Patient, Forgiving and Welcoming

“Patient, Forgiving and Welcoming”

Luke 15 prodigal son sketch, Rembrandt

Luke 15:20 – March 31, 2019

What do you think of when I mention the black sheep of the family? The kid who went astray? A really rough customer? A person you would not trust an inch with any amount of money? Someone who you wouldn’t want any children hanging around?

This is the kind of person we are going to meet today in the parable of Jesus we read from Luke 15. Some people call the parable “The Prodigal Son.” Remember the Rabbi Jesus was having dinner with some people the good, righteous synagogue-going people did not approve of? They were sniffing and clucking and making a big stink about Jesus and His dinner companions. So, as a response, Jesus tells three parables in Luke chapter 15, the last of which is the parable of the Prodigal—or the Lost Son.

The parable begins: “Then Jesus said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.”

This younger son was a brat. Or, worse, he was an ungrateful wretch. Do you know what he asked for? In that day, the son essentially told his father he wanted him to drop dead. That was the only way the younger son would have gotten his inheritance, in the normal order of things. What an ungrateful, selfish so-and-so! The father—amazingly—liquidates a third of his assets, giving the younger son his share of the father’s property. Perhaps you haven’t been as crass or unfeeling enough to walk up to one of your relatives and shout, “I wish you would drop dead!” and really mean it. But, that is exactly what Jesus begins this parable with.

Back to the parable: “It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.”

Going to a faraway, distant country. Sounds sort of romantic, doesn’t it? However, it does not take too long for this black sheep to run through all his money, lose all his fair-weather friends and end up on the streets as a homeless person. Plus, a famine struck the country he was living in. Consequences! What should he do now?

Let me step back from our parable for a moment—away from the younger son in the pigsty. I invite us to reflect on the church season we are presently in, Lent. Lent is a season where we are invited to reflect on our personal brokenness, and the need for God’s redemption.

This Lenten season we are also considering the different sentences of the Lord’s Prayer. This week, our sentence is “forgive us our debts (or, sins) as we forgive our debtors (or, those who sin against us).” I have a question: have you ever been so angry with someone that you have said (or thought) “I could never forgive him/her!” What is even worse is if you—or I—turn our backs, fold our arms across our chests and stubbornly insist, “I will never forgive her/him!”

What kind of unforgiving attitude is that? If we expect to be forgiven by God for all of the sins we commit daily, isn’t that unforgiving attitude a bit hypocritical? Rather a lot, really? What would God say about that ungodly attitude? What would you say about that attitude, now?

Back to the parable. “That brought him to his senses. The son said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.”

“The son’s repentance is implied, even if it is not clearly named by the ambiguous expression he came to himself (verse 17). After all, he hits rock bottom, longing to eat what unclean animals eat, once he is done in by a trio of calamities… As signs of contrition, he confesses sin and plans to ask his father to welcome him home as a slave instead of a son.” [1]

Now our parable shifts its point of view. We see the father: “When the son was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, the father ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

Remember, we are in the middle of Lent, a season when we are thinking of how much each of us sins against God and against others. We journey with Jesus towards the cross in Lent, but we also take the time to think about how much each of us need God’s forgiveness, grace and redeeming love.  What is more, “Lent helps us see when and how and where we think only of ourselves. Lent helps us see our true motivations for our actions and our true motivations for apology or repentance. Lent helps us see when we truly are in the depths of despair. Lent helps us see our deep longing for love.” [2]

Let’s look at the father’s response: “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.”

Almost any parent knows the feeling that if your kid really screws up, no matter what, the father (or mother) has the same love towards him, regardless of sin and unforgiveness. One might say any parent knows the feeling that even if the child goes off the rails and repeatedly misses the mark, the father is especially joyous to see the son who returns. But—the parable does not end there. Oh, no! We see the further unforgiving attitude of the elder son.

“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done, he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the servants, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’

The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’”

The elder son says “It’s not fair!” Well, guess what? The ways of God’s kingdom are NOT fair. True fairness leaves NO room for grace. Yes, God’s redeeming love for us is not fair. Would we really want it to be absolutely fair, all cold, legal rules with no grace and love at all?

The elder son is just as much as lost as his younger brother, isn’t he? Lost in his resentment, anger and alienation. “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”

Whoa! “No one bothered to call [the elder son] in to join the party! Accordingly, he does not enter the house. He does not address his father as “Father” and speaks to him about “this son of yours” instead of “my brother.” His refusal to celebrate stems from his deep resentment. Why is he resentful? He is taken for granted. No extravagance celebrates his reliable service. He accuses his father of showing preferential treatment.” [3] But, I ask again—do we really want God to be absolutely fair, in a cold, legalistic manner? With no grace or love at all?

Yes, “forgive as we wish to be forgiven” is a great lesson. But, I think the parable of the two Lost Sons has much more for us this week. Jesus told this parable to illustrate the boundless love of a parent for their children—the love of God the Father for His wayward sons and daughters. If you have really messed up, and you don’t think God could ever, ever forgive you, isn’t it wonderful to hear that the Prodigal’s father welcomed both His sons back home?

In this parable, Jesus tells us that God is patient, welcoming, and forgiving. God loves each one of us, forever and ever. Talk about good news! Isn’t this the best news in the world?

(Thanks to Eugene Peterson’s wonderful modern translation “The Message” for the use of this scripture reading. The parable of the two Lost Sons is from Luke 15:11-32.)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=533

Matt Skinner  Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4553

“Perspective Matters,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=533

Matt Skinner  Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Tempted by the Evil One

“Tempted by the Evil One”

Luke 4-2 devil tempted

Luke 4:1-13 (4:1-2) – March 10, 2019

Have you ever heard of H.A.L.T.? Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. These four factors in life are abbreviated to the acronym H.A.L.T. and has been used to great effect by recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and other, similar self-care and mindfulness methods.

Whenever you or I find ourselves hungry, angry, lonely or tired, we are that much more susceptible to negative thoughts, behaviors, or both. “It seems simple enough, but when these basic needs are not met, we are susceptible to self-destructive behaviors including relapse. Fortunately, hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness are easy to address and serve as a warning system before things reach a breaking point.” [1]

In our Gospel reading today, we find our Lord Jesus in the wilderness for quite a long time. The Gospel of Luke mentions He was there for forty days, and had little to eat. Yes, Jesus was fasting and observing an extended time of prayer and spiritual preparation before God. However, I want us to focus on one specific facet of this Gospel reading today: our Lord Jesus was tempted by the devil. Luke says so, right in verse 2.

What is temptation, anyhow? We know that our Gospel writer Luke said the devil came to Jesus and tempted Him. But—we were not there. We don’t know if the temptation was internal, in Jesus’s head, or external, where the figure of Satan in a red suit with horns and a pointy tail appeared to Jesus. It could be either, both, or something we cannot even imagine, in our limited, earthly minds. But—this we do know. Jesus was tempted—tried—tested exceedingly—by the power of absolute evil, personified. As the devil tried to get Jesus to go his way, away from God and God’s way, we need to pay close attention.

This is serious business indeed, and we ought to sit up and take notice of what Jesus said and did. But first, I would like for us to consider the Lord’s Prayer. Yes, we will be looking at a line from the Lord’s Prayer each week in Lent. What line is more appropriate to this Gospel reading today than “Lead us not into temptation?”

Let us return to Jesus, at the end of His forty-day period of prayer and spiritual preparation for His time of public ministry. He is definitely hungry and tired, and most probably lonely, as well. Definitely two of these strong physical, psychological and spiritual triggers that serve as a warning system for us humans, and probably all three of these triggers. We would expect Jesus to be very hungry, lonely and tired.

At such a physical, psychological and spiritual low point for Jesus, the devil suspected He might be susceptible to temptation. Wouldn’t you suspect it, if you were totally evil?

What were Jesus’s responses to these tests or trials? First, the devil tempted Jesus physically, with food. This bread was a perfectly reasonable thing for Jesus to desire! Except—not in the way the devil was presenting it. Hear, again, the first temptation: “The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’”

Ah, the devil keeps using the old tried-and-true deception. “IF you are the Son of God…then…” Trying to plant doubt in people’s minds, and put them on the defensive! “IF this is so…then…” But, Jesus does not take the bait. He answers with the Word of God from Deuteronomy: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” No discussion, no wiggle-room, just the Word of God.

The devil tries another tack, and tempts Jesus psychologically. The devil tests Jesus with ultimate power and authority even before the very beginning of His ministry, instead of waiting three years until after Jesus’s death on the Cross and Resurrection from the dead. (Again, I have no idea whether the devil actually took Jesus to a high place, like a real mountain, or whether this was a projection in their heads, sort of like virtual reality.) The culmination for this second test was if Jesus considered all the kingdoms of the world, then He needed to bow down and worship the devil. Which, was not happening! Jesus responds again from Deuteronomy, and says ““It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

The third temptation was a spiritual one, where the devil dared—even, double-dog-dared—Jesus to throw Himself down from the roof of the Temple. (Which was the first-century equivalent of a high-rise.) For the third time, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, and says, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

This is an excellent reason to memorize Scripture, by the way. Just so we can respond to the devil when we are confronted by a temptation that seems overpowering! God’s Word is truly “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,” as Hebrews 4:12 tells us. We can see that Jesus used this two-edged sword freely, to defend against temptation of the devil. We can always turn to the Lord’s Prayer, too, where we ask God to please keep us away from situations where we might be tempted by the devil.

The Lord’s Prayer is direct quoting of Scripture, too, from Matthew 6. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount gives us the template of a great prayer we can always pray to God, in countless varieties of situations. Like, in this one, where we ask God to “lead us not into temptation.”

That quoting-Scripture-stuff is all very well, but how do Jesus and the devil being on top of the Temple connect with my life and experience? Well, we can go back to some temptations we are able to relate to. Temptations that are almost irresistible for many people, temptations the children and I talked about today. Remember? What about a plate of cookies left on the kitchen counter—with no one else around? What about an extra-cool smart phone left unattended in a very public place, like an empty table in the food court at the mall? Or, what about a set of test answers in such plain view that you can hardly help but see them on the desk of the student next to you? Or, next to your kid, or your grandchild?

All of those things are SO tempting! And, for most of us, we will see the situation, and automatically do the right thing. But, sometimes—maybe even with you or someone you know—the temptation is SO real to do the wrong thing, to steal a cookie or three, or to pocket the smart phone, or to take a quick photo of the test answers with your phone.

It is in those pesky situations where any of us can feel weak and susceptible that we can pray “lead us not into temptation” and really mean it, with all our hearts! Or, even better, we can put those Bible words into our own words, and internalize this concept into our hearts. “Something like ‘God, help me know what is right and wrong and be able to do what is right without even thinking about it.’” [2]

Let us pray to God so that we all may follow God more nearly, and love God more dearly, each day more and more, throughout Lent and beyond. Please God, may it be so.

[1] https://bradfordhealth.com/halt-hunger-anger-loneliness-tiredness/ Accessed March 9, 2019.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/01/year-c-first-sunday-in-lent-february-14.html

Worshiping with Children, Lent 1, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

Clean on the Inside!

“Clean on the Inside!”

Psa 51-2 wash me, cleanse me

Psalm 51:1-3 – March 6, 2019

I remember the wringer washer my mother had in the basement of our small brick house on the northwest side of Chicago. I remember it well! We did not have an automatic washer, like all of my classmates at school. This was in the 1960’s and 1970’s. No, my mom insisted that the wringer washer did a perfectly good job cleaning our clothes—and even though I protested, she would say that a few broken buttons from the wringer were easily repaired with a trip to the fabric store for more buttons, and some needle and thread.

King David had no idea of a washing machine when he wrote this psalm—not even an old-style wringer washer. But, his filthy insides certainly needed cleaning up. This psalm, Psalm 51, was a lament to God. David felt so dirty on the inside! Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever made a really, really, really big mistake? What can be called a huge sin before God? A transgression so big you did not even want to think about it, but you—we just wanted the earth to open up and swallow us whole, because we felt so rotten? That is how rotten David was feeling.

Admittedly, David’s sin before God was indeed huge.

In short, he had seen an attractive young woman named Bathsheba from the roof of his huge palace in Jerusalem. He was king, after all, so he had his private guard of soldiers bring her to him, and he slept with her. (This was despite having a number of wives and concubines of his own, already.) After a few weeks, Bathsheba sent to King David to let him know that she had become pregnant. Big problem! Bathsheba’s husband was a general in King David’s army. He was away from home. so she would become known as an adulterer, and possibly be stoned.

King David summoned General Uriah home from the battlefront, but Uriah would not go home to sleep with his attractive wife Bathsheba—he was too filled with integrity to do that, since the men under his command did not have access to their wives because they were on the battlefield. So, David ends up unjustly ordering Uriah to go back to the front and die a valiant yet horrible death on the field of battle. Essentially, murdering him, but using the enemy army to do the wicked deed. So—the pregnant Bathsheba was free to marry David.

Except, this chain of events went so much against God’s laws, and David had broken so many of God’s commands. This series of sins was so huge that when David faced up to the immenseness of the horrible deed, he fell on his face before the Lord and confessed his transgressions in the words of Psalm 51. After all, this psalm has the superscription attributing the psalm to David “after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

Perhaps you and I have not committed such a huge wrongdoing as King David. But whether our sins are huge or not-so-huge, they still have that dirty, grimy patina that discolors our souls. “Psalm 51 was spoken, sung, and later penned by someone who understood the cleaning industry [of that day]. Look at the verbs: wash, cleanse, wipe, purge, blot. They all speak to something that is very dirty or really deep, or both.” [1]

It does not matter whether David was remembering the women of the village where he grew up, washing, scrubbing and wringing out their families’ clothing in tubs outside their homes, or whether we think of the agitator on those automatic wringer washers of yesterday, we all need to be cleansed from the wrongs we commit, on a regular basis.

Today is the first day of Lent, that penitential period of forty days before Easter when the Church all across the world begins to journey with Jesus towards the Cross. Yet, many people use external things like food or drink or certain practices to show their observance of Lent. This is a good thing, and I do not want to cause anyone to rethink their Lenten practices. However, King David here in Psalm 51 had something far more radical in mind. He wanted more than just his exterior cleaned. He wanted his insides cleaned up, too. Cleaned, and renewed!

Ash Wednesday is the day in the liturgical year when we concentrate on renewal—the messing-up we have done, on the inside as well as the outside. Whether large or small, we can all be cleansed and renewed deep down on our insides. The psalmist uses that most intimate of all things, first-person pronouns. “Have mercy upon me,” “blot out my transgressions,” “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” “I know my transgressions,” and “my sin is ever before me.”

At the beginning of each regular service each Sunday, we at St. Luke’s Church have a corporate time of confession. This Ash Wednesday service is a special time to gather together, and to become aware of our turning-away from God. This understanding of our sin—of the messing-up we have done and are continuing to do—prepares us to receive the forgiveness and joy of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. And the cross of ashes on each forehead is a reminder of that blessed forgiveness in each one of our lives.

Praise God, we can be restored to a close relationship with God. Ash Wednesday and its intimate reflection can deepen our trust in God and thankfulness for God’s faithfulness. And best of all, when we are restored to a close relationship with our Lord—vertically, we are freed to enter into a closer relationship with everyone else—horizontally.

What a wonderful thing to look forward to. Praise God, indeed.

[1] Marty, Peter M., Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 51, Ash Wednesday, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 9.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Follow Jesus in Service

“Follow Jesus in Service”

John 12-26 serves, follow me

John 12:20-33 (12:26) – March 18, 2018

Following a leader can be a challenge. People follow all kinds of leaders, leaders in serious and not-so serious areas. People flock after leaders and trend-setters in fashion, certainly, purchasing the latest styles or shoes, or the newest fabrics and colors of the season. People follow charismatic leaders who convince their followers to diet or exercise or vote or meditate or do some other worthy cause.

But, what about here? What about now, in today’s Gospel reading from John? Our Lord Jesus says some pretty amazing things. Jesus wants us to follow Him with our actions. (Just as He said in weeks past. We are to follow Jesus.)

Let us take a step back. Where are we in the Gospel of John? The chapter before, chapter 11, concerns the raising of Lazarus in the town of Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Immediately after that comes the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. We know that well from our celebration next week, on Palm Sunday. This reading from John 12 comes right after that.

Remember, Jerusalem is jam-packed with observant Jews from all over the known world, coming to worship at this special time of Passover. Not only from all over Palestine, but from Egypt, parts of Asia, and Europe. Maybe even further away than that. Some Greek-speaking Jews who must have heard about this Rabbi Jesus want to see Jesus and talk with Him. Perhaps, they even would like to consider following Him.

This is exactly what Jesus has wanted from people all along. At the very beginning of His preaching and teaching ministry, Jesus said, “Follow Me!” At various times throughout His journey up and down the country, and as He turned His face toward Jerusalem, Jesus repeated His call to follow. “Follow Me!” And, during this final week, this Passion week, just days before He went to the Cross, Jesus again says “Follow Me!” But, follow, how? In what way?

John calls these people “Greeks,” but he is not specific. They could be Greek proselytes, or they could be Greek-speaking Jews from far away. Whichever it was, they were more comfortable speaking Greek, which was the international language of trade and commerce, and the dominant international culture of the time. As one of my commentators said, “These foreigners wanted to investigate the possibility of becoming disciples. They had heard about Jesus (i.e., His reputation or ‘glory’) and wanted to ‘see’ if they could follow Him.” [1]

When the disciples bring these Greeks to Jesus, He responds with what seems to be an analogy, only sort of connected to becoming disciples. Listen to Jesus’s words: “23 Jesus answered the disciples, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to receive great glory. 24 I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains. 25 Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal.”

Come on now, Jesus! How did Jesus get from becoming disciples to talking about grains of wheat? And then, wheat being planted and dying in the ground? Okay, I can see what Jesus meant about a single grain growing into one stalk of wheat which can produce many grains of wheat. But, does that really connect to becoming disciples?

My commentator Larry Broding is helpful here. “Those who gave their lives to others would die, but see others live and would enjoy eternal life. They would bear ‘much fruit.’ Notice those who gave up their lives unselfishly followed Jesus to his death.” [2] That is one way of seeing discipleship. Following Jesus, in a challenging, unselfish and giving way.

What a way to demonstrate becoming disciples of Jesus!

Sometimes you and I have a problem. Sometimes, we cannot accept what Jesus sets in front of us. Sometimes, we are unwilling to follow the guidelines and rules God places before us. On occasion, some of us are too stubborn to do what God wants us to do. Even though we might know what God wants, and how to follow, sometimes—we do not.

The Rev. Janet Hunt relates something that happened about a month ago at her Lutheran church in De Kalb. Let’s see whether this helps us to understand Jesus’s words better.

“A few weeks back [in February], 93-year-old Vivian suffered a brain bleed. The damage was great and irreparable and her family opted to bring her home on hospice care. For the next almost two weeks, her 94-year-old husband sat by her bed, held her hand, and prayed and prayed and prayed. He was utterly heartbroken. From the start, I knew that they were just shy of their 70th wedding anniversary. Over the course of the last few weeks, I learned that they had been together much longer than that. For Bob actually held Vivian’s hand as he walked her to kindergarten 88 years ago.

“As the vigil neared its end, Bob became ill as well and was taken to the hospital with a severe case of pneumonia. A day later, his family talked his doctor into letting him go home, for they knew he had to be there when she died. And so he was. A day later he was back in the hospital once more. And a day after that, with a full heart and clear eyes, he declined all invasive treatment. He told me he was tired. He told me he only wanted to go to Vivian. I will not ever forget standing with him and with his family, praying for their hope and trust in God. His eyes were open and comprehending the whole time. Moments later, his nurse turned down the oxygen. After saying good-bye to his children, a few hours later he died, three days after his wife had breathed her last.

“Yes, he was 94. And yes, his health had been poor for some time. And no, he could not imagine a life without his beloved Vivian. And so, in a world where our medical system is set up to sustain ‘life’ at all costs, Bob faced it down and chose something other, something more. I cannot help but believe that while he surely did it for himself, he also did it for her. For while there was nothing more he could do for her, nor nothing more he needed to do for her, Bob was imagining heaven as a place where he could still be and do for his beloved. Even as he had always done. And he was willing to die to be able to do just that.” [3]

Do you understand? Do you see? Jesus was willing to serve and to die, for each of us. He wants us to be ready to serve and to die, for each other.

That is where our reading from Jeremiah comes in. God doesn’t have the rule book on stone tablets any more, like the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain top. No, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the Lord will write God’s laws upon our hearts. We do not have to blindly follow rules, but instead enter into a relationship. A real, loving relationship with Someone who loves us more than anyone on earth possibly could. God writes guidelines of love, service and relationship inside each of us, on our hearts.

God loves us so much that God sent the man Jesus into this world, to communicate that wondrous love to humanity. Jesus is communicating that wondrous love and generous service to each of us, today.

Are you ready to follow Jesus? Let us follow Jesus in love, and follow Jesus in service. Who can you serve today?

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/b/5Lent-b/A-5Lent-b.html   “The Glory of the Cross,” Lent 5B, Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Catholic Resource for This Sunday’s Gospel.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/a-single-grain-dying-for-the-sake-of-life/ Rev. Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Follow, Carry the Cross

“Follow, Carry the Cross”

Mark 8-34 take up your cross, print

Mark 8:31-38 (8:34) – February 25, 2018

When you imagine children at play, what do you think of? Children in a schoolyard, out at recess or out at lunch break? I am not sure what children play now, but when I was in school, school children played all kinds of games. Besides hopscotch and jumping rope, there were games of Red Rover Red Rover, Mother May I?, Duck Duck Goose, and Simon Says. And, Follow the Leader in the playground among the play equipment.

When we compare children’s games today with the words of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel reading, we are looking at two very different things. When Jesus said, “Follow Me!” He was not talking about a fun thing like a children’s game. He spoke about something quite serious.

The background of these words is critically important for us to understand exactly what Jesus was getting at. What was the history, the backstory? Here we are at the center of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had healed, taught, cast out demons, and performed other signs of power, but often in secret. And, people had questioned who this upstart Rabbi was, but with little answer.  Up until this time, Mark had only mentioned the term “the Christ” once, in the opening verse at the very beginning of the book, until here in today’s reading, in Chapter 8.

Just before this scripture reading today, the Rabbi Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do other people say I am?” Great question! We are familiar with the responses. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah or another prophet, but you and I know better. We know different. We know the end of the story. The thing is, these disciples do not.

Jesus has been asking the disciples to follow Him ever since the first chapter of Mark. When He called James and John, Simon and Andrew, Levi and all the rest, Jesus said simply, “Follow Me!” And, they did! They left everything, in fact. Commentator Matt Skinner said “Jesus isn’t so much about gathering pupils or making sure everyone understands him. He calls followers. Want to see who he really is? Join him.” [1] Which is exactly what many people did.

Today, we are following Jesus step by step on His journey to Jerusalem and the Cross during the next weeks, throughout Lent. Similar to these early followers of the Rabbi Jesus, we are taking this following thing one step at a time. We focus on one facet of the journey each Sunday. This Sunday we look at what Jesus said about taking up the cross when we follow Him. What on earth does that mean?

Here we can see that Jesus knew where He was going, and what He was going to do. Others probably did not, and even would call Jesus crazy or somehow deluded. “What do You mean, Jesus? How can You say that?”

Didn’t Peter just say that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen One of God? I suspect the disciples were thinking, what kind of mixed messages are coming from Jesus now?

Jesus not only mentioned that the disciples ought to follow Him, but He also wanted them to take up their cross. Jesus even made some mention of a person being willing to give up their life. The only comparison I can figure is that of police officers and firefighters. They “make the decision to put themselves in danger, risking their lives to save another person.  They measure their lives not by length, but by depth and quality.” [2] That sounds very similar to the sort of thing Jesus said in our reading today.

There is a problem. I can hear some people today saying, “Wait a minute, Jesus! I didn’t know that following You meant the possibility of giving up my life! I didn’t know that there was such danger and risk involved in being a Christian.”

Except, giving up one’s life was what the apostle Paul talked about over and over again in his letters to the churches in the New Testament. And, that’s what Jesus starts telling His disciples quite plainly, starting in today’s Gospel reading. Listen to Jesus: “If any of you want to come with Me,” He told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow Me. 35 For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for Me and for the gospel, you will save it. 36 Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life? Of course not!”

What is more, Jesus rebuked Peter for telling Him He—Jesus—was wrong, and for trying to keep Jesus from walking the journey to Jerusalem and the Cross. Preventing Jesus from facing the Passion and sure death. At this point, Peter did not understand the full meaning of Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ. Plus, I suspect Peter and the other disciples were not clear on what taking up their own cross and following Jesus meant, either. But, they would find out, in the months and years to come.

Yes, sometimes it is difficult to follow Jesus. And, who in their right mind would want to shoulder the difficult burden of carrying a cross?

When we consider police officers or firefighters and what challenges they face on a regular basis, sometimes we call them heroes. Yet, Jesus calls all of His followers to face any number of difficulties and challenges, too. Except, not quite like running into a burning building or running down perpetrators, but still just as challenging.

Imagine someone you know, or someone you’re related to, bearing different crosses during their life. Crosses can be burdens we carry, difficulties we face. Some crosses involve physical pain and suffering. Other crosses can be financial, relational, or mental. What are the problems you or your family are dealing with today? Last month? Next year?

This might be the cross Jesus calls for us to bear, whether dealing with a devastating disease, accident, handicap, or disability. (Seen or unseen.) On the positive side, taking up our cross might assist us as we journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Lutheran pastor Edward Markquart reminds us:

-To take up our cross daily means to be open and flexible to God’s plan.

-To take up our cross daily means to focus on God daily.

-To take up our cross daily means that we can fail. That is, we do not do it.

-To take up our cross daily means to try to be loving every day.

-To take up our cross daily means to go the extra mile to do our jobs in life well.

-To take up our cross daily means to work on my relationship with my relatives and with people I do not like. [3]

Like I told the children earlier, we need to live like Jesus. We have to love God every day and love the people around us even when it gets hard. Yes, Jesus tells us clearly what it is like to follow Him. It is simple, yes. But easy, not necessarily so. May we pray for the grace, strength and perseverance to continue to follow Jesus, and to take up our own crosses.

And at the end of our lives, when we stand before Christ, what does the apostle Paul say? In Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Certainly not God, who did not even keep back his own Son, but offered him for us all! He gave us his Son—will he not also freely give us all things?” Praise God, we are indeed accepted by the Messiah Jesus. We are loved by our Beloved, Jesus Christ. Amen, and amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1383  Matt Skinner

[2] https://sacredstory.org/2012/02/29/jesus-faces-death-taking-up-the-cross/

“Jesus Faces Death: Taking Up the Cross,” Mother Anne Emry, Sacred Story, 2012.

[3] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_a_peter_the_stumbling_blockGA.htm

“Peter: The Stumbling Block and the Way of the Cross,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

When We Fast

“When We Fast”

Matt 6-16 when you fast, script

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (6:16) – February 14, 2018

The church season of Lent is a season of penitence, a forty-day period of time where we contemplate our inner selves, our sins, our shortcomings, and our position before God. But, it’s not all about us. Not by a long shot.

This Ash Wednesday service tonight is—similarly—a contemplative time where we are called to repentance. This day is the beginning of Lent. In our service we make a special effort to show God that we are sorry for our sins. We approach God through special prayers and readings of repentance, and through the visible sign of the cross of ashes.

When I was growing up on the northwest side of Chicago, our family was the only family on our block with children who attended Chicago public schools. All of the other families were Catholic, and all of the other children attended St. Ferdinand’s Catholic school. I remember them getting ash crosses on their heads. I did not. I was not Catholic.

Our Gospel reading tonight comes from the Gospel of Matthew, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus talks about how we approach God. There are good ways to approach God, and not-so-good ways. Jesus talks about charity, prayer, and fasting. Good ways to do all of these things, and not-so-good ways.

Let’s focus on the third way Jesus talked about. Fasting. Not a particularly fashionable thing to do today. (Unless you need to do it for health reasons, in which case I absolutely agree with the medical professionals. I fully support them.)

People would fast to show sorrow for sin and repentance, as well as their humility before God. Years ago, centuries ago, fasting was almost a badge of honor among religious people. What was up with this? Why so much attention paid to fasting?

Those super-spiritual super heroes of Judaism, the Pharisees, practically turned fasting into performance art. They were particularly skilled at it. They even advocated fasting twice a week—on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They recommended looking tired and hungry and even dumping ashes on yourself, on the days you were fasting. That way, everyone would know you were fasting. Also, the fasting process had tight guidelines and rules on “how-to-fast.”  (That way, you could earn extra brownie points with the Lord, too!)

What is the matter with this kind of fasting? Is this the best kind of approach to God? Can we really please God if we go about it in such a rigidly controlled manner?

What did Jesus say? Reading from Matthew 6, “And when you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance so that everyone will see that they are fasting. I assure you, they have already been paid in full.”

I suspect Jesus would not be particularly happy with the way the Pharisees fasted. Sure, the way they treated the outward body portrayed the inner way they were trying to follow God, but in such a hypocritical fashion.

Since we are beginning Lent today, many Christians all over the world commit themselves to fasting in some way, or deny themselves some food, drink or activity during these forty days. It’s meant to remember Jesus and His withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days to prepare Himself for His public ministry. Other people read a Lenten devotional. Or, some follow various Lenten calendars or Lenten task lists to try to follow God more closely.

I remember when I was a child, the other children—Catholic schoolchildren—would give up something for Lent. Chocolate or cakes and cookies would often be selected, as would soda. A few jokesters would suggest they were giving up homework for Lent, but that would quickly be frowned upon by both the religious sisters and by their parents.

The other children would sometimes boast about what difficulties they were having, “giving up” something for Lent. Today, there is even a term for it: “humble-brag.”

Is this what Jesus wants us to do, in order to follow Him more closely? No! Other people were (and are) not to know that we are fasting! This is a way that Jesus suggests to follow God more nearly.

We have many options to follow Jesus during Lent. We can follow a daily Lenten prayer and bible reading. We can meditate and pray every day.

What are we as a congregation going to do, on Sundays in Lent? I have a small Jesus-figure, and I’ll be featuring it in the children’s sermons in the weeks ahead. I will use this figure as a visual aid, helping the children understand Jesus and His journey to the cross. Plus, we will follow Jesus all around the sanctuary.

We can all strive to love God more dearly and follow Jesus more nearly, as we journey with Jesus through Lent. Amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)