But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
More Than An Idle Tale: Luke 24:1-12
We might not be here if it weren't for the women. That's right. We might not even be sitting in this room, thousands of miles away from Jerusalem, if these women had not shown up to care for Jesus' body. Had they not been willing to follow the mournful customs of preparing the body of the newly dead with spices and ointments, who knows when the rest of Jesus' followers would have found out that he was no longer in the tomb. Jesus' body had not been stolen. He was simply not there. The angels reminded the women that he had foretold this just days earlier. Remembering that he had said these things and recognizing them to true, the women ran to tell their brothers in the faith. These women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several more, were all the first witnesses to the empty tomb. Luke tells us that Jesus appeared to his male followers several times after the women found that he was no longer in the tomb. Who knows if the disciples would have believed what they had seen if they first had not heard from the women that his body was gone from where it had been laid.Were in not for these women, would the men have been able to believe? Would we even be here?
While all four Gospels describe Jesus' women followers being present through his torture, and execution, Luke is the only Gospel in which Jesus' male followers actually stay with him to witness his death. They did stumble a bit beforehand, falling asleep when he asked him to pray for themselves. Even Peter, the one who has been so sincere in his faith, stumbled. He denied knowing Jesus once he was arrested. However, despite their faults, these men did not abandon him in his final hours in this Gospel as they appear to have in others. They were described as having have been among the witnesses who stood a ways off with the women and watched as the Romans killed Jesus. There's even a chance that Peter was there. He was definitely present when the women arrived to share what they had seen. In fact, Peter seems to be the only one who took the women seriously. Maybe the painful memory of his earlier bout of fear helped him be ready to fearlessly trust the women, even if the story they shared seemed impossible and even though women were not often considered to be trustworthy witnesses.
As scholars remind us, even in this country within the last 100 years, women of all races and men who were not white were not considered credible witnesses in court cases. It was only in 1975 that women were allowed to serve on juries in all 50 states. To this day, when people on the margins offer witness, when women, people of color, children, people with histories of addiction, mental illness, or incarceration, LGBT folks, Native Americans tell true stories that run counter to the commonly accepted narrative, people often don't believe them. The disciples were not immune to this societal pattern. Even though the men know that Jesus was capable of great miracles, even though they had watched him defeat death and illness and poverty time and again, even though they had seen Jesus repeatedly do the impossible, when the men heard the women tell a story that ran counter to what they deemed possible, most of them did not believe the women. In fact, Scripture tell us that they considered the testimony of the women to be an idle tale, what one scholar says would be comparable to the wild, exaggerated speech of someone who was delirious, or, put even more simply, hysterical nonsense.
Only Peter is able to hear Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, and the other women and take their testimony seriously. Through his own mistakes of the last few days, he has been reminded that sometimes the last thing that you think can happen does actually happen. Rather than dismiss the women's tale as hysterical horse-pucky, he ran to the tomb to witness this most recent miracle for himself. He ran because he remembers what it is like to be in the place of the women, what it is like to be in the presence of the Divine when Jesus once again stretches the limits of what is possible. Peter recognizes God once again at work in their story. He, like the crowds who have followed Jesus throughout his ministry, has to go and see Jesus' latest acts of powerful love for himself. He runs to the tomb and he sees that all is left in the tomb is Jesus' burial clothes. Scripture tells us that he is amazed. Jesus has surprised him once again.
What the other male disciples forgot, and, I think we can forget, is that Jesus was giving them hints and clues to the Resurrection all along. They should have not been surprised when the women came and told them their story. It was just one more sign in a long list of signs of New Life in Jesus' ministry. Maybe they were present when he said that he was coming to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, to bring good news to the poor and the captive and the wounded and the sinful. Perhaps they had seen his of abundance where thousands could be fed with just a few piece of bread and fish. Had they forgotten that he once healed an enslave man who was very near death? Had they also forgotten that he once raised the dead son of a woman who had no one else to care for her? In the midst of their grief, did they not remember that he loved everyone... even tax collectors... even Judas? Had they forgotten that they taught them how to repent and give back to the world some of the grace that he had offered them? It sure seems like they didn't remember. Maybe they were so deep in their pain that they had forgotten that they had already seen bits and pieces of new life beginning to sprout all around them, so they couldn't recognize that this empty tomb was actually New Life, that is, the Resurrection in full bloom.
The women remembered. And, Peter did, too. The remembered what new life in Christ felt like and recognized it again, with a little angelic help, when they saw this empty tomb. They recognized that this new way of life that Jesus had called them to, a life of repentance and reorientation towards service of the poor and oppressed, a life he modeled for them with such unwavering loyalty that he would eventually be killed for it. They finally recognized that this kind of life was ultimately even more powerful than the murderous empire of Rome and her collaborators. They saw this empty tomb as a culmination of a divine life lived with compassion, mystery, loyalty, and surprise. They might not exactly have known what it meant, or have understood how it happened, but they knew it was good. They knew that it changed things. They knew that it changed them, and through this resurrection, they would work with Christ to change the world.
That is the only reason we are sitting here today... someone experienced the Resurrection in their lives and was so changed by it, that they had to tell us. Maybe we believed them and showed right up, like Peter did. Or, maybe, like the rest of the disciples, we needed a little extra help believing. We'll learn more about that in the coming weeks. Either way, we are here because we have learned about Resurrection and realized that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Resurrection means that death and oppression cannot/ will not/ does not have the last word. We may not understand how or why Resurrection happens. But we are willing to keep showing up and peering inside the tomb. We are willing to tell the story of the Resurrections in our life. We are willing to work with Christ to make Resurrection keeps happening.
Let us leave here today remembering and recognizing, just like the women and just like Peter. Remember Christ who died just like we do. Remember Christ who cared for the ones no one cared about, and entrusted them with his witness. Remember that death did not have the last word in his story and doesn't have to have the last word in ours. Recognize that Christ is here with us when we work at the food pantry, when we drive someone to the hospital, when we advocate for kids in the juvenile justice system, when we pray together, and weep together and dance together. Recognize that Resurrection is more than an idle tale. Go be a part of it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
Greg Carey: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/lukes-interpretation-of-jesus-death_b_9517668.html
Craig R. Koester: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=558
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4571&utm_content=buffer8aa9e&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer
Michael Joseph Brown: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2819
Arland Hultgren: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1581
Jane Schaberg, "Luke" in The Women's Bible Commentary, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Helpful history regarding women's ability to serve on juries in the United States:
David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1576
Anna Carter Florence: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2249
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.’
This picture is from Pakarua Presbyterian where the youth celebrate Palm Sunday in a traditional dance. This parade took place in Port Vila, Vanuatu. You can access the picture at: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54311. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54311 [retrieved March 24, 2016]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yumievriwan/288750960/.
Talking Stones: Luke 19:28-40
Did you notice that our Gospel lesson on this Palm Sunday doesn't mention palm-waving? Also, nobody yelled "hosanna" when Jesus walked by, either. That's right... all of the fun stuff we did today, waving around palms and singing hosanna songs, wasn't even in Luke's version of the story. In similar fashion to our Christmas pageants, our Palm Sunday celebrations are often an amalgamation of a couple different Gospel accounts, organized together for maximum dramatic reenactment. While it is certainly fun every year to swarp around palm fronds and yell "hosanna," I think it's also important to take a closer look at Luke's more subdued version of the story. Today, let's take some time to read through Luke's account, by itself. I think we can learn some interesting lessons about fear and celebration here, if we just take a moment to listen.
The story begins with Jesus just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem during the season of Passover. Let's not forget that Passover was tense time in Jerusalem. Scholars remind us that of the various religious celebrations in the Jewish calendar, Passover is the one most likely to be a foundation for rebellion. You see, Passover was a commemoration of God's liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian rule. According to Michael Joseph Brown, God's victory over that one ancient oppressive empire would have definitely been on the minds of the Jews who lived under another oppressive empire, the empire of Rome. Pontius Pilate and his legions would have been present in Jerusalem during Passover in order to stamp out any sign of revolution. They would have come to keep the peace... but this peace was hardly peaceful. This so-called peace was simply a lack of obvious conflict... a kind of "peace" that only comes through great bloodshed. Scholars note that Pilate would have ridden into town on a warhorse, broad, strong, and fearless, ready to do just what Pilate commands it to do. He would also surrounded by soldiers bedecked in banners and flags, swords and lances shining in the sun.
Let's contrast Pilate's likely entry into town with the description of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Rather than ride in on a stately stead, he asks a couple of his disciples to go borrow a colt, probably from someone he knew. Now, this colt was not a highly trained soldier's horse. No, this colt was young and mostly wild. It had definitely never been ridden before. Jesus probably would have needed help from his buddies to just get on it's back. It might have even been a donkey (Matthew said it was a donkey... Luke doesn't specify). The presence of a donkey makes this scene even more ridiculous when contrasted with Pilate's grand, intimidating entrance. Jesus, a full grown man, could have been astride a half-wild donkey colt, surrounded by a rag-tag line of peasants, fisherman, prostitutes, and tax collectors. Unlike Pilate's soldiers, these folks didn't have banners to wave. All they had was the cloaks off their backs, but they threw them down anyway, trying to make a path for the one they thought would bring true peace.
In Hebrew scripture, in the book of Zechariah, there is a prophecy that says the leader of the Jews will one day enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. This prophecy definitely seems to be on people's minds as they cheer for Jesus. They call him a king and say that he is coming in the name of the Lord. We should notice something very important here: Kathryn Matthews reminds us that while in some of the gospel stories there is a huge crowd of either festival goers or of people drawn to Jesus because he raised Lazarus from the dead, here in Luke, this crowd is smaller and made up of Jesus' disciples. These are the people who know him most well and have been following him for the longest. They cheer for him because they have been healed by his love, have seen his miracles, and heard his wise teaching. These are not fickle people who will turn on him and cry out for his death, as the crowds do in other versions of this story. No, these are the people who love him most and at this very moment, they finally get something right: They celebrate Jesus as Jesus has been telling them that God celebrates them. They celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem because they know his peace is categorically different than the so-called peace of the empire.
Now, we've been talking about a lot of different celebrations in the book of Luke: parties for lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons. You might remember that some people aren't real thrilled about those parties. This time, we have the Pharisees worrying about the celebration. They tell Jesus to tell his disciples to quiet down. Over the years, many people have tried to explain why the Pharisees would try to stop the shouting. Some have suggested that they were motivated by jealousy or hatred of Jesus. Those two explanations might be true (we can't really know what was going on inside their heads), but I have learned that these are not the only possible explanations for their actions. I am more convinced by the explanations offered by other scholars who remind us that the Pharisees once tried to save Jesus from Herod. It seems reasonable to think that they are once again trying to save him, this time from Pilate. Remember, it is very dangerous to appear to be inciting insurrection in Jerusalem during Passover. They call could be in danger if Pilate heard the people calling Jesus "king." I think it is very likely that these Pharisees are just trying to get Jesus to play it safe and stay under Pilate's radar.
Remember what happened when the Pharisees tried to warn Jesus about Herod? He called Herod a petty little fox who should not be feared. Well, this time, when they warned him about Pilate, he said, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." Jesus was so certain that the testimony of his disciples need to be shared that he was sure that God would find a way to share it. If they were not permitted to shout out their hopes and joy, not permitted to speak of the healing they experienced, God would provide the world with another witness, even if that meant the rocks would cry out in revelation. As Fred Craddock on said, all of creation comes from God and all of creation is capable of attesting to God's great glory, even the typically speechless stones. We can see that the peace that Jesus brought was, and is, worthy of celebration, even if the celebration is risky, even if the powers-that-be will be threatened. Jesus says Shout out now. Celebrate now, even if you know that death is lurking just around the bend. The very rocks on which we walk may join you.
We who have heard this story before know that death is actually lurking just around the bend. This celebration at the entrance of the city can seem heartbreaking when we know Jesus' death will be ordered in the midst of the city. We might remember that these very disciples, the ones who seem so joyful and fearless at Jerusalem's gate, will falter in the face of Rome's lethal might on the hill of Golgotha. As I said, it would be easy to despair, observing this little joyful procession not as a model for the reign of God, but instead, as a harbinger to Jesus' great humiliation on the cross. I hope, though, that despair about the future isn't our only lesson this week. I think we can also learn something about bravery. William Barclay once said that there are two kinds of courage. One is the kind of bravery we exhibit by instinct when we rush to pull a child from in front of an on-coming car. This is the bravery of crisis, a bravery that exists only when you don't really have time to think about what you are doing.
There is another kind of bravery, though, a kind of bravery that sees danger from a long way off and has a little more time to think about how to respond. This kind of bravery knows that danger is coming, but does not change course. This bravery is faithful, enduring great danger in order to complete the mission to which one is called. This is the kind of bravery that Jesus exhibits. And, I think this is the kind of bravery to which Jesus calls the church. We must be willing to risk going against the powers and principalities of our own time to continue the mission that he began in his. We must be willing to see the danger far off and stand firm in the Gospel of love and justice to which we care called. We much be willing to stand up to the death-dealers of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism and call them out for what they are, actions that are contrary to the gifts Christ offers us in the Gospel. We must also be willing to be like the disciples are here at their most hopeful, throwing down whatever we own to make a way for Christ to enter into the city, shouting out praise to Jesus, the one who will build a heavenly peace with us. I pray that we can be both brave like Jesus and celebratory like his disciples. That is how we can find the hope that we seek in this broken world. That is how we can welcome Christ in. Then we won't need the talking stones to offer up our testimony for us.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Michael Joseph Brown: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2801
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4563
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_20_2016
Pulpit Fiction Podcast: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/159-palm-sunday-c-holy-week-bonus
Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=733
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2013/11/luke-19-28-40/
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
John 12: 1-8
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.’
What is the True Cost? John 12:1-8
Once, when I was a teenager, I remember smelling something so bad that it woke me up from a deep sleep very early one morning. I wondered out of my room and found my mom, who was also awake at such a shocking hour. With a stench hanging in the air, I said, "Mom, what is that?" She said, "I'm pretty sure it's a skunk." What we think happened was that our mama cat and a local skunk had a disagreement about who got to live under our house. Mama Cat was ok, if stinky, and the skunk was long gone. But, the smell lingered. In the morning, we all got ready like we normally did and went to school. As I waited for home room to start, I sat my purse, a small leather backpack, on the floor behind me and didn't think about it again for at least an hour, when it was finally time to go to class.
One of my friends offered to grab my purse because I had my hands full. As I picked it up to hand it to her, a terrible scent wafted our way. The smell of the skunk spray had so invaded our home that it clung to my purse. Even though it smelled bad in the house, my family and I were so used to the smell that we didn't even realize that it had stuck to my purse. Had I realized how bad it smelled, I would have left it at home. I knew that I couldn't carry that thing around school. I found my other friend whom I shared a locker with and apologized profusely. I told her what had happened and that I had to leave my purse in our locker. We crammed that stinky purse into the locker before first period and didn't think about it again until after lunch, when we had to go to the locker to change out which books we were carrying. We opened the door and the skunk smell hit us so hard that we almost fell down. That day, I felt like this horrible smell was infesting every bit of my life, sticking in every nook and cranny, making my locker smell like roadkill. It took a while to air that smell out of our house and off of our belongings. I am really lucky that my locker mate was so understanding.
I remembered this story this week when I began reading from the Gospel of John, which is arguably the squishiest, muddiest, stinkiest Gospel. This Gospel author, who begins Christ's story by preaching about how "the Word became flesh" uses all kinds of fleshy, smelly, bodily, wordly images to demonstrate the true radical nature of Jesus' identity as God's incarnation. In this Gospel, the Divine and Creation are intricately connected. I have been reminded by scholars that, while skunks are thankfully absent, the scents of sweet wine, fresh bread, wet mud, stones made warm by the sun, and rooms made stale by sickness work their way into every nook and cranny of this Gospel. The family at the center of today's Scripture, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, have some particularly smelly stories. Upon our first meeting of them, Lazarus has been dead for three days and smells something awful. The tomb that he had been buried in was smellier than my locker full of skunk anger.
Now, you might wonder if the smelliness of poor Lazarus needs to be mentioned. It seems kind of rude to mention that he smells bad, given that he has bigger problems, like being dead. But, the smell matters in the story. That's how we know that he is really dead. It's how the author of John makes sure that we understand that what Jesus does in raising him from the dead is actually a Divine act, not simply Jesus waking a guy up from a nap. The smell helps us understand that this event is radical, radical enough to anger the authorities. Radical enough that they decided that Jesus need to die. This isn't the only story about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus where a smell will help us learn something more about Jesus. Our Gospel reading today is their second smelly story. It has a much more pleasant smell than the first.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have been through a lot with Jesus, so it is not surprising that he would return to their home in Bethany, just a few miles outside of Jerusalem. We are told that we're nearing Passover. Those of us with the value of hindsight know that Jesus' greatest trial will come during Passover, in the city of Jerusalem. That time is growing near. The conflict between Jesus and the authorities will soon come to a head. Maybe Mary felt the tension in the air and she knew that something dangerous and drastic was going to happen soon. Maybe this tension was too great for her not to do something wildly loving to care for her dear friend.
Remember how, over the last couple weeks, we've been talking about God as the extravagant lover of lost people. Even though those stories were from the Gospel of Luke and this one is from John, I think we're reading yet one more account of holy, lavish love, though this time Jesus is on the receiving end of such grace. Mary took a pound of perfume and washed Jesus' feet with it. As Karoline Lewis reminds us, this act of love is kind of absurd. Mary used pound of perfume (that is a lot of perfume), perfume that was very expensive and usually saved for rich and powerful people. Then, she wiped off all of this perfume with her hair. She didn't have to make such a production of this act. She could have just used water, a little oil, and a towel. Why do we need such a lavish display? Did she really need to stink up the place with such a grand gesture?
Like the story just before this one, the smell matters. We need the smell of great love to remind us of God's great love of us. Mary's act has to be absurd and lavish and abundant because she understands Christ's concern for her, and for all of humanity, to be absurd, lavish, and abundant. Her demonstration of love has to be grand. It is an expression of a grand faith. So, she uses so much of this perfume that the smell filled every corner of the house. She uses so much perfume that it would have taken her a year of work to save up to replace it. She uses so much perfume that everyone present would have walked out of the room smelling like the grace she just shared with Jesus.
Jesus must have been touched by this gesture. Not only does he defend Mary's actions to his disciples when Judas accuses her of being wasteful, he also goes on to repeat this humbling, intimate, and extravagant gesture with them. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover, he will strip nearly naked, covered only by the towel that he will use to wash their feet. He will wash the feet of the twelve, even of Judas, the one who will betray him. Maybe he still smelled a bit like Mary's perfume as he scrubbed each of them clean and gave them a new commandment. He will tell them, "Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." His love, their love, should stick in every nook and cranny of this world, filling every space so that no one should be able to miss the aroma of Christ's love.
You may have heard that Judas tried to censure Mary's extravagance by claiming that her money would have been better spent serving the poor. It is a good point and Jesus' response can be a little perplexing. He tells him to leave her alone. She preparing for his burial. "The poor will always be with you, but you do not always have me." Some have read this in such a way as to exclude seeking justice for the poor from the realm of proper Christian behavior. Given that Jesus readily serves the poor in other parts of the Gospel, I don't think that's what he's suggesting here. Scholar Matt Skinner suggests that we read this with Old Testament commandments to care for the poor in mind. It is like Jesus was saying, "if you follow me, you will always be where the poor are, serving them and advocating with them. Since you will always be equipped by God to do right by people in need, there is no need to be so stingy with the gifts we have that we can't do kind things for one another. My life could end very soon. Mary's act of love is fortifying me to follow this hard path." As scholar Gail O'Day once said, this is a both/and kind of love. You can love Jesus and love the poor. And, you have to love each other in order find the strength to do both.
There is a great cost to Mary's actions. Not only did she spend a lot of money, but she demonstrated her faith in a very open, public way. Not all of Jesus' followers would be so brave. She also risked being criticized by other Jesus followers for such a sensuous, lavish display of love. However, she knew that her faith is a faith of abundance and not scarcity. Demonstrating her love was worth the cost. It is our calling to live an abundant faith like Mary's, lavishly loving God and neighbor, filling up every nook and cranny, making sure everyone walks away smelling of God's grace. Don't be afraid, like Judas. There is enough love to go around.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources in writing this sermon:
Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2749
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4554
Susan Hylen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1582
Matt Skinner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=544
Gail R. O'Day, "John," in The Women's Bible Commentary, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Billy Honor: http://www.onscripture.com/jesus-justice-fatigue-and-why-being-black-exhausting
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable:
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.’ ” 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.” ’
One of the most wonderful and most frustrating things about parables, or really any story, is that people often hear and understand them very differently from one another. Take for example today's Gospel reading. It is familiar to many. If you know this story, I bet you've heard it called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I'm going to suggest that we would do better to call it the Parable of Loving Father, because, man, does this dad love his kids. Let us start with the beginning of this story. Jesus had been out preaching when sinners and tax collectors came close to hear him. Usually these folks would be avoided by a self-respecting member of the community. Jesus never seemed to avoid them. The respectable religious leaders did not approve, especially since Jesus ate with them.
As the outcasts came near, Jesus told three parables about lost things being found. First he spoke of a sheep, one of many, who is lost, and a lowly shepherd who goes looking for it. He finds it and celebrates with his friends. Then, he tells a story about a poor working woman who has lost a coin. When she finds it, she throws a party with her friends, a party that probably costs more than the coin is worth. Then, with both cultural insiders and outsiders listening, he tells one more story, this story about the Loving Father. There was a man with two sons. The older worked closely with his father and held a place of privilege. In their culture, upon his father's death, this son would inherit two-thirds of his father's wealth. The rest would be split among the remaining male heirs, in this case, one younger son. The younger son, either because he was wicked enough to wish his father dead or foolish enough to think he could survive on his own, asked his father for his share of the inheritance. The father, surprisingly, agrees.
This wouldn't have been so simple as running to the bank and taking out cash, or even going into the treasure pile and picking some choice gems. In order to split the inheritance, this father was going to have to arrange for the sale of a significant amount of property. This would not be done simply or easily. But, the father does it, and gives his son the money from the sale. The son then makes what is likely the second most foolish decision he ever made in his life: he leaves. Maybe he was ashamed by what he had done and could only bear the guilt by leaving. Maybe he hated the system he lived in and knew he had to get away. Maybe he was an adventurer, and headed out, never looking back to the dull life he was leaving behind.
He was living in a country far away and he spend all of his money. Now, I learned this week that how we understand him to have spent his money may depend what language we are reading. According to a scholar named Mark Powell, if you are reading a Western language, like English, you may understand this young man to be spending his money on dissolute living... like prostitutes, booze, or other debaucherous behavior. That kind of translation supports an interpretation that understands this man as wicked. However, if you are reading in an Eastern language translation, like Arabic or any number of translations, like Armenian, Persian, or Georgian that are influenced by an ancient translation from Syriac, you will understand him to have simply wasted his money, but his waste is not connected to immorality. It is more like he got out on his own for the first time and was completely unprepared to handle the responsibility. Or, maybe he spent money on stuff he didn't need instead of saving it while he got established in his new home. This kind of reading makes him look more foolish than wicked.
In a world where most people are poor, the younger son might have been able to survive with no money. Plenty of people did all of the time. But, then a famine struck. Have you ever caught that part of the story before? I sure haven't, or I haven't really thought it was that important. That scholar, Mark Powell, said that it's common for Americans to skip over the famine part and remember the wicked behavior part. Powell interviewed a bunch of folks from St. Petersburg, Russia, a city that suffered a terrible war induced famine during World War II. They always remember the famine. Today, let's take our cue from the Russians. Imagine that, after spending your whole life in a family that always had enough, to suddenly find yourself not only broke but also in the midst of a great famine. How could you even hope to recover? He finds a farmer wealthy enough to still have a herd of pigs and also be able to afford to hire a farmhand, and went to work for him. Remember, too, that this young man had spent his whole life being told that pigs were ritually unclean. He was so desperate that he was willing to live a life defiled in order to survive. This is the kind of decision that hungry people often have to make.
Like many of our minimum wage workers of today, even though he was working hard, he still didn't have enough to eat. He found himself coveting the carob pods he threw to the hogs, food most saw as only fit for animals and for the desperately poor who were treated like animals. Notice, too, that the scripture said, no one gave him anything. Powell said that Americans often miss that part, too. It took him talking about this scripture with a group of Tanzanian seminaries to really start thinking about what means in this story that in this time of great desperation, no one could would share with this hungry young man. Maybe he had been a jerk to them when he was wealthy. Maybe they didn't trust him because he was from away. Maybe they were too broke themselves to feel like they could help. Either way, he was starving, and starvation can make you re-evaluate your choices. Scriptures says, "When he came to himself," that is, when he remembered something important about himself that he had forgotten, he remembered that his father treated his field hands fairly. He hoped that if he went back to him and apologized, he could at least live there as a servant.
This next part is the real good God part of the story. As the son stumbles towards home, his father sees him. Like the shepherd who rejoiced over the lost sheep and the woman who rejoiced over the lost coin, this man rejoiced over his lost son. Scripture says he was filled with compassion and ran to him, hugging and kissing him. Respectable men did not run. Respectable men also weren't so easy on such a foolish, possibly wicked kid. And, yet, he ran and he gave his son a robe and a ring, symbols of his restoration to the family. He even threw him a party! A really big party! Makes you wonder if maybe the younger son actually learned his partying ways from his dad.
We may find ourselves, all too often, in the place of the elder son. We might say, sure, let the boy come back. Repentance is part of our faith tradition. We believe that people can ask and be forgiven. But, this party, this party is not only unnecessary, it is unseemly. It is a slap in the face to all the ones who stay and work hard and do what is expected of them. In the same way that the father came towards the foolish son, he also came towards the angry one. He said, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine in 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." In this one family, a family that seems very much to be a stand-in for God's kingdom, recovery of this lost is most important. The ones who have stayed can know how beloved they are. The ones who have returned, the lost ones, they are the ones who need a celebration. They have forgotten or never knew that they were loved. So, now, God shows them.
Whether we are Americans who are glad to see him change his wicked ways, Russians who are glad that the fool has returned to the ones who will help care for him, or Tanzanians who see the father's house as a place where all of the most needy are cared for, regardless of how they come to be in need, we can all learn something from this vision of God as loving parent, quick to celebrate and joyful at finding a lost child. God is not interested in deciding who is a winner or a loser. God is interested in loving those who are present, and seeking out those who need to be found. This is a love that is extravagant, all-encompassing, and maybe even a little foolish. And, we are called, as God's children, to figure out how to spread around some of this extravagant love that we have found. Maybe we have been lost and are now found. Maybe we have always known how beloved we are. Either way, this love is not simply ours to hoard, like the ones who wouldn't feed the young son as he drudged through a pig pen. This love is love to be shared. We, too, can say, "Come on home. Invite your friends... maybe even your enemies... probably especially the people who look like they don't deserve it." There's a party we're going to help throw and everyone... everyone... everyone is invited.
Pastor Chrissy consulted these sources while writing this sermon:
Sharon Ringe: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2788
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4553
Sermon Seeds: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_6_2016
Keith Anderson: http://www.onscripture.com/dismantle-prison-political-polarization
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2462
Mark Allan Powell, What Do They Hear? Bridging The Gap Between Pulpit and Pew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007)
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their 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.” ’
What Does It Mean to Bear Fruit? Luke 13:1-9
What is it about humanity that likes to find blame in the aftermath of tragedy? Like, when a woman is sexually assaulted, far too often, the first question that is asked is "What was she wearing," as if her clothes were an adequate explanation for someone else's decision to hurt her. Several years ago, when 16 year old Trayvon Martin was killed while defending himself from a armed vigilante who was stalking him through his father's neighborhood, his life history and cell phone records were mined for any confirmation that he was, in fact, a dangerous thug who deserved to be followed and who was frightening enough to be shot. My personal favorite tragedy/blame combination is when there is a some horrible natural disaster, like tornadoes or hurricanes, and a televangelist rushes to the airwaves to share, with utter sincerity, that our Godless ways brought the disaster upon us. Did you know that I, as a woman who married another woman, am personally responsible for two hurricanes, 17 tornadoes, and one really foggy afternoon. Sorry about that.
"Why do bad things happen" has been an important question to humans for a very long time. Jesus would have, no doubt, been familiar with the many examples this question in Jewish Scripture. He would have likely remembered that when Job lost everything... his family, his belongings, even his own health... his three friends all said that he must have done something to deserve all of the disasters that befell him. Scholars also note that Job was said to have been completely innocent. Maybe Jesus would have also remembered parts of Scripture where disasters were understood to be consequences of poor behavior. The plagues that took down the Egyptians were punishment for their enslavement of the Hebrews. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was supposed to be punishment of the Israelites for their sinful ways. The prophet Jeremiah once specifically said that people will die for their sins (31:30). It seems very likely that Jesus would have familiar with the idea that people must have deserved whatever problems that they had. He would have known people who believed that good fortune was a blessing from God and bad fortune was obviously punishment.
He probably wasn't surprised when he began to be asked questions about punishment, sin, and suffering. Suffering definitely seemed to be on people's minds. They asked about a recent tragedy, one that we now know few details about. It appears that Pilate had orchestrated a massacre of a group of Galileans while they were in Jerusalem. It also appears that some people were speaking unkindly about the people who had been killed in state-sponsored violence. People must have said that they deserved it. They must have been really terrible people or maybe they made the centurions mad. They were probably disrespectful. They should have known better. It's no wonder the soldiers killed them. They should have kept their mouth shut. They'd still be alive if they'd just done what they were told.
Jesus must not cared for the manner in which the people brought him news of this attack. He said to these bearers of gossip in the guise of bad news, "Do you really think these people were killed because they did something wrong, or more wrong than your average Galilean?" He seemed insulted at the idea that these folks did something to deserve destruction. He was very clear just what he thought about such an explanation for cruelty. He told the people, "Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." Jesus connected this massacre to an accident that had recently occurred. Eighteen people had died when a wall fell on them near the pool of Siloam. Jesus said that these Jerusalemites weren't killed because they deserved it either. Be it through intentional acts of violence or tragic accidents, sometimes people die unexpectedly. This does not mean that that they did something awful to merit punishment.
With these statements, Jesus stakes out a theological claim that is very different from common wisdom and accepted tradition of his time... and, if we're honest, of ours. He is saying that death is not dealt out as a punishment from God. It is simply part of life, though a hard part for sure. It is not necessarily something you can control by your actions, like if you are always more holy, you can avoid the whole messy thing. While he is clear that actions do have consequences, we cannot assume that we know correctly when a death is a consequence of some unseemly behavior verses when an accident is simply a hard, sad part being alive. In times of great tragedy, Jesus does not want us to spend time dealing out blame to try to explain why something horrible happened. Instead, Jesus calls us to a different kind of discernment... that of the work of introspective work of repentance. That kind of work sounds much harder than gossiping about the deaths of strangers.
Before you hear the word repentance and worry that I will go all televangelist on you, it might be helpful to have a sense of what the author of Luke meant when using the word. Scholar Matt Skinner reminds us that repentance is not simply being good or apologizing for all the bad stuff that you have done. In Luke, and in other parts of the Bible, it has more to do with changing one's mind, seeing life in a new way, being persuaded to adopt a new perspective. Repentance is primarily a sense that one is living life with a new orientation, fully aware of one's shortcomings while also using the short life that one has to more fully serve God and neighbor. Luke sees the act of repenting, of completely re-orienting one's life towards God, as one of the most important aspects of living the life God calls us to. When one has repented, one begins make decisions not just for oneself, but with the Gospel in mind.
Earlier in Luke, Jesus gives some examples of behaviors that are evidence of a life-changing repentance. He calls it "bearing fruit." He told people that if they had two coats, they would share with those who have none, and to do the same with food. To tax collectors, people who many understood as being beyond God's grace, he said that they should collect no more money from people than the amount they were required to. To soldiers, the Roman empire's bearers of death and tyranny, he told them not to extort money from the people through threats of violence or from false accusations. Now, these actions weren't to be understood as simply a list good deeds to check off in order to show off how good these folks were. They were seen as evidence that changes in our thoughts beget changes in our actions. When we repent, our life reorientation will be more than just us thinking differently about things. It is about doing things differently because of what we believe. Our own repentance points us to a new way of compassionate living.
Jesus shared a parable with the people who had gathered. He spoke of a vineyard owner who had planted a tree and grew frustrated when, after three years, it had grown no fruit. He instructed his employee, the gardener, to cut it down because it was a waste of space. The gardener, knowing that young trees can take some time to produce, asked for one more year. He said that he would work the soil some more and add fertilizer. "If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down." Now, some may interpret this passage has Jesus, the kind gardener, pleading on behalf of the tree with grouchy God the vineyard owner. Humanity would be the tree in this situation, simply taking up space and resisting the called to a fruit-bearing life of repentance. I, however, am not sure that that is the best interpretation of this parable.
Scholar David Lose reminds us that nowhere else in Luke does Jesus describe God as being angry and waiting to deal out punishment to sinful humanity. Luke doesn't seem to believe God and Christ are playing some kind of Divine good cop and bad cop where Jesus steps in to save us from a mean God. Instead, as we'll hear more about next week, Jesus describes God as the loving father who celebrates when his wayward son finally comes home. Jesus also describes God as a woman who celebrates finding a lost coin by throwing a party that is worth more than the coin that she had originally lost. In chapter 15, it even says that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who has repented than ninety-nine who need no repentance. We would do well to remember that repentance is not primarily connected with God's anger but with God's love. God seems to always be in a stance of invitation to new possibilities, not in judgment of repeated wrong-doings.
With that understanding of God in mind, Lose suggests that God, through Christ, is the gardener who lovingly tends to the tree, giving it the care it needs to bear fruit. The landowner, then, is humanity's own sense that good people are rewarded and bad people punished. Lose suggests that "perhaps the gardener is God, the one who consistently raises a contrary voice to suggest that the ultimate answer to sin isn’t punishment – not even in the name of justice – but rather mercy, reconciliation, and new life." God is the one who asks for a chance, one more chance, to help us bear fruits of compassion and love. Jesus tills the soil, turning in some compost, fertilizer, some Holy Spirit, enriching our soil so that we have the chance to grow new life.
What a powerful interpretation to offer! Lose says that suffering is real and actions have consequences, but, ultimately God is not interested in making sure you pay for your sins. God is interested in giving you fertile ground for growing. God is interesting in helping you re-orient your life. God rejoices when you actually do. So, make that change. It really needs to happen. But you don't do it on your own. God is working with you, right beside you, even as you suffer, helping make that new growth happen. Don't let the common sense of the punishment and blame prevent you from the compassion that God calls you to. Do let God's uncommon sense of grace and re-creation invite you to orient your life away from what is death-dealing. That is a way to grow with God. That is how we bear fruit. That is our truest calling.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Matt Skinner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2789
Arland Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1578
Sermon Brainwave: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=374
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-3-c-suffering-the-cross-and-the-promise-of-love/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.