Wednesday, May 01, 2013

What is He doing here? by Chris Shade

Do you like a good cliffhanger? Do you like the anticipation of not knowing how the leading characters are going to escape their sticky situation? Ugh! I hate them. They stress me out. And it is always at these tense moments that television shows opt to break for commercial. I remember being a big Dukes of Hazzard fan when I was a kid. Any other Duke boys fans in the audience? They were always getting a gun pointed at them, or having to make an impossible jump in the General Lee (that was their supped up Dodge Duster). And right at the tensest moment, they would freeze the frame and go to commercial. The absolute worst though is when the show would be getting toward the end and the resolution was nowhere in sight. The killer was nowhere close to being found. Or the kids were not going to make it out of the cave in time. Or Brenda and Dylan were still on their way to the prom. For a second you wonder how they are going to wrap it all up and still have time for the closing credits. Then three simple words spell out your answer...”to be continued...” Guess you will just have to come back next week.
We are going to see one of those “to be continued...” moments in our story today. But first I have to fill you in on last week. If this were a TV show, it might go something like: “Previously on The Sermon.” We heard a story about a wonderful homecoming. It goes like this: A man had two sons and the younger son wants his inheritance early. His father gives it to him and he leaves. Soon after we find him penniless as he spent all of his inheritance on loose living. He gets a lowly job feeding pigs. And as he sits with filthy pigs wishing that he could eat their food, he comes to himself and decides to return home and beg his father to hire him as a worker.
But when his father sees him coming, he runs out to meet him. He tells his servants to put a robe on him, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. He tells them to kill the fattened calf and have a feast in his honor. For he says “This son of mine was dead and now he is alive; he was lost and now he is found.”
Now we could end it here. It certainly seems like a nice capper to the story. It is a tale of extravagant welcome and forgiveness. It is a lesson for us as a people and as a church of being warm and accepting. If you were here last week, you heard that lesson. But there is more to the story. At the end of the episode if you look past the party guests and out the window you would see a disgruntled man standing in a field. The older son! What is his beef? Find out next week on The Sermon.
Lucky for you, next week is today.
We pick up right where we left off. The father goes out to the older son to plead with him. The older son wastes no time with niceties or a respectful greeting to his father. He starts right in. “Listen!” he says “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Essentially the older son is saying, “What is HE doing here!?!” This is a bold statement. The bile and judgment comes right through. The older brother is mad. But can you really blame him? After all, he has a point, right? Why should this younger brother get the king’s treatment? After all, he has done nothing but squander everything that he has been given whereas the older son has been nothing but faithful and true.
To understand why Jesus put this reaction in the parable we have to go back a bit. Back before the sermon last week to look at the beginning of this chapter of Luke. This parable comes as a capper to a trio of parables about finding lost things. There is the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and finally this one which could easily be called the parable of the lost son. They are teachings about how much celebration there is in heaven when a sinner is repentant and changes their sinful ways.
These parables are not being told out of the blue. They are all in response to the Pharisees. Now who are the Pharisees? The Pharisees were powerful religious leaders that were entrusted with the task of making sure all of the Jewish religious laws were being followed. The text says that they were grumbling about Jesus eating with quote “sinners” unquote. These sinners had not earned their space at the table. They were unclean, not the blessed people, the ones that God truly loved and admired. No. The Pharisees thought that the grace of God must be earned, and they had earned it, not these sinners. If this Jesus, this Son of God, should be eating with anyone, it should be them. In essence they felt like the older son.
This is exactly why Jesus introduces the character of the older son into the story. It would have been hard for Jesus to illustrate this concept of jealousy with sheep or coins. But here we have an older son that is upset that his younger brother is being doted on by his father after squandering his money. That is something that hits home. This is quite obviously intended at the Pharisees who are looking down their noses at Jesus and his merry band of sinners.
The story does not hide the idea that the two sons are opposite contrasts of one another. The younger son does everything wrong. Everything about him is dirty, except...his heart. His heart is humble. His heart is willing. He is filled with rediscovered love for his father and for his family. He just wants to be a part of it, if only in small way.
By contrast his brother, the older one, does everything right. He is perfect in every way except...his heart. His heart is full of hate and resentment. He resents his father. He resents his father’s actions. And he clearly resents his brother, the one who devoured his father’s property. In essence Jesus is claiming that hearts of these Pharisees are no better than the sinners with whom he dines. In fact, they might be worse.
It is likely that we have all felt like the older son at one point or another in our lives. Perhaps you have resented others for the actions that they have taken. Maybe you have felt unfairly treated or even hurt. Or you have wished that others would just go away. Certainly this is the easy response. But this parable gives us an alternative in the actions of the father. When the world says to forget about others, this parable says to run to them with open arms. When the world says that you should cut those people off, this parable says that we should reach out with grace. When the world says that we should only look out for ourselves, this parable says that we should be abundant with forgiveness. Resentment will only breed isolation. But acceptance will foster togetherness.
It is only fitting then, that the father, the example of the love of God, should have one more thing to say. “Son,” he says. “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
         There are two important details about this response.
         The first is that the Greek word that we translate as “son” is teknon, which is a very special word for son that denotes affection and intimacy. There is a great deal of love in that word. There is a great deal of love that the father has for his older son. He does not exchange malice for malice. He does not respond with resentment, but with love. The same kind of love that he had extended earlier to the younger son.
         The second detail is the equality in the statement. “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Certainly we can read this as a monetary promise. After all the older son remains such and will receive all that comes with that title. But it is about more than money. Remember, this is a parable. The older son is not just an older son, but a thinly veiled characterization of the Pharisees. So when Jesus as the father says “All that I have is yours” what he is saying is that the Pharisees are not going to be removed from their post, but rather that the Kingdom of God is available to them. They can share in this joy. They can be a part of all that God is doing in the world at that moment.
         And with that he repeats what he said earlier. What was dead has come to life. The lost son, like the sheep and the coin before him has been found.
And then, the text ends. But I would argue that the story doesn’t. I think that there is an invisible “to be continued...” at the end of this story.
The Bible scholar Dr. Ken Bailey’s does too. Dr. Bailey analyzed this parable in comparison to Hebrew story structure and concludes the parable cuts off too early. To complete the structure there should be a final response from the older brother, but there is none. Why? According to Dr. Bailey the last part was for the Pharisees to fill in on their own. If the term “to be continued...” existed in Jesus’ time, he might have directed it right at the Pharisees. Remember, it was the Pharisees who looked down on Jesus for dining with sinners and the unclean. But Jesus called them out. He uses the story to show the true nature of their hearts in comparison to God’s love. The next move is on them.
So Jesus leaves it up to the Pharisees. Do they want to continue to stand on the outskirts looking in with disdain and judgment at this new thing that God is doing? Or do they want to cast off their pride and join in the party? Whether or not they do, God’s grace and love is still going to be abundant. To saints and sinners alike.
So in this day, as we gather in this place, as we take part in this worship, the question of response is not directed at the Pharisees, but rather directed at us. The “to be continued...” phrase is aimed at our lives. How are we going to act?
A few months ago, we started asking these kinds of questions. Who is our neighbor? How will we respond? What will get us talking? It is a tough process and one that we certainly can not complete in twelve short summer weeks. But along this process we have to ask ourselves, “What will our response be if and when we do start making connections?” After all, we are not called to reach out to those who are doing great, but rather those who, like the younger son, are in need of a place to feel at home. And I will be honest: some of these people can make us uncomfortable at first. So how will we respond?
Will we be like the father and give ourselves over to welcome and acceptance making this a safe haven for the lost and the broken, for all of God’s children? Or will we be like the Pharisees who prefer to have order and comfortability and keep things the way that they have always been.
Maybe a better way to put it is, “What does your love look like?” Is like the father’s love in the story or by parallel God’s love? Does it flow abundantly through you? Does it overcome being wronged, being left, being forgotten? Does it seethe with resentment or does it offer forgiveness? Does it lift others up or break others down? Does it extend to the least of these? Does your love shine even in times of embarrassment, awkwardness, and uncomfortably?  
So when we check in again on the next episode, will we find yourself ourselves alone in the field like the older son with only our pride and stubbornness to keep us company or will we be inside, at the party, sitting at the table of grace? Well, if Luke is correct, you know where Jesus will be, sitting down with a loaf of bread in one hand and a sinner in the next, trying to figure out how to make something of this community. People of God, people of love, go and do likewise. Amen.

Ooooh, the Humanity... by Chris Shade

There are two kinds of people in the comic book loving world. There are Superman people and there are Batman people. What side are you on? If you are not sure let me give you a bit of back story. Superman people love the super powers of their comic book hero. They like that he can deflect bullets with his bare chest, that he can shoot heat rays out of his eyes, and he can fly! He can fly!
Now Batman people don’t go for all of that super power kind of stuff. See Batman is just a regular human. He can’t fly. He can’t shoot lasers. He is not even that strong. He is just your average guy, well, if your average guy was a highly intelligent billionaire with an arsenal of weapons and decades of combat training. Okay, so he is not all that average, but he is mortal; he is human.  
         Now why am I telling you this? Well, I want to come right out and say it. I want to confess on this day in this pulpit: I am a Batman person. I identify with the character who gets his powers from within.  I like the harsh reality that Batman has to face on a daily basis and knowing he could die. In short, I like the humanity.
         So, it is with this kind of knowledge that I come to this story of the Transfiguration that Nancy read for us this morning. I have to say that this story always perturbed me. I have always felt that it is a bit out of place in the grand narrative of Jesus. Here is why: Jesus is a guy who is walking the earth, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, questioning authority...and then, seemingly out of the blue, he takes a minute out of his day to walk up a mountain and have a glorious apocalyptic moment with Elijah and Moses. It just seems a bit out of place to me. But maybe it is because I am looking at it like a Superman story and not a Batman story. Maybe I am missing the humanity that is present in the story. So I invite you to come with me this morning and see if we can find a place for us in the Transfiguration. If we find it, we might just be prompted to utter the title of the sermon: Ohhhh, (delivered like someone who came to a realization, not in anguish) the Humanity.
         Well right off of the bat it says that Jesus went up to the mountain to pray. In fact it was during his prayer that the Transfiguration happened. I can identify with this – this need to get away, this need to go and just have a moment of peace. Are you with me? How many times in your busy stressful day have you thought, boy, I wish I could just get away. I wish I could take a trip to someplace that is quiet, a place that is peaceful. Wouldn’t that be nice? Jesus no doubt had many reasons to want to take a moment to himself. There were the insistent crowds, the clueless disciples, and let’s not forget the powerful authorities that wanted to kill him. Talk about stress.
         But I don’t know if this is the best place to find the humanity in the story. After all, Jesus was the son of God, so his prayer must have been on a whole other level. When we pray, do we pray like Jesus? Can we pray like Jesus? We can certainly pray as Jesus taught us, but is that the same?  I mean he went up to a mountain top and was surrounded by a cloud. Is that humanity? I am not sure. Perhaps we should keep looking.
         Perhaps there is humanity in the connection with the Creator. God’s presence was certainly felt on that day. Even God’s voice came down and spoke. “This is my Son, Listen to Him.” At it is God’s presence that brings about the transformation. It says that Jesus’ face was changed and his clothes became a dazzling white. On the surface this might sound like the toughest place in the story to find humanity, what with all of the theatrics. But I do not think that it is impossible.
At it’s heart, the transfiguration is about change, and as humans, we have the capacity for great change. We have the gift of choice and we can use that gift to make remarkable changes in our lives and in our world. Maybe you have made the transition from addiction to recovery. Maybe you have mended a relationship that you though would never be reconciled. Maybe you have simply begun a new exercise regime. Whatever the case, it is our capacity for change, for transformation that makes us human. And it is the presence of God in this story and in our lives that can inspire that change to happen.
         But if I am to be really honest, I think that our changes, no matter how significant just don’t quite measure up to the power of this story. It says that Jesus’ whole face changed. Even his clothes became new. In all of His glory, I think that we lose a bit of the humanity.
         Perhaps we are focusing too much on Jesus. Maybe we can find connections with other characters in the story. Maybe the humanity lies in one of Jesus’ companions. The scripture says that Jesus was joined by Moses and Elijah, not angels, but humans. Humans that had struggles, humans that wanted to run from their callings. Moses told God he was not worthy of the task God gave him. Elijah ran away when things got too heated in his life.
So, can we see some humanity in these folks? Have you ever been in a situation that you did not want to face? Have you feared failure, rejection, or the stresses of leadership? Have you ever felt like staring God in the eye and just saying, “No.” Well then you might identify with these two characters.
But to be honest, they are clearly not in this story because of their human faults. They are in this story because of what they accomplished. Both encountered God on a mountain top, both went on to do great things for their people and both are revered. They are the equivalent of Jewish super heroes: Moses representing the law and Elijah representing the prophets, two pillars of Jewish faith and teaching. And they show up in this story as a way to link Jesus’ life to theirs, to link a traditional faith to a new revelation.  
So that leaves us with Peter. Poor, naive Peter. He sees this miraculous event and proclaims, “It is good to be up here. We should build some dwellings. Let’s make three houses. One for you, Jesus, and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Now we can certainly feel for Peter. I mean which of us would really know how to handle that situation? Historical figures that have been dead for thousands of years just show up one day on a mountain. What would you do? He was just trying to be helpful. Now there is humanity here, but Peter’s character definitely leaves something to be desired. Thankfully the story does not end there.
         At the end of the day Jesus came down off of that mountain top. And do you know what he did? He got to work. And this is where I think our best glimpse of humanity lies. Jesus did not ascend into heaven on Elijah’s chariot. He did not stay up on that mountain and set up camp. No, he came down. For though it is His connection with God that makes Him divine, it is his connection with the earth that makes Him human. So He comes back and He gets back to work. In the very next story He heals a boy and restores a family. So maybe the humanity is not on the mountain top, but in coming down off of the mountain and getting back to work.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that mountain moments are crucial. They are essential in our lives and in our work. Taking time to be alone. Taking time to pray. Being available to have encounters with our God that renew us and change us: they all vitally important. But we cannot stay there. Just as Jesus came down and got back to work, so should we.
         And what a load of work there is to do. I feel like we can have a wheel of issues and just spin it and see what comes up. Take your pick. How about feeding the hungry? According to the U.S. census, in 2011 over 6 million people in California alone are below the poverty line. 6 million! That’s more than any other state. And 1 in 5 kids live in a household that struggles to put food on the table.
You want to talk environment? 2012 was the hottest year ever in the United States and experts say that this decade is no doubt going to be the hottest. You hear about the loss of crops, the wildlife being displaced, and don’t forget the weather patterns like hurricane Sandy.
You can take gun control, human trafficking, health reform, the prevalence of corporate influence in our government. The list goes on and on.
Now I am not just here to spout doom and gloom and throw a bunch of statistics at you. I am merely pointing out that there is work to do. A lot of work to do. And who better to do it than us. What better time that now? And we have made progress. This church has raised over $2000 for the Habitat for Humanity build in Walnut Creek and we are sending five workers to give their time and talent to help further. We contribute time, food, and money to our local food bank. The youth collected $165 here last week. We inform ourselves about the issues and stay informed.
But there is more work to be done and we can only stand up on the mountain for so long before we have to follow the lead of Jesus and get back to work.
Now you know that I am a Batman person, right, but I found this story of Superman that seems particularly appropriate to end on. It’s called Superman: Grounded. It begins after a long series of events that lead the people of the U.S. to feel like Superman has lost touch. He has been away for so long he no longer understands what life is really like in their world. So Superman agrees to come out of the skies and walk. He walks from one end of the country to the other. He does not fly. He barely uses his powers. He just walks and sees what is around him. He looks at the joy and tragedy of everyday life. In the end, he finds his humanity.  
So I invite you to do something this week. Take a walk. Not just a figurative walk down from the mountain top but an actual walk. In your neighborhood. Investigate your surroundings. See where the need is immediately around you. And if you can’t find it, keep walking. Keep looking. For though our connection with God may renew us and invigorate us, it is our connection to this earth that makes us human. And the people said...Amen

Where is my Manna? by Chris Shade

Today we are talking about finding grace in providence. But what is providence? Well here are some quick facts about providence to help clarify.
·      Providence is the capital of Rhode Island and is the 37th largest city in America.
·      It is known largely for its silverware and jewelry industry.
·      It was ranked by Travel and Leisure in 2012 as the best food city in the U.S.
·      So if you want to find grace, pack your bags, because it exactly 3065 miles to Providence.
Seriously though, Providence RI is an important city in the history of the American Baptists. Roger Williams, a Baptist, founded Providence and the oldest Baptist church in America. He named it in honor of "God's merciful Providence" which he believed was responsible for revealing such a haven to him and his followers. And that is the kind of providence, God’s merciful Providence, that we are talking about today.

But I am going to take you back before Roger Williams, before our parable even, all the way back to the time of Joshua.

Imagine this: You are a member of the Hebrew people thousands of years ago. You have left Egypt and are traveling to the promised land. Every day is the same. You wake up and you go out and collect manna. Now you are not quite sure what manna is. All that you know is that it shows up every morning, it is tasty, it is nourishing, and oh yeah, it comes from God. It is physical, touchable, palpable proof of God’s providence. It is proof that God is caring from you and protecting you from starvation. And every day is the same. You get up, you collect manna, you eat it, and you go to bed. Every day.
         Until one day. That fateful day. You get up, you go out, and there is no more manna. You think to yourself, where is my manna? Has God abandoned me? Maybe my neighbors have manna. So you go ask them. But they do not have manna either. There isn’t any anywhere. Has God abandoned everyone? Where is the manna, you wonder. You think back to previous days. Perhaps you all have done something to anger God, to fall out of God’s favor. What could it be? You had just finished celebrating the Passover, remembering the glorious deliverance from Egypt. You celebrated by eating unleavened cakes to remind you of the food that your ancestors ate when they left Egypt. They had to flee is such a hurry that they did not have time to wait for the bread to rise. You also celebrated by eating the produce that you had gotten from the land. Could that be it? Was God angry that you helped yourself? Oh, how you long for some good ole fashioned manna.
         This was the case of the Hebrews in the scripture that Emrys read for us today. It is a bit of a strange isolated text thrown in the middle of Joshua between a circumcision story and the battle of Jericho (no joke, I could not make this up if I wanted to.) One day, the manna just stopped and the people ate from the earth from then on. It makes one wonder if anyone felt slighted by God. After all they had this very tangible, real physical proof of God’s providence and then it vanished. I would not be surprised if some of the Hebrews felt abandoned by God and felt a longing for God’s care.
         If the Hebrew Scriptures are any indication, the Hebrew people have had a history of longing for God’s presence. You need to look no further than the psalms.
Psalm 63 that we read together last week.
You, God, are my God,  
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
    my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
    where there is no water.
Psalm 42
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
This sense of longing is present in the psalms and the prophets and carries into the time of Jesus. Jesus tells the parable that we read this morning, not out of the blue, but because his audience would understand the plight of the younger brother. 
         Like the Hebrews who were blessed with manna, the younger brother in this story was blessed as well. He never wanted for anything. But, he was curious. He wanted to see what it was like in the big city. So he left. He wanted to live life to the fullest and experience all that the world had to offer. Rich food. Strong drink. The company of women. But pretty soon, his reliance on himself lost its luster. Once the money was gone, the great life went with it. The rich food – eaten; the strong drink – drunk; and the women – gone. He finds himself in the lowest of the low: feeding pigs, unclean, sacrilegious pigs. He is hungry. He is tired. He thought that he could do it on his own, but he came up short. And he longs for the time when he was awash in providence. Like the Hebrews longing to have back their manna, he longs for the time when he was under his father’s care. His longing is all that fills his belly. He wants to go home.
         I understand this journey. As a fresh faced 18 year-old I felt the call of the big city. I moved from my modest house in the suburbs of San Jose to the Big Apple, New York City...sight myself. Though I did not have the same kind of agenda as the brother in our story, I was young and na├»ve. I was foolish enough to think that I could make this kind of jump on my own and that I did not need anyone. And like the brother, I discovered that I was wrong. Now, I did not end up in squalor feeding pigs, but I did end up feeling a sense of longing.
It was not that I did not love living in New York, because I did. And it was not that I was simply homesick, though I was. No this longing was much deeper. Back in California I had a church family and a support system, and religious practices and closeness with God. And in New York I did not have that. I did not belong to a church. I had left my spiritual disciplines at home in California. And I missed it. I missed the closeness that I felt with God. I missed the blessing of God’s providence, the feeling that God was caring for me and protecting me. To use the metaphor from earlier, I missed the manna.
         So one Sunday morning I left my apartment and took a walk. I had intended to walk down about 20 blocks to a church I knew. I made it a block and a half when I came across Madison Avenue Baptist Church. From the moment I sat down, I knew that I was home. They welcomed me with open arms, with genuine kindness, and with joy and laughter. I was home.
         The brother in our parable today had a similar experience. As he sat there in the mud with the pigs feeling as low as a human can feel, he remembered that his father’s workers fared better than he was doing now. Maybe he could go back and convince his father to let him just work on the property. Maybe he could get back a tiny portion of the life that he once knew. So he got up and left. And as we all know, the father runs out to meet him. He hikes up his robe to move faster, and when he gets to the younger brother he throws his arms around him. He welcomes him gladly. The brother is home.
         At this point we must question why is Jesus telling this parable? What does his audience have to gain by hearing it? Well remember, this is the same crowd that also has heard of the story of the manna being taken away. They have heard of the psalms of longing. Not to mention, they have been overcome by the Romans. They are defeated. They are occupied. They long for God’s presence with them, for God’s protection. They long for God’s providence. Jesus is telling them that God’s providence is there. It has always been there. All they need do is look for it. And it is not just present. It is abundant. The parable says that the father held a giant feast for the returned son. He killed the fattened calf. He gave him a robe and a ring and made him a part of the family again.
         (SLOWLY) But what does this parable mean for us? Well, are we so different from the audience of Jesus? Have you ever wanted to feel the presence and the providence of God? Have you ever strayed from home spiritually? Gotten lost? Wondered if God was still there? Have you ever felt the sense of longing that is present in our stories today? Have you ever looked to the sky and wondered, where is my manna?
         The good news of the message today is that it is not too late. God’s presence, God’s care, God’s providence is available to us. It is always available. And it is abundant. Like the father, God waits for us to return with welcome and open arms. Picture it like this: We are like trapeze artists swinging back and forth, dangling upside down, wondering where to go next. If we would only look up, we would see that God has been swinging in front of us this whole time, arms outstretched, waiting for us to grab on. We only need to reach out, offer our hand, and God will bring us home.  And the people sad Amen

The hymn, Precious Lord, is one that comes from the kind of place that we have been talking about this morning. It is a hymn of longing and of need. And it speaks of God’s ever present grace. As we enter into a time of prayer, let us sing together hymn number 472 Precious Lord, Take My Hand.