Sunday, March 31, 2019

The story of a Prodigal

The story of the Prodigal son has many, many levels to it.  There are different approaches and for each person in this room there is a different perspective.  Even when looking up resources I found that the story is known by different titles. The Prodigal Son, also known as the Two Sonsthe Lost Sonthe Running Father, the Dutiful son, the Forgiving father …just by those titles alone there seems to be different foci. 
A story of a prodigal by definition is of one who spends money recklessly. 
Henri Nouwen renowned spiritual writer engages this story so deeply that he ended up writing a whole book on it.  Henri describes his first encounter of Rembrandt’s interpretation of this passage and what led him to ponder this story.
“When I first saw the prodigal son, I had just finished an exhausting six-week lecturing trip through the united states, calling Christian communities to do anything they possibly could to prevent violence and war in Central America.  I was dead tired, so much so that I could barely walk.  I was anxious, lonely, restless, and very needy…. It was in this condition I first encountered Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son on the door of Simone’s office.  My heart leapt when I saw it.  After my long self-exposing journey, the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment.  I was, indeed, the son exhausted from long travels; I wanted to be embraced; I was looking for a home where I could feel safe.  The son-come-home was all I was and all I wanted to be.  For so long I had been going from place to place confronting, beseeching, admonishing, and consoling.  Now I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel a sense of belonging, a place where I could feel at home.”[1]
Have you ever felt that way?  Ever feel like you have been fighting for, working for, striving for something for so long that you are just exhausted…tired of fighting, striving…you just wanted a place that is safe, warm and welcoming…a place that says come into my arms and rest your struggle is done, relax, you are safe here.  It doesn’t matter how you got here, it doesn’t matter what you did right or what you may have done wrong this is about rest in the journey.
This is a story of a homecoming, this is a story of a young person’s search and discovery, this is a story of a loving fathers longing for a complete family and this is a story of a brother who gets a little green when it comes to parity. I wonder who each of you are in this story.  I wonder where the mother is, is there a mother?
I know for me in this story I can identify with the prodigal.  I was raised a young good catholic.  I went to church every Sunday, I excelled at Sunday school, I was an altar boy and I dreamt of being a missionary priest.  In high school I worked with the worship committee and volunteer student services and was even in a Christian rock band.
Sure, I had my moments of trouble.  I even ran away for a weekend not so much because things were bad at home more seeking the opportunity for travel.  When I was a kid, I was nick named Charlie brown especially because of my luck with kites but as I became a teenager and into young adulthood, I think I became more like huckleberry Finn with a deep yearning for travel and adventure.
After coming into my true self I sought out Dignity Detroit, the catholic ministry to the Gay community.  I so wanted to remain a good catholic though who I was existed in direct opposition to the clerical hierarchy of the Church.  When the church finally asked that Dignity meet anywhere besides a catholic church, though dignity Detroit remained in their original home for years, I left.  That order was enough to tell me I was not welcome any more.
So, I took my inheritance and I left the church.  It is interesting to note that when the prodigal asks his father for his share of his inheritance the father divides up the property and a few days later the son is on his way.  This is so matter of fact, there is no complaint no bargaining it is just; “well here you go have fun…”  I can’t help but believe that the father turned around gave a slight smile and said to himself he’ll be back in a day or so.
So, what was my inheritance?  What had the Catholic Church gave me to take with me as I left?  Well it had taught me to ask questions thanks to some very liberal teachers in high school.  It had given me a sense of spirituality and spiritual practice.  It had allowed me to seek what God and a relationship with the divine meant for me and as I walked away from the institution, that is what I carried with me.
In Luke it explains after everything was spent a great famine broke out.  The prodigal spends his inheritance, it doesn’t say he spent it foolishly, it doesn’t say he spent it wisely.  It just says, “everything was spent.” Spent: exhausted, beat, beaten, burned-out, bushed, dead tired, and done.  Those are just a few of the synonyms.  Now who hasn’t felt that way?  I mean in just the day to day of trying to get by, who hasn’t felt completely spent? 
I know I had felt spent.  I left Detroit for Chicago for a weekend with a friend…after the weekend came to an end I was like; “I have a friend in Long beach!”  I don’t know why but I had packed nothing where my friend packed all he had…he had no intention of returning to Detroit.
Spent about two months in Long beach searching for a job…Finally had a job interview and there was a sign on the door… “went to Disney!” …only in California, I swear.
I had my ups and downs.  I had good times and bad.  At one point I had been kicked out of what had been my home with my bags literally outside the door and I had to sue to gain some of my other belongings and some semblance of retribution for three years of work.
I had to get emergency housing and was put in a hotel that leaked as it rained a cold winter desert rain.  I ended up sleeping on couches and floors for several weeks and eating a lot of sandwiches as I waited for assistance to come through so that I could find a place to live. The Famine had hit!
I was exhausted…I was beaten down …I was hungry, hungry spiritually for some sort of strength…I returned to the Church. Not the catholic Church but a Christian church.  A place I knew as home.  I quietly walked in and I sat in the very back row. I returned as a prodigal, beaten and exhausted tired of fighting for scraps.
Now the Minister didn’t see me coming from a long way off and run out to greet me.  No and yet looking back…God did.
You see all the time I was seeking, searching, surviving, living, partying, fund raising, educating…no matter what I was doing, my inheritance, that deep down spiritual life and connection to God ,was still there informing my every move.  When I felt I was entirely spent, God came running out to greet me.  I can’t tell you what was said, what was sung, or how the service even went that day.  I can tell you I cried.
I cried out that exhaustion, I cried out my frustration, I left what was bitterness and pain in the church that day.  God had come running out to greet me. 
It is interesting that in the story the son comes seeking forgiveness, seeking to be made the lowest in his father’s house, seeking nothing but some semblance of a life.  Yet, just as he is barely in sight, his Father sees him and is moved.  That is what the story says; “While still a long way off the father caught site of the child and was deeply moved.”
I know I am playing with synonyms today but let’s go there…to be moved is a visceral reaction, it is to be fired up, to excite, impassion, to stimulate or enflame.  This is strong, do you hear it?  This is a once in a lifetime type of reaction so much so that the father doesn’t hear the son’s plea of forgiveness but throws his arms around him, kisses him, gives him rings and robes and throws a party!
Why such a visceral reaction?  Why was it so strong? Well remember in my version the Father walks away with a grin on his face thinking oh he’ll be back.  I hear further the father thinking; I have been there and done that he needs to learn his lesson.  But then he doesn’t come back right away.  The son stays gone till he has spent his inheritance.  Taking in consideration what the father has when the son returns, I suspect, that was a pretty good inheritance.  Therefore, no matter how he chooses to spend it, it took a while to spend.
I know this is a story to display God’s love and welcoming back into the flock a quote sinner. But it is using humans as an example, which makes sense if we are created in the image, not exactly like and not perfect, but the image of God.  Gods own behavior might resemble some of ours.  
So, the father is smug at first.  Let me give my son a taste of the real world, a taste of freedom and he will be back quickly for the world is nothing as he imagines.  But then that day turns into a few days, then weeks and months.  Soon it has been a long time with no word and no sign of his son.  Is he doing well, or has he fallen in with a bad crowd?  What if he is in jail?  What if he is sick or worse yet dead?
The longer the time apart the more worried the father becomes, the longer apart the greater the possibility of no return. Yet, I believe, if it was one day or 1000 days the greeting would be the same.  An impassioned joyous welcome home.  You see the Father in this story, just as God, doesn’t really want to let us go.  But that is what free will is about…it is in Gods nature to let us go.
Henri Nouwen speaks of it this way…

How much would he have liked to pull them back with his fatherly authority and hold them close to himself so that they would not get hurt?
     But his love is too great to do any of that. It cannot constrain, push, or pull.  It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return. It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost a father.[2]

God has chosen to be a parent, a parent who sometimes must set us free to allow us to do what we must do to become who we are. I mean how many times have any one of us looked back on our lives and said I would not be where I am now if I had not gone through what I did. I actually could not write what I write today, or any day for that matter had I not gone through and lived all that I lived.  Yes, I often wonder about the what ifs, but if I were given an opportunity to go through it all again…I would for it has brought me here in front of you all today.
God the parent, grieves when we separate ourselves feom the love that is extended and yet as soon as we start to walk back, God comes running out to greet us…no need for confession there is no concern there…That is what we hold against ourselves not God.
“There is no lust, greed, anger, resentment, jealousy, or vengeance in his (God’s) lost children that have not caused immense grief to his (God’s) heart…From the deep inner place where love embraces all human grief, the Father (creator) reaches out to His (the) children.  The touch of His (God’s) hands radiating inner light only seeks to heal.”[3] This is the lesson of the moment of assurance we have here every Sunday.  There is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, think or pray that will separate you from the love of God.
But yet God goes further…God Goes over the top…Isn’t that what this parable portrays?  Henri Nouwen goes on to comment; “I realize that I am not used to the image of God throwing a big party.”[4]  Well now isn’t that an understatement.  I mean we all have this image of God that is all commanding, Judging, Powerful and dead serious.  Where did that come from?  I mean as followers of Christ there isn’t much of this “judge-y-ness” going on in Christ’s teachings.  I mean if Christ is any example are, we surprised when the Loving parent throws a huge party at the return of the son.
As in this parable, and many others, God is waiting …just waiting to throw this big feast.  Not only is the invitation there, the party will start without you until you arrive.  Yet, as in another Parable, it doesn’t matter when you show up; just show up for the last will receive just the same as the very first. “Celebration belongs to God’s Kingdom. God not only offers forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, but wants to lift up these gifts as a source of joy for all who witness them.”[5] Guess what…we get the honor of witnessing it here every week, heck any day you walk in here.  This is the place where you are welcome as part of the creators loving family.  We witness this at the eucharist when it is proclaimed that this is not our table it is God’s and there is nothing…nothing that can prevent you from participating in the little banquet.  Yes, I called the communion here the little banquet for the feast the creator has set aside for us is so much greater than we can even imagine.
So you see, you are allowed to walk away…you are allowed to spend your inheritance…you are allowed to come back home tired, broke, spent and the loving parent that is God will be waiting to clothe you, heal you and give you respite.  The loving parent is ready to throw you a feast; a party to allow you to sing and dance.  I truly enjoy the way Carey Landry expressed this in a song; “and the creator shall dance as on a day of Joy God will exalt over you and renew you with God’s love.” All of this is so that when you are ready you can step boldly and proclaim that you are a child of God. Amen.

[1]Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4.
[2]Henry J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Continuum, 1995), 95.
[4]Ibid, 113.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

People are talking

People are talking…People are gossiping…people are worrying about the wrong things.

People have heard rumors of a brutal execution of some Galileans who were worshiping. Then their blood had been somehow allowed to be mixed or accidentally mixed with the blood of sacrifices. Now this sounds like it was a political act for a killing to be allowed to happen at a place of worship and then to allow the blood to be mixed with the sacrifice is high sacrilege.  People want to know what these people could have done to be allowed to die in such a fashion what was their sin?

Last week Jesus has just finished telling the crowds and the Pharisees that he is going to keep on preaching his message, that today and tomorrow and the next day he will continue to heal, to bless, and to walk with the marginalized. But today we go back to the first of this chapter. We go back to the crowd which today is more concerned with a political act and claiming outrage and wondering what could these gallileans have done to deserve such a death and how can this sacrilege of the sacred offering happen.

Now that I hear myself saying this, I wonder what was the crowd’s true intention or where was their anger directed?  Remember many expect the savior to gather people, to rise up against imperial power in a violent and revolutionary way.  It sounds as if the true question may be did you hear about this and what are we going to do about this Jesus?

The crowd wants an angry Jesus. A Jesus who is going to take up arms against the powers that be but instead Jesus answers the question on the surface and deflects the veiled call to arms.
Jesus brings up another top news story, another current event of the day–the 18 people in Jerusalem who are killed when a tower fell on and crushed them.   There is no difference between the two events, Jesus states. It’s not a matter of degrees of rightness or wrongness, sin or sainthood.

Jesus also notes a sense of superiority in the question…some are better because we have sinned little or not at all or not in the fashion that these others did.

“He seems to recognize that they are arguing that the violence of one’s death relates to the darkness of one’s sins – an idea that is misused and popular throughout the Christendom of the middle ages and continues even today in some circles of believers. Jesus goes right to the point and is unwilling for his listeners to believe they are greater than or that they sin less or that their sins are lesser so he says: “Everyone must repent. Everyone is called to repent, repent early, repent often, repent now, and repent.” He tells them they are going to die too and suddenly and unprepared.”[1]

Ouch, so harsh! I had a professor at Claremont that would gently remind his class that death is not a matter of if but when. For us older students it was a bit comical yet for some of the younger ones it appeared to be a divine revelation.

 To me it sounds as if Jesus is reminding everyone these are sad and tragic events and they happen. It is not an account of sin.

Jesus addresses their concept of sin and judgement and turns it on its ear.

It isn’t about who sinned more. It isn’t about who deserved to die. It isn’t about how they died.  It isn’t even about the mingling of blood.  This isn’t about saint peter at the gate with an abacus tallying up your sins and the rate of which they have been forgiven to see if one can get in.  Oh, by the way there are no electronics in heaven that’s why Peter uses and abacus.

What this whole dialogue comes down to is this…In the end its about how they lived.

Jesus first makes the comment That unless you repent you will die as they did…

"The word translated as 'repent' is, at its root, about thinking and perception. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something. It implies an utter reconfiguration of your perspective on reality and meaning, including (in the New Testament) a reorientation of yourself toward God."[2]

A reorientation toward God.  Remember last week I said my concept of original sin is hiding ourselves from God. Others would say turning away from God. If God is omnipresent, all around us how can we hide?  But if we look at this way, we are all invited to the table with God but if we sit with our back turned…

So, repentance is more than about being sorry for what we have done it is about reorienting our self towards God.  Changing our behavior so that it is more representative of our call as children of God.

“So, we see hear that Jesus is teaching those who will listen that they must repent. They must repent because they do not know what may happen and death may come at any moment. They must all repent. No one has more or less sin than someone else. Repentance is the daily work of the follower of Jesus. It is important and key as a daily exercise not because it prepares you for death but because it aerates the soil and provides fertilizer like the fig tree. A daily diet of repentance provides room in one’s life for the following of Jesus and eventually bears fruit in the work with Jesus bringing forth the reign of God.

How is repentance something that bears fruit? Repentance is the act of bring the ego into alignment with the soul and the Holy Spirit of God. Repentance is the taking of a fearless inventory that helps one to understand what the individual’s role is in brokenness and dysfunction. Repentance helps us understand the individual acts we take or do not take that have effects on the wider community. How do my habits of consumption affect others? How do my wants and desires get bruised when I don’t get my way? How do I lash out and blame others when I am at fault? How do I seek to have others give me esteem so I feel good about myself instead of understanding that God esteems me and loves me?”[3] and I would add for just who I am.

But then Jesus offers the parable about the fig tree.  In the parable he puts forth the concept that being sorry is not enough, but you must bear fruit.  There has to be something productive from one’s existence.  You must be contributing to the kindom of God here on earth.  If you are not then God will just Chop, you down.

At Least, that is the thinking of those around Christ, but Jesus puts forth this new loving concept.  That perhaps the one not bearing fruit just hasn’t been nurtured or cared for properly…hasn’t been exposed to the Loving gardener that is Christ…Give me some time to nurture the tree then if it still doesn’t bear fruit one can chop it down.

One commentator states;

“That’s right. You heard the man. Bear fruit or die. Might that be heard as a stewardship imperative? If we as individual disciples have been given life, then aren’t we responsible for making the most of it? Or, as the poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Likewise, as the Body of Christ, what are we doing to bear fruit, to bloom where we’ve been planted?”[4]

I find some merit in the question asked but I am not sure this is what I hear in the parable Christ puts forth.  I live in the confidence of the Gardner.  I am being tended too and loved by Christ and as long as I live in Christs care I will bear fruit.  It is almost as if we can’t help it.

Richard Rohr puts out these daily reflections and one of them this week had a quote from Meister Eckhart

“God’s seed is in us. If it were tended by a good, wise and industrious laborer, it would then flourish all the better, and would grow up to God, whose seed it is, and its fruits would be like God’s own nature. The seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree, the seed of a nut tree grows to be a nut tree, the seed of God grows to be God. —Meister Eckhart (1260–1328)[5]

As the body of Christ, we struggle with and strive to live better.  We struggle with and seek to care for the community around us.  We are called to seek out the margins and see where we can do better. How we can serve our community better.

 You see If a congregation is merely existing, longing for an era past, too worn down to invest the energy, creativity, and passion in sharing the Good News of Jesus with a broken and hurting world, then what’s to make it any different from a social club? If a congregation stands on holier than thou ground pronouncing, we are better than… it is nothing more than a noisy gong.

It is when our congregations provide a place to equip disciples and build one another up, it is when we live in the love of Christ that we cannot help but be excited to get out into the world and help to make it a better place.

Have you ever had a plant in a window?  What happens to it?  It grows outward from the plant into the light. In Just the same way healthy church grows outward while still maintaining its deep-rooted connection to Christ.

Reverend Sharron Reissinger reminds us;

“We are called to be good stewards of the gifts God has given us–our time, our talent, and our resources. God expects us to be fruitful to the best of our abilities. We are not supposed to be “wasting the soil” forever. Sure, we will have times and seasons when we are less than fruitful in our ministry, mission, worship, and generosity. Even plants and trees have fallow seasons or “manure years” during which they rest and replenish. …

One wonders why the church can’t take a lesson from this story and from the principles of the good steward of land and orchard. Why do we resist change, languish in a fog of scarcity, and pine for the good old days? What keeps us from investing fully in flourishing and taking risks by pruning away the useless and that which chokes and binds us? We do these things to our own peril, and in the process deny our neighbors the opportunity to see Jesus.”[6]

This is the trial many Congregations are facing.  Now we here have remained relevant to the community around us and yet the challenge of the 21st century lie before us. What will church look like in 20 years, 10 years or even five?  What are we going to have to do?  Do we need to change some behaviors?  Old habits? Do we need to seek new ways to be present and relevant? We do need to be prepared for new life–even if that life looks a whole lot different from the way things have always been?

“It bears repeating that Jesus does not explain the causes of violence that nature and human beings regularly inflict upon unsuspecting people. He does not blame victims. He does not attempt to defend creation or the Creator when "why?" questions seem warranted. At least in this scene, he offers no theological speculation and inflicts no emotional abuse. He asks, with an urgency fueled by raw memories of blood and rubble on the ground: What about you? How will you live the life you get to live?”[7]

“Do we build our lives upon those rationalizations that allow us to get through the day feeling blessed, safe, and able to presume upon a better fortune… (or)do we build our lives on the knowledge that God's judgment is certain? Do we build them on the efforts that God, like the parable's gardener, undertakes to prepare us for that judgment? God transforms us through grace, a grace that calls us to be generous toward those still trapped under the weight of poverty, want, and devastation of all kinds.”[8]

There’s a big world out there that needs God’s love. Go and Bloom in the image of Christ.

[2] "How to Survive the Sequester, Syria, and Other Threatening Headlines, “Matthew L. Skinner, ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 201

[5] Meister Eckhart, “Of the Nobleman,” Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn (Paulist Press: 1981), 241.
[8] Ditto

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Today, tomorrow and the next day!

There is a contemporary passion play by Terrance McNally called Corpus Christi. The play and its history are intertwined with Bob and I because of a small production that started at our church in North Hollywood. The play was supposed to be for a weekend or two, but it ended up running for about 6 years and playing all over the world. If you want to know more about that look for playing with redemption on Netflix.

In the play the lead Character Joshua hears something.  It is soft at first but throughout the play he stops because he hears it again and again and it keeps getting louder. He asks his mother “do you ever hear hammering? Of course, I do your father is a carpenter”
Later in the play he says, about the hammering that only he can hear, “I think they are building something…something for me”

In today’s Gospel Jesus hears the hammering.  It is getting closer and louder. We have been invited on this sacred journey with Jesus. We are asked to listen to the words and the story with our hearts.

“In Luke 9:51, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem where he knew that he would face opposition from religious leaders and eventually death (9:22). Along the way, he demonstrates the presence of God’s kingdom through repeated deliverance from demons and healing from sickness. Crowds of people from Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem follow Jesus along his journey. Today, Jesus might have a host of social media followers tracking his journey on foot from Galilee to Jerusalem and turning out to see him in person as he passed near their town. Wherever Jesus goes, he brings signs of God’s kingdom.”[1]

Now I admit today’s Gospel seems a bit tame.  We often like our Jesus either storming a temple to overturn tables or feeding 5000 or raising someone form the dead.   There are no miracles here.  There is no rage against the machine nor is there a tender aww inspiring moment like suffer the little children unto me.

It was just the other week that Herod was inquiring who is this Jesus. What is he all about?

Now Jesus is told that Herod wants to kill him and his reply…
 you tell that fox…

When we use the metaphor of fox, we often think of someone as a trickster or clever or even sly like a fox but in Jesus’ culture when one is referred to as a fox it is an insult.

In the time of Christ, one could speak of a leader in terms of a lion or a fox.
“Lions and foxes can be contrasted with each other to represent the difference between great men and inferior men. The great men are called “lions,” and the lesser men are called “foxes.”[2]

So really Jesus is hurling a veiled or perhaps not so veiled insult saying really that guy couldn’t catch me if he tried.

Yet why are the Pharisees even bothering to warn Jesus? One commentator reminds us that

“It is difficult to evaluate the motives of the Pharisees in the story. It is also difficult to evaluate whether or not their warning is either sincere or representative of a real threat. As in all the Gospels, the Pharisees in Luke are largely antagonistic to Jesus and Jesus to them. There are hints, however, of a more positive reception by the Pharisees. In 7:36 and 14:1, for instance, Pharisees invite Jesus into their homes (although the scenes do not play out well for them), and in Acts 15:5 we hear that some Pharisees had actually become Christians. We thus cannot dismiss the Pharisees’ motives as necessarily being negative.

On the other hand, their report seems problematic: Luke 9:7-9 and 23:8 suggest Herod’s interest in Jesus was not in killing him, and when given the chance to condemn Jesus in the Passion account, Herod refuses to do so (23:6-12). We cannot be sure of Herod’s status in the passage, however, because of course Herod had both imprisoned and executed John the Baptist (3:19-20; 9:9).”[3]

I wonder if we as the readers are not intended to be in this in-between place of not sure who we can trust. That just might help us to feel as if we are standing in Jesus’ sandals even just for this moment.

Imagine you are doing the hard work that God has called you to do.  You are preaching gods message of love for all people.  You are walking with and ministering to the most vulnerable. There is only one group concerned with you at this moment and that is the Pharisees.  

The reason for this was The Pharisees are a sect of Judaism focused on the oral and written tradition they were the common class and heavily concerned with tradition.  They believed in a spiritual realm beyond this earthly existence. This is most likely why they would invite Jesus into their homes, and some would eventually become Christian.

 This is opposed to the Sadducees who were the elite and were happy with a peace between the romans and the Jews as long as they could keep their status.  They saw no concern of Jesus till they feared he might upset the romans.

So you are doing the hard work that God has called you to do.  You are preaching Gods message of love for all people.  You are walking with and ministering to the most vulnerable.
And you get this warning…Someone is out to get you…what do you do??

Last week Cathy mentioned the experience of a UCC minister, Rev. kaji Doussa Spellman, who does ministry at the border.  Here is her story in her own words

“A brave soul from the Department of Homeland Security came forward with a story that has rocked the country this week. They are keeping a dossier on journalists, activists and others, flagging their passports, in some cases, revoking visas, travel privileges in others, deporting as many as they can.

I saw the article and thought one of the blurred photos of the targeted people looked familiar.

It was, because it was my passport photo. With a yellow X that the most powerful government in the world drew across my face.

But none of us would have known if someone in the department, someone with significant access to information, hadn't taken a very serious and personal risk to come forward.

So, I want to turn to the Centurion in the story from Luke. (Luke 7:1-10)

The Centurion was a powerful soldier in one of the most powerful conquering forces in the world. He was accustomed to being in command. And while he was accustomed to getting what he commanded, he could not command his servant to be healed. Healing doesn't work that way, of course. Because the illness will reach anywhere. It doesn't care about your financial gifts or your job title or your immigration status or your marital status or anything else. You can have all the power in the world but there will be things you cannot command.

There is always someone else who is in charge of you. And the Centurion knew this. But he humbled himself, when he saw that his powers were limited. And when he saw the true authority to whom he needed to bow did not bear any military titles, something in him changed.

And Jesus saw it and loved him for it. The Centurion's servant was healed.

I spend a lot of time with people whom the government issues guns and uniforms, particularly people from the Department of Homeland Security, especially from ICE.

For the ones who have spoken to me: I think that they know that I love them, too.

When I pray with the migrants who are vulnerable to their ICE quotas, whims and bad days, they know that I pray with and for them, too. They know this because they hear it. They know that we love and pray for them. And a lot of them hate us for it. It's easier, see, to caricature someone you perceive to be your enemy. It's harder to let them love you.

Jesus was a leader with a following who had powers that threatened the police state. (Not that I am comparing myself to Jesus), But Jesus' power and influence were palpable and dangerous because he had a strength that they could never touch.

And that strength was love. A love that could heal ANYONE. Even someone who would otherwise be discarded, replaced, deported. Jesus loved and told us we have to, too. But that love does not seem to be order of the day.

I look at the ways power is yielded in the land. And love exists – but it is certainly not in charge.

When I talk to the people the government issues guns and uniforms, one of the first things I point out is that they almost always have choices.

They can decide to be kind
They can decide to be generous
They can decide to be compassionate. 
Just like the rest of us.”[4]

Now comes the lament we need to cry out just as Jesus did “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those are sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…”

In the face of oppression and in the face of authority Jesus stands up and says Listen I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow… and so we are called to do the same.

Now some may say Rev. Kaji has no business doing what she is doing its too political…some may say I shouldn’t mention this or why am I mentioning this it’s too political, but Church is political just because of who we are called to be.

If this makes you uncomfortable good, it should…if it makes you angry good it should…we are called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

The church Leaders in response to just this one incident reminds us that…

“The role of the church in society is to be present and purposeful in every facet of the life of all of humankind. This call to be church is irrespective of color, class, and gender identity. This call transcends social barriers and superficial borders. This call demands allegiance to moral law over any immoral statutes that do not honor the handprint of the divine in every human being.

Christian scripture teaches us of a Jesus who was present with people wherever they were. In our biblical teachings we learn of a God who hears the cries of people and responds with compassion and presence that transcends human barriers for the sake of love. We, the United Church of Christ, will commit to no less. It is both our God-given authority and our First Amendment right to practice our faith free from political persecution.”

We lament over our government’s response to our faith and our practices, but we will not stop loving and caring for those on the margins especially literally for those at the border…

We lament at mass shootings wherever they are…
We lament because when our government responds and it is a white male it gets 7% less coverage if it is a person of color
We lament because when a shooting occurs and it is a white male but when it is a person of color they are a terrorist.

We lament because there is a state of emergency at our border because we have forgotten that we are called to care for  the least of these my brothers and sisters no matter what their skin color

I have been to the border…I have been to the border in the high desert and the border at Tijuana.  I have crossed the border and walked besides people trying to survive in one of the most desolate places on this continent.  I have seen what people do to survive and I know why people go to minister there.

Today, tomorrow and the next day there will be more calls to action more needs for pastoral care and more ministers will be persecuted by our government in the name of the law!

You know I wonder…would anyone be interested in learning more about what happens at our border instead of trusting the news?

The united church of Christ offers mission opportunities to learn and be present in the midst of this. Why should I preach it…when you can see it, live it, learn to understand it, if you think it might be something you would like to do as a small group or even a large one maybe we can make plans.

I hope you understand Jesus lament is coming down to this very nation through the centuries.

Though many would like to see the church silence about this we will not be not about this or any other event where the marginalized are persecuted and they attempt to silence us.

We will stand up reach out and care for the least of our brothers and sisters or however they choose to identify themselves.

And we will say today…tomorrow and the next day…until the third day, if it must come to that, remember what happens on the third day, we will work to bring gods kindom here on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Lead us through the wilderness

“John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, a retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve and hence humanity from God’s original created perfection, is fairly well known.

Much less well known, unfortunately, is the sequel, Paradise Regained. Especially striking about the latter poem is its subject -- not the birth, crucifixion, or resurrection of Jesus, but his temptation, the subject of today’s Gospel text. Milton rightly saw that in resisting the devil’s temptations Jesus initiated the possibility for humanity to regain the paradise lost in the Eden fall.”[1]

Now let’s take a minute and talk about Jesus and Adam.

Luke himself invites us to make such a comparison with the Genesis fall by the way he has set the story. First, he has put the genealogy of Jesus immediately before this tale. Since Luke’s genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam, the reference to Adam immediately precedes the temptation account. Moreover, Adam is identified in the genealogy as the son of God (3:38), rather obviously inviting comparison to Jesus. The temptation story, then, fleshes out the comparison -- and the contrast!

The genealogy of Christ starts with Jesus listed as son of Joseph and goes all the way back to “Adam, Son of God.” So Long before Milton perhaps Luke saw paradise lost and now brings us to where Jesus, the son of God regains paradise for us.

The temptation story also parallels Moses and the people of Israel.  The chosen people of God roam the desert for 40 years and Jesus we are told is in the desert for 40 days.  Each one of the temptations Jesus answers with a quote from Deuteronomy.  The quotes are of what Moses said to his people.

It is interesting to me that in the temptation story we see what Jesus is not going to do in his ministry. We see what Jesus’ version of the kindom of God is not. After the temptation is the story of the beginning of Jesus ministry in the Nazareth synagogue.  That is where we will learn that “Jesus will bring “good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… the oppressed go free… the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19). Mary was told by the angel that Jesus was coming to establish his kingdom (1:33); thus, what Jesus describes in the synagogue is the nature of his kingdom, the kingdom of God.”[2]

Jesus’ kindom is not about the political rule of Israel but rather the reclamation of what is sacred and dear to God, us. Commentator Scott Schauf states; “So whereas the succumbing to temptation by Adam and Eve resulted in the loss of life in God’s presence, Jesus’ resistance of temptation was the beginning of the restoration of life in God’s presence.”[3]

Let me say this about that. I do not believe that the story of Adam and Eve are “The Gospel truth”, but a beautiful story of how we often react to God.  I do not believe that Eve is the beginning of “the fall” nor the creator of Sin! If you read the story it implies Adam is right, there alongside eve as she has a conversation with the serpent and consumes an apple or a pomegranate.

That said, I also do not believe that eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge is the sin. The sin, if you go back and read it is, they hid themselves from God. We are the only ones who can choose to separate or hide ourselves from God.

Okay that is my soap box about original sin.

So, let’s look at these temptations offered to Jesus. The First Temptation: Serving Oneself

“The temptation is for Jesus to use his authority as the Son of God to meet his personal needs and desires. While this was no doubt a temptation for Jesus throughout his ministry, it is especially during his crucifixion that this would come to the fore again, as he is tempted by the onlookers to save himself from the cross (Luke 23:35-39). Just as there the temptation is made in a situation of tremendous personal suffering, so too here the temptation to eat comes in a time of severe hunger, with Jesus having fasted for forty days. As we have heard him announce in 4:18-19, Jesus’ ministry is always focused on others, never on himself.”[4]

“Temptation One (4:3-4): To turn stones into bread.
Response: Deuteronomy 8:3: "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Context in Deuteronomy: Moses reminds the people of Israel that God tested them in the wilderness by hunger, but he fed them with manna in order to make them understand that one does not live by bread alone.”[5]

How many times can food be a distraction to us in our modern ministry?  How often do we find ourselves perhaps not eating properly or knowing we could be wiser around food, how it is grown, harvested, consumed and disposed of?

The Second Temptation: Power
The second temptation hits us hard and in the face.  It is the offer of complete and utter power. “Jesus is offered the authority and glory of all the kingdoms of the world. For Jesus this was a temptation to embrace what many would have expected of him as the Messiah: political and military might and rule. That Jesus rejects this is a clear sign that his messiahship, his kingdom, is of a different nature than the common expectations.”[6]

“Temptation Two (4:5-8): To rule all the kingdoms of the world.
Response: Deuteronomy 6:13: "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.'"
Context in Deuteronomy: Moses addresses the people of Israel prior to entering the land of promise. He calls upon the people to fear and love the Lord always. He provides a creed for them, the Shema, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is One." (6:4), tells them not to forget who gave the land, and admonishes them to worship and serve the Lord.”[7]

How Many times do we often forget to just be grateful?  How many times are we like spoiled Children who are always seeking more, craving more only to let our abundance go to waste? I was recently watching an episode of undercover boss.  You know the head of some big corporation goes undercover learns of heartbreaking stories of their employees and in the end gives them huge gifts out of their abundance.

Usually the employee reaction is your kidding OMG thank you I can’t believe you’re doing this…but the other day a gentleman’s fist words were God is Good, the spirit is moving today. Then he thanked his boss, but he saw past the surface and understood where the gift given originates. 

“The Third Temptation: A Cross-Avoiding Spectacle

The third temptation (verses 9-12), jumping from the pinnacle of the temple, is the most difficult to interpret. On the surface the devil’s idea is merely an awe-inducing spectacle. In the ancient world such would likely have been interpreted as the trick of a magician. Legends developed later in the church about the apostles facing down such devil-inspired magicians (e.g. a flying Simon the Mage in the Acts of Peter).

So, in part this temptation is that of another alternative path for Jesus’ power, leading to fame and riches rather than to service and the cross. But we are likely supposed to see more here, too. The temptation, after all, occurs on the Jerusalem temple. Are we meant to see a foreshadowing and a parody of the crucifixion? on the cross Jesus is tempted to save himself from death -- are the onlookers there playing the role of the devil?”[8]

Now that is an interesting question it is an easy parallel to see.

But again, let’s look at the text and words used 

“Temptation Three (4:9-12): To throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Here the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12.

Response: Deuteronomy 6:16: "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Context in Deuteronomy: The setting is the same as the previous episode (Deut 6:13). Moses exhorts the people not to test the Lord as they did at Massah, a place of quarreling, where the people of Israel demanded water from Moses, which he finally obtained by striking a rock (Exodus 17:1-7).”[9]

Now I admit, I laugh at this one a little.  This idea of throwing oneself off of the highest peak in all the land and let the angels catch you.  That would not be me.  Ask Bob heights and I do not have a good relationship. But really who is even tempted to just toss all in to God’s hands and see where the dice land.

The reply Jesus gives is more to the heart of the matter. Do not put your God to the test…yet we do…all the time. It is literally part of being human and maybe most human part. How often do we try to make deals with God?  In desperation have you ever lifted a prayer if you do this lord, I’ll do A B or C?  

Somehow, we forget that simple prayer is enough.  Coming before our God in a moment of Jubilee to say thanks and or a moment of great need to say please.  There is no need to bargain.  Often times when we do not see or understand how our prayer was answered we run back to the bargaining table to make a second offer or, more often than not, we leave the table altogether assuming God does not truly care for us.

Blessings for us, God is always at the table waiting for us and God is happy with simple words, no words, screams and anger and tears and broken ness…God will take us just the way we are, and it is fine to express that in our prayer.

One commentator note about this passage that a more apt title might be Jesus is tested as opposed to tempted…

Arland Hultgren notes that; “Since the English word "temptation" has so many connotations, often referring to human appetites for things that bring pleasure, it is helpful to think of the temptation of Jesus as "the testing of God's Son." The Greek word in question is peirazomenos, which has to do with testing. That means that the wording of 4:2 could read: "[Jesus] was tested by the devil."

…Jesus was tested concerning his baptismal vocation as the Son of God. He was obedient to the course upon which he had been set at his baptism by John at the Jordan. Likewise, those who are his followers are tested concerning their baptismal vocation. Through baptism, we are called to be obedient and to serve the Lord alone. But our faith is tested in the course of our lives, from birth to death. There is comfort in knowing, however, that God remains faithful, even if we fail (Romans 3:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:13).

The connection between Jesus' testing and our own was recognized by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (4:15).”[10]

The people of Israel were tested in the desert time and again.  They failed time and again and yet God stayed with them.  We are given an example of what the kindom of heaven is not in Jesus testing and Jesus stays true to who he is, the beloved child of God. We are called daily to remember that we too are children of God Baptized into the body of Christ and we continue to seek to resist the temptations of this world.

“The connection between Israel's testing and our own is summed up beautifully in the Prayer of the Day:

O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the Promised Land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”[11]