Growing in God’s Love

Luke 15:1-10

What does it mean to be lost? One of the things I tell Manny, as matter of fact it’s one of our rules of life, #8 I believe; I tell him “Never go into the woods without a compass.” And it’s a good rule. It’s a rule born out of experience. You see, when I first moved out to Birchwood Road, I was excited to explore the endless acres of national forest behind our new home. So, one Friday morning, off I went. It was a beautiful early spring day and I found a few old trails to follow. But, after several hours of hiking, I got turned around. And since I had no compass, I had to rely on my sense of direction. Those of you who know me can see where this is going. I have been loving described as “directionally challenged” by family and friend alike. So, when I passed the same downed tree for the third time, I began to realize that I need to change directions; find a new path. And when I did that, when I was finally became humble enough to give up on the same way and move in a new direction, I found my way out of the woods. What was once lost was now found and there was great joy finding my way home.

One day, the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus had a conversation with some people who were also having some problems find a new path; finding joy. These people were the Pharisees. Now, we’ve learned to think of them as the bad guys, the villains, but they really weren’t all that bad. You see, the Pharisees were loyal and genuine in their worship and prayer. Scripture told them they had a responsibility to give their money to the poor and to feed the hungry. And we know they honored the Scripture, studied it, and lived it out to the best of their ability.

But Jesus was critical of them, and they found themselves on the wrong side of history, because they had a problem understanding the joyful side life and faith. Oh, they were great at proclaiming and enforcing the letter of the Law, but grace, living joyfully and gratefully, these things were outside their purview, outside their understanding of God’s requirements, and most definitely, outside their comfort zone. So, it goes without saying that the Pharisees had a problem with the kind of joy that Jesus generated; joyfully eating and drinking with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors.

So, in order to teach them something about joy, Jesus shared some stories; some parables about joy. He told them about a shepherd who lost one of his little sheep and worried out of his mind, went searching for it. And when he found it he was overjoyed. God is like that shepherd, said Jesus. He told them about a poor woman who had only 10 coins, but one of them got lost. So, she swept the house until she found the lost coin, and she was so filled with joy over finding that coin, that she threw a party to celebrate. God is like that poor woman, said Jesus.[I]

God is over-the-moon when that which was once lost, is finally found; when those who are suffering find healing; when those who are broken find restoration; when those who were excluded, oppressed, considered “less-than” find acceptance. God is overjoyed when the poor and the lame and the blind are invited to the banquet and God is thrilled when even one outsider is welcomed into a community of faith.

Recently, I read an essay in which a woman was reminiscing about her father. She said that when she was young, she was very close to her father. The time she experienced this closeness the most was when they would have big family gatherings with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. At some point, someone would pull out the old record player and put on polka records, and the family would dance. Eventually, someone would put on the “Beer Barrel Polka;” and when the music of the “Beer Barrel Polka” played, her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, “I believe this is our dance,” and they would dance. One time, though, when she was a teenager and in one of those teenaged moods and the “Beer Barrel Polka” began to play and when her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, “I believe this is our dance,” she snapped at him, “Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!” And her father turned away and never asked her to dance again.

“Our relationship was difficult all through my teen years,” she wrote. “When I would come home late from a date, my father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep, wearing an old bathrobe, and I would snarl at him, “What do you think you’re doing?” He would look at me with sad eyes and say, “I was just waiting on you.” “When I went away to college,” the woman wrote, “I was so glad to get out of his house and away from him and for years I never communicated with him, but as I grew older, I began to miss him.

One day I decided to go to the next family gathering, and when I was there, somebody put on the “Beer Barrel Polka.” I drew a deep breath, walked over to my father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I believe this is our dance.” He turned toward me and said, “I’ve been waiting on you.”[ii]

My friends, standing at the center of our life; at the center of our faith; is the God who says to us, “I’ve been waiting on you.” God’s been waiting for each of us, individually and as a people, as a nation, to accept the invitation, count the cost, and then live-into our call to be loving, compassionate, and kind disciples of Christ. God is in essence tapping each of us on the shoulder and saying to us, “I believe this is our dance.” My friends, this is our dance, and we are being called onto the dance floor.

But what might this dance look like in real time? Well, I read a devotion on 9/11 this week that really speaks to the idea of find joy in change. Vicki Kemper askes the Biblical question, “’Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?’ In the realm of God,” she writes, “this is not a rhetorical question. It is, instead, both an expression of God’s anguish and a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s an invitation to repent of our divisive ways, cooperate instead of conspiring, and find our security in the God of many names and no borders who laid down all power and every weapon that we might live.

This is not to minimize the terror and loss of that day 18 years ago. Whose heart doesn’t ache with the memory of that impossibly blue sky? Whose knees don’t buckle at the recollection of those mighty twin towers reduced to rubble? I cannot un-hear the awful sound of a passenger plane slamming into the Pentagon. And yet the nations still conspire; we peoples still plot.” Vicki concludes her remarks by saying: “…we can choose to live differently. On this day, of all days, let us recommit ourselves to nonviolence and holy interdependence.[iii]

“Non-violent interdependence” I like that phrase. I mean, isn’t that really the sum total of Christ’s teaching, the real reason he accepted death upon the cross? Wasn’t he advocating for, pleading with the Pharisees to come to grips with a changing world, a world where non-violent interdependence would push aside the old, set-in-stone ways of being? Isn’t this the very core of our calling as people of faith? Non-violent interdependence?

My friends, as we face the world once again this week; and as we go back to our lives, some of them troubled, some of them moving along on and even keel; as we depart this morning, I invite you to consider deeply this idea of non-violent interdependence. How it connect us with our call to discipleship and what changes in our hearts and lives might be necessary to bring it about. And finally, what changes in our nation might we advocate for in order to change the hearts and lives of others? And finally-finally, may each of you find a great joy and celebrate when that which was lost, whatever the “that” may be, is finally found. This is my wish for all of you; this is my prayer for our nation. May it become so. Amen and the people of God said: Amen.

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[i] Thomas Long Is There Joy in God’s House? (www.Day1.org) 2004

[ii] Ibid. Long

[iii] Vicki Kemper A Serious Question for a Horrible Day (dailydevotional@ucc.org) 2019

A New Identity

Luke 14:25-33

Who here has ever heard of an ear worm? I know. But it’s not as disgusting as it sounds. An ear worm is when a song gets stuck in your head. This happens to me all the time. I hear a song on the radio and then I sing the same two lines over and over and over. It also happens when I pick the hymns for worship (in Cable) I mean, last week I was constantly humming “Won’t You Let Me be Your Servant”. Does this ever happen to you?

Well, I think creating an ear worm of sorts is the intent of this passage. Luke wants us to come away from this text with a distinct understanding of what God requires of us. And he does this by being meticulous in how he orders events in his gospel. Discovering the meaning of each passage depends upon what comes before it and what follows it. And today’s passge is no exception. Standing alone it seems odd, out of place. But when we consider the immediate context, it begins to make sense.

So, let’s look at the context. The parable immediately before today’s passage is the story of the Great Banquet, the one we had last week. The crux of that teaching was about invitation; who’s invited to God’s table, or, in other words, who’s invited to become a disciple. And we concluded that everyone’s invited. Okay, easy enough. But today’s passage tells us about the cost of accepting that invitation. The Common English Bible calls it Discipleship’s Demands. And the third passage in this series, the one we will look at next week, is The Parable of the Lost Sheep. You remember that one. The Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one that was lost. So, right away we can see a pattern emerge, can’t we? An invitation to follow Jesus, what it means to accept that invitation, and finally, becoming lost or the result of not accepting the invitation.

Interesting. But for now, for today, let’s look at the cost or demands of discipleship. Today’s narrative begins by telling us that a large crowd was traveling with Jesus. So, he decides to offer them a series of teachings about the cost of following him; a cost that involves making discipleship one’s first priority.

Now, Jesus begins by saying that one must hate their family and friends and even life itself if one is committed to being a disciple. You know, I heard a pastor preach on this passage when I was a twenty-something back in Illinois. And my conclusion was that this old man was off his nut! Was he really saying that in order to be a person of faith I had to hate my family? If that’s the case, no thanks. I’ll go fishing on Sunday morning instead. But after I calmed down, and spoke with a trusted elder in this church, and with Pastor Sandburg, a different meaning began to emerge. What he told me was that loving God first, most, would improve my other relationships. He said this because God’s love in unconditional, and if I understood that, I could then bring at least a portion of that unconditional love into my family relationships as well. Okay, for a twenty-something that was a satisfactory answer. And, as you can probably guess, I continued to spend my Sunday mornings in church. The fish would have to wait.

And this morning, I’m going to offer this as the first “ear worm” that Luke wants to plant in our brains. We should love God first because the gains that we will realize from feeling that unconditional love will improve how we love our family, our friends, indeed, life itself.

But I’m still troubled by the word “hate.” Anyone else with me here? We’re told over and over again to love, right? Love God, love your neighbor, love your enemy, love beyond all measure, love those who hate you because of your faith, love, love, love. So, what’s really going on? Why did Jesus use the word “hate.” Well, as we’ve seen before in the gospels, Jesus uses hyperbole, extreme exaggeration, to get his point across. Remember the camel going through the eye of the needle bit? Hyperbole. So, it makes perfect sense that Jesus uses hyperbolic language here to stress the seriousness of what it means to follow him.[I]

And if you’re still not convinced, consider the original language and the choices made when translating it to English. Remember the New Testament was written in Greek and the Greek word used for here is properly interpreted as “hate.” But we must also remember that Aramaic was the common or spoken language in Jesus’ day. And the word used for “hate” in Aramaic is actually what’s called a comparative verb. So, it literally means to “love much less than.”[ii] So, Jesus isn’t telling his audience to literally hate family, friends, or life itself; but rather to value those relationships “less than” one’s relationship with God. Which brings us back around to Pastor Sandburg’s idea of loving God so we can improve our love for family, friends, and life-itself.

Cool, but “hate” language isn’t the only counter cultural notion to fall upon our ears this morning. Jesus also says that to be his disciple one must carry “their own cross.” Now, that doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Doesn’t carrying one’s own cross lead to death? So, what’s going on here? Well, this is about humility. And, first of all, please understand that humility isn’t about becoming “life’s doormat” to be used and abused for others’ convenience or pleasure. Rather, carrying one’s own cross is a symbol of humility. It’s a picture of a life in which one uses one’s gifts and abilities on behalf of the community, accepting sacrifice and complexity and inconvenience as part of one’s own faith journey. [iii] Humility finally isn’t about being weak, it’s about being strong enough to put the good of the other, or the good of the collective, above one’s own self-interest.

And when you do that, my friends, I promise you, you will be better off. When I show compassion toward someone who’s suffering, remembering that compassion literally means “to suffer with,” my suffering becomes less. And I know, it seem counter-intuitive, but it really works that way. Why? Well, I think showing compassion, empathy, opens up something within us, within our hearts, and allows us to become more than the sum of our selfish desires. And if we open ourselves to the invitation, to the demands of discipleship, if we choose to take up our cross, it will require us to put the other before self; it will require us to have compassion for all of those present at God’s banquet table: the poor, the marginalized, the refugee, the asylum seekers, anyone who finds themselves on the outside looking in. It will require us to adopt a new identity.

And that’s the second “ear worm” that Luke seeks to install in our brains this morning: Accepting the invitation means becoming humble enough to adopt a new identity.

My friends, God is inviting us to become a people who exhibit an identity of love and compassion, who advocate for social justice, and who offer an extravagant welcome to all who darken our door. Why? Because God’s invitation to take up our cross comes to us through an intimate, covenantal relationship with God, which then expands into the wider community. And it’s finally through this expansion of God’s love that we find the roots of our faith; that we find meaning in this life. Loving oneself is very limiting, but loving beyond the limits of our imagination, that’s liberating; that’s true freedom; that’s a new identity worth adopting.

And this is where we’ll stop for today. Next week we’ll talk about what happens to us, both individually and as a people or a nation, when we refuse to accept the invitation. Stay tuned.

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[i] Emerson Powery, from his commentary on Luke (www.workingpreacher.org) 2013

[ii] Leslie Holmes Discipleship is Demanding (www.Day1.org) 2007

[iii] Alyce McKenzie. How Not to Respond to an Evite. Edgy Exegesis (www.pathoes.com) 2013