Tag: mercy

Rearview Mirror

Luke 24:13-35
Acts 2:14a, 36-41

where-is-god.png

Elie Wiesel, his parents, and his sister were told to board a train. Upon debarking, they were separated. It was the last time he ever saw his mom or little sister. His father and he were placed together in the concentration camp of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He writes about he witnessed as men were beat, starved, tortured, and murdered. Day after day. Jews, Romani ‘gypsies,’ homosexuals, people who disagreed with the government, and those suspected of being any of these categories – all subjected to cruelty.

Around the boy Wiesel the men confront their faith. Why does God permit this to happen?

Is God good?
Is God just?
Is God loving?

Is this a punishment from God? If so – what could a mere human do to deserve to watch their toddler tortured to death or their grandpa murdered by his fellows over a scrap of food?

Elie Wiesel writes in his memoir ((Night)) of how some people still prayed, and still praised God, even in deep heartache. But he could not. He writes,

“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”

The torture, the anger, the feelings of betrayal and abandonment led many prisoners to wonder… where IS God?

Wiesel recounts watching a very young boy being hung to inspire fear into the camp; “‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking.” But God doesn’t save the boy and the boy hangs – but he is too light and so instead of a quick death, slowly suffocates. Wiesel continues, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ and from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where-hanging here from this gallows…”

God is dying. God is dead.

Later, a Rabbi in the camp says, “”It’s over. God is no longer with us.” And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice, “I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?””

On that long, seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, I believe a similar conversation occurred. I am not saying it was as hellish as that Wiesel suffered, but similar conversation may have happened. I think the two walking had to ask each other:

Where is God?
Where is this God of Mercy and love?
If this Jesus was the Chosen One of God… how could mere mortals murder him?
If this Jesus was the Messiah to bring in God’s reign, why do bad people still rule and good people die?
Why do the innocent suffer and the guilty go rewarded?
If this is God’s reign… where is God? If this is God’s world – where is god?
What if… there is no god?

In situations not as hellish as seeing Jesus die. Not as hellish as seeing everyone you know tortured to death. But similar words you may have asked: where is God?

Is there a God?

Wiesel’s faith of God changes, wavers, stops all together at times and flourishes at others. He alone out of his family survives the concentration camp. As an old man, he spoke with a news paper reporter. ((The Star Ledger)) The reporter asked Wiesel,

Q: What is it like having strangers ask you if or why you believe in God?

A: You know who asks me the most? It’s children. Children ask, “How can you still believe in God?” In All the Rivers Run to the Sea, I speak about it. There are all the reasons in the world for me to give up on God. I have the same reasons to give up on man, and on culture and on education. And yet … I don’t give up on humanity, I don’t give up on culture, I don’t give up on journalism … I don’t give up on it. I have the reasons. I don’t use them.

Q: How often do people ask you this question?

A: Whenever there’s a question-and-answer period after a lecture, inevitably the question comes up. Inevitably. I still (can’t) remember once that I gave a lecture on philosophy or on history or the Talmud or the Bible (when it didn’t come up) at one point. It’s `How come you — or do you — believe in God?’

Q: How do you respond to people who no longer believe in God because of the Holocaust?

A: I ask them, `How can you believe in man?’ After all, God did not send down Auschwitz from heaven. Human beings did it. And most of them were cultured, educated. The (Nazis) were led by people with college degrees, some of them with doctoral degrees, some with PhDs. Then they don’t know.

Q: Why do you think people ask you these questions?

A: It is for their sake. They want to understand. Look, a very religious person would not ask me this question; only if that religious person has some anxiety or some doubt, then that person wants to know how I deal with that anxiety and that doubt. And I say, `Look, I have faith. It’s a wounded faith.’

Elie Wiesel lives on with a wounded faith.

Out of that wounded faith, he inspires others to remember HUMANS caused the Holocaust – not God. We bear the sin. We bear the responsibility to never do this again.

Out of wounded faith, Wiesel heals.

Walking to Emmaus, I wonder if the two have a wounded faith. All their dreams and expectations have been murdered. Hung on a cross. Left to die. Buried. Already the close disciples of Jesus have begun to be captured up, to be stoned to death… murdered.

How could God torture and murder God’s own son?
How is that just?
How is that right?
Are we going to laud divine child abuse?

… Maybe, as with the holocaust… God didn’t do it. Humans did.

Humans accused Jesus. Humans killed him. The holocaust was not some part of a great big plan. Nor was the cross.

In the words of George Santayana:” If pain could have cured us we should long ago have been saved.”

UCC Rev. Terry Williams continues, “Suffering is never redemptive. Christ’s love for us is shown in how he chose to live; our sinfulness is shown in how we chose to end his life. Suffering is never God’s will.”

Where is God?

God isn’t the one inflicting the pain.

God is hanging from the gallows.
God is hanging on the cross.
God is with the person suffering.

In our scripture, these two are suffering and Jesus comes up along side of them. They don’t even notice. Jesus joins in their reality, their conversation. Jesus then reassures them. The word ‘fool’ here is the kind of fool we call a beloved friend. Foolish beloved friend, the deranged babble of the women is true. God doesn’t leave you in suffering. God goes alongside with you. God accompanies you even with your wounded faith, because God has wounded faith in humanity. And together, we abide, side by side, and hope and trust in better tomorrows.

In Emmaus, the two invite in the stranger who has walked with them. And the stranger then becomes their blessing – and disappears.

In sudden hindsight, they realize Jesus was with them all along. In sudden hindsight, they realize that by welcoming in the stranger they welcomed in Christ. By welcoming in the lonely, they welcomed in Christ. By walking with someone and speaking of faith, even though they themselves felt their faith was wounded, they found Christ and found deep assurance that indeed- the Lord is Risen.

When I am in the middle of hell on Earth, I don’t always see where God is. I don’t always feel God’s presence. I don’t always trust God is love.

But in the rearview mirror… I see… I was never alone.

God was in the care strangers showed me. God was in the prayers of others. God sat with me while I asked the hard questions of: God – why? Why? Why? And WHERE ARE YOU?

In the rearview mirror… I see with twenty-twenty… it’s a talent and a skill we must develop to recognize our Lord in the present moment. For God is present. Right here. In our joys, but also in our deepest questions and sufferings. Amen.

Grace of God

divine-chocolates-300x3001 Kings 21:1-21a
Luke 7:36-8:3
We know this story: someone rich goes on vacation to the countryside and they see something they just HAVE to HAVE. A handmade quilt, an antique tractor, a piece of land. So they offer money. “My dog loves that quilt, give it to me! How much?” “My house will look perfect in that soy field! How much?” When their money is turned down, because of values other than money, the rich person is incensed. Angry. Is my money not good enough?!

King Ahab today sees the vineyard – a sign of God – that Naboth owns. It is growing near Ahab’s vacation house. Ahab tells Naboth to sell it to him so Ahab can tear up the vineyard – the sign of God – and plant a vegetable garden – which in the bible tends to symbolize Egypt. Naboth hears Ahab say: “Naboth! Sell me the land God gave you, and told you not to sell, so I can uproot God and plant Egypt.”

No amount of money is worth this to Naboth. He sticks to his values – and he values God more than money.

Ahab can’t understand. He rules the Jews. He used to BE Jewish before he married Jezebel and began to follow Baal. But he’s forgotten there are things in life more important than money, land, wealth.

He sulks at home and obsesses over what he’s been denied. Jezebel sees her husband acting like this, and she tells him to king-up! He is the king! Act like it! By act like it, she means… use your wealth and power to do what you want anyways. So we read how she arranged to bring false charges against Naboth, and got Naboth killed on a lie. She then gave the vineyard to her husband.

Ahab doesn’t ask questions! He doesn’t ask how Jezebel got the land. He doesn’t WANT to know. He just wants the land, and now he has it. The dirty little behind the scenes stuff, done in his own name, he doesn’t want to face.

I don’t want to face the deeds done in my name to get me chocolate.

Its so tasty, right? And right nearby – a part of holidays. I’m aware there are things called “free trade chocolate” but I really don’t want to know the dirty behind the scenes stuff. I’d rather eat my Hershey’s bar and be happy. Just like Ahab would rather enjoy his vegetable garden and be happy.

But, Ahab is accused of his crime by the prophet of God. Accused of doing evil; and angering God… because Ahab turned a blind eye for his own self-comfort and security.

I am doing evil, and angering God, when I turn a blind eye to where my food comes from. When I accept there might be bad things in the making of it, but I don’t look – because I don’t want to know. I am abusing my wealth, my position, my status to ignore the plight of those who make my food.

See, chocolate is grown in tropical areas like West Africa.

“In Western Africa, cocoa is a commodity crop grown primarily for export; 60% of the Ivory Coast’s export revenue comes from its cocoa. As the chocolate industry has grown over the years, so has the demand for cheap cocoa. On average, cocoa farmers earn less than $2 per day, an income below the poverty line. As a result, they often resort to the use of child labor to keep their prices competitive.

The children of Western Africa are surrounded by intense poverty, and most begin working at a young age to help support their families. Some children end up on the cocoa farms because they need work and traffickers tell them that the job pays well. Other children are “sold” to traffickers or farm owners by their own relatives… Often, traffickers abduct the young children from small villages in neighboring African countries… Once they have been taken to the cocoa farms, the children may not see their families for years, if ever.

Most of the children laboring on cocoa farms are between the ages of 12 and 16, but reporters have found children as young as 5. In addition, 40% of these children are girls, and some stay for a few months, while others end up working on the cocoa farms through adulthood.

A child’s workday typically begins at six in the morning and ends in the evening. Some of the children use chainsaws to clear the forests. Other children climb the cocoa trees to cut bean pods using a machete. Once they cut the bean pods from the trees, the children pack the pods into sacks that weigh more than 100 pounds when full and drag them through the forest. Aly Diabate, a former cocoa slave, said, “Some of the bags were taller than me. It took two people to put the bag on my head. And when you didn’t hurry, you were beaten.”

Holding a single large pod in one hand, each child has to strike the pod with a machete and pry it open with the tip of the blade to expose the cocoa beans. Every strike of the machete has the potential to slice a child’s flesh. The majority of children have scars on their hands, arms, legs or shoulders from the machetes.

In addition to the hazards of using machetes, children are also exposed to agricultural chemicals on cocoa farms in Western Africa. Tropical regions such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast consistently deal with prolific insect populations and choose to spray the pods with large amounts of industrial chemicals. In Ghana, children as young as 10 spray the pods with these toxins without wearing protective clothing.

The farm owners using child labor usually provide the children with the cheapest food available, such as corn paste and bananas. In some cases, the children sleep on wooden planks in small windowless buildings with no access to clean water or sanitary bathrooms. Forget about school. Depriving these children of an education has many short-term and long-term effects. Without an education, the children of the cocoa farms have little hope of ever breaking the cycle of poverty.” (source: http://www.foodispower.org/slavery-chocolate/)

Big name companies: Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestlé, refuse to look into this issue. The cheap cocoa, the cheap chocolate, the wealth is more important. They work as Jezebel — handling the dirty work, the childhood slavery — so that people like me can act like Ahab, and reap the benefit without the guilt.

But just as God still found Ahab guilty for stealing from Naboth… I know God finds me guilty for stealing from these children.

What is there to do? For awhile, I honestly didn’t know about this Sin. And now that I do know – what now?

Our second reading gives us the answer: fall on the mercy, the grace, of God. Confess the sins, plead for forgiveness, and stop the sinning to the best of our ability.

I confess I have supported childhood slavery in the form of cheap chocolate. I pray God forgives me. I will educate myself, learn more, and purchase from companies that use Fair Trade policies, or policies against childhood labor. Chocolate like Divine, Honest, Newman’s Own, even Kroger brand have these policies. ALDI’s, Starbucks, and the makers of Girl Scout cookies are beginning to take steps. We speak with our money: what we purchase. We can choose to encourage these companies, these steps, towards chocolate that comes without the slavery of children.

It means more expensive chocolate.

But, it means a living wage for the workers.

And it means valuing God more than cash.

And I’m still going to end up eating some chocolate that was made with children slaves. This is because I’m stuck in a world full of Sin – Sin, harms against each other and God – are embedded into our systems. We just don’t know all the wrongs occurring, and so participate in them unknowingly.

This is why we pray God forgive us for the sins we commit without knowing. And forgive us for the sins we commit we know we’ve done.

This is why we can’t afford to be Simon, and consider ourselves above the need of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. May we be the unnamed woman, at the feet of Jesus, praying for forgiveness, hearing the sweet words: Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.

Amen.

Go with God

anaiasJohn 21:1-19
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

 

When we’re children we sometimes play games that can be pretty morbid that we probably wouldn’t suggest as adults. One that I remember like that was called ‘Who’s in Hell?’ it goes like this: you name someone who HAS to be in hell because they did just horrible, horrible things they couldn’t be anywhere else. Then I name someone else who did even worse things and so must be in hell. We try to one-up each other, terrifying one another, and simultaneously reassure ourselves that we’re not going to hell because we aren’t as evil as these people. It’s a really bad, childish game.

And never once did Saul’s name come up – even though he arrested, drove out, split up the families of the first generation of Christians after Jesus died. He helped murder Stephen with stones. Saul was the one even the adults whispered in fear about. Saul had the legal authority to do whatever he wanted if he suspected you were a follower of the Way of Jesus. The city, the temple, the priests — he had documents proving their support for him to get rid of any of the heretics.

Religious-based violence is what Saul was carrying out. Violence, murder, and destruction, in the name of God.

In our reading today, Saul is leaving the cleansed Jerusalem and is on his way to the next city to pass judgment on the Jews he meets there and on the way. Anyone found suspicious is to be bound like cattle and hauled back for a trial that may end in crucifixion, stoning, being shoved off a cliff, testifying against family, betraying family, or denying ever knowing Jesus or his Way.

Why Saul never made it into my harmful elementary school game is beyond me. Probably because I only ever remembered him as who he was AFTER he met Jesus: Paul. The author of so many of our foundational letters and scripture.

The Bible didn’t hide the details about Saul – Saul was a radical religious extremists bent on enforcing his understanding of God with violence. He was accounted as “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women,”

Yet, as Stephen dies, he prays to God to forgive Saul and the other murderers — saying the words just as Jesus did: “Father, forgive them.”

And the Resurrected Jesus comes upon Saul in a blinding light. Saul KNOWS this is divine, he has read his scripture – he knows through and through that blinding light is likely a messenger or angel of God – but it is none other than Jesus himself. Jesus tells Saul ‘listen up!’ Pay attention to what is to occur to you in the city ahead and know who I am!

Meanwhile, in town, there is a man named Ananias who receives a call, a message and mission, from Jesus. Jesus tells him the specific house to find Saul… and then tells Ananias he is to lay his hands on Saul and bless him, cure him even, with a miracle from God invoked in the name of Jesus.

Ananias even questions Jesus – Jesus! Don’t you know what you’re asking? If I say ‘I’m here to bless you in the name of Jesus,’ I may get hurt, be arrested, or even stoned to death. Who knows what will happen to my family. This Saul, if he even THINKS you are Christian, can do whatever he pleases to torture, maim, and kill you. You want me to go announce I am Christian to him?!

Yes. Says God. Go.

And this faithful man complies with God’s vision and seeks out Saul. There, he touches the man who’s touch has murdered, and Ananias says, “Brother Saul, Jesus heals you; Jesus blessed you with the Holy Spirit.”

… What kind of faith does it take to pray for your enemies? Pray goodness upon them?

… What kind of faith does it take to bless those who persecute you? Bless them, and aid them?

… What kind of faith does it take to forgive and believe God forgives?

… My childish game forgot the basic message of our Risen Christ. It forgot the Good News: the Good News is that God Forgives. God Loves. God Gives New Life. The Good News is that Saul wasn’t sent to hell even though he murdered so many Christians… he was offered forgiveness, offered love, offered a new life in Christ. The Good News is that Peter — who denied even knowing Jesus three times — if offered three chances to say yes to Jesus, and he receives forgiveness, love, and a new calling, a new mission, a new life with deep purpose in Christ. These two men were offered such radical new lives they even took new names: Simon we know as Peter; and Saul we know as Paul.

The Good News is that we have received mercy beyond measure; offered forgiveness that is endless; we can never be beyond the love and redemption of God. Every time we come to the table Jesus invites us to, we come like Simon and like Saul — broken, having purposefully done wrong and unintentionally done wrong. We come carrying sins — sins we inherit from our society; and sins we make ourselves. We come with nets empty of nourishing fish, we come with our hands out stretched, our eyes clouded, and the taste of curses and threats lingering on our tongues.

We come like this… and here, in the name of Jesus, God offers to renew us. To refresh us.

God offers to be our partner in restoring the relationships we have with each other, with our own selves, and with God.

Our partner — who loved us first, so we can love others. Who forgave us first, so we can forgive us. Who blessed us first, so we can bless others. Who first showed us how to feed and attend to each other, so that we too know how to feed and tend to each other.

No one — no one — not Simon Peter, not Saul Paul — not a single person I naively named in my silly kids’ game — no one at all is beyond the mercy and forgiveness of God.

The Good News is for all people.

Amen.

The Appalling Mercy of God

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The only time I ever hear the word ‘prodigal’ is in reference to this story. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I’ve always thought ‘prodigal’ must mean something like ‘repentant’ or ‘returning.’

Did you know it actually means wastefully extravagant? Lavish, imprudent, boundless, someone who is told to go to the store for milk and comes home with an entire barn of cows.

Jesus’ story is the story of an entire family who is wastefully extravagant.

He tells the story in response to the righteous, upstanding, church folk grumbling that Jesus is too generous for sitting down with sinners, even UNREPENTANT sinners, and sharing meals with them.

So the story goes like this:

A dad has a really good piece of farm land. He got it from his dad, who got it from his dad, all the way back to when they originally moved here. Over the generations, this farm went from a little single shoddy house in the wilderness to a big farm with hired hands. Now this land feeds not only the original family, but also the other families who work on the farm as farm hands.

This dad has two sons. The older son, let’s call him Bobby, is a really good boy. He does everything his dad tells him to do. He always goes to church with his dad, he always gets the crops in before rain, and he never, ever does wrong. Whenever there was a broken dish, or crayon marks on the walls, or a goat that got into the grapes… dad knew it wasn’t Bobby’s fault.

It was actually much more likely that dad’s younger son, let’s call him Timmy, forgot to close the gate. Timmy grew up in the shadow of Bobby. Bobby was older, the good kid, and always prudent. Timmy… well… sometimes Timmy felt like there was no place for him. He just couldn’t BE his older brother. His older brother was older- so of course he was better at things. He had more practice. To survive, to be his own person, Timmy had to find places Bobby wasn’t. Often, this was doing bad things.

I wonder if Jesus pauses here, before his crowd of church go-ers and sinners. The sinners are tax collectors, people who collect money for the Romans. Do you think these Jewish men would work for the Romans if they had an option? No! But, for one reason or another, this was the only job they could get. And what of these prostitutes? Do you think these women were little girls and said ‘One day, I’m going to have a job where I sell myself and everyone spits on me and looks down at me?’ No! Of course not. But circumstances, bad choices the girls made or that were made FOR them, forced them into this job. You Pharisees, you church-goers, you respectable people: listen up — this story is for you.

Jesus then continues that the younger boy Timmy wants to strike out on his own. He says, “Dad, when you die, you’re going to divide the farm between Bobby and I. Well, I don’t want to wait that long. Give me my share now.”

The dad is prodigal. He is extravagantly wasteful. He gives his son his son’s share of the farm.

And right away, the son is prodigal, extravagantly wasteful. He sells the land and sheep and goats and takes all the money far away.

Ancient Israelite farmers are much like modern Ohio farmers. The land we have is WHO we are when we say we’re farmers. This land has been cleared, fertilized, tilled and disked and cared for by our parents and grandparents. We love the land. It is a key part of our identity.

And our animals – and seeds – sometimes we have been breeding them from stock that’s just as old as the land.

The son does violence to his dad, to his ancestors, and to his community. Dad can’t hire as many farm hands now that a good portion of his land has been sold to strangers in a strange land.

These strangers come and they don’t know how to farm the land. Maybe they turn it into a McMansion or used car lot, or all the other development catastrophes we know. They bring in big trucks to build something in the middle of that beautiful piece of farmland and crush all the field tiles, tear down all the cattle fencing, and cut down the oaks your grandmother planted.

This younger son burns many, many bridges on his way out of town.

Where does he go? We don’t know. New York, Las Vegas, Columbus, Mexico – just somewhere that isn’t here. Somewhere where what it means to be a rural farmer isn’t understood.

And there, he blows through all the money from his dad’s work, his grandparent’s work, and his great-grandparent’s work. Broke, credit card debt past his eyeballs, the economy then tanks.

Hunger sets in. So Timmy looks for work. He’s a foreigner, a stranger, in this area. No one wants to hire him. They’d rather give a good job to a local. The only work he can find is being a farmer… ironic… and not a farmer like he knew back home, but a hired hand who has to do the dirtiest work.

Every good law-abiding Jewish person knows that swine, pigs, are dirty. The Romans eat them. But Jews do not. This foreigner, maybe a Roman, is making this Jewish kid help raise dirty food.

It’s kind of like the tax collectors. They are working for Romans… helping the Romans tax the Jews. It’s doing dirty work… so that they don’t starve.

I wonder if Jesus then asked, “Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners – how many times have you heard people whispering behind your backs, ‘Dirty pig!’ Was it foreigners calling you names, or was it people who are supposed to be your own community? Your own brothers and sisters?”

I think Jesus asks us to reflect… what names are we calling our fellow Christians?

… Especially those ones we see are sinning?

Are we calling them something else than beloved children of God?

Jesus then returns to his story: Hungering in the field after the pig’s bean husks, Timmy comes to his senses. He realizes that his dad’s hired hands are eating better than he is. If he wants to survive, he could go back to his dad.

Maybe Timmy really is sorry. Or maybe Timmy is just really hungry. We don’t know. We never know why people repent — why they turn back — why they say sorry. Maybe someone is truly sorry… or maybe they are doing it out of self-interest. Maybe people are saying sorry because they feel badly about what they have done. Or maybe they are saying sorry because they don’t want cut out of the will, or go to jail, or are scared of hell. We don’t know. And Jesus’ parable says the REASON someone repents isn’t as important as you and I would like it to be.

Rather, repentance and forgiveness belongs to the realm of grace. The realm of God. The realm of forgiving seventy times seventy or more times.

There’s no rap sheet with God.

No long list of, “Well, I already forgave you this same sin two times — this third strike? You’re out.”

As long as you’re confessing, returning, seeking God – the mercy and forgiveness of God is still pouring out, still coming, still washing away those sins.

Kinda appalling, isn’t it? Not fair at all. Extravagant waste.

Jesus’ story just keeps getting more prodigal and more not fair.

Timmy goes home, back to the town he’s wronged big time. Back to where the neighbors hate him. Back to where everyone looks at Timmy’s dad and shakes their head saying, “What a shame! Why did he ever let his son get that way? Why did he give his son that land? I wouldn’t let MY son act like that.”

And as Timmy walks through the little town, his dad sees him and goes running towards him. It’s like this dad has no sense of shame at all. For everyone to see, this dad acts like a giddy school girl and goes running down the street towards his sinful son to greet him! Does this mean he approves of how the kid’s acted?! The kid has just started to return, and dad runs all the rest of the way to greet him.

Of course he doesn’t approve. He just loves his son that much. God loves us like this!

And the father greets him with even more extravagant waste! Kisses and hugs, brushing off the son’s practiced apology, calling for new clothing and riches to be draped over the boy, and to throw a gigantic feast for the kid. The dad is going to throw a party for the whole town to celebrate the kid coming home.

It isn’t just the good son who’s appalled. I think the town is too.

What are we going to do? What are we going to choose? There’s a great big party getting ready to be thrown for this kid. Are we going to cross our arms, huff, and refuse to join? Are we going to turn our noses up and refuse to associate with this prodigal family?

The older son, Bobby, is walking towards town from the fields. He’s been working all day. He hears the celebration in town.

And when he learns what’s going on – oh boy is he angry.

He crosses his arm and refuses to go in. He refuses to celebrate that idiot who did so much wrong, so much sin. “I don’t care if he’s back safe and sound. I don’t care if he says he’s sorry. He should have never left in the first place!”

So dad leaves the party to come talk to his eldest son, Bobby. Truly, this dad has no shame when it comes to pulling his sons into his presence. He’s willing to plead now before the town with his eldest son. Plead, not demand, but plead.

God pleads with us. Never forces.

But the older son angrily answers his dad’s pleading, “No! THAT son — I won’t call him my brother — THAT son of your’s devoured your property and you rejoice? I’ve been a slave for you and you don’t do anything special for me – not once!”

And dad replies, “All that I have is your’s, and you have always been in my presence. Your brother was dead, but now alive. He was lost, but now found. We must celebrate and rejoice.”

I think Jesus’ crowd was so, so angry over this story. You church go-ers have always had God in your presence. All of God’s love, and presence, and mercy has always been your’s.

This sinner, this lost one, who turned back… this is your brother! Your sister! I have to rejoice. I have to welcome them. I love them.

Will you rejoice, will you welcome, will you love them too?

It is appalling that God’s mercy knows no limits. It is appalling that God’s love is for those who stay by God and those who wander. It’s appalling… but so, so necessary.

That older son was also lost and dead. He was in the field, so concerned about working, so concerned about doing right – that he, too, had wandered away from his father. He was dead in his heart – he refused to call his brother a brother. He refused to welcome his brother home.

This story of abundant, extravagent, endless mercy and love is for both sons.

The son who sins openly; and the son who sins privately.

The sinner who the world points at with shaming fingers; and the sinner who the world lauds.

Jesus, sitting there talking to tax collectors and church go-ers alike, talking to prostitutes and priests – says you all need God’s mercy, and you all have God’s love.

God’s love isn’t limited.

When a person enters the circle of God’s love, there is not less love for everyone else. When a sinner is given a welcome home party, that party isn’t just for that sinner. The party is an invite for everyone – rejoice! God’s love knows no ends.

I once heard this story told as so: Saint Peter stood at the gates of heaven checking names off for who could enter. However, more people were in heaven than the number on Peter’s list. “Go keep looking and find out what the issue is,” Peter told some angels. So the angels looked through heaven, took another count, and again more people were in heaven than Peter had let in.

Finally, one of the angels found the problem. The angel returned to Peter and said, “Found the issue with the numbers, sir. It’s Jesus. He’s standing out by the back wall lifting people over.”

That is our God.

Endless mercy. Endless love.

It may strike us as unfair, as appalling…

… but without this endless mercy and love, who would get past the gate?

Amen.

Blame Game

Isaiah 55:1-9
Luke 13:1-9

Who’s to blame? Jesus’ disciples are trying to get their heads around the idea Jesus is preaching. An idea that isn’t popular in Jesus’ day, or our own day…

That message is don’t blame victims for their plights.

In our reading, Jesus is speaking privately to his disciples, but people keep bringing him more and more issues to address. There are so many, the scripture says the people began to trample and step on one another. And someone in the crowd calls out, “Rabbi! Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” And Jesus is upset with how greedy and lacking empathy the people coming to him are.

Some other person in the crowd comes and tells Jesus about an attack. Pilate murdered these worshipers as they brought their offerings to the temple. The person telling the story suggests, “Surely God protects God’s own people. So since these good faithful worshipers were killed in the middle of worship… they must have actually been sinners and made God so mad, God used Pilate to kill them. Right Jesus? So we can go boycott their funerals right?”

Jesus replies, “Ah, so then the 18 people who died in Jerusalem recently when that building fell – they must have been the 18 worst sinners in Jerusalem, right?” I think the crowd must nod. Yes, that’s right.

Jesus says, “No, I assure you. They weren’t the worst sinners. But unless you repent, you will perish just like they did.”

Who’s to blame when bad things happen?

When bad things happen – we, like the crowd, often lack empathy and we blame the victim. We say they weren’t a victim at all. They brought this on themselves. This is their own fault.

If a woman is pestered by a man, catcalled, touched: it’s because she shouldn’t have worn that clothing. She brought his attention on herself.

If a kid is bullied in school, he should be more of a man and stop crying. No one likes a whiner.

If a man is cheated on, he really should have been a better husband. Good husbands have faithful wives.

These people deserve their fate.

Do you remember how many preachers were saying hurricane Katrina was God’s response to Mardi Gras? It was God punishing the sinners of Louisiana? Surely Louisiana is the most sinful state of the US. So they deserved all that death, destruction, disease, and destroyed families.

How many preachers and politicians right now are saying the US is not flourishing because of “those sinners.” Depending on who you ask, those sinners are women seeking reproductive health care, gays and lesbians, non-Christians, or drug users.

Surely God is punishing the US, and that is why we aren’t the world’s only super power.

No! Says Jesus. No!

No to all of this! Each of these cases heap burdens on those already burdened.

Do not judge lest you be judged.

Nations rise and fall; hurricanes happen; good men are cheated on; all kids are bullied; and a woman isn’t responsible to police men.

Blaming those already in hurt turns us into sinners: into people who are hypocrites because we preach love but do harm.

One’s luck in life – whether good or bad – is NOT because of one’s sins. And, unless we repent of judging others, repent of harming others, repent of sin… we will perish. We will die on the inside. We will be heartless, and cruel, and continue to judge others…. continue to play the blame game and tell victims they deserve their bad luck.

Jesus, when no one understands what he means, tells a story about a fig tree. The land owner wants to cut it down, because the tree doesn’t produce figs. The gardener says, “No! Let me change the tree’s environment. It may be a bad tree, if so – then cut it down. It’s a bad tree. But give this tree the benefit of doubt. Give it a chance. Change the environment and you may be surprised.”

What does that mean?

… Often, we are victims of our circumstances, our environments, and not wholly to blame for our deeds.

Did you know one of the largest, if not THE largest, mental health institution in the US is the Cook County Jail in Chicago? It houses 9000 people, of which 35% are mentally ill. That’s 3150 mentally ill people at all times.

It didn’t always used to be like this. There had been social workers working the streets, and mental health places, and homeless shelters… but the city cut the funding for these projects. They said having these aids available encouraged people to be homeless. And, they said that with “Obama Care” everyone has health insurance, so now there is no need for free and low-income mental health help.

If you make too little money to afford health care insurance, you get a paper from the government that says you’re excused from purchasing it. So in reality, many people still do not have health insurance. Mostly the poor.

If you are able to get health insurance, next to none of them cover the full cost of prescriptions. Mental health drugs are expensive – $100 a pill at times. Even a good insurance plan that pays 80% of drug costs leaves a person paying $20 a day for their medication… and that is $20 most poor people have a hard time coming by.

Food stamps don’t cover medication.

In cities like Chicago, in cities like Columbus, like Lancaster, and even in rural areas like ourselves… the mentally ill fall through the cracks, often don’t have family or friends to help them, and end up homeless, hungry, and off their medication for months.

They do things like Daniel at Cook County did. His family was very rough growing up, and since he was 11, he’d been battling depression and PTSD. These things happen when you see your own relatives murdered.

When he turned 18, he was too old for foster care, he couldn’t get the money for his prescription antidepressants. So he went cold turkey. That was way too hard. He couldn’t afford a doctor, or the health care insurance, or the prescription drugs – but he could afford alcohol and street drugs. So he used these to self-medicate. One day, cops picked him up for loitering and found the drugs on him.

Daniel, like many in the Cook County Jail, are glad to be in the new environment. In jail, there is food, access to the right medication, and people to help kick addictions. But he worries when he gets out… where will he get this support?

Back on the streets, back to being homeless, now with a criminal record – so it’s harder to get a job – back to being without access to his medication… what is he going to do? Will he still produce good fruit when his environment is so bad?

Daniel is one of over 3000 people DAILY in this jail suffering from mental illness. Daniel is one of 9000 people there DAILY who are there because of something they did, some crime, but untold thousands of them did the crime because of circumstances outside of their control. They are victims of their environments. With different environments, with some fertilizer and a caring hand, with some love – they may just start producing good fruit.

Jesus is telling us that we are fruit trees, and supposed to produce good fruit: fruits like love, patience, kindness, forgiveness…. We’re supposed to produce the same fruit our parent tree, God, produces.

Here, this church, is a garden. We invite the gardener in to tend to us, to give us a good environment, to give us a place of welcome and forgiveness.

Jesus’ controversial teaching to his disciples and the crowd, his hard message to us today is that good people don’t have God’s magical protection barrier around them. Jesus is saying that bad things happen to people regardless of how much they sin.

Indeed, Jesus is saying that good people don’t go to heaven.

Forgiven people go to heaven.

For as our psalmist writes,

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We are not good people. We try to be. But our environment, our circumstances, means we often sin. Instead, we are forgiven people. People who know what its like to rely on mercy.

Jesus came for the sinsick. Came for fruit trees like you and me who need a better environment. God, who’s ways aren’t our ways and thoughts aren’t our thoughts, abundantly pardons us when we ask for forgiveness.

God is merciful with us. Let us be merciful with one another. Let us forgive each other. Let us forgive ourselves.

Let us not play the blame game, but worship God with love for God and one another. Amen.

Resource http://www.vice.com/read/what-life-is-like-inside-the-massive-jail-that-doubles-as-chicagos-largest-mental-health-facility?utm_source=vicetwitterus))\

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-13

Do you know the old country music song “Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson or Martina McBride? The woman singer tells her husband, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden…” She says she promised many other things… but a marriage made of only roses and good times wasn’t it. There’s going to be hard times, rain, too.

We are the bride of Christ, and our bridegroom Christ has never promised us perfect sunny weather and roses. God never promised us, “You shall not be tempted; you shall not be troubled; you shall not be distressed.” God promised us many other things, but an easy life has never been one of those promises.

To be human is to be tempted, troubled, and distressed.

Jesus was fully human, and so felt and knew these things.

Our scripture today happens right after Jesus has been baptized. He has just given his life over publicly to God. He has confessed his faith in God’s coming age. The Holy Spirit has anointed him. It’s like we spoke of last week – Jesus is having a mountaintop experience, an everything-going-great experience. And then he is driven to the desert by the Spirit. Deserts are the Bible’s way of saying a person has entered the time for fasting, for prayer, for study, and for identity. Jesus may be wondering: what does it mean to be God’s child?

During Lent, we follow Jesus’ model. We fast, pray, study, and wonder: what does it mean to be God’s child?

And just as we are tempted to leave our following of God, so too was Jesus tempted. In those forty days, the thorns on the roses, the rain of the garden, the dust and ashes of the desert set in.

And, διάβολος diabolos, tempts Jesus. Diabolos is the Greek word we translate as devil. In Greek, it means the Slanderer, the Accuser, the Defamer, the Backbiter, the Harsh Critic, the Condemner, the One-Who-Destroys-Others-Realtionships.

In other words, the devil, just like the snake in the Garden of Eden, is the one who works to accuse us of sins. Sins destroy our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with God. Sins make us isolated and alone. We get lost in our own lonely sin-deserts and can’t find our way back to the green valleys and still waters of the Lord’s.

Out here in the desert of 40 days, the devil begins to look for weak points in Jesus’ commitment to God and God’s promises.

Hunger is the first weakness the devil sees. People have bodies. We have needs. We need food and water, and shelter. Jesus is low on all of these basic needs. So the devil points out a single stone to Jesus and says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of manna, a loaf of bread.”

As Jesus and we all know, manna came from heaven from God. It was gifted to the Israelites in the desert. The heavenly, miraculous bread came every morning. What, tempts the devil, would be the harm in making a SINGLE loaf of heavenly bread to sustain yourself? You’re famished, Jesus! Use the power of God. Sustain yourself.

I think Jesus must have been sorely tempted. His body is weak. He has ate ‘nothing at all’ for forty days. No one is looking. No one would be harmed. It’s just a single loaf of bread. And God used to rain loaves upon loaves.

I think you’ve been in similar situations. I know I have. You find yourself there, looking at just a little sin, and you know no one will ever know, and no one will get hurt, and it’s just a little sin to meet a real need… Who is going to miss a few dollars here and there? Who is going to miss these office supplies, this cookie, these seeds, this gas, when so much is available? What will this little lie, or omission, hurt? No one will ever know.

Little sins, little theft, little misuses of power and trust is a really, really big temptation. It’s one I think we face more often than others. I think it’s one we succumb, we give in to, more often than other temptations too.

Jesus, ever our role model, our guide, our shepherd – gives us the response to say when these temptations hit: “One does not live by bread alone… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

We need basic things like food, shelter, water… but these things alone don’t keep us living. They may sustain the body, but the soul needs more. The soul needs God. The soul needs love. The soul needs relationships. Sins server these relationships. They make us isolated, alone, lonely, and our souls don’t get fed by others and by God. So although we may be well fed with bread, and in a nice house, with clean water to drink… we may still be dead inside. We cannot thrive without relationships. We cannot thrive mired, burdened, with sins. Like dirt on a window, speck by speck, little sins build up until no light shines in and we cannot see out.

Jesus tells us to refuse the little sins and remember the big damage they do over time.

So the devil, that tempter, tries another tactic Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. The Celts ruling in Europe, the Han of China, the great Roman Empire stretching over most of the known world. The Pharaohs, the queens, the kings, the Mayans and chieftains and village elders. Everyone who has power. Jesus could have it all. All he has to do is worship the backbiter, and it is Jesus’.

You see, we reflect who we worship. If Jesus would begin to worship the devil, and use the devil’s tactics — backbiting, accusing, slander — Jesus could control all these kingdoms. And then, well – he could do with the world as he pleased.

Think about the temptation! With a few lies, a few well placed rumors, some gossip, some blackmail.. Jesus could end war and bring about world peace. Jesus could end world hunger. Jesus could make the nations work together to solve all our problems. Jesus could rule over the world here and now.

What would you do if you controlled the world? I think very few people would say ‘let it continue as it currently is.’ Most of us have great wishes for a better world. The end of poverty. The end of slavery. The end of environmental destruction. The end of terrorist rulers and violent occupiers.

… The power to make those who do wrong hurt.

… The power to do justice.

Once again, I think Jesus had to have been sorely tempted. He wasn’t going to abuse God’s power for selfish means like he was tempted with the bread. No, he’d do a literal world of good. All it meant was replacing God with the devil. Replacing the giver of forgiveness, the giver of second chances, the giver of grace… for the giver of zero tolerance, final strikes, and preemptive attacks. It meant ruling as the world rules rather than as God rules.

Do the means matter if the end is good?

Does it matter what we do, if in the end, all things turn out okay?

Does it matter how we live our life if those who sin and those who don’t sin; those who worship God and those who don’t; seem to have the same luck and misfortune in life?

Jesus’ answer is yes.

Although it rains on the just and unjust alike, how we go about our lives matters. How we achieve our goals, whether noble or shameful, matters. Stealing a thousand dollars to give half of it to charity is still stealing a thousand dollars.

Jesus’ answer is that the purpose of our lives is to worship and serve God. Glory and power belong to God alone. When ever we have other idols before God — even if those idols are established with good intentions — we’re still making something else more important than God. So we’re sinning.

Once again, this temptation references the Exodus story. The Israelites were not able to keep from making idols.

The third temptation comes. Now the tempter ups the ante. Now Jesus stands on the temple in Jerusalem and way, way, way down below is the city. Anyone who looks up can see them, standing there, poised on the edge. And the devil cites scripture back at Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from here. For scripture says ‘He will command his angels to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

It sounds like a silly test. We know people fall off buildings when they step off their roofs. But then again, we know Jesus walked on water. So gravity doesn’t really seem to be that big of an issue for him. No — the temptation here isn’t whether or not gravity has a hold on Jesus… but whether or not Jesus believes in God without miracles; whether Jesus believes in God after going through a desert, and hunger, and isolation, and temptations. This is about if Jesus’ faith is dependent on signs and evidence of God.

It sounds like the silliest test when we first read it; but this test is the biggest test, the climax, the finale.

Do you believe in God when things are bad?

Do you believe in God in trials and temptations?

Do you believe in God when prayers go unanswered?

Does your faith depend on seeing results, seeing benefits of being a moral person, of prayer, and following God. Do you threaten God with leaving your faith if God doesn’t do as you demand? Can your faith be broken by scripture that contradicts itself, devils that plague us, or the too-often silent response to our prayers?

David Blumenthal, a Jewish theologian, argues that protest is a form of worshiping God. God can handle our anger, our protest, our frustration. Protest is still talking with God. It’s shattering the relationship, leaving God, demanding a test and then giving up when God won’t play by our rules… that is the sin. For then, the relationship among us and God is severed, destroyed

And the devil here is trying to destroy that relationship.

Jesus’ answer is more scripture from Deuteronomy: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Which is just what the Israelites had been doing in the Exodus again and again and again. And each and every time God was looking out for them. They didn’t always see it, but God was there with them.

Jesus’ answer is don’t give up, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 1:11) Our hope, our faith, our trust in God’s presence and promises must be deeper and stronger temptation, trial, or evil of the earth.

Once Jesus has passed these temptations, and given you and I the hope and promise that with Jesus, we – too – will overcome our temptations — angels come and administer to Jesus… just as in the wild, God cared for Elijah, and the Israelites.

We’ve never been promised a rose garden. We’ve been promised that our great gardener, however, will never abandon us. We’ve been promised that in our temptations, God has empathy, sympathy, and mercy. Although we sin, God loves us and offers us forgiveness. Although we break every single law, and are rowdy disobedient sheep, the good shepherd seeks us out and gives us a second chance. All authority in heaven and on earth has not been given to the Record-Keeper, the Harsh Critic, the unforgiving… all authority has been given to Jesus – the merciful, the Good Shepherd, the doctor for the sin-sick, the one who wipes away our tears and washes us clean of sins.