Sunday is coming! “The parable of the overtly responsible son” Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Lent 4C

“But we had to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32)

[An alternative telling of Luke 15:11b-32…]

Once there was a man who had two sons. The eldest son was hard-working and knew his place. One day the family farm would be his, and the responsibility of managing the estate, the business and their employees would eventually all fall upon his shoulders. He got up early and worked late seeking to gain the experience, know-how and work ethic required to be successful. As he prepared for his coming future, he sought the wisdom and counsel of his father.

The younger son was no farmer. He slept late. He was not dependable. He was lazy and spent his time day-dreaming of a life (and lifestyle) that was far away. He was more or less useless when it came to the family business, did not manage his affairs particularly well, and was not much a planner. But his father loved him, as did his older brother.

One day to the older son’s shock, a hired hand told him of his brother’s departure.

Not only had he left to seek his fortune on the road elsewhere, he had dishonorably talked their father into splitting the family inheritance and giving him his portion to him now. As he left home, it was the equivalent of saying his family ‘was dead to him.’

It hurt to hear this news.

The eldest was mortified. His father had been duped. His job would become more difficult. Business would be much more challenging with far less capital to utilize. He was furious. What hurt the most was that his brother did not have the decency to say ‘goodbye.’

In the years that followed, the older son became a hard man. His disdain towards his brother’s selfishness grew. He also came to resent his father’s foolishness. Since his father could not be trusted to make sound financial decisions, the eldest pushed him away.

The father was relegated to the sideline as his eldest son took over the business.

With hard work and time, the farm became a better success than ever. The latest projections indicated that in only a few short months the worth of their estate would double from its original size before his father had cut it in half. To make the next push forward, it would mean taking on more hands to increase yield. This was their year.

If there was a time to celebrate his success…it was now.

Coming back from the fields in the evening one day, the older son heard the music before he saw the party.  For all his father’s faults at least he had recognized how his efforts saved their family from ruin. As he drew closer to the party, the older son began preparing his speech; thanking his father for the opportunity to lead and for all those in his employ for their hard work and dedication. All he had ever hoped for was coming to be. He stood outside, took a deep breath and looked into the party through the doorway.

Then he saw…him.

Not only was his younger brother present, he was making a mockery of everything this older son had accomplished since he had left. He was wearing his father’s robe and ring. He looked scrawny, sickly and aged by hard times, but he was laughing and joyous, drinking his older brother’s wine and eating a feast prepared for him. FOR HIM.

His father had his arm around his younger son.

The older son was not sure which one he was going to confront first as he clenched his fists and his heart pounded so hard it almost burst through his chest.

His father came outside to meet him instead. It required all of the older son’s willpower not to lay him out on the floor, or shout in his face. Instead, the father could see the rage in his eldest son and put his arm around him. In that embrace, his son gave him a piece of his mind, saying he did not deserve this kind of treatment. His absent, wasteful, deplorable brother did not deserve this either. His father held him a little tighter, paused, turned to face him, looked him in the eye and said,

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32)

The older son stood firmly in his place, watching the celebration as his father took him by the arm to invite him inside.

If you were standing there, what would you do next?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “Repentance as a way of life” Luke 13:1-9, Lent 3C

“No, I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:5)

After a horrible event happens, there is often a call to re-evaluate our lives. In religious circles we talk about that introspection as prayer and repentance.  In this passage, Jesus calls people to repentance after the massacre of innocents by Pilate in the Temple and after an accident killing eighteen people when the Tower of Siloam fell on them (Luke 13:1-4). There is a time in the wake of tragedy (in our time as much as Jesus’) that a careful investigation of what happened, why, who was responsible, how can the course be corrected or prevented in the future is warranted.

The word “repentance” literally means to change one’s vision or direction. It is a turning around or seeing a new way forward, that was previously unavailable. To put repentance into practice starts by acknowledging that we are not God and we don’t have a clear view of the big picture or ourselves. It is admitting we do not know everything. It is acknowledging honestly that we often act without knowing the consequences; or that we do know the implications and do it anyway. It is confessing that we have done harm to others out of our self-interest. It is hoping to live, think and act better. Repentance often leads to the hard work of forgiveness, making amends where we can and restoring relationships when possible after we have hurt people. Repentance also includes the change of heart to accompany different actions and way of being.

Jesus calls us to a way of repentance that guides our entire lives. Paul called it the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Repentance leads us to be more and more self-reflective, honest, and dependent on God’s mercy and peace. By looking inward, repentance causes us to begin looking outward to the needs of others in self-giving love. This ongoing way of repentance helps us be responsive when tragedy strikes, rather than look for who to blame for it. It calls us into compassion to help when people are in need. It looks beyond our often selfish, self-interested concerns. It looks to love as we are loved. It takes root in us as a new way to be in the world. It helps us grow. It bears fruit.

Hence the parable of fig tree.  Our lives are not just about getting better at growing figs. Fig trees grow figs or there is something wrong. The plant might need better nourishment. We do too. Growing fruit is what a fig tree does, just as loving others is what a follower of Jesus does. God’s word, the sacraments, prayer and community with others nourish our faith. Living into ongoing repentance will naturally grow fruit, or we might not begetting enough nourishment.  It is not a measuring stick to condemn us.  It is fruit to share. Looking beyond ourselves to God and others shows us a new life. In it we may find a joy that we may have never known before or maybe have long forgotten. It is a joy found beyond ourselves that reaches back and gives us a strength that is not our own to meet whatever challenges are coming.

Be nourished in a life of repentance to grow and thrive. Come and be nourished by God’s grace again.

PGS

What do you think of when you hear the word “repent”?

How does changing direction/vision change that definition?

Are you ready to make repentance a way of life? Why or why not?

Sunday is Coming! “Focus beyond that fox…” Luke 13:31-35, Lent 2C

“Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31b)

Jesus has already “set his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) but he won’t get there until Luke 19. He is clear in his mission on the way. “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work.” (Luke 13:32). On this long road, Jesus is clear on what he is doing, and what the implications will be. The powers of this world are threatened by him. Soon, those powers will crash around Jesus – but not yet.

While Herod is referred to as “a fox” who threatens to kill him (Luke 13:31-32), it is Pilate, not Herod, who will condemn Jesus to the cross to die (Luke 23:13-35). Jesus’ death looms on the way to Jerusalem as its logical conclusion, of which Jesus seems painfully aware: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets...” (Luke 13:34). Herod’s power is meaningless. Only the mission matters.

How often do we shy away from doing or saying what we know is right, not realizing those who threaten us are often powerless?

Jesus does not back down. While the opposition against him is growing, his focus is narrowing. He looks to Jerusalem and his rejection as the climax of where is life is headed, not as the threat of others. He laments the city’s faithlessness. He hopes to gather God’s people like a hen gathers its chicks for protection, but they would rather scatter by their own devices. In the weeks that come they will gather with shouts of, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38) only to scatter and turn on him with shouts to crucify (Luke 23:21).  We often abandon the mission and scatter without focus too.

Jerusalem and the cross are coming. So is the third day. Keep focused.

We are those Jesus hopes to shelter us by his very presence. We are not immune from the dangers of this world but are covered by his enduring faithfulness and grace to face anything that comes at us. This is a time for courage and boldness. Jesus calls us to join him in casting out the demonic and bringing healing to those around us. There is still road to travel ahead. Jerusalem awaits. With Jesus we are on the way.

With Jesus beside you, why should you care what foxes want to do?

PGS

Episode 73: Standing with our Siblings in Christ

Pastor Geoff and Pastor Joe followup their conversation with Pastor Amanda with a deeper dive in conversation about human sexuality.  They cover topics about the vote in the United Methodist Church and the recent document put out by the ELCA on Visions and Expectations. 

Sunday is coming! “Confronting comfort/power/security in the wilderness” Luke 4:1-13, Lent 1C

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1-2)

The temptation in the wilderness is a showdown between Jesus and these temptations personified in the devil.

Comfort: “Turn these stones to bread, and you’ll never have to want for anything again.”

Power: “Worship me and I’ll give you the kingdoms of this world who will bow down to you.””

Security: “Throw yourself down from the Temple to reveal your power and God will protect you and keep you safe.”

Three questions emerge from these three areas of life.

  1. How do we typically respond to these temptations?
  2. How does Jesus respond to these temptations?
  3. What can we learn from Jesus?

How do we typically respond to these temptations?

Comfort, power and security form the basis of much of our our competitive/consumer economy, how we often treat our relationships and the world of human politics. Using our agency in economics/relationships/politics for self-interest over the interest of others or for the benefit of the whole we easily pushes us into acting out of greed, exploitation and violence. We respond to one another out of perceived scarcity, fear and dehumanization. We objectify our desires and opponents and seek to insulate ourselves from the world. We turn inward to glorify ourselves, hide from God and negatively judge our neighbors. How we live can be damaging to ourselves, to others and the world in which we live.

How does Jesus respond to these temptations?

Jesus addresses each of these key areas with biblical responses. All three verses he quotes point to God rather than to comfort/power/security:

Comfort: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Power: The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.” (Deuteronomy 6:13)

Security: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Depending on God’s promises is of greater value than feeling comfortable. Faith often deepens when our circumstances become the most challenging. True power comes in serving God not by lording what we can do over others. The wilderness teaches humility and respect for things that are out of our control to better focus on our mission. Jesus’ mission is teaching and showing compassion to others, healing the broken, forgiving the sinner, including the outsider and bringing good news to the poor. Placing himself outside of human constraints and definitions of power, reveals Jesus’ heavenly/divine power; as he confronts worldly/human power. The cross will be the place where undeserved mercy and self-giving love will be made known.

What can we learn from Jesus?

The lure of comfort/power/security can draw us away from God and one another. On the flip-side – entering the wilderness can point us to confront within us our temptation to think only of ourselves. In the wilderness we can to learn to trust God no matter what situation we face, and reorient our lives to see the wilderness others are struggling. Remember the wilderness story, helps Jesus find his voice and focus to re-engage the world through the lens of being focused on his mission of mercy and compassion among people.

We could all use a wilderness refresher course this Lent. Don’t forget, you are not alone. Jesus is sent by the Holy Spirit, and so are we!

-What comforts/powers/securities tempt you from the wilderness?

PGS

Episode 72: Conversation with Rev. Amanda Gerken-Nelson Executive Director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries

Today Geoff and Joe talk with Rev. Amanda Gerken-Nelson the Executive Director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries.

Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries

Reconciling works

Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christian by Austen Hartke 

Sunday is Coming! “Jesus shines so bright they don’t see or hear him” Luke 9:28-45, Transfiguration C

“The appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:29)

I have always found the Transfiguration puzzling.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment in the gospel story as Jesus shines brightly on the mountain (Luke 9:29-30). Standing in glory with both the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) the voice of heaven proclaims, “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him” (Luke 9:35). It should be easy enough for them (and for us) to see and hear. Jesus is the very embodiment of good news; and the gospel writers point us to where their stories are going – to his message, rejection, suffering, death and resurrection.

The Transfiguration is a clarion call for the church to both see Jesus in all things and hear the promise of his death and resurrection meeting us in all things. OK, maybe it isn’t as hard to see or hear as I think it is. But it is still difficult to know how to react to a radiant Jesus.

It seems equally as difficult for the disciples.

Looking at the story that follows it, Jesus comes across as a bit annoyed that the disciples have no idea what is going on when they encounter a boy possessed by a demon (not that we would fare any better). After snapping at them, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” (Luke 9:41a) Jesus heals the boy. They miss the kingdom of God unfolding right before them and the opportunity to participate. Instead they are astounded while the people are amazed (Luke 9:43-44).

It remains difficult for them to see and hear him. (Maybe that is true for us too.)

It is not that they did not have opportunities.

They had after all seen Jesus heal many people and do other signs. Jesus gave them power and authority to cast our demons and go heal diseases (Luke 9:1-11). The had participated in the feeding of the 5000 (Luke 9:12-17). When Jesus asked what people were saying about him, Peter proclaimed him to be the Messiah (Luke 9:18-20). Jesus told them that he would suffer, be rejected, be killed and be raised (Luke 9:21-22). He called them to pick up their crosses and follow him (Luke 9:23-27). That Jesus was then transformed on the mountain so we can see his glory is a great use of foreshadowing as the good news unfolds.

The disciples just didn’t see it.

Neither do we.

Maybe that is the point.

Jesus tells them again that he is going to suffer, die and be raised, but they didn’t understand. Their confusion and fear were too much for them to see what was happening and really listen to what he was telling them (Luke 9:44-45). That happens to us too. We get overwhelmed by the baggage we carry with us. We might follow Jesus for some time and the power of God’s overwhelming love and undeserved mercy may not truly hit us as the liberating word and amazing grace that it is.  We may still be afraid, bewildered, disoriented and unsettled by the pain and suffering we see around us in the world, or the hurt and shame we feel ourselves.   

When we look in on ourselves, it becomes almost impossible for us to believe that God is making all things new, restoring all things, and reconciling all creation to himself. We keep looking for limitations. So Jesus keeps shining brightly until we see him.

Where do you see Jesus shining?

Keep looking.

PGS

Sunday is coming! “You want me to do WHAT?!!??! with my enemy?” -Luke 6:27-36, Epiphany 7C

“Love your enemies” (Luke 6:27)

We live by very prudent wisdom:

Destroy your enemy.

Dismiss your enemy.

Ignore your enemy.

Tolerate your enemy.

Understand your enemy.

…in order to defeat your enemy.

These strategies make sense for our survival.

They make sense to protect the things we value and the people to whom we belong.

They make sense to ensure our success in a world of competition and limits.

We believe that enemies are obstacles to overcome.

We hold enemies responsible for interfering with our goals. To succeed we need to move beyond them; whether it be by removal, decimation, work-arounds, forgetting they are there, acknowledging their presence or learning from them. Enemies must be defeated, or we will lose.

We believe enemies are our opposite.

We consider ourselves to be relatively good people with good intentions. Enemies prevent and curb our ‘goodness‘ by their implicit ‘badness.’ In a culture that craves redemptive violence, our counter-strike against our enemies gives our lives value and defines us by what we are not. Defeating enemies may require us to stoop to their level or to compromise our values and ethics – but we believe the ends justify the means. Enemies are enemies after-all, not real people or anyone of value. Enemies are not ‘us’ but ‘them.’  Enemies are the ‘bad guys.’ Enemies are ‘evil.’

We believe that we need the threat of enemies.

Threats provide motivation, purpose and meaning. Threats bring innovation and creativity. Threats help us rise to the occasion with courage. We can achieve our greatest accomplishments by overcoming opposition. Complacency is the greatest threat of all. If we defeat one enemy, we inevitably will seek another.

Jesus says, ‘love your enemy.’

‘Do good to those who hate you.’

‘Bless those who curse you.’

‘Pray for those who abuse you.’

‘If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.’

‘Give to everyone who begs from you.’

‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ (Luke 6:27-31)

This is as radical a teaching to us as it would have been to Jesus’ first listeners.

It is a different paradigm for our world:

where the highest value is mercy (Luke 6:36); not winning;

where our common humanity is more important that our differences or division;

where the needs of ‘others’ are as important or perhaps even more important than ourselves;

where fear and hostility take a backseat to forgiveness and collaboration;

where those who hurt us and humiliate are worth redeeming;

where the greatest threat to our humanity us is ourselves;

where enemies are loved;

just as Jesus loves us.

It sounds impossible, improbable and impractical. It makes no logical or emotional sense.

Yet loving our enemies is Christ’s vision for our humanity.

So what might “loving our enemies” mean?

Loving enemies does not mean negating justice, overlooking violence, submitting to abuse, not following through on the consequences of people’s actions (including our own) or forgoing the responsibility of keeping one another safe.

  • It means working toward restorative justice, peacemaking and non-violence.
  • It means continually dismantling systems of hate, discrimination and exploitation.
  • It means not demonizing people (especially when we think they deserve it).
  • It means creating systems that support mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being.
  • It means working to protect and listen to survivors of abuse, violence and other crime, following-through and taking responsibility for the consequences of actions (and inaction) while valuing the humanity of everyone involved.
  • It means striving for reconciliation over retaliation.
  • It means putting others before ourselves.
  • It means self-sacrificial Christ-like love; not because it is easy but because it is difficult (if not impossible).
  • It means striving for God’s kingdom and righteousness as we learn, grow into and become the blessing Christ calls us to be.
  • It means not relying upon ourselves but on the mercy and grace of a loving God.

Jesus pushes us to see that we have no enemies; there are just other people God also loves.

Who would you say are your enemies?

How could we love, what we have been taught too often to hate?

Where does this seem impossible?

Nothing is impossible for God” (Luke 1:37)

PGS

Sunday is coming! “Restorative Blessing and Woe” Luke 6:17-26, Epiphany 6C

“They had come to hear him and be healed of their diseases.” (Luke 6:18a)

Special focus on this passage highlights the blessings and woes in Luke’s version of what is often called “The Sermon on the Plain,” by comparing what Jesus says in these verses with Matthew’s version in “The Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5:1-12. Reading these two passages side by side can be a helpful exercise.

These words bring to life the mission Jesus had been embodying all along, “to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the day of the Lord” arriving, today, right there, in their hearing (Luke 4:18).

His words continue to speak to us: on the level place, on a mountaintop, or wherever we encounter them still…

For those who have been kicked to the curb, thrown away with the trash, trampled on by the powerful, exploited by the greedy and run down by life, Jesus speaks of God’s blessing by announcing a great reversal of abandonment, cruelty, injustice, judgment and mortality experienced by the hurting, estranged and forgotten.

Yet, unlike Matthew’s version of this sermon, in Luke’s version Jesus also speaks directly to those who throw away others, trample on the powerless, exploit others by greed, ignore the problems of this world and prop up their own comfort. When Jesus says “woe” (the equivalent of saying ‘God’s warning, judgment and wrath are upon you’) he not only gives a stern word of rebuke, he calls for repentance to turn around to see our fellow human beings in a new restorative way.

The kingdom opens when healing comes.

His sermon continues by calling all his hearers to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who hate you and pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28 – part of next week’s passage). Jesus calls us not to crush our enemies but to bring them back into the fold. Community is made by bringing people together, not by eliminating parts of it. Our individual thoughts and actions matter. So do the systems we participate in both active and passive ways. Jesus’ sermon comes as a wake-up call to all of us.

Restorative justice (not punitive justice) is the true healing all of us need. Jesus calls us into that healing together.

When we begin to see our common humanity in an age of dehumanizing the other, blame and deep divisions, it begins to look a bit like the Kingdom of God.

That would be a true blessing.

PGS

-Where are you calling out to God for healing and hope in your life?

-Where can you share healing and hope with others?

-What systems do you participate in that hurt others? What will you do about it?

“Sunday is coming! “Seeking Partnership.” Luke 5:1-11, Epiphany 5C

So they signaled their partners in the other boat to help them.” (Luke 5:7)

I wonder where we came up with the idea that we must be self-sufficient in order to survive and be successful. We live in a ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ culture that is supportive of a ‘make it or break it’; ‘sink or swim’; and ‘I can do it on my own’ mentality. We are taught to view help, support, partnership and collaboration as inferior to a ‘Lone Ranger’ approach to life. We view other people as commodities we can get something from or as potential customers we can sell something to – often not valuing people’s humanity beyond our self-interested transactions.

The result is that most of us end up feeling like failures when we need help, or that we are suckers because others only want things from us. We live in the greatest technological age recorded in human history; rooted in high speed communication, networking and information overload, and yet we are lonely, isolated and anxious. We live on social media behind the mask of our apparent success and happiness while we fear being left-behind and forgotten without anyone noticing.

The truth is: even the Lone Ranger had Tonto!

We need other people and others need us. Humans have a high capacity for independence, but also a deep need for relationship, belonging, and shared experiences that give us meaning. We long for community, and we benefit greatly from collaboration. From friends, family, schools, places of business, sports, clubs, communities of faith, service organizations and many other groupings we participate in, we come together around common causes, actions and beliefs. Humans are social beings.

Jesus went to Lake Gennesaret (a.k.a. the Sea of Galilee, Luke 5:1) and there were two fishing boats on the shore where he was teaching the crowd. He got into Simon’s boat and went out on the water. When they approached the deep water, he told them to drop the nets. Simon protested, saying, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing” (Luke 5:5a). On their own nothing happened. But when the other boat came to help, the catch was so large both boats nearly sank.

It was by listening to Jesus and in calling to others that abundance nearly overwhelmed Simon. He pushed back against Jesus with his own unworthiness, but instead Jesus offered him (along with James and John) a new calling – to fish for people. They left behind the boats and followed Jesus (Luke 5:7-11).

Imagine the partnership Jesus calls for as a contrast to our ‘boot straps’ culture…

  • What if we stopped pining for what we don’t have or what we thought we have lost and started realizing and living into the abundance right in front of us, because no matter how hard we have tried in the past or how tired we think we are, we listened to Jesus and when we did, we dropped the nets in the deep water?
  • What would it look like if we relied on each other more, utilized our unique and individual set of gifts in our church-communities more, networked our churches and other organizations in our specific locations more, thought about how to connect actual resources to needs more productively, brought together multiple generations, ethnic heritages, faith backgrounds, economic status levels, etc. to work on the challenges we all face because being together and getting to know real people with real stories benefits everyone?
  • What if we invited the neighbors around us we don’t know to service and community events, considered hosting forums on relevant topics from multiple perspectives, intentionally befriended the people we have been taught to be afraid of, sought humane ways to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and visit the imprisoned knowing we are not the answer, we have often failed, but we are open to keep pursuing our calling by seeking partners, collaborators and allies wherever we can find them?

We might need another boat.

PGS

Bonus:

Other ideas for this story…

  1. Jesus calls us into the deep waters. It can be scary, but he is not looking for shallow disciples or easy quick fixes. Jesus calls us out where the waters are often unknown, beyond the crowd we are used to, where the water is choppier than we think we can handle and the future is unknown. Jesus want us to take a risk. Remember: Just as Jesus called, “a sinful man” like Simon (at least Simon thought he was, Luke 5:8); he also calls you. Where do we hold back by our sense of guilt or reluctance or because we do not think we are up to the task? We are called to faith not certainty. So are you ready to go?
  2. When Jesus shows up, so does the abundant catch. They had worked all night without any fish. Once Jesus was there (or for us, once we realize Jesus is here) scarcity disappears, isolation vanishes, our self-imposed sense of failure dissipates, and it is possible for us to see something we may have missed before. So why do we try to live and work without seeing Jesus at work in our lives? In receiving the abundance of those gifts he asks us to share and invite others into his mission.
  3. Jesus seeks to make us his partners! Jesus only goes out on the water by borrowing Simon’s boat. This story could be told without a another boat. But as Luke describes, it is only when the second boat is called in, are the nets abundantly full. Think about this the next time you do something independent of other people. Consider how the things you do can impact others (both positively and negatively; intentionally and unintentionally). How might collaboration look at home, at work, at a place of learning or service, on a team or as part of a group, club or project? How might organizations you participate in benefit from working intentionally together? What is potentially lost when we don’t?