Only Love Can Do That

Maundy Thursday’s service last night was so full – scripture, song, handwashing, the Lord’s Supper, stripping the altar – truly a drenching in sensory experience.

I was grateful that my congregation was willing to try handwashing.  Foot-washing is an incredibly intimate experience, one that for many people breaks too many boundaries.  I’ve found that hand-washing, with a blessing of peoples’ hands for service in the world, is a really viable alternative.  To have your hands gently washed, dried, and blessed by someone is a powerful experience – and it was for me doing the serving.

I decided to take a chance in my preaching and offer that Jesus brings a new narrative, one that stands over against the doctrine of an angry God needing some kind of satisfaction.  To follow that with handwashing, while the ensemble sang a beautiful arrangement of “Ubi Caritas”, was a moment I’ll not forget.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

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.”

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you from our loving God, through his Son, Jesus who comes to us this night as a servant.  Amen.

Each Wednesday evening through Lent, we gathered as a community around tables, we were fed with good soup and salad and sweets, and we experienced our senses in relation to God.

Tonight we’ve heard about another meal, another menu, and another set of sensory experiences that bring people closer to God.

Have you ever been to a meal celebrating a very special occasion?  Maybe a wedding, or a 50th anniversary, or a historical observance?

A meal comprised of many courses, perhaps.  Each course complemented by a carefully selected wine.  A centerpiece of fragrant flowers.

There’s a weight of importance that accompanies a meal like that.

Jesus and the disciples are celebrating the Passover meal, and it’s a meal that even today in the Jewish tradition is one full of memories, particular foods, and being at table with others.

It’s a meal, not unlike the ones we shared through Lent, that’s woven through with prayers and songs, questions and answers, and sensory experiences.

And then Jesus changes the character of the celebration forever as he proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet.

This Passover meal has always been a time of passive remembrance of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt – but Jesus takes it from passive remembrance to active response as he washes the disciples’ feet.

Likewise he makes this something for everyone to do when he says to them “so you must do.” It’s not something that just Jesus does, that’s only reserved for this one particular person/God being, but is expected to be our response as well to the truth of the stories that we hold together as the people of God.

If we think about the Passover story and then think about the actions of the Jewish people and nation after they left Egypt, we realize that Jesus is firmly establishing a new narrative – not an alternative narrative but a new one – that is the peaceable realm of God. And his resurrection will disprove once and for all that redemptive violence is a myth.  Violence does not redeem; it only creates more violence.

Joshua and so many others, post-Egypt, acted in response to their situations by promulgating violence.  And now in Jesus’ time, in the first century AD, that violence doesn’t seem to have done much good.  The people of Judea are once again under foreign control, this time by Roman occupation.

I certainly can’t claim to know the mind of God.  But I wonder – could God have possibly looked at the whole mess, and with an aching heart wonder to God’s self “how can I reach my people?  How can I help them know that I love them?”  Perhaps God remembered God’s covenant of the rainbow to never destroy earth again, and decided to try something entirely unexpected.

God coming to earth as a baby qualifies as unexpected, in my mind.

And what Jesus has preached, what he has done over his relatively short ministry, has been unexpected too.

The thread running through everything Jesus has said and done comes back around to his answer to the question “what is the greatest commandment?”  The answer is the commandment he gives the disciples on this night:  love one another.

It is a stark contrast to what the people of Jerusalem saw just a few days before, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem.  What looked for all intents and purposes like an approaching coronation of a secular ruler has now turned irrevocably down the road to crucifixion.  And even with that knowledge, in that reality, Jesus urges the disciples to remember, and to live, that what makes them disciples is love.

One of the greatest gifts Lutheran theology has given the world is its cornerstone – the theology of the cross.  We don’t skip from the cradle at Bethlehem to Jesus risen, cooking fish on the beach for his friends.  The journey to the cross reminds us that God is found most particularly in the difficult times and places.  If we skip that journey, then Jesus’ message – most clearly defined by radical inclusion and concern for those who are forgotten – becomes disposable.

And Jesus’ message is what has brought him and the disciples to this place, this upper room in Jerusalem.  It’s what has earned him a reputation across Judea that profoundly unsettles the powers that be, both local and occupying.  Jesus’ crucifixion is not a part of some twisted divine plan by which an angry God is finally appeased enough.  Rather, his crucifixion is the result of his message; he is sentenced to the punishment Rome reserved for political subversives.  And yet – a message of love is not what we’re accustomed to hearing from political subversives.

God’s mission in the incarnate Jesus is one that intentionally refuses the path of vengeance.  It is one that shifts the nature of life in the reign of God to one that is guided by, expanded through, and drenched in love for the neighbor.  The vengeful God of the Old Testament has transformed to the loving God of eternity.

If we can see Christ’s passion as endurance of suffering by God, rather than the infliction of retaliation by God, we can begin to consider the fullness of what Jesus is saying to his followers, “love one another.”

This kind of love is what makes it possible for the resurrection to breach the seemingly insurmountable walls of hatred and hostility that have plagued the world since the abandonment of Eden.  Those walls can only be breached with the power of love.

This is God’s unilaterally disarming initiative.  And it is one that we, who know how this story turns out, need to remind ourselves of daily.  It is precisely the Way of the cross that leads home and that empties tombs.

In the final analysis, the failure to love the neighbor, whether friend or enemy, is to hedge on Jesus.  We are, as the Apostle said, “baptized into Christ’s death,” implicated by the failure of our own faithfulness.

But at the exact same moment, we are baptized into his resurrection: the promised new heaven and new earth, where every tear will be dried and death itself comes undone.  It is by walking the way of the cross that we learn the love that endures, the love that begins to build God’s kingdom here.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it as well as anyone:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Dear friends, let us love one another.  Amen.

 

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Meanwhile, on the other side of town…..

 

Luke 19:28-40

28[Jesus] went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our sustaining God, through Jesus, the Son of David and the Prince of Peace.  Amen.

You may have noticed that in this account in Luke’s gospel of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – there are no palms.

Instead, we have an interesting phenomenon of the local people spreading their cloaks on the road, and the “whole multitude” of the disciples being the ones to proclaim Jesus as king.  Which sounds like a lot more than 12.

And you may have also noticed in this account that the word “Hosanna” is not present.

“Hosanna”, that word that shows up every time we sing the Sanctus, the Holy Holy.  Hosanna in the highest.

This multitude of disciples instead proclaims “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  Words that echo the angels’ song at Jesus’ birth all those years ago.

The other three gospels tell the story not only with Hosannas, but with both cloaks AND palms (translated “branches from the trees”).  Matthew and John both emphasize this action as a fulfillment of prophecy.

For Luke, palms and shouts of “Hosanna” are symbols of nationalism.  The proclamation of “blessed is the king” from this multitude of disciples is a call for peace, not for rebellion.  In Luke’s gospel especially, the King is associated with peace.  At his birth, Jesus is deeply connected with the angels’ promise of peace on earth.

And so given these varying accounts, I wonder if Luke is writing to set the record straight, in contrast to the stories in Matthew and Mark, both written earlier.

Regardless of these variations, one thing becomes crystal clear: Jesus has not come as the mighty warrior, ready to kick down the door and chase the Romans out of Jerusalem.  No one is playing “Hail the Conquering Hero” as he makes his way into Jerusalem.

On the other side of the city, however, a different scenario is playing out.

Remember that we are just a few days before Passover, the biggest Jewish festival of the year.  The Roman ruler of Judea (in this case, Pilate) would be sure to be in Jerusalem for all the major Jewish festivals.  So Pilate is likely riding into Jerusalem on the biggest, flashiest horse around, accompanied by a contingent of imperial cavalry and soldiers, heralded by crowds just like we’ve seen in every gladiator movie ever.  (Side note, those crowds don’t have a choice; if Pilate is passing by you’d better be out there or it won’t end well for you.)

Now, Pilate has not come to Jerusalem at Passover to observe the religious holiday.

He’s there in case there’s trouble.  Civil unrest.  And Passover – the biggest festival celebrating the Jewish peoples’ liberation from an oppressor – was a time ripe for trouble.

While Pilate is the subject of an imperial parade of one sort, Jesus is the subject of a very different kind of parade; a counter-march of sorts.

Where Pilate enters on a magnificent horse, Jesus enters on a small colt – some even say a donkey.

Where Pilate is accompanied by the mighty signs of empire, Jesus is accompanied by his followers – generally peasant and working-class folks.

Where Pilate represents not only imperial power, but imperial theology – meaning that the emperor is seen as a god – Jesus IS God incarnate.

But he is not like the God of the Old Testament, a god of anger and violence.  Jesus instead embodies God as a God of peace, of neighbor-love, of justice.  As one who speaks truth, and who dwells in the shadowy places so that they might experience light.

By his style of entry into Jerusalem, Jesus does not mock the Roman imperial powers so much as he transforms their model.  Where Rome brought occupation, Jesus brings peace.  Where Rome brought fear, Jesus brings love.

And in the midst of this parade, the Pharisees tell Jesus to tell his disciples to zip it.  Keep quiet.  Knock it off.

Perhaps they have observed that this is looking more and more like a counter-march, like a planned political demonstration.  They are deep in it with the Roman authorities and are walking the microscopically thin line between the Roman occupiers and the Jewish occupied.  They are forced into a position of defense, assuming they want to keep their privilege and position.

If only Jesus had toned down the political tone of his message, the Pharisees likely said to each other.  You know, if he had just walked with his disciples into Jerusalem, quietly chatting about God’s glory and majesty, we could all just go to brunch and let things be.  But with a parade like this??  With his followers saying things like “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord”??  Do you people even realize how much trouble this is going to cause??  Jesus, tell your disciples to stop!

Where do we run into this today?

Maybe it’s a community group advocating for a position that favors, or at least helps, the marginalized.

Maybe it’s standing up for what you believe in, even if you are criticized for it.

Or you may identify with this because at some point in your life you’ve been told “don’t say anything.  Don’t make waves.”

Jesus’ answer to this way of thinking, of course, is no.  If his disciples stop, he says, the stones themselves would cry out.  This has always been considered a figure of speech, but in an era of climate change that is accelerated by human activity, we see creation drawn into and impacted by events that we think affect humans alone.

Maybe the stones WOULD cry out.

Jesus’ message is a message of peace for the favored ones, who in Luke’s narrative are quickly identified as the downtrodden and outcast.  That might even include creation itself.  Jesus’ message is one of division for those who resist it, and glory for the God in heaven who promises to secure it.  Jesus’ kingdom is not a kingdom on earth, tethered to the same political games and maneuvers of Rome and its supporters, but rather, a Kingdom sanctioned by God in heaven that brings to earth a different way of living.  And this kingdom, this message, cannot and will not be quieted for the sake of peace or good order.

Dear friends, we stand in a similar place today.  Our world is one that seems to have abandoned the concept of ethics, civil discussion and disagreement, and working together for the greater good.  Instead, we find ourselves surrounded by the ugliest and most virulent examples of greed and selfishness.  I would not be the first person to draw parallels between our current situation and the situation of the Roman Empire around the middle of the first century AD.

But the response of Jesus, both then and, I believe, in us now – is one of nonviolence.

Let me be clear: his response is NOT one of capitulation or surrender.  It is simply telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may.

In Jesus’ time and in ours, when we tell the truth we are bound to get ourselves into trouble.

Because when we tell the truth about things, we pull back the veil that has been carefully maintained across the ugliness of that truth.  We upend the status quo.

The truth about the status quo is that across human history, the status quo has been maintained on the backs of the poor and marginalized.

The status quo of Jim Crow laws in the American South and apartheid in South Africa were maintained on the backs of people of color.

The status quo of sexual harassment was maintained on the backs of those who suffered the harassment and dared not speak up.

The status quo of the church’s alliance with empire – forged with Constantine’s conversion in the year 312 – has been maintained ever since on the backs of, really, the entire church.

So when we hear the “whole multitude” of disciples shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” how do we respond in our time and place?

As we hear these powerful cries from the disciples, as we enter into Holy Week and the height of our life together as church each year, their song seems to reverberate against the angels’ carols of the Christmas season.  Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel are not just rewriting the angels’ song, they are challenging us to sing our own songs of God’s glory and reign.

And I think for us to sing those songs, knowing as we do how this week progresses from parade to betrayal to death and beyond – to sing those songs instead of seek revenge is the ultimate nonviolence.

For if we believe this gospel – if we believe that Jesus is the son of the living God, who has come into the world – then surely the stones will cry out and join us in the songs of love and freedom.  Amen.

Serving the Poor and Savoring the Moment

So in my long to-do list this week of preparing for Holy Week, I completely forgot to post my sermon from last Sunday.  I was also heading up to the Luther Glen Farm Barn Dedication right after church, and I was distracted by goats. 🙂

My work on this text revealed to me that it’s really a stewardship text, asking us whether our priorities are properly ordered so that we can do the things we’re called to do.

John 12:1-8

12Six 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.”

Grace and peace to you this day, from our saving God through Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Six days before the Passover.

Those first three words are our first clue that this story is ripe with anticipation.  We stand on the threshold of Holy Week, and the timing in this story very closely matches our timing this year.

“Six days before” establishes that something is going to happen on the seventh day.  And indeed, throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the seventh day is a holy day.

The rest of that first paragraph seems simple enough.  Jesus is back in Bethany, after raising Lazarus, and a “dinner in his honor” – a thank you dinner, in essence – is happening.  We’ve met Martha and Mary before: we recall Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him while Martha works her tail off in the kitchen and eventually gets a little irritated.

The difference here is that BOTH Martha and Mary are serving.  This is another piece of the puzzle of this story, that takes us a few steps further on the Lenten journey.

The Greek word for this kind of service is diakonia – service that comes from living out one’s faith.  And the service these sisters are providing is reflective of their faith in and experience of Jesus.

Martha serves by feeding people, by providing hospitality.  Jesus has already fed people, both literally and spiritually.  Mary’s service is one that foreshadows Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.

In this gospel women play a surprisingly larger role.  That is understood as reflective of the Johannine community, an early Christian community organized around the gospel and letters labeled “John” – holding to principles of equity and equality among all, with the driving principle being that of love.

Martha and Mary both serve out of love, one following the gender roles of the day and the other breaking them, just as she broke open the alabaster jar holding this perfumed ointment.  Alabaster was the preferred vessel as it would best preserve the fragrance of this ointment, which was prepared from a plant that only grows in the Himalayas.  If it could actually have been sold for 300 denari, that is about $52,500 in today’s dollars.

Fifty two thousand five hundred dollars.

Hold onto that for a bit, we’ll return to that.

When Mary breaks open the jar, which I take to mean she unsealed the lid, the perfume likely began to at once waft through the air.  As she washed and anointed Jesus’ feet with the ointment, wiping them with her hair, the aroma was more and more present.  Evocative.  And no one would have mistaken it for anything other than the best, most costly ointment.

The sense of smell is the one that is most directly tied to brain signals.  When we smell something, we literally take some of the odor molecules of what it is we’re smelling into ourselves, which then triggers the olfactory system – via the brain – to respond.

So this had to have been a triggering experience for those present.  What did it remind them of?  Who of their ancestors had been similarly anointed for burial?  It makes you pause, to think about what pushed itself forward in the memories of those in the house.

And then Judas breaks this breathtaking moment by complaining that this has been mis-used.  It could have been sold and the money used to feed the poor.

It is only in John’s gospel that the complainer is identified as Judas, and it is only in John’s gospel that his self-serving motive is revealed.  He doesn’t really care about the poor – he just sees something in this for him, if he could just manipulate it to those ends.

We have some examples of this today, don’t we?  We call this “lip service” – when someone makes a big deal of being “committed” to a cause of some kind and you find out later it was all for show.  For the photo op.

Jesus sees right through this.  He neither condemns Judas nor endorses what he is saying, because in one way of thinking, Judas is entirely correct.  It could have indeed been sold.  $52,500 is a staggering amount of money for a one-pound jar of ointment.

Judas’ complaint is rooted in an economy of scarcity – that there won’t be enough.  But Jesus’ response, which has confounded Christians for centuries, is rooted in an economy of abundance: “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

In the past, this has been taken out of context and used to justify a position that says: since you will always have the poor with you, then all your efforts to help them are a waste of time and resources.  It’ll never change, so why bother.

But I don’t think this is what Jesus means.

I think what Jesus is saying is a both-and reminder – not an either-or invitation.

What Jesus seems to be saying here is, you should ALREADY be serving the poor, right alongside your regular devotions and worship as the active expression of your faith.

Jesus’ words say to us today: our daily routine, our norm of serving in the world should include serving the poor.  To divert a “special offering”, as it were, to the operating budget so the poor can be served is poor stewardship and poor fiscal management.  Special offerings make special things possible – and let’s define “special” as “outside the day-to-day expenses.”  Jesus is urging us to be in a place where caring for the poor is a given – a regular part of the operating budget.  NOT because it’s a box to be checked, but because it’s like Martha’s and Mary’s diakonia – service that springs from faith.  It’s love poured out, that connects us with our community.

This is what Jesus calls us to – engaging with and serving the poor so regularly that it becomes a part of our routine.  A natural response.  And I think the reason for this is that Jesus knows we will eventually build relationships with those whom we serve, and relationships are the building block for the peaceable realm of God.

Everything that we do ought to be run through the filters of mission and service.  Are we reaching people?  Are we serving people?  If the item at hand doesn’t fall directly into one or the other of these places, and if it doesn’t support one or the other of these places, then discernment is called for.

Discernment is the other dimension of what Jesus is saying in his response to Judas.

For Jesus is also saying, if you ONLY choose to serve the poor and never return to quiet and contemplative time with me, then your actions are never really fulfilled.  Your action is never really informed by your contemplation.  It becomes no more than busy work.

And this can be very difficult in a world like ours, where the need is so deep that it’s overwhelming.  There is SO.MUCH. that needs to happen.

We would be wise to take a hint from some of the wise words of Mother Teresa, who knew a thing or two about serving the poor.

“We cannot do great things,” she wrote.  “Only small things with great love.”

Mary is doing a small thing, but with great love.  The pound of pure nard is a sign of that great love, the best thing she can offer to the man who raised her and Martha’s brother from death.  It is her great love for Jesus that moves her to this action.  The fact that she has chosen to use this incredibly valuable ointment now instead of when it was intended – for anointing a body for burial – suggests that perhaps she understands that the service she brings, this anointing, is the contemplative side of Martha’s active, engaged service.  The same as her listening at Jesus’ feet.  Interestingly, in both of these examples, time is of the essence.

For Jesus stays centered not on the past or even the future, but on the present. In this present moment, Mary is doing the small thing with great love. She can (and probably has and will again) do good for the poor. But in this moment, Mary recognizes a need. A need in Jesus? A need among the disciples? Maybe between both—she recognizes a need for ritual, a need for connection – and a need for reflection.

Even though Mary had intended to keep the perfume for the day of Jesus’ burial, she changes her plan.  She pours it out upon him now.  In this moment.  Six days before the Passover.  She lives in the present; she recognizes the importance of the moment.  Of living in and for the moment—with an eye to the future, yes—but also doing what she can, when she can, the best she can in this moment in time.

The poor are, indeed, always with us. The good news of the resurrection, however, is that Jesus is still with us too. And in his acceptance of Mary’s act of devotion, in his ministry to and for the poor, in his unwillingness to betray Judas (even as Judas was soon to betray him), Jesus models for us another way. Jesus models an approach to poverty, to politics, to life, and indeed, to one another that is based not in fear but in hope—hope for a future yet to come, hope that we can and will, in Christ’s name, make a difference.

Now is the time for us to seize hold of that hope, and move forward into God’s future.  Starting on Palm Sunday, as we trace the path of Holy Week we will be reminded again and again that God. Has. Got. This.  Remember – we stand on the other side of Jesus’ resurrection, called by early theologians “the Eighth Day”.  We journey to the Day Seven of resurrection from where we stand, in Day Eight of the inbreaking of God’s kin-dom.

And that makes all the difference.  Amen.

The Prodigal Father

Here is my sermon for March 31, 2019.  The gospel story is the beloved one of the prodigal son, and I explore how “prodigal” applies to more than one character in the story.

Luke 15:1-32

15Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: “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.’”

Dear people whom God loves, grace and peace to you from our loving Creator, through our redeemer Jesus Christ.  Amen.

We sit today in a story that is one of the bedrocks of the Christian faith; one of the foundational parables that helps us begin to comprehend how much God loves us.

The prodigal son.

Now I wonder if we think of the word “prodigal” and we think that it means wasteful, irresponsible, or something like that.

Do we put a negative connotation to the word?

I know I certainly did.  My particular family dynamic led me to associate “prodigal” with a definition that read “the one who gets into all kinds of trouble, wastes all kinds of money, and causes all kinds of heartache to their parents.”

And certainly this does happen with the young man, the younger brother in our story.

But the actual definition of “prodigal” is this:  wastefully extravagant; having or giving something on a lavish scale.

I wonder if perhaps this definition might be applied to more than just the younger brother here.

And I also wonder, what might we find if we were to peel back the top layer and look into THIS family dynamic?

In other words: was there something besides impetuosity that would have caused the younger brother to want to leave?

I invite you to consider, instead of trying to justify or reconcile what we think we are reading, just sit with the realm of possibilities for a bit.

The younger brother asks the father to give him his share of the inheritance.

And we need not spend time asking why the father did this; he gave him his share, and the story continues.

And in that simple act – the giving without question or struggle – perhaps we find a clue.

In traditional Jewish families, the oldest son has pride of place.  So what if in THIS family, the younger son has somehow dislodged the elder?

What if instead of the older son being the one who is fawned over, it is the younger son?

And what if the younger son has acquired a sense of entitlement that makes him bold to ask his father to give him his share of the inheritance?

This story doesn’t really make sense unless there is some kind of imbalance in a healthy family system.

So let’s say that because of this imbalance, the father gives the younger son his inheritance and the younger son takes off.

Wouldn’t there be, in those who are left behind, a whole range of emotions?

In the older brother: he might say, good riddance.  That little twerp thought he was all that and a bag of chips, and maybe now I can get Dad’s attention.

But the father might be thinking: as I look back over these years, I’m seeing that I really cut a lot of slack for younger brother.  I should have held him to the same standards as older brother.  Older brother has held to those standards, but he seems strangely unaffected by younger brother being gone.  Could I have enabled an environment in which one brother was preferred, and the other was neglected?

How can I as a father reconcile this?  I can’t.  These are my sons, I had such high hopes for them.  And now it really seems like I’ve lost them both, in many ways.  If only I could have them back.

So I wonder, dear people: what if, the term “prodigal” refers not only to the son, but to the father?

When the son rams up against the consequences of his actions, he finds himself penniless, sitting with the pigs – and he recalls the generosity of his father.  Even his father’s servants are well-fed and paid.  Maybe he can go work for his father, and at least be in a better situation than sitting in the slop with the pigs.

And we begin to get a picture of the father.  Who, when we return to the scene of the family home, is watching and waiting for his younger son.  Hoping beyond hope that he will return home.

And then the younger son does.  He returns and asks forgiveness, and that he be allowed to work for his sustenance.

But this is AFTER his father has run to him.  Run out of the family compound gates, arms wide open, to welcome his son home.

Perhaps the father has had time to think through how he has treated his two sons.  How perhaps he has favored one, and how perhaps the other one felt he maybe didn’t belong.  And how it was the younger one who broke that pattern – but it could just as easily have been the older son.

Perhaps the father has resolved to love all, no matter who they are, with all the love he can muster.

This does not sit well, of course, with the older son, who cannot understand why his younger brother, the deadbeat, is getting all the attention – while he, the responsible one, hasn’t gotten anything.

And it is at this point that I would ask you: who are you in this story?

Where have you sought to be able to return to a place that may or may not receive you, like the younger son?

How have you longed for reuniting and reconciliation, like the father?

When has your sense of justice been upended, like the older son?

These are all places of real pain for us.  Places where we long for God to take away the pain, to bring us back to right relationship.

Here is the core message of this parable.  It is not PREscribing who we should be, but rather DEscribing who God is.

God brings about God’s peaceable realm through actions like those of the father in the parable.  No matter who we are, no matter how much we’ve messed up OR how well we’ve done, God runs out the gate, arms outstretched, eager to welcome us home.  God is signaling to the catering arm of the angel corps to fire up the grills, boys!  My son who was lost has come home!

Now, the reality of the world, the stark nature of the human condition is that such lavish forgiveness is exceedingly difficult for us.  Sometimes to return to a situation is unwise or unsafe, for many reasons.  Sometimes the mistake made does so much harm to someone or something that the consequences come down hard, and must be allowed to play out.

But sometimes we become hard of heart.  We become so tied to “the rules” that we decide who is “in” and who is “out” of the reign of God.

But in God’s peaceable realm, Jesus tells us, God accepts everyone who returns to God.  God seeks everyone, because God created them.  Remember that Jesus told this parable in response to the scandal that he ate with tax collectors and sinners.  In our context, Jesus might be eating with immigrants and gang members.  And that might not set too well with us.

But it sets just fine with God.  And so this parable reminds us that not only are we found and loved without qualification, but that those we might call “other” are likewise found and loved too.  WE don’t draw the parameters of the peaceable realm of God.

And honestly, I’m not sure there ARE any.  A God who watches the horizon for our return like the father in the story isn’t one to draw lines, but rather to stand watch as long as it takes.

This was the sermon ending for the liturgical service:

There is a beautiful song from South Africa called “Bambelela.”  It’s variously translated as “hold on” or “never give up” but both phrases capture the nature of God in this story.

Bambelela, Bambelela, O Bambelela, Bambelela

Bambe, Bambe, Bambe, Bambe, Bambe, O Bambe, Bambelela

God will never give up on us, no matter who we are in this story.

And for that, I am truly thankful.  Amen.

Listening link:  Bambelela

And this, for the casual service:

Bret Hesla, one of the founding members of the group Bread for the Journey penned a great song called “A Dazzling Bouquet.”  It’s not a worship song, but rather a song that celebrates what it means to be welcomed into the reign of God, which Hesla describes as a “dazzling bouquet” including such flowers as “six-foot gladiolas…all you purple lilacs shining bright.”

The refrain goes:

Mine is the church where everybody’s welcome

I know it’s true, ‘cause I got in the door

We are a dazzling bouquet of every kind of flower

Jump in the vase, ‘cause we’ve got space for more

Now THAT is truly the gospel.  Amen.

Listening link:  A Dazzling Bouquet

 

Does God punish – or forgive?

My sermon from this morning, March 24, 2019.  Deep thanks for Pastor David Lose’s column on this text from 2016, which formed much of my thoughts on this.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then 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. 7So 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?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Dear siblings in Christ, grace to you and peace this day from God our Creator, through Jesus our Redeemer.  Amen.

OK, out of the gate – this is a strange lesson.

It begins with descriptions of two awful events.  And Jesus is anticipating the Jewish understanding that those who suffered had done something to deserve that suffering, and that suffering was actually a punishment from God.

He dispels that understanding immediately.

He then tells a parable that probably drives efficient gardeners crazy: instead of replacing an under-performing plant, the gardener offers to give it another year of his labor, and a little manure, and see what happens.  (Personally, I’ve always been impressed with what can happen to an old rose bush with a little bit of steer manure and careful pruning.)

But I believe that this gospel lesson contains some kernels of understanding when it comes to sin and repentance, and suffering and redemption.

And we also begin to see the cross in plain view, as we journey towards Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week.

There is a hefty dose of truth-telling in this lesson, maybe more than we are comfortable hearing.  But Lent is a time for us to take on some discomfort, as we take a look at our lives and seek the places where we need transformation.

The news relayed to Jesus involves the man whose name will be forever linked with Jesus: Pontius Pilate.  It’s a particularly horrifying episode that sounds not unlike the massacre at the mosques in New Zealand last week.

What I see in Jesus’ reply is a continuation of the paradigm shift that began when he read from the scroll in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry.  When he proclaimed that the scripture of the coming of the anointed one was fulfilled.

In this story today, Jesus shifts the Old Testament image of an angry, vengeful God to God incarnate in Jesus.  Instead of God hurling lightning bolts from the sky, God who has come into the world walks beside us in our troubles.

Jesus is reminding us that suffering is not a form of punishment.  If there is anything we can take from Jesus’ sharp words to his audience, it’s that suffering and calamity are not God’s punishment for sin.  To make his point, Jesus uses his second example of the tower at Siloam.  “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”  He again answers definitively, “No.”

In each situation, Jesus is adamant that God is not a God of vengeance.  God doesn’t visit bad things on people to punish them for something they’ve done.

And of course this is almost incomprehensible for his audience.  It’s not much better for us today.

Our sense of equitable justice says well, if this happened to this person then they must have done something to deserve it.

These are some condemnations that have been promulgated by people who claim to be followers of Jesus:

*Those men died of AIDS because they were sinners, and they were sinners because they were gay.

*Those people in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward died in Hurricane Katrina because that city is filled with sin.

If we were to continue to employ that line of reasoning, then we could say:

*Those people of Nebraska lost everything in the floods, and some even died, because they were worse sinners than others.

*The people of Paradise lost their entire town and many of its residents to that awful fire because they were worse sinners than others.

I’m going to go on the record here and now: If this were true, I wouldn’t be standing here, because I could never bring myself to believe in a God whose method was to wait for people to mess up so he could be mean to them.

That is an abusive model.  Jesus, Emanuel, God-with-us stands over against that model.  Jesus’ summary of the greatest commandment – love God, and love your neighbor as yourself – reminds us that God is love, not hate.

However, just because suffering is not punishment doesn’t mean that it is disconnected entirely from sin.  Pilate’s murderous acts of terror have plenty of modern company.  There are, sadly, many examples in our world of how shoddy workmanship has resulted in harm to people.  Make no mistake – these acts are sinful.  Sin has consequences, and there are all kinds of sin that create much of the misery in the world.  The more we confront that sin, the less suffering there will be.  Jesus’ summary of the greatest commandment also reminds us that loving our neighbor as ourselves means we shouldn’t be doing things that harm others, be they people, creatures, or God’s good creation.

I firmly believe that God neither causes nor delights in suffering and calamity. This is where the parable about the fig tree comes in – but not, perhaps, in the way you might expect.

We tend to read this parable allegorically, assuming that the landowner is God and the gardener Jesus. But nowhere in Luke do we find a picture of an angry, vindictive God that needs to be placated by a friendly Jesus.  Luke’s Gospel overflows with the conviction that “there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”

I wonder if perhaps the landowner is representative of our own sense of how the world should work.  From childhood, we’ve wanted things to be “fair” – and we define “fair” as receiving rewards for doing good and punishment for doing evil. (Of course, for our own mistakes and misdeeds, we want mercy, not punishment!)

So perhaps the gardener is God, the one who consistently raises a different voice to suggest that the ultimate answer to sin isn’t punishment – not even in the name of justice – but rather mercy, reconciliation, and new life.  Perhaps you’ve heard the term “the God of second chances.”  That means everyone, not just some.

These are difficult things to hear.  But we should remember that this whole discussion takes place on the road to Jerusalem.  Jesus is making his way to the cross.

We think of the cross as an instrument of punishment – and in the Roman Empire, that’s exactly what it was.  But I believe that the resurrection quite literally changes EVERYTHING, including the cross.

In Jesus, God loves us enough to take on our lot and our lives fully, identifying with us completely. In the cross, then, we see just how far God is willing to go to be with us and for us, even to the point of suffering unjustly and dying the death of a criminal. And in the resurrection, we see that God’s solidarity and love is stronger than anything, even death.

So what can we say in the face of suffering and loss?  I speak now from my own experience: that God is with us.  That God understands what our suffering is like. That God has promised to redeem all things, including even our suffering.  That suffering and injustice do not have the last word in our lives and world.  And that God will keep waiting for us and keep urging us to turn away from our self-destructive habits, from our sin that causes harm, to be drawn again into the embrace of a loving God.

After everything is said and done, Jesus died because God chose to be incarnate. He could have died in any number of ways.  The cross was the political and spiritual consequence of the day.  He took on sin not necessarily by paying a debt owed to a vengeful God but by revealing God’s persistent grace even to the point of showing what sin, evil, greed, and power do to humans.  And he revealed what God’s love does to humans through his refusal to wield power but instead forgive.

The cross as symbol of an evil empire is transformed by Jesus’ resurrection into a symbol of hope.  Death itself is defeated.

And the world is turned upside down.

Amen.

Under the Wings

My sermon from March 17, 2019, with gratitude to colleagues Rob Kemppainen and Katie Hines-Shah whose brilliant insights on this text helped me weave together this message.

Luke 13:31-35

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He 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. 33Yet 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.’ 34Jerusalem, 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! 35See, 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.’”

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this day from our loving God, through Jesus our Savior.  Amen.

I am of a generation that had limited TV options on Saturday mornings.  That was the only day we were allowed to watch any TV, and the cartoons we liked best were Warner Brothers.

Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner were and are some of the great classics of animation.

Unlike our lesson today, the birds tended to win.

Foghorn Leghorn over Barnyard Dawg, Roadrunner over Coyote.

Likewise in today’s Gospel lesson, we have a similar dynamic: a fox and a hen.

Now, in real life we know that in a confrontation between a fox and a hen… you should probably bet on the fox.

Only in cartoons do roadrunners beat coyotes, and hens or roosters beat foxes, because in cartoons, birds are far more wily and foxy than predators.

In real life, however, the only thing that a chicken is smarter than is a turkey.

In the gospel today, it is the hen that is smarter, stronger, and more able.

While the one with all the power – Herod – is called a fox.

Now, this is not a compliment.

In Jesus’ day, the fox was not thought of as sly and cunning, but rather as cowardly and thieving.

Not smart, but sneaky.  Not a hunter, but a thief.  When confronted, it does not fight bravely, but runs or slinks away.

So when Jesus refers to Herod as “that fox” it was not a comment on how cunning he was.

Jesus was saying Herod was a coward and a thief.  One who would hide behind the power of the Roman Empire.

In effect, when Jesus hears that Herod is planning to kill him, he says,

“Tell that cowardly thief that I am going to Jerusalem.  Period, dot, end of sentence.”

Jesus owns who he is and states clearly, for the record, that he is quite aware of the danger awaiting him in Jerusalem and intends to stride right into the middle of it.

Now, as any keeper of chickens knows – a fox is a certain kind of threat to the flock.  The fox doesn’t just kill because he is hungry. A fox kills to wreak havoc, to scatter the flock.  He doesn’t stick around to confront the guardian of the henhouse after the damage is done; he relies on the havoc to provide cover for another attempt.

Herod would like to believe that the elimination of a few troublemakers, like John the Baptist, like Jesus, is for the good of the people.  It will satisfy Herod’s fears and those of the Romans. But Jesus knows better. Jesus knows that what Herod would start will keep on going. That the Romans will not be satisfied with the death of one prophet – or even with the death of those that sent him. These foxes will continue their ambushes on the henhouse, the better to control through fear.  It’s less than four decades later that the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed.

Jesus is no stranger to such wanton violence and hate.  And Jesus rejects it absolutely.

It should be clear to us in the wake of the shootings at the mosques in Christchurch – that God rejects this wanton violence and hate.  These acts of violence are the result of hatred that simmers and then explodes.

Hate does not come out of a vacuum.  Over seventy years ago, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II realized this.  In their Pulitzer Prize-winning musical South Pacific they featured a song called “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”  It was a bitter commentary on the sad truth that hatred is not inherent in the human psyche – it is something that is taught.

We who call ourselves Christians must reject hate-fueled fear just as Jesus did. We must reject hate expressed against our brothers and sisters of the Muslim faith, and the Jewish faith, and indeed ALL faiths, and root it out – even if we find it in our own hearts. Jesus does not give into terrorism – and neither should we.

Actions that promote hate are the acts of foxes.  They are dangerous and deadly and do harm to the innocent.

Herod is called a fox.  But what does Jesus call himself?

A hen. A mother hen.

What a strange contrast.

Today, most people think it is a compliment to be called a fox, and they would think it was an insult to be called a chicken or a hen.

But think about what it means, what it really means to be a mother hen.

Conventional wisdom says that a mother hen is someone who is always worrying, always fussing, always checking on things and trying to get things organized.

“You’re fussing over me like a mother hen.” That’s how the saying goes.

But while the fox perhaps does not deserve the good reputation it is often given, so the hen does not deserve the bad reputation it is often given.

A mother hen watches over the chicks.  She watches the sky for eagles, hawks, owls and other airborne predators.

She watches the ground for dogs, cats, coyotes, wolves and, of course, foxes.

And when she sees one of these critters?

She calls the chicks to herself, and she covers them with her wings.

The hen does not have fangs, or serious talons, or a whole lot of muscle.

About all that the hen can hope for is that the fox or whatever predator it is will be content with a one-chicken dinner, because the only way that she can save her chicks is by sacrificing herself.

Perhaps you see a parallel here.

Jesus had no earthly power, such as Herod has.

Herod has numerous armies on his side. Jesus has 12 disciples who, we will learn later in the passion story, have only two swords amongst all of them.

In a toe to toe battle, Herod has all the advantage.

The only thing that Jesus can do is, like the mother hen, put himself between we his children and the threats we face.  We then escape – but only at the cost of his life.

And so the hen wins.

Herod does not kill Jesus.  Herod cannot kill Jesus.

Jesus can only die the way that he is supposed to die: at Calvary, on the cross, so that we might be freed from our own sin and death by his death and resurrection.

Jesus saves us not only for the sake of being protected from the fox; Jesus calls us not only to follow him but to follow his lead to Jerusalem.

In the news reports I read yesterday about the heartbreaking tragedy in Christchurch, two details stood out to me.

First: when the assailant entered the mosque, he was greeted by a worshipper saying “hello, brother.”  That is the kind of welcome God extends to us – a welcome that is willing to risk everything.

The other detail that caught my eye, and my heart, was that of one of the victims, 71-yr-old Daoud Nabi.  Mr. Nabi was an engineer who had fled Afghanistan in the 80s to escape the Soviet invasion.  He was a grandfather many times over, and a tireless advocate for refugees and immigrants.  He would routinely show up at the airport to greet those newly arrived from war-torn countries like Syria, and would help them make a new life in New Zealand, making sure they were fed and protected.  It was his way of giving back to a country that had given him new life.  Mr. Nabi lost his life when he threw himself between the assailant and another worshipper.

In essence, he spread his wings to protect the other worshipper.

In a real life confrontation between a fox and a hen, who wins?

Though it may seem at first like you should bet on the fox, remember this:

The hen ultimately wins because she saves the chicks by giving herself up for the sake of the chicks.

Jesus is likewise determined.

Herod cannot stop him.  The Sanhedrin cannot stop him.  Rome cannot stop him.

Satan and all the forces of evil – cannot stop him.

Dear friends, we know the ending of the story.

And yet, we walk this road of Lent every year, to remind ourselves that the story is, in a sense, not ended.

When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he marked a path that each one of us travels.  A path through the joys and sorrows of life, a path that doesn’t take detours around the hard parts.

But that path leads to the place where our sin, where the pain of this life is met by grace on the cross, where we begin to comprehend the reckless love of God.

Jesus goes utterly against the grain by giving himself up for the sake of the world.

He steps between us and the assailant.

And over two thousand years later, we still proclaim:  blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

No Strings Attached

Here is my sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, 3-10-2019, for St Andrew Lutheran Church in Whittier, CA.

Luke 4:1-13

4Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this day from our loving God, through Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Temptation.

It’s a word that is as loaded as any political phrase.  As any op-ed column.  It calls to mind any assortment of things, doesn’t it?

There are so many kinds of temptations.  There are indulgences like chocolate, or sweets, or In-n-Out.  And of course, one person’s temptations are another’s necessities.

Especially In-n-Out.  But I digress.

There are temptations related to the work we do, or the leisure activities we pursue.  Social media has exploited this to an extreme; the words you might use in a Facebook post are triggers for ads that tempt you with goodies you never knew you needed.

Costco is a wonderful place, but I’m convinced they’ve made a science out of temptation as marketing ploy.

That’s one level of temptation, but in our gospel story today we encounter another level altogether.  That’s the level of self-absorbed power.

Power to materially change things to suit one’s wants and desires.

Power to overcome physical injury by virtue of who Jesus is.

And most seductively, the power to rule everything – which comes with a cost.

The way that Jesus handles these temptations dangled in front of Jesus speaks volumes about who he is.  He comes into this story from his baptism, where his identity was clearly stated: this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

Both the human and the divine characters of Jesus rise above these temptations to worldly rewards.  Our Ash Wednesday gospel story spoke of folks who make a big deal of showing off their religion in public; Jesus notes they have already received their reward.

Their reward is the attention they receive and the power they then derive from it.  But Jesus chooses a different path, and that choice is put to the test here.

It can be easy to think of this lesson as a story of Jesus’ superhuman efforts that rebuke the devil.  But looking deeper, this gospel is about so much more.  The tests Jesus faces are not about who he is, but how that identity will be lived out in his daily life.

One of the great theological tenets we Lutherans can claim is the distinction between a theology of glory, and a theology of the cross.  In this lesson, Jesus could follow a direction that would embody a theology of glory – a theology that says it’s all about ME and what I do that determines my salvation – and determines how I live in this world.

Jesus could decide to use gifts for himself alone.  He could decide that the outright power grab dangling in front of him sure would cut to the chase.  He could decide that his divinity assures him of an absolute right to whatever divine privilege might be his for the taking.

But he doesn’t.  The Son of the God of the Universe goes a very different way.

Jesus could turn those stones into bread.  He’s pretty hungry after 40 days.  He has the ability.  He could take all he wanted and more.

But he doesn’t.

Jesus could swear allegiance to the devil for the sole purpose of gaining massive power and ultimate authority.  With that kind of power, Jesus could force the issue on the Roman Empire and force the entrance of the kingdom of God.

But he doesn’t.

Jesus could build a false reliance on scripture as some kind of insurance policy against all the pitfalls and perils of this world.  Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t apply to anyone else – as long as Jesus appears to have been saved by the angels in a very public way, the spectacle alone is guaranteed to bring folks to God.  What good is the privilege of being the son of God if you don’t exploit it?

But he doesn’t.

Jesus explicitly turns down the theology of glory for the theology of the cross.  Jesus says no to the bright lights and deceptive ways of fame and fortune when they are obtained by selling one’s soul to the devil, and instead chooses the way of selfless love.

He does this not so that he might simply be remembered as a martyr and nothing more, but rather so that we might love others as he loved us.  So that how he lives his life serves as the ultimate example for all of humanity.

The devil temps Jesus to betray his identity and misuse his power; Jesus stands firm in who he is and refuses to use his power for selfish means.  The peaceable realm of God isn’t brought about by force, but by love.

Jesus doesn’t coerce, or force, or manipulate.  He is simply himself.  He offers compassion, love, and freedom through a cruciform way of living – deeply connected to God (vertical) and committed to serving the neighbor (horizontal).

Have you ever been challenged at the core of who you are?  Have you ever felt like there is something pulling you away from trusting in who you are, from believing in yourself?

I certainly have.  I think there is much in our world that pulls us away from US and toward an identity that is not ours.  We say, “I feel like I’m being pulled in a million different directions!”

Maybe we are.

Theologian Howard Thurman put it this way:

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that someone else pulls.”

The devil does not question who Jesus is, but tries to get Jesus to question who he is — and Jesus does not fall for it. It’s no accident that Jesus’ genealogy is narrated just before this identity test.

But what about us?  Do WE fall for it?  Do we question who we are, wondering if God really meant what God said, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased”?

Our first lesson reminds us that when we forget who and whose we are, when we forget our faith stories, the religious self formed by those stories shrinks – and is replaced by another self, the self produced by competing cultural stories.  The writers of Deuteronomy were keenly aware of this. Over and over again, the book commands the community to remember who and whose it is.

In our Second lesson, Paul says this word is “near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). This means that “the word of faith” must be part of everyday life.  This refers to the phrase in Deuteronomy that follows after the part Jesus quotes, “one does not live by bread alone” …but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

To claim to be a Christian means that a significant part of your identity is that you are a child of God.  Do you believe it?  Does it make a difference for your life?

Or do you allow the strings of others to pull you away from being fully who God made you to be, away from your identity – which is determined not by the intentions of others but by God’s love?

Don’t give in.  Don’t fall for it.  Instead, trust and know that you have already passed the identity test and decide that this Lent your life will be different because of it.

God calls us beloved children, as God called Jesus Beloved.  We need not wonder about that part of who we are.

To be sure, none of this means that life suddenly becomes simple and easy, that there is a hidden cure somewhere in this story of Jesus’ sparring with the devil.

God’s people are not immune to suffering, especially when that suffering comes as a result of folly or sin. A theology of the cross means that God will not ultimately let suffering or even death separate us from his love and care.

A theology of the cross calls us to a life lived not in service to the power structures of this world, but in faithfulness to God and service to the neighbor.

And all those strings that are pulling you in a million directions?

God’s not pulling any of them.

God in Christ changes your heart, so that you move, in response to God’s love.  No strings attached.

That is true freedom.

May you taste that freedom in these 40 days of Lent.  Amen.