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….

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.  

More Than a Little

Primary Scripture Luke 7:36-50

The story of the woman anointing Jesus is one of the stories that appears in all four gospels… but is told slightly differently by each of the writers.  

It might feel a little early for us to approach this text- we most often associate it with Holy Week, and thus speak about the way that the woman was preparing Jesus for burial.Her anointing is a bit of of an ironic coronation for the rightful King of the Jews, even as it echoes Samuel’s anointing of King David.  

But Luke’s placement is much earlier.  And the setting has other implications.

Luke has Jesus invited to the home of a Pharisee, Simon, to dine.  The woman – un-named, but not unknown to those at the table, enters uninvited. Without speaking, she weeps, wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears.  She wipes them with her hair and kisses them.  Then she anoints his feet with perfumed oil.

It would make sense, based on Jesus’ response to Simon, to spend some time contrasting the woman’s lavish act of hospitality with Simon’s lack of hospitality.  Perhaps even to heap shame of Simon and his household for lacking this virtue, as well as lacking the faith and faithfulness the woman displays.

We might also talk about how this interaction mimics the Greek or Hellenistic symposium, in which a host invites guests to his home to dialogue about abstract matters like love, friendship or wisdom.  Her interruption brings an interesting wrinkle and a depth of reality to an evening that might have been steeped in words and navel-gazing.  

Of course, Jesus is never about navel gazing or words just for the sake of words.  His ministry happens in the space where words and actions overlap…where words and actions collide.   

Which may explain why the juxtaposition of the silent actions of the woman and the silent judgement of Simon moves Jesus to speak.

Did you catch that little detail?  It’s easy to miss…Let’s Look again at verse 39…

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is  who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

“…he said to himself…”

This is not Mark’s gospel, in which the onlookers object among themselves… not directly to Jesus, though probably out loud (14:4).  Nor is this like the disciples objecting openly in Matthew (26:28) or even John recalling Judas as the one who spoke his concerns aloud (John 1:4-5).

Here, Luke – and only Luke – uses what is called internal monologue. He narrates for us what Simon is thinking.  This is important for a couple of reasons.  

First, if we think back to the Holy family’s visit to the temple with the infant Jesus, we recall Simeon’s prophecy:  “Because of him (Jesus – the Messiah) the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:35). Luke uses this interaction with Simon to reinforce the truth that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the messiah.

It’s also important to understand that Luke is using a device that is rare in ancient writings. We see internal monologue all the time in current fiction and even some non-fiction writing. Even in movies as voiceovers take us inside a person’s thoughts and motives.  

Ancient writers typically reserved this device for moments of crisis – a time when the protagonist or hero is dealing with intense internal conflict. If we look at works by authors like Homer, Ovid or Virgil, we would find a pattern that looks something like this: first, the inner speech itself, then a time of taking stock of the problem, and then the hero’s chosen solution.

Luke takes a slightly different approach.  The examples of interior monologue in his gospel do come at a times of crisis, when the thinker wrestles with a difficult decision.  But Luke’s thinkers – they are not the heroes.  Or THE hero.   We never see Jesus thinking to himself.

Luke uses internal monologue for people who are NOT heroic, NOT noble. In fact, these people embody self-centeredness.  You see, in ancient Jewish literature, what one says to oneself indicates wisdom or foolishness. And Simon’s thought was clearly the latter. 

Commentator Michal Beth Dinker of Yale Divinity School describes Simon’s moment of decision this way:
Like other ancient thinking characters, Simon faces a choice; he is deciding between two opposing views of Jesus’ identity — either Jesus is a prophet or he isn’t. The question itself demonstrates that Simon lacks love, hospitality, and true discernment. Furthermore, he clearly does not want to dialogue with Jesus; he simply “thinks to himself.”

Now… When Jesus addresses Simon, he proves exactly what Simon was questioning.  Of course he knows what kind of person is touching him, honoring him. And of course Jesus knows the kind of person judging the woman,as well as questioning his welcoming of her.

Simon’s unspoken thought reveals foolishness – which is immediately contrasted with the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching, his correcting, and his forgiving.

The whole situation was more than a little disconcerting for Simon.
The woman was a sinner and everyone knew it… and they recognized her as she came in the door. 

The end of last week’s reading saw Jesus acknowledging what people were saying about him… The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

That was part of why Simon invited him over to talk. See, Simon and the Pharisees were more than a little like many of us…They were leaders in the church… not unlike those of us who have said yes to serving as elders or deacons… or leading committees…They cared – as we do – about the life and health of the community of faith

They were looking for signs that Jesus was really who he claimed to be, or signs that he was at least a prophet – if not the messiah. And the best way to do that was to compare his actions and teachings to the best tools they had… the scrolls of the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus looked more than a little like a prophet. He was wise and could heal.  He fulfilled many of the older prophets’ sayings about what the messiah would do.

But then there were those people.
The tax collectors and the sinners.
The lepers.

And the fact that he sat at table and shared a meal with any of them.
All of them.  

Table fellowship was a big deal. If you offered a place at the table to someone, you were saying they had standing with you.  They were worthy of being in your company.  And the better the seat (the closer to the host) the more honored the guest.

So, when Jesus filled the seats around a table. Or even sat at a table that included those people….   

Well…  What did he EXPECT people to think about him?
Only drunkards and sinners hang out with drunkards and sinners.

Since they were at Simon’s table that night. He had placed people just so, based on who they were and their role in the community. Or who HE wanted to honor, or converse with…

And Simon had questions for Jesus.
Theological, ethical…. Mostly in the theoretical realm

So the woman was more than a little disruptive
She was a sinner

There are all kinds of assumptions made about what her sins were. Because she is a woman, and because for generations, the majority of biblical scholars were men, most of those assumptions lean toward sexual sins…
Perhaps she was a “loose” woman.
Perhaps she, like the woman at the well, had many husbands.
Perhaps she was a prostitute.

Luke doesn’t say any of that.  He leaves a great gaping hole…

His ambiguity in the midst of all those details may actually help us.  Because it means that no matter what her sin was, her faith was more than enough to save her.

It means that no matter what your sin is.
No matter what my sin is.
No matter what sins we are part of together as a body, as a nation.
No matter what mercy we’ve chosen not to offer
No matter what injustices we’ve benefitted from
No matter what oppressive systems we’ve chosen not to be part of changing.

If we humble ourselves,
if we weep for our sins,
If we seek out the one who can and will save us from ourselves…

God’s grace and mercy are more than enough.

But It takes more than a little honesty…
with yourself, your deepest, truest self, to put words to the sins that have weighed you down.

It takes more than a little courage…
to approach yourself, your community, and your God with the truth of who you are and what you need.

And it takes more than a little faith…
not in knowing the law, the rituals, the traditions…but faith in the One who established those laws and traditions.

Because there, in God’s presence, is all the grace you and I and this broken sinful messy world could ever need.

And when we approach confession and repentance with hearts willing to receive forgiveness and compassion, those same hearts are filled to overflowing with love…
Love that must act
Love that expresses deep gratitude.

The sinful woman’s humble act is exactly what that kind of love looks like.
Just as we know that Jesus’ humility and obedience, even to death, even to a criminal’s death on a cross… is what the greatest love looks like….

Her faith has saved her.  Even before Jesus goes to the Cross.
In this instance – salvation looks like forgiveness
And forgiveness looks more than a little like healing
Jesus has seen and addressed her deepest need.

48 …he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Luke doesn’t give us any more details about this woman and the rest of her story.
Will she be embraced by the community?
Will she be welcomed as forgiven and given opportunities to start fresh?
Will they see her differently?  

I don’t know about you, but the forgiven sinner in me, the one who has worked hard not to wear the labels of my own past, wants desperately for the woman to be known for something different… for her generosity, for her kindness, for her hospitality.  

I want her to tell her story of love and forgiveness to all the other women and men in her circles…  so that they, too, might have faith, leave behind their burdens and labels and live in loving gratitude.

When I read the next few verses – in Luke 8, I can begin to imagine this is true of her and many others…

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Can you begin to imagine a world – our world –
in which everyone experienced being seen and known and welcomed all the same?
In which everyone experiences forgiveness?
In which everyone has that overwhelming urge to do good for the one who saw and welcomed them?  

Can you imagine a world in which love has so great a place?
It would be more than a little wonderful.
Way, way more like the Kingdom of God.

I know I’m not the only one who has dreamed of this world…
It is the hope of all who experience being seen and known and loved.
It is the dream, the vision put into the hearts of all who are forgiven.

And descriptions of that world pop up in all kinds of places…  Actor Mahershala Ali, was recently honored by the Screen Actors Guild for his work in ‘Moonlight.” 

Listen for that hope in this excerpt from his acceptance speech:
What I’ve learned from working on “Moonlight” is, we see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves. And what I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was, playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community, and taking that opportunity to uplift him and tell him that he mattered and that he was O.K. and accept him and, uh — I hope that we do a better job of that.

Like all of us, Ali had experienced the ways that life (and sometimes the people around us) can cause us to fold inward…. to lose sight of how valued and valuable we are.  

He had also experienced the life-giving, hope-giving love of a person who saw him, understood him, and lifted him up and out and back into the world.  Someone had been love and forgiveness for him.  

The beauty of his story is yes – how he carries that love and gratitude into his work as an actor. But even more importantly, and beautiful, is how he has become a person who sees people, speaks hope and offers love to them in his day-to-day life.

Oh that this might be true of each of us today…. and every day

The Promised Spirit

This week, we turn our attention to yet another prophet. This time, the Lord is speaking to and through Joel. We don’t know a lot about him, and scholars are divided on when to date his life and writings.

What we do know from the book of Joel is that he placed a high value on worship… Unlike many prophets who called the people to step away from worship because they were unable to do it properly. Joel called the people into a place of repentance that was all about worship.  

Listen to these words from Joel, chapter 2.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

We’ll skip down a bit for the next portion of the passage.  Still Ch 2.

28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

That first segment may sound a bit familiar from Ash Wednesday.  It is often quoted at the start of Lent, our corporate season of repentance.

Certainly we need to talk of confession and repentance year round. That is a part of why our order of worship contains a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon most weeks. But the liturgical focus is strongest in the weeks leading up to Easter.   

The second segment of our reading generally appears after Easter. It is common to pair Joel’s words with Luke’s description of Pentecost.

Joel speaks of God’s Spirit being poured out among the people… and was it ever!  Especially starting on that particular day…  On men, women. On young, old. Slave, Free… and even the Gentiles, those not really part of the promises spoken by Old Testament prophets.

The Book of Acts is filled with their stories…  The stories of the way the Spirit moved and spread the good news from family to family, city to city, through the words and deeds of ordinary people.

But God’s Spirit wasn’t boxed up someplace in the time between Joel’s prophecy and Peter’s sermon.
The Spirit is active in the waiting, in the continued telling and retelling of the stories of God’s promises, the reading and re-reading of the prophets…
The Spirit is active in the assurances that even in exile, God remains with the people,when they are in the wilderness literally or metaphorically, God is watching over them
The Spirit is active in the promises that God will restore Israel, that God will restore Judah.
And in the reminders that sometimes, in order to experience God’s presence, all the people have to do is look around.
Or turn around.
And return to the Lord.

Joel uses images associated with grieving as he calls upon the people to repent. Yes there is fasting and praying to be done, but also weeping and mourning. But this is not to be a rote completion of the ritual of mourning – an outward sign of sorrow, one that need not go deeper than one’s clothing.

In the Jewish context, the Torah mandates such expressions of grief. On the most basic level, the tearing is expression of pain and sorrow over someone’s death. But there is much more to the symbolism and the action.

One rabbi describes the deeper significance  of the ritual this way: “Judaism views death as a two-sided coin. On the one hand, when someone passes on, it is a tragedy. They have been lost to their family and friends, and there is a feeling of separation and distance that seems beyond repair.

“But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’—that their loved one hasn’t really gone.

“This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us.

“So we tear our garments,” the Rabbi goes on, “This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn.“

“…rend your hearts,” Joel says

I went for a really long walk yesterday, which means I got through a lot of music on my 90s Rock playlist.  Which means I heard a lot of U2.  There’s this little refrain that gets repeated in CedarWood Road that got me to thinking about Joel’s words and the rabbi’s description of torn hearts.

A HEART THAT IS BROKEN IS A HEART THAT IS OPEN

Stay with me here…

When we talk about sin- whether individual decisions we make that pull us away from the will of God or choices that reflect the waywardness of humanity when we are grouped into churches, cities, countries, races, and pretty much any other way we congregate…

When we talk about sin – we are talking about the ways our hearts grab onto things that are not of God.  And instead we allow our hearts to get wrapped up in the things of the world..  The brokenness and ugliness that Paul summed up for the Galatians as…
5:19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives. [They] are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course, because Paul’s point was that attempting to live by the law is an exercise in futility.

Know the law.  Yes.
Understand what is expected. Absolutely

But until one’s hearts is aligned with God’s heart, the heart that created the Law, even the work of being a good person of God can become corrupted by all of the things on that list.  

The heart that is broken is a heart that is open…

When we allow God to break open our hearts… when we rend our hearts… we no longer rely on our understanding, we are opening ourselves to the deeper work of transformation that only the Spirit can bring.

Paul goes on to say that… 5:22 the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

Those who belong to Christ have access to the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh…

There is another prophet whose words are often quoted in the advent season… a prophet who also called for repentance and spoke of the Spirit.  A prophet who was close enough in age and geography and geneology to be Jesus’ cousin. John.

Matthew 3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

[John] is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,  and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John is out there on the edge…
in the wilderness…
A place that the people don’t want to be.  

It reminds them of the generations that wandered with Moses
It reminds them of the generations spent in exile, scattered
He reminds them of the people that get pushed out to the edges

But they come…
Because his words are such a clear echo of the prophets that have come before
Because the weight of the empire and the religious leaders and taxes and poverty… it feels like captivity
Because he is speaking so passionately about a deliverer… The Promised One… the Messiah.

And they hear a call to to be immersed…
To confess the ways they have collaborated with the Kingdom of man

They hear a call come clean.
To confess that their hearts have not been with God,

To renounce their allegiance to human structures and to repent, to return to a community that eagerly awaits the coming of the new age.  And with that new age will come a baptism not with water, but with the Spirit

You and I are children of that promise.
You and I are among those men and women, the young and old, the people made of flesh and bone onto and into which the Spirit has been poured.   

And so, in this time of anticipation, in this time of listening and watching and looking for the fulfillment of the promises, I urge you to open your heart…

Grieve the things that we have lost as a community…
The people, the resources that aren’t here…
Really and truly mourn them.

The sounds of children hunting for eggs in the courtyard…
Have you rent your heart for them?

A full nursery and SS rooms bursting at the seams…
Rend your heart…

The youth trips and young adults finding places to go on missions…
Have you rent your heart for them yet?

The emerging leaders who ought to be in the pew and taking on the work so their elders could rest a bit…
Rend your heart for them too…  

Don’t just talk and worry about the church dying…
Yes – I’ve heard those grumblings among us.

That does us no good…
Mourn its death.  Rend your clothes if it helps…
But then rend your hearts.   

And return to God by confessing how we got here.  And have stayed here.
Confess the ways that you… that we  have been closed off
Confess that there are people we have failed to welcome well
Confess the misgivings we have about who might actually show up if we say “everyone is welcome”
Let’s confess our unfair expectations and our unwillingness to bend.
Let’s lay it all out in the open, all on the altar for God to cleanse
To clear out to burn away and refine
To make space for what is to come.

Friends… Rend your hearts…

A heart that is broken is a heart that is open
Open and ready to be filled by the Spirit of God
Open and ready to prophesy…
Open and ready to dream…
Open and ready for visions…
Open and ready for the work of Building the Kingdom of God

Rend your hearts…
And I will pour out my Spirit…
Not I might…

I will pour out my Spirit…
Says the God who blesses us to be a blessing.
Says the God who is able to do abundantly more than we could ask or imagine
Says the God who makes and keeps promises.
Always.
Alleluia.
Amen.

The Promise of Hope

Advent 1 2016 – Daniel 6:1-28 (and Psalm 121)   

A  big tip of the Advent 1 hat to RevGord, whose Ministerial Mutterings re: Psalm 121 and the sorts of lions dens we find and create resonated deeply and helped me find my open and close.

—-

When I was a sophomore in college (which was more years ago than I care to count), my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  My uncle planned a big reception for them, renting a hall near their home in Mesa, Arizona.  

The rest of my family drove over from Texas, and I made arrangements to fly in from Little Rock.  I had no idea what to do for a gift, being a broke and very busy college student, other than something I could make myself.I didn’t have much by way of crafting supplies, so I decided to make some music.   

I did a little research to find something meaningful, and it turned out that they included Psalm 121 in their wedding –  and that passage remained an important touchstone in their lives well beyond that special occasion.  I didn’t find any guitar-friendly settings that I could sing, so I set out to write something myself.

I spent my spare time over a couple of weeks reading and re-reading the words, feeling their rhythm and making them my own, then I wrote a simple melody that I could play and sing for them.

It was one of many lovely gifts they received that day, though the time I spent reflecting on that psalm was probably an even greater gift for me.  Not surprisingly, it has become a touchstone in my own life, a reminder of God’s steadfast love and care for me – at least as comforting as the 23rd Psalm.

The psalmist reminds me that
My help will always come from the Lord, maker of heaven and Earth.
The Lord watches over me, keeping my feet steady as I walk
And that night or day… nothing under the sun or the moon will harm me
The Lord will watch over all of our comings and goings, now and forevermore.

I’m pretty sure that is why I say with confidence to you that the God who Promises is with and for us. Just as God has been from the very first.

I don’t know what the melody the psalmist originally put with those words, or how it changed as the Hebrew people passed it along from one generation to the next.

And I don’t know what happened in the lion’s den between the moment King Darius sealed it with his signet ring and when he came back and had the stone rolled away again…

But it’s not hard for me to imagine Daniel in the dark,  singing his way through the psalms, especially the songs of lament that turn to praise. In fact, I wonder if Daniel wasn’t more comfortable than Darius that night, resting as he was in the faith that God was with him in that dark cave.  

—–

Darius was new to the throne when this story takes place… it was early in the time that the Persian Empire dominated the scene. The Persian Empire replaced the Babylonian empire as the superpower of the biblical world beginning in 539 BCE.  If we turned the clock back another 60 or so years, we would see the Babylonians in ascendance, displacing the Assyrian Empire.  

Nebuchadnezzar II annexed Judah, taking Jehoiachin captive.. You remember him, the king that took Jeremiah’s scroll, sliced it up and threw it in the fire, rather than leading the people to repentance? And then Jerusalem was destroyed soon after.

A series of murders and overthrows led to a string of less capable Babylonian rulers, the last of whom was killed just before Darius, who was a Mede, was installed.  

King Darius spread his power out among 120 satraps, sort of like governorships over provinces. These satraps were directly accountable to one the three “presidents” or overseers, of which Daniel was one.

Like Joseph among the Egyptians in the court of Pharaoh, Daniel represented an outsider, a follower of a foreign God, a keeper of unfamiliar rituals.  And because Daniel took his faith seriously, his allegiance truly was to God, not to the empire or its current ruler.  

And like Joseph, this placed Daniel at risk.

There is something ugly in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us.” Especially when that outsider gains some of the power and influence we would like to keep for ourselves and our own people.

And so, in a move that had to be way more difficult than it sounds  (I mean, how often do 120 powerful people agree unanimously  – about anything?) they all decided that it was time  to do something about Daniel.  

He was above board in all his dealings, so they would never catch him in corruption.  They had nothing on him…. except his unfaltering loyalty to God.

So they come to the king’s court and shout something like “Long live the King!” in unison before a representative walks out in front to say to Darius
All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.

And just to be sure it would have to be implemented, they had the document ready for his signature.
Now, O king, establish the interdict and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked.”

All he had to do was sign.
Which he did.
To the delight of all the conspirators.

It’s hard to know why Darius was so open to making the law…  Maybe because he was new to power and easily flattered. But what he clearly hadn’t considered was how this required show of loyalty would affect one of his most effective and trustworthy leaders, and therefore how it would affect him as King.

And so while Darius signed the decree, this was in fact a calculated manipulation by 120-plus leaders with one specific goal in mind-  to produce a written document they could use against Daniel. The conspiracy had set in motion events that would force the king to execute Daniel for his public worship of the Lord.

That darkness in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us” left Daniel in the darkness of the lion’s den.  And it left Darius tossing and turning until the earliest light of day broke through.

Sealed in what could have been his tomb, Daniel remained faithful.  Daniel trusted that the God who makes and keeps promises would also be the God who saves.

Daniel remembered and prayed
To the God who provided a ram to replace Isaac on the altar
To the God who made good from of the evil that the brothers perpetrated on Joseph
To the God who provided enough for the Elijah, the widow and her son until the rains came

Daniel prayed and sang…
I look up toward the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, the Creator of heaven and earth!
May he not allow your foot to slip!
May your protector not sleep!
Look! Israel’s protector does not sleep or slumber!
The LORD is your protector;
the LORD is the shade at your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day, or the moon by night.
The LORD will protect you from all harm; he will protect your life.
The LORD will protect you in all you do, now and forevermore.  (NET Bible)

All night he prayed and sang to the Lord
To the God who sent an angel to close the mouths of the lions
To the God who requires justice
To the God who would reveal to a king what it looks like to rule with power

God’s power to save Daniel opened Darius’ eyes and awoke in him the power to rule.
In the light of day, and in light of God’s actions, things had changed
With the light of day, there was freedom
With the light of day, there was truth
With the light of day, there was clarity

Darius had nothing to fear from Daniel, nor from Daniel’s worshipping the Lord.  Instead of condemning an innocent man to execution, Darius commands his men to rescue Daniel. Instead of ceding his leadership to the counsel, Darius puts them to death, as well as their families, for their scheming against Daniel and for manipulating the King.

Darius now embodies a decisive king, condemning the guilty, rescuing the faithful and promoting worship of the Lord throughout the empire.  

His new decree reverses the old:
The people throughout his realm should tremble and fear the Lord,
“For he is the living God; he endures forever.
His kingdom will not be destroyed; his authority is forever.
He rescues and delivers and performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions!”

See, the story of Daniel and the lions isn’t really about the lions, so much as it is about the human heart.
Our capacity for fear and hate
and our capacity for faith
and our capacity for hope.

Which, in the end, is why this story is not as odd a choice for the start of Advent as I first thought.
The hope of Advent is the hope that Daniel held onto as he waited in the darkness
The hope of the people of Israel as they waited in exile.
It is the hope of a heart that bows only to God, trusts only in God.
The hope of a body that rests in faith, even as it prays and works for justice.

The hope of Advent is the very mystery of our faith that we recite in our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving…
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again

And as we wait and hope for his return, the hope for the world is that the church of Jesus Christ would be all that it is called to be
All that we are called to embody.

Because until he comes again,
we are the bearers of light of Christ,
which our world so desperately needs.  

Because there remains something ugly in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us.”
for those who look or speak different
for those who come from someplace else
for those who challenge our traditions or habits

And being followers of Jesus does not make us immune.
Not from the hatred.
And not from getting caught up in the hating

Because there are always those who would whisper,
those who would stir up fear,
who would use their privilege and power in hurtful, hateful ways.

The truth is… we live in a world where jealousy and nervousness, insecurity and fear all too often drive or at least shape important policy decisions. And important spending decisions.

We live in a world where it sometimes feels like playing it safe is wiser than wholeheartedly being the people that God has formed us to be.

Yes, friends, we live in a world in which we can find a wondrous variety of lion’s dens…

And yet…  there is another truth:
We live in a world where there is hope.
We live in a world where we carry hope.

It is the hope of God’s enduring Kingdom to come.
The hope of the kingdom that will not be destroyed
The hope of a rescuer.
The One who has died. The One who is Risen. The One who will Come Again.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Amen.

The Promise Renewed, Anew

For Christ the King Sunday… Scriptures from Jeremiah 36 and 31

This week sits at a funny intersection of our secular and liturgical calendars.

Today marks the beginning of the end of the year, the holiday season that starts with Thanksgiving, runs headlong into Christmas and then comes to a grand conclusion with New Year’s Eve. Though I suppose technically, if we look at the consumer marketing calendar, the holiday season started just before Halloween.

In the liturgical calendar, today is the final Sunday of the year. We have completed another cycle of feast days and seasons. Next Sunday, we start over with Advent.  
But today, we mark the end of the year with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.  

“The day centers on the crucified and risen Christ, whom God exalted to rule over the whole universe. The celebration of the lordship of Christ thus looks back to Ascension, Easter, and Transfiguration, and points ahead to the appearing in glory of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Christ reigns supreme.

Christ’s truth judges falsehood. As the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, Christ is the center of the universe, the ruler of all history, the judge of all people. In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. In the end, Christ will triumph over the forces of evil.

Such concepts as these cluster around the affirmation that Christ is King or Christ reigns! As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives. Christ calls us to stand with those who in every age confessed, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

In every generation, demagogues emerge to claim an allegiance that belongs only to God. But Christ alone has the right to claim our highest loyalty. The blood of martyrs, past and present, witnesses to this truth.”  (From the Companion to the Book of Common Worship)

The Christ the King festival was established in 1925 by decree of Pope Pius XI.

For just a little context, 1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini declared he was taking over Italy and turning it into a dictatorship ending free elections.

Adolf Hitler published his personal manifesto Mein Kampf that same year.

In 1924, government sponsored unrest in the Ruhr region of Germany led to the complete destabilization and collapse of the German economy.  The issues created by the collapse forced France and Belgium to agree on a lowered reparation payment plan and an to end their occupation of the Ruhr within the following year – 1925.

And Stalin was General Secretary of the Central Committee in Russia.  

Looking back, we can see the early warning signs of the second world war.  I’m not sure that Pope Pius was that prescient, but he did see the dangers of nations like Italy being ruled by dictators. And of national governments seeking to silence or remove the church from public life entirely.

He outlined the purposes of Christ the King Sunday in an encyclical or letter from the Pope to the bishops and other clerics.  He spoke of the ways that individuals – whether part of the Catholic faith or not – might reflect on the ongoing sovereignty of God, as well as the Kingdom to come.

Then he spoke to the political happenings of the day, writing:

“Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.”  (Quas Primus)

A few weeks ago, we looked at Samuel’s interactions with God and with the people of Israel as they asked for a king, so that they might be like other nations.

It was a bad idea from the beginning, which God made clear to the people through Samuel.  Kings are fallible, vulnerable to the temptations that all of us humans face.  

And yet, God relented.

Like a parent who knows that every choice their child makes has the potential for great success and equally spectacular failure, God gave Israel the agency to change their minds. Or to go ahead and say, “No really, we want a king.”  

Which they did. Even after God let them know the consequences of placing their faith in the leadership of men.

And within just a few generations, the wheels had come off the wagon in the northern kingdom.  And eventually, those same consequences would come south to Judah.

And once more, God chooses a prophet to carry a message of repentance into the crisis.

36:1 In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord:

2 Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. 3 It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.

4 Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. 5 And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, “I am prevented from entering the house of the Lord; 6 so you go yourself, and on a fast day in the hearing of the people in the Lord’s house you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation. You shall read them also in the hearing of all the people of Judah who come up from their towns.7 It may be that their plea will come before the Lord, and that all of them will turn from their evil ways, for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people.”

8 And Baruch son of Neriah did all that the prophet Jeremiah ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the Lord in the Lord’s house.

Unlike Jonah, walking through the city calling on the people of Ninevah to repent, Baruch went to the Temple. The people heard the word of the Lord, including some of the men who had access to the King. They knew that this was an important word, and that it was critical for the King to hear the message.

Remember the Ninevite’s response?  The King’s response?
Sackcloth and ashes. Repentance.  Fear of the Lord.

And they were the enemies of the Lord!

Here’s how the king of Judah… the descendant from the house of David… responded
21 Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king.

22 Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. 23 As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.

No sackcloth.
Wrong kind of ashes.

Now, it’s important to note where this takes place. The king is in his winter apartment, which means he had a separate place to live during the warmer months.  In other words, the King is quite comfortable, on this occasion and in general, enjoying the luxuries that come with money and power.

He is so comfortable with power, in fact, that he is not at all frightened by the words from the prophet. As Jehudi read, Jehoiakim literally removed the offending words from the scroll.  He destroyed them by throwing the scraps into the fire.

He utterly rejected the word of God… one slice of the pen, one big old NOPE after another

I don’t know if this was the first, but it certainly was not the last example of book-burning by the ruler of a nation. It is a means of silencing opposition, no matter its origin  

Quite literally, this destruction tells the writer and would-be readers that the sword is mightier than the pen. Symbolically, the message is even more sinister: the one in power can destroy ideas, beliefs, hopes, or dreams.   

We don’t see a lot of book burning these days, but books do get banned.  

People call for boycotts of artists and musicians, when their images or lyrics oppose our strongly-held beliefs or offend our sensibilities.  And certainly in the past months, as protesters make known their frustration with deadly police actions, pipelines through sacred land, city water systems being poisoned and the threats of elected officials against minority groups… there have been government-sponsored efforts to quiet, if not silence their voices.     

But this was not an act of free speech or art…

What the king had forgotten in his arrogance and narcissistic paranoia, was that the message was not from flesh and blood, from Jeremiah, but from God.
This was the word of God to the people of God…
Delivered to a King by a prophet chosen by God.

And in the end, even if you’re the king, you don’t get to decide what has and hasn’t happened.  What God did or didn’t say.
27 Now, after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:

28 Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which King Jehoiakim of Judah has burned.

Thus, even now, all these generations and translations later, we see in our scriptures not only the warnings of God against the king and the people of Judah, but the actions that Jehoiakim took.

Ironically, this king who thought so highly of himself that he assumed he could silence the voice God,  the very God who had made it possible for him to rule…That king is essentially a footnote in the history of Israel.  

He is just one more king who disobeyed.
One more king who led the people astray.
One more example of why the story of humanity’s redemption is dependent on God’s grace and not our obedience.  

You see, even before this scroll was re-written, before the original was read to the king and his court, before it was taken to the temple to be read aloud to the people as they fasted, Jeremiah had also heard a promise from God.  

A message of hope:
31:31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt— a covenant that they broke,  though I was their husband, says the Lord.

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Even as Zion is overtaken by the Babylon, Jeremiah’s prophecy offers consolation.  God has offered a new covenant. A Covenant that moves the relationship between God and the people into new territory.

This covenant is inclusive of both kingdoms – Israel and Judah. God’s promise to David was that a king from his house would always be on the throne in Judah, but there was no such promise made for leadership in the north, leading to chaos and conflict within Israel and against Judah.   

Now there is hope for a reconciliation between the tribes, a close to the enmity between these two kingdoms. And there is hope for the poor and the powerful as all will know God, from the least to the greatest.

Second, this covenant will be built on the foundation of the Torah, with teachings that center on the written word. Not only written in the scrolls, but on the hearts of the people. They can go beyond hearing, beyond reading the laws, to knowing and understanding them at the heart level. They can thus become a faithful people, lawful instead of lawless, maintaining covenant in community.

And finally, this new covenant is dependent on God’s divine faithfulness, remaining in place despite human inconsistency.  God assures that the covenant is unbreakable by taking on the work directly and completely. Listen again for who will be the prime mover in this effort:

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God.”

Lot’s of I language there… but this isn’t God making the people into puppets, controlled by some unknown puppet master. This covenant is actually even more relational, less distant.

Where God’s earlier covenant was intimate, using the metaphor of marriage between God and the people, this covenant goes a bit further.  The people will not just understand intellectually that God cares about their future.

God now promises that the people will know the Lord and be known by him.
God promises that we can know the Lord
God promises that we are known.
And loved.

Yes, even us… generations and half a world away from the continent on which Jeremiah and the Hebrew people lived.

We are known and loved by the God who makes and keeps promises.  Because here’s the most amazing part of this new covenant… and the part that ought to sound a little bit familiar.

It offers a fresh start.  

This is not the promise of heirs more abundant than the stars of the night sky… as amazing as that promise was for Abraham and Sarah

This is not the promise of a land filled with milk and honey… as incredible a promise as that was for a people being led out of captivity in Egypt

This is not the promise of a kingdom that will not perish… as honoring as that promise was for David.

This covenant offers the promise of forgiveness.

The Lord says “They will know me for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

The language of a new covenant should sound a little familiar because they are words we remember every month or so…  

On the night that Jesus was betrayed, first he blessed and shared the bread with his followers, explaining that it was his body, broken for them.

And then he took the cup and blessed it as well, and then he said this cup is the new covenant in my blood, for the forgiveness of sins.

This is a callback from the Jesus to the unique words that only Jeremiah heard and shared from the Lord. The new covenant is fulfilled in the person of Jesus who knew humanity intimately as he lived and walked among us. As one of us. Even as he knew and kept God’s will and God’s laws perfectly, fully divine in his complete humanness.  

What is not unique is the betrayal that came before the words of forgiveness were spoken.
The people had chosen a king over God. The King had chosen to worship his own power, rather than God’s power. His own version of the Law over God’s Law. And in choosing to obey the King, the people had chosen again. Not God, but humanity.

That choice sent them into exile, where they waited and watched for God’s rescue, God’s plan for redemption. The fulfillment of that plan was Jesus, God’s answer to the people’s betrayal.

The one who came to do the things God had expected of the people and their kings all those generations ago

The one who subverted the empire by seeking out the people at the edges, the ones who had the least influence, the least power, the fewest resources.

The dangers we face as the church of Jesus Christ in 21st Century America are not unlike the dangers faced by 1st century Jews living in the Roman Empire.  Not unlike those faced by believers in 1925.

The powerful rulers of this human realm would love to distract us from the work left to us by Jesus.
They would slice off and discard the parts of God’s law that are inconvenient or too difficult
They would sit in comfortable spaces, surrounded by people who are afraid to speak truth
They would silence the voices of those being left behind

And so, on this Christ the King Sunday, we look ahead a bit to Luke’s description of Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth, where he inaugurated his ministry by reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus then sat down and said something utterly shocking: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Fulfilled?  Yes… fulfilled.

The Roman empire was still in charge. Caesar still sat on his throne. As did Herod.

But the Kingdom of God had arrived in the person of Christ. The embodiment of the God who keeps promises.

Christ, the promised one who sought to return the outcast into the community
The Promised One who healed and forgave and set captives free.
The Promised One who embodied the work that every believer is called to do, making the world a more just, more loving, more hope-filled place.

As we live into the laws written on our hearts, the Kingdom of God is here.
In this place, in the Body of Christ
In the church of Jesus Christ
In the people of God who answer the call to make disciples and teach them all that he commands.

The Kingdom of God is here in God’s people who speak truth to power
Who refuse to sit quietly and instead rise up…
choosing to do justice and love mercy,
even as we walk humbly with the God who knows us, forgives us, loves us and sends us.