways they had broken the laws or associated with others who had.

Those people were not among the righteous… like the Pharisees and scribes… and those who agreed with them, ate like them, lived like them… And so it seemed odd that Jesus, a prophet and potentially the messiah, Would be so willing to welcome and associate with those people.

What I didn’t read earlier as we turned to scripture was the verse immediately preceding this trio of parables…

At the end of a series of sayings about discipleship, what it means to follow and live in the way that God commands, Jesus talks about salt… he says
“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away.

Then Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”  (Luke 14:34-35)

The very next sentence – verse 1 in today’s reading, tells us who does have ears to listen…
Luke writes “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

And then he continues, telling us… And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

As it turns out, Jesus has heard this refrain about tax collectors and sinners often enough, has responded to them often enough, that you almost get the feeling they aren’t listening to what he has said… At least not in any meaningful way.  

Hearing, in Luke’s gospel, is as critical to serving God as seeing.  

When your eyes are opened,  when your ears are opened, when you really really see people, when you really really hear the good news, then there is the potential for a reorientation of the heart… that recalculation and repentance we’ve talked about for the last several weeks.  

Jesus is more than happy to hang out with the ones who are listening – because he knows that they will hear the truth that God’s Kingdom is here….  In here…  in us… whenever we open our hearts and minds to God’s direction and then become the ones who make the Kingdom visible… for everyone.  

And so in the same way that God in Jesus refused to exclude those who had been pushed to the edges, Jesus cannot leave those who have been at the center, the ones pushing others out to the margins, Jesus will not leave them without the opportunity to hear – again – what Jesus has come to do…  

It was time again to engage their hearts and minds with a story. Or three.

There’s a beautiful pattern in these stories…  did you catch it?

The sheep that was lost – is found – and the shepherd gathers his friends to celebrate!!
The coin that was lost – is found – and the woman gathers her friends to celebrate with her!!
The son that was lost to the father – he returns from the far country – and the father throws a massive party!!

The people in the story – the ones meant to represent God – seem almost foolish at points, don’t they?

I mean, what kind of shepherd would really leave an entire flock of sheep alone… in the wilderness… to go get one stray?
A foolish one…

I mean, come on!  The fleece alone on 99 sheep had to be worth a fortune.  Keeping them together and safe and fed and watered is the priority of any shepherd with common sense.  

Pray for the wayward sheep to return?  Sure.
Herd the other sheep in the direction you think it went… maybe.
Leave them? Nope.

But that’s exactly what he does.  Just like the woman steps away from any chores or work or plans that she has for the day… as soon as she realizes her coin is lost. Whatever it takes to search every nook and corner of her house… that is what she’ll do.    

Which actually reminds me of my friend Brad.

The other day, I ran across a photo he posted. It was talking about how he and his wife had matching keyrings that had been gifts. How much the keyrings meant to them. And then he said: this is her set of keys.  Mine have gone missing…  

After a day of being distracted by thoughts of where the key might be, how much time, trouble and money it would take to replace them, Brad had the whole family looking that evening.  

They tore up the whole house…. Dinner was delayed, extracurricular activities were canceled… 

And finally, after the whole house had been torn apart and  put back together, Brad knew it was time…  the last place any of us want to look. But knowing it was trash day eve, Brad dug through the trash can…

And sure enough, there it was – his key ring with all the keys intact.

But in the meantime, life came screeching to a halt.
No one was going anywhere.
No one was watching TV…
No one was on the internet after that first  “has anyone we visited in the last 24 hours seen this…” post.

Not until the – slightly messy and sticky – keys were finally found.  And then… there was much rejoicing.  A new photo announced their return to the safety of the key rack.

Friends joined in the jubilant chorus of alleluias! We didn’t all rush to Cincinnati, of course, but comments and likes and Yay’s appeared from friends all across the country!

Because when the thing that was lost… the thing of great value that was lost… is found… there is always celebration upon its return! Even if the actual market value – the cost to replace the lost item –  isn’t all that high.

Like when the lost thing is a teddy bear  – missing an eye and half the fur on its backside.

Or when the lost thing is just a scrap of paper….containing a note from a dear friend that you’ve managed to keep up with across several states and a couple of decades.

Because the value of an object isn’t really just about the object, is it?

Their value comes from a relationship…
the connection between the lost sheep or coin
The connection between the key or teddy bear or scrap of paper….
And the one who is missing it.
The one who longs to be reunited with it.

Which is very very good news, indeed. Why?  

Because this means my value is not based on my merits – my skills or my ability to be good…
My value is not tied to my ability to follow rules or live up to expectations.

This is very good news because I know I wouldn’t be worth a whole lot after 50 years of making messes of all manner of things.

And I am not an anomaly.
Nope.

There is not a person on this earth who could claim to be worthy of standing in the presence of God. Not based on their own merit.

And yet, we are worthy, and we have great value in God’s eyes.
Because God loves us
Because God loves you.  

Did you hear that as good news…?
Let all who have ears to hear, listen.
God loves you.  God loves you.

Just as against all odds, God loves me…
God loves the world….

Which means…
There is not a single person in the world unworthy of invitation into the Kingdom of God.
There is not a single person on this earth who is unworthy
of hearing the call of the prophet to repent,
of hearing the call to open their eyes and see the pain and injustice around them

There is not a single person on this earth who is unworthy of hearing the call to reorient their hearts to the work of bringing healing to their little corner of the world.
Not a single one.
Not even that person you are trying to imagine right now.
Or that second one.  

Oh, there are plenty of people who have wandered off… like sheep, we all can go astray.

And there are certainly people who have chosen to walk away, to separate themselves from God for a variety of reasons

And there are people who have – without even being completely aware of it – allowed their work for God to replace their relationship with God.  People who look or sound righteous, but are every bit as lost as those who have left the fold.

People like the older brother.
He’s a good son.
He’s a hard worker.
He’s a rule follower.
All excellent traits.  

I mean, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a faithful person who keeps plugging away.  But there is nothing inherently better about being that person, either.

Because sometimes, as we keep our heads down and do the work,
even when others get distracted or leave,
even when times get difficult…
When we keep our heads down, the work ceases to be about gratitude or love and becomes a duty.

We can begin to forget about the grace that drew us into God’s family,
We can forget about the provision that reveals God’s faithfulness to us,
We can lose sight of the privilege that already being “in” has afforded
We can forget the joy of our own return to the fold and become jealous of the depth and breadth of God’s love, resentful of the joyful welcome offered to others.
We can begin to grumble and complain and refuse to be part of the party.

Which means, for all intents and purposes, we are lost…

Kind of like when the hubby and I would drive without a map (pre GPS, of course) because he knew right where he was going… Sometimes, I’d get the feeling maybe we were a little off course and I’d ask, “Are we lost?”

“Oh no,” he’d say, “I know exactly where I am”

It only took me a couple of misadventures early in our marriage to realize that knowing “exactly where we are” did not necessarily mean he knew where we were relative to where we hoped to be in the end.  

In other words… yes, we were lost. Or at the very least not found

The younger brother in our story… as soon as he headed out the door, he was lost to the father.
Not because he was living wildly – at least until the money ran out.
And not because he was impoverished and doing about as bad a job as any Jew could get assigned…  what with the Levitical restrictions about pork and pigs.

The son was lost because the relationship between father and son was broken.

And yet… the father watched and waited.  

Oh, he went on with the day to day, as you must.  But he must have been watching.. 

Because one day the father sees him, while he was still far off, he sees him
and in that moment, the father was filled with compassion;

Remember that word we talked about- when Jesus saw -really saw –  the widow mourning her dead son – and he was moved in his GUTS – his splangknoi  – to do something…  to act out of love and empathy and mercy…  Jesus was moved with compassion and raised the boy from the dead…

In the same way, Luke tells us, the father was moved by compassion –  and he ran and put his arms around his son and kissed him.

He welcomed him home with compassion that was rooted in very core of his being

And what did he say about this son?

Well, before the young man could even finish the proposal he must have rehearsed a thousand times on that long journey home…

I know I’m not worthy to be your son… would you let me live here as a hired hand…

Before the young man could get all the words out of his mouth…
The father was calling for a party to end all parties…

Because  this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

And here’s the thing, guys…
When the older son stood there arms crossed, brows furrowed, refusing to join the celebration, what he revealed was another broken relationship.  

The years of resentment and frustration over who knows what… maybe the kid brother leaving him to more than his share of work…for sure he felt like his hard work was never rewarded…just slaving away for Dad.

While his was not nearly so dramatic as his brother’s departure, the fracturing of the relationship between the older son and his father was no less real and no less tragic in terms of lost time,

And its revelation – in the midst of celebration –  was no less heartbreaking for the father.   

And yet, the father still went out to meet him, to comfort him, to remind him of just how much he was loved, and to offer the same invitation to rejoice in the reunion…

Looking at my own life, I can certainly relate to the younger brother… I spent time in a far country, I have believed myself totally unworthy, and I have been welcomed back home by grace

Grace that extends far beyond my wildest imaginings.

I can also relate to the father, having lost many people I love, having been put in the position of helping my own child leave home before I was ready to do so, not knowing if there would be a reunion or any reconciliation.

And if I am really honest with myself, I can also relate to the older brother… wanting to control just how far that grace extends, control who else gets to hear the welcome I enjoy every day.

That circle is extended beyond where it used to be..  but yeah… I have issues.

I still wrestle and argue with God about stuff like this.

But here’s the thing… Even as I argue and fuss, I know for a fact that God weeps

Every time we make it hard for any beloved child, old or young, alone or part of a family, to experience sanctuary from this broken and hurtful world.  

Every time I choose my comfort over taking a risk and meeting the needs of another human being, our God weeps.  

This is why we need each other…
to push and prod and challenge each other to know better and do better
to read scriptures and ask each other…

Are we there yet?
Are we listening for the call of the prophet to repent?
Are we listening for the voices, watching for the far off shapes  of those who have wandered to far countries, wondering if they might be ready to be welcomed home?
Are we keeping our hearts tender and open to God?
Are we opening our doors widely enough?

We need each other to ask…
Are we willing to answer these questions with honesty and integrity?

We need each other…
Because otherwise we may never take the time to look within, to confess and to repent of the ways that we have been lost without even knowing it.  

And the truth about confession – real, vulnerable, hard to say out loud confession – is this:
God, who is merciful and just, full of compassion, is faithful to forgive,
And God longs to know that we are ready to come home…

Would you Join your hearts with mine in prayer…
Gracious, compassionate God,
Today my prayer is simple…
Would you give us ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts to love, feet to run and arms to embrace?
Would you send your Spirit to fill us, so that we might  lift our voices along with yours – loudly and joyfully-boisterously with abandon every time the lost ones are found, no matter who they are?
Because we can’t do this alone.  We need you.
Always and forever.
Amen.  

Good news from bad news 

Actually, the news wasn’t bad… it was awful. And shocking.  My brother-in-law had taken ill and was on the edge of death within 2 days when I put my husband on a plane headed for Providence.  It was hard to take in the idea that he might not make it in time to say goodbye. 

And he didn’t.  The good news was that there would not be a long battle for life. The bad news was the truth that he was gone. And every one of us who knew him and loved him was left to wonder how we would navigate a world without his laugh, his encouragement, his counsel, his teasing… his presence. 

The good news was that my church folk knew I needed to go, even though I had just missed worship last week to lead a retreat.  And a RevGal who lived close by stepped up to offer to cover as soon as I asked for prayers.  The bad news was that I needed to be ready to be wife and sister-in-law and pastor-presiding-over-the-service all at once. 

The good news is that the service went well.  It was the first time my by-marriage family has seen me being a minister. And for many of them, the first time a minister did a service that wasn’t just “by the book”.   It was hard, but important, for me to be able to honor his life and our relationship by presiding.  And it was hard to do so in a way that was unabashedly Christian without preaching (per the family’s wishes). 

The bad news is that I still have grieving to do and big emotions to feel… and it will be way too easy for me to set them aside to get back to work when I get home tonight. 

Perhaps the best of the good news (and yes, I have buried the lede) is that we got to spend a good 36 or so hours with the kid.  Beautiful, hope-filled hours, filled with conversations about all manner of things.  The kind of ranging conversations I have missed something awful.  We shared a few moments of sorrow and laughter that I will treasure until the next time we can be together in person.   And I will replay those goodbye hugs as many times as it takes to embed them in my memory at the cellular level. 

Walking my @$$ off

Literally.
Now that I have lost about 25% of myself by weight, people are starting to notice and feel comfortable asking… how are you doing it?  

The answer is simple. I’ve been walking my ass off. Literally. I started out with about a mile a day and adding steps to my daily routine by parking farther out, taking the stairs, that kind of thing. Now I average 3 miles a day, with at least one long (6+ miles) walk each week. 

And because I am me- a recovering athlete with a competition problem- I’m not talking leisurely strolls… I have dropped my pace from 20min miles last May to an average of 15min.  

I have done a handful of 5Ks and a 10K, with several others on the calendar. But the big goal is completing a timed half marathon in May.  

In fact, I’ll be walking those 13.1 miles almost a year to the day after I decided it was time to get up off the couch and get healthy.  

So, yeah… All that walking has helped me reshape my body and rediscover muscles and confidence that had been buried for far too long.

After the exercise routine felt pretty well established, I started tracking what I eat. But not obsessively. And not because I am avoiding particular foods. Except tomatoes, flan and brussel sprouts… those are nasty. 

Really, I just wanted to get to a place where I was making decisions about food, being aware and intentional. And in the same way those first weeks of tracking steps let me see the reality of how sedentary my life was, a food log let me see how chaotic my relationship with food had become. 

So – I have a goal for what goes in relative to what goes out via exercise. Some days I am over, some days I am under, but every day I am thinking about how what goes in will fuel me.  
It’s not like I didn’t know… but like I tell my people at church, knowing and doing are two very different things.  

I have a ways to go yet, before I hit the number/range that would be a good weight to maintain as I wander deeper into my 50’s. I am hopeful that the habits I am building on the way are sustainable, because they are helping me re-learn the foundational habit of loving myself and believing I am worth keeping around for a good long time. 

Dust Settles

A poem for this Ash Wednesday.  In memory of Jesse. 

Dust and wind are not usually friends.
Fine particles are easily overwhelmed and scattered
Unless the wind is spirit
Unless the wind
is gathering dust
is breathing life.
Held together by water and love that claims each particle and proclaims it good,
dust and wind breathe together.
For a while
Until the work is done
And dust must settle again