Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ready for Resurrection: Luke 24:1-12

1On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Wildflowers by Kevin Galens.  Creative commons image on flickr
This year, Easter falls on the earliest date since 2008—so it’s little wonder I’ve heard so many people say “I’m not ready for Easter.”  I’ve probably said it more than anyone. 

One major reason is that Holy Week is the busiest week in the Church—and it is a tremendous effort to bring it all together. 

But I feel there’s a deeper reason…

To be truly ready for Easter, it would be nice if things were better.  If our fears, sorrows, and burdens would just go away, then we could celebrate. If terrorist attacks, political upheaval, social injustice and poverty would just go away, then we could celebrate.  Then, we could bring out the pretty spring flowers and sing our alleluias.  Then, it would feel like Easter.

But death and evil remain a part of our world. Our sinfulness remains. So if you’ve come here this morning discouraged, with doubts that Christ’s resurrection is going to make any differently rence in your life; if life's pains have become too much to bear, you’re not alone.

One can only imagine the agony the women must have been feeling as they went to Jesus’ tomb.  Not only did they suffer the loss of their friend and teacher, they lost the one whom they believed to be God’s Messiah.  And now, they’re on their way to complete the gruesome and excruciating task of embalming Jesus’ body.  I find it a miracle that anyone could do such a thing—because the men stay behind..  His arrest, trial, and crucifixion have proven too much for them.  His death is too much. 

All of us can relate to that.  How do you react in a crisis?  When something happens that you could never imagined in your worst nightmares?  How do you react when your hopes are crushed, and your dreams are shattered?  How do you react when you make a terrible mistake—and there’s no going back?

Death is real—and we see it all around us.  We see it on the news; we see it right here in our hometown.  And it happens to all of us.

Faith can die, too—especially when we see more of death than we see of God. 

Death can destroy the life of the living.  This is what we call despair.  It can drive us to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, either out of shame for what we’ve done or what has befallen us; or to prevent any further pain due to rejection or disappointment.  Despair can drive us to seek quick fixes and instant pleasures that dull the pain for a moment, but do us greater harm in the long run.  Sometimes, with some success, we can try and fake it—and work hard to make it appear as though everything’s great, but still we’re broken inside. 

If things were better, we’d all be ready for Easter.  But they are what they are. 

Jesus was crucified.  He died.  The men stay in hiding, but the women go.  In their loving devotion to Jesus, they face reality—and it is there, among the dead, that God changes everything.  Two men in dazzling clothes appear in the tomb and announce that Jesus was raised. 

There's one thing we need to remember about resurrection-- it's not resuscitation.  It's not a return to the past.  Resurrection is something totally new.

It’s no surprise that the female and male disciples are perplexed, terrified, amazed, and disbelieving at Christ’s resurrection—because that’s the nature of resurrection.  It is new life rising from the ashes of death.  It is change—but change is threatening.  The unfamiliar is scary. 

We can’t predict exactly what Jesus will be doing or when, any more than the disciples could.  What we do know is that death and the devil will not have the last word—not in your life or mine; not in Leechburg, not in our church; not in God’s world.  Everything that hurts and shames us will have a definite end. 

Resurrection is God’s promise that awaits us at the dawning of each new day.  But it is also what we do as Jesus’ disciples.  When God’s goodness meets the faith, hope, and love of ordinary people like you and me, resurrection happens!  We can’t recreate a glorious past, but with Jesus we can create a brighter tomorrow for ourselves, our community, and our world.  We can win against hunger, alienation, and despair.   

Yet you won’t see it or know it if you’re hiding out from the world; too scared and discouraged to face a new day.  We have to face the death, wherever it is—because God shows up there.  And God creates resurrection through the simplest gifts and graces…

Resurrection is:
·         Coming here on Easter morning, full of doubts and questions
·         It’s hands joined in prayer amid a hopeless situation
·         It’s people sharing donated clothes in a church basement; and plastic Easter eggs strewn across the lawn
·         It’s in our children’s first communion
·         It’s reaching out in love to a complete stranger
·         It’s saying “I’m sorry” and “you’re forgiven”

It may not feel like Easter.  But today is a new day.  Jesus is risen—and the time for resurrection is now!

This Is Love - Good Friday

Why did Jesus have to die?

Is he the victim of a God who put him on this earth solely to suffer death and hell?  Does he die to pay God a debt we never could?  Does he die to quench wrath of an angry, vengeful God?

Or is Jesus a victim of his love for the world; a martyr for our cause?

Or, perhaps, is Jesus our victim?  Did we kill him with our sin?

I can’t help but ask these questions as we come together on this day that is ironically called “Good Friday.”

With Jesus crying out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I want and I need to make sense of all this. 

If Jesus’ death is a gift of love, I want to see love.  I want to know who this Jesus is who would do such a thing.  I want to know who this God is who gives his only Son in this way.

The truth is, God is not some brutal, tyrannical patriarch who would demand the human sacrifice of his only Son.  I say this because, in the Old Testament, Kings Ahaz and Manasseh of Judah sacrificed their sons to the pagan gods. This is not who our God is

Jesus is who God is, in the truth he speaks, and in the life he gives. 

Our God participates in human suffering.  Jesus participates in the helplessness and abandonment we feel amid agonizing pain and horrific evil.  The cross is a sign assuring us that no matter what we’re going through, even death itself, Jesus is in it with us.  That’s love.

Jesus wasn’t born to die on the cross.  Jesus was born so that God could take that cross and his agonizing sufferings and death, and use them to defeat death and the devil.  We don’t need to be saved from God.  We need to be saved from death—both the death we all suffer, and the death we create through our sin.  Jesus death accomplishes this.  That’s love.

Time and time again, the Scriptures speak of Jesus dying as a perfect sacrifice for our sin.  But Jesus didn’t do this to appease God.  What Jesus does, by dying on the cross, is do everything we need to do to get right with God.  Jesus is showing us and proving to us is that it’s not up to us to make ourselves right with God.  It would be impossible for us to work our way up to God with perfect lives and perfect sacrifices.  In Christ, we don’t have to.  Jesus brings God to us, embodying every bit of God’s forgiveness, mercy, and grace.  That’s love. 

Jesus dies because of love—because those who live in love give in love.  In his short life, Jesus gave everything he had.  He gave himself away to the poorest, most vulnerable, and most undeserving persons in God’s world.  Nobody could offer anything in return for what he gave.  But that didn’t matter.  It’s no surprise that Jesus would give his life away, too—giving everything he had to a world that would doesn’t love him back. 

So tonight, we gather before the cross to see who God us, and how precious we are in God’s sight.  But we see also God’s will for our lives and the world we inhabit.  We see the truth about life in God’s kingdom. 

We are called to take up our cross, and follow Jesus—because this is how we come into the life that God intends.  It’s not that we have to live this way in order to measure up to God’s holy standard.  Life and love are not found in the pursuit of power, privilege, and prestige.  Life is born where there is compassion, peace, and justice.  Life flourishes where there is forgiveness, patience, and mercy.  Life flourishes when we stop worrying about the future and stop fighting for our rights, and instead trust God to take up our needs—and live together in a community of mutual care and concern.  This is real life—and this is real love.

To The Very End: John 13:1-17, 31-35 - Maundy Thursday

1Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

31b“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (NRSV)
One of my fondest childhood memories is the big family holiday meals we once had.  Most were at my grandmother’s house, who was (and still is) the family matriarch. 

She’d expand her dining room table to its maximum length—but the table wasn’t big enough to seat everyone, so she would set up a folding table, usually in the adjacent living room, because her dining room wasn’t that big.  This is where us children would sit, though with one major exception: grandma would sit there too.

Let me tell you that was the greatest.  It was already a treat just to eat her food—but no words can describe how great it felt to be with grandma, at the center of her attention.  There are no words to describe how wonderful it was (and is) to be loved in that way.

Here in John’s Gospel, love is the focus of Jesus’ last supper.  There’s not even a mention of bread or wine.  We are told that Jesus is loving his disciples “to the end,” knowing full well that 1) his disciples are all going to dessert him; 2) Peter is going to deny him three times; and 3) Judas Iscariot will literally walk out the door before the supper is even over to conspire with the religious leaders to put Jesus to death.  

In spite of all of this, Jesus loves them.  And he doesn’t merely tell them he loves them.  He gets down on his knees and washes their feet—including Peter; including Judas.  In the next twenty-four hours, he will love the world by pouring out everything that he has to give, by dying on a cross for people who don’t love him back. 

That’s the miracle of the Passion: that God’s love persists in the face of our rejection of it.  We are disobedient children and failed disciples—but that’s not how Jesus sees us!  He sets his table among us, giving us his body and blood in bread and wine.  He washes our feet and makes us clean; he gives us life upon the cross; he loves us to the end

That’s why we’re here tonight: to behold the awesome mystery of God’s love revealed to us in Jesus’ living, his giving, and his dying.  But this is only part of the story.

In his final words, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another as he loves us.  Jesus isn’t giving this commandment as the requirement for eternal life.  To truly know the love of Jesus, you have to live it and give it as he does. 

This means setting tables where God’s children go hungry.  This means inviting in those whom the rest of society has forgotten about.  This means accepting and bearing with each other, even when a person’s failings and shortcomings are well known.  This means forgiving each other, even when our wounds are still open.  This means washing feet; serving in ways that are unglamorous and perhaps even unrewarding—because this is what the neighbor needs.  When it comes to Jesus’ love, words aren’t enough.  You must live it.  You must give it.

This past Sunday, I challenged everyone to ponder and pray over these three questions:
1.      Name before God what hurts the most in your life.
2.      Name before God the evils you see hurting God’s children in the world. 
3.      Ask God to help you change one thing in your life; to put one sinful habit or lifestyle choice to death for good.

God’s answer to the pains and evils of this life is love.  Tonight, by Jesus’ invitation, we will be taking our places at the table Jesus sets for us, right here in this community amid all its brokenness; for you amid all your pains and worries; in spite of all your faults and failings.  We will eat and drink his Body and his Blood in the shadow of the cross.  So as you come forward, may God reveal to you the awesome mystery of God’s gracious love for you and the world.  May you leave the table transformed and reborn by the love that God conquers death and evil.  May you go to be loved by Jesus, to the very end.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Hardest Question: Luke 23:1-49 - Sunday of the Passion

1Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” 3Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” 4Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” 5But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”

6When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.

13Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”
18Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” 19(This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) 20Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; 21but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” 23But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

26As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
32Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34⟦Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”⟧ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

44It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. 47When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” 48And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Cross by Diane Brennan.  Creative commons image on flickr

Last Sunday, at our final first communion class, one of our young people asked me:

“Why did Jesus have to die?”

To be honest, I find that to be the most difficult question of the Christian faith—though equaled by the question “why do bad things happen to God’s children?”

I guess you could say that this was the elephant in the room as we taught the children that they’re eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus—something that’s mind-blowing even for adults. 
For as much as we talked about Jesus’ love in giving his life for us and including us at his table, the story of his passion is hardly a good bedtime story. 

If you really listen to it, and picture it in your mind, it will indeed cause you to tremble

Years ago, someone told me that worshipping during Holy Week was out of the question “because it’s too painful—and I have enough pain in my life.”

She has a good point…  The passion story brings us face to face with the most painful realities of our existence.  We must face the reality of evil in our world.  We must face the reality of pain, and suffering; particularly our mortality.

Moreover, we must face that as sinners, we bear responsibility for Jesus’ death.  You and I crucify Jesus every time we reject God’s will for our lives, and deny our neighbor the love that God has for us.  Jesus died for our sin—but he also died because of our sin.

Even though Jesus did all of this in love for us and the world, it’s hard to find comfort at the cross, where there is so much evil—and so much death.

But what if God is, in fact, responding the question “why do bad things happen to God’s children” with the cross?

What if Jesus suffers the evil of the cross because we do?

What if Jesus suffers weakness, humiliation, poverty, and death—because we do?

And it’s true that we bear responsibility for the crucifixion.  Even still, Jesus says “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Putting it all together, then, Jesus’ Passion is his incarnation into all of the painful realities of our human existence.  When we’re poor, discouraged, and desperate, Jesus is in it with us.  When people abuse and accuse us, Jesus is in it with us.  When we’re sick and dying, Jesus is in it with us.  When we sin against God and neighbor, driving nails into Jesus’ hands and feet, Jesus is still for us. 

We go to the cross because that is where Jesus is.  At the same time, we face the darkness in our world and the darkness in our own hearts—also trusting that Jesus is there, for us and with us

We go to the cross because that is where salvation begins. We are liberated from sin’s deadly and destructive power and given a brand new life.  We are drawn into the spirit of Jesus’ forgiveness and reconciliation, no longer seeking retaliation, bearing grudges, and fighting others for our own rights.  We are consumed by Jesus’ compassion and mercy for all people.  We set tables for the hungry.  Our hands and words create peace and justice.  We live together as God’s family.

So on this Holy Week, I invite you to these three challenges:
1.      Name before God what hurts the most in your life.
2.      Name before God the evils you see hurting God’s children in the world. 
3.      Ask God to help you change one thing in your life; to put one sinful habit or lifestyle choice to death for good.

I then invite you to take these with you into Holy week.  Think about them, pray over them, and offer them up to Jesus at the cross. 

Do this because the cross is where God turns the tide against suffering and evil and death: and that is God’s love for us.  The cross is the sign of promise that Jesus is both for us and with us. 

God wants for that same love that destroys evil and death to change you: to change your heart; to change your mind; to change your will; to change your desire… 

We journey into Holy Week to be caught up in the love of God that surpasses understanding—and to begin a new life as children of God.  The hard questions may remain, but at the cross there can be no doubt—that Jesus is for us and with us.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Love's Extravagance: John 12:1-8 - Fifth Sunday of Lent

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (NRSV)
By Jan van Scorel - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain
About a year ago, a black leather NASCAR coat was donated to the clothing closet.  The bright colors and logos certainly made it stand out with all the others on the rack. 

The morning of the sale, a woman pointed out to me that that coat was worth potentially hundreds of dollars.  No sooner does she say that, then another woman takes it off the rack, tries it on, and with a big smile on her face, purchases it…for twenty cents…

I’m thinking to myself, “wow, we could’ve sold that coat on E-bay and made a fortune—and invested that money in the ministry.”  But instead, we handed it over for twenty cents…  Something about that just didn’t feel right.

Yet in light of today’s Gospel, I wonder if I’ve been listening too much to my “inner Judas”—instead of listening to Christ…

Judas Iscariot is furious as he watches Mary spill a priceless nard perfume onto the feet of Jesus.  To Judas, this was an appalling waste.

But this isn't how Mary sees it. She isn't thinking about how much the perfume costs. Jesus is her priceless treasure. She sees his deep and compassionate love for her and her sister Martha that became very real following the death of her brother Lazarus. He wept with them and comforted them. In love, he revived Lazarus. Not only was Jesus their friend, they believed him to be the resurrection and the life. The love they shared was embodied in the aroma now filling the room.

But did she really have to do that?  It’s highly unlikely that she was a person of means, and only God knows how she came to acquire such an expensive luxury good. 

She could have simply given the perfume to Jesus, so he could sell it and help the poor. 

She could’ve even kept the perfume as a kind of nest egg, still loving Jesus every bit as much. 

Amazingly, Judas sounds like the voice of reason, even as John reminds us that he was far more interested in stealing from the poor than helping them. 

But listen to Jesus’ answer to Judas’ protest: “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me…

To be clear, Jesus isn’t shrugging off the plight of the poor in order to justify indulging himself in Mary’s extravagance. To put it bluntly: Jesus is the poor. When Jesus is gone from them in body, he will be present with them among the poor. 

What Judas isn’t seeing is the magnitude of love that Mary has for Jesus.  It’s more than just feelings and affection…  She was handing over her treasure—and her very self—to be poured onto the feet of Jesus. The nard perfume may have been worth a year’s wages, but Jesus was worth more. It was worth more, in that moment, to love Jesus extravagantly

Her actions are a beautiful foreshadowing of Jesus, pouring out his body and blood at the cross, because you and I and the world are his treasure. Jesus hands over his beautiful life and ministry to suffer agony and humiliation beyond our understanding. Jesus loves the world more than his life. The world God loves is worth the cross. 
Yet when love is extravagant, there is always a cost.  If Mary was poor before; she’s even poorer now. Jesus shows us that extravagant love is a kind of dying.  But God does amazing things by this extravagant love.  Mary enters into a relationship of dramatic intimacy with Jesus, and that’s just the start.  Jesus' extravagant love takes away the sin of the world, and by it we all live forever.  And that’s just the start. 

We are invited into this same intimacy with Jesus, to be loved extravagantly, and to love others extravagantly, especially the poor.  But don’t think for a second that that love will come any easier for us as it did for Mary or even Jesus…

Every day we’re tempted to love only ourselves extravagantly: by all the things we can have; all the things we can do (provided that we can pay for them).  Speaking for myself, I hate extravagance—but only that enjoyed by other people.  What many would consider extravagance I call “the things I need to have” and “the things I need to do” …   It’s so easy to shrink back from loving extravagantly—because of cost; because of anxiety about the future; because of fear that such love may not create the desired effect.  We ask if people deserve such extravagant love.  In the end, there will always be infinite reasons NOT to love in this way. 

Yet we’re saved by the blood of Jesus that spilled into the mud.  Jesus was not wasted. 

So do you believe that your life abounds with opportunities to love extravagantly, particularly the poor who are among you?  Who needs their feet washed?  Whose lives could be changed forever by the things you call “treasure?”

It doesn’t matter whether or not you are rich with the world’s goods.  Everyone can love as extravagantly as Mary—and what God can do through that love truly knows no bounds.

The call to follow Jesus is the call to become poor, as the world defines it.  The Apostle Paul describes it beautifully—to count everything of value in your life as RUBBISH so that you may know Christ and the power of his resurrection; to share in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, through which God will draw you into resurrection.

Being a Christian isn't about living extravagantly, but loving extravagantly—and being loved extravagantly.

So what will you give away, so that you and your neighbor may become rich in the love of Jesus?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Prodigal Family Values: Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ” (NRSV)
By Rembrandt - Public Domain on Wikipedia Commons
I’m sitting at my desk; an email is staring at me on the computer screen:

I couldn’t believe what I just read…

“The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg is now making full-tuition scholarships available to all new full-time, ELCA rostered leader candidates studying in residence.”

I wasn't excited…  I was mad.

Elizabeth and I didn’t get a full-tuition scholarship.  We didn’t qualify.

At one point, I was so angry that I’d resolved to never again make any financial contributions to the institution.

It wasn’t until about a week later, in a conversation with some of my former classmates, that I remembered the partial scholarships I’d received, and all the dessert auctions and fundraisers my sponsoring congregation held on my behalf.  It wasn’t until later that I came to my senses and realized that my education was worth every penny—because God changed my life in those four years.  I met my wife; and now we have Becca.  I’m in a vocation I love, in a church and community I love.  God’s graciousness to future seminarians—and the Church—is not a loss for me.

Yet I see clearly which Prodigal Son I'd be in Jesus’ parable …

The story begins with the youngest of two sons brazenly asking his father for his share of the inheritance even though father is still very much alive.  Surprisingly, the father not only gives him exactly what he wants.  Not surprisingly, the son goes off and squanders his father’s estate, living like a rock star (for a little while), only to end up broke and starving.  The swine he’s tending are eating better than he.

Eventually, in desperation, with nothing to lose, he concocts an apology and heads for home. 

Amazingly, his father was already looking for him.  As soon as he sees his son, he runs to him, embracing him and kissing him. Notice how you hear no harsh words or stern lectures.  Instead, he gives his son the finest robe, a gold ring, and sandals for his feet.  He kills the fatted calf and they feast.  The reason: “my son who was dead is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

But the eldest son isn’t celebrating.  He is enraged—and it's easy to understand why…

He has never been less than 100% faithful to his father.  It isn’t fair that he gets nothing while the idiot son gets treated like a king.

Have you ever been that angry—because someone less deserving gets what is denied to you—or that someone else gets for free what you have to pay for?

I did very recently—and it wasn’t the first time…

The way I see it: if I had to struggle to get what I got, other people should have to struggle like I did. That’s fairness. That’s life.

It angers me profusely to see people doing whatever they want and never having to face the consequences.  If you do the crime, you should do the time. 

But then I realize, it’s because of sin that think of myself as superior over others.  It's sin that makes me angry when I see good things coming to “lesser people.”   God’s been gracious to me, too—and I reject God’s graciousness to someone else, I am rejecting God.

The father owes nothing to the young prodigal son.  He doesn’t owe anything to the elder prodigal son One son is lost in his foolishness, the other in his self-righteousness.  Both are intoxicated by greed and entitlement.  But there’s something more precious to the father than honor, shame, wealth, or even fairness—and that’s the family. Family is first.

This is how God loves the world. None of us deserves to be called God’s child; and none of us can come before God as righteous.  But that doesn’t matter.  We are all God’s children.  If we get lost, God seeks us out.  If we’ve never been in relationship with God; or if we’ve turned away from God, God isn’t keeping score.  God is reconciling the world to himself through the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  That’s it. 

So if you identify yourself as the younger son, take heart—your sins are forgiven.  God is welcoming you back into the family, to give you a brand new life and a brand new start.  You matter!  You belong!

If you identify yourself as the elder son, take heart—you also matter.  You also belong.  Your sins are forgiven.  When you see grace given to someone else, don’t get mad!  Celebrate it as God’s grace given to you!

Life is different in God’s family.  The family values are different.  We don't keep score on who gets more!  In God’s family, nobody gets labeled “prodigal” or undeserving.  We’re not battling each other for our own self-interests, because God takes all of our needs to heart.  We give to one another not on the basis of what is deserved, but what is needed.  If someone’s hungry for food, we make sure they’re fed.  If someone’s hungry for companionship, we make sure they’re included.  If someone has gone astray, we welcome them back and give them a fresh start.

Sooner or later, we all will need the lavish grace that the father gives his younger son.  It's our only hope. 

In God’s family, there’s nothing greater to value than the God who loves and claims us as we are.  In God’s family, broken people are healed and broken relationships are restored as God’s love binds us together.  In God’s, we embrace the future with hope.  Together.