Sunday, March 31, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Idle Tales of Immortality"

Luke 24:1-12

Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They didn’t know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. 5 The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Human One[a] must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words. 9 When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. 11 Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. 12 But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened. (CEB)

Easter 2013

The nine of us American missionaries stood in a semi-circle around our tour guide, a nurse at the HIV/AIDS clinic in this small town in KwaZulu-Natal, the region in eastern South Africa, not far from the coast of the Indian Ocean, which of all the regions in the country had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS.  We had come bearing some supplies for her clinic, but we had also come here to educate ourselves, to learn about the force of this plague that had been set in motion halfway around the world.  She fielded our questions gamely but somberly…
How many people in South Africa have AIDS?  About 5.5 million.

How many of them die?  About 900 every day.

And the question that I remember as the one that felt like an ice pick driven through my heart:

How many of the HIV tests that you administer at this clinic come back positive?  About 90%.

And all of this was happening in a country where, that very year, the national government’s minister of health publicly claimed that a diet of garlic, lemons, and olive oil can cure HIV.

I had braced myself for this mission.  I had some semblance of an idea in my head of what I might be facing, but nothing—nothing at all—could have prepared me…or anyone, really.

Because I was, in a manner, doing exactly what Jesus’ female disciples are doing here, in Luke’s Gospel, which is what the angels accuse them of when they encounter the empty tomb:

Why are you looking for the living among the dead?

Luke does not record what answer, if any, the women give.  But I can imagine what it might be:

We are looking for the Christ.  We thought that He would be here.  We came to honor Him.

It was why I was in Africa that summer myself.  I was looking for Jesus.  I had hoped to find Him there.  I thought He would be there, and that I could honor Him by being there.

Jesus WAS there, but my mistake in having that attitude was in the assumption that the world contained, offered, and promised only death.  Who goes on mission to where there is no need?

No, we go where we are sent, where we are called, precisely because of the possibility of transformation, the transformation of sinner into saint, of broken into redeemed, and of, ultimately, death into life.  We plunge forward into our lives with the expectation that every day will, in exchange for our time and energy that we give it, do something or offer something to make us better people and to make our lives more  worth living.

It is why, I have to think, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James go to the tomb as soon as the Sabbath is over.  They brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body with as a gesture of their reverence; that task does, in a manner, offer something to make them better people—there is, I am sure, emotional significance to this as well, and might be meant to help heal them in their own grieving and mourning, much like how we may visit the grave of a loved one today.

But we all know what happens next.  They find the stone rolled away and the body gone.

Do you remember what happens the moment that Jesus dies on Good Friday?

The curtain of the Jerusalem temple is torn asunder.

The curtain that is meant to separate the Holy of Holies, the innermost room where God Himself is said to dwell on earth, from the rest of all creation.  The room was so revered that only one person—the High Priest (Caiaphas)—could enter the room, and only then, just once a year.

The boundary between heaven and earth, between sacred and profane, between holy and worldly, is ripped in two the moment that Jesus dies.  The final boundary between us and God is no more.  No more do we have to wait once a year for only one man to stand in God’s presence.

And here, the stone being rolled away stands in mirror image to the temple curtain.  Because just as the temple curtain being torn in two means that heaven has re-entered earth, so too does the stone being rolled away mean that Jesus has, quite literally, pushed aside the finality of death.

It is not enough for Him to simply disappear from the tomb and reappear outside of it, like a Harry Potter character apparating and disapparting from place to place.

No, instead, Jesus chooses to demonstrate exactly what has just happened.

But as Luke says, the women do not understand all of this, and so two angels appear, and ask them that powerful, fateful, life-changing, world-upside-down-turning question.

Why are you looking for the living among the dead?

More to the point, why do you look for the dead when death was just rolled aside like a stone?

And the light bulb goes on.  They remember Jesus’ words, they remember what He had taught about His death and resurrection, and they go to tell the Eleven everything they had just seen.

And I love this part—the Eleven view the words of these women as, depending on your translation, either “nonsense” or “tall tales” or, my favorite version, “idle tales.”

Keep in mind that the male disciples have not been seen from or heard from since Thursday night.  They all desert Jesus and flee, and the one episode we have of them is a shameful one—Peter denying his relationship with Jesus.

The female disciples, by contrast, stay with Jesus to the very end—they are present even at the Crucifixion, presumably because in that day and age, they were not seen as a threat like the male disciples would have been and so were allowed to be there.

And in Luke’s Gospel, it is they, not the male disciples, who journey to the empty tomb as soon as the Sabbath is over to anoint His body and pay their respects.

So the male disciples considering the words of their female counterparts to be “idle tales” should strike us as particularly rich.  Never mind the fact that the guys were also there for the resuscitation of Jairus’s daughter, and for the raising of Lazarus, and that maybe, just maybe, we were hoping that the mustard seed of faith had grown in each of them just a little bit.

As it turns out, it does, for one of them—for Peter.  He goes to the tomb himself and sees “only the linen cloth.”  Just in case the rolled-away stone wasn’t a big enough clue, this is another.  Jesus is like Hansel and Gretel here, leaving bread crumbs to show exactly what has happened.  Just as the rolled-away stone mirrors the torn temple curtain, so too does the left-behind linen cloth mirror the rolled-away stone.  The linen cloth was, essentially, Jesus’ burial shroud.  And it, too, is left behind.  The trappings of death are left behind in the promise of immortality.

So why do we, too, seek for the living among the dead?  We can take the so-called “idle tales” of the female disciples as our own invitation.  We have now been told the truth of what has just happened, and we too can be as Peter and beat a path for the promise of immortality.  As the late, great Harvard theologian Peter Gomes put it, “Easter is not just about Jesus; it is about you.  He has already claimed His new life, now is your chance to claim yours.”

Now is your chance, your moment in time to take that mission trip to the door of the dead in search of what still lives.  And what still lives is your connection with the God who made you.

Because there is no creation without at some point later having to renew that very same creation. Just like there is now no death without life, there is now no judgment without grace, and there is now no human life without the possibility of eternal immortality, because life and love eternal have finally conquered earthly death.

The empty tomb itself is something of a one-off.  Never before or since have we seen a man rise from the house of the dead, having been gone three days, of his own accord.  But what the empty tomb offers…well, that, much like God Himself, is pure eternal promise.

God created you, and now, today, God seeks to renew you.  Your journey is not yet over.  Your faith is not yet finished.  For God’s love for you has just been demonstrated in the best way that He knew how—to take the gift of His Son that we so selfishly and short-sightedly cast aside just three days prior, and to give that gift new life, to give us the second chance of all second chances of every hope of our place in Heaven, alongside the Risen Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 31, 2013

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday 2013 Sermon

“History’s Outcome,” Mark 15:1-39

The brand-new—and far too young—widow of a state trooper knew something about her now-deceased husband, Drew, that most of the world yet did not: that he had planned to one day, after retirement, attend seminary and become an ordained minister.  And so within a year of his death, she had, in turn, enrolled in seminary part-time whilst also raising their four children so that she might one day become an ordained minister herself.

While at seminary, she had a conversation with one of her classmates that went something like this, as written by Rev. Kate Braestrup in her 2007 memoir, Here If You Need Me:

I admitted that if Drew hadn’t died, I probably would never have become a minister.

“You see!” she responded brightly.  “God knew what He was doing!”

This is the sort of remark that, however common, makes me despair of Christianity’s ability to respond in any helpful or sensible way to the reality of death.

“Surely, God was not so urgently in need of Unitarian Universalist ministers that He needed to kill a father of four in order to make one?” I retorted in what was probably an unnecessarily icy voice.

Death alters the reality of our lives; the death of an intimate changes it completely.  No part of my life, from my most ethereal notions of God to the most mundane detail of tooth brushing, was the same after Drew died.

Death alters the reality of our lives.  It’s hard to arrive at a simpler truth.  It’s almost on the level of saying that one plus one equals two.  Death changes things.  And yet, though our Christian faith is fundamentally influenced by the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Pastor Kate has a very real truth for us: We are not always equipped to respond well to death’s reality.  And that’s what I want to talk with all of you about for a little bit: how we can respond to the reality of the death that Good Friday places right in front of our eyes, and how our response can redeem us.

I would like to extend my deep gratitude to our hosts, the people of Community Christian Church, and especially to their pastoral staff, Pastors John Williams, Phil Rushton, and Chris Lyons, all of whom do amazing ministry in our community.  I would also like to thank Pastor Jerry Dalhke of Northgate City Church for introducing me, and to thank Pastor Mark Schmutz of Northlake Baptist Church, who, in wearing the hat of president of the local ministerial association, invited me to deliver the message at this year’s Good Friday service.

When Pastor Mark invited me to do so, he said that there was a hope to hear a younger voice and perspective on the Crucifixion of our Lord.  And I warned Mark, “You do realize that I don’t have any hair, right?”  And on top of that, I’m nearsighted, with a back and knees that do not always cooperate.  You know that awful Jennifer Garner movie from several years ago, “Thirteen Going on Thirty?”  Well, I’m twenty-seven going on seventy.

But I have noticed that my age is a factor in my ministry.  I serve a Messiah who was not much older than I am now when He ministered, taught, healed, and, ultimately, died.  It helps put things in perspective.  And perspective is a tricky thing in church.  One of my favorite Christian writers is the blogger Jon Acuff, who wrote a book called, simply, “Stuff Christians Like.”  And one of those things he wrote about that Christians like is, “tuning out if the minister is younger than you.”  And part of what he says is, “Please don’t use that phrase that all young ministers bust out.  Please don’t say, oh no, you just did.  You just said, ‘When I was growing up.’”

Well, when I was growing up—way, way back in the early 90’s—I had a particular children’s Bible that had a picture of the Crucifixion that just scared the dickens out of me (see, I told you I was old at heart.  Who under the age of thirty uses that expression anymore?).  It was a vivid, harrowing picture of the Crucifixion that really does mess with your little-kid imagination.

And so began a series of nightmares in which I dreamt that Jesus was being crucified every night on the other side of our garage.  I know that sounds.  But it terrified me as a kid, this possibility that I would round that corner of my parents’ house and I’d find Jesus there, dying and crucified.

Maybe that’s when I should have known that was fated to be a preacher.

It’s a remarkable thing, though, the imagination—it can inspire us to dream dreams, and it can wreak havoc with our psyches by causing us to think up the absolute worst case scenario.

And it’s hard to come up with a worse-case scenario than this if you’re a disciple of Jesus, because while we have the benefit of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they don’t.  Yes, Jesus does prophesy His death and resurrection repeatedly.  But think if you were actually there, a part of His roadshow, and sure, you have seen healings and exorcisms and public debates and heard sermons and parables galore, but all of that is small potatoes compared to a resurrection.

For we know the disciples probably this sort of skepticism or reluctance—it is Jesus’ first prediction of the Passion in Mark 9 that prompts Peter to protest, and for Jesus to famously respond with the words, “Get behind me, Satan!”  We know that there’s something about this whole crucifixion-followed-by-resurrection scheme that the disciples just aren’t on board with.

So, again, imagine being there—you have followed this itinerant Messiah-slash-carpenter-slash-rabbi for up to three years, and he has been captured, and fearing for your safety, you have fled.  If we continued in Mark’s account, we would see that many of Jesus’ female followers very bravely remained with Him to the very end, but by this point in the story, the Twelve have abandoned Him—Mark writes in 14:50 that at Gethsemane, they deserted Jesus and fled.

So your Lord and Savior is captive.  You know that at least one of the Twelve in your inner circle is a mole.  You may have had doubts about this whole Passion thing to begin with.  And you’re on the lam.  You’re probably feeling like this is absolute rock bottom for you, and if your faith was at an all-time low, I certainly would not blame you.  Your imagination is probably running haywire right now, fueled by paranoia and fear of what might happen to you, and probably running through all of the worst-case scenarios like those little yellow survival books that became so popular.  But unfortunately for you, there’s no an entry in any of those books entitled, “How to Survive When Your Messiah Has Just Been Captured and Hastily Sentenced to Crucifixion.”

There is no how-to guide, there is no manual on how to spiritually survive Good Friday. 

And if I’m honest, I think it’s because we aren’t supposed to.  Like I said at the very beginning, we are not always equipped to respond well to the reality of death.

And just because we know what lies around the corner does not mean that we can hit the fast-forward button to get there quicker.  Because just as Jesus physically died, so too did His followers, I am sure, spiritually die.  Their hearts broke, their souls ached, their lives longed for who—and what—had just been forcibly and violently taken from them.

So think of those who maybe weren’t aware of Jesus’ teaching of the Resurrection and of what is about to happen—or those who were there to hear it but in the midst of trying simply to survive have all but pushed aside those teachings.  Try to put yourself in the eye of that hurricane.

The University of Colorado religious historian Richard Wunderli puts it thus: “As participants in our own history, we cannot know its outcome or how it will be explained in the future.”

We cannot know history’s outcome.  We cannot know the outcome any more than a well-meaning seminary classmate trying to comfort a widow by pretending to know the outcome.

And deep in the maelstrom of a betrayal and an arrest and a show trial and finally, a public execution, how many of the people affected by this singular event could not possibly know of its ultimate outcome?  And not just the disciples, either—but the Pharisees.  The scribes.  The Sadducees.  Governor Pilate.  Caiaphas.  Annas.  Herod.  Anyone.

Mark tells us that there is one.  He was not one of Jesus’ followers.  He has no name.  We know him only by his military rank: the centurion.  Our portion of Mark’s Gospel with his exclamation: “Surely this man was God’s Son!”  If you flip through the rest of Mark’s Gospel, you’ll notice that he is the first person to correctly refer to Jesus as God’s Son aside from Jesus Himself.  Not even the Twelve speak of Jesus in such a way in Mark’s telling of the Gospel.

The weight of the centurion’s perspective is perhaps best stated by the Bible scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan:

(The centurion) is the first human in Mark’s Gospel to call Jesus “God’s Son.”  Not even Jesus’ followers speak of Him this way in Mark’s story.

That this exclamation comes from a centurion is very significant.  According to Roman imperial theology, the emperor was “Son of God”—the revelation of God’s power and will for the earth.  According to the very same theology, the emperor was Lord, Savior, and the one who had brought peace on earth.  But now, a representative of Rome affirms that this man, Jesus, executed by the empire, is the Son of God.  Thus, the emperor is not.  In the exclamation of the centurion responsible for Jesus’ execution, who saw Him up close, empire testifies against itself.

In other words, everything about the world that conspired to kill Jesus—the earthly power it took to shamefully dispose of a man whose teachings threatened everything about the way this broken little world is—a representative of that sinfulness recognizes its own culpability in Jesus’ death.

It is where our redemption begins.

Our redemption begins with the anonymous centurion.  And precisely because anonymity is his name, he can be anyone.  He can even be us, if we let ourselves, like him, recognize what has truly happened on this day, with the bravery and courage difficult for us to fathom today.  After all, this is a centurion speaking treason against his emperor.  This is a centurion believing despite probably being taught to despise this God on whose behalf Jesus is.  This is a centurion believing while almost certainly NOT knowing for sure what comes next.  This is a centurion believing despite what consequences he might be able to imagine comes next.  That can be us as well!

It is where our redemption begins.

We cannot know history’s outcome.  And we cannot know how it will be explained in the future.

I am almost certain that this centurion, even with his sudden recognition, could have known how all of this would turn out, or just how Christianity would be explained in the future, as a faith adhered to by literally billions of people.  He has no incentive to be on the right side of history’s outcome, and yet he is because he lets this experience trump what he had surely been taught.

We cannot know history’s outcome.  And we cannot know how it will be explained in the future.

But what we can know is the outcome of our own redemption.

We can know it because the centurion knows what the outcome is.

We can know it because the church can teach us what the outcome is.

And we can know it because God calls each of us to that outcome of our own redemption—a right relationship, built upon and strengthened by love, and grace, and mercy with our Creator, who gave us His only Son and when we threw that gift away by killing Him, forgave us for it.

And what is at long last recognized here, at the cross, by an anonymous, faceless, soldier, is that there is an outcome of grace that is present.

I can imagine God, even whilst grieving Jesus’s death, saying, “At last, someone understands!”

At last, at last, at last, may we understand the depth of God’s grace as well.  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 29, 2013

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column + April Preaching Schedule

(Editorial note: Since this is Holy Week/Holy Moly Week/Holy Cow Week/etc., the next post I likely will have time for will be Friday--I have been invited to deliver the message at our citywide Good Friday service, and I'll be posting that sermon on Friday after the service.  As always, the upcoming sermon schedule is included in italics after my column so that you can follow along if you'd like; the new sermon series looks at how different followers of Jesus reacted to the news of the empty tomb and Resurrection, and how we can relate to their reactions today!  Am really looking forward to it!  Holy week blessings to all of you! -E.A.)

April 2013: 'Our Way”

Dear Church,

I read a rather funny news article last week—apparently, a prosecutor in Ohio has filed charges against Punxsutawney Phil—the national groundhog of Groundhog Day.  You see, Phil predicted an early spring this year.  But as I am sure you can attest to based on the wacky weather we have had in March, spring was not quite so quick in arriving!  This was the case for much of the country—obviously—and so a local prosecutor in Ohio, as a publicity gag, decided to indict Phil on charges of perpetrating a fraud upon the American public.

And sure, it’s good for a laugh or three, but it’s also a bit odd—suing a groundhog because our least favorite season didn’t exit stage right quick enough for our tastes!  If something doesn’t quite go our way, we seek to change it or mess with it any way we can.

There is a (rather derogatory) term for folks like that in the church: “Burger King Christians” (so called because they want “to have it their way”).  It is a charge we are probably pretty susceptible to: we like having things our way, and especially in an arena that means so much to us—like church—that desire is often compounded.

But church is much like the changing of the seasons—we are not meant to have it our way, we are meant to be resilient, to roll with the punches, and to have faith that just as around the corner from winter comes spring, so too around the corner from the Cross comes the Resurrection!

After all, as the old adage goes, good things come to those who wait.  Let us continue forward in our lives together as a church with faith not in our own timetables, but in God’s timetable.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

April 2013 Preaching Schedule:

April 7: “We Are Legion,” Mark 5:1-9
April 14: Rev. John Steppert, guest preaching

New Sermon Series, Easter 2013: “Reactions to the Resurrection: Our Biblical Alter Egos”

April 21: “Am I Mary?” Mark 16:1-8
April 28: “Am I Cleopas?” Luke 24:13-24

Sunday, March 24, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Stones of Silence, Stones of Speech"

Luke 19:29-40

29 As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. 30 He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’” 32 Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They replied, “Its master needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. 36 As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road. 37 As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. 38 They said, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” 39 Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.” (CEB)

Palm Sunday 2013

The old Crusader city of Acre is such a stunning artifact.  Nestled on a tiny little piece of land that juts out into the Mediterranean sea, it was built to be a stronghold of the Latin Christians who had gone on the medieval-era Crusades.  Much of the structure and buildings survives to this day today, with the walls still acting as a barrier, demarcating old from new but also marking off where the Arab population of Acre generally lives, cloistered off in an ancient city from the rest of the town around them.

And with the Arab population came a wide religious diversity to the Jewish city of Acre—of course there are mosques to serve the needs of Muslims, but there are also Christian churches and Baha’i centers as well.  And during my second week there while on an archeological dig and pilgrimage in 2010, I realized something—you could actually climb the stone walls of the old city.  And so I did, and walking along the parapets of the Crusader walls, I snapped several photos of the old city’s skyline with my super-deluxe disposable camera.

But I also noticed a funny thing—the skyline wasn’t like most skylines.  And I don’t mean in the sense of, it lacked the skyscrapers of, say, a Manhattan or a Los Angeles.  For a city build, literally, almost a thousand years ago, that’s a given.

No, it’s that the highest points I saw were all part of religious buildings—the steeple of a Christian church, the minaret of a Muslim mosque, the tall slanted or domed roofs of more churches and mosques…it was like each religion had endeavored to build its own Tower of Babel—you know, the story in Genesis where humanity says to itself, “Hey, you know what would be a really swell idea? If we built a tower that reached to Heaven.”  And of course, it turns into a giant farce because God declares the idea dead-on-arrival by giving everyone different languages so that nobody working on the tower can understand each other.

And that’s what I saw basically going on in  Israel—each religion building a Tower of Babel—or several—and all the while, doing so while speaking a different language than all the others.  It really is remarkable—the more things change, the more things stay the same (does that make me sound old?)

But that is also what we have here in the story of Palm Sunday—people trying to reach for God but not always speaking the same language.  Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is depicted by Mark, Matthew, and Luke—whose version we will be studying today.  And it’s pretty standard fare—Jesus sends His disciples to Jerusalem to boost a colt from its rightful owner (you think “grand theft donkey” was a thing back then?  Imagine if we used that excuse today… “Hey, where are you taking those bags of money?!” “The Lord needs it!” Yeah, that’ll end well).

The disciples come back with the hot-wired…I mean borrowed…donkey, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem as crowds of people gather to shout Hosannas to His name and to literally lay down their clothing on the ground before Him so that Jesus does not have to ride in the dust and dirt.

Now, there are two perspectives in this event—Jesus Himself, and the crowd.  This is what I noted in my Palm Sunday sermon last year about Jesus’ possible intentions or motives:

I really worry that Jesus would come back, see what we are doing, and just say, “What the heck?  I never did it like that!  Is this some kind of spoof that’s going on Youtube as soon as this is over?”  I tend to worry that when we try to re-enact the Bible today, we sometimes come so far from the mark that what we end up creating isn’t an homage (or church), it’s a parody.

And, in some respects, us doing Palm Sunday is a parody of a parody.  The triumphal entry of a hero into a city would have been nothing new to Jerusalem in the time of Jesus—Alexander the Great held one such entry when he conquered Babylon, for instance, 300-some years before Jesus.  But such spectacles were reserved for kings, rulers, emperors, or their proxies—the people who represented imperial power to the masses—and certainly not reserved for a humble Jewish carpenter.  But those emperors, governors, and soldiers, they would have entered the city on their finest horse, not a donkey or a poor little colt—it would be like President Obama pulling up somewhere in a motorcade made up entirely of clown cars!

And so while scholars agree that Jesus riding in on the animal that He did was meant to fulfill Scripture and to fulfill prophesy (Zechariah 9:9), many will also say that there is a certain amount of theatrics that Jesus is employing here.  It is a spoof of the Roman power-that-be whom Jesus, or the Jewish rank-and-file population of Judea, probably didn’t much care for.  If Jon Stewart and The Daily Show were around back then, this entry by Jesus might have been something that they would have concocted!

In other words, Jesus is satirizing His earthly overlords, the Roman Empire.  He’s discrediting them publicly, something He has been so very good at doing time and again with the Roman Empire’s local puppets, the Pharisees and the scribes.

And on the other side of this, you have the Jerusalem people themselves.  And I’m not sure that they got the memo that this might have been a satirical stunt.  Notably, there are no palms in Luke’s version—seriously, go back and read it if you don’t believe me.  There are no palms.

Why is this important?  Because olive palms in particular are a symbol associated with victory, the exact same way a gold medal is today.  In the ancient Greek Olympics, victors would be awarded with, among other things, a wreath of olive laurels that they’d wear around their head.  You’ve probably seen pictures of that.  And that tradition carried over, in a manner, to Roman tradition in that victorious rulers or generals might also have palms to greet them, either as a wreath or to wave at him, when he entered a newly-conquered city as part of a victory parade.

Instead, people sacrifice their clothing for Jesus’ mount to have something to trod on, and they shout praises to His name.  In other words, this is the real deal for them.  Even if for Jesus this is a farcical poke-in-the-eye to the powers-that-be, for the people, this is real.  So you see…they are speaking two different languages, Jesus and the people.

But Jesus rolls with it when the Pharisees come a-knocking and tell Him to instruct the crowd to pipe down.  And I love this—Jesus says that even if the people were silent, the stones around them would begin to shout out those very same praises.

I love it because Jesus saying this is a subtle tribute to the man who came before him whom the powers-that-be have already disposed of: John the Baptist.  In Luke’s accounting of John the Baptist’s ministry, way back in Luke 3, he quotes John the Baptist as saying, “And don’t even think to yourselves of saying, ‘Abraham is our father.’  I tell you that God is able to raise up children of Abraham even from these stones.’”  In other words, “Don’t think you’re a special little snowflake just because Abraham is your ancestor.  God can call anything He wants to be a child of His.”

And that is, in so many words, what Jesus is saying—even if the people were not here to take Him seriously and praise Him and shout Hosannas to Him, even the stones, He says, would take on this role of welcoming Him in to Jerusalem, even though they neither live nor speak.  It reinforces a central theme of Luke’s Gospel: the message is for everyone.  And here, Jesus, in keeping with his ridiculous sort of satire, takes it even further: the message is for EVERYTHING, even those things that aren’t alive—I mean, talking rocks?  C’mon.  We don’t say that the message is for chairs or tables or light bulbs.  That’s too silly.  That’s too incredible.  That’s too radical.

But that’s also the true power of God, right?  To take that which might not otherwise hear a word of grace or of mercy, and to transform it into something that not only will do so, but which will also express thanksgiving and praise for having done so.

It’s a new language.

It’s a new language that we, like the stones themselves, begin not knowing how to speak.

But over the course of this Passion week, may we learn how to speak it.  And may we then begin to do so—to not only speak the language of grace and mercy and love, but to sing it, to shout it out, to declare it from the rooftops to whoever will hear:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

Hosanna, hosanna in excelsis, indeed!

By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 24, 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Rob Bell and What Constitutes "Accountability"

I was introduced to the work of Rob Bell, the evangelical superstar and founding pastor of the Grand Rapids, Michigan megacurch Mars Hill Bible Church, a few years ago by Russ, my senior pastor at FCC Concord during my days as a student associate.

I have since read most of Rob Bell's books (though not his latest, which was just released about a week ago), and to be honest, I never quite got the huge kerkuffle that was raised over his previous book, Love Wins, in which he suggested that universal reconciliation--the idea that all people can one day be brought into right relationship with God--might be something we as Christians should wish for.    The thing is, Bell himself said he is not necessarily a universalist, only that a Christian should be able to leave room for uncertainty about it.  So, again, I'm not quite getting what the deal was.  I think Rob Bell was right--I SHOULD want everyone to be reconciled to God.  Do I think it will happen?  Probably not--I think there are truly terrible, horrible people who, because of their actions and crimes against God and humanity, have demonstrated that they have no interest in a right relationship with God, and that they have elected to remain separated from God, which is what I believe Hell to be.  But I should hope for them to be reconciled nonetheless.

Yet, for that book--and subsequent stepping down from Mars Hill--he was proverbially taken out back and shot by some of the very same churchwide superstars who were earlier elevating his platform and singing his praises.  Many, such as Rick Warren, criticized Rob Bell for leaving a mechanism of accountability in being a church pastor.  I kind of have a problem with that mentality.

Yes, a church should provide accountability, but a denomination should provide greater accountability.  One of the great things that worries me about the rise of "nondenominational" megachurches is that while there may--or may not--be internal accountability mechanisms, there is seldom any external accountability mechanisms.

As the pastor of a church within a denomination, I have both.  I report to my congregation's Board of Directors, but I also answer to my Regional Minister, Sandy Messick.  And I need both.  Only internal accountability doesn't always work--just ask megachurch pastors like Eddie Long.  Only external accountability doesn't always work--just ask the Roman Catholic Church.

But I worry that simply relying on the congregation for accountability is, especially in the personality-driven world of megachurches, a farce.  Trust me, there are churches out there whose boards are little more than rubber stamps for whatever the senior/lead pastor wants.  And trust me, your pastor--whoever s/he is--knows that such churches exist as well.

So let's dispense with that pretense of accountability and get at what these fellas are really saying: that churches should be using wisdom of the crowds to keep their pastor's theology in line.  Which definitely happened in Rob Bell's case--estimates range over how many people Mars Hill lost in the wake of Love Wins, but those estimates were generally in the thousands.

And sure, people have a right to worship where they choose.  But honestly, part of me does have a real problem with that.  The Word of God is not something that can always be determined by majority vote (you know, the Council of Nicea notwithstanding ;-) ).  And the thing is--we see it elsewhere, in other fields.  Professors might receive tenure for the sake of academic freedom.  Judges might receive appointments for the sake of not being subject to elections.

In other words, we don't always ask for a show of hands.  And when it comes to something like our salvation--our reconciliation with God--I am REALLY glad that we don't ask for a show of hands.  Because there are still, sadly, many Christians who would argue that gays and lesbians in active relationships are condemned to hell.

So, I'm glad that they don't get to vote on that.  I'm comforted knowing that God decides that, not us.

And I get that sentiment from Rob Bell as well when he very recently revealed that he was in favor of marriage equality.

For which I am gratified and grateful.

And, for which I am also reminded of a reality that Christians can be exceptionally nasty to one another over extraordinarily trivial things.  I remember being told once (though I honestly can't remember by who), something along the lines of: "We accept pluralism over a wide variety of issues and still say that someone is a Christian: you can be Arminian or Calvinist, Protestant or Catholic, this or that.  But as soon as you say that you are for marriage equality, well, that's a dealbreaker."

It's the folly of inventing our own orthodoxy that, surprise surprise, conforms entirely to our own politics.

If we asked for a show of hands two hundred years ago, slavery would still be divinely-approved.

If we took a vote one hundred years ago, segregation would still be ordained by God.

And I'm pretty sure that in a decade or three, people will look back on how we as Christians have treated the rights of our gay and lesbian neighbors and wished that we hadn't taken the votes we had as well.

As Rob Bell put it, that ship is sailing.

Are you ready?

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, March 17, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Two Sons"

Luke 15:25-32

25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’” (CEB)

“Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables,” Week Five

As the Christian writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans tells this story in her recent book A Year of Biblical Womanhood:

There is an old Jewish folktale about a man who went out into the world in search of true justice…(and) at last e came upon a small cottage.  Through the windows, he spied the warm glow of candles.  “Perhaps I will find justice here,” he thought to himself.

The moment he entered the cottage, the man realized that it was enchanted, for it expanded in size to become much bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside.  His eyes widened as he realized the cavernous expanse was filled with hundreds of shelves, holding thousands upon thousands of oil candles.  Some of the candles sat in fine holders of marble and gold, while others sat in holders of clay or tin.  Some were filled with oil so that the flames burned as brightly as the stars, while others had little oil left, and were beginning to grow dim.  The man felt a hand on his shoulder.  He turned to find an old man with a long, white beard and wearing a white robe standing beside him.

“I have traveled the world searching for justice,” he said, “but I have never encountered a place like this.  Tell me, what are all these candles for?”

The old man replied, “Each of these candles is a person’s soul.  As long as a person’s candle burns, they remain alive.  When their candle burns out, the soul is taken away from this world.”

“Can you show me the candle of my soul?” the traveler asked.

“Follow me,” the old man replied, leading his guest through a labyrinth of rooms and shelves, passing row after row of candles.  After what seemed like a long time, they reached a small shelf that held a candle in a holder of clay.

“That is the candle of your soul,” the old man said.

Immediately, a wave of fear rushed over the traveler, for the wick of the candle was short and the oil nearly dry.  Was his life almost over?  Did he have but moments to live?  He then noticed that the candle next to his had a long wick and a holder filled with oil.  The flame burned brightly, like it could go on forever.

“Whose candle is that?” the traveler asked.  But the old man had disappeared.

The traveler stood there trembling, terrified that his life might be cut short before he found justice.  The old man was nowhere to be seen, so the traveler picked up the brightly burning candle and lifted it above his own in order to pour the oil from one holder to another.  Suddenly, he felt a strong grip on his arm.

“Is this the kind of justice you are seeking?” the old man asked.  The traveler had searched for justice in the great wide world, but never within himself.

It is the same question we should be asking the elder son in this parable: is this the kind of justice you are seeking?  Yet we cannot, because if we are honest with ourselves, we are the elder son.

With Lent as a new season in the church’s worship calendar, you may notice a few things different—we hang purple, we draw the curtains on our baptistry’s portrait of Jesus, and, naturally, we begin another sermon series.  This sermon series takes us through the 40 days of Lent to Holy Week—the week of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday that is the most important time in the Christian calendar (yes, I dare say, more important than Christmas!).  And Lent traditionally is meant to be a time of reflection and repentance as we do some even more intensive-than-usual soul-searching in preparation for what will eventually be the empty tomb.  And so we’ll be using this year’s Lenten season to walk verse-by-verse through the three parables that make up the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  These stories all have a common theme of being “lost and found,” so to speak, but there is a much larger dimension at work here—Jesus is telling these parables to the scribes and Pharisees—as Luke writes, “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.””  And what Jesus is responding with, in so many words is, “Yes, because it isn’t just about you!”

This final scene in both Luke 15 and in the parable of the prodigal son reads somewhat like an epilogue.  The way the immediate previous verse, v. 24, ends is with these words: “and they began to celebrate.”  It harkens back to the two previous parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin: both of those stories end with celebration and rejoicing in what was lost and is now found.

But this story cannot be as those, because of the elder son.  He is left hanging there.  Resolution may have come between father and son, but not between father and THIS son, this son who has towed the line and done everything right and played his cards perfectly and now sees everybody going kookyboots because his daft, insolent, selfish, loser of a little brother came crawling back.

And that’s us.  That’s us to a tee.  Don’t we look around and say to ourselves, “Hey, I’m sure glad I’m not that jerk over there who’s doing this or doing that.  I still have a chance, but I KNOW he’s going to hell?”  Isn’t it the easy for us to empathize with the eldest son in this story?

And so the father asks his elder son, and so doing also asks us, “Is this the kind of justice you are seeking?”  Is retribution what you want for your brother, your kin, your flesh and your blood?

The rich, terrible irony of this question is that this question condemns the elder son vis-à-vis his father just as much as it does vis-à-vis his younger brother.  For, just before their argument, the text reads in verse 28, “He didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him.”

Now, remember last week’s message: the father in this story clearly represents God.  And the elder son is making his father beg him to include his prodigal brother in the family again.  It is like us making God beg to us to include the “other,” all those sinners we’d just as soon avoid.

To compound the profound wrong of what we are doing by excluding the others, we are also doing wrong by God by expecting that He beg us to do the right thing, when God doesn’t beg.

That takes both an incredible and a very human amount of hubris.

And so by forcing the reversal of roles—or at least the putting of a father into a role he should never, ever, have to embody—the elder son is, like his prodigal brother was in demanding his inheritance, being brutally disrespectful towards his father.

And the father is saying, in so many words, to his son, “Don’t you get it?  Your brother lives!”

In other words—your brother is here, with me.  Just like you.  You two are alike just this once!

And the nagging truth is that these two sons are, in fact, not so different—they are here with their father, but they have also disrespected their father.

It would gall the elder brother, I am sure, to be told that he is behaving like his younger brother.

And you know what…it galls us when we are ever told that we are acting like the people we otherwise would look down upon or disapprove of.  Especially when it happens to be true.

Two sons…one representing the way of the tax collector and the sinner, and one representing the way of the Pharisee and the scribe.

And both are sources of compassion and hope from the father.  He still appreciates both sons.

It is one of the most terrible paradoxes of our faith—we are called to be unceasingly pure and faithful, but it is not, will not, and cannot ever be enough to deserve more love than another.

Grace does not work like that.  Which means neither too, in all likelihood, does God.

Yet we still arrogantly and misguidedly expect Him to comport to all our expectations of who He is…which, more often than not, are that He would be an idealized version of ourselves.

But in our heart of hearts, we must know that this is not so.  God is what God is…that is what He says to Moses: I am what I am.  I will be what I will be.

The elder son had to learn this lesson the hard way.  We are fortunate.  We have a Messiah who teaches us these lessons if only we were to truly lend an ear and listen for His voice.

By God’s grace, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 17, 2013

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The First American Pope

(or, simply, Pope Francis--we don't know if there will ever be a second Francis...)

As y'all are surely aware, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have elected a new pope--Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit priest from Argentina, who will go  by the regnal name of Francis.  Now, as a programming note, I do have a follow-up post to Tuesday's discussion on the local controversy over Christian invocations at our city council meetings, but that will likely have to wait for next week.  This is, as Joe Biden might say, a BFD.

I call Francis the first American pope in the title of this post because he hails from the Americas--as opposed to simply the United States.  It is important for me to remember as an "American" that my neighbors belong to the same hemisphere I do, and that my name is theirs' as well.

But that symbolism aside, I am very much heartened by Francis's election.  He looks to be as doctrinaire as Benedict XVI was on matters of sexual morality and family values, and it is true that I will not always agree with him on all of those things.

But holy cow, what a change in the tone of ministry!

Benedict--who I have criticized at times here on this blog for being out-of-touch--was in many ways a theologian first and a pastor second.  That isn't a bad thing at all, if you're a university professor or a researcher or anything of the sort.  But it did make it difficult for me (and many others, I suspect) to hear and listen to Benedict, especially in comparison to his genial predecessor, John Paul II.  I don't say this to be anti-intellectual--I say this as someone who is reasonably intelligent (all things considered!) himself who had to realize as a teenager that he couldn't just skate through life on smarts alone.

Francis, on the other hand, as this Washington Post article puts it so well, "represents a flashback to an old-school view of the Catholic leaders as humble, soft-spoken clerics who walked among their flock and led by example."

For all of Benedict's intellectual strengths, he never came across as the type to walk among his flock.  He was set apart, first as prefect of the watchdog Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and then as pope.  The stories that are emerging of Francis as a down-to-earth, modest fellow who takes public transit, wears second-hand clothes, and forgoes official bishopric residences, strikes a very different--and, I think, necessary--tenor to the papacy.

I haven't mentioned yet the colossal sex abuse scandal and how Francis might approach it, but I do hope--similarly to other things I have noted here already--that he would prove to be less tone-deaf than Benedict in enforcing a very strict zero-tolerance policy, as opposed to taking the route of Benedict (and John Paul II before him) of giving pedophile-protecting prelates like Bernard Cardinal Law a plum retirement in Rome, far away from the law enforcement of the United States.  More than anything else, Francis cannot be seen as anything but uncompromisingly dedicated to ridding the Catholic church and its hierarchy of pedophiles and those who shield them from legal consequences.

Finally, I must confess that I take great optimism in the name that Francis chose for himself.  The Vatican confirmed that Francis did so in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, himself an extremely humble and pious champion of the poor and the outcast.  Again, Benedict--for all his strengths--never measured up the way I truly wished he would in this regard: he always came across as more concerned with enforcing doctrine than with championing the least among us.  Which is very much understandable when you consider Benedict's previous gig as prefect of the CDF.  But being prefect of the CDF is very different from being pope, and relishing the doctrine rather than the people is not very pastoral in mine eyes.

These are all just a jumble of thoughts that I have had over the past 24 hours since Francis was elected.  My prayers are with him and with his entire flock.  May he serve the cause of Christ well and faithfully, with love and and compassion for his followers and non-followers alike.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On Public Displays of Piety

My little adopted hometown of Longview is garnering some serious press right now because the City Council has for many years invited clergy in the Kelso-Longview Ministerial Assocation (of which I am a member) to provide the opening invocation to all of their public council meetings.

Until now.

The leadership of the ministers' association was asked to make the invocations non-sectarian, which is to say to remove any exclusively Christian language and references to Jesus Christ.  In response, the association respectfully notified the council that they could no longer perform the invocation because they were being asked to stray from their core convictions as Christian pastors (a good summary of this story can be found in our local paper; the article is, I think, fair-minded in presenting both sides of the issue at hand--this is not a black-and-white sort of kerkuffle).

The story has been picked  up by news networks in Seattle and Portland as well as in Washington, D.C. because of the appearance of the stifling of religious speech.

And I get it--if I were to perform the invocation at a meeting myself, I would want to be able to invoke the name and presence of Jesus Christ.  I'm a Christian--He's who I believe in.  But I'm also not entirely on board with that take because it is incomplete--yes, religious speech is being stifled, but only government-sanctioned religious speech.  As a pastor in Longview, I am still free to say nearly anything I want on behalf of congregation (save for political endorsements, which would lose us our tax-exempt status, plus things like incitements to violence that aren't covered by the First Amendment).  I just can't say it on behalf of the city council.

And honestly, that's okay by me.  I am perfectly fine with people using religious ethics in policymaking.  In fact, I think they should.  Even though my theology is more orthodox, I am a political liberal precisely because I believe the Bible instructs me--and instructs our policy leaders--to care for the poor and the oppressed and the outcast.  I would be the world's biggest hypocrite if I denied my opposite numbers the ability to do the same on the issues they cared about.

But I am also a political liberal because I believe that ever since disestablishment--the removing of the church from any state apparatus (which is precisely what gives us the First Amendment protections of freedom of religious expression in the first place)--the government has had to step in to the void the church once had.  The church has lost great amounts of landed wealth since the medieval days of feudalism and mercantilism and could do more at that time, relatively speaking, for the abject poor.  Which means our government has had to step in to fill that breach with programs like Social Security, Medicare, EBT, and Medicaid (and honestly, we could be doing more).

Today, many churches are struggling simply to keep their doors open, never mind do mission on the same levels we once had.  And I'm not denying that there are other reasons for this--mismanagement, a complacency in not seeking to evangelize, etc.--but part of the cost of our freedom of religious expression means the absence of any universal financial backing for our mission and justice work.

Yet still, we try to publicly display our piety in governmental settings, even though the government is ostensibly non-sectarian.  We stamp God's name on Caesar's coins, we say His name in our pledge to a material flag, and we invoke His presence at governmental functions.

Yes, Paul in Romans commands us to be subject to our political authorities.  But that does not mean we should become the republic's priests, offering our presence as some sort theological stamp to whatever business is being done (full disclosure: which is why I myself have never offered the invocation at such a meeting, despite being invited to do so along with all the other ministers at the association meetings).  When I need to speak up about our government, whether to praise it or criticize it, I believe my words might mean more when I am seen apart from the government I am praising or criticizing.

Indeed, Scripture makes me wonder whether we are seeking the presence of God in our government in the wrong ways.

Instead of seeking God's presence in the public prayers we make--prayers that are arguably at odds with Scripture per Matthew 6--what if we were to seek God's presence in the public POLICY we make?  What if we actually used public policy to do that which God says is pleasing in His sight--to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him? (Micah 6:8)

Would the world look any different?

My prayer is that it would.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, March 10, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "...And Was Moved"

Luke 15:20-24

20 So he got up and went to his father. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (CEB)

“Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables,” Week Four

The only spot on her body not covered by either bruises or medical equipment was her cheek, and so that is what the young woman reached out for as she sat beside her cousin, who, despite two double lung transplants, was now slowly dying of cystic fibrosis at the age of 24.

Among those stories was also a promise: to continue traveling the world, to Africa and to Europe, and all points in between.

And as the young woman wrote, her cousin “opened her eyes and smiled at me, and then closed them again.  It was the last time I saw her awake and alive.  She died a few days later; she got the second transplant, and never woke up.  She loved butterflies, and since she died, I’ve had them land on me with strange regularity all over the world.  She’s going with me because I’m living for both of us, or so I’m going to keep telling myself.”

But what prompted her sharing of this story was that others were also doing so, sharing the stories of people they said goodbye to, who made final words, conversations, or confessions to them from their deathbeds.  She was moved to tell her story simply because other people had also been so moved.

For when we are so moved from the ruts of ordinary life, the results are anything but ordinary.

With Lent as a new season in the church’s worship calendar, you may notice a few things different—we hang purple, we draw the curtains on our baptistry’s portrait of Jesus, and, naturally, we begin another sermon series.  This sermon series takes us through the 40 days of Lent to Holy Week—the week of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday that is the most important time in the Christian calendar (yes, I dare say, more important than Christmas!).  And Lent traditionally is meant to be a time of reflection and repentance as we do some even more intensive-than-usual soul-searching in preparation for what will eventually be the empty tomb.  And so we’ll be using this year’s Lenten season to walk verse-by-verse through the three parables that make up the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  These stories all have a common theme of being “lost and found,” so to speak, but there is a much larger dimension at work here—Jesus is telling these parables to the scribes and Pharisees—as Luke writes, “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.””  And what Jesus is responding with, in so many words is, “Yes, because it isn’t just about you!”

In case you missed last week when we kicked off our three-week sojourn through the parable of the prodigal son, here is a little more background from last week’s message:

This is one of the most famous, well-loved, well-known, well-everythinged parables that Jesus ever tells, and yet you’ll only find it here, in Luke 15!  It’s one of those things that I have no idea why the other Gospel writers didn’t include, like John’s account of the raising of Lazarus.

Because the parable of the prodigal son does, I think, speak to the worst in each of us, that which we are perhaps not willing to admit we ever possess, but which, for some of us, we likely act on at one time or another—and that is, quite simply, taking those whom we love for granted, to the point of no longer seeing any need for them in our lives.

It is what this son does by asking his father for his inheritance.  In doing this, he is saying that his father has no worth to him aside from his inheritance and that he would, in fact, rather have the inheritance than have his father.  He is, in a sentence, saying he wishes his father were dead.

And here’s our first hint of grace—the father, instead of taking this for the horrific insult that it is and throwing his son out, actually accedes to his son’s wish, gives him his inheritance, and sends him on his way.  You have to think it’s one of the hardest things this father has ever done.

And here is where the story diverges.  The prodigal goes his way, and we lose track of the father and what his life is like in the meanwhile.  But we can probably imagine that his world goes on—he keeps on working the land, keeps on running the family, keeps on adhering to his faith.

Except that he does so with a huge part of him now missing, which he is resigned to missing for the rest of his life.  And for that, you can imagine the huge sense of bitterness, of betrayal, of hurt that the father probably feels.  You can imagine him asking himself, “How did I mess up this badly with my younger son?!”

In other words, when trying to examine the father’s situation, and the father’s feelings, we may be too caught up in one consequence of his son’s departure—the hurt feelings incurred—and less on another, potentially more long-lasting consequence: the sense that he had failed his son.

Now, if you have sat through one of the previous three sermons of this series so far, you know I have been big on discerning which characters in these various parables represent the people present at their telling—Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees, or the tax collectors and other sinners present.  And the obvious answer to the question of who the father of the prodigal is would be none of the above.  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  The father represents God Himself.

And harkening all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve, our collective story as humanity has been littered full of instances where we do things to one another and to God to which I have to think God wonders, “where did I go wrong with them?  Where did I fail them?”

In fact, God reaches that conclusion once—in Genesis, when He decides to press the big red button, call a mulligan, and flood the entire world and start from scratch with the help of Noah and his floating menagerie.  God even says to Himself, “I am sorry that I have made them.”

That is the sort of hurt and failure and shame that this father is feeling because of his son.

But seeing his son moves him beyond the hurt and failure and shame.  Indeed, it catapults him beyond it.  As Bible scholar Sharon Ringe put it, “the father’s compassion outruns the son’s penitence.”  And, I have to imagine, it outruns the father’s sense of failure as well.

Precisely because he was moved.

Think of all of the things God has done because He, too, was so moved.  He made the covenant with Noah, declaring never again to destroy the land for our sakes, and He was moved from regret into hope.  He was reminded of this covenant by Moses after the Israelites began worshiping the Golden Calf, and He was moved from anger into mercy.

And here, Jesus is saying that with our returning to Him, God is moved from a sense of failure in us to rejoicing in our presence before Him.

It’s a remarkable thing, that we could somehow move God…after all, God is this great, big thing that is WAY up there, and we’re way the heck down here, and that’s the way it is.

But if God loves us…and we know this is so—for God so loved the world, He gave His only Son…if God loves us, part of loving something is allowing yourself to be moved by it.

And that’s a remarkable thing, that our faith and repentance could actually move that great, big deity who lives in the heavens.  But that shouldn’t be so scary.  This isn’t us trying to manipulate God.  God is too smart to allow it to work like that.

It’s God about allowing us in to begin with.

It’s about God allowing us to redeem ourselves for Eden, and for the tower of Babel, and for the Golden Calf, and for the Ba’als and the injustice, for the lack of faith in Him or in each other, for all of these things that have marked our entire flawed existence upon this creation.

It’s about us, like the prodigal, traveling to a faraway land of putting faith in our egos and our Ba’als rather than in the God who made us what we are.

Until we, like the prodigal, remember from whence we came, and return with humbleness and with new understanding that His creation is not our plaything.

And then…well, we all know what happens next.

God is moved.  And, by His grace, so too are we.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 10, 2013