The Wrong People

Sermon for Sunday, October 22, 2017 || Proper 25A || Matthew 22:15-22

Imagine with me the thoughts of a nameless Pharisee, one in the party that seek to trap Jesus with their questions during the time between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion, while he’s teaching daily in the temple.

All week Jesus had been speaking out against us Pharisees. He did it subtle like, not taking it to us directly, but talking in riddles and stories. Stories about vineyards and tenants and weddings and guests, and at the end of them, we took umbrage because all the wrong people got rewarded in his stories. They were insidious, those stories; they rattled around in my head, making up pictures in an incomplete vision that competed with the one I had always been shown. I kept quiet around my brethren that week, lest I let slip the confession that Jesus fascinated me, despite – or maybe because of – his puzzling and radical rhetoric. Continue reading “The Wrong People”

Willful Seeing

Sermon for Sunday, June 12, 2016 || Proper 6C || Luke 7:36–8:3

willfulseeingThis is a sermon about seeing. I want you to remember that because for the first little bit, it will sound like it’s about other things. But this sermon is about seeing.

Today’s Gospel lesson tells the story of a Pharisee named Simon who invited Jesus to a dinner party at his house. Perhaps Simon had a custom of bringing all visiting rabbis into his house for a meal. Perhaps he had a soft spot for provincial teachers who, like Jesus, had ventured out their backwater villages to spread their words to the wider world. I can only assume a Pharisee like Simon brought such people into his home to stoke his own ego, to show them that they were hopelessly outmatched by his wealth and knowledge. Continue reading “Willful Seeing”

Healing Brokenness

Sermon for Sunday, March 6, 2016 || Lent 4C || 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

HealingBrokennessWe live in a broken world: broken homes, broken promises, broken government, broken ecosystems. We’re used to brokenness. We learn to live with it. We hear about another mass shooting or another intractable political standoff or another couple dissolving their marriage, and we might shake our heads for a minute and sigh and say, “Boy, I don’t know.” And then we go back to whatever we were doing. And yet, even in the midst of this listless response to brokenness, something niggles and naggles at us, unsettles us; something deep within reminds us that “broken” is not the way things are supposed to be. We believe that God created everything and called Creation “good” and never made a thing called “brokenness.” And yet, brokenness crept into Creation. Separation and division soon followed. Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better.

And in that seeing, in that knowing, God invites us to participate in God’s mission to repair this brokenness. In today’s lesson from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” He continues, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”

Did you hear that? We are ambassadors for Christ – representatives of Jesus bringing his message of reconciliation to this broken world. Reconciliation is the healing of brokenness. When Jesus welcomes and eats with “tax collectors and sinners” in this morning’s Gospel, he models the ministry of reconciliation. The scribes and Pharisees like their society just fine the way it is. They’ve learned to live with the brokenness, profit from it even. And so they grumble when Jesus upsets the status quo and shows them what wholeness can look like. Jesus tells them a story about a family, a family marred by brokenness, a family in need of reconciliation.

The younger of two sons basically says to his father, “I wish you were dead so I could have my inheritance.” His father acquiesces, and the younger son takes his portion and travels to a distant country where he squanders his fortune in what the King James Version calls “riotous living.” At first glance, the younger son’s sin sure seems to be his debauchery, given his status as a decadent wastrel. But I don’t think his prodigality takes the top seed.

Instead, his major sin is the rift caused by his separation from his family. Jesus makes a point to say that the father divides his household to fulfill his son’s wish. And then the son doesn’t settle nearby, but in a “distant” country. With the division and separation complete, all that’s needed is a famine for the younger son to notice his folly. When he comes to himself sitting in the filth among the pigs, he realizes the brokenness his departure caused. He no longer feels worthy to be called a son, so he prepares himself to live with the brokenness and to be considered a hired hand rather than a member of the family.

At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees nodding their heads in approval. The younger son defiled himself. He is unclean after touching all those pigs. Of course, he mustn’t be welcomed home. But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.

The younger son travels back to his father’s house, prepared for the sad reality that it will never be home again. But when he is still a vaguely human shape on the twilit horizon, his father sees him and runs out to meet him and embraces him and kisses him. The young man begins his prepared speech: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But his father will not tolerate the separation, the brokenness any longer. “This son of mine,” he says, “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” This son of mine. With these words, the father repairs the broken relationship, and the two are reconciled.

At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees raising incredulous eyebrows. Now the father is unclean, as well, because he touched the younger son before he purified himself with the appropriate rituals. What kind of family is this? But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.

When the elder brother hears the revelry coming from the house, he learns of his brother’s return, and he will not enter the house or join the party. The elder son echoes his brother’s sin by separating himself from the celebration. When the father comes out to plead with him, the elder son shows his own division from the family. He calls his brother “this son of yours,” thus ignoring the fraternal relationship. And rather than working like a son, he says, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.” Like a slave. Like the hired hand the younger son was prepared to be.

But the father continues to repair the brokenness in his family. “Son,” he calls his eldest. There is no division between us because “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Then the father attempts to heal the fraternal separation by emphasizing the sons’ relationship to one another: “This brother of yours was…lost and has been found.”

I imagine the scribes and Pharisees noticing that they themselves look an awful lot like the elder brother. I bet their own irritation with Jesus deafens them to the reconciling nature of the father in the parable. But while the parable ends, Jesus still isn’t finished telling the story yet.

Both sons separate themselves from the family, but their father goes out and meets both sons in their brokenness. He runs up to the younger when his son is still far off. He leaves the party to be with the elder. Jesus continues his ministry by mirroring the action of the father in the parable. He doesn’t just wait for people to come to him. He seeks people out where they are, eating with tax collectors and sinners, healing the sick, touching the unclean, standing with the marginalized, dying with the criminals in the refuse dump on the outskirts of the city.

That’s our savior, the one who will never let any barrier or rift or division – not even death – separate us from his love. Our savior leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one that is lost. Our savior seeks out and finds the man born blind after he’s thrown out of the synagogue. Our savior reconciles Peter to him after Peter’s triple denial of ever knowing him. Our savior left his home in order to bring us to it. And we are his ambassadors.

Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better. We know in that deep place within that the world is not supposed to be broken. Participating in God’s mission of reconciliation begins when we listen to this deep place within, the voice of Christ our Savior telling us that we can make a difference. We can make a difference when we react to brokenness not with listlessness, not with apathy, not with indifference. We can make a difference when we react to brokenness with compassion, with the desire to be like the father in the parable and go out and meet our broken world head on.

It may seem like a fool’s errand, participating in God’s mission of reconciliation when the brokenness of the world is so great. It may seem insurmountable. But remember, Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.

*There’s a stealthy nod to The West Wing in this sermon. First person to figure it out gets five points.
Art: Detail from “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt.

Redefining the good news: The two things you’re not supposed to talk about (part 2)

In the first installment of this series, we looked at how the phrase “separation of church and state” fails to comprehend the complex relationship that those two broad entities share. Fealty to such a misunderstood doctrine can blind us to the influence our faith in God should have on our political decisions. No decision is made in a vacuum. Acknowledging this, each person chooses which voices to distinguish from the cacophony clamoring for attention. She contemplates what her context values as true. As the cacophony and the context press upon her, the faithful person attempts to attend to that still small fluttering within, which is the deep intersection between her consciousness and God’s movement.

Just as decisions (political or otherwise) are not made in a vacuum, the Gospel does not take place outside of a specific context. Indeed, the dusty realism of the Gospel makes for compelling reading and even more compelling living. When Jesus of Nazareth steps onstage, the scene is set, the players chosen. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth (according to Mark) intentionally borrow the political language of the day: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus imagines a new definition for that word euangelion (Gospel, good news). No longer is “good news” to be proclaimed for another Roman military victory or another birthday of a Roman emperor. No. The kingdom of God has come near! This is the Good News of Jesus.

If Jesus is redefining Roman talking points, the political nature of his message would be hard for his contemporaries to miss. Their difficulty came from another angle: to whom does this nobody from a backwater like Nazareth belong? Is he a Pharisee? A Zealot? A Herodian? An Essene? He can’t be an Essene because he would’ve never left the desert. He can’t be a Herodian because he is speaking out against the Romans, and those Herodians are living just fine as Roman stooges. He can’t be a Zealot because he keeps talking about peace and seems not to have the stomach for gutting the odd centurion. And he can’t be a Pharisee — just look at the company he keeps!*

These groups made up the political landscape of early first century Israel, a land which had been under one foreign regime or other for several centuries. The current occupier, the Romans, governed with both the carrot and the stick. You could get very rich or very dead depending on how you interacted with Rome. Most got very enslaved or at least intimidated into meek submission. But Jesus, who fit no known political category of the day, spoke out in the politically charged atmosphere, spoke out with no fear and people listened.**

People listened. People watched. They saw the eyes of the blind opened and the legs of the lame strengthened. Could this Jesus possibly be the One they were expecting, the son of David who would lead them out from under the yoke of Rome — the Messiah? Peter thought so, but when Jesus told him what was to happen, Peter couldn’t handle it. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to die on a cross. The Messiah was supposed to lead the nation in an uprising and sweep all enemies from the land. To hear the people of Israel tell it, the Messiah was a political office — a judge/prophet/king, a conflation of all the powerful figures from the past.

But in a further re-imagining, Jesus took the messianic expectation and turned it on its head. He would have no part perpetuating the cycle of violence. After his death and resurrection, his followers began seeing Jesus’ understanding of the Messiah in different parts of the same Hebrew scriptures — the Messiah as the suffering servant, the one who demonstrated the utter necessity in beating swords to ploughshares.

Jesus stepped into a world dominated by the politics of fear and division and blame and hate. He immersed himself in the grimy, bloody mess of that world, but did not succumb to its tactics. In the end, that world killed him, but not before he proclaimed and lived out a new way, the way of the kingdom of God. It is to the political implications of this kingdom that we turn in the conclusion of this series, “The two things you’re not supposed to talk about.”

Footnotes

*Thanks to Brian McLaren’s concise description of the political nature of Jesus’ context. Read more in his The Secret Message of Jesus. Also, if you read just one more book this year, read his Everything Must Change for the best discussion of faith and our lives as citizens of the planet earth I’ve ever read.

** Of course, Jesus also got very dead. But happily for all of us, the dead bit is only part of the story.