Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon for March 19

The reading 

Luke 15:1-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."  So he told them this parable:  "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.  "Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."  

Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons.  The 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. A 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.  When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.  He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  But 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." '  So 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.  Then the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'  But 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.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;  for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'  Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.  But 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.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'  Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.' "

The message

Today’s reading, the parable or teaching story of the Prodigal Son, is one of the most famous lessons in the Bible.  This story, along with the Good Samaritan that we read 2 weeks ago have shaped what it means to follow Jesus for almost 2000 years.  Each one is only found in Luke’s Gospel.  They challenge us to think about who our neighbors are (everyone) and who is included in God’s grace (again everyone).

The actual word Prodigal means extremely wasteful and the story centers on a young son who takes his inheritance early (this act was almost like killing his father, a nasty request that almost no one would  grant). The young son abandons his family and social and cultural obligations (the very fabric of society then, the way the world worked), choosing to go, see the world,  party and waste all of his inheritance. We get the sense that this is addiction, he was so caught up in the enjoyment and desires, that’s all he can think about.  He does not remember he is dealing with a large but limited fortune.  Out of money and options, he crawls home. He is hoping for the small mercy of being a hired hand but being home.  What he did was not going to be soon forgotten.  The father welcomes him home with great joy, sending servants to place a robe on his body and ring on his hand.  These were public symbols that this betrayer and basically thief was fully restored as a son. What he did was forgotten, at least by the father and only decision maker that mattered in the household. We are left with the older son enraged, its just too much for him, he refuses to go inside, to celebrate, he refuses to accept his father’s act of grace and mercy.   

I wanted to do something a little different this morning, something I have not really done before.  I want to look at the prodigal son a few years later. Jesus leaves us not knowing a lot of things.  We do not know if the older son comes in to celebrate, if he welcomes his younger brother home then and there or eventually. We do not know if the younger son does the right thing, works hard and uses the grace he has received to change his life.  We do not know how the father will react to the older son’s justified but disobedient protest.  This story centers on relationships and characters. So I am going to look at how they might have changed since this moment of welcome.

First, there is the older son.    He was enraged when the younger son was given his inheritance, perhaps even telling the father “you know he is going to waste it all”.  Now, after that his worst fears have come true, the elder son wants his prodigal little brother gone.  He works on turning all of the servarts and people in the house against his brother.  Telling the “can you believe it story” again and again to anyone who would listen.  When this fails, he plots to murder his brother.  After all, what if his younger brother saw their father’s mercy as weakness and does the same thing again.  He only came home because he ran out of money and could not eat, he did not come home for a good reason, he’s the same person, he just needs a reup on the funding.  

The older son probably believes his father his lost his mind. He does things that do not make sense. He is frustrated with his father’s unfairness, poor excuses and insane behaviors. He wants to get rid of his father as well. A person this blind to what’s going on, a person who makes such emotional, unfair and irrational decisions should not be in charge of anything. If the older son was to have anything left to inherit, now had to be the time to interfere.  The father finds out about these plots and knows he must punish the older son. He has him detained, locked away in one of the houses until he can figure out what to do with him.  Wasting money was one thing, but wasting grace could and would not be tolerated.  Someone so obsessed with money and maintaining things, someone so unable to see grace, mercy and forgiveness as valuable,  that person would destroy their family.  Challenging the father’s authority, saying “I know better than you” , that would make everything collapse  

The younger son cannot believe what has happened.  He went home fully expecting to be rejected, chased off and being told “you are dead to us”.  Even to be a paid servant was a long shot.  To see his father run out to greet him, to feel the embrace as his father put his arms around him and kissed him.  To have his well prepared, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'  Interrupted by "Quickly, bring out a robe —the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, that was something that he did not even consider as a possibility.   The young son is determined to change, to not waste this gift of mercy and grace like he wasted the fortune.

The father, remains aware start to finish that these things are his decisions, not his children, neighbors or friends.  We could imagine the lives of these characters going differently, the younger son could do it all over again, the older son could listen and follow his father’s example, forgiving and welcoming this brother home.  For me there’s two things we need to remember for this story to matter.  First, sin is real, there is something Jesus sets us free from by his death and resurrection.  The fate of people is not naturally grace and heaven.   Undeserving as we all are, we are forgiven from something, For this parable to teach us anything, we need to keep in mind  

Second, this story is an illustration that God is not fair or just.  That sometimes takes a minute to understand, that God is not fair, God is something better, God is merciful.  In the story, Joy overwhelms laws, fairness or rules. Not only does the story show us something amazing about God, it also shows us something very human about people.  As we read this story, we cannot help but feel like the older son has been cheated, punished for being very good, suffering for obeying his father and always doing the right thing.  We want the father to punish the younger son, to hold him accountable for his awful actions and sins, at least somehow, to be fair.  We also want God to not punish us, for us to not be held accountable for our sins.  We want to be forgiven and hold others accountable.   It does not work that way.    

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon for March 12

The reading
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."  Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, "See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'  He replied, "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.' "

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."  He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, "Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.' "

The message

This is not the best reading to deal with today we as all live with that one less hour of sleep and we face a very complicated and serious reading. For most of human history people have wrestled with Theodicy, in English, the question “why does a good and all powerful God allow bad things to happen”.  There are several major explanations that appear again and again in people’s religious belief. These ways that help us get up in the morning and live in an unfair world while knowing a good God loves us include.

1:  It is not our place to ask this question, how can we expect to know the mind of God   
2:  There is a big picture we cannot comprehend, reasons we cannot understand. 
3: Free will, God made people, not obedient robots. These are the consequences of our choices
4: Testing of faith, a fire to shape us / punishment for sin  
5: These things are the results of sin and a broken world.
6: this life is not all there is. 
7: something else

Today’s story starts with a group of people listening to Jesus and then asking a very important question, why do bad things happen to good people. The group refers to the mixing of the blood of the Galieans with sacrifices in the temple.  We are not really sure what event they are referring to.  We piece together that King Herod had a group of Galileans killed while they worshipped and offering sacrifices in the temple. Galilee was known to be a place of rebellion.  I suspect such an offensive and public act had been done to prove a point, scare people, get everyone’s obedience and quiet the rebels).

This attack at worship would have greatly upset and angered many people. The Galileans were killed while fulfilling their religious responsibilities through worship and offering sacrifices in the temple.  This was frightening and upsetting and shook people’s view of the world.    Today, we would compare it to the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston South Carolina, where a young man shot and killed 9 people at a church service. Our world is filled with attacks on safe spaces, the bombings and shootings at churches and Christian festivals around the world. There are also the attacks on mosques, synagogues, temples, hospitals, shelthers and other sacred or safe spaces.  Today, we occasional have counter terrorism patrols parked in front of our church on Sunday morning (part of a city plan to show protection for everyone)  These sort of attacks matter, they are used to upset, scare and unsettle others, show power and push for a response.

The group that asks Jesus about the killing of the Galileans in the temple wants to know the same thing we asked after Charleston, certainly God would protect people in the temple,.How could God let this happen. One possibility the group speaking to Jesus comes up with is that the people killed must have been sinners, really bad sinners (and then it would make sense that they were punished in such a hideous way).   

Many people look at this story and say “Jesus avoids this question” Jesus does not hide from the question.  In response Jesus urges repentance and refers to another event, an accident at the tower of Siloam. Like the murders in the temple, we are unsure about this event as well. We have no idea where or what the tower of Siloam was or what happened there. We can piece together that this was known at Jesus time, there was an accident there and innocent people died   

Jesus invites them to think about why these things happened in two ways. First there is the call to repent, for people to control what you can. Repentance will not stop earthquakes or floods, but it can stop war, inequality, global warming, the devastation of easily cured diseases and a lot of other human made disasters. Repentance is not just a way to do some good deeds to make the world better.  It reestablishes our relationship with a God who does not give us what we deserve. In a quote I love from Issac the Syrian, never say God is just, if God were just, you would be in hell, instead rely on God’s injustice, which is mercy, love and compassion. To not repent, to not acknowledge God’s mercy and love, to wish we can stand on our works, means dying like the fig tree.     

Second, Jesus reassures the group that God is present in suffering.  The Pharisees warn Jesus that danger is coming, King Herod wants him dead and gone. Perhaps they want to protect him, get him away from them, expose him as a fraud afraid to confront empire or even actually help him.  Jesus responds by calling Herod a fox (meant in a very negative way) and continuing his journey into suffering, the journey to Jerusalem, where he will face trial, abandonment, abuse and death on the cross. Jesus knows there will not be a last minute reprieve, God will allow this to happen too. Even the messiah is not shielded from undeserved suffering.

This idea of God present in suffering comes through in Jesus last example in the conversation of the messiah as a mother hen, putting herself between her children and danger.  Now there are a few animal metaphors used in the old testament to describe the Messiah. In Hosea 11:10 the Messiah is a lion, who uses strength to intimidate and crush enemies with a single blow, a military savior-king who promises safety and security in the face of border incursions and terrorist attacks. In Deuteronomy 32:11 the messiah is an eagle, a spiritual hero or teacher of righteousness who soars above earthly things, carrying followers to mountaintops of ecstatic experience. In Hosea 13:6 the messiah is a bear, a powerful, prophetic savior who charges in to critique a culture that has lost sight of God. 

The eagle, bear and lion are the top of the food chain, in control of their environments and express great power. They are rarely in danger, have no real natural predators and do not have much to fear.  In Luke 13:34, the Messiah is a mother hen. Now a mother hen will nurture, care for and protect her children at all costs but there will be costs.  There are lots of animals (and people) that attack, kill and eat chickens. Here, Jesus is once again reminding the crowds, God’s power will be revealed in weakness, in the unexpected, in the suffering and in death. Everyone could celebrate a messiah who was like a lion or eagle, but a mother hen, that’s a different thing.  God’s loving presence in suffering will be revealed by God’s loving presence in suffering.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sermon for March 5

Sunday, March 5 

The reading

Luke 10:25-42

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, "Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.'  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"  He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."   

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying.  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."  But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

The message

Today, we hear one of Jesus most well-known parables. This teaching story about who is our neighbor has a simple, meaningful and timeless lesson.  Almost 2000 years after Jesus told this story, our world is still filled with non-profits, hospitals and other health care agencies that care for those in need named after the Good Samaritan.

We can lose sight of the fact that when Jesus first shared it, it was probably one of his more controversial as well.  For those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday or read my message online, I mentioned the ancient division between the Samaritans and Israelites. Our reading on  Ash Wednesday mentions that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, that he was fully committed to completing his work by enduring suffering, shame, death and ultimately resurrection. On the way, Jesus sends his disciples to seek welcome at a Samaritan town. The people reject Jesus outright, not even allowing him to enter. Their reason: he was going to Jerusalem.  A long time before this meeting, A dispute over leadership split Israel into 2 different kingdoms.  Jerusalem was the capital of the Southern Kingdom and Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom.  Over time, the Samaritans were seen as a different religious and cultural group.  The 2 kingdoms developed a rivalry along with their own temples, leadership and rituals. To put it mildly, they did not like each other and were not supposed to have anything to do with each other.  

That makes it all the more remarkable that the hero, the righteous, obedient, faithful and God loving person in this parable is not the priest and not the Levite (a member of the priestly tribe) but a Samaritan.  The one who follows God’s law is from a place historically separated from Israel, at war or odds with them for centuries and part of the group that fully and unapologetically rejected and Jesus days earlier.     

The Good Samaritain does not let us pretend the world will be fine if we do the right thing.  This is a story that recognizes the violence, greed, uncertainty and unfairness of the world. This road down from Jerusalem to Jerhico was about 18 miles long and was a drop in elevation from 2500 ft to 820 ft below sea level. It was also notoriously dangerous. There is a robbery, beating and a man left half dead on the side of a road. It challenges us to ask “so what will you do about it”

I never looked at this story connected to the event right after, where we learn that Martha is distracted by many things, Mary on the other hand, chooses the better part, she forgets all the other stuff and simply sits with Jesus.   Perhaps the priest and Levite were distracted by many things, their own safety, whatever they were going to do, their social and religious obligations, the potential for a trap, the knowledge this would not be a quick 5 minute, “you okay, yeah, im fine, thanks for stopping” What makes the good Samaritan good is that he chooses the better part, responding to someone in need with love, compassion and care. 

Now this is something I need to hear as much as anyone else.  We have to choose the better part.  At Lent, and throughout the year, we are invited to lose some of the distractions and focus on what it means to be loved by God.  

Thursday, March 2, 2017

What i said on Wednesday (Sermon for March 1)

Ash Wednesday 2017
The reading

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."  To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."  But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."  Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home."  Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

The message

Today’s short reading from Luke’s Gospel can be difficult to follow or find good news in. It is an odd place to look for the strength to go through Lent. We hear Jesus being rejected by a village in Samaria, his disciples offering to “command fire from heaven to destroy the offending community” and Jesus own rejection of potential followers, writing off the desire to follow him as insincere or made by people who were not ready or capable of doing it.

To hear good news for us in todays reading, we need to look at context, details and take a wide view of Jesus work.   We start by hearing that Jesus had “set his face to Jerusalem”.  To set your face to something was a Semitic saying at the time that meant total and complete commitment to doing something (today we might say keep your eye on the prize).    In this reading from Luke, Jesus has set his face on enduring trial, suffering, death and resurrection for the salvation of all people (events that will all unfold through the layers of political and religious power in Jerusalem).   This death and resurrection has already been misunderstood, ignored or rejected by Jesus closest followers several times. (they cannot understand how the Messiah, the all powerful, restorer and expected savior could suffer or die).  God knows how against a cultural of power, wealth and glory this message is and God does not give up on people so easily. Jesus does not just destroy them with fire from heaven and then go out and get new disciples. Jesus keeps saying he will suffer, die and rise again.  

The Samaritans do not even get to the point of hearing this uncomfortable message. It appears that they reject Jesus simply because he is going to Jerusalem (they do not care to find out why). This situation had its roots in events from centuries earlier.  A dispute over leadership split Israel into 2 different kingdoms.  Jerusalem was the capital of the Southern Kingdom and Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom.  Over time, the Samaritans were seen as a different religious and cultural group.  The 2 kingdoms developed their own temples, leadership and rituals and to put it mildly, they did not like each other.  

Our first hint at good news in todays reading is in how Jesus and his disciples respond to this rejection.  Jesus followers have little time or patience for this insult and since they didn’t like those people already, they want to destroy the Samaritans with fire from heaven. Jesus rejects this response (and yells at the people who suggest it). Instead, Jesus pushes on and they simply go to another village. God does not give up on people so easily.  Days later, Jesus will actually tell the parable of the Good Samaritan (our reading for this upcoming Sunday). In this story, the God loving and righteous person in the story is a Samaritan, a member of the community that just rejected Jesus.  It does not stop there, Jesus continues to send his disciples to all nations and people, again and again. The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts (the story of the early church post Jesus resurrection) are both written by the same author and stress God’s love, welcome and salvation for all people. By Acts 8, there is progress in converting and welcoming  the Samaritans and then the Gentiles (non-jewish people) into God’s kingdom. 

That’s where this bowl of ashes comes in. We do not need to have ash put on our heads as a reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  We get that reminder more than we need in our suffering, in the pain and struggle around us, in the inequality, violence and anger we see and feel and take part in everyday, in the news of death and fear of uncertainty.  We need ash on our heads as a reminder that we are dust that God loves. We need ash on our heads as a reminder that God loves other people too, even the ones we do not like.

The last verses of today’s reading, where Jesus rejects potential followers because they seem to be filled with excuses and reasons to procrastinate, is exactly what it sounds like, a reminder that following Jesus is not easy, it is not a part time job, or the way to power , wealth and glory.  Lent is a time for us to set our face on God’s love and grace, to keep going back, to endure defeat and rejection. It is an invitation for us to ask what have we set our faces toward