Obeying God and Not Human Authority – and Figuring Out Which is Which

(sermon 4/28/19)

fork in road

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

=====

Acts 5:27-32

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

=====

 

This Sunday’s gospel text is John’s account of what Jesus did on the evening of the day of his resurrection – after he’d taken that walk to Emmaus with those disciples and broke bread with them, he then made his way back to Jerusalem and had this amazing encounter with the disciples in the locked room. It was the beginning of their spiritual empowerment, and in John’s gospel, it’s here when the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, instead of on Pentecost Sunday as it’s told in the other gospels. I want us to hold this event in our minds, and in light of it, to think about what’s happening in our first reading, the passage from Acts.

What we hear there is part of a larger story about these emboldened, empowered, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus proclaiming his message and running up against the opposition of the power structure of the time. They’ve been arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. This wasn’t the first time they’d, as before, been arrested for what they were doing, or the first time they were warned to stop it. But the disciples’ reply was that they had to obey God rather than any human authority.

To consider this passage on the surface, it would be easy to give it an antisemitic reading. YOu know, it was those bad, nasty Jews who were persecuting the Christians, and so the disciples had to oppose them, and so we should hate all the Jews because of that. And throughout history, many Christians have read it that way, and that mindset has obviously been used to justify horrific evil against the Jewish people – even up until this very day, when we’re dealing with the news of the terrorist attack on the Chabad synagogue in California yesterday.

The real message of what’s going on here, though, has very little if anything to do with the religion of the disciples’ persecutors. For the most part, their Jewish identity was merely an accident of history and the context where these events unfolded; The same thing could have happened anywhere, with people of any religious beliefs. At the core of what’s really going on here is the imposition of power by a group silence voices and actions and movements that are seen as a threat to their holding on to that power. And it’s been repeated in the actions of literally every group that has ever held power over others. Every single one of them, regardless of the specific details of their specific identity and from the highest to the lowest of levels; from kings and congresses and presidents all the way down to your local HOA. So before anything else, let’s set aside any lingering antisemitic thoughts about this text; and not not set it aside, but strongly denounce it. That is not its relevant point or message, and to read it in that light isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous, as we see time and time again.

Having set that aside, now we can consider this very important idea of obeying God rather than human authority. We’ve actually touched on that same idea in recent weeks, as those Lectionary texts pointed toward similar issues. These disciples were engaging in faith-based civil disobedience; claiming that as a matter of their faith, they had to obey a higher moral authority, God’s authority, rather than some human authority. They aren’t the only ones who have been in that position – any time we engage in some act of civil disobedience – disregarding a legally established but morally unjust law, and we’re doing it as an expression of our faith – we’re doing the same thing that these disciples were doing. When Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the head of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington, and others were arrested as they prayed on the steps of the Supreme Court last year as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, their arrest was the same as these disciples being arrested for their own legally forbidden public proclamation of the gospel.

This is one of the most discussed and debated topics in our culture today. It plays out in dozens of ways, and it often puts us into some uncertain territory. People across the entire spectrum of our faith, from the most conservative to the most liberal, claim to do things, all in the name of obeying God rather than human authority. Claiming to obey God over human authority, Rev. Franklin Graham denounces presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as a fake Christian and an unrepentant sinner bound for hell because he’s gay, and liberal; I’m not sure which of those he considers the bigger sin. For his part, Buttigieg claims to be doing the exact same thing – obeying God rather than human authority – as he advocates various liberal social policies, claiming they’re the most consistent with Christian moral teaching; and recognizes the fact that he’s gay as being a gift from God and just one part of his having been made in God’s image. Claiming to obey God over human authority, conservative Christians protest in front of Planned Parenthood women’s health centers, calling them evil, and the doctors  murderers, because in addition to other things, they perform abortions. At the same time, progressive Christians claim they’re doing the exact same thing – obeying God over human authority – as they organize counter-protests and accompany women through the protestors blockading the entry, so they can get in for whatever health services they’re seeking. You can come up with almost countless examples in our social past and present where two groups holding diametrically opposed viewpoints both claim to be standing up for God’s will, over against some misguided human authority.

So what’s a person to do in cases like this? How are we supposed to know who’s really right, and who’s wrong? How can we really know if we’re on the right side of some issue with absolute certainty?

The short answer is that we can’t. As a matter of doctrine in our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, we recognize our human limitations, and the reality that as flawed creatures, whether as individuals or councils or other groups, we can, and do, err. Sometimes we just blow it. The history of our faith is full of times when we thought we were right, but the facts eventually showed otherwise. While we pray and try to discern the right way, the truth is that sometimes, we’ll get it wrong.  So while we do our best to seek the mind of God in certain issues, even when we’re really strongly convinced that we’re right, we need to tread respectfully and humbly toward those who share a different view. That doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them, or agree that both views are somehow equally valid or worthy of equal consideration, or that the best approach to the disagreement is always necessarily some kind of a 50/50 compromise; a constant cutting of Solomon’s baby in half. In our assurance, we can take our stands boldly; we just can’t personally demonize, vilify, or spew hatred toward others.

So how do we try to understand God’s will in some issue? Here’s where I think we can look back at today’s gospel text. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into those disciples, and in the process, he commissions them to proclaim the same message and mission that he’s had during his ministry. So let this be our touchstone, too. When a disagreement like this happens, whatever the specifics, just ask: what approach is the most consistent with Christ’s actual teaching and message? What approach is most consistent with Christ, the real life, living, breathing, in-the-flesh and in-your-face explanation of what God’s will looks like in human terms? Are people treated with the same compassion and dignity that Jesus offered? Are they treated with mercy, fairness, equity? Does the approach value people over customs, traditions, and yes, sometimes even laws? In short, what is the most loving approach? Because Jesus’ entire ministry – the entire good news that he entered the world to proclaim  – all distills down to the eternal truth that God wants us to offer love to one another – that this is the foremost way of obeying, and honoring, and in the process, actually worshiping, God.

Honestly, when we struggle with the question of “What Would Jesus Do?” we usually already know the answer; we just might not like it. I get that, because sometimes it can be really, really hard to do the loving thing in certain situations. But we always need to remember that we are the spiritual descendants of those disciples that Jesus breathed on in that locked room. We have received that same Holy Spirit within us, too, and that Spirit can, and will, not only help guide us into understanding what’s right, and good, and loving; but will also give us, if we’re willing to accept it,  the strength to actually follow that path, even when it’s hard.

Throughout his week, look for times when you sense that breath of God in your life, trying to open your mind, and your heart, to something in your life, large or small. Allow that Spirit to guide and strengthen you in having the mind of Christ in something specific. That’s how the Spirit will help you find the peace that Christ offered to those original disciples, and to us as well.

Thanks be to God.

Advertisements

Oh Joe, Say It Ain’t So.

rod serling

I was asked to assist a parishioner in an immigration-related meeting in Chicago, and I realized that it would be nice to retire my current, seen-better-days charcoal suit and replace it with a newer one before the trip. I’ve had good experience shopping at Jos. A Bank in the past; they’ve always seemed to offer a good quality, decent looking suit at a reasonable price and with good customer service – attentive without being overbearing. Given my past experience, I looked online and found a couple of suits that I thought I’d like to try, so I reserved them online at one of their two local stores and made plans to go  try them at the end of the day today.

I got to the store at maybe 6:45. As soon as I walked in the door, I saw a well-dressed younger man not ten feet away facing me, fiddling around with something on a rack just in front of him. I got the impression that he worked there, but I wasn’t sure if he did or not since when I walked in the door, he didn’t say hello, or acknowledge me, or even glance up at me. Hmm, maybe I was mistaken and he’s a customer.

As I looked through the rest of the store, I saw an older man speaking with a woman who seemed to be trying to pick out a tie. Clearly, the older man – who from this point on, I’ll call Salesman 1, or just S1 for short – did work there, and the woman was a customer, who I’ll call C2 (I’m C1).

Other than S1, C2, me, and the still uncategorized man just inside the door, there was exactly one other person in the store – a short, husky man wearing a blue blazer and khakis, or maybe tan dress slacks. Like the first man I saw, I couldn’t tell if he worked there or was a customer. As I walked toward him through the store, he lumbered across my path, staring at me, but not saying anything. OK, he must be another customer.

So at this point, that’s the total number of people in the entire store.

Since no one was waiting on me, I made my way over to the suits in my size to scan what they had on the rack while I waited for someone to come over. After doing that for close to ten minutes without anyone asking to help me, I started to walk over to the first, better-dressed uncategorized man I’d seen as I walked in. Just as I got near him to ask if he could help me, he pulled a jacket off a hanger, turned toward me and said, “Oh, I have to see how this looks on me. Mirror, mirror, on the wall….” and he proceeded to go over to a wall mirror and try the jacket on. Oh, well, now I know he is a customer – that could have been embarrassing if I’d asked him for help.

Striking out with him, I then turned my attention to the second uncategorized man, who at that moment had just walked over to a store computer and began typing something in. Ah hah! He *does* work here! (so now we can call this man S2) Getting a bit annoyed by this time, I stand near him waiting for him to finish his typing. When he’s finished, he turns around and looks at me as if I didn’t belong there and half-heartedly asks “Is there something I can do for you?”

Well, yeah… “Yes, I reserved some suits online to try out; I’d like to see them.”

S2 seemed dejected and lumbered to the backroom. He returned and placed one of the suits in a changing room. I tried the suit on. It was a nice (traditional) fit, but I wasn’t sold on the appearance of the fabric, so I slipped the suit off and came back out onto the floor. As I did, I could see that S1 and C2 were still intently trying to find the right tie, and the remaining uncategorized man was milling around the store. I finally saw him refolding some shirts and tidying up the shelves they were on. OK, now I know; he also works here – now we can call him S3. He’s just been ignoring me all this time while trying things on.

By the time I’d come back out, S2 had the second suit. It was a tailored cut – I wasn’t sure if my build could still fit in one of those, so I’d reserved one traditional and one tailored to try for size. This suit was made of a nicer material than the first, and after confirming my suspicions that the traditional cut was the better fit for me, I asked S2 if he had a suit in a traditional cut, but a material the same as or similar to the material of the tailor-cut one.

Upon hearing my question, S2 bit his lip and looked like I’d just asked him to recite the Gettysburg Address in Swahili. “Well – gee, I don’t really know. I’m probably not the best person to ask; I don’t really know that much about the different materials yet; I’ve only worked here since December.”

My inside voice said, “If you’ve been working at a men’s clothing store for at least four months and you still don’t know anything about the suits you’re selling, you’re in the wrong line of work.” My out-loud voice was too stunned to say anything. S2 continued, “I’m going to have to turn you over to ___________ over there (S1); he’s worked here for eleven years. Hey, __________, when you’re free you’ll need to take care of this gentleman.” S1 glanced up at me and grunted, “Oh – OK.” and looked back down as C2 continued her deliberations. And with that, S2 walked away toward the backroom.

I stood there stunned, to be honest. S1 was still standing over C2 as she deliberated over this tie or that one. Across the room, S3 continued fiddling with items on a rack, never looking up.

Just then, another person walked into the store. So now, we have C1, C2, and C3; and S1, S2, and S3. But only for a moment, since at just this moment, S2 reappears and announces to his coworkers that he’s leaving; his shift is over. They call out their goodbyes and tell him they’ll see him tomorrow. I start to wonder if I’ll still be standing here when he gets back.

Meanwhile, C3 walks over to near where S1 and C2 are talking. S1 looks up and asks “Picking up this evening, sir?” “Yes,” C3 replies. At that, S1 looks back down while C2 still ponders, leaving C3 to stand there, just as I’m standing there, feeling a bit foolish and annoyed at this point.

After about five minutes pass, C3 realizes that no one is going to take care of him anytime soon. He looks around and sees S3, still wandering around the store doing nothing and seemingly oblivious to anyone else there. I watch C3 walk across the room, approaching S3. Getting near, he calls out to S3, “I’m sorry, could you take care of me?” At this, S3 holds up a finger to shush him, pulls out his phone, dials a number, and then turns his back on C3 and walks away while talking on his phone.

C3 and I look at each other as if we were in the Twilight Zone. I finally couldn’t take it any more and walked out.

To summarize:

  • I got to the store when there were more sales people than customers.
  • I waited, in retail time, forever for anyone to even acknowledge my presence.
  • When someone did, they proved to be incompetent or intentionally unhelpful so they could dodge out the back door for the end of their shift.
  • One of the three sales people actively refused to offer any assistance to anyone, preferring to just see how they looked in the items for sale.
  • The most experienced sales person there apparently hadn’t learned, in eleven years, how to say “Ma’am, I’ll be right back with you; while you look those over, let me get this man’s order out of the back room for him.”

It was truly the oddest (non-)shopping experience I’ve ever had. I honestly started to wonder if John Quinones was going to suddenly pop out of the backroom, telling me it was all part of a segment for “What Would You Do?” This is the point where I’d usually try to come up with some pithy statement to wrap up with, but honestly, I’m still shaking my head over the whole experience. I’ve always been a satisfied customer of this company in the past, and I’m sure I will again in the future – but today’s experience was just… bizarre. Cue Quinones, or maybe Rod Serling.

Resurrection

(sermon 4/21/19 – Easter Sunday)

empty tomb

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

=====

Well, today is the day! From the standpoint of the church, this is the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and Oscars night all rolled into one. All around the globe, churches have made sure the grounds are clean and pretty, there are plenty of visitors’ brochures ready to go, choirs and other musical groups have been putting in extra practice, and all the soap dispensers and paper towel holder have been checked and double-checked. And for most of us, whether we’re here almost every Sunday or only now and then, we’re here for this day, Easter Sunday. This is the day that we show up to proclaim Jesus Christ, the one born into this world to proclaim God’s favor and love for all of humanity; a message that so threatened and terrified the powers that be that they had him arrested and executed as a political prisoner, a threat to the empire –  but that on this day, Easter Sunday, God refused to let that death be the final word. Rather, God raised Jesus from the dead, as a validation of his life and his message, and of the entering in of the kingdom of God into the world. On this day, God refused to let that message of love and justice and hope die. That’s what we come here today to profess, and to celebrate. This day, we come together to show our true colors; to show what team we’re playing for, what we stand for, what we believe.

But… it’s that last part, what we believe, where maybe we get a little nervous about this day – when we celebrate the most illogical, irrational, unlikely thing that could ever be imagined – the raising of the dead. Resurrection – the mysterious transformation of a beaten, tortured, stone-cold dead body into a fully alive, improved, eternally transformed, physical person. We can be honest with one another here. We can admit that the whole idea sounds pretty ridiculous – even laughable.

It’s a bit ironic that on this, the holiest of all days in the entire Christian tradition, we confront the intersection of our greatest joy and probably our greatest doubt. On this day, maybe more than others, we hear that voice that we try to push back into the recesses of our brains, to keep buried in its own dark tomb with the stone firmly over the door – but still, the little, disquieting voice still manages to sneak out, and we hear ourselves wondering, “Is the resurrection real?”

I wasn’t there at that tomb in the pre-dawn darkness with the women who’d gone out there that morning. I didn’t see resurrection that day. I didn’t touch it; I didn’t feel it. But in the midst of this Easter intersection of faith and doubt, my heart still overflows with joy and gratitude, because I can still definitely say that I’ve experienced resurrection. I’ve seen it.

Mary experienced it that morning at the tomb, and so did the other disciples later that same day and in the days to come. It was the reality of resurrection that convinced their hearts that Christ, whom they’d seen killed, was indeed risen and alive. It was the reality of resurrection that transformed them from a group of people fearing for their lives behind locked doors, to a group so energized that they had to come out from behind those locked doors and to go out into the street, and ultimately throughout the world, proclaiming the good news that Christ, and his message, and the incoming of the kingdom of God, was alive and well.

It’s the reality of the resurrection – this undeniable encounter with the very living Spirit of the same God who lived as one of us, and walked as one of us, and died as one of us – that we experience when we see the transformation of the lives of countless people in amazing, otherwise inexplicable ways. Giving them the strength to get through difficult situations so terrible that that by any reasonable measure should have crushed them like a Dixie Cup. Giving them the ability to overcome the insurmountable; to forgive the unforgivable; to love the unlovable.

And also we see the reality of the resurrection in the life of love, and support, and affirmation that we all experience together as a community of faith – seeing the risen Christ in the faces of others, and seeing how Christ has transformed them, just as Christ has transformed us, as well. We see the reality of the resurrection when we recognize that through it, we are transformed, but not only transformed – we’re also called to be transformative  – to be the reality of resurrection to others around us.

syria puppeteers

Do you see this? This is a gathering of children whose lives and homes have been destroyed in the ongoing war in Syria. There, in the middle of the rubble that used to be a village they’re gathered around to watch a spontaneous puppet show staged by two puppeteers. Their own lives must have been every bit as destroyed as the children’s, but they still decided to bring at least a moment of laughter to a handful of kids who couldn’t otherwise afford that luxury. Can you imagine that? It’s illogical. It’s irrational. It makes no sense. It might seem small, an insignificant drop of joy in an ocean of despair, and maybe it is, but make no mistake – the greatest evidence of the reality of resurrection is the reality of hope in this world. Every time you see goodness rising in the wake of evil, you see the reality of the resurrection. Every time you see people finding ways to bring light into places of darkness; compassion into places of indifference and heartlessness;  justice into places of injustice and inequity; truth into places of dishonesty and deceit; and healing into places of brokenness, you are witnessing the eternal truth and reality of resurrection. All of it is in one way or another, even if it isn’t recognized as such in the moment, a witness to the reality of the resurrection of Christ – a witness to the reality of God’s validation of Christ’s life and message of love for the world.

So on this, the holiest of all days, celebrate the resurrection. Sing out with your boldest, loudest voices, even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Feel the love and the unity embodied in the bread and cup of Communion. Clap your hands; dance like nobody is watching, or whatever the closest thing to that is for us Presbyterians. Enjoy the fellowship of being here together this morning, and feeling the Spirit of the risen Lord who is present here among us. And maybe a few hours from now, enjoy that traditional Easter dinner that you have planned, full of whatever your own personal traditional Easter foods are. Snack on the leftover candy, and savor the love of family and friends gathered together. Take the time to feel the love in all of this day. And in the midst of it all, recognize that while you might not know all the technical details, the biological, physical aspects of what happened inside that tomb on that fateful first Easter Sunday, you have experienced, and you know, that we worship a God who always brings life from death, hope from despair, and love from hate. Friends, that is resurrection, and resurrection is real. Resurrection is you. And it’s me. Because first, resurrection was Christ. Hold onto that great, eternal truth in your hearts, and let it show in your lives, today, and every day.  Amen.

Being There

(sermon 4/14/19 – Palm Sunday)

palm-sunday

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 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!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

=====

So today is the day that Christians around the world remember the amazing event of Jesus’ ride out from Bethany on the Mount of Olives, surrounded by throngs of supporters shouting and singing and dancing, and laying cloaks and branches in the roadway like a red carpet for Jesus, and he and the mass of people entering in through the fortified walls of Jerusalem and into the very heart of the city, into the courts of the Temple in the days before the Passover. This march on Jerusalem is often called Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry,” and most of us have heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that there was definitely an aspect of joy and triumph to it. But most of us have also heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that this event was also very thoughtfully planned to mock and oppose the local powers of the Roman Empire. That every year during the days leading up to the Passover when the city ballooned to over a million people, the Roman governor and the army would stage a big ceremonial procession through the streets of the city, with fully armored war horses, and carriages, and masses of troops, and music and banners and carriages, all designed as a show of overwhelming power, and a reminder of who was in charge – and that it was OK for all of the little people to observe their quaint, backward religious observance, but if any of them got out of line they were going to get squashed by the superpower who was governing over them. And Jesus’ procession into the city was meant to be the counterimage of all that; Jesus proclaiming the coming of the reign of God; and God’s love and care for the people in the throng over the one on the throne; and that there’s really only one true superpower and it isn’t Caesar.

Given that, while there was real jubilation in this crowd marching in from Bethany, there was also no small amount of trepidation. Worry. Fear. Would they be arrested, mobbed, beaten, killed, for standing up and speaking truth to power? It was the same mixture of emotions felt by the Freedom Riders stepping off the bus to face Bull Connor in Birmingham. Or the mass of people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the face of armed police, teargas, and attack dogs in Selma. Or the people who had the guts to come out of the closet and go out into the middle of Christopher Street in New York, risking police beatings and arrest to kick off the first Pride parade in 1970.  Or marching to protest the illegal and immoral treatment of refugees and immigrants, and being met by a mass of armed white nationalist radicals. The people in each of those examples, even if some of them wouldn’t have put it in these words, were putting themselves on the line to bring a bit more of God’s justice and peace and equity into our world.

Every year on this Sunday, we need to be reminded of just exactly what Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day was all about; and that when we all boldly process into the sanctuary singing and waving our palms, we’re recognizing that the very beginnings of our faith are rooted in God’s calling us, and empowering us, to speak truth to power. An essential part of the faith that we proclaim is showing up. Standing up. Being there, in the name of Christ.

“Being there” can manifest itself in a number of ways, all of them just as important, and God might call us to one or more of them. Certainly, the most direct parallel to Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is, as in the examples I offered, when some Christians feel called, as a matter of faith, to stand up for God’s justice “on earth as it is in heaven,” by literally marching, rallying, protesting, praying. But that certainly isn’t the only way of “being there.” Maybe your legs, your body, your schedule, won’t allow for “being there” for the reign of God in that way. That’s OK. Maybe your call to being there  is more like that of the people who volunteer with the group Grannies Respond here in Louisville. When immigration officials at the southern border allow refugees into the country, they just drop them off at the nearest bus station. A national network of groups, including Grannies Respond, will meet these refugees at the bus terminals and help them get the ticket they need, give them advice and directions, provide them with some food and drink and personal care items, maybe a blanket; but just as importantly, to offer them a smile, a warm welcome, and assurance that there are people who care about them. You’ve heard of the Underground Railroad; this network has become known as the Overground Railroad. It’s simple. It’s easy. Anyone *could* do it, but they *are* doing it. And it means everything to the people being helped. It’s taking a stand for God’s justice, and speaking truth to power. It’s showing up. It’s being there.

It’s also being there to be part of our fledgling ride share ministry – getting members to church for worship and other events, or to an appointment, or even to vote. It isn’t complicated or strenuous. All you need is a car, a driver’s license, and a little bit of free time. But it’s so important, and so appreciated.

Being there can be taking a meal to someone who’s mourning a loss, or who’s going through some other stressful time. And it’s being there to tutor or read to a child, or to manage a Little Free Library, or to write a greeting card to a shut-in, or to teach a class or mentor a Confirmand. In these ways and so many others, we’re called by God to be the People of Being There. Being there to proclaim and promote God’s love, and peace, and justice, and equity in this world, and doing it out of gratitude to God, who, through Christ – his life, his teachings, his death and resurrection – was being there, and continues to be there, for us.

The amazing thing about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is that even though it was meant to put the powers that be on notice that something bold and new was breaking into the world, compared to the massive show of force put on by the Romans that same week, they must have looked like a joke. It couldn’t compare. It couldn’t possibly send the message they wanted to. And yet, somehow, by God’s grace it did. It struck fear and worry into the hearts of the civil and religious leadership to see such a bold, in-your-face display of opposition to them – and they knew that for every person in that ragtag march, there were dozens who weren’t there but who felt the same way. In taking to the streets, and boldly proclaiming the reign of God, Jesus and his followers accomplished exactly what he’d set out to.

On that ride out from Bethany and toward Jerusalem as Jesus sat on that donkey, I wonder what he was thinking. Was he caught up in the joy of the moment? Was he feeling resignation and fear over what he knew was going to unfold that week? Could he see beyond that? Could he see all the divisions, the hostility, the hatred and meanness and violence that would be perpetrated in his name across the ages? If he could, I hope that he could also see all the times his followers would stand up, would be there, would speak truth to power, and love to hate. And if he could see that, I hope that he could also see each of us, in our own way, being a part of that.

Thanks be to God.

Write Your Own Ending

(sermon 3/31/19)

two brothers

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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

=====

It almost never seems to fail that if there are two children in a family, they’ll end up being polar opposites. One will be outgoing, the life of the party, while the other one will be shy and introverted. One will be the athlete, and the other will be the academic. One will be technically oriented, while the other will be the artist. One will follow all the rules to a T, and the other will constantly be coming home late after curfew with their underwear in their back pocket. Some of that is probably innate, but I think a lot of it arises out of every child’s need to stake out their own territory as they develop their own sense of self, independent of the people around them. This is true now, and it was just as true in Jesus’ time, and you can see it in play in this parable.

The younger son can’t wait to get away from home – from the family, the farm, the boring town he grew up in. He wants the city, the excitement, the culture, the restaurants. He wants to live the fast life. Meanwhile, his brother was the one who always knew he wanted to stay right where he’d grown up, where he had roots. He was the straight arrow, the quiet, dependable one who never gave his parents any problems and who probably opened a good universal life insurance policy and a 401k on his eighteenth birthday.

Of course, we know what happens. The younger son realizes that living in that faraway place wasn’t quite as glamorous as he’d pictured. It was a tougher, harder place that could chew up and spit out even a more disciplined and cautious person, let alone someone like him, who spent money like it was going out of style. And when he’s at rock bottom, he decides to go home to the judgment and ridicule that undoubtedly faced him there, but it would still be better than his current situation.

But instead of judgment, he discovers the fact that to most parents, a child can’t do anything so bad that the parent could ever reject them or stop loving them. This is something that seems to be so inherent to us as a species. I know that it happens in some instances, but for the life of me, I can’t understand how. Apparently, that’s what the father in this parable thought, too.

In this section of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is being criticized by religious leaders for keeping the wrong kind of company. For hanging out with the wrong crowd. For associating with the kinds of people who their religious rules condemned. People who were supposed to be shunned, not loved and accepted. According to these religious leaders, it was important to take a moral stand against those kinds of people, and here was Jesus doing just the opposite. Jesus’ answer to that criticism was to tell them a couple of parables, this being one of them, in which he teaches them that God doesn’t really give two flips about their rules that would set up people to be rejected. So first he tells a parable about leaving 99 sheep to go find the one lost one. Interestingly, the way he tells that story, Jesus essentially says to them, “Surely, you’d risk leaving the 99 sheep alone, by themselves, to go find the one lost one, wouldn’t you?” while, to be honest, I’m pretty certain that many of his listeners were probably thinking “Actually, no, I wouldn’t risk the 99 to go look for the lost one that doesn’t exactly fit my risk management plan; I’d just write off the lost one as the cost of doing business.”

And then he tells this parable, showing how the father in the story shows love and acceptance for even this son, who by their rules and standards should have been rejected when he returned. That was what the kingdom of God was like, Jesus was telling them. Your legalistic rules designed to create outcasts simply didn’t hold water in God’s eyes.

While there are other ways to understand the parable, the most common way of relating to it is that the father represents God. Through the father’s unconditional love and acceptance of the younger son, we’re told about the gracious way that God loves us – not according to any human rules, even human rules that might seem logical to us, but according to God’s rules. That no matter who we are, or what we’ve done, or what society’s rules have to say about us, God is working based on a different set of rules – and the most important of those rules is that there is nothing – nothing – that can separate us from God’s love and acceptance.

But if that was all Jesus wanted to teach the Pharisees, he could have told this parable with just the father and the younger son; he wouldn’t have needed an older son at all. So why is he in this story? Honestly, I think he’s every bit as important as the younger son in the story. Through him, we see Jesus’ words of assurance, and warning, to the Pharisees. First, the assurance: Don’t fall into this false sense of threat. Just because God loves these other people that you want to reject, God doesn’t love you any less. Love is not a zero-sum game. It’s the message that every parent has to tell their firstborn child when their baby sibling comes along – don’t worry, you don’t have to resent it when I show love to them; there’s enough love for everyone. That, as the father in the parable tells the older son, he was always with him.

But then comes the warning: Be careful when in your self-righteousness, you set up other people to be unworthy of associating with, or loving, or accepting. This is absolutely not God’s way. When you do that, you become the object of God’s disappointment, not them. Don’t allow your understanding of God, and of what you think God would consider right and wrong, to be guided by narrow-minded legalism, but rather, let it always be guided by the rule of love.

That was the lesson that Jesus taught to the Pharisees through the character of the older brother. And it’s the same lesson that some modern-day Pharisees need to hear, too – Modern-day Pharisees who would:

Use their narrow religious beliefs to justify throwing their LGBTQ child out of the house, and into the streets.

Or who, using the same excuse, would fire a beloved, long-term high school guidance counselor because she fell in love and married another woman.

Or who would refuse to help desperate migrants fleeing for their lives just because they crossed our border illegally.

Or anyone, for that matter, who would support any immoral or unjust situation simply on the grounds that it was legal.

That, to me is why Jesus includes both the younger and older brother are in this parable. Through them, they give us glimpses of eternal truth – glimpses of grace, of assurance, and of warning.

At the end of this parable, the father tells the older son not to remain in his state of judgmentalism and anger, but rather, to let go of it, and to come in and join the grand party. But we aren’t ever told if he did or not. It’s the great unanswered question of the parable, and we get to write our own ending to it. So did the older son take the father’s assurance and warning to heart?

And when we find ourselves in the older son’s shoes, will we? We get to write our own ending to our story, too.

Thanks be to God.