Address Your Doubt

My sermon from April 28, 2019, 2nd Sunday of Easter, when we hear about Thomas and his doubts of the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection.  I also specifically deconstruct the phrase “for fear of the Jews” in light of Saturday’s shooting at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, CA. – it is critical that we acknowledge how Scripture has been used to justify such actions, and commit to fighting against such horrific misuse of what is essentially an incorrect translation.

John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our wondrous God, through the risen Christ.  Amen.

Every year on the Sunday after Easter we hear this story, which features the character we have nicknamed “Doubting Thomas.”

I’m not sure how Thomas ended up as the fall guy here.  I saw a cartoon this week with Thomas saying to the other disciples, “I’m just saying, we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter’ and we don’t call Mark ‘Ran-away-naked Mark.’  How come I get stuck with this title??”

A question worth considering, particularly in light of the part of this gospel reading that immediately precedes it.

The disciples are locked in the upper room, our text says, “for fear of the Jews.”  I do need to make a sidebar point here: “the Jews” is a poor translation; it really should say “the religious authorities.”  This is one of the passages that has been used for anti-Semitic purposes over the centuries, including the shooting yesterday in Poway, and modern biblical and linguistic scholarship has provided much needed clarity.

So we can more accurately look at this situation as, the disciples are locked in the upper room because they reasonably fear that what happened to Jesus is likely to happen to them.  The religious authorities, who are in a Vichy-like agreement with Rome, could easily come after them next.

Thomas is not with them.  We’re not sure why, other than it sets up the doubt story.

At any rate, he misses out on Jesus’ visit and breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, so when he hears about it later, he doubts what they’re saying.  They are saying the same words THEY doubted when Mary Magdalene said them.  Poetic justice, perhaps?

So I wonder if Jesus’ words about who is blessed are directed just as much at all the disciples as they are at Thomas.  There isn’t a disciple in the room who hasn’t harbored doubt in the last few days.

And perhaps I might be so bold as to say that there isn’t a disciple in THIS room who hasn’t harbored doubt too at some point in time.

We’ve been told, or at least we’ve gotten the message, that when it comes to faith, doubt is bad.  It’s the opposite of faith.

I prefer to take to heart the words of the great 20th-century Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who said that doubt is NOT the opposite of faith.  Rather, certainty is the opposite of faith.

And that makes sense.  The letter to the Hebrews declares that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

But Thomas doubts, just as the disciples did before him.  In the other places we see him in the gospel stories, he’s a pretty pragmatic guy.  He needs to see Jesus to believe.  He wants proof beyond a reasonable doubt, to borrow a phrase from my legal past.

But if resurrection indeed is, like I suggested last week, a way of new living instead a one-time event – how do you “prove” it?

I think Thomas moves in this story from the one-time event to the new way of living.  I actually think he is the disciple who first seems to get it.  He does see Jesus, bodily standing before him.  He is the one whom Jesus invites to touch his wounds, to acknowledge in a very physical way that the Savior of the world, risen from the dead, bears the scars of his crucifixion.  They do not magically disappear in resurrection.  Thomas is thus transformed by the realization that no matter what his life will be from this point forward, Jesus has been there/done that and will gladly walk alongside him through it again.  The wound marks Jesus bear no longer identify him as one of the dead, but as one of the living.

At the same time, the more I thought about this story, the more I could see how it reflects some of how society regards institutionalized religion today.  They have a lot of doubts about it, for a lot of reasons.  Most of those reasons have to do with not seeing Jesus in the public face of the church.

I’ve engaged with a number of folks in that camp, both friends and strangers.  I want to hear what they have to say.  It makes for an interesting conversation.

And what I hear them actually saying is that what has turned them off is the church’s arrogant swagger of certainty.

A certainty that results in the church’s inability to admit its wrongdoings and confess its shortcomings.

A certainty by which the church has engaged in reprehensible behaviors and refused to repent for them.

Now, these folks I talk to are still very much interested in the divine.  In a place that creates a sense of community.  A place that takes Jesus’ call to serve the downtrodden seriously.  A place that loves and doesn’t condemn.

But what they have observed as the public face of the church, at the very least, gives them plenty of doubt.

And I wonder if instead of throwing a new program at this sort of thing, if we began with ourselves, how would that look?

An example of this is the work our ELCA Lutheran Church has done, in collaboration with the Lutheran World Federation, on refuting the anti-Semitic writings of Luther and the damage they have caused through the centuries, through official apologies to the Jewish people.

How can I possibly hope to address the doubts others might have about God, if I don’t address the doubts and failings I have myself?

I used the word “address” and not “resolve” on purpose.  They have very different meanings.  And if you’ll indulge me in some humor for a moment, perhaps I can make my point clear.

In the great comedy series “The Honeymooners” there is an episode called “The Golfer” where Ralph Kramden, angling for a promotion, ends up with a golf date with the manager of the department.  Ralph (who doesn’t play golf) and his sidekick Ed Norton check out a book from the library about golf, and Ed demonstrates preparing for the swing: address the ball.  And perhaps you recall Ed’s classic line:  “Hello, ball!”

This is really what I mean when I say address our doubts.  Acknowledge them.  Hold a chair out for them.  Because that’s how we start to get to know them.

And that’s when they become a part of our faith – when we ask hard questions of God and don’t always get answers, at least not the answers we want or in the time frame we’d prefer.  And so instead of certainty – which sounds good on paper, but in practice is useless and ultimately false – we learn how to exist in the uncertainty.

That sounds uncomfortable at first.  But I think that it’s what is required for us to be continually open to God’s voice, to the Holy Spirit being breathed upon us by Jesus, for us to be able to hear his words, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Certainty is finite.  It says, ok we’re done, that’s a wrap.

Uncertainty says, I wonder what else there is?  What else, God?

That’s a variation on that Hebrews quote:  faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

There is, however, a certainty in which we are grounded: the certainty of the love of God in Christ Jesus, from which nothing at all can separate us.

Do we really need any OTHER assurance?  Any other certain thing in this world?

Is that not the certainty that sets us free from sin?

Is that not even the certainty that gives us the freedom to doubt, to question, to wonder, to rail against God, even, when the days turn dark?

It is the certainty that reminds us that no matter how much we question, how far we wander, how much doubt we harbor – God understands.  God is right beside us.

And it is also the certainty that reminds us of those words of Jesus: as the Father has sent me, so I send you.

I send you, he says, to those who are hurting.  Those who are lonely.  Those who need prayers, even from a distance.  To those who need to see that Christ is alive, that Christ’s followers DON’T have all the answers, are plenty uncertain about lots of things, and are just trying to figure it all out, day to day, in a community that does its best to practice resurrection.  That our struggles and doubts are part of what defines us as followers of Jesus.

When we hold faith and doubt together, we practice resurrection.

And God’s love in Christ makes that resurrection a reality.  Amen.

“I have seen the Lord!”

Here is my sermon, with some after-delivery re-arranging to reflect my improvisations.   It is greatly inspired by a column by Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota.

Happy Easter!  Christ is risen!

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Dear friends, grace and peace and Easter joy to you this day from our God of love through the risen Christ.  Amen.

I have seen the Lord!

Mary Magdalene’s shout to the disciples is the truest sermon ever preached – and quite possibly the shortest one too.  It says it all.

I have seen the Lord.

When we walked out of church on Good Friday evening, in complete silence, following the eternal flame – the one thing that had been left on Maundy Thursday – there was a deep and aching sense of what the disciples might have felt that long weekend.

All was gone.  Nothing remained.  Not even a benediction was heard; those are withheld in Holy Week until today.

Our hearts are left aching for more.  We want to see the Lord.  And so we gather this morning because we are people of the resurrection!  We know the rest of the story!  Christ is risen!  (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

I mentioned on Thursday that God was transformed from vengeful Old Testament God to loving God of Eternity – this happens on the cross, and it is made complete by the resurrection.  Death is defeated and so, sin is defeated. Without Jesus’ resurrection, death is the ultimate and eternal punishment for sin.  When God raises Jesus from death, we are freed from that eternal punishment.  Forgiveness becomes God’s way.  Resurrection turns our human assumptions about who God is and how God acts upside down.

In JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf remarks that it is the small acts of kindness and love by ordinary people that keep the darkness at bay.

The commandment that Jesus gave his followers on Maundy Thursday to love one another is what draws us in as workers in the kingdom of God. This is a promise we make at our baptism – we are drawn into God’s circle, and we are then part of realizing the peaceable realm of God on Earth, the Kin-dom of God as it were.  Surely the small acts of kindness and love that we as followers of Jesus carry out daily are part of the ongoing struggle to keep the darkness at bay.

Because there is still darkness.  There is still difficulty and struggle, many times far more than we think is remotely reasonable.  Evil still roams this earth, as we have heard in the awful news of the bombings in Sri Lanka this Easter morning.  It is in times like these that I am most keenly aware of what Good Friday and Easter mean together.

Through the events of Good Friday, God became fully human to even more of an extent than God was, I think, at Jesus’ birth. And in that experience of suffering God is forever intimately tied to humanity.  God weeps with us, walks with us, mourns with us.  And God makes a new promise, a new covenant of love for us through Jesus’ resurrection.

Here’s the thing about resurrection: it has limited traction as a third-person confession.  If we only think of resurrection in terms of how we recite it in our creeds, then it is not much more than a historical possibility.

Resurrection is not, I think, a one-time event but rather a way of life.  It’s a first person testimony, a truth that we might witness for ourselves and to which we might bear witness, every day.

Now in case you think I’m about to ask you to do something weird like make a John 3:16 sign to hold up the next time you go to a Dodgers game, or stand on a street corner with a microphone and speaker and yell out “I have seen the Lord!” – you can rest easy.  No such demonstrations needed.

Because I think that time is better spent looking for signs of resurrection all around you.  And believe me, they are there.

Resurrection is not only the promise of life after death.  That would be enough, just as the Passover song “Dayenu” claims: “if God had only led us out of Egypt, that would have been enough…”  But resurrection is also the assurance that God’s love will ALWAYS move the stones away from in front of the tombs of fear, and hatred, and rejection; of sorrow, and grief, and despair – God will and DOES roll those stones away.  And when the air of decay in those tombs hits God’s breath of new life – the death in those tombs is truly no more.

For all of our Lutheran understanding that God moves first, the promise of the resurrection is certain not only because God raised Jesus from the dead, but also when we speak it into our own lives and the lives of those who need to hear it.  The words “I have seen the Lord!” are God’s love rolling stones away so that all life might be free to know dignity and regard and respect.  A way of being in the world that is shaped by resurrection, embodying all that is life-giving and merciful.

Let me be clear: by saying this I don’t mean that the truth of the resurrection requires any action on our part; it is true regardless.  But what if it becomes more true for each one of us if we can walk into the future of this and all days, looking for places where we can say, “I have seen the Lord!”?  Imagine being able to speak that truth into the life of someone who can’t see the Lord, because they have only seen the inside of their tomb for too long.  That in itself might be a place where you both see the Lord.

To say “I have seen the Lord” is to point out the signs of new life when all that seems visible is death.  How fitting it is that even while holding the tragedy in Sri Lanka in our hearts, we see the rose on the altar today that honors the birth of a new baby in our extended church family.

To say “I have seen the Lord” is to proclaim love in the face of hatred – as we saw when the members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Atlanta forgave the young man whose shooting rampage claimed the lives of their brothers and sisters.

To say “I have seen the Lord” practices decency and goodness when the vitriol and anger that is too much a part of our society finds only more and more followers.

If we were to start looking right now for signs of the resurrection – well, we’re kind of surrounded by Easter-y things.  Images that come to mind are sunrise, lilies, flowers, bunnies, chocolate.  Many claim that chocolate is a sign of the resurrection; nothing wrong with that!

But what if we expand the signs of resurrection to include Yo-Yo Ma playing the Bach cello suites at the border in Laredo, Texas earlier this week, to build a cultural bridge? Could a sign of the resurrection be the fact that the bees on Notre-Dame’s roof survived the fire? The deep snowpack in the Sierras that promises adequate water? The hundreds and hundreds of butterflies that descended on Southern California this year, along with a wildflower superbloom for the ages?  Or the fact that no matter what yesterday was like, birds begin each new day with a song?

What does Easter look like, feel like, smell like, taste like, sound like to you?

Where are the places in your life where you can imagine saying “I have seen the Lord”?

I’ll go first.  I have seen the Lord in my own life.

After my husband died, when I had looked and looked for work as a paralegal and I had no idea how I was going to make ends meet, I saw God in my dearest friend, leaning forcefully over her kitchen island as I made yet another excuse for why someone wouldn’t hire me.  “You put your call aside to marry Michael, and that was a good thing.  But now – you’re doing it again!  And you don’t have to!  Follow your call!”

It’s been a long and rocky road, but here I am, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

I have seen the Lord in the birth of the first baby goat at our church’s Luther Glen Farm.

I have seen the Lord in the work of my colleagues as they organized the New City Parish in Los Angeles in 1993, after the riots, against plenty of opposition.  It is still serving the people of South Central LA today.

And I have seen the Lord here.

I have heard many stories of your past as a congregation, and I’ve seen the Lord in the honoring of those stories and the people that created them.  But I’ve also seen the Lord in what is happening all around us.  In both large ways, that are quite visible, and in small ways that we really have to bend down and seek out.  In places where God makes a way out of no way.

To be honest, I have usually seen the Lord after I have been willing to spend some time in hard and barren places.  Places where there are no easy answers.  Places that have a distinct darkness to them.  Jesus generally shows up in that darkness.  I don’t always recognize him, but one thing’s for sure: he doesn’t let me cling to old or useless ideas.  When I think I see him clearly, he tends to disappear – back to the person through whom he worked, or the place or event.  But in that moment, he calls my name, and I recognize us both.

Mary Magdalene’s experience is the first we know of an encounter with the risen Christ.  It’s one that plays out for us.  So I think that the question Easter asks of us is not whether we believe in the doctrine of resurrection.  That’s a simple, cerebral yes.  Easter is far greater than that, far more profoundly earth-shattering.

No, Easter asks of us, “have you encountered the risen Christ?”

My prayer for you this day, and every day, is that your path will lead you to the places and times where you’ll be able to answer that question with a resounding “YES!  I HAVE seen the Lord!”  Because when that is how you move through this life, you will see the Lord.  Amen.

 

 

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.

 

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