Friday, March 25, 2016

Washed Them Clean -- Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
March 24, 2016

Some of them must have been calloused and rough; the skin leathery and weathered from the sea and sand. 

        They were different shapes and sizes; some long and narrow, others short and wide. 
        Some of them were achy from long days standing, and weary from long days walking. Surely they wore the dust from the roads they traveled. 
        Yet regardless of their condition, he still knelt before them.

No matter how grimy or coated in dust, he took their feet into his hands, and dipped them in the clear water, and washed them clean.
With a cloth wrapped around his waist, Jesus stooped low, he took their feet into his hands, and dipped them in the clear water, and washed them clean.
The disciples recoiled at the Teacher becoming the servant. They flinched at the indignity of their Rabbi kneeling before them. But without hesitation or pause, without grimace or complaint, he took their feet into his hands, and dipped them in the clear water, and washed them clean.
Jesus became their servant because he loved them. Jesus loved them even though soon those feet he washed would run to betray him. Soon those feet he dipped in the water would hurry to deny him. Soon those feet he wiped with that towel would flee from him even as his body exhaled its final breath.

He knew. Jesus knew the hearts of those who professed their undying love and loyalty. Jesus knew how they would fail him. Jesus knew their hearts. He knew the frailty of their wills. He knew their hearts and their minds, but that changed nothing. Jesus took their feet into his hands, and dipped them in the clear water, and washed them clean.  

Jesus loved them. He wanted them to love in return; to love others as he loved them. He embodied humility so they too would be humble. Jesus loved them, and he wanted them to understand that Loving as he loved is difficult.

Loving as he loved demands courage. Loving as he loved means doing the unexpected. It means giving more than is given. It requires doing more than is required. 

Jesus loved them, these fickle and foolish disciples. He loved them even though they feared more than they trusted, even though they could not or would not understand what he would endure. Jesus loved them in spite of themselves. Jesus loved them, and he took their feet into his hands, and dipped them in the clear water, and washed them clean.

Jesus loved them and commanded them to love as he loved, to do as he did, to live as he lived -- and to be willing to die as he would die. Jesus Loved them. Jesus loves us; in spite of our brokenness, our sinfulness, our selfishness. Jesus loves us in spite of ourselves. 

On this night we remember that night when Jesus, God's incarnation, showed us how to Love.
Jesus loved, not by being strong, but by choosing weakness. 

Jesus loved, not by overpowering, but by embracing powerlessness. 

Jesus loved, not by demanding to be served, but by serving. 

Jesus loved. He humbled himself. He stooped low. Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist. He took his disciples' feet - those feet that would run to betray him; those feet that would hurry to deny him; those feet that would flee from him even as he exhaled his last breath-- he took those feet into his hands, and dipped them in the clear water, and washed them clean. 

We dip our feet -- these feet that sometime run to betray him, and these feet that hurry to deny him, and these feet that can easily flee from him even as he exhales his last rasping breath -- we dip these feet in the clear water, and we are washed clean.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Blessed Is the King -- Palm Sunday

Luke 19:28-40
March 20, 2016

I love spontaneity -- actually, it's more accurate to say that I like the idea of spontaneity, but I can't say that I'm great at being spontaneous. It's not that I don't want to be spontaneous, I do. But I crave routine and order. I like to-do lists. I want to be productive. I feel like I need to finish one project before I can jump to the next. But spontaneity doesn't work like that, does it? To be spontaneous, you have to be able to let go of whatever it is you are doing or feel you should be doing, and go with the flow. I can't always do that easily or gracefully, but I will say that those times when I have been able to let go of routine and embrace spontaneity have given me fun and wonderful experiences. Being willing to embrace spontaneity has led to impromptu dinner parties and day trips, seeing enthralling movies, meeting new people, etc. I am wholeheartedly a creature of routine and order, but I'm glad for the times when I've let go and been spontaneous. A full life requires both. It's just that for me spontaneity takes some work.

At first reading the story of Palm Sunday, Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, seems to be the epitome of spontaneity. A long time back, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and he and the disciples were finally at the proverbial gates of the city. Jesus sent a couple of the disciples ahead to get an unridden colt. They brought it back to him. He was set upon the animal's back, and they continued their procession into Jerusalem. But as they walked, all of the people who were gathered around Jesus began to shout and exclaim praises to their teacher, their Rabbi, their King. Suddenly, spontaneously, the people began to throw their cloaks on the ground in a strange and unexpected way before him. This entry became a noisy, uproarious parade. It was a joyful throng and a celebratory cacophony of the man they called Lord.

It got to be so noisy, that some of the Pharisees who were also there asked Jesus to hush up his followers. But Jesus told them that would be of no use.

"I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

If even inanimate objects would cry out the praises of God in his Son, then there was no point in telling the people who were making up this spontaneous parade to be quiet. If the people were silent, all of creation would fill that noiseless void with exclamation. Spontaneity indeed. Except, I don't think this story is quite the example of spontaneity we think it is. I think some of it was staged. And I think Jesus did the staging.

I know that's a provocative thing to say. But hear me out. When I speak of Jesus staging this moment, this entry into Jerusalem, I'm not claiming that Jesus was being manipulative or controlling. The word "staging" has all sorts of negative connotations for us. At least it does for me. Precisely because I tend to think of it as an act of manipulation. But I'm not comparing Jesus to present day politicians. When I say that Jesus staged this moment, I think it was not about control but about him making a profound point; a pointed point. He was entering Jerusalem as a king. He was not the kind of king anyone would expect or even desire, nor was his kingdom. I have preached over and over again about the ways Jesus defied and overturned the people's expectations of what a Savior would look like and act like and be like. So why would this triumphal entry be any different?

As far as we know and from what the gospels record, Jesus did nothing but walk from place to place to place or cross the water in a boat. But as he prepared to enter Jerusalem, he commanded two of his disciples to go and take a colt from someone's home. If anyone wondered why they were attempting donkey theft, Jesus told them to simply reply, "The Lord needs it."

When the disciples brought back the colt, Jesus didn't climb on the creature's back and start riding. The disciples set him on it. That kind of action would have been done for royalty. A king worth his salt would never jump up on the steed he would ride. Servants would have lifted him up and placed him on it.

Furthermore what was happening in Jerusalem when Jesus arrived? Indeed, what major event is the backdrop for every moment of Jesus' passion? Passover.  According to biblical scholars, Passover was not the largest festival, but it was certainly the most politically charged. Passover is the collective remembering of liberation. Passover remembers the Israelites being rescued out of slavery; the defeat of the Egyptians, God working on behalf of his children. Death passed over the Israelites who put lamb's blood on their doorways. It did not pass over the homes of the Egyptians.

Although Israel at that time was not enslaved per se, their land and their lives were under occupation by the Romans. The Romans must have scrutinized the festival of Passover for any sign of trouble or uprising. After all, if the people you ruled over celebrated a monumental event such as liberation from slavery, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility for folks to get the notion they could do it again. It makes sense that some of the Pharisees would have asked, begged, pleaded with Jesus to quiet his followers. Rome's powers that be would not just punish Jesus and his motley crew, they would punish them all.

This is the festival, this the context into which Jesus rode a colt like a king would ride a mighty horse. This humble man who never sought to ease his journey by riding any kind of animal, now rode a colt into the heart of Jerusalem and Passover. He knew what he was doing, and I think he knew the statement he was making. Jesus rode into Jerusalem as a king. True, he was a king of a kingdom that no one, not even his closest disciples, understood. But he rode into Jerusalem as a king. It was staged -- not to manipulate but to make a profound point.

Jesus also let everyone watching know that he was not afraid. This was an act of defiance and courage. What would the upcoming week have looked like had he walked into Jerusalem quietly, drawing no attention to himself? What would have happened had Jesus sneaked into Jerusalem, or stayed in the shadows to avoid notice? Jesus rode into Jerusalem, refusing to silence the people who shouted and threw down their cloaks before him. He would not halt this raucous parade.

While I may believe that Jesus staged this entrance, I do not think that was true of the people's response to his royal arrival. I think that was spontaneous. I think they were caught up in the spectacle and the excitement. I think they, consciously or unconsciously, responded to this kingly moment. I doubt that they planned on throwing cloaks before him or determined ahead of time that they would take up the shout, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

I don't believe this was staged at all. I think it was spontaneous and joyful. They responded to the arrival of a king. Perhaps their pomp and circumstance didn't quite look like it would be if the king approaching was Roman royalty, but it was pomp and circumstance nonetheless. The people in Luke's telling did not shout, "Hosanna," as in other gospels.  These people shouted, "Blessed is the king." Jesus set that stage and they responded in kind.

To say that Jesus staged at least some of this does not take away from the power of this moment. I believe it adds to it. When I was a kid, I thought of Palm Sunday as just the Sunday before Easter. It was a marker of time. On Palm Sunday I knew that the next Saturday we would get to dye eggs, and the next Sunday I would wake up and have an egg hunt even before breakfast. I would get to put on the new dress and shoes my mother and I had picked out. We would go to church as a family, and I would hear again the story of Jesus' resurrection, and the rock rolled away revealing an empty tomb. Palm Sunday was fine, but it was really just the gateway to Easter.

I may put more emphasis on the meaning of Palm Sunday than I did as a child, but that attitude has not completely disappeared. Palm Sunday is kind of a welcome hurrah during the somber days of Lent, and a quick moment of celebration before we enter into the growing darkness of Holy Week. After all the crowds with Jesus threw a spontaneous parade, why shouldn't we throw one as well?
Yet, the more I think of Jesus staging his entrance into the city, pointedly and defiantly sending the message to Roman and Jew alike that a king unlike any other was in their midst, the more I believe that Palm Sunday is a call to intentionality.  Jesus was intentional in the way he chose to enter Jerusalem. He was intentional about the message he sent. He was intentional and courageous about the confrontation that would happen between him and the powers that be, between his kingdom and the world's. He was intentional about what he must do. He was obedient to the point of death on a cross.

It seems to me that Palm Sunday calls us to that same intentionality. It's easy to enter this Holy Week focused solely on making it to Easter. But every day of this week draws us closer to Good Friday, closer to the cross. While the days may be getting longer and lighter, each day of this week calls us to remember that the Darkness of the world grew stronger and stronger. It reminds us that for a time, the Light of the World was extinguished. Jesus entered Jerusalem with intention and purpose, with defiance and courage. May we do the same. May we walk this week with him to the cross and its darkness, trusting that the Light will return.

Let all of God's children say, "Amen."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Leave Her Alone -- Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12:1-8
March 13, 2016 

            Once upon a time, I was driving in Iowa. Traffic jams on Iowa roads usually involved farm implements; so when I came to a couple of cars stopped on a route I drove regularly, I figured it was because they were waiting for a tractor or a shredder or some other farm machine to get out of the way. However, the cars were stopped because a state trooper had parked by the side of the road. The trooper was out of his vehicle, hand up and stopping traffic. At first, I couldn’t tell why he was doing this. There were no accidents. No cars were stalled on the road. But then I saw what the trooper saw: a tiny puppy wandering along the shoulder. It was obviously confused, and scared. The trooper kept his hand up for the traffic to stop, then he picked up the puppy and carried him back to his car.
            I don’t know what the other drivers were thinking when we were able to go again, but I was incredibly touched by what the trooper did. He took the time to offer care to a creature that I imagine most other folks would not have seen. Even if they did notice the puppy, I doubt many would have stopped. Surely if the trooper hadn’t rescued that puppy, the chances were high it would have been hit and killed. I know that this was just a lost little puppy, and it would have been far more dramatic if the trooper had stopped traffic to rescue another human being. However, I would have expected the trooper to rescue another human being. Even more, I would have been outraged if he hadn’t. But this trooper’s act of kindness was unexpected. This was compassion for the sake of compassion.
            This happened a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. I knew I had witnessed a sweet and unexpected moment. As the years go on, moments like these seem to be fewer and far between.
            What we have in this story from John’s gospel is a moment of unexpected compassion and kindness. Versions of this story of a woman anointing Jesus are found in all four gospels. In both Matthew and Mark, the woman who anointed Jesus with precious nard did so for the same purpose as in John’s gospel; it was about Jesus’ burial. Yet in Luke’s gospel, the woman who anointed Jesus was a sinner who realized how forgiven she truly was. Anointing Jesus was a response to this forgiveness. The woman’s actions were scorned in each version, and each gospel writer records that Jesus told the people who grumbled about her to leave her alone. But only in John’s gospel did this woman has a name. This woman was Mary, the younger sister of Martha. Her brother was Lazarus. In Luke’s gospel this same Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him while her sister, Martha, worked frantically to prepare the meal and clean the house for the Rabbi.
            Jesus was once more a guest in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus; and as we learn in the first verse, it was six days before the Passover. Martha served the meal. Lazarus, who had been dead but was resuscitated, was at table with Jesus and the others. I can well imagine that there was a great deal of activity happening in every corner of the house. In the midst of all this hustle and bustle, Mary took a large amount of perfume made from pure nard and began to anoint Jesus’ feet with it. As she anointed his feet with the nard, she wiped them with her hair. The perfume was expensive. It would have been doled out in precise measure in order to prevent any waste. We don’t know how much nard Mary used, yet I suspect that she wasn’t concerned about waste or extravagance. I envision her pouring it on his feet lavishly and lovingly.
            Any of the others watching this would have been shocked by Mary’s behavior, but it was Judas who spoke up. He complained that if Mary had access to such an expensive nard, why wasn’t it sold for a lot of money? That money could have been given to the poor instead of poured out. In an aside, John explains that Judas didn’t give a hoot about the poor. He only wanted the money for himself, because he was a thief and stole from the common purse.
            Jesus immediately defended Mary’s actions, but his response is disturbing.
            “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
            "You always have the poor with you?" That seems completely contrary to everything Jesus had said about the poor and the weak and the vulnerable to this point. Jesus made it clear over and over again that he came for the poor and the weak and the vulnerable. He came for the others, the forgotten, the lost, the lonely. But in this story, his attitude about the poor seems cavalier at best. “You always have the poor with you.”
            Scholars speculate that Jesus wasn’t dismissing the poor in this statement. He was referencing verses in the Old Testament that stated that there would always be poor people and people in great need; therefore they should always be welcomed and cared for. I doubt that Jesus suddenly decided that the poor didn’t matter. But when Mary began to anoint him, he knew that this was a moment of compassion and kindness that was not only nice but necessary. He was still with them, still living, but it would not always be that way. He would soon die a criminal’s death. The rituals and rites of burial would be denied to him before his execution. Mary anointed him for his burial while she could. She showed him love while she could. It was a moment of compassion.
            I keep emphasizing the word moment because this was a moment of compassion in the midst of many other moments that were anything but. Knowing the larger context this story is set in, knowing those other moments, is important for understanding what’s happening in this particular moment. As it states at the beginning of the passage, Jesus was at table in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus had been dead but was now alive and at table with Jesus. It hadn’t been that long since Jesus had raised Lazarus from the tomb. Raising Lazarus caused many people who witnessed this miracle to believe in Jesus. But it had also frightened and worried many more. Once you’re dead, you’re supposed to stay dead. That’s the only decent thing to do. If Jesus had the power to change the order of life and death, then he was too powerful. The chief priests and Pharisees knew that Jesus had to be stopped. If more and more people believed in him, then the Romans would find out and destroy them all. Perhaps he could bring others back from the dead, but surely he could not change that ending for himself. So a plot to kill him was put into motion.
            Jesus must have been fully aware of this plot, because John states that from that time on Jesus could not move about openly. He went to a town called Ephraim, which was near the wilderness, and he stayed there with his disciples; until this moment when they came to Bethany and the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
            Yet this dinner party did not go unnoticed. In the verses following our story, we learn that when people learned where Jesus was, they came in great numbers to see Jesus and to see Lazarus who was raised from the dead. This made the powers that be even more nervous. Lazarus was literally living proof of Jesus’ power. Not only did Jesus need to be silenced, Lazarus must be silenced too. Immediately after our story, a plot to kill Lazarus was hatched.
            So this is the context in which this moment – this moment of kindness and compassion – occurred. Murderous schemes were in play both before this moment and after. The tension and fear must have been palpable. Yet in this time of fear and anxiety, Mary, who once sat at Jesus’ feet to listen and learn from him, took a place at his feet once more. And she anointed those dusty, dirty, tired feet with precious perfume. She wiped the perfume away with her hair. It was an intimate act, a loving act. No doubt her actions scandalized everyone watching, because that kind of intimacy between a man and woman would never have been displayed so openly; and it certainly would not have been acceptable in private for anyone except a husband and wife.
            Yet however inappropriate her actions might have been, however socially unacceptable and taboo, it was not a time for following social codes or rules. It was a time for compassion. It was a time for kindness. It was a time for unconditional love and tenderness. Somehow Mary knew this. Somehow she got it. Maybe she understood what his disciples could not; that she only had a short time left with her Teacher, her Savior. She had only a short time left, and in that moment the minister needed ministry. He needed compassion. He needed kindness. She responded to that need with her whole being. That moment required compassion, so leave her alone.
            In the fall of 2014, NPR aired a story about two men who also filled a moment with compassion. Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez were two workers at an Assisted Living facility in California. Maurice was a cook. Miguel was a janitor. The facility shut down and every other worker left. But shutting down the facility did not mean all of the residents were moved. Many were still there. As unfathomable as it is for me to think that could happen in 2014, it did. Elderly residents, some with dementia, were left to fend for themselves. That alone is a travesty; however it could have become a tragedy except for these two men: Maurice and Miguel. They stayed. They stayed without pay. They stayed for 24 hours at a time, only going home to shower and change clothes. They stayed and took care of the residents. They cooked for them, gave them their medicine, provided for all of their needs. Why? Because as Miguel said, “If we left, they wouldn’t have nobody.”
            These two men couldn’t leave these residents alone. They couldn’t live with that. With no other motive than compassion and kindness they did what was right. They filled a moment in time – one that could have become nightmarish – with love. Their love, their compassion transformed that moment into something beautiful.
            It seems to me that Mary did the same. In a moment so filled with ugliness and hatred, in a time when tensions were high and murder was in the air, Mary transformed a moment that could have been tainted by hatred into beauty by showing compassion, by being kind, by living love. How many moments do we encounter in our own lives that could be transformed this same way? How would our community or our country look if we acted intentionally, compassionately every moment, every day? These days it seems that the very air around us is as full of murder and hatred and enmity as it was around Jesus. But it doesn’t have to be this way. That is the good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. Mary proved that with her moment of love and compassion for Jesus. Jesus proved that with his life, death and resurrection for the sake of us all. Love and compassion hold the power to transform every moment. Hatred doesn’t have to win. It doesn’t have to be this way.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”

The illustration at the beginning of the sermon is what was written to be preached. The following is what was actually preached.

            I’m going to ask your forgiveness before I even start preaching today, because I’m going to do something I very rarely do. I’m going off script – at least for the first part of this sermon. I have a child who is on his first big school trip, the high school band trip to Florida. He has been in Florida one day. Last night I got a call from him – probably the hardest call he’s ever had to make – to tell me that he lost his wallet with every dime he had with him for the trip. I’m sure you can imagine that I’ve been frantic since then trying to figure out how to get money to him. You can also probably guess that my emotions range from worried, angry, frustrated, disappointed and back again. But thinking about what he’s going through reminds me of a class trip I took a long time ago.
            Once upon a time, I was in the school orchestra. I played the cello. We went on an overnight trip. In my memory, I was in 6th grade, but I was probably in 7th. We rode on a big bus to Murray, Kentucky, home of Murray State College. Murray State had a workshop for school orchestras in the region. We went, rehearsed for hours, and then gave on a concert. Because it was overnight, we got to stay in a motel – four girls to a room. Because there was a concert, we had to bring a nice dress. My mother firmly told me to hang up my dress in the motel room as soon as we were able to unpack. That way it wouldn’t be too wrinkled. I did exactly as I was told. The next morning we got packed up, loaded our bags on the bus and went back to Murray State for breakfast and rehearsals. I left my dress hanging in the motel room.
            I realized this on the bus to the school and went into a blind panic. While the other kids went into have breakfast, I sat on the steps outside the cafeteria and bawled. A nice man stopped and asked me what was wrong.

Through sobs I told him, “I left my dress for our concert in the motel room and my mom is going to kill me.”
            He reassured me that it would be all right. They would be able to retrieve my dress. Then he asked me if I had had breakfast. I shook my head, “no,” and he took me into the cafeteria and told the people working to let me have whatever I wanted – on him. I remembered that the cafeteria folks snapped to attention when he came in. I think it turned out he was the college President. Whoever he was, his compassion turned a moment that was filled with fear and worry into something beautiful.
This happened a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. I knew I had witnessed an unexpected moment of sweetness and kindness….

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Foolish Father -- Fourth Sunday of Lent

Luke 15:1-32
March 6, 2016

            We tried letting our cat, Pippin, be an indoor and outdoor cat. He loved to step out into the fresh air and explore the yard. Our neighbor feeds all of the stray cats that wander through the neighborhood, so there are always plenty of other potential friends beckoning him to come and play. For a while, it seemed that Pippin going outside was going to be a good thing. I could let him out first thing in the morning. When it was time to leave for school and work, I would call and he would come running. No problem; until one morning when he didn't return. I called and I called and I called. No Pippin. I wasn't too worried. I figured by the time I came home for lunch he'd be waiting for me at the back door. Lunch came. No Pippin. I called and called again. I walked all around the back yard and the front yard looking for him. No Pippin. When the kids came home from school, they went looking for him. There is an overgrown wooded area just across the side street from our house where there used to be a neighborhood pool. Phoebe and Zach walked down that path and Phoebe heard Pippin. He had been scared up into a tree by some dogs, and he was meowing and crying pitifully. We tried to coax him down. It didn’t work. We put food out for him, and that didn’t bring him down. I put out a plea on Facebook. No one's ideas or suggestions helped. In fact, some people seemed to think I was just foolish for worrying. A cat can go up a tree, and a cat can come down a tree. I called the fire department. They basically said the same thing. Pippin stayed in that tree all night and well into the next day. I kept waking up during the night thinking I heard him at the door. Finally, a friend and her husband came over to help us. They put a ladder against the tree, which was covered in overgrown brambles. She climbed up the ladder and almost fell a couple of times. But she managed to reach Pippin, and got our very hungry and scared cat out of the tree. We all rejoiced. The cat was lost, but then he was found.
            Jesus understood the joy at finding what was lost. He told three parables about being lost and found. As so often happened, tax collectors and sinners were coming to be near to Jesus and to listen to him. The Pharisees and the scribes who were also near Jesus weren't happy about that. They were grumbling and grousing.
            "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
            Jesus responded to their grumbling with these three parables. The first was about a lost sheep. There were 100 sheep but one had wandered away and was lost. The shepherd left the other 99, not in the safety of the fold but in the wilderness, to go looking for the one. When the shepherd found the lost sheep, he laid it across his shoulders and rejoiced. When he had gotten the sheep safely home, he called together his friends and his neighbors, and they all rejoiced. Jesus said “that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who were righteous and needed no repentance.”
            The second thing to be lost was a thing: a coin. A woman had ten coins, but she lost one. She did not shrug her shoulders and say, "Oh well. It's just a coin." No, she lit the lamp and swept the house. She searched every corner until she found the coin. Then she called together her friends and neighbors and said, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost." Again, Jesus told them, "Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the Angels of God over one sinner who repents."
            The third parable was about a son who was lost. He was his father's youngest son. He went to his father and asked him for his share of the inheritance. Now. Why should I wait till you're dead, Dad. So the father divided his property between the two sons and gave the youngest his share. The minute the money was his, the son took off. He went to a far country, and proceeded to have a very good time. Until the money ran out; then the good times ran out as well. Now what would he do? He had wasted his fortune. A terrible famine had taken over the land. The only means the younger son had to survive was to become a hired hand, feeding pigs in the fields. He was so hungry and desperate that even the pig food looked good. Then he came to himself. He thought about the hired hands that worked for his father and had plenty of bread to eat and more. He rehearsed what he would say to his dad when he saw 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."
            With these words in his mind, the son got up and went home. But he never got to give the full speech he had prepared. While he was still far off, his father saw him. He ran to him. His father pulled him into his arms and hugged him. The son started to say what he had practiced. But his father didn't seem to hear his words. He just called to his slaves to bring out the best robe and put a ring on his son's finger. Put sandals on his feet. Kill the fatted calf. Let us eat and celebrate! My son was dead, but he is alive! My son was lost, but he is found.
            If Jesus had stuck with the formula of the first two parables, this would have been the ending. But this third parable takes a different and unexpected twist. This was a father with two sons. The younger was home again, no longer dead but alive; no longer lost but found. But there was an elder brother. The elder brother came in from working in the fields, and he heard the music and dancing. He asked a slave what was going on, why the celebration? When the slave told him, the older brother was furious. He refused to go inside and join the party His father came out to him and begged him to come inside. But the son answered his father's pleas with bitterness.
            "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!"
            But his father would not be deterred. "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."
            By all accounts, the eldest son has a valid point. The youngest son was selfish, not a good son, and not a very nice person. And the father was foolish. When his youngest son came demanding his inheritance, which was as good as saying, "Drop dead, Dad,” the foolish father gave it to him anyway. When the youngest son wasted everything he had been given and returned, tail between his legs, he should have been greeted with anger and disappointment. The father should have at least demanded that the son pay back all that he owed him. But that foolish father threw a party instead. Well of course the older son was angry. What reward did he receive for being the good kid? What parties were thrown in his honor because he did what was expected of him? This was a foolish father indeed. Had I been sitting with the others, Pharisees and tax collectors, scribes and sinners, I imagine I would have shaken my head at this foolish, foolish father.
            But remember how Jesus ended the first two parables? When a sheep was found, they all rejoiced. When a coin was reclaimed, they all rejoiced. But when this son, this father's child, was found, there was only anger and bitterness. The eldest son could hear the music and celebration, but he wouldn't, he couldn’t join the party.
            Jesus didn't tell parables as bedtime stories. He didn't tell parables to make those listening feel happy and warm. He told them to make a point. He told parables to surprise and shock and even dismay. This third parable, the one we most often call The Prodigal Son, is really about as shocking as they come. But we have heard it so many times that its shock value has become dulled. We've domesticated it to a nice story about a father forgiving a son.
            Yet how foolish was that father? He not only welcomed back this wasteful son with open arms, he gave him the means to be wasteful in the first place! He was foolish. He was as foolish as a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to look for the lost one. He was as foolish as a woman who had nine coins accounted for, but went through the entire house looking for the lost one. He was as foolish as a God who becomes human to gather up his lost people. He was as foolish as a savior who was willing to die on a cross.
            That's the thing about grace. It's not only unfair, it seems downright foolish. Yet how grateful we are for such foolishness when we are on the receiving end of grace. What I've learned in my life is that the line between prodigal and eldest son is a fine one. I have been that prodigal, astounded at being welcomed home with open arms. I have been that youngest son, celebrating and rejoicing at the grace and forgiveness that's been given me. I have been lost and I have been found. But almost in the same breath, I can easily become the eldest brother; angry and insulted that foolish grace is shown to someone else so undeserving of it. In fact, I think I've been the eldest brother more often than I've been the prodigal. I know there are places and circumstances in my life now where the eldest brother reigns.
            Here's the thing. The father welcomed his lost son home with open arms, whether it was foolish or not. It was his choice. The eldest son also had a choice. He could forgive his younger brother. He could forgive his father's foolishness. He could join the party. The only thing keeping him out of the celebration was him.
            Of the three parables, this one is left unresolved. We don't know what choice the older brother made. We don't know what happened next. It seems to me that that was the point. Jesus told this parable and left it unresolved and unfinished because it was up to his listeners to finish it for themselves. What choice would the Pharisees and the scribes and all of the other so-called righteous people make? What choice will we make? Will we show others the foolish grace shown us? Or will we refuse to forgive the wrongs done to us? Will we hold onto the bitterness and anger we feel? We can hear the music, we know there is dancing, but will we join the party?
            Let all of God's children say, "Amen."