Monday, March 28, 2016

Reflection on John 20:1-18

“The world has gone to hell in a hand-basket.”

These are the words of my late grandmother, but I can imagine that they were also silently mouthed by Mary as she ran through the darkness to check on the grave. Her rabbi was gone. The authorities were filled with hate. The people tuned on him.

“Hurry, hurry,” she whispers to herself. “His body better still be there.”

She ran even quicker through the night, all the while feeling the world plunging deeper into a dark, chaotic void. It is going to hell in a hand-basket for certain.

I thought of this as I stared at those dyed neon, cheap, sliver laden Easter baskets in Wal-Mart the other day, as if the very quality of the basket resembled the reality of things going to hell in it.

If we stuffed the world in one of those baskets, the neon colors would not be able to distract us from the reality of a world filled with hatred. Terrorists kill. Demagogues destroy with their words. Heroin destroys communities. Children cover their ears in the dark as parents argue. So, yes, the world might as well fit inside a cheap, neon, sliver laden Easter morning child torture device, and be sent off to burn.

It is so easy for the evil of the world to entomb the thoughts of our minds that we obsess over those thoughts even during mundane shopping trips through spring colors and enticing sales. Has that even happened to you? Has your mind ever been so caught on the horrors and struggles of life that you do not even see that a whole pack of Reese Peanut Butter Cups are on sale for two dollars! Two dollars! You can be surrounded by color, but only see grey.

Mary runs through the garden, and does not even see the dew still on the roses. When she arrives, she is horrified. The tomb has been opened.

She knew she should have skipped the Sabbath Day and come to guard the tomb! But, the worst is yet to come.

Bending down and looking into the tomb, she sees…nothing. Nothing. Well, other than the two gleaming men sitting in the tomb she sees nothing. She literally cannot see beyond the darkness and fear that has taken over her mind.

That is a dangerous state to be in. When fear claims you and clouds you mind that much anything can happen. You can make poor choices. People can get hurt. People can convince you to hurt others in the name of goodness. In other words, hand-baskets get to have their day in the sun…well darkness.

Fear loves the darkness and it clings to evil. If God were to step in to Mary’s story at any time, this would be a good time to do that.

“’Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’" the words came from a man standing behind Mary.

“Supposing him to be the gardener, Mary said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’

‘Mary!’” the man said.

“She turned and said to him ‘Rabbi.’"

Jesus’ voice dissipated Mary’s darkness. “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name…they know his voice.”

Standing in the checkout line at Wal-Mart, I saw a disheveled man with his young daughter tugging at his grimy sleeve two people ahead of me. You know, Wal-Mart people. The man tried to swipe his bank card. “Insufficient funds.” Embarrassed, the man looked at all the items in the bags, looked at his daughter, and simply said to the clerk, “Sorry to put you through all this trouble.”

Then, as if Jesus were standing behind the man, the customer in front of me said, “Excuse me,” reached forward with his credit card, and made a swipe. “Happy Easter” he said.

Stunned, as if he had just recognized the resurrected Jesus standing right in front of him, the disheveled man said with tearful hope, “You have no idea what this means to me. Bless you sir. God bless you.”

I thought I had just seen Jesus. Maybe it was Jesus. How am I to know? Or maybe he was just a really great follower of Jesus? I do not know. It is not like he wore a shirt that said, “Jesus is mine.” But, his act of grace for a disheveled, grimy father looked so much like Jesus that it had to have been him in some way.

Of course, it is possible the man had no claim to Jesus at all. But one thing was obvious: Jesus had claimed this man as his own. Jesus had claimed him and infused his whole being with love.

Jesus likes to do that you know: claim people. Remember that Jesus refused to allow Mary to cling to him, and claim him as her own, and take him home with her, and lock him up where he would be safe. Instead, Jesus claimed Mary as his own, and then commissioned her to “Go tell.”

On that dark morning at the tomb so shrouded in despair, Jesus broke through the darkness and claimed Mary as his own, and Mary went and told the others saying, “I have seen the Lord.”

To say, “I have seen the Lord,” is more than hanging your hopes on a vacation home in a heavenly place with a bear rug and a martini in hand. It is a declaration in the face of the face of the face of the face of family the face of daily struggles that the Lord has conquered them all.

To be able to look out on a world that others have written off as going to hell in a hand-basket and see the Lord standing there, in the ruins of life, scarred hands and all, is to live a life with resurrection eyes…seeing possibilities where no one else even dares to hope.

We are a resurrection people who look upon the dark world, and rather than seeing darkness, we see the potential for new life!

We are a people who shout out to those in the darkness, “I have seen the Lord.” “I have seen the Lord.” “I have seen the Lord.” And, because we have seen the Lord, we have a life that burns with an eternal hope. A hope that proclaims, “Yes, even this darkness can be made new through Christ!”

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reflection on John 12:1-8

“He gave it all for me, so I’m going to try to give my all for him.”

You would be wrong to assume that he teenage girl was talking about giving her all for some guy that she had a crush on. That is the way it is now days though. Whenever you speak of giving your whole heart, it is assumed that you are speaking about some sort of romantic, boyfriend or girlfriend swooning. And, if you were to sing about it, there would be no doubt that the tune would be some sort of pop, love ballad.

The teen was not like the others around her though. She was an enigma to her classmates. She did not easily swoon over guys. She did not write a boyfriend’s name over and over again in her notebook with swirls and hearts decorating the letters of love.

Instead, if she were to sing a ballad of giving her heart fully, it would be a hymn sung to Jesus. In fact, as she walked down the halls of the school, it was not uncommon to hear her humming these hymns as she walked along.

“He gave it all for me, so I’m going to try to give my all for him.” The words tumbling out of her mouth were about Jesus, and the words were just as heart-felt as if they were about a boyfriend.

They might as well have been about a boyfriend, because her parents treated the words in a similar way. The teen’s parents were not religious in any sense of the word, and they honestly believed that religion was the source of most evil throughout the world.

Look at the terrorism in the world. Religion.
Look at intolerance in the world. Religion.
Look at those who appear to be self-righteous jerks. Religion.

To hear their daughter speak glowingly and lovingly about her savior was enough to make them want to hurl. Where did she come up with this stuff anyway?

“You cannot leave this house to go to that stuck up, institution called the church,” they warned her multiple times. But, just as many times, she snuck out the house and went to church anyway, as if Jesus was the motorcycle riding boyfriend that steals away the innocent girl.

“He gave it all for me on the cross, so I’m going to try to give my all for him.” She truly believed that, so she gave her all as best as she could.

She was a modern day Mary who would sit at Jesus’ feet and cling to his every word while her sister, Martha, would grumble about taking care of the important matters in life, housework, all alone once again.

She was a modern day Mary who was willing to give it all by anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume that was worth close to an entire year’s worth of wages. Yes, Jesus was that important to her.

She loved Jesus so much that she would have happily joined Mary in anointing Jesus’ feet with her hair. She desired to give her whole life to Jesus and his ministry of loving the neighbor. Nothing would be held back. Nothing would be too sacred to give to Jesus.

There is always a critic in the crowd though. The teen’s main critics were her parents who treated her faith like an elementary school romantic relationship.

Mary’s main critic was Judas. How dare she waste a year’s worth of resources on one person, Judas questioned. How dare she use all that perfume on a man’s feet rather than doing some good with it; like helping the poor!

Forget the fact that Judas probably just wanted the money for himself, people who devote their lives to Jesus and his mission will find themselves on the receiving end of criticism and facing roadblocks every time.

A suburban church was once criticized when they added a large “life” center onto their church. It was an extension added onto the church to support their growing ministries.

“How dare they waste money in such a way! Can they not look around their neighborhood and see the homeless on the streets just outside of their doors?”

It is a common charge leveled against a church: wasting money on walls rather than people.

Recently, a new charge was leveled again the same church by the same neighbors. The church decided that the best way to use their new “life” center would be to offer emergency housing and food to the poor in the surrounding community. In other words, they decided that since Jesus had given his all, they would try to give their all back to Jesus and Jesus’ cause to help the poor and beaten down.

This decision had the unintended consequence of creating a highway of homeless people past local businesses in order to get to the church and the assistance that it was providing.

The same people who criticized the church and their extravagant spending started floating around a petition to outlaw providing assistance to the poor within the city limits.

Dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t.

It does not matter, because like the teenage girl who slipped out of the house just to go worship Jesus despite the consequences, they plan to continue to try to give their all back to Jesus and his ministry of love, no matter what the city ordinances become.

Will the church get fined? Probably.
Will the girl get grounded, again? Probably.
Was Mary chastised? Of course.

But, when someone loves you more than the world, you will do the most foolish of things to show them that you love them back. You will do foolish things like walking up to a cross only to be nailed upon it. You will do foolish things like die on a cross just so that those you love might know just how much you love them and to what extent you are willing to go for them.

It is foolish. It is not the way of the world. But, the way of the world rarely considers selfless love as a value.

It is the way of Jesus though. It is the way of self-less love. And, it is the sort of intimate love that will cause you to sing a ballad of love to the one who first loved you.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The older brother is right to be angry, of course. When he finds out that his father’s “other child” has returned, and that his father has shockingly killed the fatted calf and thrown a party for the little swindler, he is furious.

"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!”

“Who does that?” the older brother questions. What kind of father allows his son to take his inheritance before he has even died? That is essentially saying that you wish your father was dead. Who does that? What kind of father, after being so utterly rejected by his son, embraces the kid with open arms?

Further, what kind of father shares the best of what is remaining with a little brat who already took half of the estate and squandered it as if he were some sort of playboy with an infinite amount of wealth at his disposal.

The little twerp deserved to be eating with the hogs. The little twerp deserved to be served a slice of humble pie. How about he learns what it means to work hard and earn his way in life?

Is the older brother wrong here? You know that the little runt is just going to come back and take advantage of the father again. It is already started with the party, the robe, the ring, and the fatted calf! Now he is going to waste the rest of the inheritance intended for the older brother.

People like the younger son do not change. They need to learn the hard way. They need to learn how to fend for themselves. “That son does not deserve the kind of welcome that he is getting,” the older brother fumes.

Can you fault the older brother for reacting this way? History is littered with wasteful people being given a second chance only to waste some more. Where do you stop with the chances. The third time? The fourth time? The eighteenth time? Where do you stop? How many times must you forgive?

Let us just face the facts here: the lost son is exactly that, lost. He is lost in life. He is lost in his ways. He is lost in his sin. He is lost, period.

Hearing his elder son’s words and looking into his eyes, the father notices something about the older brother that saddens him greatly, he has two lost children.

It was the phrase, “But when this son of yours came back…” that caused his heart to fall. How does it happen that someone you have grown up with, played with, schemed with, and laughed with is somehow allowed to become a stranger? It was as if the older brother had built a stone wall between his brother and himself; a wall tall and thick enough that any recognition of someone on the other side would be completely wiped away.

The saying goes, “Good walls make good neighbors,” but the truth is that good walls create strangers. A good, tall, thick wall will not allow you to hear or see either a joyful party, or a devastating rape.

Walls protect us from the outside world, and, so too, the outside world is cut off from our availability to help.

The brother had a nice, thick, tall wall that would not allow him to even conceive of caring about his brother. His wall had effectively blocked any possibility of love. The father had just gotten back his wayward child, but now he seems to have lost another.

Granted, love can look awfully foolish. And, I am not just talking about a pair of love birds who hold hands and stare at each other as if going to Taco Bell were a fine dining event.

The type of foolish love that the father shows will make a grown man leap and bound down the road like a little boy on the last day of school, until he has embraced his long lost son.

This type of foolish love will cause respectable people to sit with the lowest of the low…the scummiest of the scum…and eat with them while others look on in disgust.

This type of foolish love will forgive over and over again, even if it is unwise.

This type of love will be so foolish and annoying that it will cause the lover to be hung on a cross, and even there Jesus will forgive once again those who would mock and kill and destroy, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

All of this foolish love spills haphazardly everywhere because of this one truth: connecting, loving, and forgiving are the starting point of repentance, not the end.

Understand, repentance in the biblical sense does not mean feeling bad about yourself. The biblical vision of repentance and forgiveness as told in Luke does not have us feeling bad about ourselves and then asking for love and forgiveness from a gracious God, though that might happen from time to time.

Instead, repentance, in this Lukan biblical sense, means thinking and living in different way…in a holy way. But, you can only think and live in a new way if you encounter that new way first.

If you want to understand better, just look at the younger son. After he had wasted away his inheritance and found himself dining with the pigs, he decided to create yet another scheme so that he can get back into his father’s house. He would declare his sin to his father and ask to serve as a hired hand. The scheme looks a lot like “feeling sorry,” but it is, none-the-less, a scheme to influence his father to get what he wants: food and a place to live.

In other words, all the hardships of his recent past have taught the younger son nothing. What will it take to get through to this little rat?

But, before the son even gets to start implementing his scheme, the father runs to him, welcoming him back with open arms, and showering him with the gifts of forgiveness and love (not forgetting to mention the robe, ring, and fatted calf).

Maybe, just maybe, you cannot live a life of full of love and forgiveness unless it has first been shown to you. The words of the book of Romans seemed to echo this idea loudly, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Apparently in God’s kingdom, connecting, forgiving, and loving each other are the prerequisites to a new way of repentance. Love always comes first.

Will it work? Will this show of forgiveness change the younger son’s life? Will he repent?

We do not know. That is not part of the story. Maybe it worked great. Maybe it worked terribly. Or maybe, more realistically, the show of forgiveness just started the younger son down a better path in life which was still filled with bumps and steps backwards, but slowly progressed away from narcissism and moved towards loving others as he loved himself.

But, I think that there is a reason that the outcome is not a part of the story in the first place. It is not the possible outcome that determines whether or not a person is shown love in the first place. It is love that helps to shape the outcome.

Love is not the feast at the end of a long journey. Love is the food that you need to start the journey in the first place.

You are never wrong to show love. Never. Even if it does not turn out well or change anyone's life.

Jesus died on the cross for the sake of the world without having any guarantees as to the outcome. You are never wrong to show love to anyone, despite the possible outcome.

His inability to understand this is what makes the older brother lost. What do we do with older children of the world who refuse to love first, and who seek proof of worthiness instead?

What do we do with the older children who seem to care more about receiving their inheritance than receiving their brother?

What do we do with the older children who have worked hard and see grace given to a sinner as some sort of undeserved welfare?

What do we do with those lost older children?

I guess we say something like, "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."

I guess we remind them that they too are cared for and loved; because repentance always starts with love. That is God’s way.