Today we’re reading through Matthew 9:9-13 as a people. In Matthew 9:12 of The Inclusive Bible, the words which comprise the title of this post are spoken by Jesus. Jesus states freely that people who are in good health don’t need a doctor, which leads to a question: If Jesus is in the process of bringing life into the lives of poor, then why is the “Doctor Jesus” spending time with people who could objectively be seen as rich?
In my opinion, there’s a common misconception about church. People believe that church is a place for people who have everything together. It is common to find people who find church people to be self-righteous, judgmental, and hypocritical. Interestingly, Jesus did not seen to spend his time with the people who had everything together.
People could objectively look at the scriptures Jesus and see a hypocritical teacher who says a blessing will fall on the poor while spending time with the rich., but is that truly the message we should take away from the story? Jesus does not say the rich are healthy. In fact, Jesus implies the people who he is sharing a table with are not healthy. Wealth does not equal spiritual health in Jesus’ eyes. The tax collectors and notorious sinners are ill: the doctor has come to make a “house call.”
Throughout this week, Jesus will stretch our understanding of what it means to be wealthy and who is in need of blessing. May God give us wisdom in a world that glorifies riches and sometimes isolates on a pedestal the very folks who need loving and healing community the most.
Today we are looking at Luke 6:6-11, which contains the story of Jesus healing a person with a withered hand. The story is an interesting one and certainly lends into the story of Lent. The last verse of our reading indicates that the religious scholars and Pharisees left the synagogue on that day looking for ways to do something about their “Jesus problem.”
The Lenten journey is one which ends in the events of Holy Week. There is no Lent where Jesus ends the season without suffering on the behalf of the people God loves. The desire of individuals to take care of this Jesus problem increases as the season progresses.
What’s interesting to me about this approach to Lent with the Beatitudes is that we see how a portion of Jesus’ teaching affects both Jesus’ life and potential the lives of the people who hear his teachings. Jesus offers healing to a person with a withered hand and the people walk away with sinister thoughts in their hearts.
I wonder how the person felt whose hand was healed upon that day. If it were me, I am doubtful I would have walked away grumbling about what Jesus had done. I would likely celebrate the unexpected blessing that came into my life.
This Lent, God may have something for us. God may give a blessing into our lives which we may not be expecting. God may give a blessing to us that we do not believe we deserve. God may bring a piece of radical healing into our lives, especially if we find ourselves struggling to find our place in this world.
I pray that God is with us all tonight and into tomorrow as we prepare to enter into worship. May God add blessing to our lives and may we celebrate it together in worship tomorrow.
Our reading today focused on Luke 4:31-37. The passage immediately follows our passage from yesterday. In the passage Jesus of Nazareth is approached by a person who is “possessed” while in nearby Capernaum.
Jesus is asked two questions: What does Jesus have to do with them and has he come to destroy them? Jesus frees the person of their condition, but the questions remain. What has Jesus come to do?
This Lent, that’s really the question we all must ask before we dive into the matters found in the beatitudes. What has Jesus come to do? Jesus’ teachings can radically affect the way we interact with the world. What has Jesus come to do in our lives?
One of the things I am appreciating about both using this devotional and writing this devotional is that it approaches Lent from a completely different angle than most Lenten studies. It is my hope and prayer that spending time in less traditional scriptures might help us to see things differently this season. What has Jesus to do with us? What might Jesus want to do in our lives?
Only time will tell how things will look, but I believe Christ has come to bring grace into my life. Things I have done may need to be discarded, patterns in my life may need to be destroyed, but I believe that at the end of this journey and Lent I will find myself alive in Christ.
Our reading today focused on Luke 4:14-30. The passage speaks about the proclamation of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus reads from Isaiah. Jesus proclaims that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:18-19, NRSV, where Jesus references a portion of Isaiah 61:1-2
The reason we are looking at this in our devotional is a perceived connection between the proclamation from Isaiah and the radical words of the Beatitudes. The poor are blessed and here Jesus proclaims that the blessing is good news. In the original reference which Jesus is references, Isaiah also points out that the mourning will be comforted.
What’s interesting to me is the way that the Nazarenes are frustrated that the blessing will not begin in their midst. Their community has sheltered Jesus’ family, despite Jesus’ colorful birth narrative. In this gospel in particular, Jesus is effectively born under taboo circumstances. Jesus is not conceived in a culturally acceptable time-frame. They are pleasantly shocked the carpenter’s son is able to surpass the traditional role of a carpenter’s son until Jesus proclaims that they will not receive preferential treatment.
Interestingly, there’s a very common word in modern circles that describes what the people are experiencing. The people of Nazareth feel entitled to be blessed first for having a role in Jesus’ life. They are expressing a sense of privilege. Surely, Jesus must bless them first, right?
I have three daughters and one of them is still getting used to the idea of clothes. In particular, she wants to dress herself or wear nothing at all. The other day I captured the perfect image of her point in life.
Yes, that’s my child trying to put pants on over her head. I am aware that there’s a pants trick going around the internet where you put your legs in one side of the pants and your body through the other side, but that isn’t in her wheelhouse right now. She was genuinely confused about why the pants weren’t working.
The people of Nazareth are genuinely upset about what is happening. Jesus is not supposed to act this way as a child of the community. What Jesus is doing in saying he will not go out of the way to bless his hometown is beyond the pale of proper behavior for the people of Nazareth. They feel a sense of privilege which does not find this acceptable.
Yesterday, we talked about how the call of Lent is to “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Many individuals find themselves in the midst of a slog of a pit in their lives. As a minister and as a Christian who has engaged in evangelism on regular basis before entering into ministry as a professional, I came across many people who effectively said that their regular attendance at church, their being a good person, or even their family’s devotion meant that God should immediately bail them out of the tough parts of life.
To be brutally honest, there are times in life when that kind of belief is simply not consistent with how the spiritual life works. There are situations we face where we have to do more than notice we’re in the bog of life. We are called to repent of what led us to this place, turn towards God, and believe the gospel. Occasionally that belief is best manifested in honest attempts to step forward with faith despite the difficulty.
There’s truthfully moments where God will walk with us, but we must let go of that privilege. If you’re addicted to some substance or behavior, you may need to believe while you choose to not engage in that behavior or entering into dangerous places. If you’re struggling with mental health concerns, you may need to believe while regularly taking medicine to help your body function. If you’re grieving, you may need to believe while understanding there are stages of grief you may have to experience.
Sometimes, we each need to understand that the pants go on our legs despite our belief that they’ll work the way we want them to work. The humility that comes with a lot of Lenten practices can be an excellent place to practice what may become necessary on your journey.
May God bless us today as we ponder what we each might take for granted in our spiritual journey. May God help this to be a fruitful day.
Our church is beginning a journey along with many in the greater Christian Church today. Several of our members are gathering with our neighboring churches to begin the Lenten journey with an ecumenical service in a few hours. We will sing, pray, and reflect on our lives as Christians.
Today’s entry focuses on the passage which lies behind the majority of the devotional. The passage we read together today is Luke 6:17-26 and the focus of the devotional is a phrase out of the United Methodist Book of Worship. The liturgy for the Ash Wednesday service uses two distinct phrases during the imposition of the ashes.
The first is very traditional: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This phrase has a lot of depth, especially as it is echoed in the traditional words during many memorial services. There is a direct correlation with the phrase “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The second phrase is also traditional. Our devotional is focused on the words of this phrase. “Repent, and believe the gospel.” When using this phrase, the Lenten journey begins with two instructions. We are called to repent. We are called to believe the gospel.
Often, the call to repentance is a major part of Lent. Repentance is not simply a matter of feeling guilt. The call is not to live in shame. Repentance is the process of recognizing your failings/shortcomings and turning towards God onto a better path.
In truth, there are many places in my own life where I feel as if I were walking through a field like the one in my picture. I walk along while looking at the sky until I find myself tumbling into the freezing cold waters below. Sometimes I know there’s a pit nearby, but sometimes I wander into the murky freezing water without any warning.
Repentance is about more than simply acknowledging that there’s a problem. Repentance is often about realizing that the only way out of the pit that we find ourselves standing in is with the help of God. Many people who have found themselves dealing with anything from an addiction, grief, depression, or chronic anxiety might tell you the ONLY way out of that pit is often with God’s help.
The reason I love this particular phrase on Ash Wednesday is the idea that we are called to believe. The photo I showed you is a desolate one, but did you notice the birds? There’s life down in that pit of freezing water. The water is cold, the situation would be miserable if you were trying to climb out the opposite side, but there’s still life.
The call on us today is not only to repent on this journey, but to believe in the gospel. Jesus Christ can work in our lives this Lent. The Holy Spirit can guide us through the darkest of our days throughout the years. Our Creator can create life in the midst of our lives. Let’s repent, and believe in the gospel.
Hello friends, I have not fallen off the face of the earth. I have been focusing on working on longer works lately. One of those products has finally come to fruition.
I recently created a Lenten Devotional based around the teachings of Christ on the Beatitudes. It isn’t perfect, but my first attempt at publishing can be found on Amazon as both a Large-Print Book and as a Kindle ebook. The book is called: “In the Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Devotional.”
I hope that it can be a blessing to folks who want to spend some time reflecting on the teachings of Christ during the season of Lent. The devotional has daily scripture readings, a reflection, and journaling/discussion questions for personal growth.
Message: “The ‘Stone’ comes with praises” Date: April 14, 2019 Scripture: Luke 19:28-40 Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
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.”
Luke 19:28-40, NRSV
We are entering Holy Week this morning and we hear that strange story of the palms and cloaks on the road into Jerusalem. We find Jesus entering Jerusalem and being hailed. We find angry religious leaders, excited disciples, and exuberant children of Israel. Today is a day of excitement and joy. We have been building up to this day since Jesus’ last liturgical appearance here. Jesus is born and enters the temple. Wonderful words of prophecy and hope. Going forth from next Sunday, we will see a new faith born out of the events of this week. There’s a reason this is called Holy Week. Holy Week is pivotal to the Christian faith.
This week is pivotal not only in terms of church tradition but also it how it forms us. These stories change how we understand God. One of the reasons we encourage kids to attend Holy Week events is because they can change the way we see God and these stories in both their beauty and their sorrow teach us about the love of God.
Growing up, we were required at the Trinity United Methodist Church to go through a long confirmation process before we were offered membership. We were not alone as members of the church of all ages had several month process of education before you could join the church, but confirmands had to go through the whole Christian year together with their leaders before joining the church. We began in the fall during “Ordinary Time,” walked through Advent where we helped with Christmas programs for younger kids, took a retreat together in the season after Christmas, helped the church through Lent by taking part in helping lead Holy Week services, and finally entered membership on Pentecost.
The whole process was quite an experience, but in my memory this week was the most formative one. I remember trying to get my head around how you could receive such lavish praise one day and be crucified a few days later. When we stop to ask that question, there are a million and one reasons it might have happened.
Was it a jealous religious leadership acting maliciously?
Were the wrong people in Jerusalem the day Herod brings Jesus before the crowd?
Was Herod sick and tired of dealing with the locals and literally washed his hands of them?
Were Jesus’ teachings being heard by ordinary folks who realized they required a lot more than a welcome parade?
These ideas a few ideas of many and it may have been a combination of these things and more, but I remember looking on these moments of extreme difference and being puzzled.
I grew up near Buffalo during the years of Jim Kelly’s leadership of the Buffalo Bills, so I knew how fickle fame could be. Scott Norwood was a villain, Frank Reich was a hero, and the week before Norwood missed the kick during the Super Bowl he was awesome and the week before Reich led one of the greatest comebacks in history, he was riding the bench. I know that fame can be fickle, but this was more than that level of fickle behavior.
Something happens during Holy Week I have spent decades trying to figure out. In many ways, the curiosity and awe inspired by Holy Week led to me becoming a minister. I want to draw your attention to another passage. In Luke 20:17-19, we find these words:
“What then does this text mean:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.
Luke 20:17-19, NRSV
Now, context matters, so this passage immediately follows a parable Jesus tells about the owner of a vineyard who leases out the property while he goes on a long journey. The owner sends to the people leasing the vineyard a servant after many years away. The tenants will not pay. They beat the servant and send him away. They beat the next servant who comes. Finally, the landlord sends his son. The tenants kill the son to try to benefit from the son’s death.
The religious leaders understand that Jesus is telling a story about them. They are furious and that upsets them, but what’s interesting is that old quotation. It comes from Psalm 118:19-22:
Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
Psalm 118:19-22, NRSV
The religious leaders object to Jesus being given such praise on the day we now celebrate as Palm Sunday. The religious leaders question him and he refers to a coronation psalm. Jesus, being questioned about the goodness of his deeds and teachings, tells them that the gates should be open, that God’s salvation is near, and that the very thing the builders have rejected will become the chief cornerstone upon which salvation will be built.
Over the years, I have never really wrapped my head around all the events of Holy Week. I believe part of the Christian walk is this ongoing attempt to contemplate, ponder, and meditate over these days. I understand this though: today we celebrate the entrance into Jerusalem by Christ. Christ is who the people need and not who the people want. Jesus is the foundation of the future they need and a breaking from what the people imagined.
On this day, we celebrate Jesus entering a city built upon generation after generation of people doing their best. Jesus will enter a temple of ornate stone and beautiful worship. Jesus will smell the scents, see the people, see the abuses of the temple, and will teach. The very person the people need will be the one who is rejected. The very stone upon which the future will be built must first be rejected.
If this sermon seems like only a bit of the story of Holy Week, it is because this is only one part. As we enter Holy Week, I want to challenge you to come back to church before next Sunday. Come Thursday night and ponder Holy Communion over a meal. Come Friday to hear the story and empty the sanctuary. Come by yourself and read the gospel stories during one of the quiet days when Wide Horizons is on break and you’ll find Teagen and myself working away in our office. Interrupt me to ask questions. I promise I won’t mind as I may be pondering the same things myself. Grab your Bible and take a long walk with it. I invite you to enter further into the story.
Take time this week. Meanwhile, contemplate this: We often never know what we need until the moment is past. Like those people long ago, we may believe Christ is coming into our lives to do what we expect. If Holy Week teaches us one thing, it is that Christ comes and will be Christ. Let us welcome Christ into our lives. Let us pray…
Message: “Settling the Space” Date: April 7, 2019 Scripture: John 12:1-8 Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ “
John 12:1-18, NRSV
This season we have been looking at the Lenten journey as a journey into our own wilderness. We have explored the fact that Jesus found something out in the wilds when he fasted for forty days and we have joined in that journey. We have explored the idea the fact that there are frightening things out in the world when we look at our own hearts and at the world around us. We have looked at how we must sometimes clear out the broken parts of ourselves with God’s help. It has been quite a journey.
Today we continue that journey with an honest question: What happens when we walk into that wilderness and find our home? What does it mean to settle into that land? When the woods are cleared, the crops are planted, and we find a place to lay a foundation for our heart’s home, what does that look like for us today? We’ll take a look at that question through the lens of our passage from John, but first let us pray:
Holy Christ, we are less than two weeks away from Holy Week. Next Sunday the journey towards the cross intensifies as we read how you enter Jerusalem for that final week before the crucifixion. Be with us today as we go into this scripture which is our scripture for this moment. Give us wisdom and clarity. Give us peace and patience. Help us to understand what you might be saying to your church. Amen.
The Didache was one of the earliest writings and contains, among many things, a picture of how the early church functioned. Most interestingly today, the DIdache included a description of how to go about serving communion in church.
In the early church communion was vital to the community life. It was seen as a commandment of God to embrace this holy meal whenever the church gathered. As you will see, the service is short and straightforward. The responses are far more prevalent after the meal is served than before, some elements we use today are missing, and other elements seem eerily similar to parts of our own service.
Why engage in this service today? There’s a very simple reason. We are gathered towards the end of Lent and Holy Week is coming. We have been seeking our way through this wilderness and we are using this very old service as a way of reminding ourselves of a very important truth: “There’s a place for us at the table.”
Nearly 2,000 years ago the table was prepared for the people. With chalice and bread the church was drawn to God. These truths have not changed. The table has been open for God’s children for nearly 2,000 years. This truth existed long before we were born and will be true long after we have passed on from this world.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we see our space at that table. Do we see how we belong to God in this world? Do we have eyes open enough to recognize that place in all of us which belongs with Christ? To use the wilderness analogy, do we open our eyes when we see that clearing besides the still waters of Psalm 23? Do we recognize the gift of the divine in all of our lives: the opportunity to belong without question to and with Christ?
This question is quite serious. It can be very easy to turn our eyes from God and forget our place with Christ. Can we recognize how easy it is to be blinded by the goods and things of this world? Is it possible that even our comfort in this world can blind us to our place with Christ?
In our scriptures we see that temptation. Judas looks at the table before him in Lazarus’ home and sees waste. The scriptures tell us that he is a thief from the common purse, but there’s something even more fiendish going on in this place. Judas’ greed has drawn his eyes to Mary’s gift and in his quest to satisfy his desires Judas tries to come between Mary and Jesus.
Judas’ eyes are not on Mary as a person in grief. He does not see that she is coming from a place of love and possibly of grief. All he sees is what is in front of him. His lust for wealth has blinded him to God’s purposes. While Judas will serve a purpose, he has lost his way.
Strangely, while it appears that the disciples are continually ignorant of what will happen, Mary seemingly understands things are about to go terribly wrong. Mary’s eyes are not on the perfume and her thoughts are not on the cost of the perfume. Mary’s eyes are on Christ, who is right in front of her. Her eyes are focused on Jesus.
In Luke 18 Jesus shares a story of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. The tax collector prays for forgiveness to God with humility while the Pharisee stands around thanking God that he is better than everyone around him. The Pharisee has his eyes on the world around him, but the tax collector is focused on God and asking for mercy. Jesus says in Luke 18:14: “I tell you that this [tax collector], rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When you read this story, who do you think goes to sleep that night justified? Is it Mary who comes to anoint the feet of Christ with love or Judas who keeps his eyes on the costly perfume? Who do you believe has a place at Christ’s table? In my opinion, Mary definitely has that place at the table.
Mary has suffered more than most. Scriptures tell us that Mary and her sister send a message to Jesus when Lazarus is about to die. They live through the grief when Jesus does not arrive before his death. They live through the shock of Lazarus’ resurrection. For that matter, even before this took place, Mary’s own sister chastises her in front of Jesus for learning from Jesus rather than diving in to help with the housework. Mary and Jesus have a rich history, but here in this place we find Mary understanding the truth that she has a place with Jesus that allows her to be intimate with her savior, she has a place with Jesus that allows her to expect Christ will protect her from those who might see these actions as too intimate (which is really important in a world where an adulteress can be stoned to death), and she has a confidence that she will be welcomed by Christ.
She knows her place. We who wander through the wilderness of Lent can forget that this is a season of practice. In our darkest moments and in our greatest triumphs, we never lose our place in God’s love. The spot at this table, the “bread spread over the hills,” and the juice in this chalice is meant for us. We have a home in the wilderness because when we wander into the wilderness we can find Christ, and once we enter into that love, nothing can separate us from that love in Christ Jesus.
We are using this old liturgy because it reminds us that this table has been open around the world for a very long time. Saints of old gathered to share their praises and eat this bread. The cup has been passed to people of every nation and people. The table is here for us as it has stood for all of God’s children for generation upon generation.
I invite you to prepare your heart for this feast. God comes to share with us again today. As we break bread, as we share the cup, and as we open our arms to each other in love, we do these things as a people who are welcome. Let all who need to ask forgiveness, come before God in the moments ahead. Let all who need to ask for courage, come before God in the moments ahead. I invite you into an attitude of prayer as we approach the throne. Let us enter into silence and then prayer…
Friends, I am preparing for the fourteen days before Good Friday. Starting Friday, April 5th, at noon, a post will automatically come up every day until Good Friday.
The pictures were taken on the walking stations of the cross outside the Family Life Center at the Malvern Retreat House in Malvern, Pennsylvania. The artist was Timothy Schmaltz, although my understanding is that Mr. Schmaltz did not have his name listed on the monuments. His work was to honor God and not his own talents (which are considerable).
The pictures were taken throughout a year in all four seasons. I find that contemplating the images throughout the year led me to different places in different seasons. The cold of snow in winter affected the way I saw the scenes as much as the heat (and vibrant) greens of summer.
I’m posting the pictures for those of us who find depth in contemplation. I appreciate that all of the statuary was done in black metal, which allows people of all sorts to contemplate the imagery. I do not believe it is cast-iron, but there is something relatable about seeing an image cast in something you can find in my kitchen (like a dutch oven) instead of something I only see in places of power and influence like marble.
I hope the posting of these images help lead you to a place of contemplation as we approach the cross. Blessings to you.
Sermon: “Foraging Hope” Date: March 31, 2019 Scriptures: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 (lectionary) Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
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…”
Then Jesus said, “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.’”
Luke 15:1-2, 11-32, NRSV
We’re in the midst of the season of Lent. This is a season of contrition, soul searching, and personal discipleship. As we have gathered in church during this season we have focused on looking at our approach to this season as being like a journey into the wilderness. Today we come across one of the more famous parables in Jesus’ teachings. What could this story have to do with a journey into the wilderness? How can it inform our journey? Well, let us look at these words to find a way into both the text and the season. Before we begin, let us pray:
Life-giving God, You are Parent to all of us. We come to today’s scriptures and find Jesus telling a story about a father. As our Parent, these words can teach us about You. Open our eyes and our hearts to Your wise Spirit as we approach these texts. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Friends, this is a season of contrition and redemption. We come across a story today of Jesus spending time with the least of the least. Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, is spending his time with tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors worked for the oppressors of the Jewish people. The sinners were the people who did not obey the laws and teachings of the religious leaders.
We find Jesus being grumbled about by the Pharisees and the scribes–the people who taught the religious laws and the people who copied the texts. The people grumbling were the people who should have known God as well as anyone could know God. When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, this is the group of folks who will spearhead the events of Good Friday.
Here in the season of Lent we find ourselves facing Jesus’ worst critics. We found ourselves in a strange place because Jesus responds to their criticism with a parable containing three perspectives. There is a selfish son who finds redemption, a loving father who is forgiving, and an elder brother who seemingly will not forgive and accept his brother home.
It begs a question: Who are we supposed to be paying attention to in the story? This parable, known as the parable of the prodigal son is further complicated by the evolution of the word prodigal over time. Prodigal once meant abundantly generous but has shifted since the phrase “prodigal son” was written into the title of the parable to mean either wasteful or errantly wandering.
We could focus our attention on the younger son. His story is a story of redemption which fits well into the Lenten narrative. He has gone off into the world, made mistakes, and comes home with contrition and humility. This message is a good message for those of us who have been wandering the wilds of our lives in need of redemption.
We could focus our attention on the father. He waits at the road, sees his son coming from far off, and runs to meet him. He is a loving and forgiving father. He celebrates the return of his son. Surely, as Christians we should see this as teaching about the way God meets us on the road. Perhaps we even see the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday in grief, only to be met by the resurrected Christ who breaks bread with them. Surely, this would be a great message.
Either of those would be wonderful messages. I would ask a question with you: should we not stop to ask why this passage points out those grumbling religious leaders? Why are they here if the parable has such an obvious application?
Did you ever stop to wonder why the elder son was upset? The text stops to mention he has never even been given a goat to celebrate with his friends, but have you ever stopped to think about his frustration? The father has given his brother his share of the inheritance and it has been squandered. The father has reason to be mad. The brother has wound up in one of the lowest of the low places for a good Jewish boy–longing to eat the food of something shunned by his people. His brother has lost everything including his self-respect. What is making this elder brother upset?
We could say something to the effect of “being welcomed home means he will now receive another portion of the inheritance.” That might be true. We could also say the elder son is offended on behalf of his father. That also might be true. Both are reasonable responses and if that is what you wish to take away, please do so with my blessing.
I wonder if the issue is one of a scarcity mindset. If we are on a journey through life, I think we can all say we have had days when it feels as if we have barely made it through. I have had difficult days when it felt like I only made it to bed crawling on my knees. In fact, there have been days when I have only made it to bed that way when my back went out or was sick.
There are days when we go through the wilderness of life and finding it a bleak place. We look for figs on fig trees like the gardener in last week’s sermon but there is no fruit. We look for fish in the streams and we find nothing. We look for sustenance and it feels like we barely make it through.
Then we see them in the distance. The other people. We have scraped and saved while they have spent money, more money, and more money. We have fought to keep our family together and they party it up. We have tried to raise our children, have a few close friends, and maybe have enough to go get goat curry with our spouse every now and again when they come waltzing through the wilderness.
We see them in the distance and there may be part of us that jumps to judgment. We see them in the distance and we may wish to lash out. What are they doing here? Who do they think they are coming here? This is my house, this is my community, this is my church… We see them in the distance and it may tempt us to rush to grumble.
The Pharisees and scribes are often set up in Christian stories as terrible people, but let me ask you: should we always identify with the prodigal son? Yes, we may sit here as a forgiven people, but should we always connect with that part of the story? Should we identify with the forgiving father who forgives? Perhaps, sometimes we should. Is it possible we are being asked to connect with the elder son?
A little authorship note for those of you who may find meaning in this fact. Luke and Acts are often considered to have been written by the same author. If they were written about the same time, we have learned something important. The scribes and Pharisees are a part of a Jewish people. The Jewish people who came to faith in Christ became one part of a multicultural faith that had begun to spread over the world. Acts records the apostles heading out into the world and they do that quickly. Some people note that apostles reach out to the ends of Asia, throughout Africa, and out into Europe. The entire eastern hemisphere is beginning to hear about Jesus.
We look at the scribes and Pharisees and we see bullies, but by the time this book is written… Scholarship tells us Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans, the Pharisees and scribes are effectively homeless, and the Jewish faith is going through a massive re-envisioning. What if they are not the bullies? What if they are not the only ones who do not understand?
The thing about the elder brother we rarely notice is that he has his own story. He sees his brother go, he sees his brother come, and he is upset. Has he ever known deprivation? Chances are he has never had to suffer intensely. You only have a fatted calf if you can afford to have a fatted calf. He and his father are not living in a place of famine like the land where his younger brother travels. The younger son has been humiliated but when he shows up, there are extra robes and rings just waiting for him. If you can afford to have such luxuries lying around in an agrarian or farming culture, you are not in want.
The older brother is furious, is standing outside the circle of blessing, and is grumbling in the fields. All that the father has is his elder son’s, but the story ends with the father pleading for his son to come home to celebrate. The scribes and Pharisees may grumble in this moment, may celebrate as Jesus suffers, but by the time this book is written… They must find their own way.
A few years ago a movie came out called “The Passion of the Christ” and one of the great fears is that it would stoke anti-Semitism. It was a powerful portrayal of the crucifixion story which took liberties, but one reality is that texts like the statements before this parable have been used for anti-Semitic purposes. People see it and say “Look! They’re grumbling! They must hate Jesus.”
I think we miss something here. The elder son has his own story to live out. By the time this book is written, there are likely sections of the church who look at the Jewish people with all the scorn they see in the actions of the scribes and Pharisees: “They had a chance! They could have done better! What a bunch of fools! First, they kicked us out of synagogues, sent out people to arrest us, and now their temple is gone and now they’re the ones who have no place to go.”
The thing is that throughout Christian history, we have often forgotten that the gospels were recorded not just as histories and not just as teachings, but as living stories. We miss warnings in plain sight. Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV) says “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
By the time these stories were collected, the Christian people are the ones who have begun to have their own communities and belief. By the time the church gathered to formalize some of their theology in 325 at Nicea, the Jewish people have been without their temple for nearly 180 years. By today, it has been almost 1,950 years since the temple fell. If we look at this text and we find a reason to justify anti-Semitism, we have failed to learn the same lesson offered to the elder son. We have failed to understand love, compassion, and grace.
The challenging thing is that the faith is still growing. United Methodists, some of our struggles come out of the fact that our faith is growing in places with different cultures with different values. Do we stand there grumbling in the fields? I know it is more complicated than that generalization, but we still should ask ourselves if we are standing in the fields.
Friends in the UCC, your denomination has been battling for inclusion and openly aiming to welcome LGBTQIA+ folks to the table. You are battling racism and seeking equality and justice. What of the conservative voices and people who do not understand what you are talking about? Do we stand in the field when they come home to God both dazed and confused? As the culture shifts around, are there times when you realize the doors have not been as open as they should be or the welcome not as exuberant?
Progressive Methodists, we should ask the questions I pose to the UCC folks. Conservative UCC friends, we should ask how we stay in ministry with those of a radically different culture or mindset from your own. Not a single one of these questions is not a question I do not ask myself.
It has been nearly 2,000 years of life for the Christian Church. We have had rough moments but there has always been food out there in the wilderness. We may not have always received the goat to celebrate with our friends, but our faith, our community, and our kin-dom has survived through thick and thin. We are a people who have been blessed for generation upon generation. Can we throw open the doors to the next generation? Can we be so bold as to see each other in the wilderness and have faith that there is enough hope out here for us all? Let us pray…
The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “present.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! The photo was taken in the wetlands by the Vestal Rail Trail.
Message: Wildness Date: March 17th, 2019 Scripture: Luke 13:31-35 Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Today we’re headed further into Lent. This season we’re looking at the season like a trip into the wilderness. We established last week that the wilderness is not always a place of deprivation. There is wisdom to be learned out there in the wilds.
Today we are looking at one of the harder realities of wandering into the wild. In the real world, the wild can be a dangerous place. In our own hearts we can come across some frightening things sometimes. What does Jesus’ journey teach us about those moments? Hopefully, we will glean some wisdom this morning, but first let us pray a prayer that is most appropriate for today. This particular version is from a book called “Irish Blessings” which I purchased in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is one of the many versions of St. Patrick’s Breast Plate. I invite you to pray it with me:
Christ be with me, Christ be within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
We are looking today at the concept of wildness. I live here in the town of Maine and I have been walking around a lot praying recently. I am not walking as a part of my Lenten devotions. I have simply had a lot to pray over with the events of the world and in my denomination.
At least several times a week, I don my trusty hat, head lamp, grab a couple of plastic bags to attend to my dogs’ needs, and head out around the block. Normally we go around three times: once for each dog and once by myself.
I sometimes wonder if the dogs get bored with smelling the same places, marking the exact same spots, and being forced to sit on the cold ground each time a car comes by in the dark. I wonder if they tire of the same dogs barking desperately from the same yards, but we keep on walking the same path.
Why? I would love to head up into the hills, but I have been warned. When I first got here, there were stories of wild cats up in the woods above town. I do not know about that, but there are hungry creatures out in those woods, and my sheltie would be an easy snack for most of them. He isn’t the most vicious of creatures. Let’s be frank: the dog is a pushover.
We stay in the valley because it is fairly safe. Besides the occasional loose dog, car driving a bit fast, and that one rabbit that keeps driving my dogs crazy, the valley is a fairly tame place. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we were to go off into those hills.
I pondered this as I read this week’s text. We’re looking at the season of Lent as a journey into the wilderness. We are not talking about the wilderness outside ourselves. Lent is a journey into the wilderness of the soul. Just as Jesus wandered into the wilderness for forty days, we set aside these forty days to wander into our wilderness.
Here’s a simple truth: a journey into the wilderness will lead to personal challenge and difficult things. There are places in our souls that are often well worn, safe, and generally familiar if not routine paths. When we intentionally step out of our comfort zone, there are wild parts in all of us.
Let me give an easy example from my own story. Friday night I lay awake in bed. I am following John Wesley’s example and fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays this Lent, although I am doing a partial fast. I do not eat chicken, beef, lamb, rabbit, or pork on those days. I also try to eat a little less than usual on those days.
Friday was a long day, and I found myself laying in bed dreaming of hamburgers. I lay in my bed with my phone and found myself googling recipes for potted anchovies to put on crackers. I was that hungry! I had eaten a few slices of cucumber as a snack only a few hours before bedtime. Surely that should have been enough, but my stomach growled. I wanted meat, and I wanted it right then. Enough of fasting, I wanted protein and I wanted it now. I was ravenous. I was hungry.
When we wander off of our normal paths by doing simple things even as small as cutting back, we find ourselves to be far wilder than we expected. If that’s what cutting back on a little extra food does to me, can you imagine how hard it can be when we come across the parts of ourselves that growl in our wilderness.
What happens when we come across a place in ourselves that needs to forgive? If a little of hunger can come across as an angry little sheltie barking at me for sacrificing something so small for Christ, what do you think the wolf of anger looks like as it slobbers in our wilderness? It takes a little more than saying “I need you to let it go” when those sharp teeth start slobbering.
The journey into ourselves will bring us across parts of ourselves that are not easy to deal with on our own. I am reminded of the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg. Carl Sandburg wrote the following poem called “Wilderness:”
“There is a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes … a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
There is a fox in me … a silver-gray fox … I sniff and guess … I pick things out of the wind and air … I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers … I circle and loop and double-cross.
There is a hog in me … a snout and a belly … a machinery for eating and grunting … a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.
There is a fish in me … I know I came from saltblue water-gates … I scurried with shoals of herring … I blew waterspouts with porpoises … before land was … before the water went down … before Noah … before the first chapter of Genesis.
There is a baboon in me … clambering-clawed … dog-faced … yawping a galoot’s hunger … hairy under the armpits … here are the hawk-eyed hankering men … here are the blond and blue-eyed women … here they hide curled asleep waiting … ready to snarl and kill … ready to sing and give milk … waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.
There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird … and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want … and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.
O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.”
There is a wilderness inside all of us and the Lenten journey can bring it out. In the terms of Carl Sandburg, we run the zoo inside ourselves. To be honest, one of the reasons I believe that Lent is an important season is that it brings us into contact with that wildness inside us all. Lent teaches us about ourselves which is important because of a simple truth.
Everyone in the scriptures from Eve and Adam, to Sarah and Abraham, to Job, to Ezra, to Nehemiah, to King David, to Elijah, to Deborah, to Esther, to Paul of Tarsus, to Simon Peter, to Timothy, and even Jesus all faced moments where they had things go terribly wrong. We do not have records of all of those moments, but they all faced their challenges.
Deborah the Judge had to lead a nation unaccustomed to women in leadership. Esther was faced with decisions that could cost her life in order to save her people. Peter had to deal with shame after running after the cock crowed. Paul had to deal with the fact that he came to faith in Christ and was nearly shunned by his newly beloved family which he had harmed deeply. Each had moments where everything went wrong and it was by faith that each found their way through. Let’s be clear, sometimes they did not make it through without failure. King David clearly didn’t do well with women or the husband of one whom he sent to his death.
If the people of the Bible struggled with their own wolves, bears, and tigers, shouldn’t we expect the same? Lent is a season when we begin to explore the wilderness of our souls because sooner or later we will come across events that will shove us out of our valleys. When we come across the hungry wolves in our hearts, it can literally be life saving to have taken time to practice and learn our own strengths and weaknesses.
So, how do we go about facing those challenges? I believe the first thing we must do is to stick to the course. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSV) that: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
Our challenges, whether they be yappy shelties that want something to eat or wolves of anger–there is nothing so wild that it is unique to our lives. Some of the things we face may seem beyond our capability, but ask yourself this: What if Paul is right? What if you can overcome? What if we all could overcome?
Look at what Jesus is facing in today’s scripture reading. The Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him that Herod, the local king, wants him dead. They tell him to flee. First off, let’s be clear. This is coming from the Gospel of Luke and in Luke 23:8 we are told that Herod had long wanted to see Jesus so he could perform a sign. He and his soldiers mock Jesus along with the scribes and Pharisees, but Herod does not seem to want to kill Jesus at all. The Pharisees are lying to Jesus.
Jesus says he cannot die outside Jerusalem, mourns for Jerusalem, but still continues on his way. In the gospel of Luke it will be a long time until he reaches Jerusalem. He has a journey ahead of him, is already facing opposition, and will need to walk right into it.
One of the key truths passed down by the church is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. What that means in this case is that Christ is experiencing a human life. Do you believe that Jesus would not have faced his own worries in these moments? Do you wonder if he wouldn’t like all that power offered as a temptation in the wilderness when the very people he loves are trying to deceive and threaten him? As a human, I know I’d want that power in that moment. The wilderness temptation would ring in my ears like a gong.
So, here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t give in to desire or fear. He continues on his way. If Lent is the season of following the footsteps of Jesus, then we should note a few things about where Jesus’ journey goes from here:
First, Jesus remains committed to love. Even as he knows Jerusalem will be his end, Jesus is depicted as loving that city. She will be his end and yet Jesus longs to cradle her like a mothering hen cradles her chicks. Jesus does not react to those who will harm him with anger. Jesus responds with love.
Responding with love to a broken world is hard. When we go on our Lenten journey there are places where we will come across parts of the world, our neighbors, and even ourselves which seem dead set to foil us. Jesus responds with love. Should we seek to do anything less?
Second, Jesus goes forward despite the challenge: he doesn’t give up. There is a good deal of his journey ahead of him. He will face more trials and more tribulations. Despite the fact the pharisees threaten him, Jesus doesn’t give up on them. In chapter fourteen, the very next chapter, we find Jesus going to share a Sabbath meal with one of the leaders of the Pharisees. Jesus does not surrender to his fear but stays the course.
Third, Jesus remembers his journey isn’t a journey that he takes alone. Jesus walks the path with his disciples, who are not a perfect bunch of people. Jesus makes the journey with a community of faith and that is important for us to remember. The journey of Lent can often seem a lonely journey, but that is a misconception. It is easy to give in to the temptation to feel alone, but we are called to remember that we were called into community.
It seems strange to say, but one of the most important things we can do as a community during the season of Lent is to be together as a church. I am not simply talking about being together Sunday morning. Sharing a cup of tea with the person from another pew, praying for that neighbor who is struggling with cancer, or even stopping by the church office for a cup of tea with your pastor. All of these things can be important things we experience on this journey of faith through Lent.
I advise us all to remember that one of the worst things we can do on this journey is to cut ourselves off from others. I have seen many beloved family members in Christ either disconnect from community, become apathetic about remaining with their spiritual family, or “pick up their toys and go home” when life or community becomes difficult. Those approaches have almost never led to anything good for either the community or the individuals. The spiritual life is far better in community. As Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NRSV) reminds us:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NRSV
Now let’s be clear, this is a season where we find the wild parts of ourselves, but the wild will come into our lives even outside of this season. These simple ways of following Christ’s example can be lifesaving ways of being even outside of these moments. So, even after this season, when the challenges of life snarl in your direction:
Don’t react with panic–as much as possible respond with love.
Stay the course despite the challenges
Don’t isolate yourself: remain connected to God and church.
We all must face our own challenges. To go back to the source of our opening prayer and reference a likely apocryphal story, we may find ourselves in a land full of snakes. Like St. Patrick we are sometimes asked a question: Will the snakes drive you out of your island or will you drive the snakes out? As beloved children of our Creator, as followers of Christ’s example, and with the good counsel of our Advocate, the choice is before us.