3/24/2013 Sermon” “Jesus, Do Something!”

1 Donkey
Woman and donkey in the Judean desert near Jericho. CN – 2011.

Luke 19.28. After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 

 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,38saying,

‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

I’ll Be Back.  The story goes that a community-wide Easter pageant assigned various people in the town to play the different parts. The character of Jesus went to a most unlikely person – a big, burly, barroom brawler, an oilfield worker.  He was clearly the most unlikely person to be cast as Jesus. After several weeks of rehearsals, the day of the Easter Pageant finally arrived.

When they came to the part of the play where Jesus was being led away to be crucified, one little man, filling in as a part of the crowd, got caught up in the emotion of the drama.  As Jesus was led away toward Calvary, he joined in the shouts of “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  Then, while shouting insults at the top of his lungs, he accidentally sprayed some spit in the face of the character playing Jesus as the actor walked by carrying the cross on his back. The oilfield worker stopped in his tracks, reached up and wiped his face dry. And then he looked at the little man and said: “I’ll be back to take care of you after the resurrection.”  – Homiletics (March/April, 1992)

There is this image of Jesus that many people have:  Peacefully sitting with children and lambs, with a glazed smile and a halo.  Present, but removed from these silly humans.  But the gospels describe Jesus regularly attending dinner parties and hanging out with “fringe” people.  I’m one of those who believe that Jesus not only wept in public sometimes, he had an active sense of humor, laughed hard, and I think he would appreciate that joke.  That loud character at the party? That was Jesus laughing.

If you follow what he had been doing and saying up to this point in the gospel story, the punch line of the joke was pretty close to what he’d been saying along:  Yeah, they’re going to kill me, but I’ll be back.  He keeps repeating it.  At the time, his own people thought it was pretty crazy.  He keeps saying this thing about being killed; Jesus – stop talking like that!  But he’s healing people, walking on water, raising people from the dead.  They decide to just keep quiet about this “being killed and rising from the dead” thing.

As he and his “entourage” are coming closer to Jerusalem, Mark and Luke that Jesus was walking ahead of them; [the disciples] were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. (Mark 13:32)  The disciples are amazed he is doing this because it’s common knowledge that there is a contract out on his life.  Everyone is afraid – and you would have been afraid too.

Jesus kept repeating that this was going to be the worst experience ever, and he that would be killed.  “But I’m coming back.”  In hindsight, we know that he meant what he said.  The humiliation and crucifixion was horrific – and he came back.  He is back.  For some people that’s good news and for others, maybe it’s not so good.  For those who know life could and should be different, that’s great news.  At the time, I imagine that caused some concern for those who had a role in killing Jesus (although he never appeared to any of them).  And today, for those who are keeping God at an arm’s length, who have built a lifestyle around staying away from God, that’s still not such great news.  Jesus died, but now he’s back.  He’s alive.  He isn’t going away.

But, before any cross, or tomb, or resurrection, there’s a rowdy crowd on the path to Jerusalem with a lot of expectations for Jesus.  He’s got a huge reputation by now for hard-to-believe, supernatural things – acts of God.  When people call him the Messiah, he doesn’t deny it.  He is God. 

He sent an advance team of disciples ahead to Jerusalem with instructions:  “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”  Not, “Jesus needs it” – the Lord needs it.  Now, this didn’t necessarily mean that Jesus was using some kind of mind control over the owners of the donkey.  It likely means that he had set this situation up in advance, and that riding into town on the donkey is intended to be a message.  God needs the donkey and it’s going to be a visual aid, an object lesson that Jesus will use to communicate who he is.

For one thing, it’s a sign of humility – the crowd wants him to be a king, like their King Herod (but hopefully nicer).  They want him to take political control, but that’s not what Jesus is about.  He’s not going to conquer anybody by force.  And that is still true.  He never forces his way into anybody’s life and he doesn’t want an office at city hall or the state house or Washington.

This riding on a donkey is also a fulfillment of prophecy from the ancient book of Zechariah (9:8).

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you;  triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

As Jesus rides along, the crowd is shouting scripture at him. It is not a quiet scene. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (vv. 35-38 – Psalm 118).  Hosanna!  (Lord, save us!)  Make Jesus the king.  Jesus – he’ll make things right!  He’ll take care of these Romans, yeah he will.

We could be in that crowd – that’s what we’re waiting for too.  Jesus, straighten out this mess!  What a mess!  Nothing is the way it should be.  We’ve got disagreements here and there, people unhappy about this and that, wars, illnesses, divorces, murders, kids out of control.  Jesus!  Get off the donkey and do something!

Jesus Does Something.  And so, as Jesus comes close to the city, he does do something.  Something that probably no one expected.  “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42)

Jesus weeps.  As the parade winds down and everyone goes back to pick up the cloaks they threw in the road, he stops and weeps.  He weeps.  How would we have experienced that if we were in the crowd?  As we head into the city after this “celebration,” he has tears running down his face.  He says it’s because people don’t recognize the things that make for peace.

7 Manheim Skyline
Manheim, PA – March 23, 2013. CN

I know that on the way to Lititz, there is a hilltop where you can see the “skyline” of Manheim. As Jesus comes close to our town, what do you suppose he does here?  Does he weep?  

When you think about Jesus picking up a local paper at one of the restaurants or coffee shops, can you see him weeping over what he reads?  Maybe.  He might weep over the things that we have the power to do, to change our world into a better place for everyone, and don’t do.

He might weep over the things we do, that are such a waste of time and resources, and don’t help us or anybody.  But we take care of ourselves pretty well.

He probably weeps more over the many hundreds of people who travel the roads of our town every day, driving, biking, or walking past this building – whom he would love to know, if only somebody would take the time to make the introduction.

We also have a name.  We don’t just have names as individuals.  We have a name together.  We are St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, and that means something.  We are named after St. Paul – look him up sometime when you get the chance.  A congregation united in Christ.  It’s more than a denomination, it’s a phrase that means access to hope when things seem hopeless.  Inner strength when you need it most.  Power when you realize how weak you are.  He is at the center of the things that make for peace.  He gives us the power to do the things that make for peace.  What are those things for you?

He doesn’t come into our lives by force.  He waits until we realize that we are empty without him, and that with him, life may not get easier, but it can be different.  The one who died and rose again waits for the invitation.

That’s how it is with Jesus.  Some people are glad when he shows up in their lives.  Some people are resentful.  That’s how it was when he came to Jerusalem at the beginning of that last week. It was – and is – hard to stay neutral about Jesus.  He shows up at the edge of town, at the edge of our lives, and claims to be somebody.  But who?  Who is he to me?  To us?

Everything in the gospels hinge on the things that happen this week.  You could say that everything in scripture finds its climax this week, and it’s a roller-coaster ride.  Try to put yourself in the crowd, watching as he comes into town.  Who is he?

Then and now, he shows up in town at this time of year, attracting all sorts of attention to himself.  What does he want from us?  What are the things that make for peace for you?  With faith in him, they will happen.

Story to be continued this week….

Prayer

O God, forgive us for being fickle like the crowds in Jerusalem. We praise you one moment and turn our backs on you the next, depending on who we’re with and how the conversation’s going.  Forgive us.  Take away our fear of being yours and give us strength when trouble comes.  Help us remember that you hold the power that overcomes the worst the world can give, and though your Spirit, help us live for you.  Amen.

3/17/2013 Sermon: “Something New!”

"I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."  Isaiah 43:19.  Judean Desert - CN, 2011
“I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19. Judean Desert – CN, 2011

Easter is two weeks away, and today, we’re farther along the path to Jerusalem with Jesus.  It’s a journey, it really is, and one thing that seems clear to me from the ministry of Jesus is that he when he asks his people to follow, he doesn’t mean for them to sit in one place and think about following.

We Lost Rob!  You may have read in some of my biographical information that I ride a bicycle for exercise, mostly in the summer.  I picked it up quite a long time ago from some youth group leaders who helped me learn how to organize long bike trips for teenagers.

I did a number of these trips that would go 150-300 miles during a week in the summer.  50-60 miles in a day.  That’s not really a lot, if you remember that going 12 miles per hour on a bike is a fairly slow pace.  If you can sit on your bike for an hour, you can go 12 miles.  You can go farther than you might think if you do a little riding before the trip to get in shape.  One of the main purposes of the trip is to reach a goal – to ride that whole distance under your own power.  “Hey Jeff, what did you do this summer?  Oh, I cut lawns, went fishing in Maine, rode my bike 250 miles in a week…”  It gave the kids great exercise and a sense of accomplishment. 

2 Biking 1990
Biking in Ohio Amish country. 1990 – CN

In Ohio, one of our favorite trips was riding from Cleveland to an amusement park called King’s Island near Cincinnati.  It was like a road rally: each day the kids would form little groups, get their directions, and head down country roads.  Together, they would pay attention to their maps and watch for the turns.  The route took us through beautiful Ohio Amish country. Nobody was allowed to ride alone and nobody ever got lost on those trips.  We had a van following, just in case there were any problems.

We didn’t have cell phones back then and we were always a little afraid we’d lose someone, so one year, we decided to try something different.  We used a 200-mile bike trail across Maryland called the C&O Canal path.  It’s not that far from here and I suspect someone in the room knows about it.  The C&O Canal follows the Potomac River and the path was actually used by mules to tow barges before the Civil War.  Beautiful scenery.  Easy.  No turns to make.  No hills.  Start in Cumberland, follow the path east, and end up in Washington D.C.  Get on your bike, go east.

One day, the instructions were almost too easy:  Go east.  Ride until noon.  Stop in the state park.  Eat and rest.

But Rob was so comfortable on his bike that day; he felt good and he wanted to go fast.  After breakfast, one group of bikers left, then another, and a few minutes later, Rob left a little ahead of his group.  Riding by himself (against the rules) and passing the others, noon came, and he didn’t see anybody.  1:00 – maybe this place is a little farther ahead.  2:00 – he hadn’t seen anyone from our group, and he’s still riding.  3:00 – nobody, and now he’s in a town he doesn’t know.  He was getting frustrated and unbeknownst to him, I was getting just a little concerned.  How can you get lost on a straight path with no intersections?

Just as I was starting to panic, he showed up, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see somebody.  I hadn’t quite figured out what I was going to say to his parents.  Fortunately, he had stopped and decided that maybe the rest of the group was behind him.  So he rode the 25 miles back to the state park where the group had been eating lunch behind some trees.  He had been going so fast that he never saw them when he came through at noon.  Rob rode his bike over 100 miles that day – on a dirt path.  He went to bed early that night.

A lot of the bible is about going from one place to another – a lot more slowly; they didn’t have bikes!  The Old Testament is a rags to riches to rags story about Israel, the people of God.  Israel escapes from Egypt, wanders for 40 years, and finds the promised land.  Israel gets into trouble with God a few generations later, and now, when the prophet Isaiah is writing, Israel is in exile in Babylon.  It’s 700 years before the ministry of Jesus, they are 800 miles from home.  They are dreaming of the good things they miss… will we ever go home?  And Isaiah tells them how God will save them.  God is going to do something new.

Isaiah 43.  16 Thus says the Lord,
   who makes a way in the sea,
   a path in the mighty waters, 
17 who brings out chariot and horse,
   army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
   they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: 
18 Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old. 
19 I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

6 Jackal
Jackal – South Africa, 2009. CN

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 

7 Ostrich
Ostrich – South Africa, 2012. CN

20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches;

for I give water in the wilderness,
   rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people, 
21   the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

This is a difficult journey.  It starts with a dramatic escape from Egypt.  God is asking, do you remember that?  There was an army and horses and chariots, remember that?  They drowned in the Red Sea and I saved you.  I’m the God who did that, and I can do it again.  In fact I will do it again.  God says, I know that you have been languishing where you are, suffering in exile, and I would like to bring you home, so… 

18 Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old. 
19 I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

 

Look ahead; we’re going to a new place.  Just take the first step; you will finish the trip.

One thing I know from biking is that it’s very dangerous to spend much time looking behind you.  If you look over your left shoulder you might get hit by the truck that’s trying to pass you.  If you look over your right shoulder, you go off the road.  The joy of the trip is completing a really long route safely, under your own power.  For me, it’s not nearly as much fun to go in a big circle.  And I have to admit, sometimes it doesn’t feel good: there are moments when it’s definitely not fun, especially at the beginning of the season when I’m getting in shape.

God says, I never promised it would feel good or be easy, but we need to get on with the next step of the trip.  I’m taking you through the wilderness places where nothing is easy.  There are wild animals and water is hard to find, but I will take care of you.

Ohio, 1990.  CN
Ohio, 1990. CN

One sunny afternoon, as we were biking in Ohio on a hot, dusty back road, getting to the end of a long day, maybe 40 miles in, a group of our kids came to an intersection and collapsed on some grass.  A few at a time, the others came along and collapsed with them.  So there were about 20-25 sweaty teenagers and bikes lying strewn across the front yard of this farm house.

We had a rule that you stay off people’s property, and when I caught up, I was about to suggest that this might not be the best place to stop.  Just as I was giving the order to press on, out of the farmhouse comes an Amish mother with a huge tray of lemonade, followed by a couple of kids with more lemonade.  I still remember that as one of the most extraordinary examples of hospitality I’ve ever experienced.  They had no idea who we were, but I imagine that she could tell by the way we were dressed that we were not Amish.  And I wonder to myself, what if we hadn’t tried to do that hard trip on that hot day?  Those kids would have missed that.

If I ask, what new thing is God doing in your life, can you first remember where you were spiritually 2 years ago?  5 years ago?  20 years ago? Has God taken you places beyond where you were and shown you new things?  Were there surprises?  Was it easy?  Did you learn a new tolerance?  Achieve a new forgiveness?  A new ability?  A new understanding of Christ?  I imagine that these new things didn’t come on suddenly.  It took time, and some journeying, and some following of Jesus to get there with your fellow travelers.

I suspect you’ve learned a lot.  I know that the church has been through a lot in the last few years.  It’s not been easy.  Can you hear God saying….

 19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Do you see it?  God wants to know if you’re ready for the next step in the journey.  God says, we’re turning the page.  God will be doing new things, so get ready.

Of course, the ultimate new thing, the thing that no one saw coming was the empty tomb of Jesus.  If God can do that, think of what God can do with us, with you and me.  Keep in mind that the path to the empty tomb goes through a cross.

 Prayer

O God, as we live into this new year, we see a lot of potential for good things and we head into it with faith, even though there may be opportunities for problems.  But we thank you for the opportunities to love and be loved, opportunities to make new discoveries, opportunities to find our true and best selves, and opportunities to give ourselves away in your service.  We thank you most of all for being with us.  We hear your voice saying, “These are my people, with whom I am well pleased.”  May we live up to your blessing.  Help us be faithful to you each day.  We know that you walk with us every step of the way through your son Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

3/10/2013 Sermon: “The Makeover”

James Tissot
James Tissot – “The Prodigal Son in Modern Life” (1882)

Luke 15.  Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

 25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

I suspect you’ve heard that story before – the “Prodigal Son.”  Did you hear the word “prodigal” in the reading?  Nope.  That’s a 16th century word that the writers of the King James Bible used.  It means “wastefully extravagant.”  The people of the early 1600’s might have had this kind of image in mind….

Rembrandt - "The Prodigal Son" (1637)
Rembrandt – “The Prodigal Son” (1637)

This painting is by Rembrandt, the famous Dutch artist, early in his career.  This is his version of the younger son being prodigal.  I think it’s pretty easy to translate that to today.    Whatever image you apply to this guy being a “party animal,” it works.  And we say, “Tsk, tsk.”

But I think we know that if we’re being honest, we all have had a “prodigal” in the family or maybe you have been one yourself.  Around here (Lancaster County, PA), you might know the Amish term Rumshpringa – a tolerated time during teenage years when young people defy the expectations of parents and explore the world.

Let’s stop for a moment and remember what starts Jesus telling this story in the first place.  Jesus eats with people who have bad reputations and who are on the outs with those who are “in.”  Jesus works on personal friendships with those who make mistakes.  He has dinner with them.  He eats with people who don’t present the right image.  He eats with bottom feeders.  And he did it regularly as a personal discipline.

The Makeover.  If I say “makeover,” I think that a lot of you would know what I’m talking about.  Makeover shows on TV follow two basic themes.

  1. Take an average person and give them a haircut, a new wardrobe, eye surgery to get rid of the glasses, new teeth, a nip and a tuck here and there, and presto – they are new.
  2. Take an average family’s house, gut it, hire some designers (who usually have trouble getting along with each other), and replace everything in their living space.

Of course, the draw in watching shows like this is that you can imagine yourself getting a makeover.  The sponsors of this kind of programming are good at communicating how imperfect we all are, and how appearance is really important.  If you could just get yourself into our store, your life could also be amazing.  We all wish we could be beautiful, or live in a way that communicates that we think we’re beautiful.  If you had this stuff, you could be self-confident too.  These makeovers only deal with the outside of us.

As Jesus tells this story, probably over dinner, it might be hard for us to imagine how shocking it must have been to listen to. In fact, as Jesus is telling the story, he might just be purposely testing the boiling point of the scribes and Pharisees – the professional religious tradition-keepers of the time.  These are people who always try to do the “right thing,” especially on the Sabbath.  They know how things in the temple are supposed to be done, and they know how we all should live, thank you very much, because they are experts in the Jewish law.  That might be a little harsh.  They’re just doing the best they can to keep order, something I think we all appreciate, and Jesus keeps coloring outside the lines.  He eats with people who don’t follow the Jewish laws or who aren’t Jewish at all, and as a community leader, he sets the wrong example.  What he’s doing can only create division and hard feelings.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

But Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing.  Jesus looks at somebody like that prodigal and loves him.  He sees how empty that guy’s life really is.  He is on a search for people who need an inner makeover.  People who need the soul makeover aren’t hard to find.  It’s so easy to find stories about somebody who’s hit rock bottom.  These days we can’t get away from stories of people who lost it all.   Or people who have everything, but can’t find meaning in life.

Take a closer look at the cast in the story:  Maybe you can find yourself in this story.

The Father.  He’s tolerant and generous.  He’s loving at his own expense, maybe too loving.  He’s consistent with both his kids and gives them both the space to make mistakes.   Obviously, he’s the God-figure in the story.

Son #1.  He does everything he’s supposed to.  He’s the typical first child.  He’s the one who stayed home and took care of everything, worked hard, and never gave his father a problem.  Somehow, he knows what his brother’s been up to even though he’s in another country.  He’s responsible, but he’s also judgmental.  He looks out for himself and can’t bring himself to forgive his brother.  He makes sure his father knows what a loser his brother is.

Son #2.  It’s so easy to put yourself in the place of the Prodigal Son.  Who hasn’t come to a point at one time or another when the world seemed to be falling apart.  Far away from home with most of your options gone.  It’s no accident that Jesus says he ends up feeding pigs.

To a Jew, this means he’s working for a Gentile who raises forbidden food.  He isn’t just poor, he is literally at the lowest level of the Jewish food chain.  In other words, he is a sinner.  If he’s miserable, he deserved it. These are the consequences of his choices.  But he comes home.

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for any moment in a “reality” TV show that involves a reunion:

~ Soldiers coming home from overseas and showing up at their kids’ school.

~ That moment in the weight-loss show when someone gets back together with family and friends after losing 200 pounds.

~ Any show with long-lost relatives.  Family members who might have been unknown to each other for many years find a way to come together.

And I need Kleenex.  There is this overwhelming emotion wrapped around that moment when it feels like some huge incompleteness has been made whole, and it was nothing short of a miracle.

God wants that moment with you.  And with me.  God went on an all-out search to find us, and Jesus makes it possible for us to have that reunion with God.

Every time I hear this story, I see that younger brother coming over the top of the last hill on the way to the family farm.  The father can only see a silhouette, but he knows who it is just by the way he walks. He drops whatever he’s holding and runs down the road to meet him and the son collapses in his arms.

Rembrandt - "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (1668)
Rembrandt – “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1668)

Then I see Rembrandt again, I mean Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son 30 years later.  He painted this version of the “Prodigal Son” in the last two years of his life (1668-69).  The son is on his knees and his father stands over him with his arms wrapped around him.  The expression on his face says that he’s not just glad to have his son home; he feels all the pain that his son feels. It’s night, and these two people are lost in their embrace.  They ignore the judgmental people standing over them.  The mother, the older son, and this other guy whom some think is the father’s accountant.

By this time, in some ways, Rembrandt had been the Prodigal.  He had lived beyond his means, made some poor choices, and was living the consequences.  More than any other painting, this is about him.  He is beaten, he is broken.  And no one who tries to portray the Prodigal Son can do it without this image in their minds.  Rembrandt needs that embrace God wants to give to each of us.

The French priest Henri Nouwen was so affected by this painting, that he wrote a book about it, and said…

Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home. 

[Henri J. M. Nouwen (1992-04-01). The return of the prodigal son: a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons. Doubleday Books. ISBN 978-0-385-41867-6. http://books.google.com/?id=b11CPgAACAAJ.]

Something that bothers me is that Jesus doesn’t try to describe what happens next.  Does the older brother ever join the party?  Does the younger brother mess up again?  Which brother is the one who was lost?  His point was to show with this story, God’s deepest desire to embrace the fallen.  His hope was that his followers would catch that vision.  ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’  God will show us where to build bridges amongst ourselves and who needs a tolerant welcome in our church.  These people welcome sinners and eat with them….

Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long partnership fell apart.

It began with a small misunderstanding neither could remember and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work,” the man said. “Maybe you would have a few small jobs here and there. Could I help you?”

“Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor, in fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee, and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber curing by the barn? I want you to build me a fence — an 8-foot fence — so I won’t need to see his place anymore. That’ll show him.”

The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger, and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”

The older brother had to go to town for supplies, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day.  The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing.  About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job.

The farmer’s eyes opened wide. His jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge — a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other!  A fine piece of work, handrails and all — and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. He turned to the carpenter and said, “After all I’ve said and done – you built a bridge!”

The two brothers met at the middle of the bridge, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder.  The older brother said, “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve got a lot of other projects for you.”

“I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but I have so many more bridges to build.”*

 Prayer

 And God, you are building bridges to us and between us.  Through your Spirit, give us the courage to step over that bridge to you.  O God, you have been kind to us so often, and we find ourselves taking your kindness and love for granted.  We do things that bother you – a lot.  When we drift away, you are worried about us, and you wait for us to come home.  You worry about us.  You’re patient; you let us learn what life is like without you.    This is a good day to remember you love us as a father – with firm expectations and a firm hug.  Now deepen our faith and help us teach our community how to love and forgive, and step across bridges to each other.  Amen.

*based on a story by William R. White – Stories for Telling (Augsburg Publishing House, 1986)

3/3/2013 Sermon: “Why Do Bad Things Happen?”

3 Katrina Debris
Santa – debris found after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans. 2006 – CN.

In working with Christian groups and organizations , I’ve watched many things change over time; trends and styles have changed, and the ministries I’ve known lately aren’t much like the ones I started working with in the mid-70’s.  But there’s at least one thing that hasn’t changed: when you ask people about the spiritual issues they think about most, among other things, they still usually ask, “Why does God let bad things happen to people, especially good people?”  This is a universal question faithful Christians and non-believers have been asking for centuries. There has to be an explanation.  There must be an answer.

Why do bad things happen?  God, why?  That’s the question behind the story in the gospel reading this morning, and Jesus has an answer to at least part of it.  Maybe it’s better to say that he has a perspective.

Luke 13:1-9.  At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

This is not a hard conversation to be a part of.  We’re sitting around after dinner in the evening, everyone is relaxed, and we’re talking.   Apparently, some people have come to Jesus and gotten into discussion about some really awful things that had happened.  Some people had been murdered by the Roman governor Pilate, and some others had been killed in a construction accident.

There are historians who say that Pilate had been siphoning money from the Temple treasury to support the construction of an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem from 30 miles away.  When he came to Jerusalem to supervise, there were angry demonstrations, probably in the Temple courtyard, which was right next to the Roman fortress.  In response, Pilate disguised his personal troops as Jewish pilgrims and murdered the ringleaders of the demonstrations.  If this is the story Jesus is talking about, it’s also possible that the “Tower of Siloam” accident may have been part of Pilate’s construction project and these two events were connected.

Did these people deserve to die?  That’s the question the people are actually asking, and Jesus knows it.  In the mindset of these folks, anything bad that happens to you, whether it’s an accident, or something intentional, somehow, you deserved it.  Were these people worse sinners than other people?  Jesus says “No.”

What strikes me about those one-sentence stories in that story from Luke is that Jesus is in tune with his own current events.  He isn’t floating around with a halo or spending so much time in prayer that he doesn’t know what’s going on.  You could also substitute the stuff you see on the evening news into this conversation with Jesus.  There are uncontrollable forces of nature – killer hurricanes in the fall and sinkholes swallowing people (in Florida in the last few days)…

And in the same place where Jesus was telling this story, there are still soldiers with weapons, like these Palestinians standing in front of the separation wall built by the Israeli government…

CN - 2011.
CN – 2011.

And Israeli soldiers who pray for peace at the ancient western wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem…

CN - 1989.
CN – 1989.

The story goes that when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 73 AD, they left this one wall standing as a reminder that they could have destroyed everything if they wanted to.

In every conflict like this, it’s the average person who is at the most risk… like the Palestinian man whose shop was crushed by tanks one day.  He sells clothes that are hung on broken mannequins.

CN - 2011
CN – 2011

These things might seem a world away to you, but each of us, each of our families, has a story of huge loss and enormous pain.  If it didn’t happen to you, it happened to someone in your family.  It’s true for all of us.  We all have this story.

In a tiny village on a Greek island are some ruins.  Ruins are pretty common in that part of the world, but these aren’t ancient.  During WWII, German planes bombed the village and destroyed all the houses.  People probably died.

8 Greek ruins
Ruins in the village of Sourides, Island of Samos, Greece. 2000 – CN.

This house belonged to my wife’s grandparents.  They had come to the United States long before the war.  The house was never rebuilt because the people in the village thought they would come back to take care of it, but they never did.

We each have a story.  When the bad things happen, when death comes, is anyone a worse sinner than anyone else?  Jesus says no.  Life is terminal in so many ways, but does any person’s death mean that they were a worse sinner than someone else?  No.  Not in God’s eyes.

Whew.  Take a deep breath; we’re off the hook. God isn’t going to punish us with death either.  That’s really the point of the question isn’t it?  Have you ever felt that God is punishing you?  I think we all have images of God sending lightning bolts.  There are natural consequences for the wrong things we do, but does God “drop the hammer” as punishment for our sins?  No.   God doesn’t do that.

But then Jesus says something that seems totally contradictory:  “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  I hate it when he does that.  This is so hard to understand, and he says it twice.  Unless you repent, unless you repent.  Unless your life changes.  Ah!  God is not so concerned with the death you die.  That’s what happens to everybody eventually, at some point, in some way.  God is much more interested in the life you live.  We’re these people being punished somehow?  No; God wants us to be more concerned with how we live before we die.  It’s up to each of us.

Jesus wraps it up with a story about a tree.  The man who owns it wants to tear it down and throw it away.  The person taking care of it says, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”  The ultimate destiny of the tree depends on whether it bears fruit.  You realize that we are the tree and Jesus is the gardener, pleading with God to give us a little more time.  “God, give them a little more time.”  Let me do some pruning and throw on some fertilizer.  Let me work with them.

So, we have today, and maybe tomorrow.  And we don’t know what will happen.  These days are gifts from God.  They are opportunities.  Many times, the people who realize this most are the ones who understand that tomorrow may not come for them.  They are the ones who realize that tomorrow is a gift from God.  Another chance to know God.  Another chance to give God’s love to someone else.  Another chance to help someone meet Christ.  Another chance to love, another chance to bring peace, another chance to offer forgiveness, another chance to bring healing, another chance to work for a cure, another chance to feed a hungry person or offer safety to someone. Another chance to build a house.  Another chance to be Christ’s house, the Body of Christ.

Another chance to not react, and by not reacting, stop a war.  Another chance to be with someone else in their suffering and bring Christ to them.  In other words, another chance to bear fruit.

Why do bad things happen?  They just do.  It might be better to ask “Why do we feel pain?”  Because God created us to feel pain.  God feels pain too.  The only other choice is the kind of life that I think none of us want to live.  A life completely free of suffering is also a life free of joy and love.

Through Christ, God has given us special tools to overcome and to help each other overcome.  You do realize that most of that work happens outside of this room.

Prayer

O God, give us all a vision for tomorrow, as mothers and fathers, as children in your family, the church.  Live through us and give us the power to overcome the discouragements we see in life.  In spite of what we see around us, the evil, the bad things that happen, help us remember that you are with us, that your mercy surrounds us, even when we forget about you.  When life feels like a tomb, help us remember that tombs are only temporary for you.

We pray with faith, because we know that your son Jesus overcame death, and leads the way ahead of us. We pray with hope, because we know that you are already changing us into the people and the church we should be.  Amen.