How did I end up envying pigs?!

Preached on 31 March 2019 at Church of the Ascension in Seattle, Washington
The fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

How did I wind up with the pigs? Envying pigs?

Looking from the outside, and with hindsight, we can see a number of factors that might have landed him in that situation.

  • There is a famine in the land. This one is completely out of his hands.  There are, most likely, lots of people who are hungry and suffering.
  • No one helps him. Well, that’s not entirely true, the pig farmer gives him a job – but it’s not enough of a job for him to feed himself.
  • He is a stranger in another country. These are not his people; He doesn’t have any connections in this place.  He is separated from his family, his friends, his community.  And
  • He spent all his money. He has nothing left.  “It’s his own fault.”

Any one of these can be disastrous, Add them all up, though, and here he is, envying pigs.

But then, then he comes to his senses; he comes back to himself.  He remembers who he is.  He is still his father’s son.  So, he works out a plan to get himself out of this situation with the pigs.  He knows just what he will say to his father.  Is he sincerely repentant?  Or is he planning how to manipulate his father?  At least he’ll eat.  He won’t be hungry and he can leave the pigs behind.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

His father is probably still grieving the loss of a son, but is living in that limbo of not knowing.

The father wonders, How is he?  Is he ok?  Is he happy?  Is he dead?  Has he married; are there grandchildren?  Will I ever see him again?
There is no mention of his wife, their mother.  Is he widowed?  Does he worry that he has failed her?  That he has failed his sons?  Does he beat himself up with “if only’s?”  And all along, he exists in the darkness of not knowing, of waiting, hoping.

Back at the ranch, there’s also the brother.  I wonder, does he miss his brother who left?  The brother he grew up with, played with fought with, maybe stuck up for and took care of after their mother was gone; the brother who knows his secrets and how to push his buttons; the brother who shared his life with all its joys and sorrows, troubles and celebrations.  The brother who knows him better than any other human being is gone.  Or were they already estranged before he left?

Does he resent him from the moment he walked away?  He’s had to do not only his own work but at least some of the brother’s work as well.
Does he wish he could have gone with him?
Or that he had thought of it first?

I wonder if the father and son comfort one another and help each other through?  Or do their grief or anger or resentment or any of the other complicated emotions create a wall between father and son?

How long have they already been waiting when the son finally shows up?  He’s all prepared with his speech.  He’s been planning the whole scene out in his mind.  But what he isn’t prepared for is his father’s welcome.  He’s overwhelmed.  His father doesn’t even let him get out his well-practiced plea.  If he isn’t sincerely repentant when he arrives, he may be after this welcome.

Of course the father wants to celebrate!  He rejoices that the son he lost is okay, he’s back.  Who wouldn’t?

But why didn’t he send word to his other son so that he could see his brother; so that he could join the celebration?  By the time he gets home from work, the party is well underway.  No wonder he feels resentful!  The parable tells us his father pleads with hm to go into the party, to join the celebration.  But it doesn’t tell us whether or not he does.

Is this a parable about repentance?  It never uses the word, although the previous two parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin do.  Is it about grace?  Forgiveness?  Is it about estrangement and reconciliation?  Or is it about the character of God?

Jesus tells this series of parables to Pharisees and Scribes who are grumbling about who Jesus hangs out with and eats with: tax collectors and Sinners; the “wrong sort” of people.  Jesus is driving at a point; a point that makes them uncomfortable at best.

What does this parable say to you, especially on this fourth Sunday in Lent; Rose Sunday?  How does it touch your life?  Does it move your heart?

What does it call you or inspire you to?  Gratitude?  Generosity?  Repentance?  Forgiveness?  Reconciliation?  To reach out to others?

Familiar stories can lull us.  We’ve heard them so many times and we’ve heard so many sermons on them, what more can be said?  They could be a comforting bedtime story.  That’s what we want from Jesus, isn’t it?  Comfort and reassurance.

But parables are intended to shock the listener, even offend – especially those of us who may think we are good: we go to church and do what is right; follow the teachings of Jesus, well, within reason.  We may even use them to judge who’s in and who’s out.  And then along comes a parable that upends what we think we know, if we’re paying attention.

I mean, we would never end up envying pigs!
Could we?


Wake Up; Look Around

Preached on 17 March 2019 at Church of the Ascension in Seattle, Washington
The third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Do you think that the people slaughtered while at prayer in their mosques in Christchurch were worse sinners than other people of Christchurch?

Or those who died in the earthquake there a decade or so ago?  Or the people on the Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed?  Or people who lost everything in the wildfires or hurricanes or floods?  Or the child who has cancer or is ill?  Or the myriad other instances of unexplained suffering?

What did they do that displeased God? That’s the ancient question – and it still goes through the minds of some people, and sometimes it’s even voiced.

Nowadays, people who like to think of themselves as more sophisticated, ask questions about the various choices in diet, exercise, environment, and other factors we might be able to control.  Could we have regulated it better?  How could science or technology or better awareness have prevented this death or illness or injury.

We look for explanations.  We try to figure out who or what to blame (sometimes it’s the victim).  The point is the same, though – How do I make sure this doesn’t happen to me or my loved ones?

Jesus’ response is pretty clear, though.  No.  You’re asking the wrong questions.  You’re looking in the wrong direction.  Don’t even go down that rabbit hole.  Wake up!  Look around you!  You can read the signs that a storm is coming, why can’t you read the signs of the times? Why can’t you see where you’re headed? He asks at the end of chapter 12 in Luke’s gospel.

Repent!  While you still can.  And he tells the parable of the fig tree.  Ah yes, the fig tree.  It seems so much gentler than the rather brutal examples he had just given.

Self-examination, Repentance, and Amendment-of-life are central to Christian living; especially so during Lent.  Not only as individuals but as a community and as a society.  Repentance begins with awareness; that self-examination.  We have to see Reality with God’s vision so that we can recognize and name the systemic brokenness in the world.  So that we have some idea of what salvation might mean.

Our psalm for today shows us how to start – by turning wholly to God, with deep longing for God.  The psalmist describes a whole-body yearning:  my throat thirsts, my flesh faints, I gaze, my lips praise, I kneel, I lift up my hands; my soul is content, I remember you, I meditate on you, I cling to you.  Your right hand holds me fast; I am utterly dependent on you, O God.

Open our eyes, O God, to see the reality of the brokenness around us and give us the grace and courage to hear your call to respond.

One commentary offered a whole litany of repentance, of shifting our perception of the world to be in alignment with God’s:

Repentance for our silence; for not calling a thing what it is: racism, hatred, white supremacy, greed, atrocity, lies…

Repentance for making excuses and not addressing the issues that perpetuate an environment in which such events keep happening.

Repentance for ignoring the truth and not connecting the dots.

Repentance for our complicity and complacency, for our explanations and enabling.

Repentance for our self-justification.

Repentance for our self-image as helpless.

Repentance for our fear and our hopelessness.

Repentance for taking advantage of God’s patience, forgiveness and mercy, of God’s faithfulness and grace.

Repentance not only changes how we perceive the world; it not only opens our eyes to Reality, it changes how we function in the world; what we do, how we respond.

There’s an old Jewish saying, “Pray as though it’s all up to God and act as though it’s all up to us.”

God never acts alone.  God called Moses and then Aaron and Miriam to lead the people out of Egypt; to free them from slavery.  And yet, God never leaves us on our own.  God accompanied them all along the way.

Every year, the Ignatian Spirituality Center offers a Novena of Grace and over the years, I have included this Novena in my Lenten practice.  For nine days we pause in the middle of the day and literally come together for worship; to learn about the life of St. Francis Xavier, to pray, to hear the Word of God and a reflection on the theme, to share the bread and wine of holy communion.  This year’s theme was “God walking with us.”

The three presenters took turns offering a homily, sharing a reflection on the Scripture readings for the day and on stories from our day, often their own experiences.  We heard stories of deep pain and suffering, of repentance and instances of the need for repentance.  The thread that went through all the stories was the discovery of God walking with them, walking with us, through even the most painful or troubling times.

Open our eyes, O God, to see the Reality of your kingdom breaking through the brokenness around us and give us grace and courage knowing you are always walking with us.

I keep thinking about the parable of the fig tree.  And I keep wondering who’s the gardener?  Are we the tree?  Trees don’t bear fruit by sheer will.  Are we passively waiting for a gardener?  Or could we be gardeners, aerating the soil, spreading manure, nourishing the tree so that it will bear abundant fruit?

O Lord, our God, may there be an abundance of fruit; the fruit of repentance, the fruit of your realm of justice and truth.

It’s not about Chocolate

Preached on 10 March 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The first Sunday in Lent, Year C

It’s not about chocolate or coffee or Scotch or junk food.  It’s not about swearing or complaining or watching TV or using facebook.  It’s not even about using plastic or fossil fuels.  It’s not about eating fish instead of meat.  It’s not about working at a food bank or a soup kitchen.

In fact, it’s not about you at all.
It’s about Jesus.  Maybe today, we can just focus on Jesus and not make it about us.
This is about his identity and vocation as the Son of God; and how he will live out his vocation.

In Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus’ testing in the wilderness comes right after his baptism in the Jordan, when the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and the voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well-pleased.”  Just like Matthew and Mark’s telling of the story.  Except Luke tucks in Jesus’ genealogy, his family tree, right in between those two events.

Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back through Joseph, back to King David, back to Judah, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, back through Noah, to Seth, and Cain, all the way to Adam, who is also named, Son of God.

Now that same Holy Spirit who anointed Jesus at his baptism, fills him and leads him into the wilderness where a spiritual battle is waged.

When he emerges from the wilderness, still filled with the Holy Spirit, he will go to his hometown, to Nazareth.  In the synagogue, he will read from the prophet Isaiah about proclaiming Good News to the poor and release for the captives.  He will say that the scripture is being fulfilled in their presence, that day.  We heard about that just a few weeks ago.

Right now, though, let’s spend some time with Jesus in the wilderness, where, filled with the Holy Spirit he’s tested by the devil.

Everyone already knows Jesus is the Son of God, in this story.  Luke’s been telling us that since the very beginning with the angel’s annunciation to Mary and then at his baptism and in his genealogy.  But what does that mean?  How will he live out that truth?

These temptations we hear about today, are uniquely targeted at Jesus, his identity and his mission.  Each one is a challenge, “In whom will you place your trust?”

They are intended to make him doubt himself, his identity.  They try to draw him away from trusting God and instead to trust whatever the devil lays before him.

Even the devil knows he’s the Son of God.  The “if” in the first and third temptations is better translated as “since.”  It presumes the truth of the “if” clause.

Since you are the Son of God, and you’re famished, do something about it.  Save yourself.  Feed yourself.  Turn the stones to bread.

This is directly related to his vocation, but twisted back on itself.  Later in his ministry, we will see Jesus miraculously multiply loaves and fishes, but to feed others, thousands, in fact, by putting his trust in God.

Jesus responds, quoting Deuteronomy, “One does not live by bread alone.”  His trust is in God.

The second temptation is also related to his mission.  He has come to inaugurate the reign of God; a reign of justice and peace.  The people hope for and even expect a Messiah who will come with great power to overthrow the Roman empire and restore the throne of David.

The devil offers him that power (as if it were his to give) if only Jesus will worship him.  Here, the if has its more familiar, conditional meaning of if you do this, then I’ll do that.

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if he just took the power from the current rulers and established his own superpower?  But, Jesus rejects the devil.  He will not gain power by playing by the world’s rules.  No, God’s kingdom of Justice and Peace is outside of worldly powers.

His response is the heart of Jewish prayer.  Worship the Lord, your God; serve only him.

In the third temptation, we find them in Jerusalem, the city toward which the whole trajectory of Jesus life and ministry is directed; the city where he will ultimately go to the cross; the city from which the church will be born.

The devil returns to the formula, “since you are the Son of God…” and he quotes the psalms in which there is a promise that the angels will protect the one who puts their trust in the Lord.

“Since you are the Son of God, prove it.”  Here, in Jerusalem; not only at the center of the political world of the people, but the religious heart of Judaism, the devil challenges him to jump off the top of the Temple.  Show us who you really are; see if God will save you.

“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus responds.  It’s one thing for God to protect him from danger, it’s something completely different to purposely put his life at risk for self-aggrandizement.

And yet, we will see him return to Jerusalem and to the cross, where he will face a similar temptation; to be saved and protected from suffering.

This is a battle in the spiritual realm.  It is a battle over Jesus’ identity and vocation as Son of God and what that will mean.  He comes out of the wilderness, still filled with the Holy Spirit and with trust in his Father, to begin his work.

So, you see, it’s not about us at all.

The Glory of God in Daily Life

Preached on 3 March 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Over the past few weeks, mountains have figured somewhat noticeably in our readings – going up them, coming down; mountain tops and level places.  Seeking God in prayer and finding God among people.

Today, not only do we have Jesus and the three disciples going up the mountain and then back down again, but Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai and even our psalm has God on his holy hill.

Today, on this last Sunday after the Epiphany, we have Jesus and the three disciples go up the mountain where there is a spectacular encounter with God.  There is glorious light, people long-gone talking to Jesus, Jesus himself and his clothes changed to dazzling white, the cloud, and of course the voice from heaven.

Then they go back down again.

Before we go into that though, let’s take a look at the longer arc of Luke’s story.  I think it always helps to understand how one piece fits into the larger picture.

I’m going to back up to Jesus feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish.  The next scene is Jesus alone with his disciples.  He asks them, “What’s the word on the street?  What are people saying about me?”  Then, he asks, “but what about you?”  Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah of God.”

Jesus then tells them for the first time, that he must suffer and die.  He foretells the Passion.  Luke then goes on for a paragraph teaching about discipleship.

Then Luke tells the story of the Transfiguration followed by the healing.  And again, Jesus foretells the Passion.

So, the Transfiguration is sandwiched between two prophesies of the Passion.

There’s a pattern in Luke.  Go up a mountain to pray, then come back down and encounter the greatness of God, the healing of God, the liberating freedom of God – in the crowd, in the messiness of daily life.

What grabs you about the story of the Transfiguration?  Do you wish you were there? Or thankful you’re not?

What details stand out?  In Luke’s telling, we hear what Elijah and Moses are talking about with Jesus: his “departure” that he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  Now, departure is not used here as a euphemism for death.  No, the word in the Greek is Exodus which evokes all kinds of meanings and images in our minds; well at least in mine.

It makes me think of release and liberation; of a journey to freedom not just for one, but for many, for a whole people.

Jesus is going to Jerusalem to fulfill the purpose of his entire life; to release the captives and draw them to liberation in their true and only home.  Their home in God.  Not only by his passion and death, but by the whole package – death, resurrection, ascension to God, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all humanity.  That’s what they are talking about.  Wow.

Then what do they do?  They go back down the mountain, back to daily life, to a crowd of people.  And then Jesus literally releases a boy, captive to demons.  The boy is liberated and restored, healthy and whole, to his family.

And all are amazed at the greatness of God.

This is what Jesus does.  He reveals the greatness of God in daily life.

What about you?  Do you long for that mountaintop experience of God?  Or maybe you’ve already had one or more.  Do you ever get a glimpse of the greatness and glory of God in your daily life?

Lent begins on Wednesday.  As we move forward, we will be experiencing a number of changes and challenges as a parish as well as in our daily lives – especially as we move more fully into transition and welcoming a new priest.  Maybe we could pay particular attention, watching for a glimpse of the glory of God all around us.