parables

we dreamed, and it was joy

Sometimes I will try to go to sleep.  Please note, I said “try.”  This might be taking a nap or going to bed at night.  There are those times with an in-between level of awareness in which you’re not sure if you slept or not.  At least, I have found that to be true with myself.  Did I really make the plunge, or did I remain up in the waking world?  If I have memory of a dream, then I know I was actually asleep.

Dreams themselves can be funny things.  They can be crazy things, as I’m sure you all know.  Throughout history, people have interpreted dreams in all manner of ways.  People have derived messages and gained insights from them.  That goes for me, too.  I know I’m not alone in this, but I have had dreams which provided answers to some problems I had been mulling over.  More than once, I have had ideas for a sermon come to me in the night, sometimes entire paragraphs.

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The greatest dreams, in my opinion, are the ones impossible to put into words.  They don’t demean themselves into petty things like solving problems.  They’re too good for that.  They’re too sublime.  They’re too majestic.  They fire the imagination.  They are works of art.

Psalm 126 is one of those works of art.  It is one of my favorite psalms—and I love a lot of the psalms.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1).  That first part can also read, “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion.”  What an awesome image.  “We were like those who dream.”  It had to be a dream!  These were people who had been exiled to Babylon.  They had been forcibly removed from their homes and sent marching on that long trail of tears.  The world as they knew it had ended.  And yet…

I love the Hebrew word for “dream”: חָלַם, chalam.  It’s dreaming while asleep (last night, I dreamed I had the face of a horse).  It’s dreaming for something in life (I’ve always dreamed of going to Alaska).  It’s dreaming as a prophet (thus says the Lord).

I should add that prophets are not fortune tellers.  Nine times out of ten (maybe more than that) their prophetic dreams are about the current situation the people face, rather than predicting the future.  Having said that, we benefit from the messages they have given.  We need them!  And there are indeed foreshadowings of the Messiah.  The New Testament has one or two, here and there.

The word chalam has another definition.  It also means to be strong, to be robust.  It refers to infants and livestock if they’re fat and plump.  Poor bony creatures do not qualify as chalam.  The Revised English Bible captures this nuance of “those who dream,” by saying “we were like people renewed in health.”  Is it safe to say those who dream are healthy?  Those who do not dream are unhealthy?  They are not strong?  They are not robust?

According to the psalmist, they need not worry about that, as we see in verse 2.  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”  They can’t control themselves.  Their amazing reversal of fortunes demands response.  “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

2 ps[Here is a joyful person!]

The word for “shouts of joy” is רׅנָּה, rinnah.  It also appears in verses 5 and 6.  It can also mean “singing” and “rejoicing.”  What is their response to what the Lord has done for them?  What is their response to be like those who dream?  It’s singing; it’s joyful singing!

The Jews who have returned from exile can only ask, “How can we keep from singing?”  It’s like the hymn which poses the question, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging / Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?”[1]

The psalmist does something interesting.  It is affirmed, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  And then there’s a transition.  Acknowledging what’s been done, a request is added, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (vv. 3-4).  (That’s the desert in southern Israel.)  We’re moving from the past to looking to the future.

Lord, we ask you to make the streams flow in the desert.  This isn’t the time to let us down!  Don’t let our dreams turn to dust.  We just got our singing voices warmed up!  We were making beautiful music.

Still, maybe the psalmist understands the score.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (v. 5).

What’s the deal with introducing this language of sowing and reaping?  Maybe there is an understanding that joy must be grounded.  Joy can’t simply be “just a dream.”  It should be noted joy is not a mere emotion.  It is a deep spiritual reality, even when we don’t feel elated.  Quite clearly, there’s no guarantee that sowing the seeds will produce a good crop.  Maybe the ground will not be receptive.  Is it rocky?  Is it sandy?  Is it scorched by the sun, dry as a bone?

The image of sowing and reaping is a universal one, common to people throughout time.  Jesus tells a story which begins, “Listen!  A sower went out to sow” (Mk 4:1).  How receptive are we to receiving that seed which is the word?  Is our ground barren, rocky, filled with thorns?  Do we need to benefit from that fresh water in the desert?

Or will our efforts end in tears?

Henri Nouwen speaks of the joy that emerges from sorrow.[2]  “Joys are hidden in sorrows!  I know this from my own times of depression.  I know it from living with people with mental handicaps.”  He refers to his time after leaving his position as professor at Harvard Divinity School to live with the folks at L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, a community for adults with intellectual disabilities.

“I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor.  We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness.  We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.”

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[Some friendly folks at L'Arche Daybreak]

It really is too easy to focus on the negative.  One way I notice this is when we take prayer requests.  I think you will agree with me in saying the concerns usually outweigh the joys.  We too readily overlook the blessings and celebrations in life.  Please understand me.  In absolutely no way am I suggesting we overlook or dismiss the very real struggles and sorrows among us.  We all have burdens to bear, some much more than others.

I have a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  There is a section devoted to Evening Prayer.  There’s one in particular I frequently visit before going to sleep.  (Yes, we’re back to sleep!)

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.” (page 124)

I especially appreciate the request to “shield the joyous.”  I find depths of meaning in that.  Is it a plea for protection, lest the joyous too easily fall?  Does it refer to the prayer’s concern for the sorrows immediately preceding the joy?  Is it a shelter for the joyous prophetic dream of justice and peace?  I imagine it is those and many other levels of awareness.

The psalmist concludes, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6).  That’s the story of bringing in the sheaves.[3]  “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, / Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; / When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, / We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

How has our harvest been?  How have our crops fared?  Is our livestock chalam?   Can we carry our sheaves with joy?

The psalmist would have us be dreamers.  During this Advent, I think we are especially called to be dreamers.  Howard Wallace reminds us that, in our call to be dreamers, we would be like “those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be.  It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as the Lord comes to us in the midst of the tears of this earthly experience.”[4]

It’s not hard to see us in our own exile, of sorts.  We might be weeping for a season.  And yet…  God gives us the promise of the advent, the coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us through the desert of our journey.

We dreamed, and it was joy.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=VLPP3XmYxXg

[2] henrinouwen.org/meditation/joys-are-hidden-in-sorrows

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7yMUIezLSE

[4] hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/AdventB/Advent3BIsa61Ps126.html


invisible light

“It is universally agreed that the Emmaus story is a gem of literary art.”[1]  That’s a quote from Bogdan Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”  (He teaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.)

I think I would tend to agree with that.  Actually, the gospel of Luke itself is filled with gems of literary art.  There’s the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, in chapter 1 (vv. 46-55).  We have the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (10:29-37 and 15:11-32).  We could come up with some other gemstones.

A couple of weeks ago on Easter Sunday, I said the celebration of it this year is muted.  This is certainly an Easter like none other.  Is it possible to miss some of the majesty?  The thing about majesty is sometimes it sneaks up right behind you.  The two disciples on their way to Emmaus find that out—though they don’t realize the majesty at first.

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{"The Walk to Emmaus" by Rowan LeCompte and Irene Matz LeCompte}

About that couple, they’re usually portrayed as two men.  Not everyone sees it that way.  Apparently, they live in the same house; it seems just as likely we’re dealing with a husband and wife.  In fact, in his gospel, John says “standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas [also spelled as Cleopas], and Mary Magdalene” (19:25).

Maybe I’m mistaken.  Seriously, there’s no way someone’s wife would be written out of the story!  Perish the thought!

If it’s possible for us to miss the majesty, to not glimpse the glory, the same is true of our couple.  The scripture says, “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vv. 15-16).  There’s more on this point of not being able to recognize, not being able to see, but we’ll look at that in a moment.

The two of them are downcast, and Jesus wants to know why.  They’re surprised he hasn’t heard the bad news.  Cleopas says they’re dismayed because Jesus has been crucified.  They had such high expectations.  “But,” as verse 21 says, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  We had hoped he would set Israel free.  We had hoped.

Jesus chides them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (v. 25).  We’re told, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

That word for “interpreted” (διερμηνευω, diermēneuō) means more than to simply explain.  What Jesus does is to reframe, to re-imagine.  He takes the scriptures and pulls out deeper meanings.

An example of this is the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Someone asks Jesus how to achieve eternal life.  Jesus speaks of loving God and loving neighbor.  “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (10:29).  Thus, we have the parable.  A poor fellow is robbed and beaten and left for dead.  A priest and a Levite see him and pass right by.  When the Samaritan sees him, he goes out of his way to care for him.  Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v. 36).

Jesus reframes, he re-imagines, the word “neighbor.”  A neighbor isn’t just a certain person.  You can make anyone a neighbor.  It’s a way of treating someone.

Returning to the idea of recognition, of perception, I imagine we’ve all failed to see something right in front of us.  When I was a kid and looking for a certain item that was hidden in plain sight, my mom would often say to me, “If it was a snake, it woulda bit you!”

2 lkIt’s hard to blame this couple for not seeing what (or who) is right in front of them.  Remember, the Bible says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16).  There are all kinds of theories as to what that means.  Was there divine interference?  Were they not ready to see that level of glory, that level of (to use the word again) majesty?

Our friend Bogdan (who I mentioned at the beginning) says something like that about them.  As long as they think of Jesus as a prophet who failed to liberate Israel, “they remain unable to bear the brilliance of his glory.”[2]  They still need a transformation by the Spirit.  It’s the glory of the Lord that prevents them from seeing the glory of the Lord!  They are, in effect, blinded by the light.

Still, we can’t ignore what was going on within them.  This isn’t a walk in the park.  Their world has collapsed.  The bottom has dropped out.  Despair is threatening to overwhelm them.  Sadness has dulled their vision.

Maybe we can relate.  When we feel depressed, when it feels like the walls are closing in, our senses can become dulled.  It can be hard to see beauty.  It becomes difficult to have creative vision.  It might even be the case that smells aren’t as pleasant.  Maybe food doesn’t taste as good.

That can be true of us in this time.  Being cooped up in our houses, not being able to sit down in a restaurant, having to wear masks at the grocery store, the kids not attending school—it can be enough to drive anyone up the wall.  It can be enough to leave us dispirited.

So maybe we can relate to our friends on the road to Emmaus.

As they draw near their destination, Jesus is continuing on.  The day is nearly done, so they invite him to stay with them.  They offer him their hospitality.  “Please, come and join us for dinner.  We want you to spend the night.  You can continue your journey in the morning.”

He agrees.  And what happens at mealtime?  “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30).  That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  The only thing missing is, “This is my body, broken for you.”

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What happens next is truly amazing and baffling.  “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (v. 31).  Their eyes are opened.  They recognize him.  Then he disappears.  That’s quite a miraculous act!  It’s in the breaking of the bread when the lights come on.  They realize who is dining with them.  They understand that they’re sitting at the table with their Lord.

That might be a tad difficult to understand, but it’s nothing compared with what’s coming up.  He vanished from their sight.  Wait.  What?

There are those who say Jesus was agile and quick enough to slip out without being noticed.  It seems that a resurrection body is quite athletic.  Maybe he diverted the disciples’ attention: something like, “Hey, what’s that over there?”  He points, then takes off.

He didn’t even ask to be excused from the dinner table!

The word for “vanished” or “disappeared” is an interesting one.[3]  Its root meaning is “made invisible.”  William Loader picks up on this when he speaks of the “surreality of the invisible man.”[4]  And we go back to the title of Bucur’s article, “Blinded by Invisible Light.”

So, after Jesus’ disappearing act, the pair engage in reflection.  Here’s another place where Luke displays his use of powerful, poetic language.  “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” (v. 32).  Were not our hearts burning within us?  The Revised English Bible reads, “Were not our hearts on fire?”

What an awesome experience.

Cleopas (and possibly Mary?) decide to make an evening journey back to Jerusalem.  They go to see the other disciples, who are already overjoyed, since they also know that the Lord has risen from the dead.  “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (v. 35).

From ancient times, the breaking of bread has been a time of welcoming, an act of hospitality.  It is a sign of community.  On the flip side, the refusal to share a meal with someone is seen as an insult.  It is inhospitable; it is a rejection of community.

Earlier, I suggested Jesus’ breaking of the bread is reminiscent of what we do in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  It also is an act of welcoming, of hospitality; it is a sign of community.  This fits with our understanding of the sacrament.  Our Book of Order says this about it: “When we gather at the Lord’s Supper the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church in every time and place.  We join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth in offering thanksgiving to the triune God” (W-3.0409).

We are united.  We are joined.  It truly is a holy communion.

As it was with those early disciples, so it is today.  In the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the cup, Jesus is made known.  There is that invisible light, that invisible energy, that Spirit of love who unites us.

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Sometimes we miss the majesty, the glory.  We need the scriptures to be opened.  We need our minds to be opened.  We need our hearts to burn.  We need them to be on fire.  We need the Lord to be revealed to us—to be revealed to us again and again.

May the invisible light of Christ guide us on our resurrection journey.

 

[1] Bogdan Bucur, “Blinded by Invisible Light: Revisiting the Emmaus Story (Luke 13:13-35)” Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses, 90:4 (Dec 2014) 685.

[2] Bucur, 694.

[3] αφαντος, aphantos

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtEaster3.htm


scary monsters

Over a timespan of about fifteen years, I had a recurring dream.  I might even call it a nightmare.  It involved McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

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I haven’t had that nightmare for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my feeling being trapped.

I say that because, after graduating from college, I worked there for over two years before going to seminary.  No doubt reflecting my Pentecostal influences, I was dead set on waiting for God to speak to me, to tell me what to do.  Lord, please give me a sign!  Give me a dream; give me a vision of what I need to do!

Please note, I’m not blaming the Pentecostals for my wrong-headed understanding.  That’s on me!

And of course, all the while, the Lord had implanted within me the calling that I needed to follow.  But I was resistant!

Maybe I would have been satisfied with what we see in the reading in Daniel.  We’re told that Daniel has a dream.

Starting with chapter 7, the last part of the book of Daniel is what’s known as apocalyptic literature.  (The word “apocalyptic” literally means a “revelation” or an “uncovering.”)  The book of Revelation is in that category.  (Surprise!)  Apocalyptic books are like movies with all kinds of weird special effects: dream worlds, cosmic calamities, and yes, scary monsters.

It’s been said, “One could say, calmly and rationally, that the world is a bleak and dangerous place, or one could make the point more fully and dramatically through apocalyptic fantasy.  The latter…will more quickly trouble and terrify us (as they did for Daniel), which is the point.”[1]

Think about it.  Even though the parables of Jesus and apocalyptic images aren’t exactly the same thing, they do serve similar purposes.

For example, Jesus could talk about grace and give us a definition.  He could call it “a free gift” or “an undeserved reward.”  He could do that, or he could tell a story about it—say, a story about a son who asks for his inheritance, shames the family, goes abroad and squanders the money, and after all that foolishness, after all those mistakes, is welcomed home with a lavish banquet.

I ask you, which of those makes a bigger impression?  Which one helps you to better understand grace?

And going back to those delightfully scary images, what would become of horror movies?  A documentary-style warning about the hazards of traveling alone on dark roads in the forest just doesn’t get the juices flowing.

So, even though apocalyptic language can be troubling and terrifying, that’s not the end of the story.  These images of mighty angels and stormy seas really do tell the story of God’s people being delivered from the foul beasts that would keep them down.  And those “foul beasts” are typically of the two-legged variety, the ones who walk around upright.

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The reading in Daniel has been chopped up.  Verses 4 to 14 have been deleted.  The Old Testament is often dissected to suit the purposes of the church.  It being a text for All Saints’ Day, the lectionary zeroes in on verse 18.  “[T]he holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”  Those holy ones are the saints!

Still, we need to pay attention to the dream—or should we say nightmare?  Daniel seems to think so.  Look at the way the chapter ends in verse 28: “I was so frightened that I turned pale, and I kept everything to myself” (Good News Bible).  He was so scared that he looked like he’d seen a ghost (and he probably soiled himself).  And he wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.

He sees four great beasts rising from the sea.  In ancient Hebrew thinking, the sea was a symbol of chaos.  Who knows what’s down there?  This is a symbol that is primordial.  It goes back to the chaos at creation.  This is “darkness [covering] the face of the deep” (Gn 1:2).  So, toss in the tempest, and you really do have some chaos!

There’s some question as to which kingdoms the four beasts symbolize.  People pick among the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.  The point is, all these empires in one way or another persecuted the Jews, the people of God.  Or in apocalyptic terms, they’re scary monsters that tried to gobble up the holy ones.

John Collins says that “the vision functioned to give hope to the persecuted Jews.  This rather trite statement, however, does scant justice to the power of the vision, which attempts to shape a whole new view of history.”[2]  Daniel’s vision shapes a whole new view of history.

It can be difficult for us to realize how powerful this is.  Imagine the audacity of this powerless group of people.  They’re just one nation among many that have been swept up by the empire.  How dare they show this holy defiance?  How dare they tell their own stories?  They’re supposed to agree with the official version of history, one that lets them know they’re less worthy, one that puts them in their place.

As the church, we have inherited that legacy.  Still, we have to watch ourselves.  We have to be careful about how closely we identify with the qualities of, not Greek or Roman, but American empire.  Believe it or not, we aren’t immune to acting like the rest of the human race.  We too can imitate a beast ready to devour.

We have here the story of that great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).  It’s the story of the faithful from every walk of life.

It’s the story told in the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”  Referring to the saints, the second stanza ends like this: “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, / And one was slain by a fierce wild beast: / And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, / Why I shouldn’t be one too.”

Yes, that’s right folks.  There’s not any reason why I shouldn’t be slain by a fierce wild beast!

3 dnThis is the story of saints past and present—and we can say, of saints yet to come.  It’s the story of the faithful from every background.  It’s the story of those who have faced all manner of scary monsters.  (Even one symbolized by a fast food restaurant!)

Here are some questions for us.  What are our scary monsters?  Are there any great beasts that fill our dreams with terror?

In a sermon Banu preached one time, she dealt with Goliath the giant.  A quote from her sermon was, “When you focus on your giants, you stumble.  When you focus on God, your giants tumble.”  How does that translate into scary monsters?  How do scary monsters come at us?

Here’s another way of framing it.  Are we trapped by the past?  Do we carry around undeserved guilt?

Chris Gehrz speaks of All Saints’ Day as a call and opportunity “to be a steward of the past.”[3]  We’re called to be stewards of the creation, not only in space, but also in time.  All Saints’ Day “underscores the importance of preserving [the] past against the erosion that comes with the passage of time.”  We are called to remember—and to remember well.

This may come as a shock, but there are those who like to zap us by unfairly reminding us of our past.  They would have us remember, but not remember well.  Still, I fear that at some level, that tendency resides within all of us.  But to the extent we give way to that tendency, we only speak from our own fear, our own insecurity.  We are not speaking—and being—from a place of love and hope.

In Christ, those voices of accusation are silenced.  In the face of the glory of Christ, they have nothing to say.

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[pixabay.com]

In Christ, the great beasts, the scary monsters, are rendered toothless.  We’re given a whole new view of history.  We are ushered into the communion of saints, the holy ones of the Most High, who we join in receiving the kingdom and possessing the kingdom forever and ever.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=714

[2] John J. Collins, Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 324.

[3] www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2016/11/all-saints-day-and-the-stewardship-of-the-past


an offer you can’t refuse

Weddings can be strange things.

I’ve told Banu I almost prefer presiding at a funeral more than presiding at a wedding.  Of course, it depends on how demanding the family is.  Sometimes it seems like everybody and their Aunt Edna has an opinion on how things should go.  Sometimes it feels like crowd control.

1 Mt 22Our Book of Order has something to say about this.  “The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the minister of the Word and Sacrament and the supervision of the session” (W-4.0603).  And notice that it uses the word “marriage.”  Too often, there’s more focus on the wedding than on the marriage.

But I mention how weddings can be strange things.  Banu’s and my wedding might fit into that category.

We decided to make our vows in Turkish.  Our Old Testament professor, who we asked to preside, wrote them down so he could pronounce them properly.  Things were going fine until I said a particular line.  As soon as it came out of my mouth, I noticed Banu’s sister, who was sitting in the front row, begin to quietly laugh.  Afterwards, I was informed that my intended statement, “I promise to love you forever,” actually had the meaning, “I promise to explode.”  At least, that’s the way she explained to me.

(Hearing the story later, a friend of ours told me since I messed up the vow, I didn’t have to keep it.  Banu was not amused.)

When I’ve done weddings, I sometimes tell the couple it’s not a real wedding if something doesn’t go wrong!

In Matthew 22, Jesus speaks of a wedding that is extremely strange.  Actually, this is the wedding feast, so it’s not just the wedding; it’s the party that goes with it!  And calling it “strange” is a vast understatement.  In fact, the entire parable is worse than strange.  You can’t help but notice the violence and craziness.  One writer has called it “this bizarre little story.”[1]

You’ll notice this isn’t a case of wedding crashers.  It’s the exact opposite.  The invitations have been sent out, but nobody wants to come!

2 Mt 22

I like how the story gets started.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (v. 2).  This is a parable.  The Greek word (παραβολη, parabolē) means “comparison.”  The kingdom of heaven may be compared.  Some say it’s also an allegory, a figurative story.  It has things which represent something else, so it’s not a direct comparison.  Maybe that lessens the embarrassment of what follows!

The wedding day arrives, and the king sends the word.  We’re ready to start!  Still, as you heard, no one shows up.  So he sends some more servants, and they describe the delicious food on the menu.  Everything is ready—we even kept in mind the vegans and the gluten-free folks!

Even this doesn’t work.  They go back to their business, and some of the invitees grab the servants and give them a sound beating; some of them are even killed.

Lance Pape, professor at Brite Divinity School, says “things go completely off the rails…  [T]he weirdness and violence are just getting started.”[2]  The king goes ballistic.  He doesn’t send any more of his servants.  This time, he sends his soldiers!  And they lay waste to the town.

While the fires are burning, the king says, “Forget those ungrateful fools.  Just grab people at random and bring them to the banquet.  And you know, let’s do that before the food gets cold!”

Okay, what do we have so far?  All of this is being compared to the kingdom of heaven.  If the king is supposed to be God, what does that say?  Is it like The Godfather, where Marlon Brando as Don Corleone uses the phrase, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  Is God a kingpin in the mafia?

3 Mt 22If it seems things can’t get any crazier, hold on to your hats, because they do!  The king sees a guest without wedding garments, and he gets completely unhinged.  Now in fairness, it’s been pointed out in Middle Eastern cultures it was common for guests to be provided with proper attire.  Maybe that’s true, and it would suggest the unfortunate fellow was guilty of refusing the king’s gift.  Still, we might be forgiven for thinking there’s a tiny bit of overreaction on the king’s part.

Bind him hand and foot!  Toss him out into the dark!  Let him wail and grind his teeth while experiencing the pain and the loneliness!  As I said—just a tiny bit of overreaction.

Having said that, this is the way the story is often presented.

Lutheran pastor Janet Hunt suggests another way to approach it.[3]  A big part of it is asking if the God of Jesus Christ in any way resembles the king in our parable.  I ask that question as well.

She wonders if those who refuse the invitation do it “as a sign of protest.”  Is it beyond the realm of possibility that the king is a tyrant?  His actions might seem to suggest so.  Could it be the people don’t believe he is worthy of the title “king”?  Maybe his motivation to have a big crowd at the banquet is to prevent suffering shame in front of everyone, to boost his ego.

Hunt also speaks more directly about Jesus.

She says, “I cannot help but believe that Jesus was, in fact, more like those who would never have been among the first invited…but would have found himself in the second batch of invitees.”  Jesus isn’t a part of the fancy crowd who received the first batch of invitations.  He’s part of the rabble, the ordinary folk.  That would seem to go along with the upside-down, inside-out way Jesus tells stories and engages with people.

She continues, “Indeed, as this parable comes to its conclusion, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is not the one without the wedding robe—the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on that wedding robe—who in behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

6 Mt 22.jpg

Hunt admits she might be way off base.  She might be dead wrong.  But she does offer a thought.  “[I]sn’t it just as likely that the kingdom of heaven is more like any one of us who refuses to bow to the powers that be when innocents suffer than like a king who throws his power around and destroys those who would not do his will?”  Maybe that’s the comparison between the kingdom of heaven and the parable.  I’ll leave you to mull over it!

I would like to go back to the thought of refusing gifts.

We come to the end, verse 14.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Many are called—many are invited to the party—but few are chosen.  Maybe they’re not willing to be chosen.  How many times have we been unwilling to be chosen?  I can think of way too many times I’ve been in that place!

I was baptized when I was 21.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I really opened myself up to matters of faith.  I made discoveries, but I too often wanted to control how they were made.  I even started going to church, though on an infrequent basis.  I knew I was being called to go deeper, to let go.  It was the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  But I didn’t want to be chosen; I didn’t want to go to that party.  I didn’t want to taste the food at that banquet.

Eventually I surrendered and submitted to the waters of baptism.  I RSVPed the Spirit and said, “Count me in!”  But that’s not the end of the story.  As the years have gone by, there are still parties I don’t want to attend.  There have been times when I have refused the king’s invitation.

Our friend Lance Pape chimes in.  “The doors of the kingdom community are thrown wide open, and the invitation extends literally to all.  But once you come in, there are standards.  You can’t go on acting like you are not at an extraordinary party.”  This party, this wedding feast, is serious business.

5 Mt 22

He says about the fellow without the wedding garment that “his problem is a failure to party.  The kingdom of heaven…is a banquet, after all, and you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program.  The kingdom music is playing, and it’s time to get up on the dance floor.”

In all honesty, I need to practice getting on the dance floor, but maybe learning to laugh at yourself and being a fool for Christ is the perfect first step in that dance.  There is plenty of sorrow and pain in the world, but accepting the invitation to the wedding banquet opens us to the joy of the Lord.

I would say that’s an offer you can’t refuse.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204

[3] dancingwiththeword.com/the-wedding-banquet-turning-it-inside-out


losing to be found

By now, most of you know that Banu and I lived with my mom during almost all of 2015 and a little bit at the beginning of this year.  It was a learning experience for each of us.

The Nashville area was flooded in 2010.  That included my mom’s basement, which took an extremely long time to dry.  Her house contains many possessions, with a huge percentage of them in the basement.  So if you combine abundant moisture, very little light, and plenty of items, including carpets on the floor, what do you get?

My sister and her sons had already done some hauling out of moldy stuff and cleaning of walls.  But rest assured, there was still plenty for us to do.  Open space began appearing in the basement.  There was room to breathe.  The energies of feng shui became more harmonious.  However, the garage had hardly been touched.

Items disappeared, some under mysterious circumstances.

Rummaging dog

We were justly accused of clearing out some stuff which, truth be told, contained little mold.  But we did need some walkways!

Here’s to my main point.  There was a box of tapes and CDs, containing some of my mother’s beloved music, including the bluegrass and gospel musician, Doyle Lawson.  Amazingly, it had vanished.  The finger of blame was first turned toward my sister, who had no idea where it was.  After she successfully argued her case and being cleared of any wrongdoing, the eye was turned toward Banu and myself.

Intent on proving our innocence, Banu led my mother on a search of her bedroom, which also had a pretty good number of…artifacts.  Lo and behold, the long-sought box was discovered.  Not unlike the woman in our gospel text who was overjoyed to find her lost coin, so was my mom after discovering her own treasure.

So, speaking of things lost and found, of Luke 15 it’s been said, “If the Gospel of Luke comprised only this one chapter, it would still be precious beyond all estimate.”[1]  Very high praise!  Precious beyond all estimate, like something lost and found.

Here’s the scenario.  We see a motley crew gathering around to listen to Jesus.  This crew is featured by tax collectors and sinners, folks who are relegated to the category of undesirables.

This crowd hasn’t escaped the attention of some Pharisees and scribes.  They are simply indignant at the attention Jesus gives them.  They are grumbling.  One translation says that they are “murmuring their disapproval: ‘This fellow,’ they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (v. 2, Revised English Bible).  If he wants to have any influence among the people that matter, this crap has to come to a screeching halt!

So, who are these tax collectors?  The disgust toward them goes well beyond the occasional (and perhaps frequent) irritation we might have about the IRS.  No, this is on a whole different scale.

These tax collectors are instrumental in funding the hated Roman government.  They could rightfully be called traitors.  It would be bad enough if it were simply a matter of helping keep the imperial machine going.  The Romans tell them how much they need to raise—so just get it done!  As you might guess, this tends to lead to corruption and extortion, to plundering the poor.

The Pharisees also despise them for the same reasons.  The New Testament usually gives the Pharisees a bad rap, but they really do want justice for the people.  They are no friends of the empire.  But they also have other reasons for looking down on the tax collectors.  These guys also violate religious obligations and spiritual sensibilities.

Now, how about these “sinners”?  As for them, Walter Bowie says they are “the general run of people: not notorious evildoers, but the careless and unconcerned about religious proprieties,” earning the disdain of “the sanctimonious.”[2]  The sinners aren’t necessarily bad people.  That label doesn’t mean they engage in, for example, slander or thievery.  Sometimes the rules are stacked against them.

But there’s something praiseworthy about these folks.  Unlike the elites, when the sinners are drawn to Jesus, they do so out of a felt need to seek more.  They’re done with pretending.  When they come to Jesus, they mean it.  When they ask him questions, they really want answers; they’re not doing it to be argumentative or to play games.

Jesus addresses that earnest desire by telling two parables.  And like the story about my mother, he uses examples from everyday life—things that people can relate to.

The first one is about a lost sheep.  He asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (v. 4).  At first glance, that might seem to be wrong way up.  Why risk the ninety-nine to search for the one?

Regardless of practicality, it does speak to the value of each individual.  Every single sheep is treasured.  Every single one of us is treasured.  Jesus says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7).  And yes, Pharisees, I’m looking at you.

Lost and found

The second parable is about the woman who loses a coin.  She’s desperate, and she turns her house upside-down until she finds it.  She’s searching; she’s tearing stuff apart.  And when she does find it, she calls everybody together and says, “Let’s have a party!  I found my coin!”  (And wouldn’t you know it?  She finds it in the last place she looked.)

Doesn’t it seem like a lot of trouble to find a single coin?

Again, this is where Jesus knows his audience.  That silver coin is half of the temple tax that was paid every year.  And for that woman, that coin would be a big chunk of whatever savings she might have had.  “To the poor, therefore, the loss of one coin could be a major calamity.”[3]  Jesus knows all about being poor.

And again, he brings his point home.  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10).  There is joy when someone comes to Jesus.

There’s a quote which I’ve heard attributed to St. Dominic, St. Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas.  (Who knows, there may be others.)  As the story goes, one of them is visiting the Pope.  The Pope gestures at the treasures in the Vatican, and says, “We no longer have to say, ‘Silver and gold have I none’” (3:6).  He’s quoting St. Peter from the book of Acts.  The response to him is, “No, and neither can we say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”

If we depend on our possessions, if we become complacent, we lose our joy; we neglect our power in the Holy Spirit.  Our worship and prayer become lackluster.  Possessions don’t always have to be physical things.  They can be a feeling of safety, of comfort.  Do we become satisfied with our relatively stable well-being?  Are we unaware or indifferent to what has slipped away?  I have a sneaking fear that, too often, that might characterize me.

“[J]oy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life” (v. 10, Common English Bible).  Do we rejoice when a sinner, one just like us, comes to faith or has a recommitment of faith?  Does it move our hearts; does it stir our spirits?  Have we ourselves ever had such an experience?  Have we lost something precious?  Do we need to tear apart the house of our lives in order to find it?

“I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.”

Today is a day of “recovenanting.”  I’m not sure about the origin of that, but “covenant” is a word filled with meaning.  It’s not simply a contract; it also has the sense of something solemn, something sacred.  It’s about two parties entering into an agreement in which they make pledges to each other.  It isn’t businesslike.  It has the elements of artistry and beauty.

We might, and indeed do, fail to keep our side of the covenant.  But the covenant remains intact.  God is faithful; God keeps faith.  God does not break promises.  For that reason, our faithlessness does not nullify the covenant.

It might make sense to “recovenant” with each other, but with God, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel.  The covenant with God is one and everlasting, beginning with Adam, and extending through Noah, through Abraham, through David, to Jesus Christ.

In our baptism liturgy found in the Book of Common Worship, the language of covenant is front and center:

“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established.  Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love.  In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.

“As God embraces you within the covenant, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we baptize.”

It’s a covenant in which we celebrate being lost and being found.  That’s the upside-down, inside-out, backwards-forwards way of Christ in which the first will be last and the last will be first.

Spock

This past week, the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek was observed.  The first episode was aired on September 8, 1966.  This enterprise has been fifty years of pushing the envelope in issues of ethnicity, gender, nationality, and ethics, among others.  (Though I think the recent J.J. Abrams movies have fallen a bit short in that regard!)  One of the best-loved characters has always been Spock, the Vulcan who quotes words of wisdom based on his philosophy of logic.  One of the Vulcan principles is that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This business of risking the ninety-nine in order to find the one, according to that way of thinking, clearly doesn’t make sense.  It’s just foolish and irresponsible.

And this matter of tirelessly rummaging around to find a single coin might be deemed as much ado about nothing—similar to a woman who, amid her numerous possessions, is focused on finding her treasure trove of music.  (Though I suppose referring to it as a “treasure” might explain the concern!)

Yet, that is exactly how it is with God of the covenant in the kingdom of God.  God will not let us go.  God will pursue us relentlessly.  Because God’s love does not depend on what we have done or left undone, we can rest in the promise that those who are losing will always be found.

 

[1] Walter Russell Bowie, The Compassionate Christ (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 202.

[2] Bowie, 202.

[3] Bowie, 205.


empty hands

Any of you who have attended, or participated in, a service of ordination may recall what happens at the end.  Those being ordained as ministers are given a charge, something reminding them and encouraging them regarding the duties of the office to which they have been ordained.  The Presbyterian liturgy also has a charge to those we ordain as elders and deacons.

Banu and I were ordained as ministers in February 1997 at Overbrook Presbyterian in Philadelphia.  Banu’s pastor gave her this instruction: “I charge you to fail.”  (I don’t believe he was expressing ill wishes, just telling her to take bold risks!  That’s advice that I also desperately need to take heed of.)

Distant lands

[image is from christophermpark.com]

My pastor gave me this charge at the end of the service: “Tell your story of being in a distant land.”  Using that image from the parable of the prodigal son, he was talking about several things.

At the time, I wore a bandana on my head; it covered a rather visible surgical scar.  It was a mute witness to my experience of brain cancer.  (At a party, I removed my bandana to reveal the scar.  A couple of people looked like they were about to turn green!)

At the time of our ordination service, I had been on a journey of almost a year and a half.  That journey included the initial seizure, diagnosis, surgery, radiation therapy, another seizure, another surgery, then seven cycles of chemotherapy.

Before andAlong the way, there were plenty of CAT and MRI scans, a port temporarily implanted in my chest for antibiotics, needles and more needles, and being put on prescription meds that I was told I would need to take for the rest of my life.  Oh, did I happen to mention…needles?  To my pastor, that constituted “being in a distant land.”

He was also referring to the spiritual journey I had taken, at least, the parts of it he knew.  Coming from an Assemblies of God church in Tennessee to an American Baptist seminary in Philadelphia to the PC(USA) church across the street—and knowing that I had worshipped and worked with Christians of many different stripes besides that—that also constituted “being in a distant land.”

He understood the power of story to reach people in a way that explanations cannot.

I must confess, though, I have tended to discount my pastor’s charge to me.  I’ve included parts of my story from time to time, but probably not in the deliberate way he intended.  I’ve also been disobedient in a less obvious way, even when I have spoken of my experiences.  I have focused too often and too much on the purely medical aspects of my continued health.  Too often I have failed to properly acknowledge the work of God in my healing.  To put it bluntly, I have failed to give God the glory!

(Maybe my coming clean will encourage others who feel like failures to do the same!)

I begin with this little story because it came to mind when I read our gospel text.  It’s the last verse from our passage in Luke 12 that especially did it.  “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (v. 21).  Does a failure to give credit (no, to joyously give credit) where credit is due qualify as, so to speak, storing up treasure for oneself?  Honestly, I’m not sure; I’ll have to get back to you on that!

As we’ll see, the main focus of this scripture text relates to possessions, but not being rich toward God suggests other things to me—intangible possessions and treasures.

It would seem that’s what Jesus has in mind, too.  He takes an example that is definitely about tangible and visible possessions, a family inheritance, and moves on to something deeper and less obvious.  For the people in Luke’s story, we could also add that it seems to be unexpected!  Today’s passage begins with a request coming from the crowd gathered around Jesus, and it ends with a parable often called “the rich fool.”

In verse 13 we read, “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’”  We don’t really know what the situation is.  Skullduggery may or may not be at work.  There’s nothing like money and property to bring kindred together!

Whatever the case, somebody wants Jesus to play the role of Judge Judy.  (I should say:  the Bible is silent on any sarcastic lines he might have uttered!)

Jesus is having none of it.  “Friend,” he replies, “who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (v. 14).  I won’t be dragged into your domestic squabble.

Let me throw in a quick sidebar.  We can also see how Jesus avoids being triangulated.  Here’s what I mean.  The fellow has a beef with his brother.  A and B.  He wants Jesus to be his ally.  A wants C to take sides against B.  Jesus is aware of this dynamic and does not participate in it.  Triangulating, or triangling, happens all the time in life.  It can be healthy or unhealthy.  Jesus recognizes the unhealthy nature and does not intervene.

This is where he takes the situation and, as I said, moves on to something deeper and less obvious.  He gets to the heart of the matter, saying, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (v. 15).  Again, we don’t if there’s anything fishy going on, but that’s not the point Jesus wants to make.

 He’s warning against “all kinds of greed.”  As we’ve seen, that could apply to anything.  We are a culture that needs to re-learn the value of “enough.”

Maybe I’m the only one who notices this.  It is a rare event when I go to a buffet restaurant and do not see this.  It seems without fail there will be someone who loads up a dish to the point of the food being ready to fall over.  Some places that used to advertise “all you can eat,” have rephrased it to “all that you care to eat,” or even “please do not take more than you will eat.”  I don’t think anyone there is in danger of starvation!  Besides, you can always go back for seconds.

Jesus adds to the warning about greed, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Having said that, I realize there are those who live by the motto, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”  It doesn’t seem that Jesus subscribes to that philosophy.

On that note, Jesus launches into the parable of the rich fool.  This a guy who strikes it big.  He has an abundance of grain and goods.  He has more than what he knows to do with.  Our friend is like some actors and athletes who pull in multi-millions of dollars per year.  They have more money than they could reasonably spend in two or three lifetimes—maybe more!

What does our wealthy friend do?  He decides, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (vv. 18-19).  His physical needs will be well taken care of—or at least, that’s the plan.  In Aesop’s fable, he is the hare, not the tortoise.

Walter Bowie notes, “But the supreme loss is not in what may happen prematurely to the body.  The loss is what happens to the man’s whole self.  He thinks he has plenty of time to find out who he is and what his life is for.  He will stop and give attention to all that after a while.  But it is not only in the parable that the unexpected bell may toll.”[1]

image from gatsbyluxury.files.wordpress.com

I’m reminded of a line from the 90s movie The Basketball Diaries.  It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life musician Jim Carroll, who also played Catholic high school basketball.  However, his talent is being wasted, due to his use of heroin.  One day in class, he falls asleep and is enjoying a drug-induced dream.  His teacher, a cane-wielding priest, gives him a rude awakening.  Smacking his desk, he shouts, “Wake up, Mr. Carroll, it’s later than you think!”

Wake up; it’s later than you think.  Now that’s a sobering thought.

And it’s one delivered to our friend in the parable.  God reminds him, “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (v. 20).  So now, we come back full circle to the thought of storing up treasures for ourselves but not being rich toward God.

This business of it being later than we think, of getting our house in order—that is no doubt some seriously important stuff.

Speaking for myself, I sometimes have a sense of foreboding in all of that.  Maybe I haven’t lived life the way I could or should have.  Perhaps I’ve been stingy in sharing God’s work, God’s provision, God’s healing in my life.  Maybe in doing that (or in not doing that, as the case may be), I have been greedy like our friend in the parable, the rich fool.

But this is the gospel, the good news that Luke brings us.  Where is the word of grace?  How is this the word of love?

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr mentions a charge he received at ordination.[2]  He puts it in the context of perfection, something we attempt to provide by ourselves.  It “gives the impression that by effort I can achieve wholeness separate from God, from anyone else…

“On the day of my first vows in 1962,” he says, “the preacher glared at us earnest and innocent novices and quoted the line, ‘Thou shalt be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!’ (Matthew 5:48).  Most of the honest guys left within the first few years of seminary when they could not achieve this supposed perfection.  That’s sad because I think a lot of them would have been really good friars and priests, precisely because they were so human, humble, and honest.”

Those guys were already set up for failure.  The charge from that preacher was not uttered in wisdom and love!

Rohr continues, “Many people give up on the spiritual life or religion when they see they cannot be perfect.  They end up [as] practical agnostics or atheists, because they refuse to be hypocrites.  It is quite unfortunate that [this] ideal of perfection has been applied to human beings…  It has created people who, lacking compassion, have made impossible demands on themselves and others, resulting in a tendency toward superiority, impatience, dismissiveness, and negative thinking.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Those who can see actually realize it isn’t that way.  And that is the good news.  That is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

image from deacontimlexky.files.wordpress.com

We need not be afraid to share, to unfasten ourselves, to empty our hands.  By not piling up riches for ourselves, we open ourselves to being amazed and surprised by God.  We unleash the power of the Spirit within our lives, and together, we unleash the power of the Spirit in community.

We approach with empty hands so that they might be filled.  We yield the treasures we store up so that we might be rich toward God.

 

[1] Walter Russell Bowie, The Compassionate Christ (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 175.

[2] cac.org/perfection-self-defeating-path-2016-07-20


the prodigal gospel

The gospel according to St. Luke has one of the most beloved parables of Jesus, the Prodigal Son. The story of this prodigal (that is, “wasteful”) son is like a treasure chest, filled with precious gemstones. So many valuable nuggets can be found within it.

In the year 2000, my wife Banu and I moved to New York. The first church we served in this state was in Jamestown. One year when we were there, the congregation had a Lenten series in which people from various faiths and philosophies were invited to come and share their stories with us. (One of our parishioners invited her Tai Chi instructor.)

We had one session with a teacher who shared his experience as a Muslim. It was a wide-ranging conversation, covering many topics. One that came up was the matter of grace. He asked me what we meant by it. I took a lesson from Jesus, who in the scriptures tends to tell stories rather than give textbook answers. So in brief detail, I talked about the prodigal son. I said the father is the picture of grace.

image from youngadultcatholics.files.wordpress.com

In Luke 15, some Pharisees and scribes are upset because Jesus is being friendly with undesirables, those who according to the religious and social standards are considered unclean. Apparently Jesus thinks these Pharisees and scribes need a refresher course on grace, because that’s what they get. Maybe I’m mistaken, but my guess would be we all need a refresher course on grace.

As I just said, Jesus loves to tell stories. He responds with stories of lostness: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and finally, a lost son.

He introduces the third one by saying, “There was a man who had two sons” (v. 11). The younger son presents his father with a blunt request. He wants his portion of the inheritance. And he wants it right now! Many have commented on how outrageous a request this is. As things turn out for the young man, things really do get outrageous.

Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of a ritual in the Talmud called the qetsatsah ceremony. It’s designed “to punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles. Here’s how it works. If he ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people.” He’s disgracefully driven out, shamefully sent away.

Having said all that, the father still agrees “to [divide] his property between them” (v. 12). And within a few days, the son takes his massive amount of spending money, and as the scripture says, “traveled to a distant country” (v.13). This is the road trip of a lifetime. He wants to get as far away as possible. He’s young, rich, and ready to party!

Unfortunately, our boy is not paying attention to his spending. The Bible says he squanders his property in dissolute, reckless living. And adding insult to injury, the place gets hit with famine.

Desperate, the young man agrees to work for a pig farmer. Feeding swine, not the most sought-after position, is truly an abomination for a Jew. And with the crappy paycheck, he can’t even afford to eat. His gnawing hunger makes the pods he feeds the animals look pretty tasty. He literally wants to “pig out.”

Eventually, he gets tired of this hogwash and realizes something. “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” (v. 17). And he rehearses what he’ll say: he’ll admit his guilt and beg to be taken on as a worker. So off he goes.

At this point, I want to inject a thought. Remember, Jesus isn’t simply telling a fascinating story. He wants his hearers to see themselves in what he’s saying. I invite all of us to do the same. Think of ways in which we’ve been the younger son. (Or imagine yourself as a prodigal daughter.) Think of blessings we’ve squandered, craving the food of swine.

image from www.visitationmonasteryminneapolis.org

With verse 20, the tone changes. The focus shifts from the younger son to the father. He’s really the glue that holds this entire story together. In describing the father, Jesus paints a picture totally at odds with what his culture would expect. At the first glimpse of the returning prodigal son, the father immediately sprints toward him and embraces him.

In ancient times, no self-respecting man would run like that, “like a girl, like a mother instead of a father.” Aristotle reportedly said, “Great men never run in public.” The father doesn’t care about social convention.

The younger son launches into his speech, confessing his sin and admitting that he no longer deserves to be considered a son. But before he can beg for a job, his father interrupts and says, “Let’s get you dressed up in style. Slay the fatted calf! It’s time to really party!”

At verse 25, we come to the second major section of the parable. This is where the elder son enters the picture. If the younger son represents irresponsibility and wastefulness, then the elder son symbolizes responsibility and duty. While the younger son was off playing, he was making sure things got done. While the prodigal was nowhere to be found, he was the good son, the model son. And while he’s out in the field—wouldn’t you know it?—singing and dancing are going on!

When a slave tells him the reason for the party, let’s say he is not pleased. He refuses to go back to the house. This prompts the father to go out to him and plead. It’s at this point that the elder son unleashes the flood of anger and resentment and pain that has welled up within him.

For years, I’ve worked like a slave for you, “and I have never disobeyed your command” (v. 29). He feels like a glorified servant. And to what thanks? You’ve never even given me a stupid goat so I can feast with my friends. “But when this son of yours came back, who devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (v. 30).

Notice that the older son refers to his wayward sibling as “this son of yours,” not “my brother.” His heart has become hardened. The older brother needs to undergo conversion as much as the younger one. But with him, it isn’t so obvious. He hasn’t lived a wild life; he’s always done the right thing. But like everyone who makes sure that they do the right thing, his sin is on the inside. It is more subtle.

And the father understands that. He also understands the pain of his son, the son who stayed at home, rather than going off and sowing wild oats. He feels his pain! The father responds in verse 31 begins with the word teknon, translated in the NRSV as “son,” but it has the more intimate meaning of “child.”

He appeals to his embittered offspring: child, my son, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (vv. 31-32).

Celebrating his return is by no means a matter of repayment. You’re right—he doesn’t deserve anything. And I’d be justified in casting him out. No, celebrating your brother’s return isn’t a matter of repayment—it’s not a matter of justice; it’s a matter of grace.

One of the most beloved spiritual figures of the twentieth century was Henri Nouwen. Of his many books, the one he considered to be his favorite was The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Published in 1992, four years before his death, it tells how Rembrandt’s painting of the same name sent him on a journey that shaped the rest of his life. In fact, he was on his way to Russia in 1996 to do a TV documentary on the painting when, during a stop in the Netherlands, he died from a heart attack.

image from 3.bp.blogspot.com

In the book he makes the painful confession that he sees too much of the elder brother in himself. “It is strange to say this,” he says, “but, deep in my heart, I have known the feeling of envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises when I see my friends having a good time doing all sorts of things that I condemn. I called their behavior reprehensible or even immoral, but at the same time I often wondered why I didn’t have the nerve to do some of it or all of it myself.” (70)

Nouwen identifies with the elder brother’s sense of loneliness—the bitter and terrible loneliness of resentment that prevents joy. (And instead of the chest tightening up, the ability to take a deep breath!)

He admits, “Often I catch myself complaining about little rejections, little impolitenesses, little negligences… As I let myself be drawn into the vast interior labyrinth of my complaints, I become more and more lost until, in the end, I feel myself to be the most misunderstood, rejected, neglected, and despised person in the world.” (72)

I wonder, haven’t we all felt that way at one time or another? For Nouwen, his deliverance came in the knowledge that he had to move from being either of the sons to being the father, the one who extends grace.

Part of the artistry of this parable is that it’s incomplete. We don’t know the ending. Is the elder son able to overcome his hurt and anger and join the festivities? Are the two brothers ever reconciled? Those questions remain unanswered.

But we have a say in how the story unfolds. When we see in ourselves the wastefulness of the younger and the resentment of the older, we can remember that this is the gospel. This is the good news: that there is one who gives his life to us so that we may be reconciled. The good news is that God is prodigal: wasteful in generosity, wasteful in hospitality. The final paragraph of Henri Nouwen’s book contains the joy of that discovery:

“When, four years ago, I went to Saint Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” I had little idea how much I would have to live what I then saw. I stand with awe at the place where Rembrandt brought me. He led me from the kneeling, disheveled young son to the standing, bent-over old father, from the place of being blessed to the place of blessing. As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.” (139)

That is the gospel, the good news. We receive prodigal, wasteful grace, and we are called to share that freely.

[from top to bottom, the images are “Prodigal Son” by He Qi, “The Prodigal Son Among Swine” by Max Beckmann, and “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt]


wealth as God

You%27re+fired In The Compassionate Christ, Walter Bowie describes those who come under the spell of affluence—especially those in the church.  (Please forgive the gender exclusive language.)  “Does he not sit in his pew on Sundays, send his children to Sunday school, say his memorized grace at dinner?  He likes to consider himself a Christian—if it does not cost too much.  But in the decisive matters, he cannot serve God and mammon; and gradually God fades out.” (217)
 
Bowie offers that as commentary on the parable of the dishonest manager, which is at the beginning of Luke 16.  Jesus tells the story of a manager who has been caught embezzling his employer’s money.  He notes how the manager craftily thinks on his feet to make sure that after he’s fired, he will earn enough good will to prevent his becoming destitute.  Jesus asks, “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (v. 11).  He sums up, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13). 
 
“Mammon” was originally the god of property.  It morphed into a term for affluence when it is idolized.  And if there were ever a people who idolize affluence, it would be we Americans.  That’s especially highlighted during Advent—I mean, during the shopping days before Christmas.

“I followed all the rules”

Rembrandt%2C+The+Return+of+the+Prodigal+Son In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the story takes a sharp turn at verse 25:  “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.”  The older son finds out that his younger brother has returned home, after wasting his share of the inheritance.  His father not only is welcoming him, but he’s throwing a big party.  The older brother feels horribly slighted, because he has never been disobedient.

 
There’s a scene in the movie Legends of the Fall (1994) that reminds me of their relationship.  Very briefly, the movie is about the retired Colonel Ludlow (played by Anthony Hopkins) and his three sons, who live in early twentieth century Montana.  At various times, all of the sons are in love with Susannah (played by Julia Ormond).  The youngest, Samuel, dies in World War 1.  The oldest, Alfred (Aidan Quinn) and his surviving brother, Tristan (Brad Pitt), vie for her affections.  Susannah is heartbroken when Tristan refuses to commit to her, and instead, decides to travel the world.  After she dies by her own hand, at her gravesite, Alfred says to Tristan, “I followed all the rules, man’s and God’s.  And you, you followed none of them.  And they all loved you more.  Samuel, Father, and my…even my own wife.”
 
In a parable in which the older brother is usually painted as a jerk, I find that it’s important to humanize all of the characters. 
 
(The image is Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.)

this Samaritan is a good one

Who+is+my+neighbor

The doodling above are my notes from twenty years ago on a presentation I gave to the youth group in our church.  (It was in a notebook that I still have.)  At the top I ask the same question that the expert in the Mosaic law puts to Jesus.  His inquiry, “Who is my neighbor?” follows Jesus’ commendation of his statement that it is necessary to love God and neighbor.  In replying to the lawyer’s question, Jesus tells the parable that has been titled the Good Samaritan.
 
I won’t dwell too long on the latent racism involved with that title.  In making a Samaritan the hero of the story, Jesus is tapping into the Jewish hatred for a people they considered to be mongrelized.  Centuries earlier, when the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, many different groups moved in, and there was considerable mixing of ethnicities.  The point is that few, if any, of Jesus’ hearers would expect the Samaritan to do the right thing.  (Who would think such a thing?  He must be one of the good ones!)
 
Looking back on my notes from twenty years ago, there isn’t much I would change.  Toward the bottom of the page, I make a comment about those with AIDS being considered profane or unclean by some people.  That reflects the spirit of the time.  A few months later, Magic Johnson would reveal to the world that he was HIV positive.
 
I might modify my statement near the top of the page about the lawyer’s interest in “performing certain acts to guarantee his salvation.”  There is more going on here.
 
In telling his parable, Jesus distinguishes between static and dynamic concepts of “neighbor.”  That is, he sees it as a more fluid thing.  He takes the noun “neighbor”­—something that can categorized (either one is or one isn’t)—and turns it into a verb.
 
He+Qi%2C+The+Good+Samaritan
 
After telling the story of a man beaten and left for dead and the responses of the priest, Levite, and Samaritan, Jesus poses this to the lawyer:  “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36).  “Neighbor” is defined as an action.  He replies, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Finishing the transformation in thinking and being, Jesus adds, “Go and do likewise” (v. 37).
 
Maybe being a neighbor can make any of us “one of the good ones”! 
 
(The image is He Qi’s, “The Good Samaritan”)