Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Journey to the Cross: A Different Kind of King

The journey of Jesus to the cross is nearing its end. It has been a long journey, from Galilee in the north, detouring through Samaria, to Jerusalem. Nine chapters of Luke’s narrative that culminate in chapter 19, with the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into this city that is the heart and soul of the Jewish people. His entry is timed with the festival of the Passover, a time when believers from across Judea would travel to the city, to the temple, to offer sacrifices and remember this important historical action by God to free God’s people from bondage.

It’s no wonder, then, that the large crowd of disciples that Jesus had gathered along the way were so excited. Because they knew the ancient promise of the Messiah. The ancestor of King David. Son of David, long promised by God, who would free them from this new bondage through Roman occupation. Who promised to restore Israel once again.

The symbolism of Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem, riding a donkey over a path strewn with cloaks and branches, was not lost on those who were witnesses to this event. This was exactly how Israel’s kings would enter the city. It was exactly how the prophet Zechariah had foretold the entry of God’s future ruler. “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The people were certain this Jesus, this Nazarene, was he. The Christ. The Messiah. 
But, here’s the problem. We heard a hint of this problem near the end of the processional gospel we listened to earlier, when the Pharisees want the people once again to “Shush!” The problem is that the people do not understand the nature of this promised king, thinking that he will be a conqueror. One who will come with authority. One who will dominate. One who will overthrow Rome. Because that is what kings do, right? That is what great leaders do, right? That is what this Messiah will do, right?

There is a political implication to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It’s why the Pharisees want Jesus to tell the crowd to be quiet. They understand that this is a politically charged situation. That Jesus’ disciples and, eventually, Jesus himself must be silenced. Because to do otherwise would mean rebellion. The Pharisees are trying to walk a fine political line between open rebellion and complete capitulation before Roman authorities. The response Jesus gives them is paradoxical. He does not want to claim the kingdom his disciples understand or desire. Yet, he accepts their acclamation, justified as it is, yet recognizing that in the coming week he will define for them his kingdom by his example.

Which brings us to the last portion of today’s text in chapter 19. A scene that is found only in the gospel of Luke. Beginning at verse 41.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

If you, even you, Jerusalem, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace. 

Jesus knows that, in spite of the welcome he has received, things will not go well for him in Jerusalem. Because, Jerusalem and its people. Because Jerusalem, its people, and all of the believers do not understand who Jesus is. What the peace is that he is ushering in. And what this peace will bring. 

Because, they desire a different kind of peace. One that does not last for eternity. It is a peace that comes out of rebellion and war. Domination and victory. It is no different than our present attempts at peace. We trust the peace of weapons and armaments - that comes from violence. We trust the peace of vigilance and self-protection, the peace of isolation from those we fear. We find it difficult to practice the peace of trusting one another. The peace of generosity and abundance. The peace of love. Jesus, who wept over Jerusalem that day still weeps over us. Our cities. Our nations.

But, the reign of this king, this Messiah-king, is a reign of freedom from our ways of violence and all else that keeps us in captivity. It is a universal reign of freedom. Release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. Good news to the poor. Wholeness and abundance for all people.

This king’s crown is a crown of thorns. His throne, a splintered wooden cross. His exaltation, not coming in a horse-drawn chariot amidst the cheer of the crowd, but in being raised upon a cross amidst the jeers and ridicule of the masses. Through his death and resurrection, this king, who refuses to be an earthly king, makes his royal entry by way of a cross and an empty tomb. For this kind of king, even if all people - and we - were silent, the very stones themselves would cry out.

Thanks be to God for this kind of king. Amen.

Preached March 28, 2021, online with Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Palm-Passion Sunday
Readings: Luke 19:29-44; Psalm 118:19-23

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Journey to the Cross: Insiders and Outsiders

In today’s story, Jesus and his group of disciples are nearing Jericho, which is only 15 miles from Jerusalem. We are nearing the end of Jesus’ ministry and of his journey to the cross. Before we hear our reading today, a reading that is in three parts, I’d like us to look back at the journey we’ve taken alongside Luke’s Jesus. 

If you remember way back to January, we heard Jesus outline this ministry, quoting from Isaiah 61: “...the Lord has anointed me...to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” What Jesus has been offering along the way is salvation that is open to everyone. But not salvation that is not a “cookie-cutter” approach, but healing is unique as we and our needs are. 

With all of this in mind, we now read the first of three parts of today’s lesson - stories that are all about seeing. Or not seeing.

We read, beginning Luke, chapter 18.

Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

It’s the third time. The third time that Jesus has predicted his upcoming passion to the disciples. And yet, as before, they don’t get it. Whether it is that they refuse to see these events coming, or whether it is so far outside the realm of the possible for them to grasp, our text tells us that these things that Jesus is predicting are “hidden” from them. Those who are closest to Jesus - the insiders - do not see.  Are we like the disciples? The baptized, the church, the insiders? Unable to see how Jesus might be leading us to new things? To the death and resurrection in this moment? 

Our reading continues.

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

What’s interesting about this blind man is how well he sees! When he hears the crowd and asks what’s going on, they tell him that it is Jesus of Nazareth. He is the one who responds, for the first time in Luke, naming Jesus as the Son of David. A direct reference to the Messiah. It’s no wonder, then, that the crowd shushes him. Because to proclaim Jesus as Messiah is to risk upsetting the occupying powers, who would be threatened by this political threat. Be quiet - they tell the blind man - this outsider, who sees more fully than anyone else. 

Yet, he persists. He is not quiet. He is not orderly. After all, in their view, he is already an outcast. So, he begs for mercy more loudly, demanding Jesus’ attention. Notice that Jesus doesn’t immediately heal him, but asks him what he needs. Notice also that the blind man boldly responds. Naming his own need. And trusting, with a deep faith, that Jesus will provide. 

Do we see Jesus as the blind man did? As Messiah - as savior of the world? Who can save, or, more correctly, heal us? Or heal the church? Or heal the world? Do we have the faith of the blind man? Do we have his hope? His sight?  

Jesus sees his faith. Restores his sight. And welcomes him back into community. He will no longer be an outcast. This is the salvation Jesus provides. Not simply healing, but wholeness and belonging.

And, then, we come to the story of Zacchaeus. In chapter 19.

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

If we thought the blind man was an outcast, Zacchaeus takes the cake. Literally. He is a rich man. We’ve heard before what Luke thinks of wealth and how much harder it is for those with wealth to enter God’s kingdom. In large part, because wealth is a powerful master.

Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He’s the boss of the tax collectors - the one who has contracted with Rome to collect the tolls that must be paid to use the famous Roman thoroughfares.  The tax collectors are his subcontractors. He’s their boss. If tax collectors are despised in Judea, consider how much more Zacchaeus is hated. On top of this, Zacchaeus, who is Jewish, is viewed as a Roman collaborator, ostracizing him even more. And the cherry on top? Zacchaeus is short. 

Now, this isn’t an indictment of anyone here who is short. Today, being short isn’t viewed in the same way as in ancient times. Think tall, statuesque, chiseled-featured Roman soldier, and you get it. Zacchaeus didn’t fit that mold. Zacchaeus was an outsider in every way.  

But, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Boss tax collector, collaborator with the enemy, rich, short Zacchaeus just wanted to see Jesus. But, the crowd was in his way. So, he climbed a tree. Now this was not a proper move on his part. After all, someone of his wealth and status should simply show more dignity. But, Zacchaeus was more interested in seeing Jesus than in preserving his reputation. Jesus saw that in him. Approached the tree and told him to come down. And then, promptly, invited himself to dinner.

But there’s something else here. A correction that we must make about Zacchaeus. I don’t know about you, but I grew up hearing this story told as a story of repentance. That, after meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus promises to change his ways. But, there’s a problem with that interpretation. Because the verb used in verse 8 is not a future tense verb, where Zacchaeus promises that he will give to the poor or that, if he has cheated someone, he will pay back four times as much. In fact, the verbs in this verse are in the present tense. Which suggests that Zacchaeus is already doing this. And exceeding what the law requires of him: giving half of his money to the poor instead of the required 10%, repaying those who have been cheated twice as much as the law requires. Zacchaeus isn’t in need of forgiveness. Zacchaeus is a model of how the wealthy can use their wealth to serve the kingdom of God. 

So, Zacchaeus doesn’t need forgiveness here. What he needs is to belong. To be part of a community that welcomes him. That no longer views him, wrongly, as a sinner. It’s why Jesus invites himself to dinner. To send a message to the insiders that this outsider is welcome in the kingdom of God.
For those of us on the inside, the most profound witness to Jesus can often be heard and seen through an outsider lens. Sometimes, we, like the Pharisees, get so caught up in our rules and our regulations and our way of doing things that we become blind to what God is really doing - what God is doing in our own lives, but especially what God is doing in the world around us. Yet, what God is doing is succinctly summarized in the closing verse of our lesson, in verse 10. “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” 

The truth is that we’re all lost. We’re all in need of being found. Of being seen. Of being healed. Of being restored to the community. We’re all in need of being saved, whatever that may look like. Salvation, full participation in the reign of God, is what Jesus offers. 

This is God’s truth in Luke. That, in Jesus, salvation is offered to everyone. No matter who you are. No matter where you came from. No matter what. Salvation is offered to all, insider and outsider alike. Because this is who God is. And what our God desires. For you. And for me.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Preached March 21, 2021, online at Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Readings: Psalm 84:1-4, 10-12; Luke 18:31-19:10

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Journey to the Cross: Seeing and Being Seen

Have you ever pulled off the freeway onto an off-ramp and seen someone standing there asking for money? Or pulled up to a stoplight and, as you wait, you're approached by someone begging for loose change with a sign that says “Please help me!”? What do you do? How do you respond when you see someone suffering? Do you roll down your window and give them some money? Or do you, perhaps, as I often do, roll your window up a little and turn your eyes away. Because, you know what will happen if you make eye contact, right? They’re sure to think that maybe, if they ask you a little more, you’ll see them. You’ll see how they’re suffering. And, maybe, you might be moved to help.

This is our story today. It’s not a story that’s often read as part of the lectionary. Because it’s a hard story. But, it seems like we’ve been hearing a lot of hard stories this year. Hard stories in the midst of what has been a long, hard year.

Our reading is from the 16th chapter of Luke. 

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” --Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

To begin with this morning, I’d like to place this parable in its context in Luke. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the power of wealth and power. Ending his teaching with this infamous, often misquoted, verse: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Immediately after, the Pharisees, who have been listening in and about whom Luke writes explicitly that they were “lovers of money,” - the Pharisees begin to ridicule Jesus. In response, Jesus tells this story about the rich man and Lazarus.

What’s immediately striking about this parable is who is named and who is not named in the story. Usually, in scripture, those who are without power are unnamed. But, it’s different here. The rich man. The wealthy man. The man who dresses in purple and, literally, the softest underwear. The man who feasts daily. Who kills the fatted calf like the father in last week’s story, not just for a special celebration, but every single day. Every day this man feasts sumptuously. In our world today, he might be a one percenter. A Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk of our day. Yet, this one - this ultra rich man in our story - is unnamed. 

By contrast, it is the poor man who is named. Lazarus. Lazarus, meaning “my God helps.” He is the one who is named. Lazarus, a beggar. Who is covered in sores from a skin condition. Who is licked by dogs.  Not dogs like ours, who lick us out of affection. But wild dogs. Filthy, garbage-eating mongrels who roam the streets. These are the dogs licking the sores of Lazarus, who is the one named in today’s parable.

Each day, Lazarus lies outside the gate of the wealthy, unnamed man. Begging for food. Asking just for scraps from the man’s sumptuous table. And he receives nothing.

Then, the story changes. Both men die. And, in another of Luke’s great reversals, Lazarus is carried away to the bosom of Abraham - a place in Jewish legend of great bliss. The rich man is buried and finds himself in Hades - the nature of which continues to be debated today. Wherever it is, the rich man is in a place of “torment,” our text tells us. 

Now, if we were to give the rich man the benefit of the doubt, maybe, while he was alive, he was so far removed from the grittiness of life - maybe, just maybe, he never saw Lazarus lying outside his gate. There’s no mention of this in the first part of the story. So, maybe he really isn’t such a bad guy after all. Just a little gluttonous. But, not as bad as we might first think. 

Soon, though, that theory is blown apart. Because, we read in verse 24, that the rich man looks up, sees Abraham and Lazarus, and asks - no, orders, Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue. He knew who Lazarus was. Had likely seen him, his skin condition, the dogs licking his wounds. Had likely heard him begging just for scraps. And he has done nothing. Then, on top of this, fails to understand that he no longer has power or control. Even as he orders that Lazarus be sent to help him.  

Are we like this rich man? Have we heard the cries of those struggling in this past year? Have we seen them? Have we looked them in their eyes and said, “I see you. I see your pain. I hear your cries.” Or do we, like the wealthy man, like me, turn away. Pretend not to notice. Never look them in the eyes, because if we did. If we truly did, we could no longer ignore them. Or walk away. Or do nothing.

It may be overwhelming for us. When we think of all the people in need or the injustice that plagues entire systems in our society, it may be overwhelming. That there’s nothing you or I can do to change things. That we’re just one or just a few people. What difference can we really make?

But, the rich man was only one person. And Lazarus was also one person only asking for a little. How might the story have ended if, just one time, the rich man had seen - really seen - Lazarus. Seen his suffering. Seen his need. And made one small gesture. A few scraps from his table. 

Jesus was one person, too. Who continues to transform our world.  Jesus. Who sees us. Who calls us to his side. Who welcomes and comforts us. And who sends us to welcome and comfort - to see and to hear the unnoticed in our world. 

Will this past year change us? Will this experience change us? Will it change how we respond? Will we see and hear and act in new ways when we move beyond this pandemic? 

I hope so. 

I hope that, in these next months, our prayer may be that the Holy Spirit push us to new places. To new people. To new life. In and through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Preached March 14, 2021, online with Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Readings: Luke 16:19-31, Psalm 41:1-3

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Journey to the Cross: Lost and Found

Today, in our Gospel lesson we will hear three parables that are set next to each other in the fifteenth chapter of Luke, all three talking about being lost. Just prior to this chapter, Jesus has just finished preaching about the “cost of discipleship.” Telling people that they must be willing to reject their previous social norms and status. So now, as today’s lesson begins, Jesus - not so surprisingly - is caught hanging out with all the wrong people.

The Holy Gospel, today, is from the 15th chapter, according to Luke. 

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”

Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’” --Luke 15:1-32 (CEB)

From the outset here, it’s important to understand that the term “sinners” does not refer to the moral capacity of Jesus’ acquaintances. Rather, it is a label given to someone who lived some kind of habitual lifestyle. What this lifestyle is, is not clear. But what is clear, is that the Pharisees and legal experts knew what this lifestyle was and who these people were. In our language today, we would likely call the people Jesus was hanging out with as marginal. Meaning coming from the margins of society. The kind that our parents warned you about. You know. The acquaintances who could get you into trouble. 

When his critics start to grumble about this, Jesus tells them three parables. What’s interesting about these parables is that they all refer to being lost. And being found.

The first one is about a lost sheep. My dad was a sheep rancher. He did not have a high opinion of the intellectual capacity of these animals. In fact, he just thought they were dumb. It was not unusual for a lamb or a ewe or a ram to get caught up in a barbed wire fence, because, you know, the grass looked just a bit better on the other side. In the parable Jesus shares, one of a hundred has gone missing. The shepherd, who is concerned for the sheep, but maybe even more aware of the value of that missing animal and the financial loss he will suffer, leaves the ninety-nine behind to go search for that one, lost sheep. Not so smart. Just lost. And when the shepherd finds it, he celebrates. Because this animal is of value to him. 

The second parable is about a lost coin. I wonder if the woman is a little like me. Stashing a little cash in places and then completely forgetting where she puts it. Whatever is happened, her coin, which also is of great value to her, is missing. So, she, like the shepherd, begins to search for it. Using a light to illuminate the dark places of her home, moving out the furniture so she can search behind it, so that she might find this one lost coin. And she does. And when she does, she, again like the shepherd, has a party to celebrate. Because this coin has value.

Then, we come to the story that we often call the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It’s better named the “Parable of the Forgiving Father.” We know this story backwards and forwards, don’t we? The younger son, squandering a fortune he shouldn’t have even asked for. Who finds himself in a pigsty. Stinky and smelly. Likely covered in mud and slop. And realizes what a fool he has been. Whether he recognizes his mistake or recognizes his loss, he returns home. Asking for forgiveness. And he receives it in the most extravagant way. Because he, like the sheep, like the coin, is of the deepest value.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling a little lost lately. We could all probably name the same things - the same lost-ness we’re feeling right now. The same things we’ve been feeling for a year now. A year. A year that, in some ways, kind of feels lost, too. And maybe our sense of lostness is accidental, like the coin. Or maybe our sense of lostness is because of a lack of intellectual capacity. Or maybe, just maybe, this feeling of being lost is because we have realized that, as much as we think we can do this life alone, we can’t. We just can’t.

But, for us. For you and I, this isn’t the end of the story. Because, like the shepherd and the woman, we have a God who relentlessly seeks us. And even if we’re like the prodigal son, finally realizing our own foolishness, we have a God who welcomes us back. Fully. With open arms and a huge celebration to boot. The same God who places such value on you and I and the Pharisees and legal experts and the ragtag bunch of sinners in Jesus’ circle - this same God values all of us so much that God sent God’s one and only Son. To restore us back into relationship with this relentlessly searching, warmly welcoming God. So that we - you and I and all people - might be lost no more.

Let the party begin. Amen.

Preached March 7, 2021, online with Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Third Sunday of Lent
Readings: Luke 15:1-32; Psalm 119:176

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Journey to the Cross: True Repentance

Let me begin today by saying, up front, that these are hard texts. They are often avoided by us because, in part, they raise the difficult question of why human tragedies occur and why people suffer. And, in this particular moment, as we are living through a very difficult and dark time, reflecting on why there is suffering may hit very close to home. We have just passed a horrendous milestone in this pandemic. Half a million people dead in our nation. Two and a half million fathers, mothers, sons, daughters lost across the world. Why? We might ask. Why did they have to die? What evil did they do to cause this? What evil did I do to cause this? Why did they die and not me? 

When we experience human tragedy like this past year and at other times, asking these questions is natural and human. And quite impossible to answer. This is why we tend to stay away from this part of Luke. Because it raises hard questions. And, because, it gives us no ready-made answers. 

But, today, as we journey, we will attempt to understand what Jesus is teaching his disciples. And us. We read in Luke, chapter 13. Today, I am reading from the Common English Bible.

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” --Luke 13:1-5 (CEB)

As the story begins, Jesus continues on his way to Jerusalem. He’s been teaching the many disciples who are following him about what it means to be faithful people. In the midst of this, someone comes and tells Jesus of a gruesome crime that Pilate has perpetrated. 

We know the name. Pontius Pilate, although often referred to as the Roman governor of Judea, is more correctly the commander of the Roman auxiliary troops based in Judea to maintain control over the Jewish people. There is little known about Pilate other than that he has a reputation of greed, cruelty, and inflexibility.  He treated Jewish customs and religious beliefs with contempt and would deliberately provoke the Jewish people by placing Roman military flags in the temple and by confiscating the temple treasury, things that his predecessors had avoided. 

So, what’s the crime that Pilate has committed as it’s reported to Jesus? Pilate has killed worshipers in the temple who have traveled all the way from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south, to offer their sacrifices before God. To make matters worse, the blood of these faithful has run together with the blood of the sacrifices they have offered. So, it was not only murder, but also a sacrilege. It might bring to mind for us the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in the Middle Ages, while he was in Canterbury Cathedral. Or, in more recent times, of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he conducted communion in a church in El Salvador. 

Now, let’s be honest here. We know, as we read through Luke, that there is little love lost between the people of Judea and the Galileans. Many Jews viewed those in Galilee as second-rate Jews, somewhere between true Jews and heathen Gentiles. So, those making the report are, actually, raising several questions in one. First, the age-old question of the reason for such meaningless suffering. But, there’s also a suggestion here that what has happened to the Galileans has, in some respect, been deserved, because they were viewed as less faithful than other Jews. It’s why Jesus asks the question, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans?” And then, it’s why he sharpens the question, bringing it closer to home by referring to another incident in Jerusalem. “Do you think that the eighteen people on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed deserved it because they were more sinful than others in Jerusalem?”

Now, we may think that we think differently than this. But I wonder if we do. How many of us, when we’ve seen people suffering from famine in another country, wonder just for a moment if this might be happening because of something they did or didn't do. Or when we see suffering in the inner city, we wonder if it's because of their sin and the life mistakes they've made. Or what about the poor. And the commonly held belief that I often hear expressed that, if they’d only made better choices. What’s the right choice when one has to choose between paying the rent or putting food on the table?

Jesus takes it one step further, then, in the text, to show us that we are posing the question in the wrong way. The surprising thing is not that so many die, but that we still live. Because, if it were a matter of sin, we would all be dead. Twice, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And, then he tells a parable, which is where we continue in our reading.

Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’” --Luke 13:6-9 (CEB)

What’s the meaning of this parable for Jesus’ listeners? It means that those who survive - the Galileans not killed by Pilate, or those Jews on whom the tower did not fall, or those of us who have not died from famine, or those who are not poor - are living only by the grace of God. And that our continued life is for the purpose of bearing fruit.

Now this passage is often used by those who preach the “prosperity gospel.” That the good things we receive are a reward for our faith and our fruitfulness. But, in fact, the truth Jesus speaks here is exactly the opposite. Notice that the fig tree that is receiving special care is getting it because it has yet to give the fruit it was meant to bear. It’s a reminder for us who live in comfortable houses, when so many are homeless, or enjoy a substantial income when so many are poor, or all kinds of food to eat when so many are hungry, or a relatively healthy body when so many are ill - that we have all of this not because we have been particularly faithful. And could it be that the reason why some of us have been given all these advantages is that, without them, we would have difficulty bearing fruit? Could it also be that our apparent advantages and privileges are also a warning about impending doom unless we bear fruit?

Repentance - true repentance - is less about shame and guilt and more about begging the Holy Spirit to turn us around. To help us reorient how we think. And how we live. Because our tendency is not much different as was the tendency of people in Jesus’ day.

Our reading continues in chapter 13. 

At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.” --Luke 13:31-35 (CEB)

Jesus knows our tendencies. It’s why, no matter the threat that Herod represents, he will continue his journey to Jerusalem, even as he laments the city’s disobedience. Because his desire is to give them another chance. Just as with the fig tree, also given a second chance. And like us, too. Given another chance purely by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. May we, nurtured by the love and care of Jesus, repent and turn around that we might bear fruit as God’s faithful people. Here. In this time and this place. Amen.

Preached February 28, 2021, online with Third Lutheran and Grace & Glory Lutheran churches, Louisville/Goshen, KY.
Second Sunday of Lent
Readings: Psalm 122, Luke 13:1-9, 31-35