sermon

Prodigal

Ezra was there the day Hosea left. He'd overheard the month's worth of conversations between Hosea and Father leading up to Hosea's exodus. He'd been the one to draft the bill selling Hosea's share of Father's land, making them all poorer—though they were nowhere near poor. Hosea hadn't spoken to Ezra about it. They didn't talk. Not really. Not without arguing.

The day Hosea left, Ezra sat at the long, blackwalnut dining room table surrounded by papers. Three hours of numbers to be typed methodically into Quickbooks, then checked, then bills and reports emailed, printed, faxed, payments made, orders placed. The day Hosea left—just before he left—Father paced the house: dining room, kitchen, sitting room, front room, foyer, sun room, dining room, kitchen. On and on he went.

Surrounded by his work, Ezra watched from the dining room through two doorways to the foyer where Hosea stood with Father in front of the old oak door. The Grandfather Clock ticked out its measure to Ezra's right. Father looked up at Hosea, at his hazel eyes, his shoulder length brown hair poking out of his baseball cap. Evening light spilled through the stained glass transom window and lay on the pair thickly like globs of paint. Maybe the paint would dry and they would freeze there, thought Ezra. He would have to clean them up after he finished working.

They murmured at each other mostly. Then Father gripped Hosea by the shoulders and said loudly, "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, Dad. I am," said Hosea smiling.

"I love you."

"I love you too, Dad."

Hosea hefted his pack onto his thin shoulders, turned to the door and opened it. He turned back and looked at Ezra, then looked down at the table, then back again to his brother. He nodded and Ezra nodded back. Then Hosea stepped outside.

Father closed the door. Pressed his palms against it for several seconds. Ezra went back to the numbers. He heard ice clink into a glass and a few moments later the sound of Father lowering himself into his chair in the sitting room. He would be staring out the big picture window now, Ezra knew, and would fall asleep there.

Hosea had left. Ezra had stayed. He'd stayed through Mother's failing health, her dementia. He'd managed in-home caregivers, woke up all hours of the night to usher her back to bed, like she was an infant, like he was her father. She couldn't remember Ezra's name, though she asked about Hosea often. "He's fine, Mother," Ezra would say not looking at her.

Ezra had stayed through Father's drinking. His worrying. His pacing. He'd found a way to keep everyone on who worked for their family. To keep paying them even without the acres sold for Hosea. He'd found a way to keep the lights on for all of them.

They heard from Hosea at first. Not regularly but often enough. After they'd talked, Father would sit clutching the kitchen phone, the plastic creaking like he was trying to hold on to his son, to embrace him.

He was traveling, he'd said. He was meeting people and seeing things, the world, the real world.

"All these people Ezra, they're incredible, they're beautiful."

"The world is real enough here," Ezra had replied, "Joshua's wife is pregnant."

"Great! That's great," Hosea replied. He sounded pleased.

One more person to keep the lights on for, thought Ezra, as he stared out Father's picture window.

Then they'd heard from him less. And still less. Then it said his number was disconnected. Ezra had checked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for clues. He checked couch surfing websites that hadn't been updated since they were created in the 1990s. There was no sign. No sure sign. Maybe he'd died, Ezra thought, ashamed of himself. It had been years.

Ezra was gray now; well gray-er. And balder. And fatter. Joshua's daughter was 10. Mother was dead. Father was... old, older than the years that had passed, older than the good, oak barrel aged bourbon melting the ice in his glass.

And now here was Hosea on a Sunday morning. Ezra was sitting down at the dining room table and the oak door swung open and there stood Hosea in the frame, looking at him.

The leather of Father's chair creaked and Ezra heard footsteps pad toward the tall, shaggy man. Father appeared in the foyer in his dark blue robe and his red slippers and grasped at Hosea like he was trying to draw fog or mist to himself. He plucked at Hosea's ratty clothes, green, brown, tan, and gray, at his scraggly beard, at his matted hair. Father gripped Hosea's shoulders and Ezra could hear the plastic of the kitchen phone creak in his mind.

“What the fuck," Ezra whispered. Ezra noticed himself breathing faster, like he was ready to run, like he was ready to fight. Then his father turned to him. Father's face was radiant, thought Ezra, alive, on fire.

"Call everyone," Father's croaked. Then more clearly, "Call everyone here, Ezra. Invite everyone. Invite Joshua's family, invite everyone's family! Call the caterer or, or order something, order, I don’t know, chicken, whatever." The words tumbled out of Father's mouth as Ezra stared, motionless.

"What are you doing, Ezra?" Father asked.

Ezra scratched his forehead and looked down at the ever-present spread of papers on the dining room table. Ezra hadn’t noticed he had stood up. He adjusted his glasses, sitting back down and began signing checks.

Hosea’s smell proceeded him into the room. He smelled like a pig, Ezra thought, except pigs were clean. Hosea sat down across from Ezra at the table and looked at him, his eyes brimming with tears. “What can I do, Ezra?” he asked shaking his head just a little.

Ezra set his jaw and stared at his brother. Hating him. Loving him. “Nothing,” he replied.

And then to himself, “Nothing.”

The Valley

There was a wide valley that contained within it two towns. One town lay by a lake. The other lay by a river. The two towns were separated by a great forest.

The people of the lake and the people of the river arrived in the valley together. Some of them settled by the lake. Some of them settled by the river.

The valley was a good place to live. The soil was good. The sun was warm. Clouds rolled over the mountains, visited the valley, and went on their way. The forest was alive and gave its game and supplies to the people of the valley. The water each town bordered brought great abundance upon the people.

The people of the lake built close to the shores. They worked the water in boats: casting nets, traveling across the lake, making wood into lumber, building roads through the town. They traded with each other. They shared meals and songs.

The people of the river built their town along the banks. They also cast nets, fished, accepted the gifts the flow the river brought with it. They built mills powered by the river, traveled down its waters, traded amongst each other, and shared meals and songs.

In the years following their founding in the valley, the two towns prospered equally. But they started to differ. The increase in the fortunes of the towns were discovered by the world outside the valley. Outsiders visited the town by the lake and the town by the river seeking trade and fulfilling curiosity.

The river brought newcomers as it flowed. The people of the river welcomed the others as the river flowed by just as they welcomed the gifts the river had given them before. They traded with the newcomers. They shared freely the gifts the river had brought. Some outsiders simply passed through, others saw that the town by the river was good and stayed. They were no longer outsiders, but people of the river as well. The outsiders brought change, new customs, new languages, and funny ways. It was not always easy for the river people to get along with the people who came from outside the valley. But the river had brought these guests just like it had brought abundance, and the river town celebrated its newfound abundance and its new friends.

The lake also attracted newcomers. Visitors traveled on the roads the lake people had built. Some came only to visit, and to trade. Others, though, saw the goodness of the lake. They wished to cast nets, to fish, to travel across the waters and to share meals and songs. And so they aimed to build on the shores of the lake, as the people before them had done, and to become lake people themselves. But the first lake people grew jealous. They coveted their lake and its riches. They looked at the roads they had built and resented that others would use them. The newcomers were foreign and different. They spoke different languages, sang different songs, ate different food, and caused difficulties for the lake people.

The people of the lake set up tolls on their roads to extract wealth from newcomers. They claimed not only the shores but also the lake itself and all its riches as their own and no one else’s. Their stories became stories of their right to dominate the lake, the roads, and the forest. They began to claim that the valley was their valley alone. The good soil was theirs. The warm sun was theirs. The clouds did not visit the valley itself, but the people of the lake instead. The songs the lake people sang over meals were angry songs. They cast out the newcomers they could, and insulted those they could not.

Fourth of July

Independence Day was just three days ago. Summer holidays are kind of different from winter holidays. Something about the heat kind of gets inside you. Summer holidays are all about spreading out, getting out of your place. We have big, outdoor get-togethers that mostly involve eating something that was cooked outside.

For Independence Day we hang red, white, and blue decorations around. We eat off of red, white, and blue plates, and wipe yellow mustard off our faces with red, white, and blue napkins. We pay a little bit more attention to our red, white, and blue flag that is a symbol of our country – of the United States. We pause and reflect on what that flag stands for. We ask, why do we continue to raise it and what does it say when we do?

One of the things we do on Independence Day is honor the veterans who have given their lives to service, who have lost their lives in battle, and who struggle with coming home. Some of them sit right here with us today, whether physically or in our memory. On Independence Day we also honor other Americans who have given their lives to make America great for all people. We honor women who struggled all over the country for the right to vote, we honor those who sat at lunch counters, and on busses, and marched for equality, we honor those who fight for the right of all to love and marry who they will.

America exists somewhere in the forest between the two towns in the story I began with today. And on Independence Day, of all days, I think it’s worth asking, which town are we?

It’s a very simple story – I know – and it misses all of the complex issues that are a part of living in this country. But I want to say that we are not one town or the other. Instead we are in the forest, in the valley. The forest is the complexity we face together. America is not one thing or another, not one town or another, but since the beginning has been attempting to see itself through the trees.

Our red, white, and blue flag, for its part, stands for many things. It stands for liberty, freedom, independence, sacrifice, generosity, speech, openness, equality, and opportunity. I am sure you can think of more. The red, white, and blue flag has flown over this country for more than two centuries and it has seen all of these values expressed every day. Unfortunately, it has also seen us fall short of those values, fail to live up to them, deny them to others. Here at home, the red, white, and blue flag has flown over slavery, the civil war, Japanese internment, segregation, racism, and homophobia. Abroad the flag has flown over war, colonialism, and terror.

The flag is a symbol as complicated as America itself, not just for Americans but also for those outside of America. We are truly in the trees.

Beyond the Valley

I love America. I love the flag and much of what it stands for. I love America’s energy, dynamism, its multiple stories, peoples, backgrounds, religions, and races. I love the history and the people who have fought in various ways for the ideas that America stands for. But in the passage for today, Jesus calls us beyond the valley, though it may be good.

We are called by Christ, as individuals, beyond our own selfish interests. We are called to go beyond the bounds of loyalty to our families. We are called to go beyond the limited local view of our communities. We are called beyond even our nation, to see ourselves as part of a world of others.

The good rain, Christ says, falls on you, and your neighbor, and your enemy alike. It pays no heed to you, your family, your city, or your nation. The rain does not only visit our valley, but the clouds also roll beyond it.

We are called to do likewise.

There are interpreters of the Beatitudes – the section of the sermon from which this passage is taken – that argue the demands Christ makes are actually impossible. They say that the point Jesus was trying to make was that because we fall short of the perfection of the divine, we need grace. They argue that it is only because of grace that we are even capable of striving toward these lofty ideals, and that when we fail, grace will catch us, bear us up, and allow us to try again.

Christ says that we are not only called to go beyond our valley to embrace people like us. We are called to love even our enemies. The red, white, and blue flag of America symbolizes many things, but loving our enemies is not one of them.

That symbol. There. The cross... symbolizes love for the enemy, the stranger, the immigrant. It has no color and stands for no nation. It flings out its arms wide beyond the limited valley and calls us forward to it. It symbolizes the grace necessary to go beyond the valley ourselves.

The rain falls beyond the valley, and a forest grows there as well. We may not know it as well as our own. It may be harder to find our way. We may even be entirely lost there. But by the grace of God, the command of Christ, and with the courage of the spirit we are called to go.

To Lengthen

Lent2, Year C, Luke 13:31-35, St. Paul UMC Denver, CO February 24 2013

"I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul, until that day when, purified and molten by the fire of your love, I flow together to merge into you." - Augustine of Hippo (should have said "about 1700 years ago")

Lent! Wooooo...

So, what is this weird word “Lent?” It was just Christmas and no one’s, like, confused about what that means. Or, maybe people disagree what it’s about but everyone knows the basic idea behind it.

It’s presents, right?

But, I mean, people are, like, “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays,” or whatever and they kinda know what that means. And it’s cold out but people try a little harder to be warm. Maybe they give away some money or some of their stuff. Maybe they tolerate their family or relax with friends. Eat too much. That kind of stuff.

But no one’s like, “Happy Lent!” or “Blessed Lent to you, Logan. Hope your Lent is super penitential! Good luck giving up soda or swearing or whatever!” It just isn’t that exciting or relatable you know? Lent! woooooo....

But all the word “Lent” really means is “to lengthen.” It’s almost spring and the days are getting longer. That’s it. The light is slowly stretching its rosy fingers into evening. Soon buds will appear on the trees. Flowers will burst onto the scene. Spring is coming and the earth smells fresh and it’s exciting and—well, it’s pretty sexy, right? Happy Lent, everybody!

But all of that isn’t really part of the official Christian observation of Lent. Jesus was in the desert just last week. Out in the desert! The wilderness! And the devil was there with him, you know.

Actually, I don’t know what that means, exactly. Like, does it matter if there’s a scaly guy with long fingernails, creepin’ on Jesus? Or maybe, like, a really good looking person in a dark grey flannel suit, perfectly tailored. Out there in the desert, you know? In the first century.

Or—I dunno—maybe Jesus is wrestling with his own demons. The sky just opened up, after all, and the Holy Spirit falls on him and calls him “Beloved” with a capital “B.” And I have to think that Jesus thought of the song from Isaiah that Mary sang when she found out HE was coming and there was nothing she could do about it. Imagine Mary singing that song to Jesus: “My soul magnifies the Lord. Surely all generations will call me blessed. God has brought down the powerful, lifted up the poor, filled the hungry, sent the rich empty away.”

And then a few years later... the Holy Spirit is alighting upon Jesus in front of all of these people and he’s gotta get outta there, because maybe he’s got this song stuck in his head that his mom has been singing to him since he was a just little guy. And the Spirit is calling him Beloved. And how to do you fulfill something this big? This is an amazing song about God’s relationship with God’s people. It’s a ridiculous song about hope where no hope seems to be found. And not only that it’s handed down to you by your mother.

Well, I dunno about you but I might run out into the desert. If I’m supposed to bring down the high, and raise up the poor and fill the hungry -- Jesus, I might thinking about raising an army. Get my people together, you know. Perform some miracles. March on Washington—or, sorry, Jerusalem. Sorry. I got carried away.

But, anyway, Jesus is out in the desert for 40 days, not eating, not drinking, being tempted by the devil or his demons or whatever, and that’s why people give up chocolate for Lent.

Or maybe not.

You know how time kind of compresses sometimes? Or maybe it stretches out?

Ice

My mom and I were traveling to see family for Christmas. I was driving, and we were flying across southern Minnesota. It had snowed a couple of days before, but the day we were driving was nice. Maybe a little overcast, but driving conditions were good. Except, the thing you have to know about that area of the country is it’s flat. I mean flat. Flat flat. And there’s nothing to stop the wind. Nothing. It’s flat, okay? So this wind blows snow over the road all day and night and there’s nothing to stop it. And where the snow blows over the road a lot for extended periods of time you get ice.

Anyway, I’ve got the cruise control set at 75 miles per hour. My mom and I are talking and carrying on, helping the time go by. And we drive under one of the many, many overpasses that help cars over Interstate 90. “These overpasses are dangerous” -- I’m sure my mom told me when she was teaching me to drive -- because they not only block wind, but also channel wind around them. And when there’s snow blowing around an overpass there’s also ice. So you go under the overpass, get a break from the wind for a second, fly out the other side and get hit by the wind again ... while you’re driving over a patch of ice. And then your car skids out of control.

Not, like, a great feeling at 75 miles per hour. Suddenly everything is happening all at once. I tap the break, turn against the skid, the car skids the opposite direction, I turn against the skid, the car skids the opposite direction, I turn against the skid again and the car skids back again -- toward the ditch. We’re skidding toward the ditch and I kind of look over at my mom and think, “Mom is being super calm about this, that’s nice. I hope we don’t go into the ditch at fifty miles per hour or whatever and flip the car. That would really ruin Christmas.” And while I’m thinking this I notice the fresh snow on the shoulder of the road, and I think, “That snow will probably give us some traction. Do I try to straighten this out and drive into the ditch? Or maybe try to stop entirely.” Anyway, as soon as we hit that snow I turn into the skid one last time and the traction we gain on the snow helps us stop. I remember feeling like a pretty cool guy later on when I was explaining what happened to my uncles.

The point is, it felt like minutes -- and not just a few moments -- passing as we were careening toward the ditch. My entire being, focus, and desire were dedicated to one thing -- stopping us from landing in that ditch. Time stretched out in those moments. Time lengthened.

This is a rare thing. Not just for time to seem to lengthen, but to focus your entire being on one task. To feel utterly clear about your intentions, interactions, and attention. And I think the desert is a perfect image for getting real with ourselves and seeing where our focus really lies. Stark. Bare. Clean.

Narratives

Everything in today’s reading is happening all at once too. “Just then,” beings our passage. The chapter begins with “at that very time.” Right now. This moment. We’re following Jesus at a frenetic pace.

He’s making his way toward Jerusalem and he’s being bombarded by questions, requests, people, crowds, challenges. You can feel the tension. One thing happens after another, and to us, as outsiders, time itself seems to be compressing around Jesus. Actually time is so compressed that Luke jumps ahead at this point so that Jesus can talk about Jerusalem a little bit, and the way this story is going to end.

Jesus knows that the seat of power in Jerusalem is predisposed to reject his ministry. Jesus looked ahead in the desert. Quietly, he took stock of his life. He was tempted to take a short path, but he chose a longer one. The one he is on now. Jesus knows that Jerusalem refuses to listen to messengers who proclaim the justice and the reign of God. The city and its rulers refuse to hear the message of Jubilee that Jessie talked about just a few weeks ago. In this scene from Luke, Jerusalem is occupied territory -- occupied by kingdoms and economies that are antithetical to God’s grace. And as an occupied territory, it has and will continue to kill the prophets that call it back to its true, beloved, grace filled identity.

We are called, aren’t we, to a similar grace filled identity? Are we in a position to hear Jesus’ message about it? Do we have time for it?

In the desert Jesus rejects the temptation to complete his work all at once. Rejecting this temptation, he saw what was before him and chose the longer path. Jesus stands in a place where time has lengthened. Einstein knew this, that time is relative. That depending on your position, your stance, your outlook, that time might seem to go quicker or slower. No, I’m sorry. Time might actually go more quickly or slowly. And your position, stance, and outlook also has a great deal to do with the way you see the world, your priorities and God’s priorities for your life.

In today’s reading, Jesus rejects the temptation to fly toward Jerusalem at the Pharisees’ urging. He rejects also the notion that he ought to demonstrate himself before the corporate power of Herod, a representative of Rome, as if that would somehow hasten the culmination of his ministry. Christ rejects the story the world seeks to tell in order to live out his own story, his single minded obedience to grace, to God, his neighbor, and himself. This is the story of Lent and Easter. Of lengthening time toward the divine command to love God, and our neighbor as ourself.

The story the world bombards us with grasps at power, and dominance, and shortcuts to so-called success. It prioritizes these things so that we might dedicate our whole selves to them. With no time for our neighbor, we are compressed in time and space with people who look like us, believe like us, live like us. We’re divided from our neighbor and God by money, power, imaginary borders, and a story that constantly tells us we lack time for the neighbor. But Christ seeks to redeem us from our obedience to this narrative and to deliver us to a narrative of his own.

When we find ourselves driven by a single purpose we may find time lengthening before us. That purpose is love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Love for the beloved and for the enemy. Love through service and love through sacrifice. Love with faith that we may try and fail to do good and that we may try again when we fail.

This Lent, you may give up chocolate or meat, swearing or soda. You may take up a practice of prayer or service, exercise or rest. But whatever you do or don’t do let it be informed by Christ’s story of compassion, mercy, and sacrifice. This Lent, make time in the noise and distraction of the dominate story to remember the single command to which we are called -- to live in grace, and to love God, the self, and the neighbor. By focusing yourself upon this task alone may time lengthen for you and may you lengthen toward the divine. However you choose to observe Lent, may it be in a practice of lengthening time for the story of Christ in your life and in our world.

Amen.