March Sermons

March 4, 2019 - Transfiguration

March 10, 2019 - 1st Sunday of Lent

March 17, 2019 - 2nd Sunday of Lent

March 24, 2019 - 3rd Sunday of Lent

March 31, 2019 - 4th Sunday of Lent

 

 

1st Sunday of Lent - Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the
wilderness,  2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during
those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  3 The devil said to him, “If you are
the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  4 Jesus answered him, “It is
written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”  5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in
an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their
glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I
please.  7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  8 Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”  9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem,
and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here,  10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning
you, to protect you,’  11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash
your foot against a stone.’”  12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God
to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an
opportune time.


Interpretation of the Word

 

A couple of weeks ago, after the Confession of Faith, when we responded to questions 3, 4,
and 5 of the Heidelberg Confession, I heard an audible, “I don’t know about that…” As a
reminder, here is a refresher of what questions 4 and 5 were:
Q4. What does God’s law require of us? A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew
22:37-40: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and
with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You
shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the
prophets.”
Q5. Can you live up to all this perfectly? A. No. I have a natural tendency to hate God
and my neighbor.


These questions seem harsh, and depressing and we want them to not be true. Modern
translations of this first part of the Catechism translate the section’s title as “Misery.” The
original German word is Elend, which has some etymological ties to the phrase “ex-land,”
referring to someone who is an alien, an exile from his or her homeland. This first part of the

Catechism is saying that we are not living at home anymore. We are not living in the place God
desired (and still desires) for us.


However, when we think about it, really think about it, we know deep down that we can’t live
up to the law perfectly. Our own self-interest gets in the way, our own desires trump other’s
needs, and while we may not “hate” our neighbor, we certainly do not love them as ourselves.
We are tempted by our own personal gain, and therefore, we do not live up to this perfectly,
and to the authors of the Heidelberg confession, this, at its most basic level is our natural
tendency to hate God and our neighbors.

 

We attempt to “make things easier for God” by attempting to handle the things on our own.
Thinking, “This is an easy thing, I can take care of that. No need to trouble God with my little
problem, I can manage it on my own. God has bigger things to worry about. War. Famine.
Flooding. Earthquakes. Seriously, my little problem, I can manage.” This friends, one
commentator suggests, is exactly what it is to be fallen and “hate” God and neighbor. It is not
that we are “hating” God, but instead that we don’t trust God to be there for us. We feel the
need to take matters into our own hands. We succumb to this temptation naturally, we are
not the first and it is in our very nature.


If you will remember with me, we learned or were at least reminded the following week that is
it all thanks to Adam and Eve and their fall and disobedience in Paradise. This fall has
subsequently poisoned our very nature; therefore we are all conceived and born into this
sinful condition, leaving us unable to obey the law perfectly, no matter how hard we try.
This all seems pretty dire and lives up to the title, “Misery” doesn’t it? But there is hope, and
it we will get there in the Heidelberg Confession. There is one person who was able to
perfectly live up to this commandment. Yes, it was Jesus. Luke, this morning in this passage,
and really throughout the entire Gospel, is demonstrating that Jesus while very human was
able to live in the way God had originally intended humans to live, back in the Garden BEFORE the fall.


What do I mean by this, you see just as Adam was tempted to eat, so is Jesus tempted to eat.
But it is also more than that, the temptation is not simply to prove that he is the Son of God by
turning the stone into bread; it is also to eat when he is not supposed to do so,’ suggests
commentator Justo Gonzalez. “Jesus had been led into the wilderness by the Spirit of God, and his fasting there is also under the guidance and power of the Spirit. To break this fast by
eating is parallel to Adam’s eating of the tree that is forbidden to him.”

 

Why even mention Adam and the temptation in the garden? Because Luke does! In the
previous chapter, Luke gives the genealogical account of Jesus’ lineage, tracing all the way
back to Adam; to which Luke has applied the title of “son of God” both to Adam and to Jesus.
The devil in the wilderness thinks he already has Jesus beat. The devil tempted and succeeded once with the son of God, Adam. Why would this “son of God” be any different? But Jesus refuses to use his power in order to eat by turning the stones into bread, and thus reveres the deed of Adam. In Genesis, in paradise, the serpent won the struggle. In the desert, in the wilderness, Jesus defeats the devil, thus undoing the history of Adam.


Jesus does the one thing Adam could not, he trusts in God. Jesus trusts in God, not once, not
twice, but three times. Each time the Devil wants to trip Jesus up, Jesus puts his trust in God.
Yes, Jesus could have alleviated his hungry by turning the stones into bread, yes, Jesus could
have taken over all of the kingdoms of this earth, yes Jesus could have tested God to stop his
fall from the highest point, the Temple. Instead Jesus stands firm in his faith, and is not
tempted to supersede God’s plan for his own. Where Adam was tempted under the guise
that, “You shall be like God,” is was not so much about the desire to be like God, but rather
failing to trust that he was already fashioned in the image of God. Like a child bears the image
of its parent, so Adam and Eve bore the image of God, and they were intended to grow into
great communion with and likeness to God as they matured. Instead they jumped ahead,
skipped some steps, and failed to trust in and follow that path and process set forth by God.
Jesus, on the other hand, resists this temptation that the devil sets forth, and instead reaffirms
his trust in God and God alone!

 

So the temptation then and now, is not so often the temptation toward something – usually
portrayed as something you “shouldn’t do” – but rather is usually the temptation away from
something – specifically, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through
this relationship. We are constantly being told that we are not enough. That we are too old,
too young, the wrong weight, not fast enough, too dark, too pale, too emotional, or not
emotional enough, not rich enough, not safe enough, not pretty enough, the list of
“shortcomings” goes on and on. Each of them tempting us to believe that we are not enough,
and that the image of God that we bear is faulty and not to be trusted. Each of these
“shortcomings” that we are tempted to believe by the whispers of the devil about ourselves
are meant to undercut our confidence in our relationship with God, as though God would
create something “less than.” The devil succeeded in this seduction of Adam and Eve,
convincing them they weren’t enough of the image of God, and that by eating the fruit of that
one tree they would then be “enough.” The devil, however, failed when he attempted it again

and again with Jesus. Jesus could not to be tempted by bread, power and safety, nor youth
beauty or wealth, nor confidence, fame and security.

 

Gonzalez suggests, and I would be apt to agree, that, “This interpretation of the original
temptation, and of how Jesus overcomes it, is crucial in our day, when so many Christians –
women, minorities, elderly, poor and oppressed believers – are reading the Gospel and all of
Scripture from a different perspective. For us, the most common temptation is not so much
thinking too highly of ourselves, as it is accepting the LOW opinion that others have of us, their
definition of our roles, and NOT trusting in the God after whose image we have been created,
and who WILL save and vindicate the divine image in us.” We fail to see that we are enough,
just as we are, as image of God bearers.

 

During this season of Lent, maybe it would be appropriate for us to lean into the promises of
God, and tune out the temptations to believe that we are not enough. Because if we are
honest, the temptation is not just for 40 days, but it is every single day, 365 days a year, we
are tempted to believe that we are NOT enough. So let’s give up thinking that we are not
enough. Turn off that noise. Instead hear this truth. God created you. God created you in
God’s image. You are loved. You are a loved child of god. You are claimed by your baptisms,
just as Jesus was claimed as Gods beloved child. Say: I am God’s beloved child. Now turn to
your neighbor and tell them: you are Gods beloved child.

 

If nothing else for the rest of lent, say those words to yourself each day. I would challenge you
to say them to another person, a different person each day. Let’s each tell ourselves and 40
other people that they beloved children of god, just as they are. May it be so this day and
always. Amen.

 

 

2nd Sunday of Lent - Luke 13:31-35
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod
wants to kill you.”  32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out
demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my
work.  33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible
for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’  34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the
prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your
children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not
willing!  35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time
comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

 

Interpretation of the Word

 

There are times when the lectionary puts three seemingly random verses together and we
wonder what on eat do these have to do with one another. Other times the passages are so
closely related that we might wonder if they were written for one another to be read together.
This practice of reading verses together, on a set scheduled day, dates all the way back to the
3rd century, however, it is believed that the practice began with Moses and continued on until
its final version was set in the Talmud in the 3 rd Century. The Jewish tradition of reading
specific passages during annual religious festivals, such as Passover Pentecost and the Feast of the Tabernacles has continued and was adopted by Christians. It wasn’t until the Second
Vatican Council that most Western Christians adopted the three year cyclical pattern that we
are familiar with, known as the Revised Common Lectionary. These passages again at times
seem to fit snuggly together while at other times they seem randomly wedged together. I say
all of this to note that this week the passages remind us to stand true to God, to stand firm in
God, and to stand up with God.

 

Stand True.

 

Abraham is getting old, like really old, older than all of us, and definitely on the very tail end of
the downward slope of life and long past the child-rearing years. He is more than ready for
retirement and he still doesn’t have an heir and quiet honestly he is concerned. Who will carry
on his lineage? Who will care for him and keep him out of the home? Abraham has come to this moment and he feels as though he is at an impasse.

 

God councils Abraham and tells him to look beyond himself and his self-interests and survival to see the deeper realities of life. God sees a bigger picture, a whole vast cosmos of kingdom, a kingdom that is everlasting and beyond our comprehension, a kingdom though vast Abraham
and Sarah are also a part of. God’s world will continue, long after Abraham is gone, long after we are gone, God’s lineage is bigger than any of our fears, fears of mortality, fears of
insignificance, fears of purpose. God’s path, to which we are all invited to travel on, is an
everlasting and infinite incredible journey. We need only stand true to God and believe in the
promises of God. Which no offense, can be difficult when we see the world around us infused
with hatred, falling apart around us, seemingly slipping into the worst version of humanity
rather than the kingdom of God. But we, like Abraham, need to believe and stand true to God.

 

Abraham believes and God responds. In the spirit of William James’ “Will to Believe,” our trust in God opens up new possibilities and energies. A way will be made where we see no way. New life emerges amid death and hope amidst failure. This is not some easy “prosperity gospel,” but living faith born of facing the complexities of life and discovering that within our limitations new possibilities are born.

 

Stand Firm

 

Paul outright tells the believers are Philippi to “stand firm.” Paul reminds us that we are
citizens of two worlds; the heavenly permeates this earthly world we live in. As believers, we
live every day with a heavenly perspective. We have everlasting life in this passing moment.
We can stand firm because this world is filed with divine glory and wisdom. We trust in the
future we have with God while we focus on today.

 

Today, more than ever, we have to stand firm in God. The news of violence and hatred and
terror and lies reminds us daily that we must stand with God; that loving our neighbor as
ourselves is imperative. We, as the faithful, are called to stand firm in our faith, that God is
LOVE not destruction, God is FOR all people and all of creation, not against it; that God’s
kingdom is bigger than our fears; that God, through us, YOU AND ME, is bringing about the
kingdom. God’s kingdom stands firm throughout all eternity, from Moses, to Abram, to Jesus,
to you and me, and our children and our children’s, children’s children. By God’s love and

grace, we take part in this new kingdom, where we have the opportunity each moment to
stand true to God, to stand firm in the promises of God, and to stand up with Jesus.

 

It seems that each day we hold our breath waiting for the next terrible thing to happen. It is as
though the fox is raiding the hen house, no matter how many locks we put on the doors. We
have to stand up to the bullies, to the foxes that want to decimate God’s children and creation
into nothingness.

 

Stand Up

 

Two years ago, I had two mother ducks sitting on nests of eggs they were preparing to hatch.
They had made their nests, gathered up twigs, dried grass clippings and plucked their downy
feathers to make a safe and warm place for their ducklings to be born and grow up in. One
morning, just before dawn, those two mother ducks stood up to a fox to protect their nests.
Neither mother made it back to their babies. One left behind 5 freshly hatched ducklings,
while the other had only one egg that was not stolen by the fox, that one egg was put in an
incubator and it hatched a few days later. Thankfully, these six little ducklings had a stand in
mother and were put under a warming light in a place where a returning fox was not going to
be able to get them. This fox was a predator and a bully. He didn’t care about the defenseless
ducklings; he was only looking for his next meal. Those mother ducks were not going to let
their children, which they had made pretty little nests for and then patiently incubated for
over a month. Those mother ducks stood up to that bully, they were willing to risk their lives
to save their ducklings; just as Jesus expresses this morning in the Gospel reading.

 

Bullies are a pain in the butt. Bullies always intend to do some sort of harm, directly or
indirectly. The Pharisees are telling Jesus that Herod wants to do Jesus harm. Herod wants
Jesus dead, and that it would be best for Jesus to avoid Jerusalem. But Herod isn’t the only
bully here; the Pharisees are also getting in on the bullying action. They weren’t trying to
protect Jesus. No. They don’t want Jesus to ever reach Jerusalem either. If he did, then they
would very likely lose their credibility and possibly their following. They want Jesus to skip
going to Jerusalem, and in turn Jesus’ radical, live altering faith would not be seen or heard by
the people in Jerusalem. This is their backhanded way of attempting to prevent Jesus from
upsetting their homeostasis that they were taking advantage of.

 

Jesus stands up to both Herod and the Pharisees. Even though he has been warned that his
life is in danger, he is not going to be bullied to stop his journey. Jesus isn’t going to be
threatened by Herod or by the Pharisees. Jesus knows what lies ahead and he must follow the
calling of God that has been placed upon him. Jesus, like my two mother ducks, knows that

death is a real possibility, but this is the only way for the kingdom of God to thrive and
continue on, for new life to emerge after all.

 

We are invited to join Jesus in standing up against the forces that be which are all around us,
drawing our intentions away from God. We could run, and hide and flee from the foxes of this
life. We could follow our way, embrace our own truth, live our own lives, but God will still
seek us out. WHY?

 

Maybe God yearns to show us who we truly are, how beautifully we’ve been made, how deep
is our capacity for goodness and blessing. Maybe God’s desire is to uncover for us the love that is at the core of our being, which we tend to ignore even as we look and struggle for
affirmation elsewhere. Maybe God longs for us to behold our true selves, intrinsically
connected to the God whose image we bear. AND Maybe we are called to stand up and
proclaim that we belong to God, and that we are called to be faithful to God, and to live as
God’s chicks, protected under the outstretched wings of the mother hen.

 

What if we could stand up to the foxes and the fear? What if we could claim the oneness with
God planted deep within us — and nurture it and trust it? 


Maybe then we would worship more mindfully or pray more fervently or serve more readily. Maybe we would be more faithful, more hopeful, more loving, than we already are. Or maybe we would simply be more thankful.

 

As we face the desperate, continuing and apparently unsolvable crises of our time, let us not
give up heart. Let us not be afraid. Let us not and hide from the foxes and the fears. Instead,
let us respond with hope and courage to the struggles of day to day life, global uncertainty,
changing demographics and their impact on the church, shrinking congregational budgets,
climate change and the rise of racism, and our own personal dramas. Let us count the stars in
the sky, knowing that we are part of God’s story and that by our lives, we help heal the world.
Let us stand true to God, stand firm in God’s love and grace and stand up with God to say
God’s love is the answer. May it be so this day and always. Amen.

 

3rd Sunday of Lent - Luke 13:1-9

 

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

 

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

 

Interpretation of the Word                   

 

When tragedy strikes, this text from Luke is NOT the first passage that pastors and grief counselors turn to. No we usually turn to the Psalms, like 23 or 139, or pick a psalm, any Psalm; it would be better than this passage.

This passage in Luke is one of those texts that most of us attempt to avoid, especially when dealing with tragedy, and it seems like there is tragedy every day in the news. But we avoid it, because it raises a number of thorny questions, particularly the age-old question of why human tragedies occur. When tragedy strikes, the first question we often ask is: “Why?” Why did my child have to die? Why did those innocent children have to experience such violence? Was it perhaps some evil that the parents did? Why did such a good person get such an awful disease? Was it maybe some evil that they had done? Why does famine strike in Africa? Is it possibly because of some particular sinful actions of Africans or their leaders? Why does a particular hurricane hit New Orleans or South Carolina and not Georgia? Why did those people die in the recent plane crashes and others did not? These are all big questions that it is incredibly natural to ask and even more impossible for us to answer.

And these questions, lead us to ask an even bigger question about God. Such as where is God in the time of tragedy and calamity? And Whether or not these awful events were caused by a vengeful God? At the core of this passage, the Galileans, and anyone who has ever experienced or witnessed tragedy, ultimately asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Is this tragedy caused on some level by a person’s sin?”

Does Jesus answer their questioning? Yes and No. He tells them they are asking the wrong question. So why would Jesus dodge their questions? What’s more, why answer with something that seems as bad or even worse than the question they were asking and call it “Good News”?  

What if possibly the “Good news” is in our response, not our question? What if this passage isn’t really about the big questions we have about God, but rather the little answers it gives?

What do I mean by this? Well, we all have these big God questions, but may be the answers are not big answers but little ones. Littles ones in the way that we INDIVIDUALLY respond. Jesus’ response to their questioning was not with an answer, but rather with an edict that they must repent from their own sinful ways, lest they befall the same fate.

It has been suggested by commentators, that in the face of tragedy and calamity and injustice, we often retreat to the “big questions” both to restore a sense of order but also to remove ourselves from any immediate responsibility. These big questions can actually be distractions from doing something about the things that we can actually influence!

Jesus offered the parable of the failing fig tree. Yes, it might have been easier to simply cut down the fruitless tree and plant fresh vine on the real estate. But the gardener asked for a chance to make that fruit-less fig produce some fruit. The first thing he did was cleared about the weeds around it and then he put some manure on around it. He gave it some fertilizer to grow and encourage production! The gardener optimized the growing conditions. He didn’t look at the whole vineyard and see a dud in the midst of plenty, instead he saw an opportunity to make a change. They had been so focused on growing the vines, that they ignored the fig tree. The gardener believed that he could actually influence the fig tree’s production. Instead of ignoring it, he cared for it.

So maybe it is time to stop ignoring the fig tree. Like making sure, if we look at Luke, that the next time a wall is built that the engineering is better and the inspections are done during all stages of construction and that it isn’t some rubber stamp. Or speaking about against the injustice of a rule like Pilate. Or if we think about our own time, not just getting the job done under budget and ahead of schedule, but ensuring that the walls or levees or sea breaks are strong enough to hold back the raging waters. Or not just sending thoughts and prayers, but joining a vigil or marching in solidarity with your Muslin neighbors. Or voting for candidates who forcefully speak against hatred and bigotry.

Asking “why did this happen?” is easy to do as we sit on the sidelines and wring our hands not doing anything because the problem seems “too big”. But nothing changes. The events keep happening and we keep asking these questions. Instead if we, like the gardener, asked “what can I do?” even on a small personal level, we partake in rolling up ourselves, and clearing out the weeds, and spreading a little manure around and working for a better future. Why do small steps matter? They matter because even though we don’t have the answers to those very big questions, we can still make a small, and crucial and often life-giving changes right now.

For example, cleaning up our stretch of road, this may not make a giant difference in the grand scheme of overall pollution or waste management. But on a small scale, on a local scale, it is one less road that is piled high with trash; it is one more road that people see is cared for. Maybe it won’t stop people from disposing of their trash as they drive down the road, but maybe it will. Maybe it won’t stop the floating pile of trash in the Pacific Ocean, but maybe it will.

Here’s another example, we might not have a HUGE population of children in this congregation, but we do have some, and we have the opportunity to make their community and schools safer for them. By calling our representatives and asking them to vote on legislation that is forward thinking not just about lining their pockets or getting them re-elected. We can advocate and vote for budgets that pay teachers a fair wage and provide the support they need to actually teach in classrooms.

Because in reality, the events that happen whether in the first century or the twenty-first century, aren’t about guilt or punishment for sin, or even about the origin or cause of evil. They are just events, some of which we can’t do much about, while others we can. We can make an impact using the gifts that we have been given by God. We can love the people that God has placed in our lives, right here, right now.

 

 

4th Sunday of Lent - Luke 15:1-3; 11-32

 

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:

11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

 

Interpretation of the Word 

 

We are all familiar with this story. We have all heard this story told, either in worship, like 3 years ago, or as a child or a young adult whose parent or youth pastor or pastor was trying to express a love that would always be present. And if you haven’t hear this story, have you been living under a rock?? Because I am pretty sure that even secular story-tellers have used versions of this parable to make a point, probably not the Point Jesus is trying to make, but a point nonetheless.  Pastor and Director of the Center for Preaching Excellence at Calvin Seminary, Scott Hoezee, knows this and in the opening of his comments about this passage this week, said, 

“Go ahead, try to be creative.  Mess with this story if you must.  Others have.  Texts that are super-familiar to many people always tempt us to do something different.  “Goodness, people have heard this story SOOOO many times” we think.

 

When it comes to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, folks have tried to preach it backwards, sideways; from above, from below.  Some have tried to be fresh and novel by preaching the story from the father’s point of view, from the older brother’s point of view, from the pigs’ point of view.  One well-known writer once suggested to tell it from the fatted calf’s point of view!”

But when it’s all said and done, we’ve still got the same basic story that Jesus told to make a very basic gospel point.  And just maybe we shouldn’t mess with it.  This parable is like our Grandma’s classic recipe for chocolate chip cookies: at some point we might try to tweak the recipe to freshen it up a bit—white chocolate chips might be fun, maybe some cinnamon.  But when the kids bite into the resulting cookies, they usually end up wrinkling their noses and saying, “Why did you mess with it?  We liked the cookies better the old way!”

 

This story of unconditional love and abundant grace is one that the first century and the twenty-first century needs to hear. The original is better than any other version we might attempt to wedge into place.  Because really that is what we would be doing, Shoehorning something into the place of a perfectly good parable.

 

So let us not shoehorn one point of view in here over another, or at least attempt to not fit our big feet into too small shoes.  

 

Our text opens with the Pharisees and scribes being upset with the company Jesus was keeping table with, Tax collectors and sinners.  The Pharisees and scribes were known for keeping the law, and presumably felt that sinners and tax collectors didn’t have a place at the table with a man like Jesus, who was making a name for himself as a someone who lived and taught the Law.  They are grumbling, and when there is grumbling there is an opportunity for teaching.  

Which brings us to the second part of the text.  Jesus used parables to teach, sometimes with hidden meanings within hidden meanings, or maybe better said Jesus told stories that had many layers to them, like onions, because they would be bitter to swallow and yet add such a distinct flavor.  This parable is the third in a series of parables about lost things: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and finally a “lost or prodigal” son. 

 

Parables are usually storytelling devices that gives a “for instance” without outright identifying the person or persons in question.  In this morning’s parable, we would be not entirely off base to say that the Pharisees and scribes are the Elder son and the tax collectors and sinner are the younger son in this story, and Jesus, as God with us, is the father.  One layer, which might be a bit of a bitter pill for the Pharisees and scribes to want to taste, as they see themselves as having followed the law and that they did not deviate from the household care, and yet Jesus is not dining with them, but with the sinners, with those who have in their minds, wasted God’s love!   

 

The proper sons (Pharisees and scribes) were grumbling because Jesus was eating and drinking with the prodigal sons (tax collectors and sinners) without punishing them for their prodigal-ness. However, it could be that Jesus knows that being prodigal (wasteful, reckless) is punishment enough and that those who stay home can be just as lost and dead as those who spend all they have in distant lands and end up coming home hungry.

 

Of course one point of the parable is that the party will not be a joyful family reunion until the brothers sit down to dine together. So while the younger son suffered from hunger and the older son suffered from resentment it was the father who suffered the most waiting for his children to love each other as much as he loved them.

 

We, who hang out here in a church, and hear the message each week, may believe that we are NOT among the lost.  That we are not the ones addressed in this parable and that we aren’t the ones for whom the banquet table has been set.  Or maybe we once, one time, long ago, were lost or at least not on the path, but NOW, now we are living the life of the faithful.  Especially if we haven’t strayed away again, but have stayed and continued to work, while others, those who are truly “lost” continue to need to “find Jesus” or “be found by Jesus.” 

 

In Lent, it would be good for us to listen to this parable of two sons, while moving back and forth between seeing ourselves as the lost son who is received with open arms and the obedient son who apparently thinks he is more deserving, suggests Justo González.  Because Lent is a time to consider both the grace of God that has sought us out and welcomes us, as well as the constant danger we, as religious people face: Thinking that we are somehow better.

 

We need to be careful, because we have this tendency to stand with and identify with those who were “never lost” we run the very real risk of grumbling like the Pharisees and scribes.  Lent is a season to catch ourselves, to be reminded that, even if we’re “living right,” we are still all sinners.  Maybe not prodigal, wasteful, reckless sinners, but sinners nonetheless.  But some amount of thinking that because we adhere to the law now, while others don’t, makes us just as guilty of sinning.  If we hoard the love of God only for ourselves then we aren’t all that different than the elder brother or the Pharisees.

 

Lent is an opportunity for us to examine ourselves, to sacrifice our wants for the needs of others, and in general seek to become, honestly, more like the father, who welcomes with open arms and whose love knows no bounds, like Jesus who welcomed and ate with sinners, all of them, Pharisees, scribes, prostitutes and tax collectors.

 

But I haven’t said it yet.  What is it?  What is the underlying premise of this parable, the one we all know, and the others scattered throughout the gospels?  Every story Jesus tells is about one idea:  you should love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Each parable, in one form or another, is a retelling of what we call the “Greatest Commandment’.  The story of the prodigal son is no exception.  Love and grace do not come with caveats and exceptions.  That’s the message:  Junior doesn’t believe, Older Brother needs to get over himself and see the bigger picture, and Dad is trying to show God’s love.  Everyone is everyone else’s neighbor.  That’s how the kingdom of God works, one family at a time.  You want a grand cosmic end of time battles, it’s not here.   You want dysfunctional families like those on our own island, searching for grace and love, look no further than Luke 15.  This is where the rubber meets the road.

 

Loving our neighbors is the idea Jesus keeps pushing us towards.  Anytime we meet Jesus, we are hearing these words, in one form or another.  Jesus keeps sharing and insisting upon neighbors loving neighbors and grace being given to booze breath pig boys like the one in the story until it got him killed.  They killed him for being what we are not.  The cross is the ultimate exposition of everything we wouldn’t do (hear a whole sermon, welcome back our family members from hell and gone, go to a celebration party, and embrace the counterintuitive at the heart of the kingdom of God) but Jesus did.

 

What most people think of as “THE” Christian way to respond to the parable of the prodigals is the inverse of Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God isn’t every person for themselves.  It is to love your neighbor as you love yourself in every context and situation.  That is how Jesus lived.

November 12, 2019

 

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