You have arrived…

Primary Scripture Luke 19:29-44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they would not be silent.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was glorious.
And Jesus was all for it.

No way was he shutting this down.

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

This was the beginning of the end.

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

And he knew that Jerusalem would not experience peace either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We humans are a violent lot

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

We humans are a violent lot

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

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

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

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

Confessing, repenting, choosing to follow again.

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

 

The View

Primary Scripture Luke 18:31-19:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salvation has come to this house today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you want? Jesus still asks   

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

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

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

Where,  if not here are we no longer lost?

Let us pray….

Pastor’s Note for April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Walls and Chasms

Primary Scripture: Luke 16:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently, he was still blind…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which of course led me to wonder….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost and Found

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

This week, we get three parables.

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

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

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

Obviously, there was a pattern developing…

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

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

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

Who isn’t my neighbor?
Who
isn’t in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which actually reminds me of my friend Brad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is very very good news, indeed. Why?  

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

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

And I am not an anomaly.
Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet… the father watched and waited.  

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

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

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

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

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

And what did he say about this son?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace that extends far beyond my wildest imaginings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good news from bad news 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking my @$$ off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dust Settles

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

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

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 One

A Sermon on Boy Scout Sunday

Luke brings John the Baptist into his telling of Jesus’ story very early on.  In fact, the first time they meet is when Mary visits Elizabeth while both women are pregnant.  John leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice and Jesus’ presence nearby.

The next time we meet John, he is a man living at the edge of the wilderness, preaching about repentance and baptizing all who confessed their sins and professed their faith in God.  

He spoke of the one who would come after him.  The one who would baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire. John made clear that he was not the messiah himself, but that the messiah was coming.

Jesus went out to the Jordan to be baptized, but we don’t know if John knew he was there.  We do know that following his baptism, Jesus went on into the wilderness where he endured many temptations.

And we know that at some point, Herod took exception to being told by John that he needed to repent as well. That he was taking part in a regime that was not God’s.  And eventually John found himself imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Jesus is causing quite a stir in the region. He has been teaching and healing, and even raising the dead son of a widow to life.  And that is where we pick up the action in Luke 7, starting at verse 18.   

We’ve had annual passes to DisneyWorld for almost as long as we’ve lived here in Orlando. It was a great place for our kiddo to grow up, even with the crowds.  It was a great place to practice some life skills – like what to do if you get lost or separated from your group.  How do you know who to ask for help?   

We talked about what a cast member looks like  –  what kind of costumes or name tags to look for. And we did the same thing when we would run into a police officer or deputy around town….

Yeah – I know – it’s not foolproof.
Bad people do bad things in uniforms, too.
But… the uniforms and other signifiers can at least be a helpful start in finding the person you are looking for.

That’s one reason I wear one of my collared shirts when I am representing the church at a public function, or leading a funeral or a service like today  – when we have more visitors around. If someone who doesn’t know me is looking for the pastor, I’m much easier to find when I am “in uniform”

That’s why our Scouts and their leaders are in uniform today.  So that we can easily see and greet them as our special guests.

I suspect there were more than a few people in Jesus’ day who would have appreciated some kind of uniform to tell them he was The One.

You see, the prophets had been talking about the Messiah to come for generations.  Including John.In fact, John had been proclaiming for years that the Messiah would come and the Jews would no longer be captives…  And here he was… sending messengers out to talk to Jesus, while he was in prison.

The truth is that the political situation in which John and Jesus fund themselves… well, it’s complicated.

Their region of northern Palestine where you would find Galilee –  was under occupation by the Roman Empire. Herod Antipas was the Jewish “King” as his father Herod the Great had been before him.  

And like his father, Herod had a reputation for assuring that his interests were served first and foremost. The Jewish people might or might not benefit from any decisions he might make, especially in relation to their imperial colonizers.

As we can trace over and over throughout the history of empires and occupied territories, the Jewish people find themselves dealing with horrible social inequity.  There was a very small number of Jews with tremendous wealth and stature, while the vast majority were beyond poor. They were destitute.  

Their standing as a nation was even more tenuous given the reality that they represented such a tiny and politically inconsequential group among many peoples folded into the Roman empire. Plus, their unique culture and customs were puzzling at best, in the eyes of those who ruled over them.

And like many groups who find themselves in a complex political situation, the Jewish people found themselves divided on what to do… how to respond to the Roman rule and to the Herods as they established a dynasty within the Roman structures.  

Not everyone agreed on what it meant to be Jewish, how Jews were to move through the world in light of their oppression, how they were to worship God and even what the Messiah would look like. In other words, the Jewish people of Jesus’ time represented a diversity of beliefs, practices and political views.

We might be able to relate –

If we gathered up someone from all the different churches and places of worship in Apopka, we would likely have a group with a wide variety of beliefs, practices and political views… even as we claimed one common connection- Jesus.  We Christians are a diverse bunch.

John, along with many Jews of his time, was waiting and watching for a Jewish Messiah who would redeem Israel from Roman oppression. Someone who would launch a Messianic Era, bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.

All these healing miracles Jesus has done,  they’re great, but is that it?  Is there more to come?

Because – from John’s vantage point, it still pretty much looked like the Kingdom of Herod.
And beyond Herod, they still had Rome to contend with.

So he wants to know… Are you the one?  Or is there someone else to come?

It’s tempting to dig in right there, to assume that John is doubting or backing down. But there is something about John’s willingness to even ask that makes me think it’s not doubt And there is something intriguing about the way Jesus responds to this query.  

As is his custom, Jesus answers without answering the question.  He gives them a job.
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.
Go and tell him about the ways God’s power is being unleashed in the world.
Go and tell him how the people are experiencing Good News.

And then, when the messengers for John left, he turned to the crowd and began to teach again on the idea of WHO.

Who was John?  Not just a prophet, but the forerunner, the one God tasked with preparing the way for the Messiah… for Jesus.  Jesus is saying, if you can see John for who he is, then my identity becomes clear, as well.

Who recognized him?  The tax collectors, the undesirables, the ones who knew they needed grace, release, healing, wholeness, forgiveness.

Who rejected John’s ministry, thus rejecting God’s purposes?  Those who believed they already had what they needed  – those with comfort, status, and privilege among the Jews.

This is why I think John’s question may very well have been one of hopeful anticipation….  I am pretty sure you’re the one…  Tell me  I’ve got this right… Tell me that we are on the cusp of the age for which so many are longing.

The miracles John’s messengers witnessed and then bore witness to – by going and telling – they were the beginning of the Messianic age!

And whenever we see evidence of God’s work in the world – we too are witnessing God’s promises unfolding.
Yes – there were and are still corrupt politicians in the world.
Yes- there were and are church leaders who disappoint us
Yes – the gap between rich and poor continues to be alarminging
So yes – the world is still very very much in need of a savior.

The question is, what does the Messiah look like today? What should we expect when we go looking?

Jesus words to the people were a helpful warning against mis-placed expectations about what the Messiah would be and do.

If we hope that the messiah will sweep in and use the same kind of power and might that we humans have built into our power structures, we will be disappointed…

Jesus came with humility, keeping company with the outcasts instead of the powerful.

And he would be rewarded with a crown of thorns and a criminal’s death, rather than the comfort of a palace and the majesty of a throne.

We must look for a messiah who enters into the pain and suffering of the world,
Who understands that salvation for the hungry sometimes look like bread and water, and not the metaphircal sort.
A messiah who knows that oppression ends where relationships are not hindered by exclusion and fear.

And we must, as the Body of Christ – the ones who represent him in this present age – do likewise. So that any who come looking in hopeful expectation can know God answers prayers and keeps promises.

We don’t have to wear crosses or collars or any sort of uniform to advertise that we belong to Jesus,
Not if we are continuing his work…
not if we make ourselves available… if we willingingly enter into the suffering and pain of others and carry with us the compassionate, healing love of Christ.

That is how they will know us… by our love.
By the fruit born of living in the power of the Holy Spirit

And they will know us by the stories to go and tell as witnesses to the power of God at work in and among us.

Let us pray…

In a world where power and influence reign,
Embolden us to set aside power, set aside wealth.

In a world where we look for quick fixes with little thought for consequences and ripple effects…
Give us the patience and persistence and wisdom

In a world where the pain of others is cause for laughter and derision…
Give us hearts that ooze compassion for the broken hearted and suffering,
hearts that seek to learn about those who are not like us,
hearts that seek community with the very ones you would eat and drink and pray with.

May we be the ones for whom the world has been waiting,
May we be the church for which you have been praying,
Today and every day.  Amen.