Fourth Sunday of Easter
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the Good Shepherd. Amen
Sheep, well shepherds
appear all over our readings for today,
it’s why this Sunday has the nickname,
Good Shepherd Sunday.
I don’t claim to know much of anything about shepherding
other than it is the shepherd’s job to take care of sheep
which generally means leading them to food and water,
finding them when they wander off
and protecting them from things that want eat them, like wolves.
At least this is the portrait of the shepherd
that is painted in the Bible,
a theme that Jesus takes up when he proclaims in John 10:11
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
which in this Easter season
we are well aware that he does.
Jesus is the good shepherd,
he promises to take care of us
and that is comforting,
no matter how independent or tough we are
or pretend we are,
we all long to be cared for,
to be assured that everything will be okay,
that there is someone looking out for us.
And Jesus does,
but he also has expectations for us
as we follow him
and that leads to the truth
that lies behind all the talk of the tender care of the good shepherd,
the truth there is no guarantee
that life lived in and with God
will be free from dangers or hardships,
in fact Jesus is quite clear
that those who follow him
should expect danger and hardship,
what Jesus does guarantee, promise,
is to be with us,
in the midst of these times.
Take our beloved Psalm 23
even as the psalmist describes the green pastures
and still waters provided by the shepherd,
what sounds like a pretty cushy life for a sheep,
the psalmist acknowledges walking through the valley of the shadow of death
and the presence of enemies,
what makes the difference for the psalmist
is the presence of God in the midst of these experiences.
The danger is there
but the psalmist does not fear
because of the comfort of the Lord.
These themes are present as well in our reading from Revelation,
Revelation or the Apocalypse of John
is an odd book
but rather than being a prediction of the future to come
as so many have thought,
it falls more into the category of resistance fiction.
A story written to convey truths
to an oppressed group of people
in a way that will not bring down the wrath of the empire upon their heads.
The Christians to whom John wrote in Revelation
were living under the Roman Empire,
their proclaimed belief that Jesus is Lord
rather than the Caesar
placed them at the margins of society at best
and subject to death for treason at worst
things were going to get worse before they got better
this is the setting for our reading from Revelation,
where John in his vision
sees a great multitude around the throne of God in heaven,
from every nation and language praising God
John finds out that this crowd
are the people who have come through the “great ordeal”
they have suffered on behalf of Jesus
so now they get to spend all their time worshiping God
“and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat, for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
These are images are familiar,
they are the words of the prophet Isaiah
to the Israelites in exile,
God promised to bring them out of exile and God did,
now God promises to bring the people out of the tribulation to shelter,
but God will do this as a shepherd,
walking with the people,
through the danger
to the promised land of safety and security.
Once again God does not promise that there will be no suffering or hardships,
what God does promise is to be there with the people through the hardships.
It’s the way God works,
Jesus is the good shepherd
And we follow him because he knows us.
“My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”
Jesus says today in our gospel reading,
and that is the key to the good of the shepherd,
the knowing of the sheep.
This knowing is a heart knowing
rather than a head knowing,
the kind of knowing that means the shepherd can pick individual sheep
out of what looks to the rest of us like an undifferentiated mass.
It’s the kind of knowing that anticipates
that some sheep like this kind of grass,
while others favor another
so the shepherd makes sure to frequent both pastures,
it’s a knowing that heads off that one sheep
that always wanders away from the rest,
And the sheep,
knowing they are loved and cared for
follow the voice of the one who loves and cares for them.
Even if it means going through some dangerous spots,
they follow because they know the shepherd will go with them
and take care of them.
Jesus is the good shepherd,
he knows us with the knowledge of love,
a knowing so deep we cannot help but respond
in the good times and in the times of trouble,
and when we wander away
Jesus comes to find us
and bring us back into the fold.
And now some of you are sitting there thinking
‘that’s a pretty message pastor but how’s that going to work out?”
In this Easter season we’ve been spending time with the disciples
who have been saying pretty much the same thing,
Jesus has appeared to them post resurrection
and given them the good news
and they wonder ‘how’s that going to work if you’re ascending to your father Jesus?’
and Jesus has told them,
you’re going to do it,
I will be present in you.
Last week we heard the final conversation between Jesus and Peter
where Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep and tend his flock
and in that instance the lamb became the shepherd.
Just like in Revelation where the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
we lambs are to be shepherds to one another.
It sounds kind of funny
but again that’s how God works,
so here we are,
lambs that are cared for
and shepherds that care for others,
we have both roles to play.
Sometimes we’re more lamb
and sometimes we’re more shepherd
but we are always bound by love.
We’ve been lambs this morning,
we have heard we are loved and known,
and now it’s time to put on our shepherd hats,
I want you to look around
and notice who is missing this morning,
think about who you haven’t seen for a while,
this isn’t a rhetorical point
I want you to take a moment and pick one person or family
you haven’t seen here for a while.
Everyone got someone in mind?
Okay, now it’s your turn to be the shepherd
this week I want you to reach out to that person,
write them a note,
give them a call.
It doesn’t have to be complicated
just a simple I noticed you were gone,
I missed you
And in this way they will know they are cared for,
that they are known,
that Jesus is with them wherever they are in life,
just like he promised. Amen
Second Sunday of Easter
Alleluia Christ is Risen!
Christ is risen indeed alleluia!
Christ is risen,
the tomb is empty
the messengers from God have appeared,
Mary has proclaimed to the disciples
that she has seen the Lord,
the disciples don’t really believe her
but it is an explanation for everything else that happened
and Jesus did say something about coming back
now that they think of it
Christ is risen, now what?
It’s a question both for the disciples and us.
The disciples are still unsure
of what exactly is going on
except that three days ago
they witnessed the brutal execution of their leader
so they decide the best course of action
is to lay low for awhile
and so that Sunday evening
finds them gathered together in fear and uncertainty
behind locked doors.
And into the midst of their fear and uncertainty,
saying peace to the startled disciples
I imagine them all sitting there in shock,
the doors are still locked after all,
and while they might have a guess
they’re still not sure who it is
until Jesus shows them his hands and his side,
marked with scars from being nailed to the cross
and pierced with a sword.
And then the disciples rejoice,
Jesus is among them!
But the question still hovers,
now that the disciples recognize him
Jesus is able to answer that question,
he gives them the gift of peace,
says “As the Father has sent me so I send you”
and breathing on them,
just as God breathed into Adam at creation,
Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit
and tells them that they are to continue his work,
bearing witness to the possible relationship between humans and God,
a relationship Jesus showed them with his life,
a relationship they are to show others with their lives.
So now the disciples know what they are supposed to do next
and it’s not too long before they get to try out their new role of bearing witness.
It turns out that Thomas,
one of their own
was not with them when Jesus came to them,
but he was a follower of Jesus
he should be an easy sell right?
So echoing Mary that first morning
they proclaim to him
“We have seen the Lord”
and Thomas, echoing their own words to Mary
responds “unless I see the marks in his hand for myself, I will not believe”
Now we don’t get the disciples’ reaction to this pronouncement
but I’ve got to think that it dampened their enthusiasm some
for the mission that Jesus had given them
because the next time we see the disciples
where are they?
Out the in the world continuing Jesus’ work?
No, a week later
they are in that same house
in the same room
with the doors shut.
The only difference is that Thomas is with them this time
and once again Jesus appears among
them greeting them with peace.
Then he turns and offers himself to Thomas,
saying “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side, do not be unbelieving but believing.”
When we hear these words
we sometimes add a mocking tone to them,
indeed we’ve added the epithet Doubting to Thomas’ name,
but there is no reason to interpret Jesus’ words and actions
as anything but filled with grace.
Jesus is offering Thomas what he needs,
encouraging him farther down the path of faith.
And having been given what he needs
he proclaims “My Lord and my God.”
and with that goes a step further
than the rest of the disciples in his belief,
he grasps the nature of the special relationship between Jesus and his abba
the relationship that John the author of the gospel
has been conveying from the very beginning with the words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word was God.
Thomas gets it.
“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus asks,
knowing full well that it was what Thomas requested,
but then goes on,
turning it seems to us
saying “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Again I don’t think there is judgment in those words,
Thomas is blessed with his faith through sight
and those who believe without seeing Jesus are also blessed,
we are blessed by our belief
not how we came to it,
there is no greater blessing than being in relationship with Jesus, with God
And having recorded Jesus’ benediction,
John turns once again to us,
the readers throughout the ages
and says: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
And once again the ball is back in our court,
the tomb is empty,
Mary has delivered her message to the skeptical disciples,
Jesus has appeared to the disciples through locked doors,
given them the gift of the holy spirit and ascended to his abba.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen,
The end of Jesus’ story
is just the beginning of ours,
like the disciples we have been given the gift of the holy spirit,
in commissioning the disciples
Jesus has commissioned us
to continue his work in the world,
living our relationship with God openly
in witness to the life-giving nature of relationship with God,
all while walking our own path from unbelief to belief.
Simple enough right?
because no sooner than we’ve excitedly proclaimed
we’ve seen the lord!
We will meet a Thomas,
who demands proof that we ourselves cannot offer
and before we know it we’re back in that room
with the others who are just like us,
with the doors shut
wondering what to do.
And that’s when Jesus comes to us in grace
offering himself to us once again,
and gathered with fellow disciples
we listen to the stories of the signs that Jesus did
stories that point to a truth greater than the stories themselves,
a truth greater than us.
And Gathered together at the table
we reach out and place our hands on Jesus’ body
given for us,
and in our fellowship we share our own experiences with the risen lord,
in Sunday school opening each week
we take time to share our God Sightings,
those places we’ve seen God at work in our lives during the week,
this time lets us hear others’ experience of God
and reminds us to watch for God throughout the week.
So while we may doubt or encounter a Thomas or two
Jesus comes to us
as we share our lives with each other
and maybe just maybe we move farther along the path
from unbelief to belief,
it is a path we walk our whole lives
and often takes some odd turns along the way
doubling back or twisting around,
sometimes we have to travel awhile
before Jesus comes to us in the way that we need or notice
but he will,
and when he does,
with Thomas we will exclaim “My Lord and my God” Amen
Resurrection of Our Lord Easter Sunday
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
It’s amazing how much
can be conveyed with one word,
with a name.
With that one word
Jesus turns Mary’s life upside down
in all the right ways.
She goes from weeping in a garden
near an empty tomb, talking to a gardener,
to beholding the risen Lord,
her teacher and friend.
It’s been a long journey to get to this place,
with plenty of ups and downs,
we don’t know much about Mary before her life following Jesus
other than she was from Magdala,
a fishing village along the sea of Galilee
and Luke tells us that Jesus healed her,
casting out seven demons,
since then we know she’s been one of the group of women followers of Jesus
who traveled along as disciples
and who took care of Jesus.
Her own experience aside
Mary has seen and heard some amazing things,
she’s seen Jesus heal,
she’s seen him feed thousands with a few loaves of bread,
she’s heard him teach and debate with scribes and Pharisees
she heard him weep for his friend Lazarus
then saw raise him from the dead
she’s experienced the excitement of the crowds
as Jesus entered Jerusalem
could this be the long awaited messiah?
and then two days ago
she saw Jesus arrested,
put on trial
sentenced to death by crucifixion,
and even when many of the disciples fled,
Mary and a few others stayed at the foot of the cross
and witnessed Jesus die,
then watched as Joseph of Arimathea
took Jesus’ body down from the cross,
prepared it for burial
and placed it in a tomb in a garden,
with a stone covering the entrance.
And with that
all that she’s seen and heard,
the hope for the future
that had built along the way,
the purpose she’s dedicated her life to
Dead and buried.
She must go observe the sabbath,
rest and worship away from this place
but John tells us that early on the first day of the week,
while it was still dark,
as soon as possible
Mary comes back to the tomb,
she’s so anxious to be near her Lord
that she can’t even wait for daylight
and when she goes into the garden
she finds that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb
and that Jesus is not where he is supposed to be.
In a panic she runs and gets some other disciples
telling them “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb
and we do not know where they have laid him.”
And having delivered the message
Mary fades into the background for a bit
while Peter and the other disciple race back to the tomb
and find the cloths that had been used to embalm Jesus
lying in the tomb folded neatly
and while they still don’t know quite what to think,
we who are hearing the story
know that this isn’t a simple case of grave robbing,
grave robbers wouldn’t have unwrapped the body,
and we know it’s not even a return to life like Lazarus
who was still bound in grave cloths
when Jesus called him from his own tomb,
no something else is going on here
but in the moment those present don’t know that,
the two disciples return home
not sure what to think
Mary stays in the garden weeping,
all she knows is that Jesus is not there.
She looks in the tomb again then turns around
and there behind her is another person
and supposing he is the gardener
she asks him where Jesus is,
and that is when Jesus speaks her name.
that one word capturing all the moments of a life
that have built up to this point,
that one word conveying the love and friendship between teacher and disciple.
And at last Mary knows who it is before her.
She recognizes the voice,
the one who knows her intimately
and she responds in kind with a term of endearment, rabbouni.
So much conveyed with one word
and yet that is who Jesus is,
he is the good shepherd who calls his sheep by name,
they recognize his voice,
the voice that they associate with care, protection, with love,
that is the voice they will follow because they are known.
We all long to be known in this way,
to experience this depth of relationship,
sometimes we get a glimpse of this in the love of a parent or a partner or a friend.
I remember growing up listening to my mom answer the phone,
I could tell it was my dad on the other end
without hearing his name,
because the tone of my mom’s voice changed
from formal telephone voice
to the voice of one speaking with someone known and loved
We recognize when someone knows us,
we hear it and we respond to it
even in the situations where we don’t expect it,
Mary wasn’t expecting the resurrection,
to paraphrase Monty Python, no one expects the resurrection,
and yet when Jesus says her name
she knows who is speaking to her.
This is the miracle of Easter,
that in those moments in our lives when dead is dead and gone is gone,
Jesus says our name
and we know who is speaking to us,
even if we don’t recognize the person in front of us,
especially if we didn’t expect to find new life,
love and understanding in that moment.
Jesus the good shepherd laid down his life for his sheep,
and he rose from the dead and ascended to be with God
all so that there is a place for us
where we are loved and known,
So that we may have life and have it abundantly right now.
And while we may as yet be in the garden weeping,
or staring at the empty tomb scratching our heads
trying to figure out what it means,
when we hear our name called
we will know who it is that is calling
and we will proclaim with Mary,
“I have seen the Lord.”
Christ is Risen! Alleluia!
Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31-35
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who comes to us in bread and wine. Amen
Tonight is a night of memories.
memories help tell us who we are,
both as individuals and as communities,
they are the stories that tell us where we’ve come from
and point us to where we are going
and yet the calling to mind of these stories
is as fragile
as the stories are important,
we’ve all experienced the sensation
of walking into a room and completely forgetting
why we came into that room in the first place,
we’ve debated with others
what exactly happened that one time,
we’ve experienced the devastation
of dementia and memory loss in loved ones.
Yet some things remain clear in our minds,
our home telephone number from elementary school
or the snappy jingle
directing us to a particular brand of breakfast cereal,
part of the mystery of living
is that we don’t always get to choose which memories
naturally stay fresh and clear
and which fade away.
But we have found that there are things we can do
to help us remember,
intentionally hold on to,
the important stories.
We do this by telling the stories over and over again,
we attach rituals to the stories
where we act them out,
we tie the stories to our senses
the taste, touch, smell, sight and sounds
all helping us to remember.
Tonight is a night of remembering,
calling to mind the stories that define us,
stories so important
that God has told us to remember them.
In our first lesson we heard God telling the people of Israel
how they are to remember the defining moment
when God brought them out of slavery into freedom.
Each year, God tells the people,
they are to reenact the exodus,
and in the eating of the roasted lamb
while dressed to travel at a moments notice
the story of what God had done
will come alive once more
and the people will remember
that they are people meant for freedom
guided by a great and powerful God.
“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” God tells the people
And that is what Jesus and the disciples are doing
all those hundreds of years later
when they are gathered around the table
for what Jesus knows will be their last meal together.
And as they recall the foundation of their relationship with God,
Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us,
who ate and drank with the disciples,
healed and prayed, cried and celebrated
gives the disciples a way to remember this aspect of relationship with God
and the new freedom they are about to experience
through Jesus’ actions on the cross.
Gathered together at the table of remembering
Jesus takes bread,
the common everyday food
and he blesses it and then breaks the loaf
and gives it to the disciples saying this is my body,
do this to remember me.
And then Jesus takes the cup of wine,
the drink of celebrations
blesses it and gives it to the disciples saying
this is the new covenant, in my blood,
drink it to remember my promise to you.
In the future, Jesus tells the disciples,
whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup
you will remember what I have done for you.
On the cross in body broken and blood poured out
Jesus frees us from sin and death.
At the table, in broken bread and wine poured out
Jesus forgives us,
freeing us to move past our mistakes and our failures
to the wholeness of new life in Christ.
And what does that new life look like?
It looks like Jesus kneeling at the feet of his disciples
washing their feet,
an act of love and humility
that Jesus says they are to copy
as they live out the new commandment of Jesus,
to love one another just as Jesus has loved them.
This is the sign to others that you are my disciples
Jesus tells them in the gospel of John,
the love that you have for one another.
Yes, we have two different stories of Jesus’ last night with the disciples,
in Matthew, Mark and Luke we hear about the last supper,
in John we hear about the washing of feet and the new commandment,
these were the stories, the memories
passed down in the communities where the gospels were first written
and while they are different,
and we might wonder at that
both the stories are included in our holy scriptures
because ultimately we need both stories
for our relationship with God.
we need the new commandment
that points us toward the future in Christ,
a future marked by love lived out in service to others,
and we need the forgiveness
found when Jesus comes to us in bread and wine, body and blood,
after we have failed to love as Jesus loves
and we need to hear these stories again and again
as again and again we hear the command to love
and receive the forgiveness of God
living in the law of love and the grace of Jesus.
So we tell the stories when we gather,
we hand down memories in the telling, and acting,
the taste and touch, the smells and the singing
these memories remind us of who we are,
people who live in freedom
because of the great acts of God,
people who are to love and serve their neighbors,
people with a God who comes to us in bread and wine
to remind us that we are God’s children,
fed and forgiven, freed to love. Amen
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who has made us his own. Amen
What is most important in life?
Times of transition
bring this question forward,
those times in life when we’re saying goodbye to the way things were
and hello to new possibilities
we are often forced to consider
what to leave behind and what to bring forward with us.
Lent is coming to an end
and as we look forward to Holy Week
and the beginnings and endings that lie ahead
our readings for today ask us to consider,
what is most important?
Paul is doing this reflecting in his letter to the Philippians,
he is in prison, probably in Rome,
which even as he hopes to be released
still puts things in perspective.
As he looks back
and considers his life
he concludes that very little matters
except for Christ.
Paul in his characteristic humble brag
lists all the things that he could consider important,
being part of the chosen people of Israel,
strictly following the law,
all these things that conventional wisdom says
are important especially for a relationship with God
but then he says: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ...For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not have a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
that whoever he is
and whatever he’s done,
none of that will surpass what Christ has already done on the cross,
and because of that amazing fact
Paul goes on “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on the make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
Paul wants to know Christ
, both the good- the resurrection-
and the bad- the suffering
and he feels secure in seeking this knowledge
because he knows that Christ Jesus
has made him his own.
And that is really the crux of the matter,
whether Paul came from the right family
and did the right things,
or whether he persecuted the church
or is in prison,
none of that matters in the end
because Christ claimed him.
And having been claimed by Christ,
Paul presses forward
seeking to know Christ even better,
seeking to share this with all he encounters
even if it means that by the standards of the world
he does some pretty odd things,
like letting go of status,
obeying God rather than Rome,
willingly suffering for the sake of love.
In our gospel for today
Mary wants to know Christ
and it leads her to do some odd things
by the standards of the world.
Once again Jesus has come to dinner,
he’s been hiding out a bit
but now he is about to enter Jerusalem for the last time
and on his way he’s stopped to have dinner with his friends.
Jesus is close with this family,
he’s had dinner here before,
that dinner where Martha asked Jesus to scold her sister Mary
for not helping her and instead sitting at Jesus’ feet.
Jesus came here when Lazarus died
and Jesus wept over his friend
then raised him from the dead
and now he’s here one last time
together this group is facing the end.
And Mary takes a jar of perfume
that costs about a year’s wages
and pours it out on Jesus’ feet, anointing them,
then wipes them with her hair.
The use of that much perfume is extravagant,
as Judas will soon point out,
and she breaks the social dress code and norms
by letting her hair down and touching a man
who is not her husband.
it’s following Jesus in a nutshell
and Mary does this
because facing the coming ending
Jesus is what is important to Mary.
Of all the people present at the party
Mary is the one who has been most intentional
about spending time with Jesus,
sitting at his feet listening to him,
she has seen him raise her brother from the dead
she more than anyone
is likely to believe Jesus
when he tells his followers
that he is the shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep.
So her abundance of ointment
mirroring the abundance of Jesus’ love,
she anoints Jesus for his burial,
she lovingly sends him out to do
what he says he needs to do.
She wants to know Christ,
she wants to join in his story
and when compared with all of that,
what is some money?
And social norms?
They are rubbish.
Mary and Paul are exceptional in their abandonment
of all things that are not Jesus
but they are not exceptional in their desire to know Christ.
At one point or another
all of us have longed to know Christ,
even if we haven’t had the words
to understand that longing
and true sometimes we are like Mary
making extravagant displays of devotion
but other times we are Martha
who longs to know Jesus
and acts on that longing by serving,
continually moving around Jesus.
Sometimes we’re Lazarus,
we long to know Jesus
and we’re just grateful to be at the table
because even getting to the table with Jesus
is a miracle.
And sometimes we are even Judas,
we follow Jesus because there’s something that catches us
but we are so preoccupied with our own gain
that we miss the point of Jesus and those around him.
There is space for all of these characters in the story
and yet, whoever we are,
Christ has first claimed us as his own
and nothing we do will change that,
joined to Christ in his death and resurrection
God promises to treat us as if we were Christ.
And so whatever questions are challenging us,
whatever beginnings or endings we face,
we press on
claimed and loved by the most important one. Amen
Fifth Sunday in Lent
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who wants all the children at the party. Amen
The story of the Prodigal Son,
we’ve all heard it, at least a couple times
so we know what comes next
when we hear the line “there was a man who had two sons”
now these two sons are wildly different,
as often happens with siblings.
We hear about the younger son first,
how he doesn’t want to wait for his father to die
to receive his inheritance,
so he asks for it,
and when his father gives him his half
he takes it and sets out,
traveling to a distant country,
living in a way that uses up all his inheritance.
when a famine hits
the younger son finds himself starving without any money
so he finds a job feeding pigs
- remember pigs are religiously unclean animals
so we know that he’s hit rock bottom
when he’s hanging out with the pigs
and the pig food is starting to look pretty tasty-
and that’s when he realizes,
life in his father’s house is good, even for the servants
so he forms a plan to go home,
confess his sin to his father
and knowing he doesn’t deserve to be considered a son in the household
asks to be considered as a servant.
He acts on his plan and heads home
but before he can even get up the driveway
his father sees him and runs to him,
and before he can confess and lay out his plan
his father is already throwing a big welcome home party.
And this is where we hear about the older son,
the older son who also received his part of the inheritance
when the younger son asked,
but stayed at home,
he did was he was supposed to,
carrying on the family business
working with his father.
So he’s coming in from working in the fields
and he hears a party going on,
a party he didn’t know was happening,
a party he clearly didn’t receive an invitation to,
so he asks one of the servants about it
and only then does he hear that his younger brother has returned
and that dad is throwing an extravagant party for him.
At this he gets mad
and refuses to go in the house,
and when his father comes out to plead with him to come to the party,
years of resentment and bitterness come pouring out,
“I’ve been the good one,
I did what I’m supposed to,
I worked with you all these years
and you’ve never celebrated me,
you’ve never thrown a party for me
and now your son
who told you he wished you were dead so he could have your stuff comes back
- without all that money you gave him by the way-
and you throw a party for him?’
and he refuses to come inside
and his father reminds him that their relationship is intact
and that all that is the father’s is the older son’s,
his life is good,
but the father stands firm in his decision to celebrate the return of the younger son.
He loves both.
A man had two sons the story starts
and at the end it seems to ask us,
which is the better son?
Tradition would have us say
the older son is the better son
but despite his honoring his father
and the good life that he has
he ends bitter and resentful at his father,
feeling left out
that he wasn’t invited to a party in his own home,
a place he was already and always welcome,
and he ends up not looking so good.
The younger son on the other hand
shows personal growth,
sure he starts off looking pretty bad
there’s no denying that he squanders the love of his father
and ends up hungry sitting in a mess of his own making,
but when he considers the situation and realizes that life with dad was good
he repents hoping his father will treat him as one of the servants
because he knows that’s all he really deserves,
and he ends up humble and appreciative of life with dad.
In the end neither son is better than the other.
And yet, the father chases after both sons.
He wants them both at the party.
He rushes to celebrate the son that returned of his own volition
and he goes out and pleads with the son
who refuses to come in
reminding him that the grace and love of a father
is not a zero sum game,
showing love for one son does not diminish the love felt for the other son.
God loves in a way that is hard for humans to understand,
so we apply our own standards
which means that whether we are like the younger son
sitting in a mess of our own making
or like the older son
filled with bitter resentment
when we look across at our neighbor
it doesn’t seem like they deserve God’s grace and love.
when we judge our neighbor our sin is exposed,
to decide who God loves is God’s role,
and if we’re honest,
we admit that by any standards no one deserves God’s love
but in Christ God has made it clear that God’s love is for all
Which is why Paul,
when writing to the Corinthians,
instructing them in the way of living in Christ
says “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation everything old has passed away see everything has become new.”
In the waters of baptism Christ washes away our messes and our bitterness,
Forgiving us again and again
So that each day we are given new life.
And Having been given new life in Christ
we are to look at others with the eyes of God,
we are to see others as God sees them,
beloved children who God wants at the party. Amen
Third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from our God who is with us at all times. Amen
Jesus is teaching,
he’s surrounded by people
who value what he says,
he helps them make sense of the world around them
so it’s only natural for them
to run puzzling situations by Jesus
to see what he thinks,
in this case it’s about these Galileans
who Pilate had murdered and then desecrated
by mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices.
And the people around him
tell Jesus this story
because they have a question:
Why did that horrible thing happen to those people?
And Jesus responds
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
he asks because he knows that is at the back of their minds,
it’s how our brains work,
we try to find meaning
so if something bad happened to these people
then they must have done something to deserve it.
But then Jesus answers his own question:
“No, I tell you but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Now this seems like kind of a harsh response
to a question about suffering
but Jesus goes on to give another example,
he tells those present
about some people who were killed
when a tower collapsed and asks
“do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
and again he answers his own question
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
What does Jesus mean with this response?
And we’re all curious right?
Because we have observed the suffering of others and asked:
why did it happen to them?
And right behind that question, why didn’t it happen to me?
Or why did it happen to me and not them?
These questions have been raised to the surface of our own lives
in the past weeks
as flood waters have risen
and we’ve watched some people lose everything
while others stayed dry.
And we’ve wondered,
It’s an age old question
and frankly one without a good answer
and that drives us nuts
Desmond Tutu in his book God Has A Dream
makes the observation
“We humans can tolerate suffering but we cannot tolerate meaninglessness.” pg 75
We cannot tolerate meaninglessness,
so when faced with situations of suffering
we try to make sense of it,
the meaning we put on it is wrong,
at least according to God.
We heard this in Isaiah:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts your thoughts.”
There is often a disconnect
between our thinking and God’s thinking,
so when Jesus tells the questioning crowd
“No, I tell you, repent”
he is telling them, us,
to align our thinking with God’s thinking,
in a way,
that’s Jesus’ whole mission,
to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between people and God.
In telling us to repent
Jesus is not saying we should feel bad about our thinking,
that’s often the feeling we associate with that word,
but in the gospel of Luke,
a call to repent
is a call to turn away from the assumptions and norms of the world
to live lives directed toward God,
living God’s way as taught to us by Jesus.
Jesus knows that this teaching is a bit of a stretch for his listeners
so he tells them a parable to illustrate his point,
a man with a vineyard plants a fig tree,
and when he comes to the tree and finds no fruit on it
he tells his gardener to cut it down,
it’d been three years,
clearly the tree was useless.
But the gardener intercedes for the tree,
asks for a year reprieve,
time for the gardener to nurture it,
dig around it, put manure on it
and if the tree produces fruit next year, great,
if not then the owner can cut it down.
There is a gap of misunderstanding
between the owner and the gardener about the fig tree,
from the owner’s perspective
a fig tree is supposed to produce figs
and after three years without figs
he determines that the tree is a waste of soil.
What the gardener understands that the owner doesn’t
is that it often takes fruit trees three or four years to grow
before they produce fruit,
and so he offers to nurture the tree for one more year,
to get it to the point where it would be reasonable to expect fruit from it
We are often the owner to God’s gardener,
we know what is supposed to happen, or think we do anyway,
and when it doesn’t happen when we expect
we get impatient
we render judgement
and cut down perfectly good trees in our search to make meaning.
We do this with ourselves as well as others,
we expect things of ourselves
and when we don’t live up to those expectations
we cut ourselves down
before we’re done growing,
before we’re ready to produce fruit
when God knows that all we need is some more time,
and perhaps a little manure.
And this brings us right back to the discussion of suffering
because the manure in our lives,
what seems like stinky waste
is actually often what we need to grow into our full selves.
Again, Archbishop Tutu observes: “In our universe suffering is often how we grow, especially how we grow emotionally, spiritually, and morally. That is, when we let the suffering ennoble us and not embitter us.” pg 72
His point is that when faced with suffering
we have a choice in how we respond,
we can tie ourselves in knots
trying to figure out why it happened
and whether we blame ourselves or others
we end up feeling resentful,
like we got a raw deal.
Or, we can turn toward God,
face the suffering head on,
and work to lessen the suffering,
finding the humanity in ourselves
and those around us,
growing in the love of God as we do so.
I think it’s safe to say that most of Nebraska
has made the second choice
in responding to the suffering around us.
People have already come together
to lessen the suffering of others
and we will continue to do so
as what needs to be done to recover becomes clearer,
it will be a long road
but we will walk it together
and we will grow together.
Why is there suffering?
We don’t really know,
and that’s unsatisfying.
But what we do know
is that we have a God who has also experienced suffering,
who chose to work through it
to lessen the suffering of others,
who promises to be with us in the midst of suffering,
that we may even grow because of it
and that it will not have the last say,
the cross of Friday after all
was only a stop along the way
to the empty tomb on Sunday. Amen
Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Grace and peace to you
from the one who goes to great lengths to keep promises. Amen
The theme running through our readings for today
is that God keeps the promises God makes.
We know this,
we affirm it,
but sometimes, especially in the middle of hardship
it’s hard to trust this,
it’s hard to see anything other than what is right in front of us
and our prayers start to sound like our psalm for the day.
In the face of forces working actively against the psalmist they pray,
and their prayer alternates between statements of trust
almost as if making those statements will help the psalmist
believe that they are true
and acknowledging the reality of the present.
The psalmist starts off
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
but behind these words we sense a reason to fear
and sure enough in the very next verse
the psalmist says “when evildoers close in against me”
and goes on to describe bad things that happen in life.
Back and forth the psalm goes,
calling on the Lord’s promises
and seeking reassurance
in the midst of times of trouble
I think we’ve all prayed something like this
where we alternate between
“I know you’re great God and have made these promises”
and in the next breath crying out
“help! Bad things are happening, right now!”
and both are true at the same time.
We need reassurance when the way gets tough,
we need to vent our frustrations and fears
after all of the emotions have been expressed
the psalmist settles on the last two verses
“This I believe--that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord and be strong. Take heart and wait for the Lord!”
And it’s true,
we do believe we will see the goodness of God,
and we catch glimpses of it
but that second part,
is oh so hard,
we’ve experienced that this past week
as we’ve waited and watched the waters rise
not knowing what the future will look like
for communities and families around the state,
and as much as we’ve wanted to do something,
at a certain point all that’s left to do is wait
we’re still waiting.
And the longer the wait the more assurance we need.
God keeps the promises God makes
but our time line and God’s don’t always line up
and so sometimes we question God,
and God responds with reassurance.
We see this in our first reading from Genesis
in the conversation between God and Abram
This scene is actually not the first conversation between the two
earlier when God led Abram from his home
God promised him land and descendants as numerous as grains of sand,
Abram has been faithful in his following of God thus far
but he’s getting older
and he’s not seeing the fruit of those promises,
So Abram questions God
yah you made those promises but what have you done for me lately?
looking for more details
in how this seemingly impossible promise will come true,
and God reassures him
pointing to the night sky and saying
“look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them, so shall your descendants be.”
Then the pattern repeats itself.
God repeats the promise of land to Abram
and Abram questions God
“O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
and what follows
is possibly one of the stranger passages
that we hear on a regular basis,
specific animals being cut in two,
a smoking fire pot and flaming torch
passing through the animal pieces…
What are we to make of such a scene?
We know from research scholars have done on the ancient middle-east
that though it may have been terrifying for Abram
the actual ritual would have been familiar to him
for this was the ritual of covenant or contract making.
Minus the presence of lawyers and paper and pen
this was how contracts were made,
the ritual of walking through the dismembered animals
signified an important promise.
essentially saying, “if I fail to keep my promise, may the same thing happen to me as to these animals.”
God’s promise to Abram is so important
that God “considers an experience of suffering and death” (NIB 449)
in order to convey the seriousness of the promise.
God keeps the promises God makes
we have cause to know just how far God will go to keep a promise.
In our gospel reading for today
Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem
some Pharisees come
and tell him that he shouldn’t go
because it’s dangerous.
Jesus already knows that,
Jesus already knows what is going to happen
and Jesus knows what lengths God is willing to go to keep promises
all the way to death and back again.
Jesus is the promised messiah
the one the people have longed for, for so long
but true to God’s form
the fulfillment of the promise
is beyond human conception of what it will look like.
Jesus uses the image
of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings,
that is what he longs to do
and in a way will do in his outstretched arms on the cross
but the people,
expecting a hawk or an eagle
have not been willing to come under Jesus
the mother hen’s wings,
in fact like a hawk or eagle
they will attack the mother hen
as they have attacked previous prophets.
the city of God,
is a risky place to go if you are a messenger from God
but Jesus is willing to take those risks in order to keep the promises of God.
God made a promise to Abram,
Abram questioned God
and God reassured Abram
and Abram believed the Lord.
Abram’s faith was possible
because of God’s word and previous actions,
which had all been true and faithful.
At our baptisms
God made a promise to us
that we would always be God’s,
as Paul said in our second reading,
our citizenship would be in heaven.
And some days we question that promise,
we turn to God and say
‘you promised that your kingdom would come on earth as in heaven,
Jesus said the kingdom of God has come near
and yet there are still people who are hungry
and countries at war,
And terrorists who shoot people in their place of worship
and loved ones who die,
And rising flood waters
how can your promise come true God?’
and God comes to us,
at the table
Jesus comes to us
reassuring us with his own body and blood
the new covenant shed for us
for the forgiveness of sins
Any time we gather together,
break the bread, drink the wine
Jesus is present,
renewing the promise of abundant life everlasting,
strengthening us in the midst of the waiting
Reminding us that God has kept all of God’s promises
even to the point of dying on a cross
and rising on the third day.
The life of faith is risky.
Risky because though the promises are always kept
we don’t know the particulars,
risky because people expect hawks instead of mother hens to change the world.
Yet The life of faith is secure
because it is founded in the one who keeps their promises
and no matter how often we question
No matter what life throws at us,
God is reaching out
gathering us in like a mother hen gathers her chicks
To safely in the shadow of her wings. Amen
First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one at the center of the story. Amen
The season of Lent is a time of storytelling.
During this 40 day period
we tell the stories of Jesus’ last days
leading up to the greatest story of Easter morning.
We tell these stories every year during this season,
we tell them because they are important to us,
we tell them so that new people might hear them,
we tell them to remember who we are and whose we are
because stories form our identities.
We start with our reading from Deuteronomy,
I love this passage because it combines the power of storytelling with worship.
In this passage
Moses is instructing the Israelites
before they enter the promised land
on how to worship God who is giving them the land.
It is clear that Moses is concerned
that once the people settle in
and start working the land
and providing for themselves through farming
that they will forget God.
Moses says some variation
of “the land that the Lord your God is giving you”
six times in this short passage,
he has a right to be worried
it’s a very human temptation
to forget God
when it appears that we can take care of ourselves through our own work
even though God made it possible for us to work in the first place.
So Moses prescribes a ritual for worship
designed to both praise God
and remind the worshipper of God.
When the land,
a gift from God,
starts to produce
the Israelites are to take the first harvest,
put it in a basket,
bring it to the temple and give it to the priest
who will put it before the altar of God.
Seems simple enough,
but there is more,
in addition to bringing the first fruits
the worshiper is to retell the story of the people and God
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." Deuteronomy 26:5-10
The story puts the act of offering in context,
the ability to offer these first fruits
is only possible because of God’s saving actions and gracious gifts.
Telling the story this way
makes sure that God stays at the center of the story.
Worship is designed to keep God as the main character
in the story of life,
and let’s be honest
we need all the help we can get
we humans love to think that it is all about us,
and when we start to make ourselves the center of the universe
we get into trouble very quickly.
It is this human inclination
that the Devil plays on as he tempts Jesus in our gospel for today
and Jesus resists
by keeping God at the center of the story
In his first attempt
the Devil plays on Jesus’ pride and hunger
by saying “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Now imagine if Jesus were living with the perspective
that he was the center of the universe-
he would be insulted at the Devil’s questioning of his identity
and authority as Son of God,
and being hungry it would make sense to prove the devil wrong
by creating some bread,
seems like killing two birds with one stone.
But keeping God at the center
Jesus, even though he is the Son of God and is very hungry answers:
“It is written, ‘one does not live by bread alone.’”
So the devil tries another common weak spot for humans,
he offers power,
all the kingdoms of the world.
In exchange for allegiance that is.
We only have to look through history
at the various dictators
to know how this temptation might have played out.
But again Jesus keeping God at the center
answers: “It is written, ‘worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
And now the Devil knows he’s working with a really tough case
and so in his last attempt
he combines a question of Jesus’ identity
with quoting scripture,
playing Jesus’ own game saying “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘he will command his angels concerning you, to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’
there you have it,
the word of God straight out of Psalm 91,
how can you argue with that? The Devil implies
this tactic has worked really well for the Devil over the years
playing on the pride of people
who then pressure other people
saying: “If you are a Christian, you will go and do____ something very un Christ like”
and by backing up their claim with scripture
people fall prey to the desire
to prove that they are Christian
rather than to act like Christ.
but yet again Jesus sees through the devil’s ploy
and keeping God at the center of the story
responds “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
At this the devil departs-
but not for good, just until another time when Jesus is ripe for temptation,
a time like this one where his defenses are down.
That’s when the devil likes to tempt us,
not when we’re at our strongest,
but when we’re at our weakest,
those times of struggle
where we desperately desire a certain outcome
because we are so overcome with the events in our lives
that we’ve started telling our story with ourselves at the center
we are so focused on ourselves
that we give into temptation
and start testing God saying things like:
“God, if you’re really there I’ll know because you’ll make the one I love all better.”
or “God, if you’re really compassionate make all this pain go away, right now.”
Of course that way lies madness,
because God doesn’t work like that,
God is not a cosmic vending machine
where if we insert our prayers like dollars
our desired outcome will be dispensed.
And how do we know God doesn’t work like that?
Through all the stories of how God has acted in the past,
the stories where again and again
God chose to work through death to bring new life.
So how do we make it through the tough times and resist temptation?
the stories of how God has acted in the past
and promised to act in the future.
In worship we hear the stories,
and we give to God in recognition that in the great story of life
God is the main character to our supporting role,
and we celebrate the life God has given us.
And fortified by the story,
gratitude and communal celebration
God sends us back out into the world,
to live through death into new life. Amen
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
In a few moments
we will each hear those words
as ash, the dust of a once living plant,
is smeared on our foreheads.
As we enter into the season of Lent
where we journey with Jesus to the cross and the grave
we take time to consider our mortality
Generally when we think of THE END,
that is death,
we tend to lean more in the direction of Joel:
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.”
THE END is scary,
and while Joel ultimately offers hope
in the form of the mercy of God
we’ve gotten stuck on the scary part,
and we’ve become so scared as a culture
we’ve taken to denying death,
we hide it,
we try to pretend it won’t happen to us,
we try to make it look less like death,
and the result is
that we’ve become so afraid of death
that it gets in the way of life
we’ve forgotten the fundamental truth
that out of death comes new life.
We see this truth in nature
after a wildfire when flowers cover a newly opened meadow,
as a bear catches a fish and feeds it to her young,
we’ve experienced this
when the death of one relationship
has paved the way for one more life giving
and most of all we have Easter morning
and the empty tomb,
a miracle because the tomb was full on Good Friday.
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
In a few moments
we will each hear those words
as ash is smeared on our foreheads
in the sign of the cross.
A symbol of death turned into a symbol of salvation.
Where Joel calls for repentance saying who knows, God in mercy might relent?
Paul says we know how it will go for us
because: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
God knew that no matter how much we repented,
or offered sacrifices
or did any of the other things that humans do
to try to get right with God
that we would never be able to get there,
we would never be able to make ourselves right with God.
So God took care of it,
and joined to Christ in baptism
God counts us as righteous
we don’t have to wait until THE END
to find out what is going to happen,
the scary unknown of Joel is resolved
we know where we stand with God,
we have been saved
past tense continuing action.
Salvation in now
and stretches into the future
God says “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! “
Now is the day of salvation.
We don’t have to wait.
In fact God is working through us
as ambassadors for Christ
so that others may be relieved of fear
and the unknown
by the salvation available now,
no waiting required.
But in this world where there is always a catch
it sounds too good to be true
and there are times when we doubt
even as we call ourselves Christian,
the Corinthians doubted
so Paul wrote to them saying “As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.”
And that brings us right back to Ash Wednesday
because accepting the grace of God in vain
looks like saying we have the grace of God
but not living like we have the grace of God.
It looks like a fear of death so great
that it gets in the way of life,
it looks like storing up treasures on earth,
placing trust in ourselves
in our own hands
rather than entrusting our lives to God
who has already saved us by grace.
The repentance of Ash Wednesday and Lent
is about living into the grace of God that is ours, now.
Any fasting we do
or spiritual practices we may add in this time
are about quieting the distractions
that call us away from living in the present grace of God.
And yes this is difficult,
we live in a world that profits from fear
and seeks to quiet those who say otherwise
and so we start this season
by marking our opposition on our foreheads,
embracing without fear
that which the world fears most,
and in doing so
turning as best we are able
to live in the grace of God
that is ours, now. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.