Sermon for Palm Sunday Year C

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Luke 19:28-40

            There were many things that were unique about my internship site, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  But probably one of the most unique things that I got to participate in while I was there was the procession into the church on Palm Sunday.  The parish house, where all of the church offices and classrooms are, is separate from the church building itself.  So, the procession started at the parish house and crossed the alley separating the two buildings, finally winding up in the sanctuary itself.  My job was to lead the procession from the parish house to the church sanctuary carrying the processional cross.  In between me and the choir in the procession, we had two gentlemen dressed in kilts and full Scottish regalia who played the bagpipes.  Now, I know that bagpipes are somewhat of an acquired taste, but I happen to love them, and it sent chills down my back to be leading the way, carrying a cross, with the music of bagpipes behind me.  In recounting the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Luke records Jesus saying, in response to the Pharisees, that if the disciples were silent, “the stones would cry out”.  And this is what I picture the bagpipes representing:  this ancient and very loud instrument symbolizes the whole of creation shouting out as Jesus finally enters the city of Jerusalem; the King of Peace whose subjects cry out that now there is peace in heaven.  Today I would like to talk about what peace means, what it means for Jesus to be the king of peace, and what it means for us to not be silent and to proclaim that peace to the world.

            First, what does peace mean?  Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” distinguished between a “negative peace,” which is the absence of tension, and a “positive peace,” which is the presence of justice.  A negative peace, then, would be a kind of calm where the status quo reigns, and where, even if people are dissatisfied with that status quo, they do nothing about it because they don’t like to shake things up.  A positive peace, on the other hand, is one where, if there is no justice, the status quo is shaken up.  This positive peace does not therefore mean calmness, but instead it is a place where people work for the justice that is absent, because they know there can be no true peace unless there is justice. 

            So then, what does it mean for Jesus to be the king of peace?  Well, Jesus did not promote simply a negative peace, that is, a peace free from tension.  No, Jesus liked to stir things up and to challenge the status quo.  Throughout Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus seeking out the least and the lost.  For example, two weeks ago we heard the parable of the two lost sons, told in response to the Pharisees and the scribes criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners.  Later on this year, we will hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, showing that all people are our neighbors, even those we treat as outcasts.  In Nazareth, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus preached a message that was not popular because the people there needed to hear it, and he almost got thrown over a cliff because of it.  And today, as we hear Luke recount Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we see Jesus again stirring things up.  When his disciples shout out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” they are not proclaiming a king who will keep the status quo.  They are proclaiming a king who will finally bring heaven’s justice to a city occupied by Romans who are interested not in justice, but in maintaining the status quo and keeping things calm.  And this is also why the Pharisees tell Jesus to silence his disciples:  they want to keep things calm so that the Romans do not utterly crush Jerusalem and the Jewish people.  And so, Jesus speaks of the stones crying out: were the disciples to keep silent, the very creation would cry out that the king of peace was coming to bring heaven’s justice to Jerusalem.

            Given, then, that the peace that Jesus proclaims is a positive peace where there is justice, what does it mean for us, as Jesus’ followers, to cry out for justice in the community of Powell and to not remain silent?  Let me start with a basic premise: From the very beginning, the movement called Christianity has been countercultural.  It had promoted different values than the ruling government up until the year 313, when the emperor Constantine issued an edict of toleration for Christianity, and then himself became Christian.  Since then, somehow, Christianity has accommodated itself to the government that it finds itself in.  And even when the things that Jesus taught run counter to what the government promotes, many Christians remain silent.

            This has happened here in the United States as well.  For many years, this nation has seen itself as a Christian country, although this is now changing with the influx of different faiths and the increase in the population who describe themselves as having no religion.  I find this fascinating and also hard to understand.  The United States, and especially here in Wyoming, promotes a culture of individualism and self-reliance.  And that is completely opposite to what Jesus taught.  If the story of the Good Samaritan had been told by Americans, the man who had been beaten and left for dead would have somehow heroically crawled to the nearest gas station to make a phone call himself in order to get help.  And there probably would not have been a “good Samaritan” in the story, unless the EMT’s who came to get the man decided not to charge him for their services. 

            This is a far cry from what Jesus taught.  Christianity is not supposed to be a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” religion.  The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is NOT Biblical.  It originated in ancient Greece as a moral to one of Aesop’s Fables.  Instead, Christianity is about God’s grace towards us and love for us, not because of the things we do, but because we are his children.  And as his children, we are to help one another and show his love to one another.  Christianity is a faith that is about community, and not individualism.  The children taught me that on Tuesday night at the Seder meal when they came back to me and said they had all found the piece of matzoh together.  Thank you again to Kovan, Sydney, Elsie, Lilly, and Catherine for that.

            So, what does all of this background have to do with justice here in Wyoming?  Recently I have learned that Wyoming has the highest number of suicides in the country.  I was surprised to learn that.  When I lived in Alaska, the rate of suicide was very high there too, and I would have thought Alaska would have been number one for that.  In Alaska, we blamed the suicide rate on the darkness in the winter.  And so, I asked around for a reason for the high suicide rate here in Wyoming.  One person said it was due to the constant wind and isolated locations here.  This may be part of it.  But another one said, “Because of the individualistic culture here, where everyone is expected to be self-reliant, people who are in depression and despair do not think they should ask for help.  They think there is something wrong with them if they can’t fix their problems themselves.  And so, they give up and they commit suicide.”

            Brothers and sisters in Christ, this should not be.  People should not feel that they always have to fix their problems themselves.  There should be no shame in asking for help.  One thing that I think my colleagues in the Montana Synod do well is to model this kind of Christian community where it is okay to ask others for help.  When I arrived here, I was welcomed by several pastors who I know I can call upon, despite the great distances involved, should I ever be in need.  And I know that there is no shame in asking for that help from my colleagues.  Here in Powell, I have been blessed by the community of ministers across denominations who have also offered me support.  This is why, should you come in to the church office on a Wednesday morning, you will generally not see me—I will be meeting either with the area group of Lutheran pastors for Bible study or with various groups of ministers in the Powell area.  This time together benefits all of us in our different fields of ministry and supports us in our personal lives as well.

            With this model in mind, then, let us as a Christian community be countercultural.  Let us begin to chip away at that individualistic, self-reliant model we have for relating to our neighbors both inside and outside our congregation.  Let us not simply wave at our neighbor with a quick, “Hi, how are you doing?” and then quickly walk away, but instead let us deliberately take the time to get to know one another and find out how we can support one another.  Let us each be aware of counseling resources in the community, so that, if the need ever arises, we will be able to help our neighbor access those resources and support them in their journey towards good mental health.  Where there are gaps in mental health care in Wyoming, let us work for those gaps to be filled.  We may not be able to eliminate suicide completely, but we may be able to make a start by becoming communities who care about one another, despite distances involved.  And then, we may begin to see some of this positive peace that Jesus and his disciples announced come into Wyoming.

            Suicide is only one issue where we can be crying out for justice—there are many more issues out there that I don’t have time to go into today.  As a countercultural community seeking the positive peace that Jesus brings, we need to always be on the lookout for where the status quo needs to be shaken up a bit.  Our temptation will be to be more devoted to quiet and order than to justice.  Let us resist that temptation; let us not keep silent, but instead, let us cry out as noisily as bagpipes.  For the coming of Jesus, the King of peace, demands nothing less from us.  Amen.

Sermon for Lent 4C

Here is my sermon on the parable of the loving father and his two sons. The technology did not cooperate with me this morning, so the congregation only got to see a small portion of the clip I had in mind, from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s 3rd season episode “Deja Q”. But it went over well anyway. Much of my information on the cultural background of the parable comes from The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants, by Kenneth E. Bailey.

Sermon for Lent 4C

Luke 15:1-3; 11-32

 

            Today’s parable is probably one of the most well-loved and most famous out of any parable in the New Testament.  The theme of the prodigal son is referenced in much artwork and in many stories, both in print and as episodes on TV—even in science fiction!  The clip I’m going to show you now is from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  In this episode, a god-like being named Q is stripped of his powers and turned into a mortal human being.  But, because of a selfless act on his part, his powers are returned to him and he is allowed to return home.  I’d like to show you this clip, and I’d like you to picture this as something like the party that was thrown by the father at the return of his son, complete with the reaction by the elder brother, represented by the crew of the Starship Enterprise.  (play clip)  So, with such a well-known parable in our culture, what is there left for a preacher to talk about?  Noted theologian Fred Craddock writes, “As in the treatment of all parables, the teacher and the preacher would do well not to try to explain it; let it stand alone and do its work on and in the hearer. Like an explained joke, an explained parable violates the listener.”  Therefore, what I’m going to do today is to flesh out a little more what this parable meant in the culture of its original audience, and then tell you how this additional information affects my interpretation of the parable. 

            The occasion for Jesus telling this parable of the father and his two sons, as well as the two parables that come before it, is that the Pharisees and the scribes were complaining that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.  Eating together, even now, signifies friendship—after all, how often do we invite someone that we dislike to eat a meal with us?  But in Jesus’ culture, eating together was almost a sacramental act, and signified acceptance of the other person on a very deep level.  To eat with a religious teacher was to receive a blessing from him merely by his presence.  So we can start to imagine why the Pharisees and the scribes were upset:  they were the good religious people, they should be the ones eating with Jesus, not those unclean sinners and tax collectors.

            So Jesus tells three parables.  Today we get the final parable, the one of the father with the two sons.  The younger one comes to his father and demands his share of the inheritance now.  I don’t know if, in our culture, we have an equivalent of what this means.  My parents have often told my brother and me that they have spent our inheritance paying for our college education and helping us out in our adult years, and my brother and I generally shrug it off, because we would much rather have our parents with us now than any money they might leave us.  And perhaps that helps to understand what’s going on with the younger son’s demand:  by telling his father he wants his inheritance now, he is telling his father that he wishes his father were dead.  The relationship between the father and the younger son is now broken.

            But, that is not the only relationship that is broken.  In this Middle Eastern culture, whenever there is a quarrel, the two parties never make up face to face.  Instead, there is a mediator who helps mend the quarrel.  And the older brother should have been that mediator.  But, we don’t hear anything from him.  Where is he?  The fact that the older brother does not step in to help heal the relationship between his father and his brother means that the relationship between this elder brother and his father is also broken.

            And so, rather than exercising his right to punish his younger son, the father gives him what he asks for and lets him go off on his own, perhaps weeping as he gives his son his inheritance, and then weeping some more as he watches the son sell off that inheritance—one-third of the land and other possessions that his family had accumulated for many generations—turning it all into cash that he can take with him in his rush to get away from his family and experience the world.  And all this time, the elder brother continues to remain silent, watching as his younger brother does this, and thinking smugly to himself, “Well, my father still has me.  I will be here and remain obedient to his will, and he will love me even more for that.”

            And so, the younger son goes off on his own, spends all of his money, and then finds himself in a foreign country in the midst of a famine.  We might wonder why he didn’t just go home right away.  Many of us, including my own parents, are familiar with “boomerang kids”:  those of us who go out on our own for a while and then come back home when we have problems of some sort and don’t have anywhere else to go.  But, things were a little different then.  In 1st century Palestine, a Jewish man who had lost his inheritance among the Gentiles would be subject to a ritual called the kezazah, which would cut him off from his family and his village: no one would have anything more to do with him.  He would be a beggar, dependent on any handouts he might receive and taunted and scorned by those he had once called family and friends.  So, rather than return home to face this ritual, he tries to make the best of the situation, and ends up being told to go watch someone’s pigs: an unclean animal, one that he has been taught to stay away from his whole life.  His humiliation is complete; he has hit rock bottom.

            But then the young man “comes to himself” and formulates a plan to go back to his father.  Notice that the text doesn’t say that the son “repented”.  No—all it says is that he was hungry and was looking to find a way to eat.  So he comes up with a suitably humble thing to say to his father, and decides to ask his father to be a skilled laborer on his farm.  That way, he can repay the money he owes his father and have something to eat at the same time.  The son does not yet understand that the issue between him and his father is not the money, but their relationship.  The son, after all, had wished that his father was dead.  No, he thinks he has his problem solved, and he leaves the pigs and journeys back home.

            But the son does not reckon with what the father is going to do.  The text says that while the younger son was still at a distance, “his father saw him and had compassion on him.”  The Greek word that gets translated as “have compassion on” is one of my favorite Greek words:  σπλαγχνίζομαι.  It comes from the Greek word which means “heart, bowels, liver”.  The Greeks believed that the seat of the emotions was in your abdomen.  So the idea behind this word is that you have such compassion for someone that it feels like your insides are coming out.  And the father then runs to meet his son—and not just runs; he picks up his robes and races to meet him, covering him with kisses.  The son finally understands, based on his father’s response, that it was their relationship that was broken, and that it wasn’t about the money.  The son is now truly repentant, and places himself at his father’s mercy; the idea of being a skilled laborer for his father doesn’t even come up.

            The father does indeed show mercy on the son, and empties himself in love.  He has already humiliated himself by running through the village with his bare legs showing.  He now gives this younger son the best of everything that he has in order to restore him as his son and honor him as such.  His son was lost and now is restored to him through the love he has shown him.  The son accepts that it is only due to his father’s love, and nothing that he has done, that the relationship is once again whole.

            But the parable does not end here, for we still have the older son to deal with.  The older son, the responsible one, the one who has always respected his father and has been obedient to his father.  This son comes in from the field, where he has been responsibly working, to find an unexpected party going on.  When he finds out that his irresponsible, devil-may-care younger brother has returned home and that this is the reason for the celebration, he explodes in self-righteous anger.  His father is now spending his inheritance on this wastrel brother of his.  Unbeknownst to this elder son, his relationship with his father is also broken.  He is the one who should have taken it upon himself to reconcile his brother to his father when this all began, and he didn’t.  It was also his responsibility, at this point, to serve the guests who had come, but that would have included serving his younger brother, and he would not bring himself to do that. 

            But again, the father’s response is the key to this parable.  Instead of scolding his older son for this public insult, he again humiliates himself, leaves the banquet, and comes outside to plead with him to come in and be reconciled to them both.  In response, the older son registers his complaint with his father, and it is filled with I’s—everything is all about him, and not about his family.  And yet, the father still lovingly explains to him why they are celebrating, and entreats him to come in.  The parable thus ends with a question mark—what will the elder brother do?

            There are so many layers of meaning to this parable that I am hesitant to tell you what I think about it, for fear that it may prevent you from finding a meaning in your own lives.  What I will say is this:  being an elder sibling myself, I have often felt much empathy with the older brother in this story.  But as I have studied this parable again, I find myself astounded by how much love the father has—such self-emptying, agape love for both of his sons, wanting both of them to be reconciled to him, and suffering such agonies of rejection from both of them.  No wonder he is so happy that his younger son has returned to him; no wonder he celebrates.  In our relationship with God, each one of us is the younger son—every time we repent and return to God, God welcomes us with open and loving arms, graciously forgiving us for whatever it is we’ve done.  Unfortunately, though, in our relationship with others, we are very often like the older brother—begrudging others the grace and the love we so freely receive.  And when we are acting like the older brother in relationship to other people, God continually entreats us to come in to the banquet and celebrate the other’s return with him.  And so, as the parable ends with a question, I will end this talk with a question:  Will we receive God’s mercy and grace freely and believe that God gives it to others just as freely?  Will we celebrate that grace with others who have received it, joyfully singing and dancing to the tune of a mariachi band, and gladly serve them?  Or will we refuse to join in the banquet and stand outside, looking in?