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Archive for April, 2013

Preached April 28, 2013

Text:  Ephesians 2:11-22

The Story, Ch. 29 & 30 (we’re doubling up this week to stay on schedule!)

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The Story continues this week with more from the book of Acts, centered now on Paul, and on his writings in the New Testament letters.  In many ways, the most important part of the Story for us, because it is the part that we live within – these are the stories of the beginnings of the church – it is our identity that is being shaped and formed in these chapters.

Two central themes emerge, both of which are highlighted by Paul in the second chapter of Ephesians:

  1. The way that Jesus reunites, or reconciles, us with God
  2. The way that we are to be united as God’s people, Christ’s body

United as God’s people.  We say that.  We sing about it.  But it isn’t always easy to live.

Perhaps you have heard the tongue-in-cheek story about the man who found a woman standing in the middle of a bridge, about to jump.  He ran up to her, begging her not to jump.

“God loves you!” he said.

She stepped back a step and turned to look at him.  He asked carefully:  “Are you a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or what?”

“I’m a Christian,” she replied.  “Me too!” the man said with a smile.

Protestant or Catholic?  “Protestant.”  “Me too!”

What denomination?  Baptist.  Me too!

Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?  Northern Baptist.  ME TOO!

Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?  Northern Conservative Baptist.  Really?  ME TOO!

Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?  Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.  Well that’s amazing – me too!

Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?  She answered, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

At which he shouted:  “Die, heretic!” and he pushed her over the rail.

We laugh, because isn’t it ridiculous?  But it’s true too, isn’t it?

Several years ago, I was leading a Disciple Bible Study, and had a retired United Methodist Clergy named Gerry person in the class.  We got along well the first week of class, and the second.  We learned that we were neighbors in the city, colleagues in ministry, and attended the same congregation on Sunday mornings.  And then in the third week, a side conversation after class led him to ask where I went to seminary.  And I didn’t see him for the next three weeks.  In time I learned why – he leaned far left, theologically and politically, and he was suspicious of my right-leaning seminary education.  He eventually came back, but we both felt wary of the other.  Trust was hard.

Maybe you don’t care so much as we did about the doctrinal minutia that theologians like to debate.  But turn the argument to a politics or social issues, and most of us are quick to draw lines in the sand.  We quickly decide who is in and who is out, who belongs and who doesn’t.  We use the language of “us” and “them.”  We put one another in categories, and then assume those categories define us: liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, heterosexual and homosexual, rich and poor, black and white, immigrants and citizens.  It is even creeping into our conversations about the future of our church family:  Moon vs. Coroapolis, us and them.

It is nothing new, this dividing and categorizing.  In the earliest church, the lines were drawn between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised.  They separated themselves out based on what foods they ate, what holidays they celebrated, and what clothes they wore.

In fact, the human tendency to divide goes back even further.  It goes all the way back to the beginning of the story, or almost the beginning.  It goes back to sin – sin is what separates us from God, and from one another.  Sin leads us to draw lines in the sand, point fingers at others, and distinguish between “us” and “them” – all so that we have someone – other than ourselves – to blame.

And then Jesus enters into the story, and he steps across all those human barriers that we erect.  He eats with sinners.  He invites women into men’s conversations.  He touches unclean people and talks with the mentally ill.

And then we fast forward to the early church, and we find the first Christians trying to figure out what in the world it means to follow Jesus in crossing barriers and tearing down walls.  What does it mean to be one in Christ?  What does it mean to say that “you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” and “Christ Jesus is our peace, who has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us…” (Eph 2:13-14)

What does it mean that Jesus Christ “might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace”? (Eph 2:15)

I think we sometimes assume that it means we manage to put aside differences long enough to sit side-by-side in the pews for an hour on Sunday morning.  That’s a start, but it isn’t really peace.  Peace in Christ also doesn’t mean that we badger one another into agreement because, come on, this is the new and exciting thing, won’t you just get on board already.  Nor does it mean that call a cease-fire in political debates when we walk through the doors of the church.

The kind of peace and unity that Paul speaks of in Ephesians means, I think, that we learn to acknowledge and recognize differences among us without hostility.  We learn to respect one another even when we disagree.  We learn to listen to one another – really listen, not just to form a retort but to hear the heart of another.  We learn to look beyond our snap judgments and first impressions to really get to know one another.

Jim Walker – if you were here two weeks ago, you will remember his dramatic presentation of the Gospel – he argues that rather than seeking out common ground with other Christians, the church ought to be the place “where we experience uncommonality.”  Christians, he says, “aren’t called to find common ground with others; we’re called to love even those with whom we share no common ground at all.” (in Dirty Word by Jim Walker)

It is that kind of unity – unity that honors difference and listens respectfully to disagreement and seeks to grow together – that attracts the attention of others and witnesses to God’s love.  It’s that kind of unity – that is much more about the way we treat one another than it is about the beliefs we hold – that speaks of God’s Spirit at work within us.  It’s that kind of unity that the familiar song speaks of:  “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

So how do we reach that kind of peace and unity, in a world that teaches us to divide and separate?  How is it that we join together as one family of God?

The short answer is, we don’t.  We can’t, really.  Sin will continue to creep in between us; pride will keep insist we are right and they are wrong; fear will keep us from true honesty.

We can’t, but God can.  And has, and will.  “Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then we are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens…and members of the household of God.”  It is through Jesus that we are “joined together,” “built together spiritually” so that we may “grow into a dwelling place for God.”  (Eph 2:17-22)

Our job is to seek God together, and allow God to work among us.  Our job is to be in prayer together, and then listen carefully and humbly to one another as we discern together what we are called to do.  Our job is to trust God together, and then take a step forward – even if it isn’t the step we, personally, expected to take

Last week, Jessica Regotti shared her piece of the vision for the future of our church – a place where children and families were welcomed and nurtured.

My own vision – rooted in Paul’s story in Acts and his teaching from Ephesians 2 – is that we would be a community that shows the peace of Christ in everything we do.   We can practice through the conversations we are having about our future as a congregation – not insisting that we agree on everything, but treating one another respectfully in our disagreement.  Not going-along-to-get-along, but having the courage to raise questions and challenge ideas and engage in honest conversation.

But it goes beyond those conversations.  I hope and pray that we will become the kind of congregation that can engage important social issues and wrestle with hard questions of faith while still trusting and loving one another.  Perhaps more than anything else, I think that kind of honest, open conversation – done respectfully, with genuine humility and care for one another – will attract others to us – and through us, to God.  I think we could have no stronger witness in a divided world than to allow God to “break down the dividing walls between us” so that we might be at peace with one another.

I trust that God can do it, because I have seen glimpses of it.  Remember the clergy colleague who left Bible Study because he distrusted my theological background? In time, over cups of coffee, long conversations and shared ministry around the city of Chicago, we found common threads that united us – and he became one of my greatest mentors, though we remained miles apart theologically.  We learned to trust one another, to argue respectfully, and to continue to love.

I saw glimpses of the same kind of unity in the Wednesday night Bible studies last fall, when people from different theological and political positions engaged in deep, honest conversation…

My prayer, that God would continue the work of “reconciling us to himself through the cross, and putting to death hostility” between us, so that we might be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

 

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Preached April 21, 2013

Text:  Acts 1:1-8

The Story, Ch. 28

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We are back to The Story today…almost done!  Just three chapters left…

We tend to read the Bible as if Easter is the end of the story…as if Jesus’ resurrection is the last really important part of Scripture, the “happily ever after” of the Bible, or at the very least, of the Gospels.

And it is…sort of.  The resurrection is the event that shows us the end of the story and reassures us that there is a “happily ever after” coming.  But the author of Luke and Acts – they are written by the same person, a two-volume set – the author insists that the resurrection is not the end.  It is, in fact, the start of a new chapter in this story of God and God’s people – the same story that begins clear back in Genesis, culminates in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and now ripples outward across the world and through the ages.

In the opening verses of Acts, the disciples have figured out that the story isn’t over yet.  They have figured out, even, that a new chapter is about to begin.  But they don’t yet know the twists and turns the plot will take!

They think they know, though.  Or at least, they think they know the general direction of the storyline.  From the start, their hopes were that Jesus was the Messiah who would bring about political independence for Israel.

That had been their hope.  But then they had lived through the roller coaster ride of recent events:  the shock and confusion when one of their own – someone they thought they knew – betrayed Jesus; the terror and violence of the cross; the anger at the ones who would do such a thing to an innocent man; the fear that they themselves might be the next target.

Then there was the confusion when some reported that Jesus had been seen alive again – the disbelief at the idle tale that some seemed to share so irresponsibly.

Only – in time they came to know that those tales were actually true, and imagine the joy and relief that swept over them then!  Oh, the elation they felt when it became clear that the enemy had not won!

And that is where we find the disciples today.  They have ridden this roller coaster ride of emotions up and down and around the curves, and here in the first chapter of Acts, they are trying to make sense of the whirlwind ride they’ve been on.

One thing they know:  Jesus was dead and is now alive again!  And so their hopes of a Messiah have been renewed.  Now, surely, Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel as they had hoped! (Acts 1:6)

And Jesus answers:  “Whoa, not so fast.”  “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).

And he continues:  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The disciples may not realize it, but Jesus has just given them “the rest of the story” – and they are the main characters!

The story doesn’t end with the resurrection, as we may assume, or even with the ascension of Jesus, when Jesus takes his place with the Father.  The story continues with the disciples carrying the love and grace of God to their neighbors across the street, and across town, and clear around the world, all the way out to the ends of the earth!  (And it doesn’t seem too far of a stretch to think that “ends of the earth” might mean in time as well as in space.)

In the book of Acts, Jesus passes the baton off to his disciples and tells them to run with abandon, to share the good news of God’s love.  The story of God’s work in this world continues, in other words, with them – and, today, the story continues with us who are part of this thing called the Church.

We are the ones empowered them to share the story of God with others, and to be the Body of Christ for them.

But after the roller coaster ride of events this week – we aren’t quite ready to run with that baton, are we?  We feel more like we are hiding behind closed doors with the disciples asking:  “Is it time yet, Lord?  Is it time for you to fix this messed up world we live in?  Is it time yet for you to restore the Kingdom?

Jesus’ answer to his disciples extends to us too:  it is not for us to know the time or the date.  It is enough to know that God’s promises continue.  That God promises to wipe away every tear (Revelations 21:4).  Promises of restoration, of hope, of peace.  Promises that people from all nations will gather together as God’s people without hatred or mistrust (Revelations 21:3, 24-26).  We believe God’s promises.

We believe, but when weeks like this one come along, we begin to wonder if we misunderstood.  Did we hear God wrong, somehow?  Has God really defeated death?  Did God’s goodness really win over the darkness of this world we live in?  So we stare up into heaven, wondering where God seems to have disappeared to when we need him so badly down here.

Ah, but then the angels’ words call us back to earth:  “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1:11).

Like the disciples, it is our tendency to look back at what was (will you restore the kingdom?) or to look up toward some otherworldly place “over the rainbow” that we wish for but don’t really believe in.

But Jesus pushes the disciples – and us – to look forward, at the world we are handing our children and our grandchildren.  We have work to do, empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread God’s love.  We should be working, Jesus says, for peace in our own backyards (Jerusalem) – in our region (Judea & Samaria) and around the world.  We are now the Body of Christ – the ones who preach good news, heal the sick, feed the hungry in Jesus’ name.  We are to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth!

We’ve been talking a lot about the future in recent weeks…our plans as a congregation to expand our ministry presence into the surrounding communities…

Some of you would like more information.  We’ll give as much as we can – please come to a home group meeting!  Or ask us questions along the way.  But we might not be able to answer all the questions, because in some ways, we are in the “waiting” time like the disciples were, waiting for the promises of God in this time and place to be revealed. (Acts 1:4)  We know something of what God is calling us to, but we’re also waiting for God to continue to open doors and lead us on…

But waiting doesn’t mean we aren’t working.  In fact, as descendants of the church animated by the Holy Spirit, we are already living out the promise that Jesus gives, sharing God’s love in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  (Acts 1:8).  It is worth remembering what we are about…

  • In “Jerusalem” – Locally
    • West Hills and Coraopolis Cooperative Food Pantries
    • Coraopolis Community Development Foundation
    • Celebrate Coraopolis
    • Choices Pregnancy Center
    • Network of Hope
    • Coraopolis Youth Network
    • AA & NA
    • Car Check (May 11)
    • Tot Lot clean up
  • In “Judea & Samaria” – Regionally
    • 8th Avenue Place
    • Meals on Wheels
  • To the ends of the earth – Globally
    • UMCOR
    • 30 Hr Famine
    • Imagine No Malaria

Always, but especially after a week like this one…we need to live as witnesses in our neighborhoods, our region, and throughout the world…because, as Theresa of Avila wrote in the 1500s…

Christ has no body now on earth but ours;

No hands but ours; No feet but ours;

Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.

Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.

Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.

Ours is a call to go from gazing into the clouds wishing for God to whisk us away to some otherworldly place where pain and grief and fear are gone – to gazing at the needs of the world, and reaching out as the hands, feet and voice of Jesus to meet those needs.  We are the Body of Christ for the world – the ones through God’s Story continues in this time and place.

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Preached March 31, 2013 ~ Easter Sunday

Text:  Luke 24:1-12

The Story, Ch. 27

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“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angels said.

Where else would they look?  They saw his lifeless body laid in the tomb.  Where else would they expect him to be?

But the men in dazzling white ask anyway:  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”

He has risen.

I tried, this week, to tell the Easter story to my three-year-old.  She understood the beginning of the story – how people could be so angry that they would hurt, and kill.  “Did they hit Jesus?” she asked.  “Did they push him and make him fall down?”

It made me weep, how instinctively she understood the cruelty toward another person, how quickly she grasped the horror of the story.

And she understood the sadness, too.  Tears streamed down her face as she curled herself up in a tight little ball in her bed, as if she was trying to protect herself from the sorrow of it all.  “What about Jesus’ mommy?  She will miss him!” she said, with fierceness in her voice.  I hadn’t mentioned Mary in the telling at all.  But she knew, somehow, that a mother’s heart would break when Jesus died.

My mother’s heart ached at my little girl’s despair.  I want her to know the stories of our faith, of course.  But does her tender heart have to feel it so deeply?  I want to protect her from the grief.

So I tried to gloss over it – to push on to the rest of the story.  “But then God…” I say.  She still cries quietly, her back to me.  “But then God raises Jesus from the dead!  Jesus is risen!”

That’s when she craned her neck around to look at me.  “Risen?” she asked in confusion.  “What it mean, God ‘risen’ Jesus?”

And my mind goes blank.  Toddler verb tenses aside, how does one explain to a three year old what happened on that first Easter morning, when Jesus rose from the dead?

For that matter – how do any of us understand what it means when the angels proclaim, “He is not here, he is risen!”

To my little girl, I said the only thing I could think of to say:  Jesus was alive again.  God brought Jesus back to life after he died.

My little one said nothing to indicate she understood.  I actually thought she might have fallen asleep there beside me, still curled up tight in a ball facing away from me.  But I couldn’t bear for her to think that the story ended there, so I rubbed her back and kept talking.

“You know how Jesus’ mommy was sad?” I asked her.  Well she didn’t have to be sad anymore, because Jesus was with her again.  Jesus’ friends were excited because he was with them, too.  And the bad guys who hurt Jesus didn’t win; God was bigger than any of them.  God wouldn’t let them hurt Jesus anymore now!

Anything I could think of to let her know that the story didn’t end with Jesus’ mommy crying at the tomb.

The next morning at breakfast she asked me to tell her the story about “the grown up Jesus” again.  With some reluctance, I did.  And this time, when we got to the tomb, Gracie leaned forward in anticipation and prompted me:  “But then God…”

And when I said, “But then, God raised Jesus from the dead,” she began to jump up and down, clapping her hands and calling out:  And Jesus’ mommy was happy again!  And God beat the bad guys!  And Jesus’ friends were excited!

Ah, she got it, after all!  Relief flooded over me.  She did know the rest of the story!

When the women arrived at the tomb, looking for Jesus’ body, the angels asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he is risen!  Remember how he told you…”

The angels speak, and the women respond, at first, just like my Gracie.  They can’t take in the rest of the story; it is too much, too far from where they are emotionally and mentally.  They turn away, faces to the ground, backs to the angels.  They just don’t understand.  They are too caught up in the horror, the grief, the sorrow of the day.

The angels don’t seem to notice the women’s terror – or maybe like me, they are just so desperate for the women to hear the rest of the story that they must keep talking:

Remember!  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.  Remember!

Remember, dear women, what Jesus told you would happen.  Remember that death isn’t the end of the story!

The women had much to remember.  These were the women who had been with Jesus in Galilee (23:55).  The ones who had journeyed with Jesus and supported Jesus in his ministry (8:2-3).  The ones who were present at the cross (23:49) and the tomb (23:55).  They remembered the way Jesus welcomed them among his disciples, against the traditions of the day.  They remembered the way Jesus healed them and brought them wholeness and health again.  They remembered the times they laughed together, and cried together.  They remembered.

And in remembering, they were empowered to tell the story themselves.  The despair melted away, and joy bubbled up in its place.  They ran – laughing, I imagine, bubbling over with delight like a little girl clapping her hands and jumping up and down in excitement.  They knew the end of the story, and it made all the difference!

The disciples who heard their story, though, didn’t know the end of the story.  Not yet.  They were still – figuratively if not literally – curled up in a ball like my little girl, or lying with faces to the ground like the women had been.  They weren’t ready to hear the rest of the story.

So when the women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and the others – told them that the tomb was empty, the didn’t understand.  They called it an “idle tale” – foolishness!  Insanity!  Ridiculous.

Only…what if it were true?  What if…?  Peter was the one who couldn’t quite shake the question out of his mind.

So he ran to see for himself if the story the women told was true.  Ran to find an empty tomb, grave clothes lying in a heap.  And he left “amazed.”

There is nothing here that says he believed or understood.  Only that he was amazed.  The dictionary defines amazed as “filled with the emotional impact of overwhelming surprise or shock.”  That was Peter.  Overwhelmed with shock.  Surprised, astonished.  Amazed – but not yet understanding or rejoicing.  That would take awhile longer.

The time would come, though.  As the days went by, Peter would begin to wrap his mind around the truth.  He would remember what Jesus had said when they gathered around the table.  And as he remembered, he would come to know the risen Jesus – alive!  He would hear Jesus speak forgiveness and love to him.  He would find his own voice again – ready to tell the story to others, as we hear in Acts.

And so it begins again – the cycle of hearing the good news, wondering at its meaning, coming to understand and then sharing the story with others.

During World War II, the phrase “on a wing and a prayer” was used to describe damaged warplanes limping back to base with a wing blown off – arriving safely, somehow, “on a wing and a prayer.”

It might be said that resurrection faith lives “on a word and a prayer.”  The evidence of the resurrection – for the women, for Peter – was nothing.  Emptiness.

We might prefer a Lazarus-style resurrection; Jesus walking out of that tomb, still wrapped in his grave clothes.  But instead, we get a pile of linen cloths and an empty tomb.  There was nothing there, in Luke’s account, to prove that Jesus was risen.

Nothing, that is, but a word.  A word from men in dazzling white, for the women.  A word from the women, for Peter.  And later – a word from Peter to Cornelius and others.  Faith in Jesus continues to spread, on a word and a prayer, right down to us today.

We’re here today – every single one of us – because we’ve heard word from someone of the power of God to bring new life through Jesus Christ.  We may not quite believe it.  We may, quite frankly, think it all an idle tale.  But like Peter, we’re here to see for ourselves, just in case it might be true.

And the good news of Easter is that the promise of resurrection doesn’t depend on how we receive it or how much we believe it or whether we can make some logical sense of it.  God doesn’t wait for us to believe to raise Jesus from the dead.  Jesus is risen – whether we understand it or not.

And us?  We’re invited on a journey of faith to see for ourselves what new life is all about.  And chances are, we’ll find that God shows up right in the places we thought were most dead – the dying relationship, the dead-end job, the long-buried hopes and dreams – God meets us there, and brings new life.  Thanks be to God – Christ is risen!

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Preached March 24, 2013 – Palm Sunday

Text:  Luke 19 & 22

The Story, Ch. 26

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A Reflection on Luke 19:28-40

This Palm & Passion Sunday is so full – full of stories (more Scripture assigned for today than any other week of the year – more than three full chapters, if we read it all!)  Those stories are full of characters (the crowds, the priests, the disciples, Judas, Peter, Pilate, Herod, the thief, the slave girl, the centurion – I could go on, but you get the idea).  And with all those characters, the stories are full to overflowing with conflict and emotion.

Reading Luke’s account this year, though, I was struck most of all at how full of words these stories are.  So many people say so many things this week!  And not only words, but words full of innuendo, double-meanings, and hidden significance.

Take, for example, the simple question from the bewildered owner of a donkey colt:  “Why are you untying the colt?”  A reasonable – and even restrained – question from someone who just discovered two men running off with their donkey.  But in its simplicity, the question does several things.  First, it draws attention to the act of “untying,” which echoes back to Genesis 49, when Jacob describes a “tethered donkey” that belongs to a royal ruler from the tribe of Judah.  The reference to untying the colt, then, directs the reader to think of Jesus in royal terms as a Davidic Messiah – the promised king of Israel.

The question also establishes Jesus’ authority as prophet.  Jesus told his disciples that the owner would ask this question – and so they did, word for word, just as Jesus said they would.  It is Luke’s not-so-subtle way of telling his readers that Jesus was not only king, but also “prophet” – and prophets, in the Biblical tradition, speak for God.  So, in other words, “hey, readers, when this guy speaks, you should listen!”

The disciples, at least on one level, get the hint.  Their answer – “The Lord needs it” – is a seemingly simple answer that in fact overflows with reverence.  In addressing Jesus as “Lord” the disciples are recognizing an authority other than the ruling officials.  The claim of Jesus’ lordship supersedes the rights of ownership, and also challenges the lordship of Roman rulers.  It is a statement of personal allegiance by the disciples, and also laden with political overtones.

All of that, wrapped up in a simple question and answer:  “Why are you untying the colt?”  “The Lord needs it.”  Words full of suggestion and significance.

Then, there are the words of the crowd when Jesus rides into Jerusalem:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

They begin by quoting Psalm 118, which is a psalm of royal entry, a song rejoicing in the coming of a victorious king into the city.  Verses 25-27 read:  “O Lord, save us!  (“Hosanna”)  Grant us success.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the…altar.”

Against the backdrop of the Psalms, their words and the accompanying palm branches and festive procession all proclaim Jesus as victorious ruler.

But the quote also points readers back to Jesus’ words earlier in Luke, when Jesus sets his sites on Jerusalem and laments the violence he finds there.  In Luke 13, Jesus foreshadows the violence that will destroy him even as the people proclaim, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Jesus knows that the shouts are hollow; he recognizes that the people are more loyal to their own visions of “king” than to the kind of reign he brings.

Then there is the familiar line that follows:  “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”  This echoes the familiar chorus of the angels in the nativity story:  “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth…”  There is one key difference, though.  In Luke 2, the angels proclaim to any who would listen that the birth of Jesus brought God’s peace and salvation to the earth.  Here in Luke 19, the people call out, “peace in heaven,” as if to admit that Jesus – who brings God’s peace – is not fully welcome on earth after all.

Whatever their deepest meaning, the words that the crowds call out draw attention from the religious leaders.  Perhaps they are angered by the attention given to Jesus.  Perhaps they are frightened that too much celebration will attract unwanted attention from the Roman authorities.  Whatever the case, they demand:  “Jesus, tell your disciples to stop!”

Jesus responds with poignant and powerful words:  “If they keep silent, the stones will cry out.”

Jesus’ words remind us again of the significance of these stories.  All of creation is caught up in this salvation story, groaning for liberation from decay and destruction (to borrow from Romans 8).  The story that is about to unfold is much more than a story of a political battle.  It is more than an interesting piece of human history.  The events to come in this Holy Week have cosmic significance!

And so today, on Palm Sunday, we begin the annual rehearsal of these events – rehearsing in a way that goes beyond just recalling them, to actually entering into their reality ourselves.  We remember where we belong in this story, and where God is, and how our life stories are caught up in this grander story of God’s work in human history.

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A Reflection on Luke 22:31-34, 47-71

As Passion Sunday, we also begin down the road of Jesus’ suffering and death.  Today, we walk that road with Peter.

It is fitting, in a passage so full of significant words, to focus on Peter.  Peter is one who is seldom speechless.  He has an answer for everything!  Remember the time when Jesus walked across stormy waters to calm his frightened disciples?  It was Peter who yelled out, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to get out of this boat and come to you on the water!”  It was Peter who demands, “Explain these parables to us!” and Peter who asks, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”

It is Peter, you may remember from last week, who has the courage to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” with the words:  “You are the anointed one of God!”  And then at the transfiguration, when Jesus is suddenly glowing before them, Peter cries out, “Lord, let me build a shelter here for you, to remember this moment!”

Words are one thing that Peter is rarely without.

It is no surprise, then, that Peter cannot keep his mouth shut when Jesus around for a final farewell meal.  On that night, Jesus kneels to wash the disciples’ feet, and Peter blurts out:  “You will not wash me!”  And then, when Jesus warns Peter of the trials that are to come, Peter insists, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”

They say that most of us listen to others for the purpose of forming a reply rather than for the purpose of understanding.  Surely that is true of Peter here.  He seems to have missed Jesus’ prayer entirely – or noted it only in order to resist its implications.  But the prayer is significant – we should not skip over it as quickly as Peter does.

Jesus prays for the disciples (plural) who will be sifted as wheat.  He knows they will be shaken by the events to come – he knows how much of their faith, their trust, their hope will be sloughed away as the days unfold.  And he prays specifically for Peter, “that [he] may not fail”…and that when he does, he will turn back to strengthen others.  Simon Peter, this rock upon whom God will build his church, will crumble into dust under pressure.  But Jesus prays that he will turn back, and even be strong enough to lead the others.

It is Jesus prayer here that carries us through the somber story that follows.  We cannot trust Peter’s strength, certainly.  But we do not have to, for Jesus’ faithfulness in prayer will uphold Peter when he fails, and call him to repent – turn back – so that all is not lost.

But Peter nearly misses the reminder of God’s faithfulness.  He hears only enough to form his reply:  “I am ready to go with you…!”

Jesus answers:  “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

“I am ready…!” Peter said.  Ah, famous last words.  Peter, who is never at a loss for words, cannot bring himself to speak the truth when the time of testing comes.

Jesus is arrested; the crowds who cheered for him as he entered Jerusalem are now jeering at him; and when a no-name slave girl asks Peter, “Weren’t you with him?” Peter can only hiss through tight lips, “Woman, I don’t know him.”  He has turned his back on his Lord.

And then – as if that is not enough – the next question comes:  “Aren’t you one of them – one of his disciples?”  Peter answers with a growl:  “I am not.”  His fear, his sin, has now separated him not only from Jesus but also from his fellow disciples.  Sin always separates – separates us from God, but also from one another.

And then, of course, the third question comes:  “You had to be with him.  Aren’t you a Galilean?”  And Peter yells in anger:  “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”  Galilee was where Peter first met Jesus, when he dropped his fishing nets and set off on this whole journey of discipleship in the first place.  And here he is denying even his own identity – sin has separated him from Jesus and the other disciples, and now even from his own sense of self.

Then that rooster crows, and Jesus locks eyes with Peter from across the courtyard.  And the only words Peter can think of are the ones pounding in his ears:  “Before the rooster crows today…”

“If they keep silent, the stones will cry out.”

A rooster is not quite the same as a stone.  But it has the same effect:  it points to Peter’s failure to lift up the name of the Lord.  Peter has kept silent, but God’s creatures will not.  The cock’s crow reminds us again that if God’s people will not speak the truth, all of creation will.  Either way, God’s truth will be heard.

The story moves on, as Peter slumps outside weeping, and Jesus is asked:  “Are you the Son of God?”  Some days ago, it was Peter answering this question.  Now Jesus answers it for himself:  “You are right in saying that I am.”  It is from Jesus’ own lips that the truth comes.

We enter Holy Week well aware, like Peter, of the times that words failed us – that our sin got in the way of our relationship with God – our relationship with other people – even our own health and wholeness.

We also enter Holy Week knowing, as Peter did, that God does not fail.  That if we will not speak, God can raise up stones to cry out.  That if we fail to stand up for the truth, yet Jesus will be steadfast.

We enter Holy Week with a lot of hollow words ringing in our ears – but with God’s grace before us, calling us back to faithfulness.

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Prodigal…Father?

Preached March 10, 2013 (Lent IV)

Text:  Luke 15:1-32

The Story, Ch. 23 & 24

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Some years ago, in another congregation, I was at a choir party at the home of the choir director.  The party had ended and I – and some others – were gathering dishes and helping to straighten the kitchen.  Standing at the kitchen sink, I noticed a small strip of paper, water-spotted and yellowed around the edges, taped onto the windowsill above the sink.  The faded blue ink read:

Let’s have a feast and celebrate!

It obviously mattered, because someone had taken care to put it there.  But it wasn’t immediately clear to me why it matter.

Pat must have seen me glance at the paper, because she leaned over and said:  “Luke 15:23”

“Huh?”  I heard her well enough, but I didn’t catch the context.

“Luke 15:23.  The prodigal son comes home, and dad throws a party.  I’m still waiting to throw my party.  That verse gives me hope that my daughter will come back to us someday, and I’ll get to throw a party too.”

That’s what I think of when I hear this story:  A water-stained, crinkled up piece of paper taped to a kitchen windowsill.  A mother, doing dishes at the end of a another long day, holding out hope that she will get to throw her party someday.  A mother’s heart, full to overflowing with love for a child who is running the other way.

The parable of the prodigal son is so familiar that I’m sure most of us have our own set of memories and emotions attached to it.  For some of us, the image that springs to mind is our own moment of ‘coming to our senses,’ like the younger son.  For others, it is the longing of the father, straining to see down the path.  Or maybe it is the frustration of “all these years” that we did what was asked and expected of us, without recognition or reward.  Most of us have lived all three of these roles, in one way or another, during our lifetime.

This is a story, though, in which the whole is truly more than the sum of its parts.  It is a story about more than a son coming home, or a father’s joyful welcome.  It is a story about a community restored, and the extravagant, abundant joy that flows from such a community.

We call this story “The Prodigal Son” because of the younger son’s lavish lifestyle.  He spent his inheritance going after self pursuits and immediate gratification.  He was ‘prodigal’ in every sense of the word – extravagant, reckless, luxurious to the point of being wasteful.

The result of his lavish lifestyle was more than just personal ruin.  By demanding his inheritance while his father was still living, the son brought shame on the father.  He also left his brother with all of the responsibilities of home, denying him the help he would need to carry on the family business.  He left his mother – silent in this story – without a son to care for her in her old age.  He tore at the fabric of community by flaunting its customs and rules.  The younger son’s prodigal lifestyle left a whole host of casualties in its wake.

But he isn’t the only one who might be described as a ‘prodigal’ in this story.  The father’s love, we learn, extends far enough not only to receive his son back, but to repair family ties and restore the whole community.

In mid-eastern culture at the time of the this story, a son who brought shame on his family would have been banished from town.  The people would gather for a formal ceremony in which they cursed his name and declared him as good as dead.

The only way for such a man to return would be to restore all that he had lost – and then some.  If he came back at all, he would be expected to host a banquet for the whole town to prove his wealth and restore his family’s dignity.  He must honor them as extravagantly as he shamed them.

We know, of course, that isn’t what happens to the young son in our story.  He comes back not with riches but with rags.  He would never be welcome in the community again, and his mere appearance, in his current state, would bring further disgrace to his already shamed family.

But the father – the prodigal father! – would not allow it to be so.  We call this parable the prodigal son because of the boy’s lavish lifestyle, but it is the father who really goes to extremes here.

Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor describes the father’s response in her sermon, “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family”:

If the father can get to the son before the village does, then he can save his son from being cut off. He can save his relationship with his son and his family’s relationship with the village all at the same time. This reconciliation will cost him his honor—his greatness in others’ eyes—but that is a price he is willing to pay. The father runs like a girl to greet his son, before anyone can treat him like a hired hand.

Then he turns to his slaves and tells them to bring his son the best robe in the house (which would be his own robe), to put a ring on his finger (a signet ring, perhaps?) and sandals on his feet (only slaves go barefoot). Next he orders his servants to kill the fatted calf—not a goat, or a lamb, or a dozen chickens, but a calf–a clear sign that the celebration about to take place is not a quiet family affair but a feast of roast veal for the entire village. It is a feast to restore the family’s honor, as well as a feast to restore the family’s son. It is a banquet of reconciliation for anyone who will come.

The power of the father’s love here is not only the affection with which he welcomes his son home – but his willingness to take on himself the debts of the son.  He throws the banquet his son cannot.  He restores the son’s honor – and in the process, the well-being of the whole community – when the son is absolutely powerless to do so.

The Father cared so much about being in relationship that neither being comfortable (the younger son’s goal) nor being right (the older son’s goal) mattered.

In this sense, the parable of the prodigal son foreshadows the cross.  It is a story of God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves – taking on himself the shame and pain of our sin, and restoring us to wholeness and relationship.  It is a story of reunion and renewal of community.

We read this parable today in the middle of the season of Lent.  Lent is a time to take stock of our excesses, and reign them in.  We give up chocolate or caffeine; we restrain our eating or our TV watching or whatever else it is we consume in excess.

This parable invites us to go further:  not just to restrain ourselves for the sake of self-discipline, but to trade our excesses of comfort and conveniences for excesses of love and relationship.

What would it look like to lavish attention on those we love during lent?  What would it look like to open ourselves to receive such lavish love and grace from God this season?  What would it look like to rejoice in God’s lavish love and grace for another person – even if we don’t think they deserve it!

That’s the invitation of this parable in Lent – not to avoid excess, but to receive it with grateful hearts and revel in restored relationship with God and one another.

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