Stories Jesus Told: The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13

Once upon a time, there was a wedding.

The bride got dressed up in her fanciest dress and had her makeup meticulously done and her hair beautifully styled.  The richest food and the most expensive wine her family could afford was bought and a feast was prepared.  The best musicians were hired to play joyful songs that the guests would dance to all night long, and the whole community gathered, eager for a celebration.

As the community gathered, ten bridesmaids put on the matching dresses that they would never wear again, did their own makeup, styled their own hair, and waited to join the wedding procession as the groom came to take his bride from her parents’ house to his own for the banquet.

Well, the truth is we don’t know a lot about first-century Palestinian weddings, and the details of how this one worked aren’t exactly clear.  But it is clear, in this story, that the bridesmaids waited for the groom to show up for the celebration to get underway – and they waited.  And they waited.

Our fairy tale wedding is beginning to look like the kind of sitcom or movie we are all well familiar with.  Where is the groom?  The violinist continues to play Pachelbel’s Canon while the guests begin to shift uncomfortably in their seats and look around.  Maybe a friend gets up to stall things with an awkward speech.  Where is he?  Is he late?  Is he stuck in Vegas after a wild bachelor party?  Did he get cold feet?  Is he coming at all?

Pachelbel keeps playing, and our bridesmaids keep waiting.  And waiting.

As they waited, each bridesmaid in her matching dress held onto a small oil lamp that she would carry in the procession once the groom arrived.  Each lamp was lit, and they were ready.  As they waited, though, the oil began to dwindle, and the flames began to die.  Soon it grew dark and the ten bridesmaids fell asleep.

The clock had just struck midnight when all of a sudden they were awakened by music and the clanging of noisemakers and shouting: “The groom is coming!”

Jolted awake, the ten bridesmaids jumped up and grabbed their oil lamps.  But as they looked down they saw that the oil was almost gone and their flames were barely a flicker.

“No problem,” thought five bridesmaids, reaching for the extra oil they had brought with them.  But the other five bridesmaids just stared at their lamps with a sinking feeling.  How could they have forgotten?  How could they have been so ill-prepared?  What now?

The shout came again: “The groom is coming!”

“Quick!” begged the five oil-less bridesmaids to their five well-prepared friends.  “Give us some of your oil!”

But the five wise bridesmaids shook their heads sadly, for they only had just enough for themselves.  It seems harsh, I know – but as I’ve learned from those candles on the altar, you need a certain amount of oil just to make them light at all, and perhaps if the wise bridesmaids shared their oil none of the ten lamps would stay lit for long.  Besides, in the end, other people can’t really be ready for you, can they?  “You’ll have to go buy some,” the wise bridesmaids said, and they re-lit their lamps and headed for the door.  The five foolish bridesmaids scrambled to put their shoes and coats on and ran out to find some shop that was by some chance still open.  But it was no use.  When they came back with their oil, the procession was gone, and when they ran to site of the wedding feast, the door was locked, and no one would let them in.

So far in retelling this parable I’ve cast it as a fairy tale and a lighthearted rom-com, and so I kind of want to add something at the end there to give it a feel-good ending.  But this is not the kind of story that ends with a happily ever after.

“Keep awake, therefore,” says Jesus, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  In Matthew’s gospel, he’s just been talking about the apocalypse and his own second coming, so when he tells us to keep awake, we have a pretty good idea for what.  We might point out to Jesus that even the five wise bridesmaids technically fell asleep, but we take his point.  Those who wait for the bridegroom had best not let their lamps go out.

As I’ve preached on Jesus’ parables over the past couple weeks I’ve generally made sure to emphasize that they aren’t just allegories where every one thing represents another thing and there is one true crystal clear meaning.  But it certainly seems to be the case in this story that some things stand for some other things: this is a story about the coming of the Kingdom of God, starring Jesus Christ as the bridegroom, and us, who purport to follow him, as the bridesmaids—some presumably wise, some foolish.

So here is the question, then: what is the oil?

Some, like Martin Luther, say the oil is faith.  Strong, unwavering faith is what will make us ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Some say it is the Holy Spirit.  Some say it is good works, which Jesus hopes we won’t get tired of.  Tell me, which one of these things does Jesus want to see that we are not running out of when he comes back?  Or maybe the oil is what it takes to keep that lamp lit and our light shining – things like prayer, study, Sabbath, worship, good Christian community.

Or could it be that – again – the story is not so easily allegorized, and that the oil could be any or all of these things?  That Jesus’ point is when he comes back, and ushers in the Kingdom of God – is he going to find us ready and waiting, trusting in him despite his delay, doing our best to put our faith into action, letting the Holy Spirit work through us by loving and serving and welcoming and forgiving?  Basically – is Jesus going to find us in a state we want him to find us in?

I am not sure how Jesus’ original audience heard and understood this story, but I have an idea how Matthew’s audience did.  The Gospel of Matthew, which was written almost 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was written for Christians who were already looking around awkwardly to the strains of Pachelbel’s canon wondering what was taking so long and if the groom was, in fact, coming at all.  They had expected him to be a little more punctual.  So they needed a reminder once in a while – that even though the groom might be running late, according to their own timetables, their job was to remain watchful, and vigilant, and to keep their lamps lit.

That’s how Matthew’s audience would have heard it, but things have changed a little bit since then, haven’t they?  Or maybe it’s better to say that things haven’t changed, and two thousand years later, the groom seems to still be taking his time.  I’m sure that some of us come from traditions – since we come from a lot of different traditions, here – that talk easily about the second coming of Christ and expect it imminently.  But for a lot of us, if we think about it at all, it is in very future sense.  I include myself in that group.   Though I can recite the words of the Apostles’ Creed which says “From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead,” though we proclaim the mystery of faith every time we have communion: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, the “come again” part seems at the very least very far off, probably after my lifetime, maybe like when the sun explodes or something.

But when you think of something as very, very far off, it’s hard to feel like you really need to stay ready, isn’t it?  So  while Jesus’ second coming seems to me like something that is very far off, it’s a pretty good challenge to my faith to once in a while remind myself that it could in fact not be.  I might not have time to restock my oil in the morning – so if Jesus came back tonight, would he find my lamp lit?

Sometimes I think our faith could use that kind of urgency again.

If you knew Jesus was coming back tonight – or tomorrow, or the next day – is there anything you would do differently? (Anyone brave enough to answer that?)  What about us as a church – is there anything we would do differently?

I wonder.  Would I give away all my money and possessions?  Open my doors to anyone who needed a place to go?  Would I be out at more protests, or spending more time alone in prayer? What would change if we felt a little more of that urgency?

On the other hand, I don’t believe that you can truly live every day like it’s your last, and we as Christians probably can’t live every day as if we truly believed Jesus was coming back tomorrow – we’d use up all our oil, and our lamps would burn out.  This is a story that acknowledges that it might still be a while, and what we need is faith that has that urgent quality to it but that is also in it for the long haul.  We need to look ahead and keep that oil stocked.  As one commentary put it – “Being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after year when the hostility breaks out again and again.  Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant.  Being merciful for a lifetime…requires preparedness.” [1] (NIB)  Our lives of faith are not usually meant to be a blaze of glory, but a constant flame that may, of course, wax and wane over the course of the night, but doesn’t go out.

I read this week about Dylann Roof, the guy who killed nine people at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston two summers ago, being sentenced to death recently, and the reaction of the black community in Charleston.  It is complex, of course.  Some people think he’ll be getting what he deserves, and some are ready to forgive him.  It is in fact many of the family members of the nine people killed who have led the way in expressing forgiveness for the young man who did this terrible thing.  And some, as we can imagine, are somewhere in between, as the article put it, “mulling over the question of whether compassion can, in fact, lead to grace and perhaps to meaningful change.”

But as one shop owner caught in this struggle said, “At the very least, the families of the Emmanuel Nine lit a lamp for us to follow.”[2]

I’d say you need a certain urgency to your faith to keep that lamp lit at the very moment it is tested, so that it becomes a light that others can see and follow.  And you also need a certain preparedness, a good stock of oil, that probably comes from a lifetime of prayer, thankfulness, being part of an accountable community, and practice forgiving the small things so you are able to forgive the big ones.

But I did tell you that there is rarely just one way to read a parable.  And as I was reading this one, I thought about the oil and I thought about being ready and I thought about the groom showing up, and I thought about how Jesus doesn’t just show up once, at the end of time, but every day, in lots of different ways, and how we have to keep our lamps lit for those appearances, too.

Jesus does talk about the Kingdom of God as an apocalyptic kind of future thing but he also says the Kingdom of God is among us.  And I think we have to be ready to see that, too.  I think we have to have our lamps lit for that, too.

Jon and I are in a Facebook group for our neighborhood civic association and we often have a good laugh at the rants that people post and about how everything devolves into an argument, usually about how the neighborhood has gone downhill or who is racist.  But there was a post not long ago that caught my eye.  It was from a woman I had never met who apparently lives several streets down from us, but according to her post she is a widow with several kids, disabled, trying to make ends meet.  It seemed she had a number of tools and other things outside in her yard and someone called the police, presumably because it looked dangerous.  She was clearly angry as she wrote that she had asked for help before but her neighbors would rather call and report her than ask her if everything was OK and how they could help.  Then I read on as several neighbors responded to her post, and they said things like “I’m sorry you don’t feel like you’ve been welcomed.  If you tell me where you live, I’d love to bring you dinner or cookies sometime.”

I thought about how easy the Kingdom of God can be to miss – whether it is in a neighbor we write off and put our guard up against instead of taking the risk of getting to know them, or witnessing the simple kind actions of someone who wants to make a small difference.

Sometimes, of course, the bridegroom might make himself known to us with music and shouting and noisemakers, but probably more often he is there in the unassuming faces of the refugee, the undocumented immigrant, the homeless person on the street, the ex-con looking for a job, the opioid addict, the neighbor whose yard is bringing down the property values, or the person with whom we most vehemently disagree.  And the truth is that’s easy to say – we all know the verses that say that – but it’s a little harder to see in complex reality, so we need to keep our oil stocked and our lamps lit, or we might miss it.

Keep awake, says Jesus.  I’m still coming, and you don’t know when.

And, in fact, I’m already here.

Either way, you don’t want to miss it.

 

[1] New Interpreter’s  Bible Vol. VIII, Matthew, p. 451
[2] Christian Century, 2/15/17, p. 14

Stories Jesus Told: The Shrewd Manager

Scripture: Luke 16:1-9

So, who can tell me what this parable means?

Often, when I do a sermon series, I pick scriptures for each week with at least a vague idea of what I’m going to say about them.  But this time is different because I picked this parable precisely because I have never had the slightest idea what it meant, and for me one of the most fun parts of preaching is taking a scripture I have absolutely no idea what to do with, and studying and reflecting and struggling with it until I can discern God saying something through it, even if it’s not one clear and satisfying answer.  I’ve always thought that when the Bible is really clear, it’s often boring to preach on.  So this week I studied and reflected and struggled with this text and tried to look at it from all different angles and, I’m going to be honest here, guys, I got nothing.  I’ve referred to Jesus’ parables and sayings as kind of Zen-like before and this was one of those cases where I kept feeling like I almost understood it, and as soon as I did, I was farther from understanding it.

That Jesus.

But I re-came across a quote I wrote down a couple years ago recently, and it went: “The Bible is meant to be a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.” [Rachel Held Evans]

I like that quote, and I believe it to be true, and I believe it to be especially true for Jesus’ parables, and I think I believe it to be even more especially true for this parable. So I thought maybe I would bring you all along with me as I walk through this parable, and at the end, I’m going to ask you again what you think it means.

For some context, Jesus tells this story to his disciples, but we find out just afterwards that the Pharisees, the religious leaders that Jesus thinks are super hypocritical, are listening too.

Once upon a time, it begins, there lived a rich man.  Can anyone tell me where we’ve heard this one before, recently?  How about the rich man and Lazarus, from a few weeks ago?  Part of what makes a parable like this so complicated is that when there is a master or father or landowner in a story Jesus tells, we are accustomed to assuming that person represents God – for example, in the parable of the Prodigal Son (God is the father forgiving us and welcoming us home) or the workers in the vineyard (God is the landowner treating all of us the same no matter how long we have been working for him.)  So my first inclination, at least, is to figure out how the master in this story is like God.  However, when Jesus starts out a story with Once there was a rich man, that rich man is not usually God-like in any way, shape or form – like the rich man who ignored poor Lazarus outside his gate, as we heard about a couple weeks ago, or like the rich fool who stocked up all his wealth for himself instead of sharing and then died the next day.  Luke, we might say, is the gospel of the poor, and Luke does not have much affection for rich men, even in stories.  So you can simply keep that question in mind as we go along – is this rich landowner God or not God?  Is he a good character, or a bad one, or neutral?

This rich man had a manager.  He was probably a property manager of sorts, for this investment property where the rich man did not live.  Tenants would farm his land and grow and harvest crops such as wheat and olives for oil, and they would return a portion of their product as their rent, and the manager was in charge of collecting their payment and keeping the books and probably fielding any complaints they had.  When I lived in Williamsburg I rented a condo through a property management company, and I paid my rent to them each month, and when my garbage disposal broke they were who I called – kind of like that.

The rich man got wind of the fact that the manager was squandering his property.  We don’t know exactly what this means.  Is he skimming a little too much off the top for himself?  Is he being too nice to the tenants – never saying, “Hey, it was your fault for sticking a fork in the garbage disposal, pay for it yourself?”  Or is he not very good at keeping track of their payments at all?  (After all, later in the story he does ask each person, “How much do you owe my master?”)  But then, we also don’t know if this allegation is true.  Innocent until proven guilty, right?  Well, not as far as his boss is concerned.  You couldn’t exactly sue someone for unlawful termination in the Ancient Near East.  To be fair, the rich man does ask his manager to see the books he’s been keeping, and this seems sufficiently worrying to the manager that he proceeds the way he does.

The manager said to himself, after maybe a few four-letter words, ‘What now?’  He doesn’t have the strength or the skills for blue-collar work, and he’s not about to go stand at the city gate holding a cardboard sign that says ‘Please Help.’  He has to figure out where he’s going to go and how he’s going to eat once he’s out of a job, whether it’s fair that he lost his or not.

All of a sudden, a lightbulb went off. 

One by one, he visited those tenants who owed his boss some back rent.  To the one who owed nine hundred gallons of olive oil, he said ‘Make it four-fifty.’  To the one who owed a thousand bushels of wheat, he said, ‘Make it eight hundred.’

 We can see where he is going with this, and it at least kind of makes sense, even though he isn’t exactly acting with integrity. He’s about to get canned, but the tenants don’t know that yet.  If he can reduce their debts, he’s made some friends for himself who will help him once he doesn’t have anywhere to go, just as he has helped them.  So far, I’m tracking, Jesus.  I’m not quite sure where you’re going, but I think I’m with you.

And then, says Jesus, the rich man commended his dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly – or depending on the translation, cleverly.  Or even wisely.  The same word is, in fact, often translated ‘wisely,’ even within the same version of the Bible. 

This is where I start scratching my head.

Why do you think the rich man would commend his manager for doing what he did?   [Real question, no right answer.]

Here are some of the possibilities I found: Maybe the manager made his boss look good by reducing the debts, making for some happy customers, which is good for business.  Yet I don’t know a lot of business owners who would be that happy about their employees slashing prices without asking, however happy it made the customer.  Or maybe it was usurious interest that the rich man was charging that his manager did away with, making the manager the good guy according to Jewish law.  Well that’s great, but we don’t have any indication that that was the case, and the amounts of debt he is canceling seem pretty variable; and again, I have no idea why the rich man would be happy about this if it was his idea to jack up the interest rates in the first place.  Or maybe it is the manager’s own commission he is slashing – sacrificing his own income to make a desperate investment in his future.  That’s a nice idea although I happen to think it makes it a little too easy on us as interpreters.

My working reading of it is that the rich man had to commend his manager almost in spite of himself.  He might not have liked it, but he had to admit that was a smart thing to do.  I picture him maybe shaking his head and laughing wryly as he looks at his books.

But then it gets even weirder, as Jesus adds: For the children of this age are more shrewd – or wiser! – than the children of the light. 

For the life of me I can’t tell if he means that as a good thing or not.  What do you think?  Are Christians sometimes too nice in a way that doesn’t end up benefiting ourselves or the Kingdom of God?  I feel like that’s not necessarily the stereotype I hear about us, but maybe it is true that we sometimes lack strategy and business sense.  Just recently Don Lassell and I had a conversation with the guy who owns the gas station downstairs, who is hoping to build a bigger convenience store in some of the empty space.  Someone told us, “If he does, you need to negotiate for more rent.”  We both said, “oh, is that really necessary…”.is Jesus talking to us, Don?  Of course, this story is about slashing debt, not increasing it.

Or – is Jesus saying that the manager acted according to a value system that we aren’t supposed to be a part of, cheating people to save ourselves?  Is Jesus saying that the world will admire us for that sort of shrewdness, just like the rich man does – but that’s not the upside-down, self-sacrificial wisdom of the cross?

But then he caps it off: Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth – or, according to the KJV, the ‘mammon of unrighteousness’ so that when it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal homes.

In one sentence, what do you make of this?  What does Jesus mean by this parable?

Well, here is where most of the commentaries seem to go with this story, and it’s about the closest I can get to a satisfactory takeaway, too:

This is a story about money and wealth and what we do with it.  It’s unclear to me whether he is actually talking about ill-gotten gains.  Maybe ‘mammon of unrighteousness’ – which is actually a more literal translation – doesn’t mean money gotten unrighteously, but simply refers to money as the currency of our unrighteous world.  The CEB does, in fact, translate this phrase as “worldly wealth.” And to be honest, because we live in a broken and sinful world, probably most of whatever wealth we may have amassed is not completely pure.  That’s just the way it is, but we still have to decide what we do with it.

The manager in the parable, for his part, knows you use the resources at your disposal to invest in your future.  In his case that is his own, jobless future.  But what future are we investing in?

Hopefully, suggests Jesus, an eternal one.

And how do you use money, which is just about the most earthly, worldly thing there is, to invest in an eternal future?

Well, you cancel debts and you give it away.

This story doesn’t necessarily tell us to simply get rid of everything we have so that we can live unencumbered by the ways money and possessions tie us down.  There are stories that come closer to telling us that, and they are in Luke’s Gospel, but they’re not this one.  Instead, this story suggests, you use what you have wisely, even shrewdly.  You give it away in a way that makes you a friend – a friend of the kind of people who are Jesus’ friends, which is to say, the poor, the sick, the stranger, the outcast, the “other.”  Those are the people who will welcome you into the Kingdom of God, because those kind of relationships are exactly what the Kingdom of God is made of.  It is, actually, a strange kind of wisdom.  But it is wisdom nonetheless.

So maybe this parable is best left with a couple of rhetorical questions:

What debts are you going to slash today?

With the resources at your disposal, who are you being a friend to?

And, ultimately, what future are you investing in?

To good investments, upside-down wisdom, and stories we can only understand together – let’s all say, amen.

 

 

Stories Jesus Told: The Friend Who Knocked at Midnight

Scripture: Luke 11:5-10

“Lord,” said the disciples one day as Jesus was praying, “Teach us to pray.”

Jesus – to his credit, I think – didn’t answer as they might have expected.  He didn’t tell them that prayer was easy, nothing to it.  He didn’t tell them that prayer was just talking to God like you would talk to your best friend.  He didn’t tell them that there was no wrong way to pray.  Prayer might be all of those things, but that was not what Jesus told the disciples that day.

Instead, he said, “OK.  Pray like this.”

“Father,” he began.  Luke’s words vary slightly from Matthew’s, which is the form most of us are used to.  Still, we can hear the resonances: “Hallowed be thy name.  Your Kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Jesus waited a moment for those short-and-to-the-point words to sink in.  Then, he told them a story.

This story did not begin “Once upon a time.”  This story was less a tale and more of a little thought exercise.  “Imagine,” he said, “you have a friend, and late one night you run down the street to this friend’s house and you bang on his door.  Another friend has just stopped in on a long journey, you see, and dinner has been eaten and the dishes put away and there isn’t any food left to offer him.”

The disciples nodded, knowing how shameful it would be to not provide hospitality for a friend on a journey.

“Imagine,” continued Jesus, “that you bang on his door, and when you don’t immediately get an answer, you call out, ‘It’s me!  I need to borrow three loaves of bread!  I have company!’”

The disciples nodded again.  Surely this friend would understand the seriousness of the situation, and surely he would be willing to help.  What are friends for, after all?

“Now imagine,” said Jesus, “that your friend has had a very long day, and he has to be up early tomorrow, and they’ve just gotten the baby to sleep.  So when he gets up, blinks a couple times, and recognizes you at the door, he doesn’t say ‘Please, help yourself to some bread.’  Instead, he says: ‘Do you know what time it is?  Get lost.’”

Oh, thought the disciples, so he is that kind of friend.

“Now imagine,” said Jesus, “that you don’t get lost.  You know it’s late.  But you also know that you need that bread.  So you stand there, and you knock.  And you knock.  And you knock again.  Until finally, your friend opens the door, angrily shoves three loaves of bread into your arms, and slams it shut.  He may not have given you the bread out of the goodness of his heart, but shamelessness does count for something.”

An interesting conclusion – not exactly Aesop’s Fables, here.  But then the stories Jesus tells are rarely as cut-and-dry as the ones Aesop does.

In this story, we the listeners are supposed to understand ourselves as the knocker.  And here I have to pause for a confession of my own: when I first decided to preach on this story, I conflated it in my head with another story, the story of the widow and the unjust judge, which Jesus tells later in Luke.  In that story, a poor widow who is denied legal justice by a corrupt judge, but she keeps doggedly appealing her case until the judge gets so sick of her he gives her what she wants.  Luke tells us that this is a parable about “the need to pray always and not get discouraged,” and in my head, that’s what this one was, too.  But that’s not quite right, which is why it’s important to actually read the text and not just think we know what it says – a trap I fall into once in a while.  This story of the friend who knocked at midnight is also a story meant to teach us something about how to pray.  But, I realized, the guy only goes to his friend’s house once.  It does seem that he doesn’t simply go home when the friend tells him to get lost.  But the word we heard translated as persistence – even if the friend didn’t give him the bread out of friendship, he gave it to him because of his persistence – is also translated boldness or shamelessness, depending on which version we are reading.

Maybe the friend knows that he won’t get to sleep until he gives his friend the bread and the knocking stops.  Maybe he’s also afraid of the rest of the street waking up and knowing that he was too grumpy to help a friend in need.  Either way, if it is a story that teaches us something about how to pray, it makes a good case for both boldness and persistence.

But if we, the listener, are the knocker, does that make God the rudely awakened friend?  Does God begrudgingly answer our prayers if we pray them loudly or often enough, like God is our senator and it’s our goal to overwhelm his staff and fill his voicemail with our opinions?  Can God be shamed into answering out boldest prayers so that God doesn’t look bad to all the people in the world who claim that prayer doesn’t work – or to all the people who believe it does?  Is that really what Jesus meant to teach?

Well – no.  We the listener may be the knocker, but this is not the kind of story where everything neatly represents something else – Jesus’ stories rarely are.  The story does not begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like a guy who knocked on his friend’s door in the middle of the night…”  Instead, it invites us to realize that if this guy got what he needed even from a very grumpy and begrudging friend, how much more will God – who is neither grumpy nor begrudging – give us.  When we ask, God gives.  When we seek, God helps us to find.  When we knock, God opens the door – and not just to tell us to get lost.

That makes me feel a little better, but I do still have some questions, and I’m sure the disciples must have too.  Did they take it at face value when Jesus implied that this is the way prayer works?  Surely some of them had asked God for a thing or two in their lives.  Maybe they had even done so loudly and persistently.  Maybe they had been bold in their asking, demanding what they needed from God – for an abundance of fish.  For an illness to be healed.  For a loved one to live.  Surely the disciples had been knocking on heaven’s door for their whole lives, and sometimes God answered with a smile and an armful of bread, to be sure – and other times, nothing.  Don’t you know what time it is?  Get lost.

Does it ever feel that way?

“Jesus,” they might have said, “here are all of our examples.  Here are the times we have asked but not received.  Here are the times we have sought but not found.  Here are the times we have knocked only for the door to remain shut.”

“Ah,” Jesus might have responded, “but remember what I taught you to pray for.”

Thy kingdom come.

Bread, just enough for today.  Forgiveness.  To keep us far from the things that would cause us to stumble.

Could it be that those are the prayers we are meant to pray boldly, over and over?

Imagine: that God had a house and you went to that house and you stood outside pounding on the door and shouting, Thy kingdom come!  Let us see your kingdom here on earth!  Let us see it! We demand to see it!

Imagine pounding on God’s door and shouting, Give me just enough!  I’ll be back again tomorrow!

Imagine shouting, Forgive me! I demand that my debts be canceled, since I’ve canceled all the debts owed to me!

Does that sound like the way you pray?

It’s beautiful, though, isn’t it – the image of a God who answers the door readily, arms full of freshly baked bread, ready to give us everything we need.  This is a prayer that prayed boldly over and over gives us the confidence to live fully relying on God.

But remember, Jesus’ parables are rarely cut-and-dry, and so I wonder if we might hear the story again, a little differently, this time.   After all, there are two knockers in this story, and there are two people who open the door.

“Imagine,” said Jesus, “that you have a friend.  And this friend has been on a long journey, and she’s sent word to you that she plans to stay with you on the way back.  Only you don’t know exactly when that is – it’s not like she can text when she’s thirty minutes out, or anything like that – and late one night, after dinner has been eaten and all the dishes have been put away, there she is knocking at your door.  And she’s hungry from all her traveling, and you don’t have anything to give her to eat.

“So you go down the street to your friend’s house.  It’s late and you know he’s kind of a crotchety guy, anyway, but you need some food to give your first friend.  So you bang on his door and he’s pretty unhappy about it, but because of your boldness and persistence in asking, you come home with what you need – to show hospitality to your friend.”

“How much more,” said Jesus, “will God, who is neither grumpy nor begrudging, give you what you need – to do God’s work in this world.”

What happens when see ourselves in this story not first as the knocker, but as the knock-ee?

What if it is not just our job as Christians to knock on God’s door, but to open ours, knowing that God will give us what we need to welcome the person on the other side?

What if we are the answer to someone else’s prayers, even as we boldly pray our own?

I like what Pope Francis once said.  Pope Francis, teach us to pray.  “First you pray for the hungry, then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”

So, fellow knock-ees: who is knocking?  On whose behalf are you going to bang on God’s door?

My friend Amy from college, who now lives in Chicago, recently joined with some other people in a local moms’ group on Facebook to sponsor a refugee family being resettled in the city.  Together, this group of moms who had been strangers up to this point raised $8500 for the family’s basic living expenses.  They sought donations of furniture to furnish the family’s new apartment.  Some in the group agreed to be mentors to the family to help them navigate life in the United States and learn English.  Some volunteered to stock their pantry with groceries until their SNAP application went through.  Together, Amy’s group did all these things to get ready to follow Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger.

Later they learned a little about the family they would be sponsoring.  It was a father and mother who had fled Aleppo and their baby daughter who was born in their refugee camp in Turkey.  The father was an accountant; the mother had studied literature.  They had family already in Chicago, and in fact would have been resettled with them earlier except for an administrative delay.  The resettlement agency found an apartment in the same building as the other family members.  They were scheduled to arrive on Monday, January 30.

Together Amy’s moms’ group got the apartment ready for this family to arrive.  They moved furniture, stocked the kitchen, set up the nursery.  They placed in the crib a bunny toy that was a gift from the five-year-old neighbor of one of the people in the group, who had heard about this family’s pending arrival and was worried the baby wouldn’t have a toy to hold.  Through the family in the same building, Amy and some of the others got to FaceTime with the family that would be coming.

Last Friday, as Amy and the others were making welcome signs and buying groceries and preparing to meet this family at the airport on Monday night, the executive order was signed banning refugees from coming into the country for 90 days – and, for Syrian refugees, indefinitely.  That night they learned officially that the family they had prepared for was barred from coming to the US.

Amy learned that the family had left the refugee camp at that point.  They had sold or given away all of their possessions, made the 18-hour bus trip to Istanbul, and gotten a hotel room where they waited to leave.  After the executive order was signed, they were given $250 and told to go home.  But, as Amy put it, “they have no home.  They are not permitted to return to the refugee camp.  They cannot afford to stay in Istanbul.  They are not legally permitted to work in Turkey.  At this point, they still do not know what they are going to do, or where they will go.”  As of last night, they were waiting to see whether some of the recent court challenges to the order would allow this family to come.

Knock, knock, knock.

Like many of you, I don’t know exactly how to open the door to this refugee family or any of the many families with similar stories that we have undoubtedly heard in the past week.  Maybe it means standing up and advocating for families like this one; maybe it means sponsoring or otherwise helping a family who is able to come to the US; maybe it means something else.  I do believe God wants us to hear them knocking, and then I think God wants us to knock on God’s door and say, “Give us what we need to help.”

I believe that when we pray and ask, our God who is neither begrudging nor grumpy is ready to give us good things: like courage.  And community.  Bread to share.  Bigger hearts.  And peace, even if it’s not yet on a global scale.

Imagine pounding on God’s door in the middle of the night and saying, “Open up!  My friends are here, and I need something to give them!”

And as we can trust God to do, God answers the door, and our prayer.

Stories Jesus Told: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Scripture: Luke 16:19-31

Once upon a time there lived a very rich man.  He was so rich that he only wore the finest bespoke robes colored with only the most expensive of dyes, and all the tailors clamored to be the one who made them.  He was so rich that he ate seven-course meals, not just on special occasions but every day, prepared by chefs schooled in the most modern techniques and laden with expensive spices.  There were always leftovers from all that food, but the rich man never ate leftovers.  He was so rich that one room in his house was the size of most other people’s houses, and of course he had many possessions in his house to protect, which he did with heavy, hand-wrought gates that a servant had to open.

Some looked upon this man and his great riches and said that he must be a very good man for God to have rewarded him like this.  They knew that the Scriptures said that “With [wisdom] [come] riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity” (Proverbs 8:18); that “the Lord will take delight in prospering you…when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees” (Deuteronomy 30:9-10); that “the Lord delights in the prosperity of his servant” (Psalm 35:27). They thought he must be a man who was very righteous.

Some looked upon this man and his wealth and said that he must be a very bad man to have acquired all this money and all these possessions.  They knew that there were warnings in Scripture for those who exploited the poor for their own gain, who “bought the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:6).  They knew that the Scriptures said not to trust too much in wealth (Psalm 49), and here was a man who clearly trusted in his wealth.  They thought he must be a man who was very wicked.

But the truth was the rich man was neither very righteous or very wicked.  All things considered, he was what we might call a fairly decent guy.  He loved his family, and was hospitable to his friends.  He was generally honest.  He employed a lot of people to make all those robes and cook all those meals, and he didn’t treat them badly.  He was a patron of the arts and humanities.  That sort of thing.

Nearby, there lived a very poor man.  When I say nearby, I mean in the dusty street just outside those heavy, hand-wrought gates.  The poor man’s name was Lazarus, which means “God helps,” but no one ever helped Lazarus.  Lazarus was so poor you could see his ribs because he didn’t have anything to eat.  He was so poor he didn’t have any way to dress the sores that covered his body.  He was so poor that all he could do was lie outside the rich man’s gates and hope for some scrap of leftover food that he never got.

Some people looked upon Lazarus and said he must be a very bad man to have deserved this punishment from God.  They said that God was a just God and that bad people got what was coming to them.  They could quote Scripture for this, too—Psalm 1, Psalm 37, Psalm 92.  They said that if God ordains prosperity for those who follow his commandments, he must ordain poverty for those who disobey.  They said that it is laziness and idleness that lead to poverty.

Some looked upon Lazarus and said he must be very blessed, for they knew from Scripture that God draws near to the poor, and they figured God must be very near to Lazarus.  “Blessed are the poor,” they had heard someone say, but Lazarus thought that was an odd sort of blessing.

The truth was that Lazarus, like the rich man, was neither very bad nor very good, and he certainly didn’t feel very blessed.

The rich man and Lazarus lived very nearby to each other, but they lived in very different worlds.

But death, they say, is the great equalizer, and as all people do, both the rich man and Lazarus died.  Only, they weren’t very equal even in death, for the rich man had an extravagant funeral complete with professional mourners, as the rich people did in those days, and Lazarus – well, if he was buried at all, it was certainly unceremoniously.

But after that, everything changed.

Lazarus, the poor man, was lifted on the wings of angels and brought to be with Abraham, the father of his faith.  He reclined on Abraham’s bosom, like the disciple Jesus loved would later do with Jesus at the Last Supper, at the feast that God sets for all of God’s people at the end of days.  After years of starving for scraps, poor Lazarus got a feast of his own, better than any feast the rich man had ever known.

The rich man was brought to a place of suffering where flames licked at his skin, and all he could do was hope for a drop of water to provide some relief, but the water never came.  It was worse suffering than Lazarus ever experienced on that dusty street.

If they could have known what became of the rich man and Lazarus, surely there would have been some people who nodded knowingly.  They could have seen this coming.  They knew, after all, that the Kingdom of God tends to turn things on their head.  “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” a woman of God named Mary once sang, echoing her ancestor Hannah in the Jewish Scriptures.  And that certain teacher who said “Blessed are the poor,” also followed it up with “Woe to you who are rich.”  Woe, indeed, to the rich man.  Of course, it would be a hard choice for any of us to make, if it is indeed our choice, whether we’d rather be like Lazarus in this life or the rich man in the next.

Still others would have said that it didn’t seem fair.  The rich man, after all, wasn’t so different from you or from me, even if he was much richer.  He was a decent fellow who never hurt anyone, including Lazarus.  His sin, if we can call it that, was one of those treacherous sins of omission.  He wasn’t mean to Lazarus.  He just ignored him.  He just looked past him.  Perhaps once in a while he wished that such a poor man wouldn’t lie right outside his gate – property values, you know, and there was a kind of stench when the rich man walked by, and sometimes it made things hard with the neighbors, and there was the question of security. But in what he considered an act of benign neglect, the rich man let him be.  After a while, Lazarus became almost invisible to him.

But anyway, it’s not like it was the rich man’s job to singlehandedly end poverty and suffering in Jerusalem, or anything like that.  He couldn’t have, even if he wanted to.  He was very rich, but he wasn’t that rich, and besides, it wasn’t just about a redistribution of wealth; structural changes were needed to make things better for people like Lazarus.  The rich man was just one person.

Still, Lazarus was at his gate, and he didn’t have to singlehandedly end poverty to just notice Lazarus.

Fair or not, their fates were what they were.  There was a great chasm between them – but then, there always had been, right?

From the flames the rich man looked up and saw poor Lazarus feasting with Abraham, just as the rich man imagined he himself would someday do.  “Father Abraham,” he called – for he was a child of Abraham too – “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, just to ease my suffering a little bit.”

Does it make things better or worse that he knew Lazarus’s name?  Is it a mitigating factor, proof that he didn’t ignore the poor man quite as much as his fate would imply?  Or does it make it worse that the rich man knew who he was – not just a poor man, but Lazarus – and still stepped over him every single day as he came and went from his gates?  Is it better for the rich to live a life where they don’t encounter the poor at all – or a life where they ignore the ones that they do?

Father Abraham just sadly shook his head and said “Child” – for this man was his child – “It doesn’t work like that.”

This is what you chose, he said, in not quite so many words.  You got riches in that life.  Lazarus gets them in this one.

Besides, it’s not possible to cross between these two places and besides, it didn’t exactly strengthen his case that he still spoke of Lazarus in the third person, about him rather than to him.

Still, a person wonders, if it had been possible, would Lazarus have done it?  Would you, if you were in his place?

“Father Abraham,” cried the rich man, “then send Lazarus to my five brothers, to warn them, so that they don’t end up like me.”

But Father Abraham smiled ruefully.  “Your brothers have what they need,” he said.  They have read the Torah.  They have heard the prophets proclaimed in the synagogue.  They know the words of Deuteronomy 15:  “I command you to be openhanded to toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”  They knew the words of Isaiah 58: “Is not this the fast I ask of you…to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?”

What more could the brothers need to hear to change their minds and, perhaps, not ignore those in need outside their own gates?

“No, but surely,” said the rich man, “surely if someone came back from the dead to tell them…”

But if they didn’t listen to Moses and Isaiah, why would they listen to Lazarus?  Why, in fact, would they listen to Jesus?

Some might say that if Lazarus had gone then everything might have been different.  The words we read in the Scriptures can become just words, after all, blessings and commands we stop really hearing after a while, things we justify away when they’re not convenient for us, or they don’t fit in with our worldview.   And the same words can be so ambiguous, sometimes, with one verse saying one thing and one passage saying another.  Who among us hasn’t just wished for a clear message from God to knock us over the head and tell us exactly what God’s will for our lives is, now?  Surely we, and they, would have our eyes and ears open if that really came to pass.

But some might say that those signs from God we always wish for are even more subject to doubt than the words we learned in Sunday School or read in Bible Study or hear proclaimed from the pulpit.  Some might say that it’s not that we don’t know how God wants us to respond to others in need – it’s that too often we just don’t want to do it, no matter how the message comes, no matter the ultimate consequences.

I suppose the end of the story, then, is up to us.  What is the fate of the rich man’s five brothers?

Will they see the poor neighbors who live so close to them?

Will they see the ones who live far away?

Will the words they know in their hearts be enough?

Will they be willing to give up some riches and security in this life lest the tables be turned in the next?

Will they accept the grace God offers them to live differently?

Will they?

Will we?

 

[With thanks and credit to Amy Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus for several of the questions asked in this sermon.]

Stories Jesus Told: The Two Debtors

 

Scripture: Luke 7:36-47

Sometimes when Jesus tells a story, he tells it in general, to crowds that have gathered to hear him preach.  Sometimes, though, his stories have an occasion, and are meant to make a point to a specific person in a specific context.  This is one of those stories.

The occasion is a dinner party at the house of a man named Simon the Pharisee.  That isn’t really his name, of course.  He is just Simon, and he is a Pharisee, a member of a Jewish sect that emphasized following religious law to a tee.  Jesus – especially as Luke tells it – doesn’t hold the Pharisees in very high regard.  Still, he does go over to Simon’s house for dinner.  We all know that Jesus liked to hang out with the socially questionable, but here we are reminded that he also sometimes hung out with the pillars of the community – when they would have him.  And sometimes they did have him, whether out of genuine hospitality or morbid curiosity.

But Simon the Pharisee is not a hero in this story.

On this night at Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party, the table is richly set, the pillars of the community are gathered, and Jesus has just taken his place at the table, reclining – as they did in those days – when a woman walks in, and silence falls over the crowd, and all heads turn toward her.  It isn’t that she crashed the party.  Dinner parties in Jesus’ day weren’t the private events that they usually are now.  So it’s not that a woman walks in, it’s that this woman walks in.

Because this woman is a sinner.  And everybody knows.

Don’t you want to know what she did?  Oh, but we can guess.  What kind of thing tends to get women labeled as “sinful,” anyway?  I don’t mean just in those days.

It would have been one thing if she was just there to get a look, if she had kept well enough to herself.  Then all the heads would slowly turn back away and the conversation would gradually resume, and this woman would remain on the fringes in more ways than one.  Certainly that’s what Simon is hoping. Instead, with all eyes on her, she begins to cry.  The people stare. Then, impulsively, she falls down by Jesus and lets her tears wash over his feet, and she shakes her long hair loose and – still crying – wipes the tears away.  By now mouths are slightly agape as she kisses his feet over and over.  Finally she takes an expensive bottle of perfume that she has brought, opens it, and begins to pour.

At this point Simon the Pharisee is no doubt pretty embarrassed, this scarlet woman making a spectacle of herself at HIS dinner party.  And there Jesus is, just going with the program.  Defensively, Simon mutters to himself.  If this guy who I invited to MY dinner party was really a prophet, he says – which I doubted from the beginning, then this wouldn’t be happening at MY dinner party, because he’d know what the rest of us know, that this is a dirty woman making a scene at MY dinner party. 

Did he mention it was HIS dinner party?

Jesus turns and looks right at him.  “What was that?” Jesus asks innocently, but in such a way that you know he knows.

“Oh—nothing!” Simon the Pharisee says, surprised and a little confused, because he didn’t think he had spoken out loud.

“Simon,” Jesus says, sitting up a little, never withdrawing his gaze, “let me tell you a little story.”

This is the story Jesus told.

Once upon a time there was a creditor with two debtors.  One owed him the equivalent of fifty days’ worth of wages – let’s say $3000, if you make a little above minimum wage.  The other, more unlucky, one owed him $30,000.  His debt had been amassing interest for quite some time, you see.  But neither one of them could pay.  So instead of breaking their knees, the creditor forgave both their debts – the $3000, and the $30,000, and they all lived happily ever after.

“Uh huh,” says Simon the Pharisee.

He has a couple questions, you see.  Simon has respect for the letter of the law, and people who borrow money willingly sign onto certain terms that they should be held to.  Whether it’s foreign aid we’re talking about, or a subprime mortgage, or $150,000 for a master’s degree in fine arts, or turning in your car title for a 300% interest loan because that’s your only way to make rent this month, the fact that you will have to pay they money back is no secret.  People, he thinks, should stop living beyond their means.

As for the creditor, what kind of precedent would it set to just let these two debtors off the hook?  Then wouldn’t everyone just borrow money from you knowing they wouldn’t actually have to pay it back?

Sure, there might be some good reasons to forgive debt.  Like maybe if it was a service loan, and you’ve completed your time in the nonprofit sector, fulfilling the terms of your agreement.  Or maybe a business might settle for a lower amount, with the thought that it’s better to get paid something than nothing at all.  Even then they should probably throw in some sort of financial accountability class that you have to complete, to assure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.

But show me a creditor who forgives loans just because the borrower is going to default and I’ll show you a creditor who isn’t going to stay in business for long.

So says Simon the Pharisee – I imagine, at least.

But that’s not where Jesus is going with this story – what the creditor should or shouldn’t do isn’t really the point.  The creditor’s decisions are not ours to question.  Right or wrong, the debts are forgiven.

So which one, asks Jesus, do you think was more grateful?  Which one loved that creditor more?

“Well,” says Simon the Pharisee, “I guess the one who owed $30,000.”

“Exactly,” says Jesus, and Simon furrows his brow, not quite sure what his point is.

Unlike with some parables, here Jesus will spell it out for him.

“You see this woman here?” he asks.  Well, of course Simon does.  Everyone saw that woman.

It turns out that even though she was a party crasher, she was a better host than Simon the Pharisee, because even though he invited Jesus over, he didn’t kiss him or offer him water to wash his feet or anoint his head with oil.  These were standard gestures of hospitality, like offering to take someone’s coat, perhaps, or asking what they would like to drink.  Jesus is Simon’s guest, but again, it might not be an invitation issued out of genuine hospitality.

But this sinner of a woman refuses to keep Jesus at arm’s length.  He wants a kiss?  She has thousands.  Dirty feet?  She has tears enough for washing.  Anointing oil?  Only the most expensive, poured with abandon from an alabaster jar.

It turns out it’s not really about money at all.

Simon the Pharisee is an upstanding citizen, and he doesn’t owe anything to Jesus or to anyone.

But this woman knows that out of all the people at that party, one can tell her her sins are forgiven, and that they don’t have to define her anymore.  And she owes him her life.

Do you see yourself in the story now, Simon?  You look at this woman and you see a debt to God and society that can’t be paid back, but what Jesus sees is divine possibility.

Have you ever experienced grace like that?

In October of 2012, I got in a car accident.  It was my fault.  I was pulling into a parking space at the Williamsburg Target on a Friday morning, and somehow, I hit the accelerator instead of the brake, and ended up sailing over the curb and the grassy strip in front of me, hitting a moving car on the other side, and then swerving into a tree.  I still don’t entirely know what happened, but as I told my parents, if it had happened to one of them I would have said it was maybe time to take their keys away.  (For those of you who have ever been in a car with me, I assure you it had never happened before, nor has it happened since, and the dent in my car door is only from the concrete pole next to my parking space at my old apartment building.)  Luckily no one was hurt.  I still get a little nauseous thinking about how much worse it could have been.

I got out of my car and the woman in the other car got out of hers.

“I’m SO sorry,” I said, preparing myself for her reaction.  Would she yell?  Cry?  Stand there in shock?

Instead, she stood with me and pleasantly made small talk while we waited for the police.  “What do you do?” she said, and I told her, and instead of making a snide remark about the example I was setting for my congregation, she said, “Oh, my parents go to that church!”

Actually, it turned out later that her insurance guy was our Chair of Trustees.  That’s not really what you want, but, in any case, it was all my fault and I was so upset, and this woman who I could have really hurt was so nice to me.  I actually wrote her a thank you note later.  It seemed like so much more grace than I deserved.

In June of 2013, just before I moved to Arlington, I got in a car accident.  That year was a bad year for car accidents, but this one was not my fault.  I was innocently driving home from church one day when a woman made a left turn right into me, sending my car across another lane of traffic and leaving my bumper in its wake.  My car was totaled.  Again, though, luckily, no one was hurt.

The woman got out of her car, visibly upset.  “I’ve never been in an accident before,” she said.

But I had.  And because I had, I knew what I was supposed to do.  “It’s happened to me,” I told her, and I stood and made small talk with her while we waited for the police.

I like to think that even if that first car accident hadn’t happened, I still would have been nice to the woman who caused the second.  I’m not a monster, after all.  But the truth is I might not have been that nice.  I don’t think I would have yelled or tried to make her feel worse than she did.  But I doubt I would have cared about making her feel better.  Except – I owed it to someone to.

I couldn’t pay her back, so I had to pay it forward instead.

That’s not always how it works, of course.  Jesus tells another story, this one in Matthew 18, about a man who owed money to a king.  This man, also, was going to default, and this king, also, forgave his debt.  But there was second man who owed money to the first, and after getting let off the hook, the first man went and demanded that the second man pay up.  When he couldn’t, he had him thrown into prison.  The king, you can imagine, was not happy.

Simon, the question isn’t whether God forgives.  The question is, do you know that you are one of the debtors?  And if so, what will you do with that?

Because with God, there is no $3000 and $30,000.  There is only human brokenness and divine wholeness.  There is only sin and salvation, and I don’t think God is up there counting pennies.  And if only you knew what a debtor you were, maybe everything would be different.

One night a woman crashed a dinner party, and all eyes turned toward her, and what they saw was a sinner.  All, that is, except one. Jesus looked at her and saw all the divine possibility of a forgiven life lived in love and gratitude.  A life of generosity, and hospitality, and forgiving the debts of who wronged her – maybe even a certain Pharisee.

All the perfume in the world couldn’t repay her debt.  So, instead, she’d live life paying it forward.

 

 

 

 

Stories Jesus Told: The Lost Son

Scripture: Luke 15:11-32

Once upon a time there was a man with two sons.  The older son was your typical older child.  He was the responsible one, the rule follower, the hard worker.  He got good grades and obeyed his father and saved his money and he always went to church.  It wasn’t always fun, but it was what he was supposed to do, so he did it.  He knew that eventually, life would reward him for this.  He was, after all, the first born and thus the primary heir to his father’s estate, which someone had to oversee and maintain and invest.

How many of you are older siblings?  Do you recognize yourselves at all in this man’s older son?  I do.  In fact, I have a lot of sympathy for many of the Bible’s older siblings.  First there is Cain.  Granted he doesn’t turn out to be a great guy, but to fair, God accepted his younger brother’s offering over his for no apparent reason.  Then there is Ishmael, cast out into the desert simply because God’s promise and covenant are reserved for the miracle child born late in his parents’ life.  And there is Esau, tricked out of his inheritance and his father’s blessing by not just his brother but by his mom.  And there are all of King David’s brothers, passed over for the role of king simply because they looked the part just a little too much.

I get it: God loves an underdog, and I think that is great – in theory.  But when we hear that this man had two sons, we older siblings know to brace ourselves for what is next.

The younger son was your typical younger son.  He was the baby of the family, spoiled and indulged.  He was the one who could get away with anything due to his charm, so he got into trouble and relied on other people to clean up his mess.  He thought that life was for living and, after all, you can’t take it with you.  He thought his older brother needed to lighten up a little.

How many of you are youngest children?  Does this sound familiar?  Of course, stereotypes aren’t necessarily fair or even necessarily true.  Even though I come across as a pretty textbook oldest child, my younger brother never got into trouble, and now he has an MBA and is very intentional about spending his money.  Even if there’s sometimes a little bit of truth to the whole responsible/spoiled stereotype, this is clearly an extreme case.  But in this story, the shoe does fit.

Younger siblings, the Bible loves you.  So when we hear that this man had two sons, we expect things to go well for you.

But of course, it doesn’t, at first.

It seems the younger son was getting claustrophobic.  Surely life had more to offer than was to be found right there on his father’s estate, where he had grown up.  Surely it was time for him to spread his wings, to see the world, to go and find himself.

It’s perfectly possible that his brother felt this way, too, but of course, he would never say so.  He had a duty to his father, and an inheritance to protect.

But the younger son wasn’t so concerned about that.  And his father was apparently a fairly wealthy man, so there was no reason why he shouldn’t go live a little.  So, somewhat boldly, he asked his father for his share of the inheritance early.  And his father obligingly sold off his stocks and gave it to him.

But wait a minute.  Why does the father say yes? It would be one thing if his son really needed it – if it was, for example, to go back to school, or put a down payment on a house, or pay off some medical bills. But that’s not what it was for, and presumably his father had some idea that that was the case. What kind of father just liquefies his assets and hands them over when he knows his son is going to waste them on something stupid?

Though we know this story as that of the prodigal son – prodigal meaning excessive and wasteful – is it possible, as some have suggested, that this is actually the story of a prodigal father?

Can you imagine the older brother’s brain exploding when he realizes this is how the conversation has gone down?  Oh well, he must think, this will all implode soon enough, and then I’ll tell them all I told you so.  Then, dutifully, if a little bitterly, he went back to work at his white collar desk job, knowing that if nothing else, the moral high ground was his.

So the younger son took his money and invested it all in a low-risk, diversified portfolio.  Just kidding! That’s what his brother would have done.  The younger son bought a ticket to some exotic place like let’s say Vegas, or maybe some resort town in Mexico, and proceeded to drink and gamble the rest of it away.  Maybe, Mike-Tyson-style, he bought some tigers.  Even then, it couldn’t have been a surprise how it all turned out.  The money ran out, the tigers got sold off, and all of a sudden there he is, in an unfamiliar place without any real social connections or any sort of resume, or a work visa, and no place to turn.

One thing’s for sure, he was definitely not going to go home and see the disappointment on his father’s face.  And he for sure wasn’t going to hear his brother tell him I told you so.

He managed to find an under-the-table job.  It didn’t even pay minimum wage and the work conditions were terrible, but of course there was no one to report them to.  Most days he fed himself with food he found in the trash outside restaurants.  It was basically the worst way this story could have gone. And yet – once you’ve made that many bad decisions, sometimes it’s harder than those on the outside might think to start making good ones again.

Until you hit rock bottom, and then sometimes, you have to.

One day this son woke up and thought, “The people who work for my father have it better than this,” and all of a sudden, even showing his face at home again didn’t seem quite as bad as the hell he was living.  So he quit his terrible job and hitched a ride toward home, rehearsing his speech all the way:  I’m sorry I asked for my inheritance early.  I’m sorry I wasted all your money.  Let me make it up to you.  Let me work for you.

But wait a minute.  How sorry was he, really?  If life had continued to go his way, do you think he ever would have stopped and thought, hey, my dad’s getting older, maybe I should be helping take care of him?  Or even, wow, I’ve really been given a lot in life – and from those to whom much is given, much is expected, so time to turn it around?  Was this real repentance?  Or was his change of heart perhaps just a different kind of selfish?  Did it matter?

Apparently not.  He barely got a chance to say his speech out loud.  As soon as his father saw him walking up the street from the nearest bus stop, dirty and disheveled and defeated looking, he ran out the door and wrapped him in a big, tearful hug.  He didn’t need an apology.  He didn’t care about what kind of repentance this was.  His beloved son was home.  This calls for a celebration!  the father said, then he told him to go take a shower and put some clean clothes on, some nice ones that the father had bought for him, just in case.  He cranked up some music and popped open the most expensive bottle of champagne he had been saving in the wine cellar, and he invited all their friends and neighbors over for dinner.

But wait a minute.  Here we are back to the prodigal father.  Isn’t it pretty irresponsible to take his son back just like that?  Shouldn’t there at least be some setting of conditions to make sure it doesn’t happen again – just for the son’s own good, I mean?  Don’t we want to make sure that he understands what he has done?  Again – what kind of parent would do that?

And as for the son – did his father’s joyful welcome spur him to shape up and get it together, after he returned home?  Again – did it matter?

Meanwhile, working from his office upstairs, the older brother heard the music and the sounds of friends gathering.  This, in fact, I think, is my favorite part of the story: not only did the older brother not get a party thrown for him, it seems he wasn’t even invited to this one.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a fellow oldest sibling, but, one can see his point.

He’s done everything right, with the expectation that life – and surely his father, especially – would reward him for it.  It’s not that he’s asking for special treatment.  He’s just asking for the same treatment.  After all, that’s only fair, right?

But does it matter?

His father, though, won’t be deterred by his complaining.  Your brother was dead, he said, but is alive again!  He was lost, but now is found!

His father must know more than we’d think about what went down in the far country.  But since the father or landowner often represents God in the stories Jesus tells, that is maybe not a surprise.

So we have the story of the Prodigal Son, an irresponsible and wasteful son welcomed home by a wastefully generous and loving father.  But wait a minute.  As Luke tells it, this parable is actually the third in a set of three.  The first is the story of a shepherd tending a hundred sheep who lost one and left the other ninety-nine to go find it.  The second is of a woman who lost a silver coin and scoured and cleaned and searched her whole house until she found it.  In both stories, there is much rejoicing.  Lost sheep, lost coin – maybe this third story is better called the Lost Son, and if so – are we really sure which son is lost?

Is it the one who takes his inheritance and throws it away on things that would make respectable people raise their eyebrows and ends up hitting rock bottom in a very recognizable way?

Or is it the one who did what everyone expected of him, but didn’t find any joy in it?  The one who would rather say “I told you so” than “Welcome home?”

Is it the one who needed forgiveness, or the one who begrudged it?

The line in this story that most speaks to me is the one I skipped over as I told it before: where, after the older son complains that he never got a party, his father responds, “My son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.”

All that I have is yours.

Isn’t that enough?

The older son isn’t the one who lacked his father’s blessing – he just never missed out on it in the first place.

Maybe he felt like he missed out on something.  He didn’t get to have that carefree youth.  He didn’t have any good stories to tell.  He didn’t get to shirk his duty and just worry about himself for a while.

I had a good friend in seminary who had a bit of a past and he would tell us stories sometimes, including one of a night that began in Atlanta and ended up unintentionally in Tijuana, Mexico.  I told him one time, “I wish I had a story like that.”

He just said, “No, you don’t.”

He didn’t win anything by having a past like that, and I didn’t lose anything by not.

The point is not, of course, simply that virtue is its own reward, which sounds exactly like the kind of story that the religious leaders Jesus always looked askance at would tell.  The point is, or at least may be – since parables are better left as stories for us to chew on than reduced to a simple moral- that a life lived in an economy of grace is its own reward – whether we are the father, welcoming someone back into our lives without calling them to account for how they have wronged us, or the younger son, so clearly in need of a second chance – or the older son, grateful for the blessings that have always been his and happy his brother can share in them once again.

“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, “than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

But wait a minute.  Who is righteous?  Who is in need of repentance?  Is it the one everyone recognizes as sinful, or the one no one does?

Or does it matter?

Younger son, older son; wise or not wise, fair or not fair – the story is the same; our father’s house of grace and blessing is open to all of us.

Called to Be

 

Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17

When I was baptized, when I was eight years old, I’m not sure I understood it at the time as a call to ministry.  In fact, I think a lot of us don’t.  My senior pastor at my previous church was fond of a story where he once baptized a baby, and then the whole very large family who was there for the occasion left right after, in the middle of the service, to make it to their celebratory lunch at the county club.  I’m going to wager a guess that this family wasn’t thinking too hard about the call this ceremony placed on their baby’s life, and theirs as they raised her, but the truth is a lot of us are probably there with them.  We baptize because it seems like the right thing to do, or very possibly out of a fear that this is something God requires, and perhaps don’t give much thought to what it’s supposed to mean for the rest of someone’s life.

But among other things, baptism represents a new beginning, which makes it appropriate to this time of year.  It is dying to sin and rising again to live in this world in a new kind of way, a way we call ministry, with a little m.

It was a new beginning for Jesus, too.  That day he showed up on the banks of the Jordan River, much to the surprise of John the Baptist, who had been preaching that someone was coming who was greater than him, winnowing fork in hand to separate the wheat from the chaff, and who would baptize people not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  All these other Joe Schmoes are there getting baptized by John, and all of a sudden Jesus shows up, and gets in line.

And John says, uhhhhhh….

He is perplexed by this in the way the disciples later would be when Jesus washed their feet, because it seems odd for the lesser one to baptize the greater one.  But Jesus tells him it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.”

Like all of us, or perhaps for us, Jesus needs a way to mark this new beginning.  From here he will begin his preaching, telling the stories of God that invite people into the story.  From here he will begin calling people to repentance and rebirth.  From here he will begin to cast out demons and heal, from here he will begin to make waves, performing miracles on the Sabbath and associating with the socially questionable and calling the religious leaders out on their hypocrisy.  You can see why he couldn’t go from just being some guy from Nazareth to being Jesus as we know him just like that, without some sort of sign, without some sort of formal break from the past and commission for the future.

Matthew tells us that when Jesus was baptized, Jesus saw the heavens opened, kind of like how the prophet Ezekiel saw the heavens opened when God started giving him visions, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove came down, and then a voice for everyone standing around to hear: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

For me, if not for John the Baptist, this is actually the more surprising part of the story.

I took a personality test once called the Enneagram and got the result called The Achiever, which is pretty much the kind of person who tries really hard to adapt and succeed in any different context so that will people will like and think highly of them.  Like every personality type, this one can be a blessing or a curse, but what it does mean is that when I hear these words booming down from heaven, “with whom I am well pleased,” my first thought is, but this dude hasn’t even done anything yet.

I mean, I know he is Jesus.  But, pleased with what, exactly?

He hasn’t started preaching yet.  He hasn’t started a tally of the people who have repented and followed him.  He hasn’t yet healed anyone or cast out any demons or won any fights with religious leaders.  To me it seems more appropriate that God would express God’s pleasure after Jesus has earned it a little—and in fact, God does, later in the event we call the Transfiguration, just before Jesus begins his final journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  But this is several years before that, and so it seems I am forced to reckon with the fact that God’s pleasure in God’s Son is based on something more basic, more primary than what Jesus has accomplished as the Son of God.

The Common English Bible translation, I found out in my reading this week, puts it a little differently: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”  The notes at the bottom suggest a different translation still: “He is my favorite.”  I actually really like that: He is my favorite.

I realized that before, when I have read this passage, I have read this last line as prescriptive: I should also do the kinds of things that will make God well pleased with me.  Remember—that’s my personality!  Only it doesn’t really say that, and when I read the translation “I find happiness in him,” or “He is my favorite,” it begins to become clear how wrong I’ve been, because those things don’t sound earned at all.  They sound more like the way I feel now that Evelyn is here, because, you know, she can’t do that much yet, at least not much that there is to approve or disapprove of.  And yet I find pure delight in her – not because she is good at being a baby, but simply because she is mine, my beloved. I love watching her grow and learn new things, like how to hold her head up, and how to grasp part of my shirt in her hand, and how to make new noises.  I find happiness in her, in those things.

The story about Jesus’ baptism isn’t on the face of it a story about any of us, and probably we should all be careful about writing ourselves into Jesus’ place in Scripture, but then I think on some level it is a story for us, as God’s children, who begin our Christian life and ministry in baptism.  And I admit that I find it both comforting and unsettling to think that God might feel the same way about me—comforting because maybe I don’t have to try quite so hard for God’s approval as I always think I do, and unsettling because I’m not sure I know how to live in a world where that is the case.  Can I dare to believe that God finds happiness in me from the very beginning of my story?

And yet it still doesn’t seem right to leave things there, with God’s simple and unconditional pleasure in Jesus and all of us.  It is good that the story begins that way, but again, there is still a lot to the story.  “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason,” writes Isaiah, in the passage this voice from heaven echoes, which we heard in today’s call to worship.  This is, after all, the beginning of a new thing.  Baptism does place a claim on Jesus, to fulfill the reality of who he is and who God has intended him to be.  And baptism does come with a claim on all of us.

In baptism we receive our call to take our place in the Body of Christ, putting our particular gifts to work for God’s purposes.  In baptism we promise to resist evil and oppression and injustice in whatever form they might take in the world around us, and that puts us to work.  In baptism, there is work we are called to do.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the work we are called to do.  I spent years formally thinking about the particular work of ministry that God called me to, writing papers on it, answering interview questions about it – and I keep thinking and praying about it, how that call has grown and changed and where it is leading me today.  I think about the work we are called to do as a church, as this collection of baptized people who call ourselves the Body of Christ.  And I think also about the fact that God does not just call clergypeople but each one of us, to teaching or nursing or academia or diplomacy or governance or whatever our particular life purpose may be.

What does God have for us to do, separately or together, so that in the end God will say of us, “With them I am well pleased?”

I still happen to think that’s a pretty good question, but like I said, it’s missing something, too, if God’s pleasure in us is based on something more basic and primary than that.  Maybe it’s the case that we, in church at least, focus a lot on the things God calls us to do—and forget about who God calls us to be.

The Spirit that appeared to Jesus out of heaven at his baptism is the same Spirit we believe is made available to us in a new way at our baptism, the same Spirit whose fruits, as Paul describes them in Galatians, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23.)  Those things are a lot more basic than what particular role I am supposed to play in the Body of Christ, or what my particular mission and ministry is—and they are, I believe, part of our first and primary call as Christians.

I think back to the very brief time after graduating from seminary that I worked at Staples, which was a job I hated wholeheartedly.  I can barely go into a Staples anymore without feeling just a touch of PTSD. It was a time in my life when I really felt like life was going nowhere, like I wasn’t doing anything meaningful or fulfilling any sort of destiny or doing anything that corresponded to a call God had placed on my life.

But every morning during the time I worked there I woke up and I tried really hard to remind myself, “Whatever you do, do it as unto the Lord, and not as unto people” (Colossians 3:22).  It’s one of those Bible verses that is actually way better taken out of context, because if you put it back in context, you realize it comes right after the sentence “Slaves, obey your masters.”  Nevertheless, it was helpful to me at the time, because to me it was a reminder that even at Staples I could practice seeing the image of God in people, and treat them with kindness and dignity.  Even at Staples—perhaps especially at Staples—I could practice patience.  Even at Staples I could make those small, faithful everyday choices that we all have to make no matter who we are or what we do.  Even at Staples if I tried really hard, maybe I could find joy.  I’m not saying I always did, but I believe that I could have.

In fact, even now that I am doing something with my life that I do find meaningful and fulfilling, something I believe I am called to do, I still have to remind myself that I am first and foremost called to  those same things – that I am first and foremost called to a certain way of being in the world.

Because I wasn’t called into ministry when I began working in churches.  I was called to ministry when I was 8 years old, in my baptism.  That’s when I was called to let the Holy Spirit work in my life for the good of this world that God loves so much.  That’s when I was called to be the kind of person who treats all of God’s people with dignity, who isn’t too good to serve, who stands up for the poor, who is willing to take risks and sacrifice for what’s right, who forgives people freely and tries really hard to love my enemies, who stays in love with God.

I am not saying I am that person all or most of the time, but I do believe that they are my, and our, first call to ministry – to be, as we say, God’s people in the world.

These are the things I hope God will continue to find pleasure and happiness and delight in as my story progresses – no matter how it unfolds.

Today we will have the chance to remember our own baptisms.  For those of you who were baptized as infants, this may not be a literal remembrance, but we remember together, as the church, that you are part of the Body of Christ.  Maybe some of you have never been baptized, and that doesn’t make God’s love for you any less, but this a chance to experience God’s invitation to a new beginning as one of God’s people in the world.  For all of you, this is a chance to remember that God’s happiness and delight in you comes first in the story—but also that in baptism you are called to a new way of being in the world.

A new beginning, a new way of being—a journey we set out on over and over again.