Thursday, March 28th, 2013 – Maundy Thursday Sermon on John 13:1-17, 31-34

John 13:1-17, 31-34

Tonight, Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples. Including Judas. And in a couple minutes we will get to participate in that meal. But for the gospel of John, the meal isn’t the most important thing. In fact, it gets almost no attention.

No, John is more interested in what interrupts the meal.

In the middle of loaves of bread and jars of wine being passed around a table, Jesus stands up. Takes off his robe, wraps a towel around him self, pours water into a bowl and one by one, he takes the feet of each disciple into his own calloused hands and washes them. Back then, the feet were regularly the dirtiest part of the body. With unpaved roads made of dust and dirt, and only sandals at best for protection, the feet got pretty beat up. They were in constant need of cleaning. And so at the door of most homes there would be a jug of water so that guests could wash their feet before entering. It was a dirty and menial job that either they would do for themselves or servants of the house would do for them. The head of the household, the host, would never do such dirty work. Which makes it all the more powerful when Jesus of all people waters, washes, and wipes clean the feet of his disciples. And then…and then, Jesus commands his disciples to do the same to one another. To wash each other’s feet. To love one another as he has loved them.

It is an incredible image of humble service. That we are to love one another with such tender care and compassion as this. To not put ourselves above one another, but to lower ourselves. To humble ourselves so that we might serve our neighbor.

For service and serving others are at the heart of the Christian life. To do for others rather than simply doing for ourselves. But the thing is, service, to serve others, is also hard. Really hard. Truth be told, this text has left me unsettled this week. It has left me disturbed. But really, I think it’s because something else has left me unsettled this week. I have to confess all week I have been haunted by an experience I had on Sunday night.

This past Sunday evening, a group of us went to help serve supper at Meals of Hope, a free meal that Trinity Lutheran in Owatonna offers to anyone who is hungry. A bus goes around town, making a couple of stops and picking up anyone who wants to come and eat. It is a fantastic program that has been going on for about 7 years now.

All of Sunday afternoon, I was so excited to come and help serve a meal for people who were hungry. But to tell you the truth, the moment my foot stepped into that building, I was nervous. Or more honestly, I was scared. Because I knew I was going to come face to face with people that were…well…different than me.  I knew I was going to encounter people who I often don’t interact with. I was going to see people who were in such dire straights and desperation that I usually don’t see.

As soon as we got inside, I found myself desperate for something to do. For someone to tell me what to do. Something to keep my hands busy so I wouldn’t have to think about how uncomfortable I was. To give me something to work on so that I knew my place. So that I knew where I fit in a place where I felt I didn’t fit.

Soon enough, I was assigned to being the greeter. Alone. Okay, I thought, I can do this. All I have to do is say hi to people with a smile. Help them feel welcome. Show them where to go…even though they’ve probably been here more times than I have. And then, someone started approaching the door. Ah, here’s my chance, I thought. Show time. I know, I’ll open the door for him. He looks like he could use a hand with that. But Trinity, with it’s bright, brand new building, had automatic door openers. By the time I got there, the man had already pushed the button, and I was suddenly more in the way than I was helpful.

Then, two of our youth were assigned to come and help me greet, and I was so glad they were there. I wasn’t alone in it anymore. We could be uncomfortable together.

From that point on, with each person that walked in the door, I had this inner monologue saying, Okay, should I say “Hello”? Or “Hi!”? Or maybe I should say something about the weather. Hmmm….

Overall, it was clumsy. And awkward. Some interactions went better than others. Some people were genuinely happy to see someone welcoming them. Others were suspicious of us, wondering for what organization we were trying earn service hours this time. Suspicious that we were there to really make ourselves feel good, rather than actually serve them.

And so here I am thinking I am doing what Jesus asked us to do – serve people. Love them. Being humble and giving of yourself.

But it just didn’t feel right. The whole time it felt like there was a barrier between us. Both economically and socially. I felt like a privileged, middle-class person serving the poor and underprivileged.  It felt like a one-way street. They were needy. I was the volunteer. They needed something. I had something to give them. The movement of service was one sided. One direction. Me to them. As a result, I kept them at an arms length. Close enough to serve them. But far enough away to not know them. Even when I went to sit down and eat my meal (which, embarrassingly, one of two dinners I would have that night) I sat with volunteers I knew, rather than the guests I didn’t.  It was safer that way.

But then, along side me came this volunteer named Mieca. She looked comfortable there. And as people continued to come in, she greeted them by name. She asked about their family…by name. She asked if the new medication they were on was helping. She sat down beside them. She played with their children. She listened to their stories. I mean, it was like she…well…it was like she knelt down with a towel and a warm bowl of water, and she gently and compassionately washed their feet like a friend.

And yesterday, with a little help from some friends, it dawns on me. Mieca wasn’t just serving people who were hungry. She had a relationship with them. It wasn’t one-sided.  The people knew Mieca, just as she knew them. It was a two-way street. Mutual caring.

On his last night alive, one of Jesus’ last things he does with his disciples is wash their feet. And then, he says, “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”  If you’ll notice, this too is not a one sided relationship. Jesus doesn’t just asked the disciples to wash people’s feet. He asks them to stick out their own feet, so that they might be washed too. It is not only about serving, but also about being served. It is mutual; it is shared. It creates a relationship.

You see, I had forgotten that the people I thought I was serving just might also be people who could serve me. With something I didn’t know I needed.

But we don’t like to be served, do we? We don’t like to show our places of need; we don’t like to stick out our dirty feet for all to see and touch. Peter certainly didn’t. “Lord, you will never wash my feet!” he cries. But Jesus is quick to say, “Peter, unless I wash you, you have no share of me.” Peter, unless I wash you, how will you ever know me and how will I ever know you. We won’t be invested in each other’s lives. Service must be mutual. And shared. So that it creates a relationship.

As I said, Sunday was unsettling for me. But as I have thought and thought about that night, it turns out, I was served that night too. At one point after their meal, two young sisters, Angela and Alivia, came out and goofed around in the hallway with each other right in front of me. They danced and laughed with such abandon and silliness that you couldn’t help but join in the laughter and smile with them. They put me at ease. They helped me feel more comfortable there. Then a man came out and told me my glasses made me look like Buddy Holly, which then lead to an interesting conversation about that famous night when the music died. Here I was the greeter, yet I actually felt more welcomed by him.

Looking back, the barrier between us and them had started to come down. It was no longer me and the needy. It was me and other people. Other beating hearts. It was us.

When Jesus asks his disciples to wash each other’s feet, we aren’t just asked to serve others. We are asked to stick out our own feet. You see, we all have dirty feet. And we all need washing. Just like we all need to be fed. When Jesus calls us to wash each other’s feet, to love one another as he has loved us, he isn’t calling us to simply live a generous life. He calls us to a relational life. A life where we each have a share, a stake in one another. It isn’t just about serving someone a hungry meal, it about eating a meal with someone who is hungry just like you. Allowing them to feed you. It is serving with each other. Not to each other.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there was anything wrong or bad about a group of us going to volunteer at Meals of Hope. I think it was a good thing. No, it was a good thing. I would do it again. In fact, I will do it again on April 21st and I invite you to join me. But this time, I just hope I can find the courage to stick out my own feet. To sit down with other guests as I eat my meal. To ask them their name and give them mine. To open the door to the possibility that the very people who I came to serve just might be able to serve me. To give me something that I need too. It won’t be easy. It never is. It’s hard. It’s unsettling. But it’s worth the effort, I think. To go back and to meet people once again. To take the chance on a relationship with them.

I was unsettled that night, but maybe when we serve others, we are supposed to be unsettled. If we are not unsettled by service. By being served. Then maybe we are missing something. If it doesn’t haunt us when we leave. If it doesn’t drive us back to more and more service, then maybe we are missing something.

Many churches tonight are actually washing each others feet during their service. We aren’t doing that. I was afraid it was be too unsettling. Now I wish we were. I’ve come to learn that to be unsettled is a good thing. It is where God meets us. It’s where God works on us. Chiseling at our hard hearts. Softening them. Breaking them open. And when it comes to loving one another, that’s a good thing.

In a couple of minutes we all will stretch out not our feet for washing, but our hands for feeding. And it is here that we confess that we all are in need. In need of grace, forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love. And tonight, God gives it in the ordinary elements of bread and wine. God always gives it. Because there is always more of it to give. And nothing can stop what’s about to happen. Nothing can stop God from giving it. In fact, God would do just about anything, even die, to give us such grace and love. May we too love one another like. AMEN

Sunday, March 24th, 2013 – Thoughts on Luke 19:28-40 and 22-23(56)

Welcome to Holy Week. The center of our Christian year together. Everything we do operates in and out of this week. Since Advent and Christmas, Holy Week has been reeling us in like a magnet. Pulling us through Epiphany and Lent all so that we might arrive at this very week. And then after this week, the magnet gets flipped and Holy Week will push us back out into the rest of the year, launching us through Pentecost and that long, long season creatively named “After Pentecost” into Reformation and All Saints Sunday and finally coming to rest in November, on the last Sunday of our year, Christ the King. So again, welcome to Holy Week. It’s kind of a big deal.

This is the time of year when we hear more scripture than we are used to. Whole chapters instead of a handful of verses lifted out of the paragraphs in which they were placed. We do this because we need to see the whole picture, not just a corner of it. We need the story itself to preach to us rather than one part of it.

If you notice at the top left of your bulletin, it says Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion. Today used to just be Palm Sunday, but now its also Passion Sunday. Church leaders became worried that people were not showing up for all of Holy Week. For Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. People were skipping the messy part. They were going from Palm Branches to Empty Tombs, without the suffering and crucifixion in between. People were getting to shout “Hosanna in the highest!” and “He is risen!” without ever uttering “Crucify him!” People weren’t getting the whole story – they were missing the whole dead Jesus thing in between.

So it was changed to Palm/Passion Sunday. That way the people who can’t or won’t come back for Thursday and Friday will still get a glimpse of the whole story. So while we’ve heard the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. While we’ve waved our palms to the glory of God, we are about to make a shift. A shift to the rest of the story. The rest of the drama for which these palm branches are kindling. They spark a whole series of events – last meals with best friends, betrayal and abandonment from those very same friends, garden standoffs, taunting crowds and thorny crowns. It is a strange movement to make, because these palms that we hold in our hand are a symbol of peace. But these very symbols that we wave lead us into a story of violence and conflict. A story in which God will die at the hands of violence, so as to show God’s unending care and compassion for all of creation.

So listen to this story as it unfolds. It is our story. Let it preach to you. Listen for what this story says about who the God revealed in Jesus is. Listen for the glimpses of hope that Luke leaves in the story like a trail of breadcrumbs along the way. Listen as Jesus sits down at a table with those saints and sinners. Those doubters and denyers; those betrayers and abandoners he’s calls his disciples. Listen as he hands them bread and wine and says this is my body, my blood…for you. If so for them, then also for us too. Listen as he heals the ear of the wounded slave and as he tells his disciples to put down their swords. If so for them, then also for us. Listen as Jesus forgives the very people who put him to death and as he welcomes into paradise the criminal who was crucified beside him. If so for them, then also for us.

As we come to the end of the story, at the suggestion of one of my favorite preachers, William Sloan Coffin, I urge you not to throw away your palm branches, these symbols of peace, once your leave here. Instead, during this Holy Week, put them in a prominent place in your home and spend a few minutes every day looking at your palm branch. Then ask yourself, “ For what kind of a God do I wave this symbol of peace?”

And now a prayer from St. Francis.

Oh Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light,
Oh, divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console.;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love:
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Making Sense of the Cross: Event and Experience

Romans 8:31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

1 Corinthians 1:18, 1:27-2:2

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

For the past six weeks, we have been trying to make sense of the cross. Why? Because the cross is at the center of our lives and our faith. And remember, we talked about how the whole entire New Testament exists because of the cross. The entire New Testament is trying to make sense of what happened when Jesus, the Messiah, was crucified and then raised from the dead. If you’ll recall, no one expected the cross. No one expected the long awaited Messiah, who was supposed to come and save the world, to die a criminal’s death.

After that, we spent sometime looking at the four different images of Jesus that each of the four gospels paints. Jesus as the very human one who suffers with us. Jesus as the compassion and forgiving one. Jesus as the strong and confident one.

And then we looked at three different theories on atonement – how the cross solves the problem of separation between God and humanity. The first theory is that Jesus recues us from the hands of the devil. The second is that Jesus pays our debts of sin to God. The third is that Jesus teaches us how to love one another. Each theory has its strengths. But each one also has its limitations.

The primary limitation that they all share is that they all are….well, theories. None of them completely satisfies or does the trick. We have just spent the last three weeks talking about and thinking about the cross, but have we actually experienced the cross? In a way that actually makes a difference in our life? Not in theory but in actuality? Not just in our head, but also in our heart?

For example, let’s say you are going to go on your very first date ever. You can read all the magazines and books on dating and finding the right person. Meaning you can learn about dating in theory, but until you actually go on a date and experience it, you’ll never know what it’s like. I recently heard a story about a guy who would bring spreadsheet of characteristics he wanted in a partner to every date he went on. And at the end of the date, he would grade the person in each category to see if they were worth going out with again. It sounds a little ridiculous doesn’t it? I get the sense that he is trying to take a theory of dating and make it work in real life.

It’s the same way with sports. You can read all the books you want about basketball, but the only way you learn how to play basketball is by playing it. By experiencing it.

And in these theories there is a sense that we miss experiencing the full weight of the cross. It is like the cross is just a tool in God’s larger plan for the world. And all of the plans or theories we come up with, none of them seem to fully make sense. When the truth is, in the story of Jesus found in the gospels, the cross is a messy, scary, and tragic event. An experience.

There is a sense that we have all heard about these theories now, but that doesn’t mean we are going home any different or changed. The theories end up explaining the solution to the problem, but do they actually solve the problem. Do they actually heal our relationship with God in anyway? Do we walk away any different?

So, I want to see if there is a way we can experience the cross, rather try to explain it. I think it begins by going back to the Biblical story. If we were to summarize the story of Jesus, we could say, “Jesus bears God’s presence and love to the world by preaching the coming kingdom of God, teaching people to love each other, doing miracles to feed and heal people, and forgiving people their sins.” Does that sound about right?

But there’s one more thing. The people kill him for it. And I think it is the forgiveness part that is the real reason. The fact that Jesus goes around forgiving people.

You see we often think of forgiveness as a good thing. But forgiveness also implies judgment. So image with me for a moment. Let’s say Lauren and I have a big argument one night. And we both go to bed angry. Then the next, Lauren comes up to me and says, “Honey, about last night…” and I immediately say, “I know, I know. It’s okay. I forgive you.” How do you think Lauren is going to feel? She is going to be angry because I just said that she is the one who did something wrong, right?

To forgive someone always implies judgment or what you’ve done wrong. It points it out; it shines a light on it. And we as human beings don’t like it when other point out our faults or wrongdoings or sinful behavior do we?

When a hospital makes a medical mistake, almost everyone, including the hospital’s insurance want to cover up and hide the mistake as quickly as possible, right? When a person blows the whistle on a politicians for fraudulent or illegal activity, the whistleblower is either paid off or threaten in order to be quiet, right? And it is true in our own lives. Think of a time when you got caught doing something you shouldn’t have done. How did you feel about the person who caught you or told on you? We don’t like it when people point out the wrongs that we have done, do we? To some extent we all participate in crucifying Jesus.

Or think about a time when you felt like someone was judging you. Regardless of whether their judgment was right, I think we could say that to be caught, to be accused, to be judged can feel like dying. It can feel like someone is putting to you to death. It feels awful. We hate it.

But then, when we do come to terms with that fact that we do things in our life that need to be forgiven – when we have done things that hurt other people, or hurt creation – then forgiveness also sounds like the greatest words in the world. Think of a time when someone forgave you for what you did, especially when you thought you didn’t deserve forgiveness. I think we can say that to be forgiven for something that you know you have done can feel like being raised to new life. It can feel like resurrection.

Jesus was put to death because he dared to tell the truth about the sin of those around him. Jesus’ cross reminds us of what we as human beings are capable of. Of the hurt, pain, and destruction we can cause in our own lives but also in the lives of those around us. But then, Jesus comes back again. Why? Because God’s love, and more specifically God’s love for you, is stronger than death. And Jesus once again proclaims forgiveness to us, showing that God’s love for us is bigger than anything we can do.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection do two things. First, they show us our brokenness. What are capable of doing. It shows us that we really are dependent on God, that we can’t just do this all on our own, not needing anyone. Which puts us to death. But the cross and resurrection also show us that all of the awful things  we do can never kill God’s love for us. As Paul says in Romans, nothing, not what we do and not even death can separate us from the love of God. Which then kind of resurrects us, doesn’t it? That makes us come alive again. That we will always be loved.

Or maybe put another way, Jesus’ cross and resurrection tell us two truths from God. The first is this: God says, I know you. I know who you are. I know what you’ve done. I know your hurts and I know your struggles. I know your confusion. Which can feel like death – you know me? Which means you know things that I think. You know what I did last week? How I treated that person at work? What I said to my parents?

But then the cross and resurrection tell us a second truth from God. I love you, God says. I know you and I love you. I know what you’ve done and said in your life, but I still love you. I don’t love the person you hope to be. Or the person you promise to be. I don’t love only your best self. I love you. Exactly as you are today. Here and now. God loves us and will hold on to us no matter what. And that brings us back to life.

For God, law and rules are not more important than love. For God, good behavior is not more important than the relationship itself. And that is not just talking and thinking about Jesus’ cross and resurrection. That is experiencing Jesus cross and resurrection. That is not talking about atonement, that is doing atonement. Practicing it. Thinking about where in our own life we are experiencing death and resurrection.

And that, as Paul says, is the foolishness of the Crucified Christ. That in your life, God will continue to say, “I know you. And I love you.” God will never not say those words to you.

And now, knowing that you forever have God’s promise of love and life, you are free. You are free to be who God created you to be. God will work through you as God sends you out to go and make a difference in the world. Knowing that you will make mistakes. You will screw up. But that God will love you still. You are free to love, forgive, and care for others because you have been loved, forgiven, and taken care of. And then, not only do we experience atonement, but we become a community of atonement. A community that says, “I know you. I know what you’ve done in your life….AND I love you.” And in that community, the god found in the vulnerable Jesus, the man hanging on a tree, the god who was crucified but also raised from the dead, the god who is like a foolish parent that just can’t stop loving the children of God, that God will be present in that community. Loving, forgiving, sustaining and creating new life. May we be a community of the Cross. Thanks be to God. Amen

Making Sense of the Cross: Example and Encouragement

John 3:16-21

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

1 John 4:7-12

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been looking at theories of atonement. That is, how in and through the cross of Christ, God takes what is broken and makes it one again. Again, atonement means to take that which is broken and make it at-one again.

The first theory believed that humanity was in the clutches of the devil held captive and hostage and, on the cross, God gave Jesus as a ransom or payment to trick the devil and defeat it through the resurrection.

But over time, people thought that was beneath God’s honor to trick the devil. So, last week, we talked about God as the ultimate king. As such a king, God’s honor and justice must be maintained and preserved. Therefore, humanity’s sin was disobedient to God’s honor and justice, and, on the cross, God gave Jesus to pay our debt or to take our punishment that we deserved from God. This is by far still the most popular understanding of the cross today.

There were some problems with this theory though. Over time, many people said that it seemed to underemphasize God’s love. The idea of Jesus paying the debt we owe to God or taking our punishment sounds more like a cold, calculating business transaction than it does the work of a passionate and loving God who will do anything to be near the children of the world that God loves so much. It sounds more like a god to be afraid of than a god who love you unconditionally. If you lived your life getting justice for every wrong someone did against you, you would never live. You’d spend your life keeping track of what everyone else owes you. Life isn’t about a business transaction in which we pay each other for everything wrong we do. We forgive people all the time. We are in a personal relationship with God. Not a business relationship.

And notice how Jesus’ life and resurrection play almost no role in this theory. Really, Jesus just needs to come and die. It doesn’t matter what miracles, healings, or teachings he did. He just needed to die on the cross.

So, about 50 years later, a third atonement theory was developed in direct response to this one. This third theory want to take seriously the major theme of the New Testament – that God is love. We see this in John 3:16 – For God so loved the world. And in 1 John 4:8 – God is love.

This theory views Jesus whole life and the cross as example and encouragement. Not only is Jesus’ death on the cross about God’s love for us, but Jesus’ whole life is about love.

It is about showing love in two important ways. First, Jesus’ life and death are an example of God’s love for us. Think about, Jesus goes around healing people, meeting with those who are outcasts, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and forgiving sinners. And then, in his death, Jesus lays down his life for us. In fact, Jesus dies preaching about God’s love for all people, including the sinners and the tax-collectors.

It is why we love movies and stories like Simon Birch, or Harry Potter, or heroes who die trying to save someone they love. It is the ultimate expression of love. And that’s what Jesus’ life and death are in this theory, the ultimate expression of how much God love us.

But the second thing is that it isn’t just an example of God’s love. It is encouragement for how we should love one another. Jesus doesn’t just die on the cross for us, Jesus also says, “I give you a new commandment – that you love one another as I have loved you.” What’s the old hymn: they’ll know we are Christians by our what? By our love.

So Jesus is not only an example of love but also the encouragement for us to love. To go and be like the good Samaritan helping the man who was beaten on the side of the road. Or to be like the prodigal father who welcomes home with open arms his prodigal son who wasted away all his money.

So, in this theory, what’s the problem that needs fixing? What broken between humanity and God? Humanity doesn’t really know how to love one another. We seem unable to love like God loves. Which then keeps us at a distance from God, because God is love.

In order to fix the problem, to make us at-one again, God sends Jesus to teach us how to love and to encourage and inspire us, even transform us to do so. Through the cross, we see a profound picture of love that inspires us to love others like that. And because God is love, when we love more, we are drawn closer to God. The relationship is healed.

Think about it. Some of the most powerful experiences in your life have probably been when someone has loved you. Really loved you. Loved you when you didn’t deserve to be loved. And equally, you have likely had powerful experiences when you have really loved someone else. When your love for them outweighed anything else.

So what does this theory say about God? Well, God is love.  That God is all about love. Not angry and wanting to punish a sinful world, but so in love with the world, that God wants to forgive and redeem it.

And lastly, what then does this say about the Christian life? WWJD, baby. What would Jesus do. In this Christian life, we look to Jesus to find out how we should live and love in this life.

So, according to this theory, maybe Jesus on this cross isn’t about being rescued from the devil. Maybe it isn’t about Jesus paying for your sins to an angry God by being punished. Maybe Jesus’ life and death on the cross are example and image of what God’s deep love for you looks like and how we are called to love one another.

For those of you who can’t quite connect with the idea of a being held captive by the devil, or for those of you who don’t like the violence of a god who punishes God’s own son on a cross, or for those of you who wonder if you really are loved in this life and wonder how to love, maybe this theory can help you to know God’s unending and abounding love for you. That God would go so far as death to show you that you are never beyond the reach of God’s care for you.

But there are also some problems with this theory too. It doesn’t really say much about the resurrection. Do you even need Easter if Jesus is simply an example and encouragement for love? And how well is it working? How well are we the people of God following Jesus’ example of loving one another? To some extent it seems that we still haven’t been able to love one another as Jesus loves us.

So those are the three primary understandings of the cross. Ultimately, none of these theories is perfect. None of them cover all the bases. They all have strengths and they all have weaknesses. So, what are we to do? Next week, we will try to close out this Lenten season by asking that very question. Now what?

Any questions?

If there is anything of God that has been spoken in these words, then may they settle and take root in our life.

Note: Much of this sermon is based on the fifth chapter of David Lose’s book Making Sense of the Cross

Sunday, March 10th, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 15(1-3,11-31)

Luke 15 (1-3, 11-31)

You are who you hang out with. That’s what my mother used to say. If that’s true, then what are we going to do with Jesus? The beginning of our gospel texts reminds us that the people Jesus would most like to have dinner with is not a group of well-behaved pastors or faithful Christians with perfect attendance at church. He isn’t hanging out with people who were raised on good manors and behavior. Much to the dismay of the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus welcomes sinners, the immoral ones, to the table and eats with them. He is hanging out with the wrong kind of folks. And people don’t like it. You are who you hang out with. So what are we going to do with Jesus?

Now, Jesus really knows how to respond to his audience, his critics. Here he has two groups, the Pharisees and scribes on one side and the sinners, the tax collectors, the riffraff on the other. And then, Jesus tells them a parable…”There was a man who had two sons.” Hmm…Jesus with two groups around him. A story about a father with two sons.

Now, the younger son is just a mess. He’s spoiled and he’s selfish. I mean, that’s how it is with younger children sometimes, isn’t it, parents? You try really hard to do it right with that first one, but then, I don’t know, by the time the second or third comes around, you’re just so tired and you just let them do whatever they want. That’s how it is with this one in our story. He did whatever he wanted. And he was gutsy too. He had the nerve to go up to his father and demand his inheritance early. You only get your inheritance when your father dies, so basically, this younger has wished his father as good as dead.

The father should have kicked him out of the house for being so disrespectful. And you wonder why he didn’t? I mean, this father, being the push over he is, simply gives in to his son. Perhaps, he just couldn’t handle one more tantrum from his son. Maybe the father knew that no amount of arguing would change anything; it would fall on deaf ears. Or maybe he didn’t want to hold his son back. He wanted to set him free to be who he would be.  Whatever the reason the father gives in.   And then a couple of days later, this younger son gathers up all of his things and runs away. Who knows where he goes, it’s just far, far away. Probably backpacking in Europe or something. That’s what they all do. And he just throws all of his money away. He wastes it. That’s why we call him the prodigal son. It’s a word that means relentlessly wasteful. And that’s what he was. Here this money was supposed to help him start a life for himself, but instead he burns it all on gambling, fancy clothes, and hookers. And now, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing to shelter him; nothing to eat. And no one gives him anything to curb the hunger. Why would they? I mean, this kid has made his bed, so now he should lie in it, right? It will be good for him; it will teach him a lesson.

There is only one thing to do: go home. Go home and confess to his father that he was wrong and needs help. It’s hard to know if the younger son is sincere or if he is still scheming. Does he really feel bad for what he has done? Or is he just continuing to use his gullible father to get what he wants? Who knows. All we know for sure is he simply heads home.

Meanwhile, for God knows how long, this sucker of a father stands by the window night after night, wondering and worrying if his son will ever come home again. And then, one morning, having fallen asleep in the chair, something stirs him awake. There far off on the horizon, there is a little black dot that wasn’t there before. And it’s moving. Closer. And closer. He would know that silhouette anywhere. It’s his son.

Jumping up and kicking off his sandals, the father runs. And runs. And runs. Such an embarrassing thing for a man his age to do. His tunic all flapping in the wind, not caring who sees him. All he can think is, “Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.” And when he finally catches up with his long lost son, he slams into his son with such an embrace that the son has no wind left to even begin to apologize. Plus, his father won’t stop kissing him all over the face.

And before you know it, a celebration has begun. No expense is spared. This younger son is wrapped in the finest robe and jewelry, and all the best food is served.

It may sound like a beautiful sight, but it is also a ridiculous one. And a little embarrassing.  This is not a recommended parenting technique. People would think this man was crazy for welcoming home such an ungrateful and spoiled brat. Welcoming this child home only rewards his bad behavior. Doesn’t he know this? Doesn’t he know how foolish this is? This child deserves to be punished for what he has done. The father should sit the kid down and teach him a lesson and ground him. He should be grounded for the rest of this life.  The father should stand on the front stoop tapping his toe giving his son the look as he makes that long walk of shame back home. But that doesn’t happen at all. Instead, the father runs towards his son. Embraces him. Kisses him. And throws a party.

It’s almost as if this pathetic father cares more about the relationship with his son than he does about his son’s good or bad behavior.

But then, there is that other son. You know, the well-behaved one. The faithful one. The one who hasn’t missed a day of work in years. The one who spends 16 hours a day slaving away on his father farm. The one who diligently walks his father to church every Sunday. The one who would never treat his father the way his younger brother did. Yeah. That one.

He is out in the field, working hard. Sweating for his father’s land when he hears the party. “What’s going on?” he asks a servant.

“Your brother. He’s back. And your father is overjoyed.” Suddenly it dawns on him. His younger brother spent his inheritance. Whose inheritance do you think is paying for this party? Doesn’t he father know that he is the one who deserves this party? That he has been the faithful one all along? Almost immediately that anger and jealously that was lurking inside him for years began to grow and grow and grow.

The father never knew it, but he had two sons that were lost. One lost to greed and selfishness. The other to entitlement and jealousy and pride.

And then, there, in the midst of the celebration, dancing in the living room, that happy father glances out the window. And on the horizon he can see a black dot that wasn’t there before. But this one isn’t moving. It’s frozen. But he would know that silhouette anywhere.

For the second time that day, this father kicks off his sandals and runs to a son.  Standing there in the field, this father bears and withstands the screams of accusations from another son who has lost himself, lost his way.  “I have been working for you,” the son argues.  “I have never disobeyed your command, and yet you have never given me as much as you give this other son of yours! This son who has squandered your money.”  How embarrassing, once again. To be disrespected by your child so publicly. Out in the open. The father should have taught this son a lesson too for dishonoring him in such a way. He should have given him a look of disappointment. He should have punished him for such disrespect. But he didn’t. Instead, he embraces and kisses him with words of affection. “Son, I am with you always.  I give my life to you.  You have all of me. Please, come celebrate because your brother, who was dead but is now alive, and has come home.”

Your Brother.  He names the relationship that has been absent from the entire story.  Your brother, he says.  These two sons rejecting each other so much that they don’t even mention their connection to one another.  They never even lay eyes upon one another.   And stuck in the middle of these two sons is a prodigal father who is so recklessly and wastefully in love with his boys and simply trying to hold the family together.

It’s almost as if this father cares more about the relationship between his sons than he does about their good or bad behavior.

Two sons dead, yet now alive. Two sons, lost yet now found. This is why Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, with the despised, and the immoral. But also with the Pharisees and scribes too, the prideful and the entitled. This is precisely where God’s heart is, with the lost and the dead.[1] So that they might be found and made alive again.

It’s almost as if Jesus cares more about the relationship with and between these sinners than he does about their good or bad behavior. What a ridiculous and wasteful kind of love that is. We aren’t asked to love one another like that…are we?

Making Sense of the Cross: Satisfaction, Substitution, and Sacrifice

John 1:29
The next day, John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Romans 3:25
They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.

Last week, we began our discussion of atonement theories – that is how the cross solves the problem of the broken relationship between God and humanity. We looked at the earliest atonement theory – the cross as ransom and victory. And remember we asked four questions.

What was broken between God and humanity? Death and the devil are holding humanity hostage because of sin.

How does the cross of Christ repair what’s broken? By tricking the devil with Jesus as a ransom or by Jesus entering into death and defeating it.

What is God like based on this theory? God desperately wants to win us back from the devil. That God loves us so much that God would do just about anything, even trick the devil or entering into death, in order to do it.

What does the Christian life look like? Because of the cross we are free from the clutches of the devil, we are free, even called, to stand against the forces of evil in this world.

Now, as I said, this is a theory. It is one way of thinking about the cross. Not everyone liked this theory. It didn’t always makes sense to people. One of the biggest complaints about it is people didn’t like the idea that God would stoop to the devil’s level of trickery. They thought that was beneath God. It wasn’t honorable for God to behave that way. And so, about 1,000 years later, a new atonement theory came out in reaction to this one. This atonement theory is the cross as satisfaction, substitution, and sacrifice.

Remember, before, the world was centered around this idea that there is a battle between good and evil, God and Satan, going on. But now, about 1,000 years later, that’s not really the primary way of looking at things anymore. At this point in time, kings ruled the world and everything was about hierarchy. Who ruled over who. Kings, Queens, and other royalty were on top and the peasants, the poor were on the bottom. In a sense, peasants owed everything had to the king and were to be obedient to the king. You could say that the king owned the peasants.

This may sound harsh to us now, but this was a particularly difficult to live in history. And this hierarchical structure gave order and security to society. The kings protected the peasant class. And in return, the peasants were obedient to the king. And if they weren’t, it was considered dishonoring the king and they were punished. Severely.

Because this is the world they lived in, people began to think about the relationship between God and humanity this way. God is like a medieval king. More so, God is the ultimate and cosmic king and we are the peasants who owe everything to God and ought to obey God. Everything becomes about maintaining the honor of God. This is why people at this time didn’t like the idea of God tricking the devil. It wasn’t honorable.

So God is the highest king and deserves honor and respect. But then when we, humanity, sin, we disobey and therefore, dishonor God the King.

So what’s problem that needs fixing, that first question: what’s broken between God and humanity? Because of sin, humanity has not given God what it owes God as King, which is obedience. We are indebt to God. And the worst part is, we can never pay it back. We aren’t capable of a sinless life. And nothing we do could be good enough to pay back what we owe. We already owe God everything, so we don’t have any reserves with which to pay this debt. So, we are stuck. We have an accounting problem. We owe God something that we can never payback. It is like when you are behind on your mortgage or your credit card payments and you just can’t quite catch up.

Really, the only one who could pay back God…is God. But God can’t really do that because it wouldn’t be honorable and just. Just as a bank can’t go around loaning people money and not expecting them to pay it back. It would be bad business. So, God is kind of stuck too. The rules of justice demand a payment for debts. For moral order.

The only option for God is the debt to be paid somehow or for humanity to die an eternal death.

This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is fully God. Which means Jesus can pay God back. But Jesus is also fully human. Which means Jesus’ payment of obedience can count as ours.

For this theory, the way the cross solves the problem is Jesus is perfectly obedient, never sinning, and goes and dies on the cross in obedience to God. In fact, it is so perfectly obedient that Jesus is rewarded by God and Jesus shares that reward with humanity that pays off what we owe to God.

So, on the cross, Jesus satisfies our debt to God through perfect obedience and God’s honor as a king is restored.

Now, we don’t talk a lot about God’s honor and God needing to be honored through obedience. Over time, this theory took on a different shape as the focus became less on God’s honor being offended and more about God’s justice. Now, remember, what happens to those who dishonor the king? Who owe the king and can’t pay it back. They get punished. Severely. You know the phrase…”You do the crime…you do the time.” The focus of this theory became that our sin is a crime against God and someone needs to “do the time.” We sinned; we need to be punished. So over time, this theory becomes less about Jesus satisfying our debts to God, but about Jesus taking our punishment on the cross. Jesus becomes our substitute. He stands in for us.

Did anyone see Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ? This movie was completely focused on the gore and suffering of Jesus. Jesus is so obviously punished in the movie. It is a reflection of this theory of Jesus as our substitute; Jesus taking the punishment that we deserve from God. It is also referred to as Jesus sacrificing himself for us. In the gospel of John, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In Romans, we just read, Jesus is the sacrifice for atonement.

This makes a lot of sense doesn’t it? Our whole legal system works on crime and punishment. We can understand the idea of owing someone something and needing to pay it back. But we can’t pay God back so Jesus pays it for us. It made sense back then and it still makes sense today to a lot of people. This is easily the most popular understanding of the cross still today. Jesus died for my sins. Jesus sacrificed himself for me.

Can we call it forgiveness of sins? Are my sins really forgiven when someone else pays for them?

Let’s go through those four questions.

What the problem, what’s broken? Because of sin, humanity has dishonored God the king and owes God a debt that it can never pay back.

How does Jesus on the cross fix what is broken? Jesus satisfies our debt to God by honoring God all the way to the cross, or Jesus is punished on the cross for our crimes of sin.

What does this say about God? Who is God? God is the ultimate and cosmic king demanding honor and justice. There is a sense that God loves humanity because God wants to fix the problem, but there is also this sense that God’s honor and justice are more important that God’s love. That God can’t really love us until God has been truly honored or until our sins have been paid for. Which, quite frankly, doesn’t sound a lot like love. In fact, some say this portrays an angry God who can’t calm down until someone is punished for the sins of the world. And, in this theory, I don’t know if we can even talk about this God as a forgiving God, when our sins aren’t really forgiven on the cross but paid for by Jesus.

What does this say about the Christian life? It doesn’t say a lot about the Christian life, except simply believing and trusting that Jesus died for your sins and so try to avoid further sins.

There are strengths and weaknesses to this theory as well. But if you have a sense that you have done some things in your life that really deserve punishment and need to be paid back, then this might be a meaningful way to think about Jesus and the cross. That Jesus has already taken that punishment for you and paid back your debt to God. And now, coming to you is no longer punishment from God, but only love.

But if this theory still doesn’t quite ring true, or you sense some problems with it, then tune in again next week as we look at another atonement theory.

If there is anything of God in these words that have been said, may they settle and take root in our life.

Note: This sermon is highly based on chapter 4 of David Lose’s book Making Sense of the Cross.

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 13:1-9

Luke 13:1-9

In the television show Parenthood, there is a boy, named Max, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Which means he doesn’t always know how to interact with the world. He can have behaviors that seem odd and out of place to the people around him. In a particular episode, Max has just started middle school, and all summer, the only thing Max was excited about was that the middle school had a vending machine. With skittles. As soon as school started, Max would be able to get Skittles anytime he wanted throughout the day. But that first day of school, when Max arrives, the vending machine is missing. It has been removed over the summer. No more vending machine. No more skittles. And right then and there, Max loses it. He gets angry and loud. He starts hitting his backpack against the ground and shouts, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair! For years, all these students have had a vending machine, but I get here and it’s gone? It’s not fair!”

Once at home, Max is still pretty upset. He talks to his dad and keeps saying, “It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair.” Little did Max know, that same day his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And his dad knowing more than Max, looks at him with tear in his eye and lump in his throat and all he can say is, “I know, Max. I know. It isn’t fair.”

If you have ever wondered if we, the people of today, share anything in common with the people of the Bible, then today’s gospel text settles it. We both know the pain and questions that can come as we endure the tragedies of life.

For the people of the text, the tragedy was a recent attack on a synagogue in Galilee, where Pontius Pilate killed the worshipers as they were making sacrifices in their temple. But there had been another tragedy too. A tower had fallen over, taking the lives of 18 people.

Tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. The people of the story, Jesus’ people, too must have newspapers that constantly carry tragic news. We know what that’s like. In just the past two weeks, two of my friend’s have faced the news that their father has prostate cancer. And friend preached last week about a young mother in California who died from her brain starting to bleed. We too are no strangers to tragedy and sadness.

Tragedy after tragedy. They are everywhere. They are timeless. It seems that we are all living on borrowed time.

In the ancient world, the common belief was that when bad things happened, they only happened to bad people. To those who deserved it. It was a worldview that meant if you got cancer, then you deserved it. You must have done something bad enough for God to punish you in this way. If a woman give birth to a child with a disability, then she or the father must have been done something to bring such suffering upon themselves. Now this may have been an ancient worldview, but it still lingers around today. We often wonder if what we get is what we deserve. A friend of mine got pregnant while in college and made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. Now, she’s come to learn that she can no longer get pregnant. “I’m being punished,” she says.

This is why Jesus’ followers are so frightened. They, too, are wondering if these Galileans are being punished. If they had done something to deserve being killed by Pilate. They were wondering if these 18 poor innocent people that were crushed by a falling tower had some how, in some way, done something to deserve it.

So, is that how life is? Is that how the world works? Do we get what we deserve? It is a question we all ask and finally…, for once, Jesus gives us a clear answer on this question. No.

Is this how the world works? No.

Do we get what we deserve? No. Which is good news. It means that whatever tragedy strikes next in your life, you don’t have to waste time worrying if you somehow did something to deserve it. You didn’t. That’s not how God works, Jesus says.

But then Jesus goes on. This is where it starts to get a little bumpy. “No,” he says, “but….unless you repent, you will perish like they did.” We were so close to a clear answer. But that’s just not how Jesus works.

Repent. It’s not a word I am typically fond of. It’s a word that just sounds angry, doesn’t it? REPENT! It is a word that is just littered with feelings of guilt and remorse. Whenever someone says we are supposed to repent of our sins, I always think it means I’m supposed to feel really bad about them. And regret what I did. And say I’m sorry. And, you know, I have to really mean it.

But repent is one of those words again. Just like believe, from last week. It’s a word that has become distorted. To repent isn’t to feel bad. It isn’t to say, “I’m sorry.” It isn’t to feel guilty. To repent means to change. To turn around. To stop doing what you are currently doing that is destructive in your life. It’s not about feeling bad. Feeling bad doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s about changing. It is a complete reconfiguration on how you behave and how you think. Jesus says, change your understanding of how God works. That God doesn’t punish bad people and reward good people. Jesus declares that there is innocent suffering in the world. So, change, he says. Change your understanding, and accept that there can be innocent suffering. But if you don’t change, you too will perish, Jesus says. Why? Because you’ll just continue to worry only about yourself. All the time. You’ll only want to make sure you never do something that might bring punishment on you. And then when something painful does come along in your life, you’ll spend the whole time worrying about what you’ve done to deserve it. Jesus came to cast out fear, and today he wants to cast out the fear that we always get what we deserve. No, he says. Sometimes, this world brings things – awful things – into our life that we do not deserve. Life isn’t fair.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, Jesus gives them a parable. Remember, a parable is like a riddle – it is a story whose meaning is not immediately obvious. You have to think and think and think about it, before you might make any sense of it. So Jesus tells them a parable – a story. There was a gardener who planted a fig tree, tended to it, cared for it, watered it for three years. But after three years there is still no fruit, as would have been expected of any fig tree. Then along comes the landowner who tells the gardener to cut it down. It’s the fair thing to do. The tree has had three years. But the gardener replies to the vineyard owners and says, “Please, one more year. Let me tend it one more year. Let me dig a mote around it to make sure it has enough to drink. Let me put manure around it to make sure it has enough to eat. And then if it hasn’t given any fruit, you can cut it down.” That is the story but let’s be honest, that is no ending. What happens to the tree? we are left to wonder. I guess it is up to us to decide the ending.

Now, there is a traditional way to understand this parable: we are the tree and we are not producing enough fruit. It’s a very American way of reading the text. We aren’t producing enough; we aren’t accomplishing enough. We aren’t doing what we were meant to do. And God, the owner of the land and, therefore, the owner of us, is angry. And what does God want to do? God wants to grab an axe and chop us down because we are good for nothing. But Jesus, the gardener steps in and asks for one more year. One more year to nurture us and care for us. It is the nice soft, sweet Jesus, taking care of us and protecting us from the mean, angry God.

But I don’t know about that interpretation. It sounds too much like that old way of thinking that Jesus just argued against: where God wants to give you what you deserve. The tree didn’t produce any fruit, therefore God wants to chop it down. But remember Jesus has just said no to that thinking. That’s not how it is. That that’s not how God works. And in fact, Jesus has just told the people to repent. Which means to change.

So maybe we should ask, who, in the parable is asked to change? It isn’t the tree – I mean the tree doesn’t seem to have much control over whether it produces good fruit or not. It needs to be cared for by the gardener more before it can change. And the gardener isn’t asked to change either. Who needs to change? The landowner! The landowner needs change. How? By putting down his axe. The gardener has asked for another year with the tree. To make sure it gets enough to drink. To feed the soil around it with fertilizer. The gardener asks the landowner to turn around and put the axe back in the shed. For one more year, at least.

Friends, what if the landowner – the one with the axe in hand – isn’t God. What if the landowner is us. Maybe we’ve come across people and places in this world that just seem like they are good for nothing. They are a waste of space, sucking up all the resources of the earth, and not producing a dang thing. Who knows, maybe that’s even how we view ourselves sometimes.

The painful truth is this life is not fair and we are all living on borrowed time. And so the question becomes what will we do with that time? Will we continue to reach for the axe wanting to cut down and away all the things and people in this world that we have deemed no longer useful. Or will we put the axe down and trust that God the gardener will go to work on those fruitless places. Will we stop looking upon those who are hurting as people who somehow deserve it and instead look upon them as beloved trees in God’s garden who still need time and care. Put down the axe, Jesus says. Put down the blade that you are about to swing at the trunk of your own life or the life of another. And instead, maybe, with those now empty hands, grab a pair of gloves and a bag of manure and get to work. God the gardener and that fruitless tree could use a hand. Amen.