Easter 2013 “I Got Nothin'” Luke 26:1-16

            Christmas and Easter present a unique challenge to both the preacher and to those attending church.  Any other Sunday there is an even chance that one or both of us may be surprised by what we hear.   Any other Sunday, you might come wondering what the scripture passage will be, and what the Pastor might be preaching on.

            But on Christmas you know you’re going to hear about Jesus’ birth, and on Easter, you know you’re going to hear one of the resurrection accounts.

           I’ve gone over this resurrection account from Luke with a fine tooth comb, gleaning it for every interesting approach, every aside, every interesting detail.  I’ve been drawn to the “idle tale” element of Luke’s account.  I have lifted up the role of the women, walked through the details of what those men in white have to say, and panted with the disciples as they ran to see what the women saw.    After 28 years of doing this, do you know what I’ve got this year?

            I got nothin’….

            Yep, that’s right, you all came here dressed in your finest for Easter services and some ray of hope or witty turn of phrase from your spiritual leader, and what he has to confess to you is that he’s got nothin’.  After 28 years, of preaching and 54 years of hearing it, nothing in this Gospel hits me.

            Maybe Hollywood is right, maybe it’s time to update these old bible stories with a little more pizazz.    That’s all the rage is right now.Image

           I don’t have Cable, so I really can’t comment on the five part mini-series out on the History Channel or how it has been, except from what I hear in the news.   People are watching this in record numbers.  They estimate that over 100 million viewers around the world will have tuned in by the time the conclusion airs tonight.  That’s impressive!  That will make it the #1 most watched broadcast of the year. The History Channel has found a way to condense 4000 years of God at work with God’s people in five two hour segments, which seems to be what the attention span of the modern, or post-modern person can handle.

            As I look at Luke’s recounting of the resurrection, I can tell that it would benefit from a little touch of Hollywood.    It’s really quite boring and understated when you read it.

            The women go to the tomb expecting to find a body, and what do they find instead?  An empty tomb!

            Now, a good Hollywood rendering of this scene would have involved bright lights, screeching sound effects, maybe a rumble or explosion as the stone was blown away and Jesus stepped out into the daylight.

            Instead, they get nothin’….. literally.   “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.

            Nothin’…..they got nothin’.

            In Luke’s account of the resurrection the women don’t even get the benefit of meeting Jesus in the garden later on, or anywhere along the way to reassure them, or tell them what to do.   I mean, a good special effect moment with Jesus would have gone a long way toward giving them something spectacular to share with Peter and the others.   Instead what they get are two men dressed in white who ask them why they are looking for the living among the dead.

            Well duuuuh…. Because the last we saw of Jesus he was dead as a doornail, why would we expect anything else?

            Not the height of drama there.  

            It’s the same with the disciples.   After the witness of the women, they run head long back to the tomb hoping, expecting to find a body, or those men in white, or maybe someone along the way who might know what happened to the body.   They arrive breathless, enter and look around, but what did they get?  

            They got nothin’…..

            No men in white.  Nothin’ but the linen cloth the body had been wrapped in lying there.   No explanations, no special effects, just amazement that the body was gone and nothing else was there.

            They got nothin’…

            There really isn’t a lot to hold on to in Luke’s account of the Resurrection if you are a disciple, or a close follower.   Wherever Jesus is now, he doesn’t seem very concerned about making his presence known to those who were close to him.   It’s not until much later that day that he appears along the road to Emmaus, and in the breaking of the bread, and then only briefly as he opens the scripture and then pops off out of the picture again.

            In fact, there is a strange sense in which what God does is reveal God’s self in the emptiness…. In the nothing…..

            It is in the absence of things that the mind races back over the story, trying to catch hold of something, anything that Jesus might have said about this before the events of trial, crucifixion and death.   

            It is in the absence of Jesus, of him not being where we thought he would be, that we find that our heart searches, and grasps at the nothin’ to try to make of it something.  It is because they find nothing at the tomb that the women reach back to the witness given to them, what Jesus said about in three days rising and reminding the disciples of that.   It is because they find nothing at the tomb that the disciples find themselves going back over what Jesus said.  

       It is the absence of Jesus in their lives that makes their hearts open to hearing the scriptures again, feeling them burn within them as that unknown travel companion opens the scriptures for them, showing them how all this had to be.

       Sometimes it is having nothin’ that helps us find something, something that all the special effects and whiz-bang visuals or empty platitudes cannot begin to convey.

       When I left the church on Thursday afternoon to make a quick run home for some dinner, as I walked out of the side door, I saw a young woman in a longish white top and jeans standing in front of the white cross out there by the little flower garden and sun dial.

         Such a thing causes a bit of a conflict in the pastor.

         Should I go over and ask her what she is doing?  That seemed self-evident, she was looking up at the cross, lost in thought.

         Should I ask her if she needs help?   As I looked at her standing there intent upon the cross it occurred to me that whatever I may have to offer would pale in comparison to what she was looking for in that symbol that held her attention.

         Should I introduce myself, maybe get her name for follow up as a potential member? 

        Or is this a moment when you trust the Holy Spirit.   No one finds that little white cross from a drive by.  She knew it was there, felt its pull, maybe from being a member here once, or from seeing at as she walked to MLM, or our food pantry, who knows?   At any rate she took the time to seek that cross’ shadow and stand before it.

         It occurred to me as I thought through these options before me how much I wanted to be center of the event, to be the one who swooped in to deliver the right word, the right gesture, just the right “moment” to assure her of God’s presence in her life.   I was thinking all “Hollywood.”     If I jazz it up, make it real, give her a good word, or maybe meet her need, then I’ll seal the faith deal for her.

          In the end, I opted to leave her to her moment, and to God’s keeping.   

          I had nothin’ really.  I had nothing to offer other than what she had perhaps already found, or was on the way to finding, or needing, or discovering.   If I am to be a part of her journey, then I trust that Jesus will do what he does post-resurrection, which is appear in the nothing as needed, and sometimes to not appear as that is needed as well, so that she will seek out the witness of others, maybe me, or someone else.  I had a profound sense that there wasn’t anything for me to say really, this was God’s moment. 

         Yep, you might say that Thursday afternoon I “got” nothin’.   

         I got the fact that I can’t prove the resurrection, or bring you to faith, or really give you anything that God in the Holy Spirit hasn’t already at been at work doing in you.  

         I “got” that whether I stood up here and gave the sermon of my life on Easter, or whether I just recited page 132 out of the phone book, it wouldn’t make any difference at all.   The Resurrected Lord is already meeting you in your daily life.   He comes at you through the witness of others, or he finds a way to connect with you in the quiet reflection as you stand in the shadow of a cross in a park.     

        I “got” that the Holy Spirit is already stirring in you to make you into the disciple that God knows you can be, and that there really isn’t a lot more than I can do other than to tell you what I have found, which is that in the emptiness your heart reaches out to find meaning, and it is then that the resurrection becomes something real.

        I get it… this resurrection thing.   It has nothing to do with what I say or do, any more than it had to do with the words of the women, or the witness of the men, or the rushing of the disciples to look and see for themselves.   All they get is nothin’….  

        No, the resurrection has everything to do with what God has done in not letting dead things lay around, which is what your discover when the tomb ends up empty.

        I get it… I got nothin’…. God has it all.

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Maundy Thursday 2013 “I don’t follow, Jesus.”

Luke 22:24-27

      A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

         It’s a tricky thing, this matter of who is greatest and what it means.    I’m not sure I quite follow Jesus here.

          O.K., I get the first part, I know what the Gentiles are like, I see quite enough of them modeled everywhere.   The Presidential Motorcade, the celebrity red carpet events, membership has its privilege, etc. etc.   The powerful, the influential those who hold the reigns of power, the movers and shakers, the ones who can make things happen with their intellect, or their position, or their vast resources and influence.

            I understand that.

            “But not so with you,”   Jesus says.

            Which, I have to admit is a little disappointing because this is what I aspire to, what I think we all aspire to become whether we like to admit it or not.

            We want to be people who make a difference in the world.

            We want to be the person who is looked up to, or listened to, and to whom people pay attention when we speak.

            We don’t want to be like “the youngest” again!   You know, that “last born” who is either a total brat or invisible, scraping for any little scrap of recognition that can come their way.

            I understand the dispute the disciples are engaged in as they debate which one of them was to be regarded as “the greatest.”  We live that dispute every day in one way or another, in our job, or in our family, or here in the church or in the neighborhood.  The dispute is the result of living in this world, and the day to day interactions we have with each other.

            We are fearfully and wonderfully made, in the image of God, so the scripture says.   We are unique individuals and with that unique point of view that God puts within us there is this natural tendency to get on one another’s nerves. 

            Have you noticed that?

            I mean, I like to cook and I can make a pretty good chicken noodle soup but it’s not MOM’s chicken noodle soup!  

            And so it begins, this ranking and rating, trying to determine which soup is better.  We are ranking and rating each other all the time, making determinations about who should make this decision or that, what the right protocol is for one thing or another.   What procedures should be followed, and which ones we can wink and nod at and move on.  To live in this world is to put oneself into the position of jockeying.   If you aren’t jostling for your position, advocating for your own self-interest, or stretching yourself to achieve, inspiring and aspiring in some way, then you aren’t really living.

            So I follow Jesus pretty well right up to this point.  

            I get that we are always rubbing each other the wrong way and jockeying for position.

            I get that Jesus says it should not be so among us, even if that’s REALLY the way I want it to be, and I find myself battling against those urges that are a normal and natural part of this life to “be” something.

            But this is where I don’t follow, Jesus:  “For who is greater, (Jesus asks) the one who is at the table or the one who serves?”

            Now, if you stopped this passage right there, I would still be following and all good with it because what I would expect would be this great “role reversal” that Jesus is so very fond of doing, the role reversal where the greatest become the least, and the least become the greatest.

         And so, we commend the person who is able to step down away from the table and who can pick up the tray or the towel and start to serve.   At which case this whole exchange by Jesus becomes an instruction about what we are supposed to do.  We take, “it shall not be so among you….” as the cue line setting us up for what it should be doing, what it is we should be engaging in.  We should be able to follow Jesus example, empty ourselves, and just jump right up and get busy being the servant.

       Who is greater?  Obviously it must be the one who steps down from the table and starts serving, and we are just about ready to jump up and do that, and I can even imagine the disciples on this night getting in line, jostling with one another to be the first one to grab the tray or grab the towel.

             But then Jesus throws in this line.  Is it not the one at the table? (who is the greatest, being implied)  But I (Jesus says) am among you as one who serves.”

            See, now I’m all confused, I just don’t follow the logic, because what I expected Jesus to be showing me, telling me to what to do is to get up off of my butt, stop jockeying for position, grab and tray or a towel and get busy.   That’s how I would be “greatest”… by being the youngest, the leader like one who serves.

            But with that last line what Jesus does is effectively sit me back down at the table and calls me the greatest.

            Now I’m all confused.   I just don’t follow.

           Doesn’t Jesus want me to be serving?   Didn’t he just say that the greatest is the leader who serves?   Don’t you want me to join you, Jesus, to be like you Jesus?

            The answer appears to be “No, not just yet.”

            “Sit back down, I got this one,” Jesus seems to be saying.  And he seems to indicate that if we do, we may understand better what he means in three day’s time.  Maybe in three day’s time we’ll be able to follow.

            If you jump up now and grab a towel or grab a tray, how is that different from the beginning of the story when you were disputing with one another about who was greatest.

            You are the greatest. — That’s what Jesus says here.

            Each and every one of you, around this table with me, you are the greatest, precisely because you are at this table!   That’s what I think of you.   That’s what God thinks you.  You are the greatest…. I’d do anything for you!

            And what Jesus does now, he does for you, as one who serves.

            He goes where you cannot go, not yet…..

            Jesus takes upon myself this journey, to cross and tomb, across the shards of dried up palms that once heralded his triumphant entry. 

           Jesus did not so much take up the basin and towel just to show you what you are capable of doing, but rather to show you what he is capable of doing, what God is capable of doing, because God thinks you are the greatest!

            There will be time to take up your towel, your tray… but for now.  For now stay at the table.

            Watch, and wait, and pray, and let Jesus do what Jesus chooses to do, as one who serves.  God does this because God thinks you are the greatest.

Palm Sunday 2013 — Palm Sunday on Rura Penthes, or Kansas City,

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This is the most difficult Sunday of the year on which to preach. 

Every other Sunday the task is to preach on what the Gospel means for you.  Because Jesus, the Christ, has been crucified and is risen again, because he died, here is how your life is different.  This is what you can do.  This is how Christ has made you free.  This is how much God loves you.    This is what God desires from you.   

Every other Sunday of the year, my task is to help you see what Christ’s death means for you.

            But today, the Gospel turns our attention to the question itself.    Why was Jesus crucified?    How did it happen that the Son of God who had come down to earth, love of God incarnate, ended up being handed over to violent men and women who brutally killed him?  

            This is such a difficult Sunday that even the church has begged off on it in a way.    For years this was “Palm Sunday”, where we celebrated the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and left it at that.   If you were a person who came to church only on Sunday, and nowhere else, you would hear about Jesus’ glorious entry into Jerusalem this week, and then next week hear about his glorious Resurrection.   If you wanted the details of what happened in between, you’d have to come to church on Good Friday.

            Then in the 1960’s in the wake of Vatican II liturgical reforms, this became “The Sunday of the Passion,” and the encouragement was to read the entire passion story.  Do it creatively, so that everyone hears that story and knows it.    That was a good move, because now you couldn’t miss it.  The Passion story  wasn’t something that we only talked about at midweek services.

            But even here the preacher was taken off the hook.  Reading the whole account takes a lot of time, and so instead of preaching, we just read the story and let it stand on its own.        

But I’ve come to the conclusion that even that is a cop out.  At some point in time the preacher has to say something about the nagging question in the mind.  

“Why Jesus have to die?”

This is even more imperative now that there is a whole new re-assessment going on of the classic “Theories of Atonement.”   It’s not sufficient to say that Jesus “died for you” to satisfy the honor of an offended, vengeful or angry God, or to satisfy some cosmic ledger sheet.   The central question is being asked once again, “What does Jesus’ death accomplish?”

            Let’s start with just a couple of observations about the story itself.   The Gospel writers, all of them, are painfully meticulous in making sure that we see one great truth, and that is that EVERYONE is involved in some way in Jesus’ death.

            The crowds who had hailed him King three days prior are perhaps the same crowds that now shout “Crucify him.”

            The very disciples whom Jesus had groomed and taught, are the ones who betrayed him and left him at the mercy of the authorities.

            The religious leaders of the day are the chief instigators of the accusations and the arrest.

            The gentiles are involved to, Roman soldiers, Pilate, even Pilate’s wife.

            No one is left out of the picture.    Casual passers-by to the events are caught up in the story. 

Simon of Cyrene did not go to Jerusalem this day to bear a cross, but that’s what he ends up doing.  

Scribes and elders, who had once admired him for “teaching with authority” are there to ridicule and deride.  

Criminals and police, government officials and citizens, Jews and gentiles, slave and free, are all in the picture, all complicit in some way of this event.               

            That’s the picture the Gospel writers want to emblazon on our minds.  Everyone was there.   Everyone was in some way complicit in this event.  Even you as reader!  No one is off the hook.

            The second observation is that just about everyone knows that Jesus is innocent.  

The accusers bring up false charges that don’t even agree.  

Pilate’s wife warns him to have nothing to do with “that innocent man.”     Pilate finds no fault. 

The soldiers are just following orders.  

The crowds clearly call for the guilty man’s release, and the innocent man’s death.  “He saved others, let him save himself….   He trusts God, let God deliver him now, if he wants to.”

            It’s painfully clear that Jesus isn’t put to death because of any misunderstandings, any legal systems out of control, or any inadequate defenses. 

So why does Jesus die?

He’s put to death because the people want him dead.    They want him removed from the picture of their lives.

            Why would they want that? 

I think it is because what he calls them to do, what he tells them is the Father’s will, that turns out to be just too much for them.

            “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The rich man asks, and he tells the person to “sell your possessions, give to the poor and follow me….”

            Consider all the things that Jesus calls us to do that we would rather not do.

            If someone asks you to go with them one mile, go with them two.

            If they ask for your coat, give them your shirt as well.

            Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.

            Forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

            Do not store up for yourselves treasures on this earth…..

            This is why Jesus has to die.  What he calls us to do is just too much for us.  Having him around complicates our lives, my life too much.    

I like to store up treasures for myself. 

            I am very fond of both my coat and my shirt, thank you.  

            I’ll never forgive him/her/them/those people for what was done to me… who could? 

            Those poor wouldn’t be that way if they’d just get off their butts and do a decent day’s work.   

            Why does Jesus have to die?  

Because in the end we can’t stand what he tells us.  What he tells us is that we are not the most important thing in the world, God is.  The Kingdom is.

            What he tells me is that how I live my life affects the lives of everyone else around me.     The choices that I make will have an impact on others.   Jesus is God’s presence among us, and God makes us uncomfortable, because God reminds us that we are not gods in and of ourselves – free to do whatever it is we please to do.

            God makes us uncomfortable, because it is in God’s very nature to be constantly reaching out in love. 

Oh, don’t get me wrong, we like that part about God.   We like receiving that love, those blessings.  

But, then when God also commands us to do what Jesus does, to be about this reaching out in love stuff as well, we balk.   It is expensive! It is personally and emotionally costly.  Such love will entangle us in all sorts of complicated areas.

            And so, the only solution for that uncomfortable feeling we get to this call to love, is to get rid of the one who makes that call upon us.  Get rid of God’s interference, once and for all, so that we can finally do whatever it is we please.

            And so, we do whatever we please with God in Jesus, and, what we please to do to him, is to crucify him.   

            Every snide comment I have made at the expense of my brother is a hammer blow to the nails.

            Every time I choose my own good, my own comfort, my own self-interest at the expense of my sister, is a spear thrust into Jesus’ side.

            Every harsh word spoken thoughtlessly about others is a curse hurled at the Cross, by me.

            This is how it is. 

This is how we are.   

This is why Jesus has to die.  

We put him there, don’t you see? 

And, he goes there willingly, so that in three days time we may come to

understand who God really is, and what really is most important.  

In three days time we learn that we cannot get rid of God.  We cannot get rid of God love for us, or get rid of those commands from Jesus for us to love.

This is how it is, this is why Jesus has to die, so that in Resurrection we can be shown that God and the command to love the neighbor is here to stay.Image

“Mind The Gap” Luke 16:19-31

Luke has always been the Gospel most connected with the God’s deferential treatment of the poor, but this year I’m also struck by just how much Jesus has to say about the matter of wealth.

In fact, all the parables we’ve looked a recently, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son feature significant economic themes, and the lead up to the Rich Man and Lazarus adds to that.  Just before Jesus tells this parable, we get the story of the unjust steward who shrewdly deals with his master’s creditors to protect himself. That story culminates in the pronouncement that “you cannot serve two masters…God and money.”

And then Jesus says this, in chapter 16: The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all of this and were sneering at Jesus.   He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts.  What is highly valued in the eyes of men is detestable in God’s sight.”

Then Jesus launches into this parable, and I have to say that as a parable, it is a hard one for us to get into.   It carries a message that we really don’t want to consider.   The parable insists that there is a hell to which the rich are consigned…and that really, nothing can change that… not even if someone were to rise from the dead.  

That is a curious addition because we know that is exactly what Jesus is on his way to do. He is making his way to Jerusalem where the events of Holy Week will see him crucified, died and raised.

Is Jesus saying therefore that his resurrection won’t change a thing in terms of the economic realities or injustice in this world?

Abraham in this parable is quite insistent, as he comforts Lazarus and explains the way things are to this now nameless rich man.  You had all of your good things already.   “Besides all of that, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

Is this just the way it is, no bridges, no way to cross the gap, the chasm which separates the rich from the poor in this world, or the next?

The more I looked at this parable, the more I wondered about the matter of gaps, the chasms that seem fixed in our lives that we cannot get over, or across, or even see right away.          

This is a scene from our summer trip a few years ago with the youth of St. James to the canyon lands of Utah and Arizona.Image

            I think one of the amazing things about first going to that region is how these looming canyons can just suddenly “appear” before you. 

And then boom, all at once this looming chasm appears, and you are curiously drawn to stopping and looking at it.  You can see where the road ought to pick up, but how to get from here to there?

You look down into it and are both fascinated by it, and curiously un-intimidated by the danger of being so close to the edge.

Is that what Jesus is trying to help the Pharisees understand in this parable?  How perilous it is to be unaware of, or not caring about the gaps, the Chasms that appear between us?

This little video is going viral right now the internet.  You’ve probably seen it on YouTube or Facebook. 

 It is entitled. “Wealth Inequality in America.”  It uses a series of graphic representations which compare the way a polling of 5000 Americans think the wealth is distributed in the country, and what they think the ideal wealth distribution should be, (how we think it should be distributed), and then by way of comparison does a graphic of how wealth is actually distributed, if of course you can believe the numbers and how the data has been interpreted.  

            I don’t really want to comment on the merits or politics of this viral video, but what  I find it interesting in the light of this parable is how it points out how hard it is to see the gap!  How hard it is to see it!

            When you watch the video through it talks about perception versus reality, and the depth of the gap, the chasm really, across this spectrum of wage earners.  

            This is the depth of the gap!   The CEO receives 380 times what the AVERAGE worker in his company makes, not the janitor, not the folks down here on the low end, the average!   

This is the one who commands so much power in this world that he cannot even fathom the living situation of the ones on the other side of the gap!   He is in this world, but cannot for the life of him see the disparity.  Or, if he does, it doesn’t bother him.

This is the one who makes the rules. 

This is the one who has the ear of political power. 

This is the one who sets the policy by which everyone across this spectrum must abide.

Look at the gap!  This one has so much that the graph can’t even accurately represent it!  We have to break the graph down and give this one 10 bars side by side to show how much he has at his disposal!

In the meantime over here, we can’t even find a way to register any income level, it’s too small to see!    Image

Look at the gap!

And yet we carry on as if this has no consequences.  We treat it as if it is an illusion, this disparity.  

If only some would work hard enough, they would get all they need.

If only some would not be so greedy, there would be enough for all.

And notice, it is both ends who treat this like an illusion, as if this chasm of injustice was something easily bridged by harder work, or living more simply.

Mind the gap!

In the parable this shows up in some interesting ways.  What does Lazarus hope for?   He longs simply to eat the scraps the fall from the rich man’s table.  Oh, there is plenty up there, I’m sure some of it will come my way.

And where is Lazarus located?   At the door of the Rich Man!  

It is not the case that Lazarus is invisible, although he does appear to be, curiously enough, is until the roles are reversed.   Then it is that the rich man who knows Lazarus name, (did you catch that?)  askes for him to be sent “Send Lazarus….”

 It’s not that the rich man has not observed this man at his own doorstep, it is just that until now, until he has some urgent need for him to do something, he never had any regard for him.

Mind the gap, what can bridge this disparity?    What will make the rich man’s brothers aware of it, warn them of it, allow them to change their ways?

This is where the parable gets interesting. 

To the plea of the rich man for Lazarus to be sent to give a warning, Abraham issues this response.

“They have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them!”

See, this gap isn’t anything new.

It was Moses who in Deuteronomy 8 had warned that the people should not begin to believe that it was by their own might and the power of their own hand that they had gotten these things.   Moses warned that when you come into the Promised land, when you have plenty, the danger always is to forget both God and your neighbor.

It has been the role of the Prophets throughout Israel’s history to lift up the disparity, to show the gap that develops.  

“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” 

“Do not forsake the widow and the orphan.   Woe to you who say, “when is the Sabbath over that we may trade and make commerce?  When will the new moon end that we may sell and barter once again?   Let Justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an everflowing stream!”

Oh the prophets talked plenty about the gap between those in power and those who have no portion.

So if you don’t mind the gap in this life it isn’t because you haven’t been warned about it, or never knew about it.

If you haven’t noticed the gap, or paid attention to it, and if you have not listened to Moses and the Prophets, neither will you be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

That is the truth, and we have 2000 years of track record to prove it!  The gap, the chasm still exists, always will.

But here is the thing, it doesn’t have to exist for you.

Jesus does not tell parables to consign people to their lot in life.  

He tells parables to move, cajol, infuriate or delight people into a response.   Once again, context is everything.   To the sneering Pharisees Jesus tells a bleak parable that seems to consign one to one’s fate, except what the parable does is point out the chasm!  Now you can see it!  Yes, the one to which you so perilously stand on the edge of, move back!

Now is the time to recognize that this does not have to be, for contained in Moses and the Prophets was also the means to take away the chasm.   The year of Jubilee, when all debts would forgiven, the land re-apportioned, the old boundaries returned to their original locations and a fresh start given to all. 

That is how you take care of the gap, not by nudging things along.   Not by reducing your wasteful spending a little, or by working a little harder on the other end.

No, what it takes to remove the chasm is a radical re-ordering of the world, and that is something that can only be accomplished not just by someone who rises from the dead, but who tells you that you also can rise up from the dead.  

If you don’t like what you see in the parable, that fixed chasm, then start minding the gap now.

And if you wonder what it will take to change the world, wonder no more.  It will take rising from the dead, but more than that!  It will take raising everyone from the death and despair that the chasm of injustice and inequity makes us fear.  That is what Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to do.  Not just to die and rise, but to make it possible for all of us to be raised up to a new life, a life where the chasms between us disappear.

 

 

“Parables of the loss” Luke 15:1-32

         I love theater productions done “in the round” because it changes virtually everything for both the actor and the audience. 

         In a stage play, you play to the audience “out that way” at a discernible distance.  You can get by with things, turn your back to adjust something, or to cover something or to give a cue with a small gesture to your fellow actor.

            In the round however, the audience surrounds you and becomes part of the experience.  You become mindful of the fact that you are connected to this audience in a very different and organic way.   There is no turning your back, no giving unseen cues, everything is visible and close as the audience becomes a part of the experience. 

            As I looked at Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost or prodigal son or sons, I was struck by the context into which Jesus tells these three parables.   Like “theater in the round” I was suddenly mindful of his audience.  What are those surrounding Jesus experiencing as he tells these stories, how are they responding?   

Are they sitting there in rapt attention?  

Are they fidgeting in their seats?  

Are they Smiling, frowning, looking quizzically at Jesus as he spins first one yarn, and then another, and then the capstone parable about the Father and two sons?

And, did you catch who it was that is listening to Jesus?  The audience?

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

            It is at that junction between the listening and the grumbling that Jesus launches into these three parables that are really meant to stand together, to say something to those within earshot.

I began to wonder about the faces of those who were watching and listening to Jesus, the audience of these parables and stumbled on this painting by Jan Vermeyen from the 1600’s.  What is the audience experiencing as Jesus tells these stories, how are they responding?

Image

            I think to be honest, we have to ask, “which audience?” 

That is what I like about this Jan Vermeyen painting.   See how the faces surrounding Jesus appear to be torn in their response to his words?  

            The two up in the left corner appear to be in a hot and furious debate, one clutching his chest aghast.  “How can this fellow eat with people like these???  What is he saying?   I don’t understand!”

            The two down on the right are clearly enjoying themselves or what Jesus is saying, or maybe they are commenting on how delightful the idea is, the possibilities being opened up by a God who seeks out the lost and makes a way for the lost to come back into the fold.

            Context, where you sit as you listen, becomes everything as you hear these parables, and so rather than calling them “The Parables of the Lost”, this time I hear them as “The Parables of the Loss.”

            That’s what connects us I think.   Not so much that we find ourselves in these parables, but rather that we resonate with what these parables do to us. They evoke in us an awareness of a sense of loss.  It is a loss that we feel.

            Consider the loss here, on the part of the audience.

            The Pharisees and scribes are clearly experiencing a sense of loss over the proprieties of life.   This Jesus will eat and associate with just about anyone it seems, and shows no regard for decorum, or morality, or the pleasantries of society as it is ordered.

            One just doesn’t eat with tax collectors, or sinners.

            So their loss is a sense of disorientation.  “We thought we had this faith thing figured out, who is in, who is out, how people in a covenant community should behave, who to associate with, who to keep at arm’s length, etc”.    Now Jesus upsets all of that! 

            If we are honest with ourselves, this is the loss that we who are “good church folks” often feel.

            Many of us remember a time when people would put on their “Sunday best” to go to church.

            We remember a time when the culture supported Christianity  as a norm, when sports teams wouldn’t dream of putting a tournament, or practice on Sunday or a Wednesday night, and when the “day of rest” was not a day filled with shopping, commerce, and business!

            We remember a time when because of the post WWII Baby Boom the seats were filled to capacity, as the cultural pressure was for one to “belong” somewhere.

            And now, well…..such a sense of loss about the way things were, back in the day.   And that brings about a crisis of faith as we wonder if God is still around and doing anything, or has God abandoned his church?

            I can feel the sense of loss in those watching and listening to Jesus as he eats with those who are outside of the norms of propriety and good society

“Is this how it is now?  Is everything we did, that we stood for, strived to do, and to be counted as nothing?”

But there is also loss on the part of those who hear this as good news. 

“Oh my gosh, look at how crazy this God is that Jesus is describing!  I thought I had this figured out, than I never wanted to be a part of this synagogue/community thing, but this God is so compelling! How can I not be drawn to him?  I wanted to go my own way, but now I just can’t continue as I was!”

            Listen to the parables once again.  This time tune your ears to hear Jesus talk about the sense of loss in them! 

            Does not the shepherd grieve over the situation of the missing one, feeling such a sense of loss that he begins to act irrationally?  He leaves the 99 to go out searching!  It is his profound sense of loss that propels him into that irrational action!

            Does not the woman grieve over what is lost?  Does she not search diligently to find that coin again?   It is a sense of loss that propels her into sweeping frenzy, and it is the relief of the find that makes her throw all responsible caution to the wind, throwing a party that cost more than the coin lost was worth in the first place! 

            And in both of these parables the focus appears to be really on what a sense of loss will do to you, how it will grab hold of you and force you, force God into frantic activity!   Searching, sweeping, lighting lamps, and calling neighbors together to celebrate when the lost is found.

            We sometimes forget the sense of loss revealed on the part of God in these parables.   They give us a glimpse into God’s sense of loss, that it drives God to do.

In our own sense of loss, we do something quite other than what God does.

            In our sense of loss, we long for the time when we had all 10 coins in our pocket, or all 100 sheep in our fold, or had full pews or still held the privileged place in society, and so what we resolve to do is not to go into frenzied searching, but rather a frenzied hold on all the tighter to what is left. 

God irrationally goes out searching for the lost.

We wring our hands over the situation, hoping not to lose anything, anyone else.

            Which brings us back to the “Theater in the Round experience, because what good theater will do is plunge you into the events in such a way that you begin to see things in a new way, and will force you to engage in it.  

            This is insanity, except it is God’s insanity.  It is Jesus trying to get the hand wringers to open their eyes to the new possibilities before them rather than lamenting over what is no more, and remain focused on their own sense of loss!

            And just to make my point, consider how many places Jesus probes that powerful sense of loss at it permeates that third parable.

            The father’s relationship to the younger son is one of profound loss.   The father has to be treated as one dead to get the inheritance.  

            The son’s relationship with his father is one of an aching loss when he “comes to his senses” and sees what he has thrown away.

            Consider the loss experienced by the older son, who cannot for the life of him figure out why his old man puts up with these shenanigans, or welcomes back the “dead” brother, or who can find no joy in the return and feels this loss of his own position.  “You never gave me so much as a kid to make merry with my friends!”   Is that not a moment of loss, of feeling like your life has been wasted, unappreciated, your own sacrifices ignored?

            A sense of loss just permeates this last parable, and it is precisely to that sense of loss that Jesus presses the parable.   “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life, he was lost, and is found!”

            Which brings us back again now to the theater in the round kind of experience, because today I want you to think of these parables in an entirely different way.   Think of them not with the idea that you are trying to locate yourselves in them. 

            Are we the lost?

            Are we the found?

            Am I the elder brother, or the younger scoundrel, or the father?

            Think instead of how you locate yourself as a listener, as a member of the audience to whom Jesus directs these parables, and consider your own sense of loss, and what you will do with it.

            Will you wring your hands, hold tight, question and fret over how Jesus is changing up the rules?

            Or will you dive into the search, irrational as it may seem, for the lost?

            What will you do with your sense of loss?   How does it drive you?   How will you let it drive you?