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
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
Transfiguration of Our Lord
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who speaks to us. Amen
Speaking and listening
These two actions lie at the heart of the transfiguration story.
Speaking and listening are the transfiguration story.
Jesus has been teaching
he’s been speaking to crowds,
and now he needs some time with God.
So he takes with him three disciples,
Peter, John and James and goes up a mountain to pray.
Jesus likes to go to deserted places to pray,
less distraction that way
but going up a mountain signals that this is a special occasion,
God is often met on mountain tops,
And sure enough while Jesus is praying something happens,
Jesus’ face changes
and his clothes become dazzling white
and suddenly he is joined by Moses and Elijah
they’re having a conversation about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross
and Peter, John and James witnessing the glory of God
want to hold on to the moment
Peter offers to build permanent structures
so the moment never has to end
and at this God overshadows them
and speaks to them,
telling them to listen to Jesus
and terrified they keep silent.
Speaking and listening
That’s where it all starts
with Jesus going up the mountain to pray,
prayer is a combination of speaking and listening,
we’re more familiar with the speaking side of prayer
but prayer also happens in listening,
listening for what God is saying to us.
Jesus goes up the mountain to pray
and is visibly transformed by encountering God.
This is keeping with tradition,
we heard how Moses’ face was transformed
as he spoke to God.
Being in the presence of God changes us.
Listening to God visibly changes us.
And that frightens us.
Moses took to wearing a veil around the people
because when they could see the glory of the Lord shining in his face,
they were afraid to come near him.
Yet they still listened to Moses speak,
when others are transformed by being in the presence of God
we are afraid yes,
but we’re also intrigued,
part of us wants to see more,
but we can only take so much.
We’re like little kids experiencing something new,
at first it startles us and we run and hide our face in our parents leg,
but soon enough we’re ready to take another peak,
and a peak turns into a longer look
and eventually, step by step we move toward a full encounter.
It’s a different story when we’re the ones who are changed.
Peter, dear impulsive, enthusiastic Peter
witnesses Jesus’ transformation along with Moses and Elijah
and determines that this is a good place,
he wants to see more
so he suggests building houses for the trio.
He wants to make this brief moment permanent
even though that is impossible,
we are told that Peter didn’t know what he was saying,
that this was a moment for just a moment.
To be fair to Peter it’s a very human thing
to suggest what he did.
We humans love to embark on building projects
around sites of significance.
In seminary I got to go to Israel and Palestine
as part of a class on the Holy Land
which included visiting sites of significance to Jesus’ ministry.
To be fair we were a bit skeptical
that we were visiting the exact place where Jesus appeared to the disciples
after the resurrection and made them a breakfast of fish,
or the exact place where Jesus was baptized
but our tour guide
a wonderfully faithful Palestinian Catholic named Johnny
had an explanation,
‘we know this is the place because the early Christians built a church here’
and there were a lot of churches dedicated to specific events in Jesus’ life.
It’s what we humans do,
we try to capture significant moments in permanent buildings.
But back on the mountain
God has other things in mind,
the moment is too significant to get caught up in a building project
and so even as Peter is offering his suggestion
a cloud comes and overshadows the disciples,
this is the presence of God,
when God appears to people in the Bible
it is often in the form of a cloud,
For example God led the people of Israel out of Egypt
appearing as a pillar of cloud by day.
And the disciples are terrified as they enter the cloud.
Then God speaks “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”
And when the cloud lifts,
all that’s left is Jesus.
And this time,
their reaction is to keep silent,
and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
They obviously eventually told someone
otherwise we wouldn’t know the story
but it took them awhile to be able to tell the story,
my guess is that it was only after the resurrection
did they feel comfortable enough to tells others of their encounter with God
and what God said to them.
And this too is a perfectly human response.
Because as much as we long for God
to work in us and in our community
- we pray for that every Sunday,
when the time comes,
like the disciples
we are terrified to enter the cloud of God.
Covered in clouds we can’t see where we’re going,
even on top of a mountain
and we don’t like that feeling,
we like to be able to look out and see where we’re going
anticipate what’s coming next,
it’s less scary that way,
God most often speaks when we’re covered in clouds.
Those times in life
when we can’t see what the future holds,
we can barely see our hand in front of our face.
a broken relationship,
a job loss,
any kind of loss,
we don’t know what the future will bring
and it terrifies us
and that is when God speaks,
and when the clouds lift,
in that first moment of clarity
what do we see?
who was there all along.
“Listen to him” God says,
so we do,
as we move forward we listen to Jesus,
we save the speaking for later.
The Church, with a capital C
is in a time of clouds,
things that worked for decades are no longer effective
and frankly, we’re afraid,
this comes out in all kinds of anxieties,
I’m not going to list them
but I’m sure you can think of something
that worries you about the Church,
we’re afraid because we can’t see the path in front of us
and yet, when we pause,
take a deep breath, and a moment to collect ourselves,
we find that we do know what to do.
Listen to God who speaks in the midst of clouds,
who tells us to listen to Jesus.
I’ve been listening for awhile now,
And you know what?
I’m not afraid of the clouds surrounding the Church anymore.
Because I know that when the clouds lift
what we’ll find is Jesus,
who has been there all along
and who will lead us down off the mountain
who will show us the way.
Realizing this has made Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians
so much more meaningful,
listen to them again:
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”
In Christ we have freedom,
freedom from fear,
in Christ we see the glory of the Lord,
In Christ we are being transformed,
In Christ we are engaged in ministry.
In Christ we do not lose heart.
“This is my son, My chosen; listen to him!” Amen
2nd Sunday After Pentecost
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who chooses abundant life over safety. Amen
Jesus right from the beginning of his ministry
chooses abundant life over safety.
We have two prime examples in our gospel for today.
In the first story
Jesus’ disciples are hungry,
and so as they walk through a field
they pluck heads of grain to eat.
Some Pharisees see this
and complain to Jesus.
The grain was not the problem
they were not stealing it,
Jewish law demands that farmers
leave a certain portion of their crops in the fields
for the poor, widowed and orphaned to glean,
and that is what the disciples were doing.
The problem was that the day happened to be the sabbath,
the seventh day of the week
given by God to the people to rest,
therefore, also in Jewish law
work is forbidden on the Sabbath
and that is what concerned the pharisees.
Jesus responds to this legal question
with a legal answer
- rabbis love to debate the law so this is not unusual,
he gives them a precedent example
of when a law was broken
because someone was hungry, in need,
and there was a higher purpose at stake.
It was not legal for David to eat the bread of the presence,
but doing so allowed him to fulfill his God given call
to become King of Israel.
According to biblical scholar Matt Skinner,
none of these arguments would have been new
or even unreasonable to the Pharisees
and even though the story doesn’t tell it
I can just imagine a debate ensuing
about how hungry someone must be
to justify breaking the law.
But we don’t get that,
the story ends when Jesus reminds the Pharisees
that the sabbath was given as a gift to humans,
and claims power over the Sabbath
“So the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath”
of course the pharisees don’t like that claim of authority but that’s a whole other sermon.
In entering into this debate,
in effect the pharisees are valuing the law over quality of life
while Jesus is valuing quality of life over the law.
His point is
what good is keeping the law
if it takes away life rather than gives it?
Now I don’t want to portray the pharisees as the bad guys
as so often happens,
they are deeply religious and sincere leaders
who want the best for their community,
the problem is that they have gotten caught up
in following the letter of the law
rather than the spirit of the law.
And if we’re honest with ourselves
we can probably think of a time
when we were guilty of the same thing,
focusing so much on something supposed to give life
that it actually took life away.
But Jesus is clear,
if it comes down to a decision between following the rules or abundant life,
he will choose abundant life.
This choice is reinforced in the next story.
Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath
where there is a man with a withered hand
and now the pharisees are on the lookout for Jesus
and his sabbath breaking ways,
they’re waiting for him to break the Sabbath
by healing the man so they can go tell on him.
And Jesus knows this,
so he tries to enter into a legal debate with them again
offering them the familiar argument
that it is lawful to save a life on the sabbath
but this time they refuse to respond,
they have passed the point of reason
and this makes Jesus angry and sad at the hardness of their hearts,
that they are so intent on catching him doing something wrong
that they refuse to celebrate the life giving intent of the sabbath with giving life.
So Jesus heals the man,
restores his ability to work
and provide for his family
and raises up the whole community along with the man.
At this the pharisees and the Herodians,
presumably people with the ear of King Herod,
begin conspiring against Jesus,
working on a way to destroy him.
Already at the beginning of chapter 3 of the gospel of Mark
Jesus has begun walking toward the cross
by choosing abundant life,
putting his own safety at risk
by defying the definition of how he is supposed to act
as defined by people with some measure of power.
Choosing life sets Jesus on a path to his death,
a death which leads to abundant life for all
because even in death
Jesus defies what’s supposed to happen
when God raises him from the dead to abundant life.
This abundant life Jesus offers to us,
freely as a gift.
And out of joy we proclaim Jesus Christ to others
and offer our lives in service following Jesus’ call
to live in the same way he did,
choosing abundant life over safety.
Paul, in our reading from 2 Corinthians
speaks to what happens when we live lives of service to Jesus.
Paul notes that we have a tendency
to forget while doing ministry
that the power comes from God and not from ourselves-
like the pharisees we end up focusing on the wrong thing
forgetting that God is the creator of the universe
and that we are creation.
This, is why, Paul says,
we have the treasure of life in clay jars,
our bodies are impermanent
prone to breaking,
a reminder that only God is forever.
And with our fragile impermanent bodies
we are to follow Jesus
which means choosing abundant life over safety.
Paul goes into great detail about just what this looks like
“We are afflicted in every way but not crushed perplexed but not driven to despair,
persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”
In contradiction to the ways of the world
in Jesus death is followed by new life.
The world around us tries to tell us differently,
playing on our need for safety and security
to bring out fears
and pit us against one another.
But we have the antidote to those fears,
Because when we have Jesus
we have all we need,
we have abundant life
and nothing, not even death,
can separate us from the love of God. 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.