We're (and by that I mean I am) preaching for Palm Sunday this year -- not usually our pattern at ECLC.
I wish I could just get up and preach the message of my former landlord, David Cunningham, in his wonderful piece in Christian Century this month about the fate of "the other" thief. Definitely worth a read.
For those of you who don't know Cunningham's work, his lovely book Friday, Saturday Sunday is worthy Holy Week reading too.
A commenter asked whether the criticism of Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus -- that she is either unaware or
unmindful of most biblical scholarship --is justified. I haven’t read enough to form a full opinion, but what I
find helpful is simply her perspective, namely that of a writer who knows "story" inside and out, but is re-discovering these particular stories as an adult.
It’s hard to “re-discover” the parable of the Prodigal Son,
since it is so familiar to us. But it is also one of those stories that simply
doesn’t ever lose its emotional power. Unless you are an only child who has
never had children of your own (and perhaps even then), its hard to imagine
that you wouldn’t resonate with some relational dynamic of this story.Who doesn’t know the shame, at some level, of
“coming to yourself” after wandering away? Who doesn’t know the grief of seeing
a loved one wander off? Who doesn’t know the resentment of the elder brother,
feeling overlooked though he’s strived for so long to keep his nose clean?
In our own house we spend a lot of time thinking about
sibling rivalry, and a lot of energy as parents trying to blunt its power. But
wow, it is a force! The need the children profess to have everything be “fair”
is insatiable, a game you cannot ever really win. Because they are not the
same. To treat everyone “the same” is in fact to treat someone unfairly,
because their needs differ.
One of the “bibles” of parenting through this minefield is Siblings without Rivalry, which provides
parents with tools for stepping out of the tit-for-tat scorekeeping kids so
readily engage in. But its most powerful moment is when the authors recount a
seminar in which they acknowledged that, no matter what we say, most parents secretly do have a child that speaks to their
heart more than the others. Amazingly, when the authors say this aloud among parents who
have begun to trust each other, no one contradicts them. Most of us try mightily to not
let our children know this truth, but in our own hearts we can't deny it. We strive to treat children equally as a sort
of compensation for the reality that they truly are very different people.
In fact, one confidential survey some years ago of adult
children and their parents revealed that all family members identified a
“favorite” among siblings. But here’s the odd thing: the children often
identified a different favorite than the parents did. The beloved child doesn’t
always look that way. (Case in point: Jesus).
This parable is one of the most powerful arguments for the
assertion that “God is not just. God is merciful.” No wonder we prefer to focus on the love shown
to the wayward son as opposed to the elder son’s bitterness. We might know exactly how angry he is, and yet the story cannot truly end as long as he's just sitting out there, outside the party.
God is merciful. Maybe God made "him to be sin who knew no sin" so that we would stop trying to figure out who the favorite is after all. If the beloved child is the wayward one, dying cursed on a tree, then the party thrown as he comes to life again really belongs to all of us.
In the wake of the earthquake in Chile and amidst the tsunami
warnings, USA Today had a headline this weekend asking, "Is
nature out of control?"
Say what? In whose control? And
has it ever been "under control?"
Sunday's Gospel reveals that these questions are as old as the hills. Terrible
stuff happens, like earthquakes and towers falling on people, and we grasp for
a reason. When the world literally shifts under your feet (sailing on land,
anyone?), more than just your footing gets unsteady. Talk to
anyone who has been through a disaster or tragedy-- either natural or manmade -- and it's
clear that part of the suffering they experience is the loss of steady worldview, the sense of control we get from believing that our right actions or right beliefs make us safe.
Jesus is clear, though:
the victims are not at fault.This is not about who deserves to die and who does not. Stuff (or manure. . .) happens. Life can be brutal. It's not our job to control it or come up with the reasons why things happen. Our only work is to be fruitful with whatever patch of ground we're planted in, for as long as we get to be there.
In Mary Gordon's Reading Jesus, she points out a stunning fact I hadn't noticed before: in Luke's Gospel, Jesus' first adult words are spoken to Satan.
Fresh from his baptism, where he has heard "you are my beloved Son," he is asked by the devil, in essence, to "prove it." Prove you are powerful. Prove you are beloved. Prove you can take on authority and glory. And Jesus words -- the first words he utters as a grownup -- are all essentially "NO."
Our baptismal rite reflects this same emphasis: you have to say "no" before you can say yes. "No" to all that draws you from God, our Lutheran rite says. Spit in the face of the devil, the ancient Orthodox rite does.
I know it's not popular to overemphasize the "giving up" part of Lent these days. But there is a truth in the reality of fasting that we may not get at by simply adding things to our days: there are things that get in the way of following Jesus, and we can't simply make peace with them. We have to confront them head on. Where have I given in? Where have I simply crowded God out because I haven't said no to things which, on their surface, seem pretty good?
The Christmas sermon is done, more or less. Now it's just a question of whether anyone will make it through the snow to hear it tomorrow night.
If you do or if you don't, here's something that didn't fit in the sermon, but still gives me pause: he was laid in a manger. Usually, thanks to Luther, we ponder this mainly as a sign of how lowly his coming among us was. His first bed, like his very existence, was rough around the edges in a way that doesn't match with our image of deity.
But the fact that this was a feeding trough is one I regularly overlook, in spite of the fact that the Gospel of Luke is almost always about food. This savior who is always eating with the wrong people and being known in the breaking of the bread appears first in the place where the beasts feed. The temples and palaces all have their place in Luke, but the real action happens whenever basic creaturely needs are being met.
May you have space and time and sufficient wonder in the days ahead to ponder this mystery, and to be fed yourself by the Savior.