Grace Presbyterian Church
April 21, 2019, Easter C
What Mary Magdalene Saw
At first, all she saw was a stone, displaced.
When Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb, before sunrise, she saw nothing more. There’s no indication that she approached any closer to the tomb at all, much less looked in to see if there was in fact any body there. She saw the stone displaced and immediately leapt to a conclusion, the one she shared with Peter and the “beloved disciple”: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” We don’t know who “we” is, either; as far as this gospel tells us Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone. But the main point to notice here is: whatever she said, and however much sense that conclusion might have made, all Mary Magdalene saw was a stone, displaced.
Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” run to the tomb. (Let’s clear this up now; in this gospel the “beloved disciple” is, because of a note in 21:24, associated with the author of this gospel, and as you can see this gospel is historically attributed to “John,” typically the one by that name among the twelve disciples. Without jumping into that history lesson, for the rest of this sermon the “beloved disciple” or “disciple whom Jesus loved” is going to be called John, because that’s a lot shorter.)
So Peter and John arrive at the tomb, John first; he stops at the door and peers in, while Peter – ever the impulsive one – blusters right on in. They both see the linen wrappings, which argued against Mary Magdalene’s assumption; grave robbers, or any speculative “they” of the time, were not likely to bother unwrapping the body before moving it – quite the opposite in fact. And then, they … go home.
Even as John (the “beloved disciple,” remember) is given credit for seeing and believing (although what he believed isn’t clear), whatever happened in their heads wasn’t enough to get them to stick around and investigate any further. They went in the tomb and looked, and then they left.
Mary Magdalene didn’t leave, and that will make all the difference.
She was weeping, but she was still there. So far as we know she has not yet looked into the tomb before verse 11 indicates that she does so, and when she does she sees something new: two angels, in white, at the head and foot of where Jesus had been placed in the tomb. This is, you’ll observe, the second thing she saw.
The angels have the nerve to ask why she is weeping, and her answer is very close to the report she first gave Peter and John. Probably getting much more frustrated by now, she turns away from the tomb and sees the third thing she has seen since arriving at the scene: a gardener.
Of course, we know what she doesn’t yet know; this is not the gardener. Whether it is some sort of odd unexpected thing about Jesus’s appearance throwing her off or simply the overwhelming distracting emotion and confusion of the moment, Magdalene can’t see Jesus for who he is. Again jumping to a conclusion, she assumes him to be the one charged with tending the garden that sits outside the tomb. For the person who ends up being called “the first evangelist” or “the apostle to the apostles” for the witness she will bear a few verses from now, she sure is off the mark a few times here.
“The gardener” speaks to her, asking who she is looking for, and this time she at least asks for the body. All of this only ends when Jesus calls her by name.
She finally sees Jesus when he calls her by name.
For all of this confusion and error, Mary Magdalene at long last does see Jesus, and receives a call of sorts from him, to go to his other disciples and tell them what she has seen, and that “I am ascending to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.” She does this, finally getting to announce what she has truly seen at long last: “I have seen the Lord.” It takes her a while, to be sure. But in the end she really does become that “first evangelist,” the “apostle to the apostles.” To that fearful bunch hidden away in a secret room, she gives the good news indeed – “I have seen the Lord.”
In the end there is only one thing that sets her apart from the other disciples, both Peter and John and those others who never do go to the tomb. Those disciples, so far as we know, would be completely clueless were it not for Mary Magdalene. Peter and John could have seen, but they left. They didn’t stay and keep looking.
Mary Magdalene kept looking. No matter how confused or emotional or distracted, she kept looking. And her continued looking was rewarded.
We certainly don’t live in a resurrection world. You only need to look at the news coming from Sri Lanka this morning to be reminded of that. It can be challenging, difficult, even seemingly hopeless to look for signs of the risen Christ in the death-fascinated world in which we live, and so hard to see any evidence of that risen Christ in the people around us. But if there is any Easter message in Mary Magdalene’s story, it is simply and emphatically this:
Keep looking. Don’t stop looking. Don’t ever stop looking.
For a risen Christ who shows up, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ Is Risen Today; #254, That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright; #248, Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!; #238, Thine Is the Glory
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 20, 2019, Holy Saturday C
So this is the in-between day.
For Jesus’s earliest followers, the horror and terror of the crucifixion was past, but the confusion giving way to celebration of the risen Lord was not yet. Even the gospels give us nothing, really; the reading from John we just heard happened “last night,” in the disciples’ world. It’s a curious enough story, how two of Jesus’s followers who even Jesus’s followers didn’t know were Jesus’s followers coming to claim Jesus’s body and give it a king-like burial? An overwhelming amount of burial spice and a never-used tomb? But again, that was all last night. Today? All of the gospels fall silent.
The medieval church couldn’t stand this, apparently, and offered forth all manner of explanations of “what really happened,” often having to do with Jesus’s “harrowing of Hell” or other such spiritualized speculations (if you’ve ever wondered about that “he descended into Hell” line from the Apostles’ Creed, well, there you go). But if you’re Peter or John or Mary Magdalene or anyone else in this gospel account, you’re probably at home taking pains not to violate the Sabbath in your grief, and that’s about it.
Jesus was in the tomb. Dead.
It’s not as if he hadn’t told his disciples this was going to happen, or even that this had to happen, but nobody listens to bad news until it cannot be avoided, and on this day it cannot be avoided. Amazing things will be happening twenty-four hours from now, no matter what gospel you read, but for now, it is a day of in-between.
This isn’t the worst way of understanding our lives on this earth as Christians.
Good Friday is done, but in a way it’s not really Easter yet. We know it’s coming. We know Jesus isn’t in that tomb anymore. We know the good news. We have that hope.
We really don’t live in a resurrection world, do we? Just read a headline or make the mistake of turning on the news and you’ll know that most people, especially those who “lead” us – even those who bleat on about God the most – do not live in a resurrection world. We know it’s coming, but we are still doing something we are so bad at: waiting.
And yet waiting is so much our human condition. Waiting for test results. Waiting for the storm to pass. Waiting for the loved one to finally pass on. So much of life is waiting, whether we want to or not.
But the waiting is oh, so important, for it is when we truly learn to be with God. To listen for what God says rather than clamor for our wants; to learn the sacredness of every moment, for as Frederick Buechner writes, “all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
In the conclusion of his poem “For the Interim Time,” John O’Donoghue writes:
What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.
So, for the “renewing of your minds” as the Apostle Paul says, for the waiting and listening for the rustling of the Holy Spirit, for these we pray, and for these we yearn, and for these, unable to see what is to come and yet knowing it is coming…we wait.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 18, 2019, Maundy Thursday C
I’m curious how many of you remember the Lord’s Supper in church, maybe as far back as your childhood, looking very different.
Admittedly I grew up in another denomination, but I have these very distinct memories of the Lord’s Supper, whenever it was observed, looking for all the world like a funeral service. Table (and all the elements on it) covered in a shroud, the church’s deacons (no elders in that denomination) dressed in black and looking exactly like pallbearers at a funeral…the only reason I didn’t immediately think of it this way was because, at that young an age, I hadn’t been to enough funerals to know. When I finally did see a couple of funerals, and then saw the Lord’s Supper in church on a Sunday looking pretty much the same, I honestly think I was scarred just a little bit. It might have been worse if we’d had the Supper more than four times a year.
Since then I have studied enough history to know that such presentation of the Lord’s Supper was not only common, it even came with official backing in at least one of the antecedent Presbyterian denominations to the PC(USA); its Book of Orderdescribed and prescribed exactly that kind of setup for the table, even to the point of how the shroud was to be folded when removed, and how it was to be replaced over the elements when the Supper was done. This was as far back, if I remember correctly, as 1796. There is a long history of treating the Lord’s Supper primarily as a memorial. By no means do I mean to offend those who came before us in the faith, but at this point in my life and ministry I can no longer believe that’s precisely what Jesus was going for here, as recounted by Paul in what we now know as the Words of Institution.
As Paul describes the scene (in what is our earliest written account of it), Jesus performs the acts we know – breaking the bread, filling the cup – and marks each one with the appropriate theological significance – “my body that is for you,” “the new covenant in my blood.” But then what does he say? “Do this in remembrance of my sacrifice”? “Do this in remembrance of my death”? “Do this in remembrance of what’s going to happen tomorrow?”
No. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
“Do this in remembrance of me.” Remember me. Remember the one who journeyed with you all around Galilee and Judea. Remember the one who taught you, who sent you out to preach and teach and heal. Remember me, the one with whom you shared so many meals at so many tables. The one who lived with you all these years.
Later in this same letter Paul will take issue with some in the Corinthian church who somehow doubt that Christ was ever raised from the dead. It is one of the most impassioned parts of this epistle, and in the end Paul finally goes so far as to declare that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17), and even further, “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:19). But then the good news: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (15:20).
Even back in our words of institution, Jesus instructs his disciples that in the sharing of this bread and cup, we do “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26). If all we have to show here is Jesus’s funeral, if what happened in this meal and then in the garden and finally on Golgotha is all there is to the story, then we really are kinda hopeless, aren’t we?
Do this in remembrance of me. Remember me.
The animated film Coco understands what power memory has. The young boy at the center of the story, who accidentally journeys into the Land of the Dead of Mexican folklore, is in the end rushing back from that land to be at the side of his grandmother; as she is slowly fading, her body aged and infirm and her memories slipping away, the boy sings to hear a song that her own father had sung to her as a young child, before leaving the family to try to provide for them as a musician – a journey on which he ends up being murdered, unbeknownst to his family. It is a song that had been made famous by the man who murdered her father and stole the song, presenting it as his own and becoming famous. But in these final moments, as the boy sings her father’s song haltingly to his Mama Coco, the first sparks of life come to her face. Her fingers begin to move, almost imperceptibly; her eyes open, ever so slowly; in the end, her own halting voice joins with the boy’s to finish the song, as she smiles for possibly the first time in years:
Remember me, though I have to travel far
Remember me, each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
In this supper, in this bread and this cup passed among us, broken however imperfectly and maybe spilled a little bit, we remember Jesus, the whole life, the whole word, and in that remembering we are brought to new life, given a song to sing, a smile amid the tears of the everyday; we live in this testimony of the Christ who is coming again, and in whose life is our life.
Do this and remember.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #525, Let Us Break Bread Together; #527, Eat This Bread; #227, Jesus, Remember Me
No sermon in the traditional sense today. Plenty of Word, however, was proclaimed:
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’ Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this. (Luke 22:14-23)
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’
While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?’ When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’ Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!’
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:39-62)
Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ Then Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ He answered, ‘You say so.’ Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, ‘I find no basis for an accusation against this man.’ But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’
When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.’
Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’ (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted.He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come intoyour kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:32-43)
(hymn: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”)
(hymn: “Jesus, Remember Me”)
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
The Christ candle is extinguished.
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 7, 2019, Lent 5C
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
This challenge to the people of Judah, as delivered by God through the prophet Isaiah, came during their period of exile in Babylon. In particular, it came at a point when that exile was starting to seem permanent; there was no sign of movement that their conquered home kingdom would ever be able to do anything about it, and their Babylonian rulers showed no signs of ever letting up and releasing exiles to go home. But lo and behold, Babylon was conquered by Persia, and the ruler of that kingdom ultimately decided, for whatever reason, to repatriate those exiles out of Babylon and back to Judah and to Jerusalem.
This wasn’t a normal decision on the part of the Persian king. Whether it was some kind of bizarre impulse of kind-heartedness on his part or a more pragmatic decision that keeping these exiles under control while also pacifying the native Babylonian population wasn’t worth it, the exiled people were able to return, finally perceiving the “new thing” of which Isaiah spoke.
Isaiah’s oracle was pretty striking in its almost extreme level of insistence – telling the people of the Torah “do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old” was a seeming radical way of getting the people’s attention. The “things of old” were nothing less than the very identity of that people of the Promised Land, now divided into Israel and Judah – the story of Abraham, called to strike out for a home he had never seen; the captivity in Egypt and the exodus back to that Promised Land; those “former things” were no less that the story of their people; Isaiah couldn’t possibly mean to forget those, could he?
But God really was doing a new thing, without which the people might have remained in exile…who knows how long? Getting caught up too deeply in the old things and missing the new thing would have been a tragic result.
Anyway, it sounds great, right? Going home after all these years?
The first of three stages of deportation out of Judah had occurred in around the year 597 BCE; a second stage happened around 587 or 586, and the third around 582 or 581. The repatriation to Judah began after the Persian conquest in 539. That’s as many as fifty-eight years for those deported first. That’s time for one or even two generations to be born, generations who had no experience of Judah or Jerusalem. That’s plenty of time for many of the original deportees to have died and been buried in Babylon. That’s plenty of time to have, as we might say today, “made a life” in Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah had delivered an oracle from God to those exiles telling them pretty much to do that, after all:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 28:5-7)
So if you’ve been doing that, and all this “I am doing a new thing” talk suddenly starts coming from another prophet, maaaaaybe you’re not completely convinced after all. After all, what condition is Jerusalem in after all this time? (Hint: the answer is “ruins.”) Where will we live? How will we eat? What about those who were left behind in Judah – will they be hostile to us? Or have new peoples moved in and taken over? These aren’t necessarily easily answered questions, especially to those of the Judean population who had been born in exile. What’s the point of giving up the life you know, rough as it may be, for one full of questions and uncertainties?
Now jump forward to the reading from John’s gospel. In considering this account it is vitally important to remember what is recounted in chapter 11: the death and raising of Lazarus, possibly the most expansive story in John’s gospel outside of the Passion narrative, and indeed a pivotal one – the religious authorities were now determined to get rid of not only Jesus but also Lazarus, because many were following Jesus because of Lazarus and his unprecedented not-dead-anymore condition. Now here Lazarus is, reclining at table in the home he shared with sisters Martha and Mary, hosting the man who had brought him back to life for dinner. Lazarus is living a new thing, and is a living “new thing,” and his life – his newly-restarted life – is under threat for it.
The story of this dinner unfolds in two acts: Mary enters with a highly fragrant perfume and anoints Jesus’s feet, and dries them with her hair; Judas then responds with indignant scolding for the waste of such an expensive perfume when the proceeds from it could have done a lot for the poor, only to be rebuked by Jesus, who commends Mary for her act, also observing that she had gotten it for “the day of my (Jesus’s) burial.”
It’s easy to jump on Judas here, and John strongly encourages you to with the added note about his unethical actions with the community treasury. His basic statement, though, is correct, even if he is saying it in something less than earnest; the sale of that perfume could have provided a lot of dinners at St. Francis House or Family Promise, to be sure. Still, Judas is totally missing what’s going on, or perhaps he actually is seeing it and is not happy about it. Perhaps he is the type novelist Upton Sinclair spoke of in his observation that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” If Jesus is going to die, where does that leave Judas (whether he’s dipping his hand in the till or not)? What position does he have? Such status as he has, meager as it might be, is gone if Jesus is gone.
It’s easier to praise Mary. Here she is again, off doing her own thing while sister Martha is diligently serving away. (Unlike the other such encounter of this type, over in Luke, Martha seems content to keep quiet in this case.) At any rate, she performs the act of anointing, and the whole letting-her-hair-down thing is enough to make the event scandalous in that culture, but that seems to pass unremarked.
As Jesus notes, such an act was part of the burial ritual of the time; Mary and Martha had probably performed that act on the body of Lazarus only a short time ago. It was familiar. It was known, and as such it might even have been a comfort. And it was on some level in this case correct, if premature; Jesus’s burial would not be far off at this point.
Lazarus, the dead man no longer dead, is right there at the table. Did this not register? Mary may have prepared Jesus’s body for burial, but was she any better prepared for Jesus not to stay buried than Judas was, or anybody else in the room?
When God does a new thing, it is so, so difficult to grasp it, to know it, to trust it. How do we know this isn’t just wishful thinking? Well, if the “new thing” seems in fact rather comfortable and easy to accept, then it probably is wishful thinking. If it’s discomfiting and upsets the seeming order of things, on the other hand, maybe we’d better pay attention.
Still, the “new thing” God does is almost always going to be uncomfortable, maybe even threatening. It may not include the stuff we like. It may not even include this church, or any of the other things about our Christian life we know and love. But God moves when God moves, and God never moves for anything other than our good (even if we don’t get it), and we either keep up or get left behind.
Those “rivers in the desert” back in Isaiah sound so inviting. When even the otherwise left out things – like those jackals and ostriches, among the more reclusive animals in the wild – begin to come forward and sing the praise of God, it sounds so wonderful. Still, though, jackals are kind of scary animals – not comfortable. The “new thing” God does may lead us to places where we never thought we’d go, or never wanted to go, but it is God who leads, and we who better figure out how to follow.
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #509, All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly; #74, When God Restored Our Common Life; #223, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 31, 2019, Lent 4C
Found and Lost
The trouble with these extremely familiar stories from the Bible is that, after we’ve heard or read them a few times, we quit listening. For example, today in churches across this country, there are (I am quite sure) thousands upon thousands of people sitting in pews whose minds all completely checked out when they read or heard the words of verse 11 of this reading: “Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.’”I also expect that some number of such checked-out listeners are in this very sanctuary here. Oh, yeah, this one. We know this one. So what shall we do for lunch?
In truth, no preacher can truly hope to thwart that checking-out save for the intervention of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of those listening. Nonetheless, we will go forth, supplying a fuller background for this familiar story, and hope that we’re all still around at the end just in case the Spirit shakes something loose in us that perhaps we haven’t heard or understood before.
We need to take note, for example, that this oh-so-familiar story is provoked (and that is the word) by those Pharisees again (probably not the same Pharisees who warned Jesus about Herod in the lesson a few weeks ago), this time joined by members of another group of religious leaders known simply as scribes. They witness a sight that was nothing less than offensive to them: tax collectors, and that vaguely defined class known only as “sinners” in their eyes. Truly this grumbling of theirs needs tone of voice to appreciate it fully, something that words printed on a page can’t quite supply: “This fellow welcomes sinners and…and…and EATS with them!!!”, so rich is their disgust.
This is what provokes the telling of this very familiar parable. Keep this in your head here, no matter what.
In fact it provokes three parables, all with some connection to the theme of things (or people) lost and found. Besides the losing and the finding, each parable is also characterized by what might be called outsized joy, joy at the finding of what was lost that spills out onto friends and neighbors who might not have even had any idea what was going on. The one who lost the sheep: did his neighbors even know, and frankly, did they even care? What’s the difference between ninety-nine and one hundred sheep when you live next door to the smell? And yet this man, leaving behind the “ninety-nine in the wilderness” (which really sounds a little bit irresponsible) and searching all over to find the lost one, then turns and goes to his friends and neighbors (did shepherds even have “friends and neighbors”? Their fellow shepherds, maybe?). His cry is “rejoice with me!” And then, here as in the next parable, we get this “moral of the story” that so great is the rejoicing in heaven over just one sinner who repents. Just one.
The parable of the woman and the lost coin unfolds similarly. It is lost; she searches all over the house; the coin is found; she calls the friends and neighbors to rejoice. Such coins (sometimes identified as “dowry coins”) might have been, for a woman in this time period, the last line of defense against utter poverty and destitution should her husband have decided to dispose of her with the speaking of a word, which was all a man had to do to divorce a woman at this time (the woman, naturally, had no such option). So yes, it was very important to her, but the rejoicing seems outsized still. But we get that same tag line idea again: “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” What we find suitable for indifference, or maybe even outright disdain, is cause for massive celebration among the heavenly host.
And finally comes the story we all know. There are so many details that could be unpacked. The utter humiliation that the younger son visits upon his father by making this brash and disrespectful request could almost be its own sermon. Remember what kind of land these dwellers dwelled in; it was, from ancient time, the Promised Land, the land that God had delivered to their ancestors Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all that ancient story that told of how they even came to live on that land. This son is throwing away no less than a sacred birthright, and does so in what the King James Version so memorably calls “riotous” living. That might make it sound like too much fun, though; maybe the NRSV’s “dissolute” living captures the futility of it all better.
Also, look at the son’s moment of realization, when he “came to himself.” We might have built it up into this grand tableaux of repentance in our overwhelming familiarity with the story, but let’s be real here: as “repentance” goes this is pretty weak sauce. Where is the contrition in realizing that he’d be better off living as one of his father’s hired hands, which really is about all the son manages to think and say? He’s been reduced to tending pigs (something no self-respecting Jew would have done) and being jealous of their slop, and this is the best “repentance” he can come up with? The best he can do is memorize a line to sell to his gullible old dad?
And yet…there’s this outsized rejoicing again. The father runs to meet his son (completely undignified), orders up a new robe for him and a great feast with the fatted calf (utterly humiliating, given what this son had done to him), and generally makes a fool of himself with rejoicing over this one lost son.
Oh, yeah, that other son shows up, and calls out his father for making a fool of himself, vilifies his brother (notice that there’s something in older brother’s accusations that we are never told the younger brother does?) and also complains about how dad never threw such a party for him. But don’t miss the father’s reply: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (emphasis mine) This has always been there for you, my child; did you ever accept it? (And yes, for the most part, this is the character in the story that most captures us “good church folk,” if we can stand to admit it.)
But don’t miss how the first two parables inform this one. The rejoicing over the one lost son is extravagant, over-the-top, maybe even wasteful. It provokes scorn from his own son and maybe even bafflement from those neighbors who got called to the feast over that one ungrateful son. It is joy that seems to us inexplicable, maybe even if (maybe especially if) we’re the son who had abandoned the father instead of the one who stayed home. And it’s done over bare-minimum repentance from the younger son at that.
This is the rejoicing over us, when we at last come home; this is the rejoicing to which we are called over one who at last comes home. It defies summary, really; God loves us, pursues us, and rejoices over us, and so much more.
If we can’t manage to say it for this, maybe we should never say it: Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #771, What Is the World Like; #418, Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling; #803, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2019, Lent 3C
Current Events and Ultimate Things
Honestly, the beginning of this particular scriptural excerpt just seems…odd. On the surface it seems very much like a non sequitir. It’s as if in the middle of a difficult, intense lecture or speech or sermon with a challenging question-and-answer session, someone suddenly blurted out “hey, didya hear what happened to Uncle Milton and those boys from over in Newberry when they went down to Orlando?”
Jesus has been teaching, in what is preserved for us just before, in Chapter 12, about: avoiding hypocrisy, not being arrogant, avoiding worry, being watchful and not being caught, Jesus himself as a cause of division, and settling grievances with your adversary. It’s difficult stuff, to be sure, and in some ways one might feel a bit challenged, to say the least, by hearing all these teachings one right after the other. And Jesus isn’t being at all sideways or sparing in his teaching; it’s all imperative – “beware…do not…therefore I tell you…be…know.” No wiggle room, no fudging, no passing the buck to anybody else. It’s all on you, dear listener, to hear and to change your life.
Given that background, I suppose one might could argue that somebody in the crowd miiiight just have been feeling a bit stressed by all of this talk, and looking to, well, not exactly lift the mood, but at least provide some distraction or relief of pressure. Having heard of an awful incident in the Temple in Jerusalem, where a group of Galilean pilgrims had been massacred while there to offer sacrifices; perhaps he first told it to his companions, and maybe somebody got up the courage to bring it up to Jesus. Luke doesn’t tell us much about how this happened besides that vivid metaphor of their blood “mixed with their sacrifices.”
Jesus is a lot of things in the gospels, and one of those things is that he is an extremely effective teacher. There seem to be a lot of folks across Galilee who think so, anyway, since his teaching – not just the miracles or exorcisms, but the actual straightforward nothing-but-teaching teaching – was drawing and holding crowds across Galilee for hours or even days at a time. Some of you out there (and one of me up here) know just how startling an accomplishment that is.
In this case, Jesus takes this non sequitir, this out-of-left-field interjection, and brings the crowd right back on subject by making it a teachable moment, in two parts.
Part I: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you…”
Here Jesus addresses a rather pervasive belief in the Jewish culture of the time, one that comes up in another encounter in another gospel when his disciples ask Jesus if a man born blind had somehow sinned to bring his fate upon himself, or if it was his parents’ fault. In short, without a lot of foundation, the folk tended to assume as much as believe that if something really bad happened to you, you must have been really bad or done something really bad to deserve it.
You hear it still sometimes. The TV preacher Pat Robertson, for example, used to get a lot of attention for blaming natural disasters on the affected city’s or area’s sinfulness – and it was usually a “sin” that was a favorite of Robertson’s to pick on. New Orleans got that treatment from Robertson after Hurricane Katrina, for example, and it wasn’t for tolerating so much poverty. The New York/New Jersey region also got such accusations after Hurricane Sandy. On the other hand, Robertson doesn’t seem to blame the horrible Midwest flooding going on now on the sinfulness of Nebraskans and Missourians.
So first Jesus takes down that old belief, but then continues to use that interjection to make a point that brings the discussion back to his sermon subject, so to speak:
Part II: “…but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Wait, what? If those interlocutors had hoped to distract Jesus or get him to let up on them,…well, it didn’t work. Jesus is right back on the subject he had been teaching, all of which can be understood as part of the broader theme he now names as repentance.
As if this weren’t enough, Jesus himself brings a second “current event” into the discussion, one in which a tower had collapsed at the town of Siloam, killing eighteen. Unlike the previous story, in which the Roman governor Pilate is clearly identified as the villain, this looks to be a tragic accident. A tower collapsed. If there were issues with shoddy workmanship or inferior materials, they aren’t identified here. As far as we can know, it just happened. But again Jesus hammers the point home: “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
A couple of clarifications: no, Pilate won’t slaughter you if you don’t repent nor will a tower fall on you. This isn’t a place for hyperactive literalism. Also, this point (about how those who died were not somehow worse than others) is something of a two-edged sword. It means these people weren’t worse sinners than you, yes, but it also means that you’re not “less worse sinners” than them.
No one caught in sin gets off the hook. It does no good to comfort yourself that your sins are “minor,” and those people are the “real sinners.” No; those who do not repent of their sinfulness, forsake their sinful condition, perish. Period. End of discussion.
“Repent” and “repentance” are words that get used an awful lot in religious circles, but aren’t always defined very rigorously. You get constructions like being told to “repent of your sins,” which sounds as if you go down a laundry list of bad things you did and say “I’m sorry,” you’ve repented. No. What Jesus is calling for is far beyond that.
To give one example Jesus turns to a parable, in which a rich landowner is quite done with an unproductive fig tree. The gardener, though, pleads for one more year to give some extra attention to the tree. He’ll agitate the soil and add some extra fertilizer, and if in a year it still isn’t bearing fruit, it can be cut down.
Unlike some of Jesus’s parables, this one is bluntly obvious. We – each of us – are the tree, and Jesus is the gardener pleading for us and promising to nurture us even more. Still, though, there is that looming “promise” that our time to bear fruit is not infinite.
And here also is the “repentance” Jesus commands of the disciples, and of us. A fig tree exists to bear figs; that’s its purpose for being. If it doesn’t bear figs, it’s kind of pointless not to cut it down and replace it with a tree that will bear figs. Even the gardener doesn’t pretend that the tree should be given forever to bear fruit.
So, to get to the point: what does it mean to “bear fruit”?
Again, that’s a term that gets used a lot without a lot of clarity of definition. For some, it consists solely of turning other people into Christians – conversion is all, nothing else matters. For others, it’s all about good deeds or charitable giving or other obvious outward gestures. Those good deeds, yes, are good things, but they come decidedly short of what Jesus is talking about in this gospel when “repentance” comes up. In Luke, “repentance” cannot be reduced to outward changes. In true repentance, everything changes, both in each of us individually and in all of us as the body of Christ. We live differently, and we live together differently.
It’s possible that one of the best ways to understand how fully a repentant life changes might just be what we see in today’s reading from Isaiah. For some this presents an utterly joyful picture, while others are probably horrified by it (the idea that wine and milk are just being given away, with nobody profiting from it? That’s socialism, right?) <note: sarcasm>
Anyway, as Isaiah’s picture unfolds, we see what is really going on; the people have, at long last, accepted the providence of God, and submitted to God’s provision for their lives. We are called no longer to chase after what cannot satisfy, but to receive the true stuff of life from the Lord. Even here, though, the theme of repentance is sounded clearly:
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their ways, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (55:6-7, emphasis mine)
Nothing changes without change. Turning away from the desire for what cannot fulfill, the desire for the material and the financial and the immediately comfortable; this is where repentance is found. And repentance brings pardon; we are given a double statement of this – the Lord will have mercy, God will pardon– for extra emphasis.
And that providence of God? This isn’t barely-get-by stuff. Don’t miss that last half of verse 2, and the invitation to “eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” To appreciate this one we need to lay aside our modern dietary scruples and understand that God’s provision is of the good stuff, stuff that sustains and makes stronger. We aren’t being asked to starve ourselves or deprive ourselves for God (which makes this a strange Lenten reading, I guess, but still); God wants to give good.
But repentance is still there, waiting for us to take it up.
Our lives being reoriented, turned upside down (or inside out, more likely) and faced only towards our Lord; it may seem an odd place to end up when one starts talking about current events, but when Jesus the teacher is in charge, the lessons you learn are not always what you think.
For The Great Teacher, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #441, Hear the Good News of Salvation; #696, O God, You Are My God Alone; #427, Jesus Knows the Inmost Heart; #649, Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound