Sunday, March 28, 2010


Philippians 2: 5-11

This is the amazing time. During most of the year, except maybe at Christmas, Transfiguration and Pentecost, we hear stories of a very earthly Jesus when we come to church. We hear about a Jesus who taught ethics, who was responsible for miracles, but rarely let people talk about them. No, when Jesus was on earth, the things he wanted people talking about were his teachings: who God was, what he was really like, and how there time was now here for people to expand their understanding.

The story we are going to embark upon this week, this Palm Sunday, is a story that is missing miraculous elements, missing dramatic healings, but is chock full of the teachings. Until the very end. It is the central story of our faith. Christmas has more of a grip on the public, secular imagination, but Easter is where we truly live. It is wall to wall Jesus teaching about the character of God; not as the judgmental list checker that the Gospels portray the Pharisees and Sadducees as believing in, but as the loving, all powerful and all giving Creator.

It is the story of a man teaching about the great love he knew that God has. His teaching style was By Any Means Necessary. He would tell you about God, he would show you through healing a loved one, he would put himself into a position that only God could get him out of. And the whole way teaching, modeling trust in the God he knew.

When we talk about the divinity of Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, it isn’t that we should understand Jesus as God on earth. Jesus was fully human. He made choices, the same choices that face us. He took as his purpose in life, at some point, the purpose God had for him. At some point, he chose to accept the birth story his mother had always told him. In a culture like his, there was no adolescent struggle with purpose and identity. Jesus accepted who he was and what he was to do.

This is not to say that he was born to die. But he was born to be God’s son, and to be for the world the one who shows love in a way not ever seen before, the fullness of God’s love.

So he taught. So he healed. So he asked questions. So he sent others out to tell the story. And So, knowing it had to happen, he set his path on Jerusalem. The greatest number of people present at Passover, the most possibility of ruckus that would set people talking. Did he know that he would die there? I don’t know. It means more to me if he doesn’t. If he had the faith in God to allow whatever happened to happen, that’s a better lesson for me in my daily life than that Jesus allowed himself, in all his power, to be killed by small-mindedness and prejudice, the thirst for power and ambition.

The look on his face as he enters Jerusalem, coats spread before him, palms waving in the air, may be something akin to enjoying the moment than tradition may care to admit. When one has faith in the Lord that Jesus did, the certainty, it is absolutely true that one can live in the moment, because God has control of the world. So I think he’s smiling as he enters Jerusalem.

The frowns will come soon enough. Palm Sunday is about the potential of God’s people; Holy Week is about how we fall short. It is about the spreading of malicious rumors; it is about using situations to further ones’ political ambitions. It is about reacting in fear rather than with courage. Holy Week is about imperfect and incomplete human beings, it is about us as we too often are, as scared and stubborn, wanting so often to break through to compassion and grace filled people of God, but too frightened about what others will say to make the jump. And when we are not courageous and compassionate, the one who was sent to show us that love is hidden. Because of the fear of the people, because of the ambitions of the leaders, because of the prejudice and indifferent nature of the government, Jesus is killed for preaching unlimited love and grace.

It is that love and grace that we reach for now, as Christians. This is what we mean when we say “What Would Jesus Do?” It doesn’t mean who Jesus would vote for. It doesn’t mean who Jesus would send political contributions to. It doesn’t mean what news network Jesus would watch.

It means how can you show your neighbor the love of God as you have learned about it, as you have experienced it? How can you live in the moment, trusting God has his hand on the future?

Jesus showed God’s love by doing what he was called to do. All we are called to do is show God’s love, to neighbors, friends, strangers, ourselves. When the wider society hates certain people, we are called to love them. When our towns distrust people who are different, we are called to love them, welcome them, knit them into our communities. When people don’t like that, then comes the rub; God’s love against the world. The pain doesn’t come from God. The pain comes from people who don’t want to or can’t understand love, and God gives us the strength to endure and overcome. Sometimes, there are people who have loved so much like God that they have died, too, but God has never called anyone to die. They have just been called to love, and the world has responded with hate and violence.

We are called to love by any means necessary. The way Jesus did. And God has the future in his hands. This is what Easter teaches us. His love will be shown in the end. If we are faithful, God will take care of the rest.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Congregation of the Older Brother

Luke 15: 11-32

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the more well known stories in the Bible. I’m sure anyone who has been more than a couple years in Sunday school can tell me a story they’ve heard related to this parable.

It’s even reached the stage of common reference in the wider culture—even un-churched people all know what it means when someone says “the prodigal returns home!” It’s a story that’s very high on the Biblical Literacy scale.

We’ve come to understand the word “prodigal” to mean someone who has made bad choices and needs to be forgiven. But that isn’t the actual definition, I discovered! To be prodigal means that you spend lavishly, or “are characterized by wasteful expenditure”. So the younger son isn’t prodigal because he went away and then came back looking for forgiveness; he’s prodigal because of, as Peterson’s Message says, he was “undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had.”

At various times in our lives, I think, we’ve fit into one or another of the characters of the story. It’s easy in some phases of our lives to identify with the younger son. There is no better teacher than experience, and sometimes the best way to learn a lesson is by doing the wrong thing, despite the advice we’re given. Those mistakes can sometimes be costly, but we learn because they’ve been made. I’m not really going to spend a lot of time on that brother, today, because while we all may have been there at one point or another, rarely does someone resemble that brother consistently. Most of the time, when you get to a certain age, making prodigal choices is pretty rare.

When it comes to resembling the father, well, that may seem presumptuous, because that character is usually understood to be God. Some of us may have had opportunities to be magnanimous when others have hurt us—children who have made bad choices and seek to return to our way of thinking, and sometimes literally return to our houses. It’s a common interpretation of this story to see the father as God, and great hay can be made about the character of God as Jesus understands him, running toward the younger son while he is still far off, graciously and extravagantly giving the younger son a new robe and a new ring. And indeed, Jesus is telling us about the reaction God has when we have earnestly and honestly repented of our sins, a message not to be lost during the time of repentance that is Lent.

But this morning, I am thinking that our normal way of living, our default way of life, resembles most closely the older brother. We get up, we do our jobs, we feed our families, we do our homework; in general, we do the best we can, each and every day, and rarely make a hash of it. We don’t expect to be congratulated for what we do, we just do it because that is what life is. Provide for our families, support our church with our prayers, presence gifts service and witness, do what it expected of us, not because we are mindless robots, but because this is the life we know.

We live in the older brothers’ world, most of the time. We’re prudent, we’re reasonable, we don’t seek attention. As the Boy Scouts say, we do our best to do our duty to God and our country.

And that is a good way to be.

But every now and again, if we’re so good and practical and solid, I get what the older brother says; wouldn’t it be nice to be recognized for not being an idiot? For being pragmatic and reasonable? Like the older brother says, not necessarily a big blowout down at a downtown hotel, but maybe a little cake and coffee in the church basement? You know what I mean?

We work, we buy groceries, we try to buy good food for ourselves and our children, we worry about fat and cholesterol and trans fats and fiber in our foods, we live in houses that are warm and safe, and when they aren’t we work as best we can to make them so. We come to church, we volunteer on committees, we show up for mission projects, some of us have even gone on mission trips. We take time on Friday nights to come practice music. We try to study the Bible, we try to pray.

We are the Congregation of the Older Brother. And sometimes, the hullabaloo that’s made over people who aren’t living right makes us angry. Sometimes we want to say “So, you’re an out of control popstar. Would have been better had you not put yourself in that position in the first place.” Every now and again, we speak up like the older brother does (again from The Message): “Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends?”

And what is the Fathers’ response? “You are always with me”.

At first glance you might say, I am always with you? Whoop de ding!

But think about it. Being all of those things, prudent and reasonable and practical, providing for our families, doing the work that is expected of us, including homework and practice if we go out for sports, that is what this story tells us being with God is like. Not getting addicted to things is what being with God is like. Providing safe space for our children to grow and thrive, that is what being with God is like. When we are with God, we construct a mesh of safety that benefits all of us. With God’s help, we construct the very thing that the younger sons (and daughters) among us leave. And when someone leaves that mesh, it is cause for sadness and concern. It is indeed our love for them that causes us sadness, and that love (another aspect of the character of God) drives us to seek their return.

And when they return, love is what they need. This is what Jesus tells us by having the father react so extravagantly; someone returning to God is indeed cause for celebration!

So don’t get bent out of shape when you don’t get congratulated with a big party for living like you should.

It is then when you are the closest to God.