Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon for September 22, 2013: Of Play-Doh and prodigals

Children’s message

I called the children up front and set a plastic tub in front of them… filled with balls of colorful Play-Doh.  Every child took a piece and immediately began to roll them between their hands, squish, form, and do everything else possible with Play-Doh.

I talked about how in the scripture for the day, we would hear about compassion.  And that the Greek word for compassion is σπλαγχνίζομαι, or as I shortened it, splackna.  I gripped my stomach as I said it, because what it means, I told them, is to have your insides all twisted up.  You go, I said:  “Splat!”  And I squished my Play-Doh ball between my hands.  We all did, and said together, Splackna!  Squish.  Splat.

This is what happens, I told them (and their parents) -- when we love someone, when we care about them, and we see that they are hurting, our insides go splat.  They get all twisted up.  Splackna.

And that hurts us.  But it’s also okay, because it means we love someone and care about them.  And sometimes we need to be splackna’ed.  That’s the only way that dough -- I held up my ball -- can be made into bread.  Getting splatted and twisted is the only way to mix dough well enough to eat it.

So then we took some communion bread I had made -- molasses and flour and honey and olive oil, all splackna’ed together -- and we ate, and remembered how sometimes we need to be a little twisted up.

Scripture:  Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.

So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’

Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ "

The message

We call this the story of the Prodigal Son.  Jesus tells this story right after the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin; we heard them last week.  The Pharisees and scribes are unimpressed because Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners.  So he says, “Let me tell you a story about a shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep.  Let me tell you a story about a woman who searches the house for her lost coin.  And let me tell you the story of the prodigal son.”

It’s a beloved story from the gospels, this beautiful tale of repentance and forgiveness.  It connects to something deep in us.  There’s a universal longing for broken families to be mended, for people who are lost to come home and for the party to start.

We call this the story of the Prodigal Son, and almost everyone knows what story that is.  “Prodigal” has come to mean, in a lot of ways, repentant:  it’s the word for someone who realizes their mistake and comes home.  What it really means is wasteful, extravagant, overspending.  We call this the story of the Prodigal Son, because the younger son wastes his money until he starves.  We know this story.  Except for the little tiny problem that this story has no ending.

Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

...And then what?  What does the older brother do?  Maybe he stays in the yard, arms folded, brow furrowed, his whole body declaring “There’s no way I’m going in.”  Maybe this backyard scene is just a prelude to years of family gatherings with this tense and palpable resentment, a taste of bitterness in the celebratory wine.

We don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  It’s not very good storytelling, really.  He doesn’t wrap up the plotlines.  We’ve got character arcs that don’t get resolved.  We call this the story of the Prodigal Son and maybe it gets shelved right next to TV shows like The Sopranos and movies like Inception.  We don’t know how it ends.  And that leaves us a little queasy.

We want to know how it ends.  Because this is a story that gets us right in the gut.  For me it feels like a hook in the chest, the longer I think about it:  this story of the Prodigal Son, of greed and waste, of hunger and pain, of the long journey home, of the wide open arms of the father.  I am a sucker for this story, and I don’t think I am alone in that.  When the father is filled with compassion, and hikes up his robes and runs, and throws his arms around his lost son’s neck and kisses him -- that gets me, right here, because I have known so many people who are lost and are trying to find their way home.  And I have been that prodigal son, too.  When all our fear and worry and starvation and self-hatred are bundled up on our shoulders.  And in that moment when the father’s arms go around me the only thing I can do is drop everything that’s been weighing me down.  And it is beautiful.  It is grace.

But it isn’t the end of the story.

There is still the older son, working like a slave in the fields, working twice as hard since his shiftless younger brother left.  He is coming home too -- coming home after a long day, sweaty, dirty, exhausted, starving, thirsty.  His hands are blistered and raw.  And his father killed the fatted calf for that stupid younger brother who took off with half the family fortune.

We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.

We call this the story of the Prodigal Son, and it leaves us without an ending, because we want to know:  what happens to the other son?

Both sons, in their own way, are lost.  Both sons are caught up in the net of sin.  When Martin Luther talked about sin, he didn’t talk about specific acts but about a state of being:  that sin was, in Latin, incurvatus se.  Inward curved.  Curved in on oneself.  Focused on what I want, what I do, what I’m owed.  Father, give me my share of the property.   For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.  Luther understood the gospel to be about our relationship with God and with our neighbor, and so the thing that all sin had in common was this inward curving.  So focused on myself, on what I have or what I want, how good I think I am or how bad, how hard I work or how well I can humble myself, on getting what I want or think I deserve … and my world gets very, very small.

I can get lost in there.  Like a sheep separated from ninety-nine others.  Like a silver coin rolled in a dark and dusty corner.  Like a younger son starving in a faraway land, or an older son with his back turned and his arms crossed.

And then in breaks grace, this abundant and ridiculous mercy and love, and there’s a party and celebration and drinking and amazing food, and it explodes into that little curved-in world with a force that is almost destructive.  It’s hard for something to stay small and hold that much joy.

See, we call this the story of the Prodigal Son, but I think we’ve named it wrong.  If prodigal means extravagant and wasteful, then isn’t this the story of the Prodigal Father?

A father who hands over a son’s share of the family fortune.  Who gives him the money and lets him go.  Who waits and watches and then runs, arms and legs windmilling, down the road to is dirty and rail-thin and pig-smelling son.  A father who shouts for the best robe and the family ring and says, “My son who was lost is found.”

A father who works alongside his son.  Who does not let his love for the younger make him forget the elder.  Who looks around the party and sees that his son is missing, and runs, pleading and hoping, into the yard where the older son refuses to come in.  A father who looks another lost son in the eye and says “All that I have is yours.”

This is the prodigal.  Pouring out family riches and fatted calves in excess.  This is extravagant, wasteful love.  This is a prodigal father.

And Jesus doesn’t tell us the end of his story, because the ending isn’t what’s important.  The Pharisees and scribes didn’t say, “Tell us a story with a beginning and a middle and an end.”  They said, “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”  And Jesus said, “Let me tell you a story about a shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep.  Let me tell you a story about a woman who searches the house for her lost coin.  And let me tell you the story of the prodigal father, of the man who wastefully and extravagantly poured out love and mercy and hope.”

They say, “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”  And Jesus says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep, the coin, the son that was lost.  Let me tell you about abundance, about celebration, about joy that breaks into the smallness of ourselves.  Let me tell you a story about grace.”
Jesus doesn’t tell them the end of the story.  Not then.  Because the story of grace takes much longer to tell.  The end of the story comes much later, on a dark Thursday night in Jerusalem, when Jesus takes a loaf of bread from the table and says, “This is my body, given for you.”

This is the pinnacle of waste and extravagance:  that God is this in love with us.  That God slipped on skin and walked among us.  God, the creator of the universe, the liberator of the Hebrew slaves, the God who time and time again loved people even when they were broken and sinful and human.  This God was born as a tiny, helpless child in a stable in Bethlehem.  And God in skin, as Jesus, walked among us, healing and teaching, telling stories without good endings, knowing that his message of love and mercy would lead him into rejection and hatred and death.  And in the face of all of that, he gathered his beloved disciples together, took a loaf of bread, and said, “This is my body, given for you.”

We have repeated his words for two thousand years.  I can’t tell you what happens at communion.  That is beyond my capacity to understand.  I don’t know why, or how, or what.  I know there isn’t any magic.  It’s still bread and wine.  After worship, it is just bread and wine, and we can eat the extra pieces and pour out the leftovers.  I don’t know what happens at communion, in the moment when bread and wine stop being just bread and wine.  But I know that when I take the bread and look into someone’s eyes and hear “This is the body of Christ, given for you”... I know that Jesus just showed up.  The God who slipped on skin and poured out everything, even life, to tell us about grace and love, is reaching out for me, for you, for us, just as much as I am reaching for the bread.  God is reaching into that small space, into all the places I am curved in on myself, and holding out pure grace.

The communion table is a place of waste and extravagance.  A place where love and mercy mix up with logic and mystery.  A place where we hold bread and wine, ordinary and common things, and say:  There is something here that is more than what it seems.  We don’t know how.  But this is God, for you, right here, right now.

This is the table of the prodigal father, where God is doling out love in abundance and it is all we can do to keep up, pouring wine and breaking bread.  This is the place where God takes action, where God reaches out, where the father throws his arms around the younger son and stretches his pleading hands out to the older.  This is the feast for sinners and tax collectors, a promise of salvation, an offering over and over:  This is for you, for you, for you.  This is Jesus.  For you.

Come to the table of mercy.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Service of the Word, September 12, 2013

I had the opportunity to assist for Dr. Skinner, professor of New Testament, in chapel this week.  This is the order of service, with the prayers of intercession I wrote.

Service of the Word

Opening Hymn:  Open Your Ears, O Faithful People  - ELW #519

Prayer to Receive the Word
Gracious God, we ask your blessing as we listen to the words of the scriptures. May they touch our hearts and lead us to a life of love, mercy and service, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Scripture:  Luke 15:1-10

Sermon by Professor Matt Skinner

Prayers of Intercession

With the whole world that longs for the sight of God, let us pray.

We pray for the church, for all people and places who turn to You for comfort.  Give us strength to take seriously this mission to which we are called:  to the proclamation of good news to your people who are lost.

We pray for your creation, beautiful and broken.  Give us grace to be servants and co-creators with you, to live lives worthy of the world you have made.

We remember all those around the world who suffer because of injustice, war, and the sinfulness of others.  We pray for all of us who seek power, not to serve you or care for others but to glorify ourselves, that your grace and mercy might find us and turn our hearts.  We pray for our soldiers, for our veterans, for all those who have protected us.  Especially we pray for those who have lost something in combat:  their health, their strength, their family, their fellow servants, their hope, their heart, their lives.  We turn to you in the hope of their restoration, and we hold out our hands that you might make us a home for those who are lost.

We pray for our own tax collectors and sinners:  for all those pushed to the edges of society, rejected by their people and their church, and reviled by those in power.  We remember how you came to seek the lost, how your diligence and compassion led you time and time again into the midst of the unwanted, and how such love led you to the cross.  Give us that same love, that we might care not for ourselves but for the rescue of the lost in our midst.

We remember all those who suffer in body, in mind, and in spirit; for those who struggle with mental illness and addiction; for those who linger in hospitals and waiting rooms, hoping for good news or clear results.  We pray especially for Rebecca Mehl Gamble, journeying in Malaysia, as she recovers from illness, and for Jennifer Anderson Koenig, alumna and former campus pastor at Saint Olaf College, as she faces a continuing struggle with brain cancer.  Give them strength, and surround them with our love and prayer.

Holy God, you are beautiful.  You are grace.  You are love.  You are compassion.  You are a woman of patient commitment and hard work, seeking out the lost and setting us free.  In our joy at seeing you, we lift up our prayers and hopes, and we trust in your love.


Sending Hymn:  "The Lord Now Sends Us Forth"  (ELW #538)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Lukan Confession

We are in the lectionary year of Luke, and our worship has been focused on the special stories of Luke's gospel.  I wanted to offer a confession and forgiveness based around it.



Using the words of the gospel of Luke,
let us confess our sins to God and before each other.


Holy God, Most High,
There are valleys in our broken hearts.
There are high places piled with pride.
We have walked crooked ways and rough paths.                     (Luke 3:5-6)
We who are poor have not heard good news;
We who are captive are still bound;
We who are blind are still in darkness
and we who are oppressed are not yet free.         (Luke 4:18-19)
We long for the year of the Lord’s favor,
for the scripture to be fulfilled in our hearing.         (Luke 4:21)


By the tender mercy of our God, 
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.                                  (Luke 1:78-79)
In the name of Jesus Christ,
the salvation and light of the world,                                          (Luke 2:30-32)
your sins are forgiven.



Song of Praise:  the Magnificat of Holden Evening Prayer

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sermon For September 1, 2013: Familiar places, new beginnings, and being just you

Luke 14:1, 7-14 (The Message)

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move.

He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.

“When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”


One of my favorite table graces comes from a play I saw when I was young, called You Can’t Take It With You; movie buffs know it as the Frank Capra classic with Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore.  Barrymore plays Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, and he begins every family meal with:  “Well sir, here we are again.”

And here we are again.  Back at North Trail, with long tables and big gym space and buzzing fluorescent lights.  Back into another school year, with tests and grades and lunch bags and worries and hopes.  And here we are again, back with Jesus at another meal.

Luke writes of Jesus at a lot of meals, with a lot of different people, and something beautiful and transforming and awkward always happens.  Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, the outcasts of society, the social bottom of the ladder -- God walking right into the midst of the least loved.  Jesus eats with a Pharisee named Simon and then lets a sinful woman, scorned by the people around him, touch him -- lets her wash his feet with tears and anoint them with oil.  Jesus eats with Pharisees and experts in religious law, the leaders who were always watching him closely, looking to trap him in what he says or does, and he turns the meal into a lesson and a parable.

He looks around the table, at all these powerful religious figures jostling each other for a better seat, a better view, a better social standing, and he says, “You know, you could try being content to be simply yourself.”


You could try being content to be simply yourself.

What does that even look like?  Who am I when I am simply me?  What happens if I let go of social status and seating arrangements and I’m just … me?  There’s a terrifying kind of honesty to this.  An honesty about our faults and our gifts.  We’re not taught to do this.  We’re taught to build ourselves up, to look better than we feel, to polish up our surface so we’re glittery and new.  Or we’re taught to talk ourselves down, to be humble, to keep our head down, to turn away praise as if we’re not worthy.  Here’s a tough example:  when was the last time I got a compliment and just … received it?  When was the last time I didn’t say “It’s really nothing” or “Anyone could do it”, or thought to myself “Well he surely doesn’t know what he’s talking about” or “She’s just being nice” or “Yeah, I did do a good job, didn’t I?  It’s a good thing they picked me to take care of it.”

When was the last time I just said “...Thanks.  That means a lot.”  For me I can tell you it’s been a while.  We’re taught to either jostle for the best seat, or take the very last and hope someone notices our humility.  We talk ourselves up or shoot ourselves down.

Or we could be content to be simply ourselves.

This is the thing that gets me about God’s love:  it is not abstract at all.  God doesn’t shower love from far away and high up, from a distance, drenching us in grace without knowing us.  God comes close.  The way we know God is in Jesus, God in flesh, who showed up and walked among us and knew us.  Good and bad, pretty and messy, worthy of praise and scary to face.  Jesus walked among us and knew us.  God loves us like that.  That close.  That well known.  Just me.  Just you.  Just us.  Not the shined up or overly guilty version.  Just us.  The real us.

So when Jesus says “If you’re content to be simply yourself” it’s a reminder that “just me” is the person God claimed in baptism.  Just me.  Not at my best and not at my worst.  Me.  Good and bad, dressed up and covered in mud, high heeled or barefoot, sinner and saint, me.  You.  Us.  Nothing gets between us and that love.  That’s what Paul writes in the letter to the Romans:  not death, not life, not angels, not people in charge, not the present, not the future, not cities or countries, not the highest of heights or the lowest of lows -- nothing at all in the whole world can get between us and God's love shown in Jesus.

God’s love shown to us.  Just us.  Just me.  Just you.

And then the promise is that you’ll become more than yourself.

When we think about more -- at least when I do -- I think we think about power.  I am more than you because I have power over you.  You are more than me because you have more power than me.  Older, bigger, smarter, richer, prettier, more popular, higher up the totem pole.  I don’t know why we play this game, as humans.  You’d think maybe we’d have big enough brains to not do the social pecking order that wolves and chickens and ants have.  But we don’t.  We get just as anxious.  We want to protect ourselves.  We want to be in charge of our lives, to control other people so that we don’t get hurt.  I get power -- I get to be more -- because I can do something that someone else can’t.  This is how I can be more than myself -- to have more, to control more, to be in charge more.  To get more praise, to get more attention, to annoy or distract you more.  This kind of power gets all tied up in fear.  I’m afraid because you have more than me -- more money, more strength, more good looks, a shinier appearance of having it all together.  You have more.  And I’m afraid.  So I try to get more.  And the cycle continues.  Well sir, here we are again.

But Jesus says, “You could try being content to be simply yourself.  If you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Instead of being more, we could try to be … honest.  We could be who God claimed at baptism -- not the nice version, not the powerful, but the sum total of what we are.  Just us.  Just me.  Just you.

We could be vulnerable.  We could take the chance on having joys, and burdens, and hopes.
We could take the chance of admitting that we’ve done wrong, sometimes, and we deserve that seat at the end of the table.  We could be honest about our burdens and our worries.  We could forget shining up our surface -- maybe for just a minute -- and be real about what weighs us down.

And we could take the chance of admitting that we’ve done well, sometimes.  We could have a little bit of joy in our own selves.  We could try -- maybe for just a minute -- to see ourselves as God sees us, as broken but capable, as gifted, as wanted, as beautiful and beloved.

We could take the chance on being known as God knows us.  On being loved.  We could take a chance on knowing each other -- on knowing we get the full picture, not the shiny, not the messy, but the real and whole.  We could take the radical chance that God’s love shows up for us -- that nothing can separate us from it.

Well sir, here we are again.  And here’s a chance at learning how to be just you -- and becoming more than you.

[ I then invited some of our fantastic kids to pass out colored cards, one to each person, of blue and yellow and orange.  On the tables were matching tented cards which read:

What about you gives you joy?
What is a burden for you?  What worries you?
What are you hoping for?  ]

Think about your cards, and write things down.  Then share with someone around you -- it can be a family member or a friend or a friendly looking stranger.  Share at least one, and maybe all three.  Listen to each other, and take your time.  When you feel finished, please mark each other with the sign of the cross and the promise given at baptism:  “You are a beloved child of God.”

When the hymn begins, bring your cards to the altar and drop them into the bags.

Here we are again.  God knows you, and loves you, and offers you a chance to be -- just you.  Take a chance on being known.