Sunday, March 19, 2017

Party Time--a sermon on things lost and found (Luke 15)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Party Time
Luke 15.1-32
19 March 2017, NL3-28, Lent 3 (are you all in?)

Today’s reading is from Luke chapter 15, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
Since we left off last week, Jesus has been at a dinner party, and teaching about hospitality and who is invited to feast in the kingdom of God. He reminded people that those who are lowly will be lifted up, and those who lift themselves up will be brought low. He taught that we are to invite people to share our bounty, especially if they cannot repay us or invite us in return—undoing the system of reciprocity and quid-pro-quo, insisting that hospitality is a blessing we are to share. He told a story about people invited to a large dinner, who made excuses when it was time to come to the table. In his parable, the host then had everyone in the city’s streets and alleys, including the poor and sick, brought in to share the feast. Jesus speaks of the cost and demands of being his disciples, and calls us to be fully committed to following him. That’s where we pick up the story today.

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: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
 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 travelled 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.’ ”

I Will Arise, verse 1 & 2

 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.” ’

I Will Arise, verse 3

            One:    For the word of God in Scripture;
                        for the word of God among us;
                        for the word of God within us,  
            All:     Thanks be to God.   

I Will Arise, verse 4

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Surely all of us would abandon the obedient sheep out in the wilderness—not in a pasture or fenced grazing area, the wilderness—in order to go after the one that didn’t want to conform. Who wouldn’t leave 99% of their property and wealth in danger, and then on returning with the one recalcitrant sheep, throw a party for all the neighbors, who likely think he’s irresponsible for risking the rest of the flock?

Or what woman, having ten days wages, if she loses one day’s paycheck, wouldn’t move all the furniture and sort through all the recycling until she found it…and then call together all the neighbors for a party, probably spending that money to celebrate finding what was lost?

Or what family, having said goodbye to the ne’er-do-well younger child, knowing they’re going to behave badly and lose everything but hoping they won’t get themselves hurt, wouldn’t watch out the window and wait for his return, and then run out to meet him and hand over all the best party clothes and fire up the grill and break out the best wine and call all the neighbors for a party when he finally returns penniless?
There seems to be a theme in Jesus’ parables today. Even a quick read through this chapter will make clear Jesus’ stories are about being lost and found—and that whether we are one of a hundred, one of ten, or one of two, God cares deeply about us, and we are all found by grace, again and again. Nothing, and no one, is lost to God.

But there’s another theme right alongside being found…the party. Every single one of these stories of being found ends with a party! Jesus is obviously into celebration. He, too, was clearly looking for reasons to have cake, no matter how tenuous the need for a party might be. One found sheep—cake! One found paycheck—cake! One found son—cake! You can see that I came by my love of church celebration cakes honestly. J

And it isn’t just about the party—in every story, there’s a growing hint that the celebration is extravagant, perhaps even unwise or unnecessary. No one wealthy enough to have a hundred sheep would leave 99 of them at risk to go search for the one…and no one poor enough to search so desperately for one day’s wages would spend it on inviting her neighbors over for a party because she found it. We see the rational, responsible, early free-market leanings in the elder brother in the third story. He worked hard, he followed the rules, and instead of being rewarded with advancement, he sees his shiftless moocher of a younger brother get celebrated for doing nothing other than losing everything with his wasteful and lazy ways. So he takes a stand for radical individualism and personal fiscal responsibility: he refuses to go in to the party.

Here is why it’s important that we read all three parables together, as the Narrative Lectionary places them, rather than one by one at different times like we might be more used to. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus asks “which of you…” and then at the end of the chapter we wonder: does the older brother go in? And we realize that the question has been building the whole time. He knows that we are often like the older brother, and wants to know: are we coming in to the party?

Through all three stories we see Jesus sketching out the character of God: it is the nature of God to seek, to find, to welcome. It is in God’s character to restore identity and relationship—the one sheep is reunited with the flock, the woman comes out of her individual consumer fear to join with her neighbors, the younger son “came to himself” and remembered who he is, the older son distances himself with words like “this son of yours” and the father responds with “this brother of yours”…and every single instance of being found by grace then leads to the whole community coming together in gratitude.

And so the question: will we go in to the party? The decorations are up, the grill is going, the cake is still warm, the sparkling cider is poured. Everything God has is already ours, now how will we experience it and use it in this life?

Going in to the party means letting go of a grudging spirit…Gratitude can’t be only for what God has done for us, but also what God has done for them. Even if they’re the ones who wandered off and got into trouble, or the ones who are using their found money in ways we wouldn’t… if we want to experience the fullness of mercy and grace ourselves, here and now, we’ll need to practice celebrating God’s grace given to others. We have been found by grace, again and again, for the Spirit is always calling, breathing life, creating community, bringing together all kinds of people.

Going in to the party means admitting that love doesn’t require confession…the younger son never even gets his whole confession out of his mouth before the father is dressing him and hugging him and cutting the cake. Love was there the whole time. Our repentance is just that—ours. It reminds us who we really are, puts our focus on our true identity, rather than all the other ways we have defined or hidden or created ourselves. It doesn’t earn us a place at the table, it simply prepares us to receive what God is already giving us. We are fed by grace at Christ’s table, where no reservations are necessary!

Most of all, going in to the party means accepting grace as the family rule. Being part of this family, God’s family, the Body of Christ, means everything we are, everything we say, everything we do, is about grace. Setting aside grudges and our understanding of who is good enough, allowing God’s love to be the foundation and the measure of life. It means admitting we’re just as lost, and just as found, as anyone else, no matter how much we think we have earned or they have not earned. And it means that even when we would prefer not to claim some of the family, they’re still ours to love, because in this family, we follow by grace, seeking to be living examples of Christ’s welcome.

No matter who you are, what you have done, or where you are on life’s journey…all are welcome, we mean it. And more importantly, God means it.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, March 13, 2017

fox in the henhouse--a sermon on Luke 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
fox in the henhouse
Luke 13.1-9, 31-35
12 March 2017, NL3-27, Lent 2 (are you all in?)

This morning’s scripture reading is from Luke chapter 13, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along. Jesus has been teaching his disciples and the crowds who follow them throughout the countryside and towns. He has taught them directly about prayer, and he has spoken in parables about many things. He told them to let their light shine, and to look carefully at the circumstances and times they are living in for evidence of God’s work. Remember that each gospel writer gives us a different perspective on Jesus’s life and teaching—Matthew looks at Jesus from behind, through the lens of the whole Old Testament; Mark looks at Jesus from right next to him, as if they are holding hands walking together; John looks at Jesus from above, with a cosmic perspective; and Luke looks at Jesus from just in front, looking back, almost like a movie maker looking through the camera, trying to capture faces and details along with the background and context. He wrote his gospel around 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so he has more information about what is to come in the future, and sometimes we see that in his wide-angle lens, as in today’s story.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

Today Jesus jumps right in with the age-old question of why bad things happen…or, as the main character in the musical The Book of Mormon asks God, “more to the point, why do you let bad things happen to me?” The assumption in the ancient world—and, if we’re honest, often today as well—is that tragedy is a result of sin. We intellectually understand and protest this view when it is given voice by people who, for instance, insist that Hurricane Katrina is punishment for allowing gay people to exist and live regular lives with the same rights as anybody else, or that the earthquake in Haiti is punishment for voodoo practiced during the centuries-old slave uprising that led to Haiti’s independence. We know those are ridiculous statements…and yet the same idea rears its head when we ask “why do bad things happen to good people?” Because underneath that question is some assumption that there are people who deserve bad things…we just don’t know any of them personally, of course, because “good people” usually means us and people we know and love.

In the case of today’s issue of the Jerusalem gossip chain, we have people who were going about everyday lives when a building collapsed—perhaps it was bad engineering, perhaps there was an earthquake, perhaps it was terrorism, perhaps it was just old and the infrastructure was compromised. Whatever the case, the tower fell and 18 people were killed. Were they worse offenders than everyone else living and doing business in Jerusalem? What did they do to deserve such tragedy striking?

Or the Galileans—of particular interest to Jesus and his disciples, as many of them are Galilean, and therefore often looked down upon as low-class, uneducated, uncouth—who had been on pilgrimage, went to the Temple to offer sacrifices, and were killed by the very government that was supposed to be keeping the peace… They were good, faithful people, going to church…were they particularly awful sinners, to be targeted by their own government?

When we put it so starkly, it seems ridiculous. And Jesus makes sure we are aware that the answer is always no: NO, there is no star chart of the worse and better sins, nothing that we can do that would cause God to rain punishment in the form of tornadoes or cancer or car accidents or gunshots. We all sin, we all fall short of God’s glory and call. Period. Every person, and every group or institution needs to repent—to turn around, away from sin and toward God’s way of love and justice. And God doesn’t use tragedy to try to force us to come back. Bad things happen, yes. We all sin, yes. Those are not related statements, though. Trying to figure out why God is punishing us with illness or heartbreak or disaster, or how we can guarantee our security against those things, will lead nowhere, because that’s not how God works.

Instead, Jesus tells us a story. A fig tree has been growing in the garden. It’s in the right place, it has the right name and qualifications, but it isn’t producing fruit. It is taking up space, using resources, claiming to be a fig tree…and it is in danger of being cut down. But the master gardener intervenes, promising to spend more time nurturing the tree. Digging around the roots, fertilizing, watering, pruning, caring for it, putting in the effort to help it grow into its purpose. During this year of the Lord’s favor, the year when God is making the kingdom come right here in the presence of Jesus, the fig tree gets a second chance.

This is how God works. Not by promising safety or security, but by investing time and energy, pushing us to look at our lives and the fruit we bear for the kingdom. We might get dirty, and sometimes the pruning is painful, and it might be harder work than we thought we signed up for, but ultimately the purpose of the tree in God’s garden is to bear fruit. Our purpose in God’s kingdom is to bear fruit…which will mean digging up the things we’ve long buried, getting our hands in the manure that is so gross and so life-giving when we use it for the right reasons, cutting off the branches that are siphoning away energy, turning our attention away from comparing ourselves to what other plants in the garden are doing and focusing on what the master gardener is doing, so turn from simply existing and trying to protect what little we have to bearing fruit that provides for all who encounter us.

It’s time-consuming work. Focusing on what God is doing, and doing what we are called to do, doesn’t leave any space or energy for figuring out how to best build a fence to keep everyone else off our little plot of land, or for passing judgment on people experiencing hardship, or for maintaining systems that ensure that water and nutrients only get into our roots and no one else’s. The spiritual work of looking honestly at ourselves and allowing God to dig and prune and feed is never about fixing other people, only about growing so that we can better serve other people. Bearing fruit doesn’t mean that the tree eats better—it means that the tree feeds better, and we don’t get to control who enjoys the fruit we bear in the kingdom of God. Our task is to figure out how to bear the fruit God calls us to give, and to learn to give it freely and generously, just as we have received freely and generously from others and from Christ the gardener who intercedes for us so faithfully.

It is in the midst of this that we jump to the end of the chapter and hear Jesus say of Herod, who wishes to see him, “Go tell that fox for me…I have work to do, and I’m doing it.” Herod has already killed John the Baptizer, and he’s been wanting to question Jesus and see if he is really the miracle-worker everyone says. But Jesus is busy with life-giving work, and has no time for death-dealing interviews. So he uses this beautiful, motherly, vulnerable metaphor: “long have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…but you were not willing.” Even the mother hen can’t force all the chicks to snuggle up together, to move as one in the direction she wants them to go. 

So he warns them instead: we have set a fox to guard the henhouse, and we shouldn’t be surprised when that starts to go terribly wrong. It seems confusing how we could get here, but if we just look back at the chapter, it’s all there. We’ve been duped into believing that some people deserve bad things, while others deserve good things, and we’re always in the latter category ourselves. We’ve blindly participated in systems that feed us while starving others, and we’ve cared more about protecting ourselves than about bearing fruit. We’ve learned to blame God and sin rather than to dig down and uncover our own complicity and rather than pruning off the branches that we hang on to even though they hinder our growth.

When our image of God is of someone whose favor you have to earn and whose wrath you have to avoid, whose circle is closed, and who only calls and uses and speaks through people who meet a human-made set of criteria, it’s a short leap to believing that we deserve what we have and therefore must protect it at all cost, especially from those who are different. It’s an even shorter leap to believing people who don’t-have must be undeserving, must have made bad choices or brought it on themselves or be dangerous. All of this sets the stage for the fox, who is cunning enough to manipulate our fear and our desire for self-advancement. He then takes advantage of us all running every which way except under the wings of the mother hen. The fox counts on us judging each other rather than having compassion, and the fox’s power depends on us turning a blind eye to our own fruitless trees so we can stay focused on what we’re missing rather than what we have and what responsibility we bear.

Jesus, in contrast, spreads wide his mother-hen wings, knowing they don’t offer the kind of protection that the fox claims to promise—he literally uses the chicken, image of weakness and cowardice, to face down the fox. He calls us to gather round, stick together, and move where he moves. He calls us to unpopular self-examination, knowing it is the foundation for bearing fruit…and that is the purpose of residents of God’s garden: to produce fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, generosity, goodness, and self-control…fruit that feeds others, changes the world, and lasts well beyond anything the fox can do.

May it be so. Amen.