Resurrection: Looking for the living among the dead

Luke 24:1-12

1On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? (Read the whole passage)

Just a short while ago, we stood on the mountain. The mountain called Golgotha, with the cross looming high above us, and the crucified God hanging there. That Good Friday moment spoke loudly and clearly about us. About humanity, about our desire to be God in God’s place, to be the ones in control and in charge, because human beings threatened by God in flesh tried to put God to death.

But now, we are once again down into the valley, the valley of death. A literal grave stands before us with the women who have come to tend to the body of their beloved teacher and friend.

This is always an awkward place to begin the Easter celebration. The church is already decorated, breakfast has already been eaten, the songs of praise with Alleluias have already been sung. But the story takes just a few more words to unfold, a little bit more to get there.

And so every Easter, before we can truly announce the good news of the resurrection, we have to begin with the women on their way to a tomb. It is easy overlook and to see this moment as part of the celebration. But going to a cemetery is not the most festive of experiences, especially going to see the freshly covered over grave of a loved one. It is an all together different feeling than coming together to celebrate the resurrection.

And yet, this is always where Easter begins. Just as from from Ash Wednesday with crosses marked on our foreheads, to the Lenten wilderness, and from the Palm Procession one week ago, to the last Supper on Thursday, and mostly clearly from the cross on Good Friday… there is always the promise of Easter peeking through the horizon, calling to us.

And Easter too, never leaves Good Friday completely behind, the path that leads us to the empty tomb always comes from Golgotha and the cross.

And so with these women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, we begin on our way to the grave. When they get there, they do not find what they were expecting. They do not find the body of Jesus. Instead they find a stone rolled away, divine messengers in white and an empty tomb. Still Easter hasn’t fully landed for these women, they respond first in fear.

Then the Angel asks them this question,

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Seeing resurrection does not come naturally to the women, nor to us. There is always a bunch of other stuff obscuring the view. Even as we just made our way through the story of Holy Week, and the central story of the Three days, Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter Vigil… even though it is preferable to set aside most things and focus on observing this most important time of the Christian calendar, the world kept churning onward.

Along side Holy Week were the end of hometown hockey team’s playoff run and reports about presidential misconduct, there were hate crimes carried out in our own city and even this morning the bombing of churches in Sri Lanka as the faithful worshipped, and of course the great fire that seemed to burn down much of the world famous Notre Dame cathedral in France.

The world reacted in shock to the burning of the 800 year old church. Crowds gathered to sing and pray in the streets of Paris, people lamented online watching the flames in real time. The initial reports were of the worst, that the whole cathedral would be destroyed.

Even during the the most important week of the Christian year, when we strive to most clearly tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, all the other things have a great capacity to obscure our vision. Even at Easter, we cannot not see beyond death.

Resurrection is hard for us see. We are so used to looking among the dead, that we don’t know what the living looks like. Even when resurrection stares us in the face, we cannot help but focus on the dead things. The stories that captivate our attention almost always the stories of the cross, of sin and death… The stories of resurrection, of new life in the most surprising of places almost don’t register at all.

Of course hockey teams will have another chance at things next year, and politicians will continue being politicians, and the community surrounding the victims of hate crime in our city have already begun to rally… and the news of Notre Dame’s total destruction were greatly exaggerated, even as over a billion dollars was donated towards its repair. The artwork, the relics, much of the stained glass and the great organ were all saved.

But the part that is hard for us to see, even during Holy Week, even when we know the end of this story, when we know what happens Easter morning, is that all of that other stuff isn’t the point. The rebuilding of an 800 year old church or putting the donated money to another use isn’t the point.

The point of the the church building in the first place is to enable Christ’s story being told. The point is the story, the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Despite our habit and the habit of the women to look for the living among the dead, the Angel reminds Mary, Joanna, and Mary of what Jesus had told them – that he would be raised from the dead.

The empty tomb isn’t just the absence of a body or empty space… it is the symbol of life, the sign that death is not the end, that the cross on the mountaintop isn’t where human sin wins by putting God to death.

The empty tomb is the birth place of resurrection.

The empty tomb is the making of space for New life to grow and take root.

The empty tomb is the re-membering of the community broken apart on Good Friday.

The women are re-membered, re-connected, re-made into New Creations once they finally see the implication of the empty tomb. It is only then that they run off to tell the new to the other disciples.

And then then story of death and resurrection that we have been telling this week becomes more than just something we are trying to fit in along side all the other things happening in the world.

Cross and Empty Tomb become the new frame of life.

Cross and Empty Tomb become qualifiers to all the other stuff.

Cross and Empty Tomb become the one story the holds all other stories together.

And the Christ who hung on the cross just a while ago, becomes the first born of a new humanity… of a new us.

And this Christ who took all our stories on the cross, all of our failings and frailties, our suffering and sin, our dying…

This Christ finally brings us into God’s story.

And God’s story, our new story, is resurrection. If all we can do is look for the living among the dead, God will come and show us new life from death… God will come to us from empty tombs, and Christ will call to us to to come out of our graves too.

So yes, it is always awkward to begin the story of Easter by making our way to a cemetery with death on our minds… but we cannot help ourselves from always looking towards the dead…

But the Good News is that Christ is always looking for us.

Always finding us, even among the dead.

And from among the dead, The Crucified, Risen and Living Christ brings us too, into the Resurrection and New Life.

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The Crucified God is God – and we are not

Gospel: John 18:1—19:42

Seven weeks ago, we gathered on another mountain – the mount of Transfiguration.

On that mountain top, Jesus was flanked by Moses and Elijah, and his disciples gathered at his feet.

From there we descended into the valley of Lent.

Into the wilderness, just as the Israelites were sent into wilderness to be found by God.

The wilderness was not the place of danger we imagine, but the place of renewal.

Rather the danger was found in the return from wilderness, in the journey towards human chaos.

It was on streets of Jerusalem where Jesus found the centre of chaos and struggle.

It is on our our streets and in our communities where Jesus meets human messiness.

And along the journey from down the mountain through the wilderness and chaos of Lent, Jesus kept coming back to God’s people, kept coming back to us.

He came and answered our big questions about life and suffering.

He showed us the prodigal Father, who sought out his lost sons.

He let himself be anointed with perfume like a body being prepared for burial.

And then Jesus rode up into Jerusalem again.

On a donkey, with a crowd waving palms, chanting Hosanna, save now…

filled with expectation that he was their new king,

come to take away their problems with power and might.

But by the end of the week, the crowds had turned.

As Jesus gathered at the family table with his disciples last night, he knew what was coming.

There would be no more rest, no more sleep, no more calm.

There would be betrayal and denial.

There would be sham trials and wrongful convictions.

There would be police brutality followed by summary execution.

And through night into today, the humanity that was so oblivious to him this whole time,

Who clamoured for him to perform like a side show,

to feed the bored and hungry, to satiate the crowds….

Today this humanity has woken up…

This humanity has become aware of just who Jesus is.

The baby born in a manger to peasant parents,

promised by angels, visited by shepherd, worshipped by Magi…

this baby who is God come in flesh, word incarnate.

This baby is now this man.

This man who is God.

This man who is God, which means we are not.

This man who is God, who threatens our claims to power.

This man who is God, who makes us feel small.

Jesus has come to centre, to the core of humanity. To our messy and chaotic existence and reminded us our limitedness, of our ungodliness, of our fallibility and imperfections.

And that just wont do for us.

And so we go back up the mountain to send the God-Man away.

We march up Golgaltha with murderous rage.

And we haul a cross along with us.

We who are the best humanity has to offer.

Religious leaders, political leaders, the educated and prominent.

We pick up the nails too, and desire to be rid of this One.

This One who is God in flesh and who brings God close.

This One who announces the Kingdom coming near.

This One who talks about grace and mercy at inconvenient times.

This One, the Christ, the anointed of God, sent to save…

We will put to death and be done with him.

And then we can go back to being in control.

Back to being in charge.

Back to being God.

Except this mountain was always where Jesus was going.

From the beginning of creation, from the moment God spoke us into being.

From the dirt and clay that formed the Adam, the first born of creation.

There was also a cross.

The cross was always the place where God’s Word in flesh would meet us.

Always the place where the Christ would confront our most God-like power.

The cross was always the place where the God of creation would meet the God we tried to create of ourselves.

The cross was always the place where God was going to bridge the gap to human chaos and messiness…

Where God would rejoin what was split apart in the fall.

Where God would reconcile creator with created, humanity and divinity.

Where God would remember and remind us that we were created in God’s image, in Christ’s image.

Here on this mountain, the skull, the place of humanity’s power of death,

God declares that we are not God once and for all.

And that sin and death are no longer in control.

God declares a new reality by reminding us of the first reality.

God declares that God is God

And God declares that we are God’s creation.

That we belong to the crucified one.

That our chaos and messiness,

Our human failings and fragility

Our questions and vulnerability

Our discomfort and overwhelming feelings

That all of us, including sin and earth

Belongs now to the one who hangs on the cross.

The one in whom all creation began

And whom creation put to death.

That we belong to this One, this Word, this Christ, this Jesus.

That we belong to this One who loves beyond all love.

That we belong to this Word of Life.

That we belong to this Christ who saves

That we belong to Jesus who makes us one.

Who gathers us into God.

Into God, who even though dead on a cross…

Who is life beyond all life.

Who is freely given love and salvation

Who is mercy and forgiveness for us.

This God, who even though dead on a cross…

Has come again to the mountain top

and finally shown us once and for

That we are now a new creation

That there is now

New Life in the crucified Christ.

Maundy Thursday – Breaking the New Commandment

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

1Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…

  …You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Tonight we begin the journey of the three days. The tree most important days of our church year, the days most central to the story that we re-tell year after year, most central to our proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

The first day of Holy Week, Palm Sunday carries with it a festive, even party like tone. People are celebrating and dancing in the streets, cheering on a king as he rides into his newly conquered capital city. Yet, there are undertones of the tension to come. Hosannas instead of Hallelujahs. Save now instead of praise the Lord.

Yet, as the church always seems to truly begin its important proclamations, things quiet down and we begin in earnest the three days gathered around a table. The intimate setting of a meal between friends and family. Sitting down to a meal like this is a practice learned by most of us very early on in life. We rehearse and practice it nearly every day from the time our parents are spooning mushed up baby food into our mouths. Around meal tables is the way in which we get to know family, in which we celebrate the important occasions, the way we connect and build relationships with friends and neighbours, the way that we up the ante of courtship. It is no coincidence that the main way in which we worship mimics this structure of the family meal. We are called and gathered to the table, whether it is for dinner with the next door neighbours, Thanksgiving or Tuesday night. We are called and gathered, and then we share a word with each other. Maybe it is the nightly specials at a favourite restaurant or asking a loved one “How was your day? ”or table grace and a reading from scripture. And then we partake in the food, we are nourished for life a little longer, for the thing that comes next. And then we are sent. Sent out to become the Body of Christ we beheld, bread for the world with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Tonight, this is the intimate setting of Maundy Thursday, the place where we gather to begin the worship of the three days.

And as Jesus gathers with his disciples around the table, he begins to mess with the ingrained rituals. He washes feet like slave. It would be like billionaire begging on the street corner today. Or a white nationalist serving a meal for the local immigrant community. Jesus is messing with roles and with tradition.

And once they sit down for the meal, Jesus keeps on turning rituals upside down. He then blesses the bread and the wine… even though it is God who is blessed in the prayers of the Passover meal and every Shabbat. And then he says that bread and the wine are his body and blood, and we see that tying himself to the divine, to the blessing of God. And he is tying us to God too.

Then Jesus really starts things in motion.

He starts talking about what it coming next. The meal wont last forever, it is nourishment for the beginning of the journey. The story must continue, and he tells his disciples what is to come. He will be betrayed and denied, by his closest friends… and gathered around this table, gathered in this intimate setting, it sounds strange and surreal. Impossible even. Surely not us, surely we wouldn’t betray or deny you Lord? We ask with Peter.

And then Jesus does the thing this day is named after. He gives a new commandment, a new mandate, a new maundatum for Maundy Thursday.

“Love one another, as I have loved you.”

And it seems so easy, so possible… when we look around this table, this holy table of friends and family. Love one another, Jesus says. “Okay, sure, we can do that.”we respond.

Except we don’t.

Except in just hours we will be betraying and denying and fleeing our master.

Except by tomorrow will be calling for blood and demanding vengeance.

Except we are about to march Jesus up the mountain, up Golgotha in order to nail him to a cross.

The New Commandment seems more an absurdity than something doable.

And maybe that is the point.

Maybe it is important to remember that the very first thing we do with that New Commandment is break it. Just like Eve and Adam, just like Noah and his sons, just like Abraham and Sarah, like Moses and Joshua, like Samuel and David, like the exiles carted off to Babylon and those left at home. Like Peter and Judas and the rest of the disciples, like Paul and all those who came after.

Love one another, Jesus says… and we fail almost immediately.

The New Commandment is failed thoroughly and completely before the sun sets on the next day… as Jesus is betrayed, and denied and tried and then nailed to a cross.

The New Commandment is failed thoroughly except for one important part.

“Love one another. Just as I have loved you.”

Just as I have loved you.

That small part is enough, those few words change everything. This near hidden clause of the New Commandment that does not fail or yield.

Just as I have loved you.

Gathered around this holy table, with friends and family, Jesus reminds us where we begin.

Not on the road into Jerusalem shouting Hosanna and nor on the road up to Gogaltha.

But here at the table, with bread and wine, with body and blood. Here with the unbroken promise of love given and shed for us… love that grounds and transforms all our failings to come… love that is greater than betrayals and denials… love that is grater than even death.

The New Commandment given to us this night, is the commandment of love. Not our own, but the love of God that binds us together, that shows the world whose we are, that changes everything – starting now.

Hosanna – Save Now

Luke 19:28-40

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord! 

Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

We have been in the Wilderness with Jesus since Ash Wednesday. We have been preparing as followers of Christ for what is to come this week. We experienced temptation in the wilderness. We watched at Jesus lamented over the center of human chaos, and we have brought our big questions and doubts to Jesus. We heard how the prodigal Father seeks out his two lost sons. And we have been uncomfortable with Mary’s extravagant act of love to prepare Jesus with perfume and the smell of death

And today, our lenten journey, our lenten wilderness and wanderings have brought us to the gates of Jerusalem shouting Hosanna. We have been calling upon God for deliverance from our oppressors. That word Hosanna, that word which sounds a lot of Halelujah, like praise the Lord does not mean the same thing.

Hosanna means save now.

Save us now God.

Save us from enemies.

Save us from our sufferings.

Save us from all that threatens us.

We know what it is like to need to be saved, to yearn for deliverance.

We pray Hosanna for those who are sick, for those who are broken.

We whisper Hosanna for those at death’s door.

And each week, we sing Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

We sing Save us Now, and call upon God to come down a meet us.

To meet us in Bread and Wine, to become Body and Blood.

To become our Body and Blood.

To be the Body of Christ that we share in the Lord’s supper.

To become the Body of Christ that we are as the Church.

We sing Hosanna, save us now, because this week more than ever we need to be saved.

Because this week we will meet Jesus in the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday.

And we will be the ones who give Jesus over to be arrested for 30 pieces of silver.

We will be the ones who take up the sword to return violence with violence.

We will be the ones who deny Jesus just before the rooster crows.

And we will be ones who stand helpless at the cross.

We sing Hosanna week after week.

We sing Hosanna today, because we need God to save us from ourselves.

To save us from sin, to save us from death.

We need God to be Hosanna for us. We need to be saved.

And this week God will.

God will enter the city to our rejoicing.

God will share the last meal of criminal sentenced to death with us.

God will hang on the cross for us.

We sing Hosanna today, and each Sunday. Because we need to be saved.

But also because, when we let those words cross our lips:

Hosanna in the Highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.

We are reminded.

God has come.

God has saved.

God has come for us.

God has saved us.

Amen.

The uncomfortable smell of death and of new life

GOSPEL: John 12:1-8

3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (Read the whole passage)

It must have been almost hard to breathe.

The smell of the perfume as it filled the noses of all present at the celebratory meal. We all know someone who wears too much perfume, whether its that strange aunt in the family, or lately it seems to be teenage boys wearing too much axe cologne. Smells can overpower us like no other sense can. And certain scents can trigger memories like nothing else. They can remind us more powerfully than a picture of past events, places or persons. The smell of chlorine can take you right back to that first time swimming in an indoor pool. Or the smell of pine trees can take you back to that most memorable Christmas.

The smell today, the perfume that anoints Jesus’ feet cannot be taken lightly or overlooked. A pound of perfume is not a delicate scent, and that seems to be Mary’s point. On this day, Jesus, his good friend Lazarus, and the disciples are being treated to a celebratory meal. Lazarus has been raised from the dead, and now it is time to gather and celebrate. Martha, as usual, is serving the dinner. Martha is giving thanks for what just happened at the tomb. But Mary choose a different act of gratitude. She wants to express her deep gratitude and her love for Jesus. Its the kind of emotional display that makes most of us uncomfortable, like two lovers passionately kissing in public.

As Mary anoints Jesus feet, and then wipes them with her own hair, the rest of the guests at the party were probably feeling awkward. Washing feet was something that servants do. And using one’s hair as the cloth… well, that wasn’t normal. Mary’s act is a extravagant and wild and passionate as it seems. Probably something that could have been saved for a private moment with Jesus.

In the midst of this beautiful moment, this act of love and gratitude that Mary is giving to Jesus, Judas pipes up. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”

Judas is that grumpy uncle who needs to ruin every family meal. Judas cannot handle this emotionally deep, meaning rich moment. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the display of affection, or perhaps as John suggests, he has other intentions for the money. Whatever Judas’ reasons, he is deflecting. Trying to move on, pivot away from the scene. He tries to make the moment foolish and wasteful. Judas tries to make beauty about practicality, almost stealing away Mary’s extravagant love, diminishing her by rebuking her feelings. By responding to love and gratefulness with righteous indignation.

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We all know this moment. We have lived this moment. We have been there when a family member or co-worker or church member shows up with a passionate idea or shares a dream or displays deep emotion and vulnerability…. only to be shot down by someone, maybe even us, because we cannot handle the moment. We know what it looks like to be shushed or dismissed or shamed because someone else cannot handle the risk or the change or the feelings.

Judas’s ruining of the moment, and our experiences of the same stem from a desire to protect and control. Judas is uncomfortable with Mary’s act, Mary is outside the comfort zone, this is something wild and untamed. Its extravagant and passionate. This is not safe or proper. This is not a good use of resources, it is a waste. Never mind that is overwhelming and we don’t want to deal with what we are feeling.

Our desire to keep from being overwhelmed, to keep our feelings and experiences manageable and safe often push us to put pragmatism and practicality ahead of people. Judas can’t handle Mary’s emotions, so he only sees dollars being poured on Jesus feet. We often get bogged down by the resources being expended on our family, on our neighbours, on the church, on ourselves. Judas doesn’t see that what Mary is doing for Jesus is worth more than any amount of money. Often we find it hard to see that the families, friends, neighbours and ministries that we give our time, effort and money to are worth more than any amount of money. Sometimes we are so consumed with the bottom line that we neglect ourselves in the process.

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For five weeks we have been immersed the season of Lent. Immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells. The feel and smell of Ashes marked our heads. We have kept from singing Alleluias, we have sung Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have Mercy instead. And on this final Sunday before Palm Sunday, the smell of death enters into our sanctuary.

There is pound of pure nard on Jesus feet. Perfume that certainly was used by Mary and Martha to anoint their brother and of course the same smell that wafted our of the tomb when JEsus commanded the stone be rolled away. The perfume is used to keep the smell of death at bay… yet often the thing meant to hide something can become a symbol of what it is covering up. The perfume that is supposed to keep the stench away is the sign of its presence, the perfume is the smell of death. The smell of the tomb brought to the table.

No wonder Judas is uncomfortable.

And Jesus does not miss the symbol either.

Mary has anointed his feet with the smell of Good Friday, the scent that is slowly building as we get closer to Holy Week.

Jesus does not see waste. Jesus sees love, lavish, wild, untamed love. Jesus sees the future.

“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”.

Mary is not anointing a king, or prophet. Mary is anointing a friend, teacher and son, who will be soon prepared for burial on Friday evening, and Jesus is reminding his disciples and friends one more time that all of this. This is the thing that Judas is trying not to feel and confront.

Death.

The ministry, the parables, the miracles, the teaching in synagogues, the traveling the countryside. It has all been leading to this smell, leading to death.

Judas and the others cannot stay with the smell, they cannot stay in the moment or live in the symbol. Just like we so often can’t stay in the overwhelming feelings.

Yet Jesus knows that this moment isn’t just about death, this moment is a foretaste of God’s future. God’s mission is heading towards its zenith. When the time comes for Jesus the corpse to be put in the ground, God will be accomplishing something new, something never seen. Something glimpsed as Lazarus stepped out of his tomb, promises fulfilled when Jesus steps out of his. God is about to turn the world upside, to bring new meaning to creation. Preparing for burial will no longer be preparing for death, but for New Life.

Here in this perfume filled room, where passionate impulsive Mary has shown her love and given thanks in her way, Jesus gives the whole world a new sign, new meaning. God’s future is now about us. Jesus burial is about us. On Good Friday Jesus will be anointing the world with New Life. As Jesus dies, we will be made alive.

And while Judas and the disciples, we while we struggle to stay in the moment, while we all end up betraying and denying Jesus…

Jesus stay present. Present with Mary, present with death, present with love.

Jesus sees the beauty of Mary’s gesture of love and Jesus tells us that God’s greatest gesture of love is coming. Its coming on the cross of Good Friday, its coming in familiar smells. On crosses and in empty tombs, in the waters of baptism, and in bread and wine.

And so as Mary anoints Jesus feet today, as the perfume fills the room, Jesus stays in the moment and keeps us there to, no matter how much Judas wants to deflect… and Jesus reminds us that this moment is not just death but love.

Love in perfume that anoints Jesus feet,

love on the cross,

love buried in the tomb.

And after three days,

love that bursts forth,

uncontrolled, untamed,

wild, passionate, extravagant.

Love that we can see, touch, taste

and of course,

love that we can smell.

The Prodigal Who?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (Read the whole passage)

We are four Sundays into the season of Lent, and the journey to so far has been a challenging one. We came down the mountain of Transfiguration to find our selves in the valley of ash. We then followed Jesus into the wilderness of temptation, and then to Jerusalem to lament over God’s people. Last week the crowds asked big questions about suffering and who is to blame and Jesus answered with the curious parable of the fig tree where the gardener advocated for the tree, “give it another year.”

Today Jesus continues to talk to the crowds of Jerusalem, the Pharisees and tax collectors. And the parable that he tells is one of the most iconic of scripture – The Prodigal Son.

The story of the son who spend his inheritance on dissolute living only to return home, hat in hand, is one that still carries some cultural memory. You can still hear the occasional tv show or movie throw out the label ‘prodigal son’ in reference to someone who returns home from an ill-spent time away, usually involving drugs, alcohol, crime and/or jail time.

The image of the prodigal son holds a certain place in our minds and in our larger culture that pushes us to understand this parable in ways that might not be the ones intended by Jesus as he told it.

In a facebook group of mostly Lutheran pastors that I am a part of, someone admitted that they had grown up being taught that “prodigal” meant “naughty.” And many more pastors admitted to the same thing. And while I won’t ask you to raise your hands, I am sure many of us grew up with a similar understanding of the term prodigal.

Of course, prodigal doesn’t mean naughty. It means lavish or abundant or extravagant or wasteful even. But even still the fact that we label the son as prodigal speaks to a common understanding that has been attached to this parable over generations.

The usual understanding of this parable goes that the son who asks his father for his inheritance and goes off to spend it on a good time in a far away place has committed some terrible, near unforgivable sin. After realizing the error of his ways, he returns to his home to be surprisingly welcomed by his father.

Yet, it is actually not totally clear what his great sin is. Is it asking for his inheritance prematurely? Is it leaving his family duties behind for another life? Is it the dissolute living that he engages in in a far away land? Or is the most Protestant and capitalist of sins, not putting a substantial sum of money to a profitable use?

The term prodigal might best apply to the last one, yet Jesus was not the one who named the parable. Rather English speakers did about 1500 years after the Gospel of Luke was put to paper.

In fact, only when the title is put aside, we are finally able to shed some new light on this story.

The parable begins not with the son, but with a man who has two sons. The younger of which asks for his inheritance… yet, this is was no simple a matter for the people of Israel. Inheritance wasn’t just a convenient equal split as it often is for us. In the ancient world, the eldest son received a double portion of inheritance. In this case, the elder son would received two thirds of his father’s wealth. The younger would received one third. But this did not include the land, as the land was understood to belong not just to one man but to the whole family or tribe of the landowner. The land was meant to provide for all those who lived on it, not just for the landowner. The elder son would not just inherit the wealth of his father, but also his obligation to manage and care for the land, the family, and the servants who worked the land.

The younger son would become the right hand to his older brother, the first of his brother’s servants.

And so when the younger son asks his father for his inheritance it is more than just asking for some party funds. And his inheritance is much less than we imagine to be. What this younger son is really asking for is a different life. He is wanting to do something else than be the first servant of his grumpy older brother.

Often when we tell this story, we imagine some great change in the younger son, someone who learns the error of his ways. Yet, as a new life in a foreign land doesn’t materialize, the younger son finds a job as a hired hand. Quickly, realizing that if this is to be his lot in life, he might as well do it with family than with strangers. And so he goes home, not as a changed man, but back to the destiny that was always his to begin with. To be a servant in his father’s household.

And despite his father running to meet him on the road, it is this understanding of himself that the the younger son says his las words in the story,

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

And then there is the often forgotten older son… the son who is grumpy about life in general. Who despite inheriting a double portion of his father’s wealth, is mostly inheriting duty, obligation and responsibility. The responsibility to managing wealth and land not for his benefit, but in order to provide and care for an entire community.

Perhaps he too feels trapped in a destiny that he may not want. And just like the younger son who begins and ends the parable in the same place, the older son begins bitter about his lot in life and finishes bitter, angry at his father’s generosity towards his younger brother.

In fact, understanding these brothers in this way begs us to ask, who, in fact, is the prodigal one? Who is the one who wastes something?

And again, there is a problem with the familiar title of the parable.

Despite the Prodigal Son’s relatively recent English name, our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters have called it by a different name for much longer…

‘The Parable of the Loving Father’

Our first clue as to who this parable might be about came in the very first words:

There was a man.

It is usually the case that the first person mentioned in a parable is who the parable is about.

There was a man who had two sons.

And it is the Father whose story just might be the most significant.

As the younger son comes looking for a new life, the Father gives his son the opportunity to make a new life.

And when the younger son returns home, the Father runs out to meet his son, to welcome him home with open arms.

Then when he Father throws a party for his lost son, the Father also goes out to find his elder son, and to welcome him to the party.

And as the older son complains that his Father never provided anything for his enjoyment, the Father reminds his older son that all that the Father has is also his son’s.

While the two sons are stuck inside themselves, stuck only seeing the burdens they may carry and the things they might miss out on… the Father continually seeks them out in order to love them, in order to remind them that they are more than they imagine, that they are the beloved children of their father, they belong to their Father’s family and community, and they forever bound to one another as siblings.

It may be true that the younger son is prodigal, lavish or wasteful with money. And it maybe true that the elder son is abounding in bitterness and resentment.

But perhaps it is the Loving Father who is truly the prodigal one. The Father who is lavish and extravagant in his love and welcome, who is willing to risk wasting everything that he has so that his children will know his love, who is willing to seek out and find his lost sons regardless of of the cost.

Of course, this parable is about the Loving and Prodigal Father who seeks his lost children.

And of course this parable is a reminder of just how God is with us.

Each and every time we come home to God’s house, God runs to meet us in the waters of baptism, and lavishly reminds us of God’s mercy and grace given in the Word, and God welcomes us again and again to the table, again and again to the feast of heaven. The feast of heaven where our bitterness and shame, our burdens and loss are left behind so that we can reminded again of who we are.

That we are God’s beloved children that God will spare no cost to find.

An important reminder as we journey towards the end of Lent, and towards the heart of human messiness on Good Friday… That there is no place and no thing that can keep God from loving us, not even the cross.

And The Loving and Prodigal Father is the one running to meet us on morning of the third day.

Saving the Fig tree and Saving Us

Luke 13:1-9

1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?…

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

Sermon

Our Lenten journey arrives at the halfway point today… and along with Jesus we have been wandering the wilderness. From the desert wilderness of temptation to the center of human chaos in Jerusalem. Jesus lamented over God’s people bustling and scurrying about. But now the questions begin coming, the obliviousness of the crowds is fading, the un-veneered truth is breaking through the humdrum of human busy-ness. Today, the questions are big and the answers are vague… yet amidst all that, Jesus reveals again something about ourselves and about God.

Now, before going any further, there is something about biblical wilderness that you ought to know. Normally, we see wilderness as the place of danger and peril, the place of exile and isolation. Wilderness found in the bible is something else, something holy and sacramental almost. In the familiar stories of faith, wilderness is the place of prophets and messiahs. Abraham is sent away from his homeland into the wilderness with only Sarah and God at his side. Moses escapes the dangers of Egypt only to be found by the burning bush in the wilderness. Elijah escapes occupied Jerusalem to be provided for by God in the wilderness. The Israelites leave slavery to return to the God of their ancestors in the wilderness.

In the bible, to enter into true wilderness is to leave the chaos of human life behind for a time, to be brought closer to God’s presence. And so our Lenten wilderness is exactly that, not a time of danger or worry, but a moment to come closer to God.

But along side our Lenten wilderness journey is something different. There is also the reality and harshness of creation. The crowds comes today to Jesus with their questions about the world, questions about cruelty and suffering, about sin and death. And their questions are our questions. They ask Jesus about the worshippers, Galilean pilgrims, that Pilate had murdered while they worshipped in the temple. They want to know who is to blame, if the pilgrims had somehow brought the violence on themselves.

This of course is a familiar notion these days as the entire world continues to reel from the murder of 50 worshippers into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. There are some out there that have asked if they two somehow brought this violence on themselves. But most, like those who came to Jesus are simply wondering why?

So Jesus brings up another tragedy in the recent memory of the people of Jerusalem, a construction project gone wrong, a tower collapsing and falling on 18 workers. Jesus asks rhetorically if these are also to blame for the calamity that befell them.

And again, we are reminded of the Ethiopian Airlines crash and the 157 people who died in that disaster. Were the pilots to blame or the aircraft builders. Again the question is why? Followed by, can this arbitrary violence and suffering come to us?

In both cases Jesus condemns the idea that somehow the victims are to blame. And today, he would do the same.

And then he tells a somewhat curious parable. One about a fig tree that had not born any fruit, for 3 years… And the landowner was ready to give up on it. Yet the gardener asks for one more year. Curious indeed.

These are complicated questions for this 3rd Sunday in Lent. Complicated questions that have something to say about our world in the midst of our questions and grieving. Questions about the things that we have no answers ourselves for. Why do we suffer? Why is violence so arbitrary? Why is hatred so seemingly common place?

On some level we know that we contribute to the problem. We know that, indeed, our sinful and selfish tendencies as human beings bear some of the blame. Whether it is someone falling into a rabbit hole of twisted ideology and othering that results in a heinous act of terrorism, or the obvious corruption and self interest of so many in power who simply wring their hands and offer thoughts and prayers as the solution to the problems of terror and violence. And then we also know that even in small ways we daily put ourselves ahead of others… we know that we are found somewhere in this mess.

But Jesus isn’t just rejecting the idea that the victim is to blame… Jesus is redirecting the focus of the crowds who have come with their questions. Jesus is pointing to the big picture.

The parable of the fig tree is a reminder that the big picture matters.

The landowner comes to his unproductive fig tree with all our questions, all our assumptions. Why hasn’t the tree produced? What is wrong with the tree? What has the tree done or failed to do?

The gardener sees the big picture… the gardener knows its about so much more than the tree.

The soil, the water, the shade, the root system, the weather, the pruning, the fertilizer and so on and on.

“Give it another year” He says

And all of sudden suffering and violence and sin and death are pushed aside. And there is grace and mercy and reprieve.

“Give it another year.”

And a global community gathers around families and communities torn by tragedy. Investigations begin up provide answers, and questions about plane safety are asked.

And high school students in New Zealand stand together and perform the Maori Hakas to honour the dead and to show resolve and strength. Biker gangs stand watch outside mosques so that prayers can be offered up in safety. And laws are introduced so future violent acts can be limited before they ever begin.

“Give it another year.”

You see, there is always more to the story, more to know and understand. And the big picture, the big picture is where grace and mercy come. The big picture is God’s surrounding our mess and chaos with love and compassion.

The big picture is the reminder that the gardener knows how to to turn suffering and violence and sin and death away. The gardener knows how to grow new and unexpected life. The gardener is knows that new life will always surprise and always come when we don’t expect it to.

The gardener knows what we do not… that repentance and transformation always begin from God’s end, from God working our soil, watering us in baptism, shading us in the word, feeding us to produce good fruit with bread and wine.

“Give it another year.” Jesus says about us.

The gardener is the Christ who sees what comes after failure and axes and death.

The Gardener is the Christ who knows that there will be new life and an empty tomb.

That tragedy and violence might shake us, that sin and death are always around in the messiness of human existence is certain.

But that God in Christ is also with us, walking along side us.

Despite all the things that push us to death and threaten to destroy, God in Christ has the final say. Christ is the one who defines us, who names and claims us, who declares that sin and death will not be our end.

It is the Christ who hears the questions about murdered worshippers and those who have died in tragic accidents who also is the one who goes to Good Friday and Golgatha — to cross and grave.

And it is this Christ who will not let us be ended by the harshness of our existence, who instead will walk with us from wilderness into our messy existence.

It is the Christ who shows up at falling towers and crashing planes,

The Christ who stands vigil and watch with grieving families in Galilee and Christchurch.

It is the Christ who walks out of the tomb and who declares,

“You have been given another year.”

Amen.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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