Monday, March 28, 2016

“I Will Be Your Witness” (Acts 10:34-43)

Well, we all know why we are gathered here this morning.  We all know the stories of the various encounters . . . the women discovering the empty tomb . . . the appearance with the disciples in an isolated and locked room . . . the encounter along the road . . . and, the revelation as he broke the bread at the fireside.  Jesus is alive.  Jesus is not dead.  And, we are here this morning to celebrate this victory over death and all that it means for us as the followers of Jesus.  It is Easter!

With that being the case, then why in the world did the pastor read a scripture passage that had absolutely nothing to do with the stories of Easter that all of us are so familiar with?  Why are we hearing about some encounter that Peter has at the home of some Gentile—actually a Roman centurion?  Why aren’t we dancing in the aisles, shouting “hosannas”, and getting down with the Easter story we all know and love?

I’ll tell you.

One of the reasons why is because I do not want someone coming up to me after the worship service and saying to be me, “You know, Pastor, every year you preach the same thing.”  And, true, every year pastors and preachers everywhere preach the same thing when it comes to Easter . . . same with Christmas.  It is a familiar story we all know and love . . . it is the crux of our faith; and, we never get tired of it.  But, the story does not end there.  The story does not end with the resurrection of Jesus.  No, the story is just beginning.

One of the ministries . . . or jobs . . . of being a pastor is officiating at funerals.  Over the thirty-some years that I have been a pastor I have officiated at hundreds of funerals.  I have stood before countless people who have gathered to celebrate and remember a loved one.  Together we have lifted up the deceased individual and remembered them.  It is a part of the job of being a minister, and one that I enjoy doing; but, one funeral many years ago, a thought passed through my mind.  It was a simple thought, and one that probably every minister has thought at least once in his or her ministry, but it is one that has stuck in the back reaches of my mind over the years.  Every so often it pops its head up, nudges me, and makes me wonder.

What is that thought?  Well, as the individual who does all the burying . . . all of the officiating over the funerals . . . I wondered, who is going to officiate over my funeral when that day comes? 

One of my favorite Appalachian or bluegrass songs, often credited to the Stanley brothers, is Who Will Sing for Me.  The singer apparently is the individual who sings at all the community funerals.  Someone dies; this is the guy who is singing at the funeral.  One day it dawns on the singer, if I die who will sing at my funeral?  The lyrics are:

Oft I sing for my friends
When death's cold hand I see
When I reach my journey's end
Who will sing one song for me

I wonder (I wonder) who
Will sing (will sing) for me
When I'm called to cross that silent sea
Who will sing for me

When friends shall gather round
And look down on me
Will they turn and walk away
Or will they sing one song for me

The truth is, if I die, someone will officiate at my funeral.  The underlying question or concern is actually a little deeper than that . . . a little more profound . . . maybe even a little selfish.  That underlying question has to do with something I think we all wander into at various points in our lives, and that is: will anyone remember me?

In the movie Shall We Dance, Richard Gere plays a bored, overworked lawyer who one night on the commuter train sees out the window a beautiful dance instructor teaching a dancing class.  Enchanted with the beauty he decides that he wants to meet this woman, so he signs up for dance lessons.  Unfortunately, the dance classes he signs up for are not the ones that this beautiful instructor is teaching; no, he ends up with the older and plainer owner of the dance studio.  Instead of falling in love with the beautiful instructor, he falls in love with dancing.

In the meantime, his wife, played by Susan Sarandon, is bewildered with what is going on.  She knows that their relationship seems to be waning and that he comes home later and later from work.  She assumes the worse, but she loves him . . . she trusts him.  She is in the marriage through thick and thin. 

One evening she is talking to a friend about the importance of marriage . . . about her commitment to marriage and to her husband.  She says:  “We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet... I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you're promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things... all of it, all of the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness'."

Pretty powerful statement.  One I often share with couples before they get married.  In those words is the promise . . . you will not be forgotten.  “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it.  Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.”  You will be remembered.

Peter states: “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.”  Peter and all the disciples . . . all those who followed Jesus . . . were witnesses to everything that had happened.  They were there to hear the stories, listen to the teaching and preaching . . . to see the miracles.  They were there from the beginning . . . they were witnesses to it all.  Because they were witnesses the life of Jesus . . . the ministry of Jesus . . . the purpose of Jesus . . . will not go unnoticed or unwitnessed because they will be his witness.  They will tell the stories.  They will keep him remembered.  They will keep him alive.

The story we heard this morning in our scripture reading takes place well after the encounters of the risen Jesus . . . by now he has ascended into heaven.  The story we hear takes place after that fateful day in Jerusalem in which the Spirit is delivered and flows through the people . . . the day of Pentecost.  Life is slowly getting back to normal, but the faithful continue to gather, tell the stories, and keep the mission alive . . . to keep Jesus alive.  Among them is Peter.  Peter who is the more-or-less leader of this faithful group . . . who receives an invitation to the home of a Roman centurion who is curious about Jesus and his purpose.

So, Peter goes.  Along the way he has vision of food . . . yeah, food.  Food that Jewish people are not allowed to eat.  In the vision God tells him that food doesn’t determine faith and who is saved.  Thus he enters into the Roman centurion’s home with a new understanding . . . that the message of God is for everyone . . . God accepts everyone.  This is exactly what he tells those who are gathered in the centurion’s house . . . that this love and grace, this gift, is for everyone.  Then he tells the story . . . he tells the story of Jesus.  He is a witness.

“He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.  He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one who God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Peter is a witness.  He is a witness to the Easter story.  He is a witness to Jesus.  Nothing will be forgotten . . . nothing will go unwitnessed.

Thus it is for us . . . the followers of Jesus.  We are called upon to be witness of the love and grace of Jesus . . . the love and grace of God . . . through the story of Jesus . . . through the power of Easter.  Yes, as we gather this morning to celebrate and remember, we are called out from our celebrating to be witnesses to the greatest story ever told . . . we are called to share the “Good News”.  Easter is not a stagnant story . . . once told and never shared.

No, we are here this morning because someone, somewhere, shared the story . . . someone witnessed.  And, if the body of Christ is to survive and thrive into the future, we must become witnesses of the story of Jesus in our lives . . . we must share it with other.  We must tell the story.  That is the hope that carries us through each day into the future . . . ever closer to the Kingdom of God.  We must be witnesses.

Now, I assure you that when I die someone will officiate at my funeral. Yet, none of us ever want to be forgotten.  That singer who worried about who would sing at his funeral . . . well, he had hope.  He had hope that someone would sing for him when he died.  The last verse of the song goes:

So I'll sing til the end
Contented I will be
Assured that some friends
Will sing one song for me

On this Easter Sunday we celebrate a living Christ . . . he lives!  He lives with us and in us . . . in relationship with us.  Each of our stories of the encountered Jesus are powerful stories . . . stories of faith, stories of love, and stories of grace.  We stand as witnesses to the story.  It is up to us to share those stories.  Up to us to proclaim to Jesus: “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.”

We are called to be witnesses on this Easter Sunday.  That is why we are not hearing the familiar stories of Easter . . . we know them.  The time has come to share them.  The time has come to step up and be witnesses.  Amen.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

“In the Silence, the Stones Shout” (Luke 19:28-40)

The celebration of Passover was the reason the people swarmed to Jerusalem . . . including Jesus and his disciples.  Passover, the celebration of Israel’s escape from oppression through the grace and guidance of God . . . Passover, the “mark” of Israel as God’s people . . . Passover, the slow start of a national identity.  Passover was the central most important religious and nationalistic holiday of the Jewish people.  It was a big deal and the people came streaming into Jerusalem to celebrate this historical and spiritual event.  Jerusalem was swamped with pilgrims from all directions . . . it was a noisy and exciting time . . . it was a powder keg waiting to be lit.

And, the Romans knew it.

As Jesus is making his entrance with a small, but grand, parade on one end of Jerusalem, on the other end of Jerusalem there is another parade taking place.  It is a parade of power and strength . . . a parade to remind the people who is in control.  Pilate and his army of soldiers march through the streets of Jerusalem . . . not so much for adoration or cheers, but to remind the people that they are still in control . . . that they still had the power . . . and, that they were not afraid to use it if there was any inkling from the people to stray away from their subservient role in the story.  Theirs was a parade that many more witnessed than the small, winding parade of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus’ parade was a small, but noisy blip on the screen . . . noisy enough to get the attention of some Pharisees who witness his entrance.  Knowing the volatile situation . . . a major religious holiday . . . a nationalistic holiday . . . and, the frustration of a people under oppressive and violent rule . . . the Pharisees implore Jesus to tell his disciples to knock off the nonsense.

Now I imagine that it seems a little strange that Jesus’ enemies would be asking him to stop before it was too late . . . to stop before he got himself arrested; but, these men really did not care one iota about Jesus.  As far as they were concerned they would love it if Jesus would get arrested and be killed—that would solve all of their problems.  Yet, at the same time, they are not stupid.  They know the mindset of the Romans.  The Romans would swoop in with violence and start killing anyone and everyone—including Jesus—to make their point.  A lot of people could be killed . . . including them; so, they asked Jesus to tell his disciples to turn it down a few notches.

But, it is too late.

“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

Jesus understands the climate he is entering . . . he understands the climate of the people he is preaching and teaching to . . . he understands the faith and religious part of the climate . . . and, he understands the political climate.  Think of our annual celebration of the birth of our nation . . . the Fourth of July.  Think about what that day means . . . what that day stands for . . . what it is that we are celebrating.  Think of the war that was fought in order for us to be even celebrating that day.  The Fourth of July is our day in which we remember and celebrate our freedom from oppression.  It is a day that is filled with religious and patriotic fervor . . . the single most important day in our lives as a nation and in our identity as a people.  That was . . . and still is . . . what Passover was to the children of God—the Hebrew people.

The only difference between then and now is that these were a people who were still oppressed . . . still under the rule of another people who ruled with an iron fist.  True, the Romans allowed them to observe their holiday, but to observe it quietly and without the potential incident of revolt and revolution.  Thus Pilate’s parade through the streets of Jerusalem with his army.

There comes a time when enough is enough . . . a time when the frustration becomes more than one can bear . . . a time when one is sick and tired of being sick and tired under the weight of those things that oppresses life.  A time when the silence can no long hold back the anguish and pain . . . a time when it must shout out and let the world know.  Jesus understood this.  Such was the time in the lives of the children of God . . . in the lives of the Hebrew people.  They could no longer be silent.  If they had tried, even the stones would have shouted out.  Is that not what Jesus said?  The frustration and the pain, even if they tried to hold it in, would leak out.

It was too late.  The people had to be heard.  God had to be heard.  And, so, Jesus did nothing to stop his parade.  The people shouted.  The people waved palms.  They threw their cloaks upon the ground.  They welcomed what they saw as their hope in a time of great oppression and pain.  They let it all out.  Nothing was going to stop them now.

For a moment I want to point out something in our day and time that reminds me of this time in the life of Jesus.  I want us to consider the climate of our nation as we are in the thick of the presidential election cycle.  It has been a strange and wild journey as we inch our way ever closer to picking the two candidates that will face off to determine who will be our next president.  Strange and wild because we have seen a candidate arise that is not like any candidate we have ever seen before . . . a candidate who has risen up out of the frustration of a people who feel oppressed and forgotten in our so-called political system.  They have raised their voices in their frustration in difficult times, and they have embraced this individual despite the fact that much of what he promises can and should never come to pass.  But, he is not the only one, both sides are tapping into this frustration to garner the votes necessary to be the next president of the United States.

But it is not this candidate . . . or any candidate . . . that I want to point out.  What I want to point out is that the stones are shouting out.  They are crying out in their frustration and their pain.  They want to be heard.  They want to be acknowledged.  They want to take their place at the table.  They want to be empowered to be a part of the process of ruling themselves.  No matter who wins, the silence will be broken forever.

And, nothing can stop it.

Palm Sunday is a significant day in the life of the faithful.  For those of us who are followers of Jesus, it represents the beginning of the end . . . it represents the prelude to the “gift” . . . to the “hope” . . . and, to the promise of restoration of our relationships with God and one another.  And, through it all, Jesus shows us the way.  It is the day that the silence of the oppressed is broken and the mighty cry of hope rang out.

In the end, the Romans did exactly what the Pharisees feared and hoped for . . . they arrested Jesus, tried him, and crucified him upon a cross.  As far as everyone in power was concerned, it was over . . . finished . . . done.  The prophet . . . the trouble-maker . . . was silenced.  His faithful disbanded and scattered across the landscape.  It was over.

Jesus said, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

It was not even close to being over . . . and, it still isn’t today.

Wherever there is oppression, the stones shall shout.  Whether that oppression is of a whole group of people or of an individual . . . the stones shall shout.  Whether that oppression is of the religious type or nationalistic or political type . . . the stones shall shout.  The stones will shout until the Kingdom of God is realized . . . until it is acknowledge . . . until it is lived.  That is the will of God . . . the desire of Jesus . . . and, the hope of all us who follow Jesus.  In the silence, the stones will shout.

It is never over until God declares it to be over.  Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

“The Cost of the Prodigal” (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

There are lots of people who “weigh” the cost before they make purchases . . . especially the big ones like cars and houses.  They research, they compare, they ask the experts questions, and they do their homework so that they can figure out the exact “cost” of what it is that they are purchasing.  I imagine that there is not any of us sitting here this morning that would say that this is not a smart thing to do . . . do your homework to figure out the cost.

The definition of “cost” is “an amount that has to be paid or given up in order to get something.”  When it comes to purchasing something with money . . . we know the cost because it is right out there for us to see . . . we see exactly what we have to pay in order to have that something that we want.  That is the “amount” to be paid.  That is in the world of economics—the world of business; but, in life there is also the “cost” of other things that we want in our lives . . . the “intangibles” . . . and, they, too come with a “cost”.  Typically it comes with having to give something up in order to get what it is that we want.  It seems that everything in life comes with a “cost”.

My wife’s sister—my sister-in-law—has her college degrees in economics . . . a bachelor and master’s degree, and she told me years ago that all of life is based on economics.  Everything has its price in life . . . everything has a cost . . . nothing in life is free.  Now, as idealistic as I think I have been over the years since she told me this, I have come to the conclusion that she is right . . . everything has a cost . . . everything.

Consider our scripture lesson this morning.  Jesus is going about his public ministry . . . teaching and preaching to whoever shows up . . . and, we are told that in this particular scene the majority of those who were gathering around Jesus were the sinners and tax collectors.  These sinners and tax collectors are from the wrong side of town . . . they were the people that “good” people avoided and looked down upon . . . they were the people on the edges . . . the shadow people.  Yet, they are the ones who keep showing up.  This was not good for Jesus . . . it was ruining his reputation . . . putting a damper on his ministry . . . making him look bad.  At least that is what the Pharisees and teachers of the law were mumbling.  And, of course, what they think should matter, right?  After all, they are the leaders . . . the figureheads . . . power and representatives of the faith in the community.  To mingle with the scum was not acceptable and it brought Jesus down in the sight of those who were important. 

Jesus wasn’t deaf.  Jesus wasn’t blind.  He heard the words of these important people . . . he saw their reactions to the people he was ministering to; and, he didn’t care.  He didn’t care what they thought because what they thought was all wrong.  So, Jesus responds with a parable . . . actually, three parables.  In our reading this morning we focus on the third parable . . . the parable we all know as the “Prodigal Son”.

The youngest son of a man comes to him and asks for his inheritance.  So the man divides his estate between his two sons.  Not long after the youngest son takes his inheritance and skid-daddles off to the bright lights of the big city where he proceeds to blow everything he has . . . squanders it all on wine, women, and song . . . has a good ol’ time.  Then one day, he wakes up . . . discovers that he has nothing and he is sitting in the middle of an economic depression . . . there are no jobs anywhere . . . he is hungry . . . but no one would give him any help.  He was up the creek without a paddle.  It gets so bad he even considers eating the food being fed to the pigs . . . like one of the lowest acts that any Jew could ever commit.

But then he remembers . . . the old man has money . . . the old man has a clean place for him to live . . . the old man has food.  He figures that if his father takes care of his servants, surely he would take care of him.  He would throw himself on the mercy of his father . . . ask to become a servant in order to survive.

When you think about it . . . it sounds like a good plan; but, before he even gets up to his father’s house, his father sees him coming.  Filled with compassion he runs to his youngest son, throws his arms around him, kissed him, and welcomed him home.  Before the kid could finish his confession and seek his father’s help, the father is in the hospitality mode . . . he dresses his son in the finest clothes, decks him out with jewelry, kill a fatten calf, and throws one heck of a party . . . singing and dancing fill the air.  The father is exuberant that his son has returned.

Of course, the older son . . . the good and obedient son . . . hears all the commotion but refuses to go up to the house to see what is going on . . . refuses because he knows his ungrateful and sinful brother has returned home.  He is angry . . . angry at his brother . . . and, angry at his father.  He refuses to go to the party . . . to welcome his brother home. 

The father goes out to his oldest son in hopes that he can convince him to come and join in the festivities.  But the older son refuses and complains . . . complains that he had done everything that was expected of him, stuck around and did all the work, and what did he ever get from his father . . . nothing . . .  not even a goat to throw a party.  Then he points out that the wayward son . . . the sinful son who did nothing but squander his inheritance . . . gets the royal treatment.  He refuses to welcome his brother home.

This floors the father . . . he does not understand . . . his heart is broken.

Who paid the greatest “cost” in this story?  The youngest son who squanders his inheritance?  The oldest son who sticks around, does everything according to the book, and then refuses to welcome back his brother . . . to step back into the relationship of sibling . . . at the risk of losing his relationship with his father?  Or, is it the father who loses his estate when he splits it to give each son their inheritance . . . who loses his youngest to a sinful life . . . or, lose his oldest by welcoming the sinful son back into the family?  Who pays the biggest price in this story?

Well, the youngest son loses quite a bit of money when he squanders away his inheritance in wine, women, and song . . . he is rock bottom and knows that there is nothing left for him back home except the possible mercy of his father.  The oldest son . . . he loses a brother . . . possibly a “life” since he does the work of two by staying with his father to do the work . . . and, he loses his father.  Those are some pretty heavy “costs” that both the sons pay . . . but, I think that it is the father who pays the greatest cost in the end.

The father loses his wealth and status when he gives up his estate in order to provide his sons with an inheritance . . . he is not yet dead, but he gives it all up for his sons.  This does not look good to those in the community around him.  He allows his youngest to go off and blow his inheritance . . . and, to blow it in the most decadent way possible . . . and, to return with a status lower than a servant.  I am sure the tongues were wagging in the community about the man and his youngest son.  Then he welcomes his sinful son home . . . throws him a big party . . . and, never once, does he ask for anything in return from this wayward son . . . no apology, nothing.  How silly he must have looked to the community.  And, then to have his oldest son . . . the hard-working, abiding, and obedient son refuse to come and take part in the festivities . . . to ignore the wishes of his father.  To allow his oldest to basically tell him to go to h, e, double toothpicks.  This got the tongues wagging even more.  Nothing this father did was the way he was supposed to act . . . was not the way that things were done . . . and, with each act the father fell further and further down the social ladder of his community.

And, he didn’t care.  He didn’t care what anyone else thought.  His son had returned to the family, and he gladly welcomed him back into the family.  The lost had been found.  The family was restored.  This is not a story about the prodigal, but the story about the one who welcomes him back . . . it is a story about the father.  The father is full of grace and forgiveness in welcoming his son home . . . he does not care whether or not it is the way that things are supposed to be done . . . he does not care whether or not it knocks him down the social ladder.  He does the right thing and welcomes the lost back into the family. 

So it is with God.

Jesus is doing all the wrong things in welcoming and allowing the sinners and tax collectors into the family . . . but, he does not care.  He is welcoming others . . . it is pure grace and love.  With it, God is happy because Jesus is doing exactly what God wants him to do . . . he is restoring the family . . . finding the lost . . . and, not only bringing them back to the family, but welcoming them in.

In the season of Lent we are to weigh what it is that keeps us . . . as individuals and a church . . . from fully embracing our relationship with God and others.  One of those things that we should consider is the “cost” of following Jesus—his words and example . . . faith is not free, it comes with a “cost”.  To do the will of God is often to go against what others think is right . . . what society thinks is important . . . what gives us status with others . . . what gives us importance and power.  It is to go against the flow.  And, when we cannot pay the cost we act a lot like the oldest son . . . the cost is too much . . . and, though the world around us stands beside us in principle, we lose in the end.

In this season of Lent we weigh the cost . . . the cost of being a prodigal.  Is it worth stepping up and embracing those who are the sinners, taxpayers, and those who are standing on the outside looking in because they are not the status quo?  Jesus thinks it is more important to welcome those who have been lost than to dance with those who think they have already attained sainthood.  It makes God happy.  In the end that is all that matters . . . and, Jesus really did not care whether or not anyone else agreed. 
     Jesus told a story . . . what will be our story?  Amen.