April newsletter piece

“We are Easter people.”

It seems like a funny phrase, doesn’t it? Especially considering all the commerciality that has come to surround the Easter holiday – pastel eggs, more varieties of candy than you could ever imagine (unless, of course, you happen to be Willy Wonka), brightly colored baskets filled with toys and trinkets, a giant omnipresent bunny (huh??), and that plastic grass that is the bane of every parent’s very existence. In our increasingly secular and consumer-driven society, this is what Easter has become.

And yet in the church, we proclaim, “We are Easter people!”

But what does that even mean?

Being Easter people means being people of belief. The gospels all tell a slightly different story about who found the empty tomb and when and how, but they all include an element of belief in the face of a cogently unbelievable event. Considering what the disciples and all of Jesus’ other followers had been through, we certainly cannot blame them for their moments of confusion and incredulity. We may even find ourselves resonating more with Thomas who doubted than with the unnamed beloved disciple in John who saw the emptiness of the tomb and immediately believed. But eventually those in all the gospel tellings of the resurrection believed. They believed in the resurrection itself. They believed in Jesus as the Son of God. They believed. Even those who did not see believed. And we who centuries later cannot see with our eyes must believe, and in believing, we become Easter people.

Being Easter people means being people of conviction. I can only imagine what it must have been like for those who first encountered the empty tomb to bring that news back to the rest of Jesus’ followers. They were probably anxious. They were probably excited. They were probably worried their friends might think they had lost their minds. This plays out in Luke’s gospel: “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. … but they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”[1] Did the rest of Jesus’ followers laugh at them? Did they ridicule them? Whatever reception their remarkable tale received, none of the gospels tell us that the women who found the empty tomb ever recanted their story. The gospels tell us they were afraid, yes. But shining through that fear was their conviction in the miraculous thing that they had witnessed. They knew their story was outlandish. They knew their story was unbelievable. But they knew their story was true, and they dared to cling to that truth in the face of unbelief.

Being Easter people means being people of hope. Jesus had been dead for three whole days. Before that, he had been arrested, mocked, beaten, tortured, and publicly humiliated. That’s a whole lot of darkness to be dealing with – a whole lot of pain and turmoil and distress. But out of the midst of that darkness and distress stepped a risen Christ, a Christ who had overcome even the cold finality of the grave to restore God’s everlasting grace to all people. In this one profound and holy act, we find a ray of hope stronger and more powerful than any darkness that we will encounter. It is the hope that accompanies all forms of new life from a newly-planted garden to a newborn baby – a hope immersed in possibilities and blessings and unmitigated intentions. It is vivid and sure. It is strong and warm. It is whole and holy. It is hope.

And so when we declare on Easter morning that we are, indeed, Easter people, we do so expressing our belief, clinging to our conviction, and radiating hope.

We are Easter people! Hallelujah!

 Pastor Lisa sign

[1] Lk 24:11 (NIV).

Sunday’s Sermon: The Many Faces of Triumph

Palm Sunday

Texts for this sermon: Psalm 46 (NRSV) and Mark 11:1-11 (The Message)

  • The crowds are cheering and waving and smiling. They’re all lined up along the edges of the road – two and three rows deep in some places – everyone trying to get as close to the road as possible, everyone trying to catch a glimpse of the parade. Children are running around, playing and laughing. Adults are chattering animatedly. There’s anticipation and excitement in the air!
    • Scene played out in anywhere across the country during any yearly town celebration, from biggest cities to smallest towns → people filled with …
      • An attitude of celebration
      • A spirit of joy
      • Sense of eagerness … and triumph
        • Now, you might be thinking, “Triumph? What? But triumph means victory and accomplishment and conquest. What does that have to do with the atmosphere at a parade?” And that’s certainly true, but there’s another definition of triumph: joy, exaltation, delight. Today is Palm Sunday, a day that ushers us into all of the consolations and desolations of Holy Week – a week that both begins and ends in triumph, albeit very different kinds of triumph.
  • The week opens with the triumph of the crowds – the joyful, cheering, adoring crowd. → scholar: The Gospel of Mark describes the infatuation that many people had with Jesus – as if he were a rock star. … It is not hard to imagine the Woodstock scene of the 1960s when we think about Palm Sunday.[1]
    • Background: Jewish traditional revolutionary understanding of Messiah → King David-like figure who would militarily overthrow whoever was oppressing them at the time and return the people of Israel to a homeland they could call their own
      • Jewish people almost continually oppressed by other nations for centuries at this point → looking for salvation from a number of different oppressors
        • Babylonians
        • Assyrians
        • In the case of our NT text = Roman Empire
    • So all those people crowded along the edges of the road from Bethany into Jerusalem were looking for liberation. They were looking for someone to swoop in and triumph over the Roman Empire and bring them back into the golden age of Jewish power – the days of King David and King Solomon and the united kingdoms of Israel and Judea.
      • Scene itself lends credibility to their expectations = fulfillment of a prophecy – Zech: Your king is coming! A good king who makes all things right, a humble king riding a donkey, a mere colt of a donkey … He will offer peace to the nations, a peaceful rule worldwide.[2]
      • Hear this in crowds’ cries: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven![3] → “The kingdom of our father David.” Not “the kingdom of God” that Jesus was always talking about. “The kingdom of our father David.” The crowd was imploring Jesus to bring them back to those glory days – those days of independence and might.
    • Crowd’s triumph = hope-fueled triumph → They thought this Jesus character riding in on the back of a donkey was going to bring them deliverance, salvation. And they truly had no idea how right they were.
  • We can also imagine the triumph of the disciples as they walked along beside Jesus and that donkey.
    • Dusty, bedraggled pack of 12 who had been following Jesus from one place to the next for years → They’d been …
      • Listening – parables, pronouncements, lessons
      • Watching – healings, miracles
      • Encountering crowds in lots of places – hilltops, villages, sea shores → But this crowd was different. This crowd was treating Jesus not as a teacher but as a king. There was recognition and veneration and power in their words and actions and attitude.
    • You see, these disciples already believed that Jesus was the One. They were already wholly convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. But now an entire crowd was not only whispering it amongst themselves, they were literally shouting it in the street. They were laying down their cloaks and their palm branches on the road as they would have for any anointed king of Israel.
      • Triumph = vindicated triumph → Here they were entering Jerusalem (the Holy City) for Passover (one of the holiest celebrations of the year), and their beloved teacher was finally being recognized as a leader – even as a king! – right under the noses of both the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. The disciples had been right all along, and now even more people were going to know it.
  • Ahhh, but we can also imagine the triumph of those authorities as they watched Jesus enter Jerusalem in such a manner.
    • Wouldn’t have been much of a blip on the Romans radar (as long as he didn’t incite a riot)
    • But the Sanhedrin – the Jewish leaders – was a different story. → been stirring up trouble for them for a long time
      • Teaching when he shouldn’t be teaching
      • Violating the Sabbath prohibition on working by doing ridiculous things like healing people and harvesting grain for his hungry followers
      • Blatantly challenging their interpretation of Scripture → criticizing them for their hypocrisy and willful ignorance
      • Jesus and his ragtag band of followers had been a thorn in their side for so long. And this triumphal entry of his – the parade into the city – was going too far.
        • Triumphal entry = echoes of ancient Jewish kings riding back into the city after victory in battle
          • Historical precedent
            • Solomon riding into the city on the back of King David’s donkey for his own anointing as king[4]
            • People throwing their robes down on the ground before Jehu when he was anointed as king[5]
    • The Sanhedrin would’ve seen this type of entry as presumptuous, brazen. And as dangerous! I know the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin get a bad rap, but they weren’t picking on Jesus just for the sake of picking on him. In their minds, they were protecting …
      • Their faith according to what they believed about Jewish law
        • Specific ways to do and not do things
        • Specific rules to follow about cleanliness and the Sabbath and a myriad of other things
        • 613 in the Torah (sacred Scriptures)
        • And it’s true that Jesus wasn’t following all of these.
      • Their people and their way of life → Jews had more freedoms under Roman occupation than some of the other conquering nations that they had dealt with, but they were still closely watched and stringently controlled, especially in cases that may have led to revolt against the Roman Empire. Jesus was sure to catch the attention of the Roman authorities this time, and as the leaders of this community – the ones in charge, the ones responsible, that was a serious thread for them. Add that to a long list of Jesus’ other “offenses,” and it was enough to tip the scales against him for good.
        • Just a short time later in gospel of Mark: It was two days before the Passover and the festival of the Unleavened Bread, and the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.[6]
      • Sanhedrin’s triumph plays out in darkness of the week to come
        • Their triumph (soon to come) = vanquishing triumph
          • Scholar: Within a week, acclaim will turn into humiliation and mockery. Palm Sunday leads [necessarily] to Good Friday. The honored Jesus is also the humiliated Jesus.[7] → In their triumph is Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. In their triumph is Jesus’ pain and humiliation, being mocked and beaten, spit upon and paraded before a jeering, angry crowd – the same crowd that had triumphantly cheered his arrival only days earlier. In their triumph are Jesus’ last steps, last words, last breath. In their triumph is Jesus’ death.
  • But friends, this is where we find the greatest triumph of all. Unlike the crowds thronging the road into Jerusalem that morning, unlike the disciples, unlike the Sanhedrin, we know the end of this story. We know that at the end of the darkness and agony of the week to come is a bright and overwhelming light –the light of a resurrected Christ, the light of God obliterating death’s grasp forevermore, the light of triumph.
    • Ps this morning speaks to that triumph
      • God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.[8]
      • Therefore we will not fear![9]
      • God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved![10]
      • In the words of this psalm, we hear reassurance in God’s presence with and care for the world. We hear God’s powerful goodness and protection. We hear God’s steadfastness and holy presence. – The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.[11]
        • I imagine this is a reassurance that Jesus clung to throughout that week, maybe even as he rode into Jerusalem on the back of that donkey. Remember, though the crowds and the disciples and even the Sanhedrin were unaware of what was coming, Jesus knew.
          • Predicts death multiple times in gospels – e.g.s:
            • Jesus’ words in Mk: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religious scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.[12]
            • Jesus’ words just before triumphal entry in Mt: “Listen to me carefully. We are on our way up to Jerusalem. When we get there, the Son of Man will be betrayed to the religious leaders and scholars. They will sentence him to death. They will then hand him over to the Romans for mockery and torture and crucifixion. On the third day he will be raised up alive.”[13]
      • With this knowledge in his head and in his heart, I can imagine Jesus turning to the psalm we read this morning in his time of need.
        • Need for courage in the face of chaos
        • Need for strength in the face of shame
        • Need for purpose in the face of pain
        • Need for triumph in the face of treachery
  • It may be true that in the Sanhedrin’s triumph is Jesus’ death, but in Jesus’ death is God’s great triumph of salvation. This is what we have to cling to as we travel through the darkness of Holy Week with Jesus and with each other. This is the joy and the triumph that moves us to shout our “Hosanna”s. This is the hope that we have and the light that we share. God is our refuge and strength. God is our comfort and protection. And God was and is and will be triumphant in the face of whatever darkness is to come. Amen.

[1] Michael Battle. “Sixth Sunday in Lent (Liturgy of the Palms) – Mark 11:1-11, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 154.

[2] Zech 9:9, 10.

[3] Mk 11:9-10 (emphasis added).

[4] 1 Kgs 1:38.

[5] 2 Kgs 9:13.

[6] Mk 14:1 (NRSV).

[7] Margaret A. Farley. “Sixth Sunday in Lent (Liturgy of the Palms) – Mark 11:1-11, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 154.

[8] Ps 46:1 (NRSV).

[9] Ps 46:2 (NRSV).

[10] Ps 46:5 (NRSV).

[11] Ps 46:7, 11.

[12] Mk 8:31-32.

[13] Mt 20:17-19.

Sunday’s sermon: There and Back Again

Last week, I ended up with a lovely case of strep throat. (Ahhhh … the joys of being a pastor whose husband is a teacher and whose kids go to daycare. Germs germs germs galore!) Anyway, as you know, we have been journeying through Lent with the parable of the prodigal son and looking at the story from all sorts of different character perspectives. We started with the father, then the older brother, then the mother. Last week was supposed to be the road, and this week, we were going to finish up with the prodigal son himself. However, since most people have heard at least one sermon on the prodigal son, I decided to finish up the series with our final installment this week ……..

Texts for this sermon: Ephesians 2:1-10 and Luke 15:11-32 (The Message)

Red Dirt Road

Of rocks
of gravel
of footprints
     & hoof prints,
     cart tracks
     & camel tracks.
The road goes ever on and on,
                   and the dust clings to our souls.

  • When I was in elementary school, there was a conference that I looked forward to attending every year. At the time, it was called the Young Writers Conference, and it was held at Mankato State University.
    • Googled the conference the other day → newest iteration: Young Writers and Artists Conference[1] held at Bethany Lutheran College
    • Basic format:
      • Keynote presentation
      • 2 sessions before lunch, 1 session after lunch
    • Now, it probably won’t surprise you much to learn that I loved to write as a child, so aside from Christmas and my birthday, the Young Writers Conference was probably my favorite day of the year! I loved going to the various sessions and learning new and different things about writing – how to develop characters, how to map out a plot line, poetry writing, and so on. I went every year for 4 years, and while I remember thoroughly enjoying every minute of every Young Writers Conference that I attended, there’s only one specific session that I vividly remember to this day.
      • Session on seeing the story from a different perspective – point of view of things you wouldn’t normally think of as having a voice → worked with fairy tales for familiarity’s sake
        • “Princess and the Pea” from the point of view of the pea
        • “Cinderella” from the point of view of the glass slipper
        • One story from the point of view of a dress (though I don’t remember which fairy tale that one went along with)
      • And that’s sort of what we’re going to do today. We’ve talked about most of the obvious characters in the parable of the prodigal son – the father and the older brother. We talked last week about a silent character in the story: the mother. This week, we’re going to consider the significance of an unexpected and slightly unorthodox character: that of the road itself.

Of rocks
of gravel
of footprints
     & hoof prints,
     cart tracks
     & camel tracks.
The road goes ever on and on,
                   and the dust clings to our souls. 

  • You see, throughout this parable, the road is itself a constant presence.
    • Parable begins on the road – prodigal son packing all his belongings and traveling to a “distant land”[2] → Think of what the road must have meant to the younger son at that moment.
      • Freedom – no longer under the control of his father or his relentlessly responsible older brother
      • Possibility – The younger son surely knew what kind of future awaited him if he stayed at home: farm work, predictability, more and more of the same. But out there … out on the road … who knows what awaits the younger son out there?
      • And from that possibility → adventure! – How many novels, poems, movies, and songs have been written about the call of the open road?
        • E.g. – first lines of “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman: Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road/Healthy, free, the world before me,/The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.[3]
        • E.g. – 80s classic one-hit-wonder by Scottish rock duo The Proclaimers[4]
        • Probably one of the most well-known stories: J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories from Middle Earth – The Hobbit[5] and The Lord of the Rings[6]
          • “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”[7]
  • But the thing about adventure is that it isn’t always what we’re looking for. At the beginning of his own adventure, Bilbo Baggins, the main character in The Hobbit, could easily be described as downright adverse to adventure when it shows up on his doorstep: “Adventures?” replied Bilbo. “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! … Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today.”[8] And even when we begin willingly and excitedly following the road to adventure, sometimes the road takes a turn we aren’t anticipating – a turn we don’t like, a turn we don’t want to take.
    • Text: About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him to feed his pigs.[9] → certainly not a turn that the younger son wanted to take – go from living the high life to begging for his life
      • Utter distress of situation = abundantly clear in Gr. – “signed on” = joined to/clung to → shows just how desperate the young man was
        • Clinging to this unknown farmer willing to give him a job
        • Clinging to the most unclean animals according to Jewish religion – pigs
        • Clinging to life: He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.[10]
    • And aren’t there are plenty of times when the road of life that we ourselves are traveling takes twists and turns we’d rather avoid?
      • Some resulting from our choices – Eph speaks to this: It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat.[11] → We all make decisions and choices that we’re not proud of. We make mistakes. We misunderstand. We judge. We think of ourselves instead of others.
        • Our working, theological definition of sin = consciously acting counter to God’s goodness and love → It could be as seemingly-simple as gossiping, passing on a rumor without getting accurate information from the source. Or it could be as harmful as violence against another person. Both of these actions mar the face of God’s creation and cause pain.
      • But there are plenty of other twists and turns in the road of life that nobody chooses. No one chooses to …
        • To be sick (cancer, Alzheimer’s, any other disease)
        • To suffer addiction
        • To lose a job, a home, a loved one
        • To battle depression, schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses
        • To find their home in the path of a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami, a flood, or an earthquake
      • And yet, these challenges and more are a part of our lives. The road goes up. The road goes down. And always, the road is there.

Of rocks
of gravel
of footprints
     & hoof prints,
     cart tracks
     & camel tracks.
The road goes ever on and on,
                   and the dust clings to our souls.

  • Ahhh, but for the younger son, the road turned again. That dusty, gravel-laden path that carried him away from his home and his family and everything else that he held dear (except, of course, his squandered inheritance) is the same path that provided him a way back home again. But first, he had to open his eyes and his heart to that way back home.
    • Prodigal son’s decision to take that road home = precipitated by sharp self-realization
      • The Message: “That brought him to his senses” (‘that’ being his predicament of destitution and starvation)
      • NRSV: “He came to himself”
      • Implies a revelation – more than a simple whim → scholar: He realizes the profound discontinuity between who he has become and who he truly is. He does not have it figured out, but he knows something is not the way it is supposed to be. … Something inside of him says, “You were not meant for this.” … So he decides to go home.[12]
        • Once the prodigal son “returned to himself” – once he turned away from the mistakes he’d made and the wayward path he’d strayed – the prodigal son’s feet found the road home again.
    • Road had always been available to him – always open, always there, always waiting → no different than the way back to God when we’ve found ourselves astray
      • Mercy is always there to bring us back again
      • Love is always there to bring us back again
      • The prodigal son didn’t create this way home. He didn’t forge a new path or anything like that. All he did was get his mind and his ego out of his heart’s way.
    • Hear this in Eph text, too: Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, [God] embraced us. [God] took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. [God] did all this on his own, with no help from us! … No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.[13] → God creates the way home for us – that road of forgiveness and mercy, of acknowledgment and

Of rocks
of gravel
of footprints
     & hoof prints,
     cart tracks
     & camel tracks.
The road goes ever on and on,
                   and the dust clings to our souls.

  • And the dust clings to our souls … Yes, the dust clings. I grew up on a farm at the end of a mile-long gravel road, so I’ve known my whole life how insidious and inescapable road dust is. When you walk in it, it clings to your shoes and your pant legs. When you drive in it, it clings to your car and everything in it. And if, God forbid, you happen to be walking when someone drives past you, the dust that gets kicked up will cling to your hair, your clothes, and your lungs. The road goes ever on and on, and the dust clings to our souls. But that’s not the only thing that clings to us. No matter what road we’re traveling, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in or how far away we feel, God’s grace clings to us – unshakable and abundant and permeating.
    • Turns and returns our hearts to God
    • Turns and returns our souls to God
    • Turns and returns our lives to God
    • Eph: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.[14]
    • In the stories of our lives, in the stories of our faith, the road goes ever on and on, and God’s grace clings to our souls. And friends, let me say: Thank God for that. Amen.

[1] http://mnscsc.org/Programs—Services/Student-Academic-Enrichment/Young-Writers—Artists-Conference.aspx.

[2] Lk 15:13.

[3] Walt Whitman. “Song of the Open Road” in Leaves of Grass, © 1856. Accessed via http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178711 on 12 Mar. 2015.

[4] “I’m Gonna Be” by The Proclaimers, found on Sunshine on Leith album, 1988.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. (London, England: George Allen & Unwin), 1937.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings triology (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King). (London, England: George Allen & Unwin), 1954, 1954, 1955.

[7] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. (London, England: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1954), 72.

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. (London, England: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1937), 6, 7.

[9] Lk 15:14-15.

[10] Lk 15:16.

[11] Eph 2:1-3a.

[12] Michael B. Curry. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119.

[13] Eph 2:4-5, 10.

[14] Eph 2:8-9 (NRSV) (emphasis added).

Sunday’s sermon: Unshakable Love

Prodigal son - mother
artwork by Charlie Mackesy

Texts for this sermon – Exodus 2:1-10 and Luke 15:11-32 (KJV)

  • Up to this point in our Prodigal son Lenten series, we’ve spent time with a couple of the obvious characters – the father and the older brother. We’ve fleshed out their stories a little and tried to understand the intricacies of this story from their perspectives, but we’ve had the text to help guide our journey and speak to the mindset of these characters. But this week and next week, we’re venturing off the beaten path. We’re going to explore some of the silent characters in the story – the voices we don’t hear, the missing pieces to the puzzle. → this week: the mother
    • Perspective that’s going to require us to use our imaginations
      • Who was this woman?
      • How did she experience this saga?
      • What can our guesses and imaginings about part she played teach us about our lives of faith?
    • Part of challenge of imagining this unnamed woman’s role – everyone has a different experience of “mother” → Those who fulfill that “mother” role are different for everyone. Think for a minute of all the mother figures you’ve had in your life – all the women who’ve taught you, helped you, shaped you, strengthened you, and above all else, loved you. These are the “mothers” we’re talking about today – literal and figurative mothers, anyone who’s ever fulfilled the role of “mother” in any of the ways that matter: mothers in name and body and deed and heart.
  • OT story = perfection illustration of fact that mothers come in all shapes, sizes and iterations
    • Context within rest of the Exodus story: new Pharaoh comes to power in Egypt = greatly alarmed by vast population of Hebrew slaves (“What if they rise up against us?! What if there is a war and they join with our enemies?! What if they decide to just up and leave us worker-less?!”) → Pharaoh decides to quell population by directing all Hebrew midwives to kill newborn baby boys → midwives disobey, so Pharaoh gives command to all the people of Egypt: Drown the baby boys in the Nile![1]
    • 2 obvious mother figures: Moses’ birth mother and adoptive mother (Pharaoh’s daughter)
      • Mothering from Moses’ birth mother = protection – text: The woman became pregnant and had a son. She saw there was something special about him and hid him. She hid him for three months. When she couldn’t hide him any longer she got a little basket-boat made of papyrus, waterproofed it with tar and pitch, and placed the child in it. Then she set it afloat in the reeds at the edge of the Nile.[2]
        • Do you realize how dangerous this woman’s actions are? Can you grasp how subversive and seditious and rebellious she is being? The Pharaoh was regarded as a god by the Egyptians. Pharaoh’s word was law … PERIOD. No questions. No objections. Certainly no disobedience, especially for slaves like her. And yet she defied Pharaoh’s order to save the life of her son.
      • Mothering from Pharaoh’s daughter = deliverance: [Pharaoh’s daughter] saw the basket-boat floating in the reeds and sent her maid to get it. She opened it and saw the child – a baby crying! Her heart went out to him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrew babies.”[3] → adopts Moses as her own son
        • Again, there is defiance and disobedience in this mothering. Pharaoh’s daughter herself recognizes that Moses must be a Hebrew baby – one of those whom her father had sentenced to death. But instead of carrying out Pharaoh’s atrocious decree, she brings this condemned one into her home – into Pharaoh’s own palace and family line – to raise as her own.
      • Less obvious mother figure = Moses’ sister – text: The baby’s older sister found herself a vantage point a little way off and watched to see what would happen to him. … Then his sister was before [Pharaoh’s daughter]: “Do you want me to go and get a nursing mother from the Hebrews so she can nurse the baby for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said, “Yes. Go.” The girl went and called the child’s mother.[4] → This precocious big sister watches out for Moses, both literally as she follows his river journey in the basket and figuratively as she finds his own mother to nurse and nurture him for Pharaoh’s daughter once he’s been pulled from the river.
      • And because we cannot help but be affected by the mothers and mother figures in our own lives, why on earth would we neglect someone who must have had an influence in the life of the prodigal son just because she isn’t given a speaking part in this story.
  • You know, people often joke about things “only a mother could love” – a face, a voice, and so on. More often than not, these are self-deprecating jokes at best – ways for us to make fun of ourselves and our own perceived imperfections. But behind these jokes are both the recognition that there are things about us that are sometimes difficult to love and the age-old knowledge that our mothers – adoptive mothers, birth mothers, mother figures of all sorts – love us even in the face of those foibles. → journey of the prodigal son = life path only a mother could love
    • Talked about father’s love and generosity of spirit a few weeks ago → build on that for unvoiced mother: As the father grieved his son’s departure, we can guess the mother did, too. As the father worried and prayed each and every day for the younger son’s safe return, we can guess the mother did, too. As the father ardently celebrated the younger son’s homecoming, we can guess the mother did, too.
      • Scholar: We get the sense that the spurned parent was in fact keeping vigil, praying for the day his boy would return. … The father remained hopeful that the seeds he had once sown in love night yet be harvested in the return of his child.[5] = words that could certainly be reflected in the mother, too → The prodigal son left his whole He left his father, yes. He left his brother, yes. And he left his mother. She was a spurned parent, too. She sowed her own seeds of love in the life of that son who turned away.
        • Unconditional kind of love – love that spans …
          • All our idiosyncrasies
          • All our temper flares and frustrations and accusations
          • All our mistakes
        • Unshakable kind of love – love that follows us …
          • No matter how far away we are
          • No matter how many barriers we try to build
          • No matter where we try to hide
        • Love poignantly and powerful given voice in blog post:

You won’t remember the way I stood in the bathroom late that night in labor with you, fearfully and excitedly gazing up at the moon, knowing I was going to bring you into the world soon and whispering to you, “We can do this.”

You won’t remember the way you looked at me right after you were born, or the way I pulled you up next to my heart and marveled “Hi, baby” in your ear.

You won’t remember the way you healed my broken spirit. The way you completed my heart. I was weak before I had you, and you made me whole again.

You won’t remember the way I proudly watched you everywhere we went, you were always the most beautiful boy in the room to me.

You won’t remember the way you made me laugh with all of the silly things you did. I saw how kind your heart was.

You won’t remember the way I would brush the hair off of your forehead and the way you’d look up at me. Without any words, our souls could touch and say everything to each other that words couldn’t.

You won’t remember the tickle fests we had, and how I always cheated so I could hold you close and cover your salty little face in kisses.

You won’t remember all the times I went to bed at night and felt such fear being your mother: Am I doing okay? Have I messed up too many times already? Can I be the kind of mother he needs?

You won’t remember the way my heart broke and grew a little bigger each time you passed a milestone, watching the sand fall through the hourglass while feeling overjoyed witnessing you expand and grow.

You won’t remember the way I would hold your little feet in my hands, imagining how much bigger than my own feet they will one day grow, and how I will have to let you go.

You won’t remember, but I will… and I’ll hold these memories in my heart for the both of us.[6]

  • Friends, this is the kind of love freely given to us by God. Unconditional love that covers us. Unshakable love that follows us. Love that is immovable in the midst of all our ups and downs. Love that revels in the ordinary, everyday moments for the precious moments of intimacy that they are.
    • Scholar: As the story [of the prodigal son] unfolds, it is clear that … in the end, this parable points to the great embrace and deep expansive love, compassion, and justice of God, deeper, wider, and higher than our imagining.[7]
    • Scripture = clear that we’ve been taken into God’s heart, scooped up as beloved children – Gal: You can tell for sure that you are fully adopted as [God’s] own children because God sent the Spirit of [God’s] own Son into our lives crying out, “[Abba!] Father!” Doesn’t that privilege of intimate conversation with God make it plain that you are not a slave, but a child?[8] → comes with the kind of love we see in today’s passages
      • Protective love
      • Nurturing love
      • Saving love
      • Unconditional love
      • Unshakable love
  • But how does this inform or inspire our faith? Well, think about the mother figures in your life this morning. Think about all of the things that they’ve done with you and for you, all the love they’ve given away not because you asked them for it or because you earned it but simply because it is the most precious and exceptional thing that they can give you. As mothers give that love away, they do so with the hope that the ones they’re loving will someday find someone else to love, too.
    • We find a home and hope in God’s unconditional and inescapable love
    • BUT we also are called to give that home and that hope of unconditional and inescapable love to others
      • Jesus’ command to Peter in Jn: This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love.[9] → extends beyond our own families and friends, our own loved ones – even extends to those we find it difficult to love
        • Scholar: Sharing in God’s grace requires that we join in the celebration when others are recipients of that grace also. … Each person is of such value to God that none is excluded from God’s grace. Neither should we withhold our forgiveness.[10]
          • Grace so expansive, it cannot be held back
          • Forgiveness so expansive, it cannot be hoarded
          • Love so expansive, it cannot help but be shared
          • That is our charge. That is our challenge. That is our call – to take that unshakable love that we find in God and share it with the people in this world who need it most.
            • Not bestowing it on them on God’s behalf – it’s a love always accessible to every single person in this world
            • Open their eyes to this love – help them to see/recognize love that already exists for them, already follows them, already covers them … Amen.

[1] Ex 1.

[2] Ex 2:2-3 (The Message).

[3] Ex 2:5-6 (The Message).

[4] Ex 2:7-8 (The Message).

[5] Daniel G. Deffenbaugh. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 118.

[6] Jessica Dimas. “You Won’t Remember, But I Will” posted to The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jessica-dimas/you-wont-remember-but-i-w_b_6357936.html. Posted 23 Dec. 2014, edited 22 Feb. 2015. Accessed 5 Mar. 2015.

[7] Michael B. Curry. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 121.

[8] Gal 4:6-7a (The Message).

[9] Jn 15:12-13a (The Message).

[10] R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 305.

Sunday’s sermon: All’s Fair?

Prodigal son - older brother

Texts for this sermon:
Philippians 2:1-10 and Luke 15:11-32 (Common English Bible)

This sermon is the 2nd in our Lenten series on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week, we read the story from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible and explored the role of the father. This week, our text came from the Common English Bible and explores the role of the older brother.

  • The media have been calling it “DanceGate.” Have you heard of it?
    • Valentine’s Day weekend – MSHSL held class AAA dance team state competition
    • Competition marred by controversy → previous complaints filed against the Faribault team with the MSHSL that part of team’s routine had been stolen from another out-of-state team
      • Now by time of the competition that weekend, MSHSL officials had already reviewed the accusations and found that routine was above board. But when it was announced that the previously-accused Faribault team had actually won the championship, the other teams were not very happy about it. → other 5 top teams refused to participate in medals ceremony
        • Refused to come up and accept their own medals
        • Even went so far as to collectively turn their backs on Faribault team when they received their medals
      • Now, I’ve seen the videos. I’m no dance expert by any stretch of the imagination, but to my amateur eyes, a short portion of Faribault’s routine does look very similar to the out-of-state team’s routine. The costumes and make-up look very similar. The music is the same. But in the midst of the controversy that has blown up around this, I think the issue is not what the Faribault team did or didn’t do but instead the response of the other teams. To me, this unsportsmanlike display seems to take the classic childish phrase “It’s not fair” to the extreme.
        • “It’s not fair” response from the other dancers, some of whom gathered outside Faribault’s changing area afterward to shout taunts and insults at them
        • “It’s not fair” response from the coaches that also participated in collective snubbing
        • “It’s not fair” response from the parents that encouraged this behavior in their children
  • And “it’s not fair” is the response that we heard this morning from the older brother in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, too. This brother finds all kinds of things about his brother’s actions unfair.
    • The actual work to be done – older brother: It’s not fair!
      • Know older brother has been working – text: Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing.[1] → According to cultural norms of the time, we can guess that he hasn’t just been strolling around out in the field twiddling his thumbs and acting the part of the indifferent overseer. He was out in the fields that day because he was working, and anyone who’s ever worked on a farm knows there’s only one kind of work: hard work.
        • Imagine the son toiling away out in the fields
          • Sore back
          • Sore hands and feet
          • Sweat pouring from his brow
          • And this image is certainly a far cry from the lavish life that he thought his brother had been leading. Why should this frivolous younger brother get to have his cake and eat it too while the older brother was stuck working so dang hard? It really wasn’t fair.
    • Older brother = also angry about perceived imbalance of each brother’s devotion/dedication
      • In his eyes, it’s plain that the younger brother’s devotion lies anywhere but with the father who loved and raise them. And remember what a slight this is to the father, the patriarch. → last week: younger son’s demand that father give him his portion of the inheritance early = treated father like he was already dead (major insult)
        • Older brother’s response: How devoted could this egotistical younger brother be to their father if he’s willing to treat him like he’s already dead?
        • Find an interesting nuance in language of older son’s complaint that his brother “[gobbled] up [their father’s] estate” – Gr. “estate” = livelihood, everyday life itself → I have to wonder if the older brother was upset about more than just material wealth here. He was the one who stayed behind and witnessed the stress and strain and sorrow that his father experienced when his younger brother took off. He alone had stayed with their father. He alone had continuously fulfilled his cultural and familial duties as a son. And yet this brother who had insolently turned his back and walked away was being welcomed home like a king? It really wasn’t fair.
    • And this indignation bleeds over into the next – older brother’s dismay over the dividing of the inheritance in the first place and how it was spent → Here, I think we encounter a little of the older brother’s frustration not with his younger brother but with his father. He was so generous when the younger brother asked. He was so generous when he let the younger brother leave. And now he was being so infuriatingly generous with the younger brother’s return!
      • This is the essence of the first half of his complaint – text: Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.[2]
        • Typical oldest-child complaint – “guinea pig child”: All the rules were made for me to follow and for my younger sibling to break
    • Following thread of typical birth order psychology, find older brother’s final complaint: his younger brother’s complete irresponsibility
      • Again, see weight of this in Gr. – older brother to father: I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction.
        • “disobeyed” = neglected, passed by – implies that the older brother has not only not disobeyed the father’s commands but that he hasn’t even left a command undone → No “selective hearing” for this guy. While his younger brother followed his every whim, the older brother followed his father’s every command. It really wasn’t fair.
  • As people of faith, this perspective of the older brother in the story can be troublesome for us. We’ve been taught that we’re supposed to be generous and gracious and forgiving like the father, not frustrated and demanding and disparaged like the older brother. We’re uncomfortable with his angry outburst.
    • And yet, in the back of our minds, we know that sometimes we feel a heck of a lot more like the older brother than anyone else in this story.
      • Feel slighted
      • Feel frustrated
      • Feel self-righteous
      • Feel like other people have had nothing but blessings heaped on them while we’ve had nothing but responsibilities heaped on us
    • Talked last week about the radical grace of the father in the story – extravagant generosity, unconditional love, and powerful forgiveness all rolled up into one → Sometimes that kind of radical grace astounds us, and sometimes – when we’re road-weary, field-weary, life-weary … when we’ve been working so hard we can barely see straight – sometimes that radical grace is hard to swallow. And just as the older brother succumbed to his frustrations, our own frustrations can sometimes overwhelm us, leaving us feeling angry and negative and dejected.
      • Purpose of older son’s perspective in the story = not to make us feel bad in times like these but to instead put a name and a voice with the way that God knew people would sometimes feel
        • Older brother’s role acknowledges our own challenges
        • Older brother’s role acknowledges our own frustrations
        • Through older brother, God saying, “Yes, this is going to happen.”
          • Times when we struggle
          • Times when our focus turns too far inward
          • Our own “it’s not fair” moments in life and in faith
    • But what is the father’s reaction to the older son? Does he get mad and shout or turn him away from the party or laugh off his complaints or scorn his righteous indignation? No.
      • Text: Then his father said, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.”[3]
        • First, reassures that there is plenty of grace – plenty of generosity, love and forgiveness – to go around: Everything I have is yours.
        • Also reiterates just how life-saving younger son’s return was – puts things in perspective for the older son → While the older son is stuck in a place of worrying more about what’s “fair” than about what’s gracious, the father gently reminds him that grace was made for just such a time as this – a time when fairness falls short, a time when what’s truly “fair” is also truly callous, truly harmful, truly heartbreaking. He had already lost his younger son once. He wasn’t about to thrust him into lostness all over again.
        • Scholar’s words from last week still apply: Grace lies at the heart of this parable – scandalous grace, grace that defies all earthy rules and conventions.[4]
    • This is also why we read the passage from Philippians this morning. → guidelines for following God’s powerful example of grace – text: If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care – then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.[5]
      • Gives us the ultimate e.g. of enacted grace = Christ: Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death –and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.[6] → Can we be perfectly grace-filled and selfless like Christ all the time? No. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to have bad days and bad tempers. But that doesn’t make us bad people or bad Christians. It just makes us human. The call that we hear – from Paul’s message to the Philippians and from the perspective of the older son in the parable – is that we cannot let those challenging moments be the end of our story.
        • Interesting to note Jesus ends parable with father’s words (“this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.”) → emphasizes supremacy and finality of grace – literally gives grace the last word – but also leaves door open on the end of the older son’s story
          • Leaves the door open for forgiveness
          • Leaves the door open for reconciliation
          • Leaves the door open for grace
          • Amen.

[1] Lk 15:25 (CEB).

[2] Lk 15:29 (CEB).

[3] Lk 15:31-32 (CEB).

[4] Deffenbaugh, 118.

[5] Phil 2:1-4 (The Message).

[6] Phil 2:8 (The Message).

Mar. newsletter piece

When I was a little girl – probably 3 or 4 years old – we lived in a trailer on my grandma’s farm yard. The yard was a mile away from the highway down a gravel road, and my mom used to like to go for walks down that road.

One beautiful summer afternoon, Mom decided to go for one of her walks. I was supposed to stay on the yard with my dad, who was out in his shop working on some sort of farm thing or another. (I was a little kid … all I knew was that it was enormous and had wheels.) But the day was so beautiful, and the road didn’t look that long. I decided I wanted to take my doll in her buggy down the road to walk with Mom. So I started walking.

It didn’t take that long to catch up with Mom because she was already on her way back, and from what I remember, it was fun walking and pushing my doll buggy as it bumped along the gravel. It was fun … until we got back to the yard and I realized just how worried and scared my dad was. One minute, I had been there. The next minute, I was gone. Only now that I am a parent am I truly able to appreciate what I must have put him through that day.

And the father said, … “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:24)

At its heart, the story of the prodigal son is a “lost and found” story. As the father so joyfully declares, the younger son was lost and is found. The son himself loses sight of the importance of family and finds it again. The older brother gets lost in his indignation and resentment; it is up to us to draw our own conclusions as to whether he finds a way out.

Every way we look at this story, there are elements of being lost and being found.

But what does that mean? What does it mean to be lost? What does it mean to be found? How do we know when we’re lost or when we’re found?

Well, that’s a bit of a trick question. Yes, Jesus’ parable is often interpreted to convey the idea that when we come before God and repent of our sins, our names move from the “lost” column to the “found” column in the Giant Book of the World. But I’m challenging that interpretation because in order to it to be true, it would have to mean that we are lost from God in the first place – that something about what we’ve said or done has put us in a place that is out of God’s reach, and only by our own effort and volition can we scrabble our way back to a “findable” place.

But anyone who’s ever felt lost knows how truly impossible that can be. When you’re in that place of loss – whether you’ve lost your hope, your trust, your sense of self, your comfort, or anything else that normally keeps you grounded – you don’t feel like you have the strength to even lift your eyes. You don’t feel like you have the spiritual coordination to even begin to drag yourself to some arbitrary “findable” place.

In truth, we are never actually lost to God because we are never out of God’s reach. Paul said as much to the Christians in Rome:

I’m absolutely convinced that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus [the Christ] has embraced us. (Romans 8:38-39)

You see, that’s what grace is all about. Grace is about God reaching down to us even when we feel like we’re in the most unreachable place imaginable because no matter how unreachable we feel, we are never truly out of God’s reach.

That being said, the story of the prodigal son is still a “lost and found” story because it reminds us of some of the things we may have lost or lost sight of; things that we may be desperate to find again.

We find grace.

We find compassion.

We find generosity.

We find God.

Pastor Lisa sign