March 27, 2016

The McKinnons, the Montoyas, and the Power of the Resurrection

Easter 2016
Luke 24:1-12

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 There is this crazy phenomenon with people who have too much time on their hands and easy access to high speed internet. There are these montages, usually of sports events where someone piece together all the short videos people have taken on their cell phones of that awesome play or that last second shot. The plays get synced so you’re seeing those last 6 or 10 seconds from as one continuous shot from multiple angles or vantage points. This year’s NCAA Tournament has provided a coupel of those moments. I saw one video from last weekend’s game between Northern Iowa and Texas. In an 8 second span, you can see about six or seven different angles of Texas going the length of the court to tie the game, and then Northern Iowa hitting an improbable half-court as time expired. They even overlaid the play-by-play from Northern Iowa’s radio broadcast! Now basketball, even the NCAA Tournament, even in North Carolina, is not nearly as big or important as the Resurrection of Jesus. And each of the four Gospels gives us a vantage point of the story of Jesus’ greatest miracle, and angle to see the power of his resurrection in a similar way that people all over the stadium are seeing the same thrilling play, and yet, how they tell that story may differ based on where they are seated. The Gospels tell the story as if it just happened, even though they weren’t written down until 40-60 years later. Luke’s retelling of this event is unique because it is the only one where Jesus is not present or identified at the Tomb. Instead it is two men in dazzling clothes who asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The women tell the 11 apostles who find it “an idle tale.” They don’t believe the women, not because they are women, but because they didn’t believe that Jesus would rise from the grave after such a violent death. Even Peter who had denied Jesus just a few days earlier, goes running to the tomb, but even he isn’t sure what he has seen. I would venture to say that the women who saw the angels, too, didn’t know what to make of it in the moment it was happening. The power of Jesus’ resurrection took a little while to sink in. The remainder of Luke’s Gospel (and John’s Gospel) are about amazed and confused and excited disciples encountering the Risen Christ. I’d argue that they really didn’t know what to do until his Ascension 40 days later. But the power f the resurrection became evident soon when the Holy Spirit descended on people gathered for Pentecost, and we even hear how the power of Jesus’ resurrection is affecting the Gentiles Our reading from Acts (Acts 10) this morning tells the story of Cornelius the Centurion, widely considered the first Gentile convert to Christianity. The power of Jesus’ resurrection is inseparable from the power of Jesus’ birth and his death on the cross. As unbelievable as it may be that God would become a human, let alone a baby, and as unbelievable as it is that God’s son, the Messiah, would die in such a brutal and ugly way, it would be just as unbelievable for Jesus to exit the tomb in the early hours of Sunday morning. We can identify with the first witnesses of the empty tomb and why it took so long for the disciples to begin proclaiming the Good News. But if we can grasp the notion that God led each of these miraculous moments and countless moment in between (both the ones that were recorded and the ones that weren’t), and if we can grasp, even for a second, God’s immense love not only for the whole world, but for each and every person (you!) then the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus begins to be understood as the greatest of God’s amazing acts, acts that require each of us to tell others about it, both with our voices and our lives. Jesus’ resurrection may have happened nonce, many years ago, but the power of that mighty act continues to be evident to us 2,000 years later. Stories of people who stopped looking for the living among the dead and found new life where no one thought it could be. Stories of miracles, big and small, where God was experienced in unbelievable and very real ways. Like all of those people taking videos in various parts of the arena, each of us has a unique angle on the world. No one else sees the world the way you do. Which means that each of us has an opportunity to tell how we see the power of Jesus’ resurrection. I saw the power of Jesus’ resurrection this week. An old friend of mine, who’s an even older friend of my wife’s (they grew up going to youth events together in the Diocese of North Carolina). Lindsay and her husband Tom lost their house to a fire eight days ago. And if that wasn’t bad enough, their five- and 10-year old sons didn’t make it out. They had other friends who were staying with them, Christy and Zach and their two girls. Christy was pretty badly burned. In a matter of days before Tom and Lindsay were even released from the hospital, a YouCaring account (which is an online way of giving to those in need) had a $40,000 goal, and was at $135,000. That’s the power of the resurrection. But that’s not the real power of the resurrection that I saw. The real power of the resurrection know where their sons are, and as much pain as they are in, they’ve asked people to stop giving to their account, and give to Christy, who will face a much longer recovery. Their faith in the resurrection, as painful as it is right now, they are so filled with hope and filled with joy for the life their boys lived is unbelievable to me. Yet at the same time, having served with Lindsay on multiple Christian events, I believe it all the more. We are understandably like the disciples on plenty of occasions, when we don’t want to believe and we can’t understand the power of the resurrection in our lives. But at the same time, our call is to be like the women who found the empty tomb, who went and told what had happened and who told that Jesus had risen from the grave. And the power of that resurrection continues today. We will always have those times where we are like the disciples. But I hope and I pray that we will find more times when we are like the women.

March 6, 2016

Sinners and tax collectors

Lent 4, Year C, RCL

Each Monday before I preach, I dig in to the Scriptures of the day. I prefer to do that from a Bible because I think it's important to know what happens on either side of the Scripture reading we hear read in worship. As I'm reading it, I have a bit of an internal dialogue as I ponder the Scripture and this important question: What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion? So here's a little of what my internal dialogue was like earlier this week:
Joshua -- Good stuff about God keeping promises. I like this scene... Maybe it will be good for the Children's Homily...
The Psalm -- I don't usually preach on the Psalm, but I wonder... No, this piece about "Do not be a horse or a mule..." that won't fly.
Second Corinthians -- Great spring-time reading, "If anyone is Christ, there is a new creation."
Ok... I wonder what the Gospel reading is... 

At this point, my internal dialogue became an external, um, groan, when I bellowed "THE PRODIGAL SON!?!? AGAIN!?! REALLY?!?!
Cortney comes in my office ask if everything is Ok, and I say, "I feel like I draw this passage every year!"

My amazing assistant reminded me that this passage only comes up once every three years in our lectionary, always on this, the 4th Sunday of Lent. I did a quick "trust but verify" research to find out she's right. (But I still feel like I get this passage every year!)

I'd be lying if I said I didn't ponder every possible angle with all of the other Scripture lessons, but nothing struck home the way the lesson from Luke did.The Prodigal Son is one of those passages that we only hear once every 156 Sundays or so, and yet the story is such a part of our culture, eve extending beyond the sacred and into the secular. So when the lectionary serves up a well-known story such as this, like a low-hanging curve ball over home plate, you have to take a swing at it. 

This story has been hashed out and cut up and dissected in more ways than one could possibly imagine. I would venture to guess that the story of the Prodigal Son has been looked at in more ways than any of Jesus' feeding miracles. I know hat I have heard it preached (and maybe you have too!) from the perspective of the father, the un-mentioned mother, either or both of the brothers' perspectives, from the perspective of the servants, Jesus' hearers at the time, and even one desperate attempt to preach from the perspective of the fatted calf. And if yo u want to hear more about those angles (except may the calf one...) I'm glad to sit down and talk with you about any or all of them. 

But as I wrestled and tussled with this passage this week, I kept coming back to those first two verses, where Luke tells us why Jesus told this parable to begin with:
"All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
The Prodigal Son story is the longest of three stories that follow the introduction. Before he gets there, he tells the story of the lost sheep and the shepherd who leaves the 99 other sheep to go after the one. And the story of the woman who turns over her whole house to find the one lost silver coin of the 10 she had. "Truly I tell you," Jesus says, "There will be more rejoicing in heaven on that day when one sinner repents than for those who do not need to repent."

Then Jesus moves into this famous story, this scandalous story of a younger son demanding his inheritance and then squandering it to such a degree that he realizes his father's servants have it better than he does. So he goes back home, and Jesus adds to the scandal by having the father not only accept his son, but to restore him to his place in the family and in the community and throw him a party. And of course, the older sibling throws a fit because... well, we all know the younger sibling gets away with everything. 

In telling these three parables, Jesus does some pretty amazing things. In the first two, the ones about the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus uses lost and found as key words. In this story, at the end, TWICE the father uses the words dead and alive. The first two were about items that while they have value, are not nearly as valuable as the person, the sinner, the tax collector, the dealer, the con artist, who turns their life back to God. 

Jesus tells this story, not because everyone around him was righteous and upright, but because the sinners and tax collectors heard in Jesus' message something that fed their souls, that made them might actually believe they were worthy of whatever this Kingdom of God that had come near may be. For the sinners and tax collectors of our day, whether their deceit happens on the streets or a board room or in their own home, the message of this story of the Prodigal  Son is one each of us sinners and tax collectors need to hear: That the grace of God in Jesus makes a way for us all to be new creations, to be reconciled to God, as the Apostle Paul wrote. The sinners and tax collectors in Jesus' audience most likely heard a reflection of the grace and reconciliation they had already found in Jesus' preaching. 

I wonder if we can do the same. Or have we lifted ourselves up to the point that we feel like the eldest son, who has worked and worked yet had those us a party?  It would be perfectly natural to find yourself feeling both at various points in your life. But whether we have put ourselves up on a pedestal or are walling in pig slop, we are never, as Jesus teaches us today, beyond the reconciling grace of God.

My favorite part of the Prodigal Son story is probably the most scandalous. When the younger son comes to his senses, he practices this speech, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." On the road home, he probably practiced it a thousand or more times. Yet as he gets the first part of the statement out of his mouth, the father says, "Bring out the robe -- the best one! -- and put the ring on his finger so everyone will know he is a member of this family! And prepare a party like we haven't had in years!" 

When we turn our hearts back towards God, God does the same thing for us.