Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Easter Story

It is my favorite Easter story, this one. For even though it didn’t happen on Easter it is a story of such defiant hope borne of righteous anger it surely had its roots in Easter, even if it didn’t happen then.
No rather, this took place May the spring after we buried my dad in January.  As I remember it, it was a hard winter – both inside and out as we stepped into our grief and yearned for the beginning of healing. Oh no, it surely was not an easy grief, and I know no one carried it more deeply than my mother did.
And so it was late in May and she and my sister were here out purchasing flowers to be planted in her gardens at home.  And they decided to circle around, as was their practice, to stop at the cemetery on their way home.  To be sure, they had been there any number of times since that icy cold day when we traveled there in procession behind the hearse. Still, what met them then just seemed to make it all like that first day.  For as they approached his grave, they were met with an open gash of brown much like it was when we first left it a few months before.   Apparently those in charge of the grounds had not yet gotten around to spreading grass seed or laying sod.  Where he was buried stood out like an open wound in that green expanse of grass. 
Now you should know that this section of the cemetery is that part where the stones lie flat on the ground.  It is easier, of course to keep it looking nice with a mower I know, so it follows that you’re not supposed to be planting things the caretakers will have to work around.  Only in her grief and outrage, Mother didn’t care.  In fact, one might safely say that something in her snapped. She was weary by then of grief and loss and struggle and this visible reminder only made it worse.  My sister Martha said she marched back to the car and dug around until she found a hammer.  She spoke of how they carried those flats of bright spring flowers to the grave and using the claw of her hammer, one by one, on her knees Mother planted them there in that open wound of earth.
            Perhaps I love this story so because it was so unlike her.  Normally she would follow the rules, but as you know, love and outrage all mixed up together sometimes break all the rules.  Oh yes, I do love this story because it is a story of such defiant hope lived out with the claw of a hammer and spring flowers.  And yes, I love this story for Martha said that on a later visit when she was there alone to water that garden, someone in charge of the cemetery approached her and told her those flowers would need to be removed. And Martha quietly told her they’d better not.  Oh, no they’d better not.  For that defiant hope was borne of righteous anger and so they’d better not.  Oh yes, it is so that I love this story for it points to the first Easter which broke the rules in ways even more profound and permanent and brought life where there was only death.   And something like my mother only deeper still I know, the resurrected life we celebrate on Easter was also perhaps borne of God’s own righteous anger which allows us now still today to hold fast to a defiant hope that never ends.
For think of this with me.  When those women first traveled to the tomb they were still following the rules of all that was and ever had been.  When people die, we bury them and in all cultures and in all times and places we do so with all the dignity we can muster as we do our best to honor those who have died.  So they were doing what they had always done, what people who have loved and grieved have always done.   They gathered up the spices they would need and they went to the cemetery expecting to find a body to be tended one last time. 
Only they were met with this remarkable news that God had broken all the rules.  That Jesus wasn’t there.  They were asked, in fact, why they ever even thought they’d find him there for the living aren’t to be found among the dead.   Oh yes, they found they had no need for hammer claw for the earth had already been moved, the stone had been rolled away and what was dead, the one who was dead, was alive again.
You and I, of course, live still in a world where signs of death and decay and neglect abound and where we find ourselves kneeling in the dirt forcing life where it seems death reigns.  It was just as true on the day when Jesus died so long ago.  And oh how God must have wept that Friday n Jesus suffered so.  Oh, how deep his grief must have been at what the world can do, at what the world still does to the innocent among us.  But God’s own righteous anger rose up… and instead of turning that righteous rage on those who were guilty of this crime,  God simply did what God always does. God did the unimaginable.  The impossible.  And suddenly Jesus was alive again.
 And so for you and me and all the world, the promise of this Easter day is that the day will come when we won’t need to dig hammers out of our trunks and use up the flowers that were meant for home.  Oh no, that day will yet come the brown gashes in the earth which remind us of our deepest losses will be filled in with so much more than spring flowers which live and die again in just a season.  And that day is one we get a glimpse of even now as we follow along with those women to the tomb and join our death defying hope with theirs as we hear the question answered deep in our own hearts, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen!”  For Alleluia, Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen Indeed, Alleluia! 
  • What is your favorite Easter Story? What makes it your favorite?
  • This time through it struck me that God must have been angry that Jesus had to die and that he channeled that anger into life again.  This is a new or perhaps just a deeper thought for me.  Does it make sense to you?  Why or why not?
  • In those other places we encounter them, how might we bring life again to those deep brown gashes which mar God's good creation? How might our righteous anger be lived in hope?  

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Three Crosses

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Within 24 hours this last week-end I encountered three very different crosses.

The first was brought to my attention in a phone call from our custodian.  I was working at my desk on Saturday morning when he called to tell me that the church had been tagged with graffiti the night before.  He told me where it was and described it for me, but then went on to say that they had already covered it up with cardboard and duct tape until they had time to better remove it.

I sat with this a while as I continued to work on my Palm Sunday sermon.  I felt the sickness in the pit of my stomach that often comes with the realization that someone has meant you harm.  I knew I needed to go and look for myself, but it took me a while before I made my way to the back kitchen door. 
It turns out the graffiti artist was not much of an artist after all for a stencil had been used -- a stencil which was not the markings of a local gang as I would have first suspected, but held rather a satanic symbol complete with an upside down cross.  I shuddered at first to see the red paint on the faded wooden door. And yet, even as I walked away I found myself remembering the legend that Peter had been crucified on an upside down cross -- considering himself unworthy to be crucified as Jesus was.

I'm not sure I knew this before, but it turns out the upside down cross is actually an ancient Christian symbol.  The police told us it was meant as a sign of disrespect.  Still, in spite of their apparent intentions, our late night visitors were actually marking us with that which is actually already ours.

On Sunday morning I was gifted with the image of another cross.  As I was greeting our people after Palm Sunday worship, a young family approached.  Six year old Lillian's mother handed me a piece of paper: a crayon drawing Lillian had done in school this week. She wanted me to have it, but was too shy to hand it to me herself.  It is beautiful and bright with pinks and purples and oranges filling inside the outline of a cross.  I bent down to thank the little girl, telling her I would hang it in my office. 

It was a wonderful counterpoint to that other cross, which even though that one is also 'ours,' this one that came as a gift from a child's hand, served as a beautiful reminder that our crosses are not something stenciled on, but instead take on the hues, the shapes, even, of those who carry them, who live them, who offer them and all we are for the sake of the life of the world.

And as for our graffiti?  It was easily removed, but I have to say its memory still leaves me a little shaken, a little angry perhaps, and certainly more than a little wondering about who would do this.  It could be it was just some kids messing around, but their action was clearly planned out and intentional.  So maybe these bearers of red spray paint are those who actually understand themselves to be followers of Satan.  Most likely I will never know.  Part of me would like to 'catch' them, to engage in conversation, to wonder at what is shaping their lives and feeding their hope.

Wherever this goes, this much I know.  We stand this week in the shadow of another cross, a third one.  One that was the means of death for the very Son of God who died for one and for all, who "was wounded for our transgressions, crushed by our iniquities."  (Isaiah 53:5).  Who gave of of himself for a little girl whose cross is bright and colorful.  For those who by the dark of night left a mark meant to hurt or at least to insult on a building dedicated to service and to love.  And for all of us with all of our mixed up hearts: good and evil both all together at the same time --- For all of us who gather around the cross of Jesus in this Holy Week.  And I wonder now what it will look like for us to actually bear the cross of Jesus as we encounter in the world those who differ from us, whose intention might even be harm or insult.   I wonder what it would look like if we did this as Jesus did.  I wonder if our crosses will bear the bright colors of a little girl.  I wonder if they will look hopeful or somber or wise.  I wonder if my cross might not also be upside down as Peter's was as I remember that I am no more worthy than those who marked our back door last Friday night.  I wonder...
  • This particular graffiti incident has me wondering how it is we are called to encounter those differ from us.  How do you think are we called to do this? As those who follow the Crucified One, what should our posture be?
  • What does it look like in the world today to face down evil with good?  Can you think of times when you have seen this happen?  When you have been part of it?
  • What role does the cross of Jesus play as we deal with evil, suffering, or hurt in our lives?  What might a 'suffering servant' as described in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 look like today as we encounter one another?  What does it mean for us in our own journeys of life and faith? 
  • If you were to 'color in' your cross, what colors would you use?  Would you use words or symbols or sounds?   What would they be?  How would 'your cross' look different from any other?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Never Again Just Covering Up the Marks of Death...

I hadn't expected it when I drove out to our local funeral home that Saturday afternoon.

I had just officiated at the memorial service of a man. They were not showing his body, in fact he was soon to be cremated, and so close family stayed around after the service so as to go and view him  one more time.  I asked if they wanted me to go with them and since they did I walked behind them.  We made our way through the garage of our local funeral home into a room I had never entered before: that mysterious place where the bodies of our loved ones are received and made presentable to us so that on the day of their burial we can have, perhaps, a better chance of remembering them as they once were. 
As we were making our way back out the funeral director stopped me to ask if I would like to see Annie.  Annie was in her 90’s when she had died a few days before.  Although I did not know her well, still I had known Annie for probably thirty years. I knew that my own schedule would probably keep me from attending her funeral a few days later so I quickly said yes.
It turns out she was on the other side of the plastic curtain from the man we had just stood beside, already in her casket.  She was wearing a beautiful turquoise jacket and her hair was nicely done. She looked as much like herself as one who has died, can, in fact.  It was as we paused there that the funeral director drew my attention to her hands – commenting that he had not yet had a chance to tend those yet.  And to be sure, they were not ‘done’ yet --- they were bruised and discolored --- not at all the hands of one who is alive. 

I was taken back in that moment to another time, another family, another vigil where the one they loved had just died.  As we waited for the hospice nurse to arrive that afternoon, they stayed close by and, unlike most I have known, marveled to watch the hands of their loved one change … to see the color of life itself receding and disappearing.
Oh to be sure, in her hands I could see the suffering that had been Annie’s to bear in her last days. Her hands were surely not alive, but of course, the rest of her was not either.  Funeral directors are often able to do wonders, but all of their padding and make-up only offers the illusion of life as we remember it.  They do not, of course, actually bring back to life what moments before was dead.
And so it is Easter, this day when the women made their way to the tomb to prepare for burial the body of Jesus which had already been buried in the rush of the Sabbath which had been bearing down upon them that late Friday afternoon. Only when they got there, there was no plastic curtain to push aside, there was no stone to roll away, for the one on the other side had already made his way out.  If we stand still within this, it is so that the story shared by the “two men in dazzling clothes” was utterly unbelievable.  Of course Jesus was dead. Why wouldn’t they look for him there, for that was precisely where they had left him not more than three days before.  And indeed, by the time they left him there, life had already left his hands, his feet, his face, his heart. 
It would have been as though we had stepped back to see Annie that Saturday a few months back and the curtain had already been pulled aside and her casket empty.  We would have been confused, angry, and no doubt every bit as terrified as those women were so long ago.  Indeed, it’s a wonder to me at all that those first witnesses to the resurrection were even able to begin to comprehend and repeat the amazing words of these two strangers.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”
It is, indeed, a wondrous announcement that is ours to share again this Easter.   For any of us who have stared at the hands of a loved one and watched life leave them, we can imagine the amazement they must have felt as the women and Peter approached the empty tomb that first Easter morning.  Oh yes, I have to say that for me, too, sometimes this wondrous truth that Jesus defeats even death is still sinking in. For all of the times I have joined in the Easter Alleluias, it still is hard to comprehend that God does what is in no human way possible and to realize that death no longer has the last word for God really does bring life again.  The sort of life that not only has blood coursing through our hands and feet and hearts again.  The sort of life which never again will leave its mark of suffering on us.  Oh yes, that day will come when there will never again be a need to cover up the marks of death, those lifeless, bruised, discolored hands of Annie or anyone else. For death itself will be no more.
  1. How do you think you would have reacted had you accompanied the women on their trip to Jesus' tomb that first Easter day?
  2. What is the meaning of the Easter story for God's people today?  How about for your neighbors?  Your community? The world?
  3. How is it that we communicate what our imaginations can only begin to grasp ourselves?  How do we speak of resurrection in a world which is so very familiar with death?
  4. What is the gift of the Resurrection Promise for you this year?  How do the words "He is not here, but has risen," come as gift to you now?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

On Foot-Washing

John 13:1-7, 31b-35

I would offer two images today. Both have to do with feet.

The first is this:  I bought new shoes not long ago.  It is typical for me to go through a pair of athletic shoes every six months or so, but I thought I could push it out a little further this time as winter's ice and snow have kept me from walking much in these last months.  So even though I had been wearing them to twice weekly workouts I could not imagine that the support had worn down yet.  However, I sensed it was time to get new shoes when I started developing pain in my left hip and ankle.  I thought to look inside the shoe and I realized that I had worn right through the cushion.  It's my weaker side, to be sure, and for some reason I must hold myself in such a way that over time it just wears through.

So I went and bought new shoes a few weeks back and within a couple of days I found my pain was gone.  What was happening to my feet was happening to all of me.  My hip was no longer tender.  My ankle was no longer sore.  It makes sense, of course, for my feet hold all of me, and as such seem to have something to do with upholding my health, my well-being, my wholeness.

And the second is this:   I participated in a foot washing service at Confirmation Camp many years ago.  As I remember it, each Care Group (a small group of 7-8 young people and their adult leader) was given a plastic basin full of water. We were to find a quiet place apart and the leader was then to wash the feet of our 13-year-olds.  We did this later in the week, once trust had been built between us.  The fact that it was later in the week also had other, perhaps unforeseen consequences.

For imagine this, if you will.  It was a hot day in July.  Eighth graders had been at camp for several days by now and many of them, I'm quite certain, had not washed their feet or much of anything else in the time since they had left home.  During the day their feet had been trapped inside of athletic shoes and socks and by now it was mid afternoon.

It was certainly a memorable experience, at least for me, and I do have to say, that it would be an understatement to say that it was less than pleasant.  And even though they knew me by then, I can't imagine it was all that comfortable for those young people either --- perhaps, in part, because their feet were so very dirty, but more than that, I expect, because they were, in that moment, so very vulnerable.

So although the dynamics are entirely different, it's not hard for me to imagine what it must have been that first Maundy Thursday when Jesus knelt before his disciples and washed their feet.  These feet were the feet of grown men --- not trapped in shoes, but still dirty and calloused for these were their only means of transportation from one place to another.  Only it wasn't really the dirt that made this so uncomfortable, so surprising.  It was, of course, the subservient act of a superior washing the feet of an inferior.  Of the master washing the student's feet.

So it is no wonder that Peter protests. I expect I would have, too, to have my world so turned upside down.  For as I understand it, in Peter's world even slaves were not required to wash the feet of their masters.  But part of the wonder of this story is that even when Peter gets it, it seems he still doesn't comprehend it, insisting then that Jesus wash not just his feet, but 'all of him.'  But, in fact, we've come to know, that this marvelous scene we picture again every Holy  Week is, in the end, not really about the physical washing at all.  Not of our actual feet or of all the rest of us either.  It is, rather, a foreshadowing of Jesus setting himself 'aside', even as he cast his robes aside --- even to death itself for our whole selves.  Foot washing?  It just points us there.

And it couldn't be better, really, for feet are what carry our entire physical beings. And feet do get dirty, sometimes really dirty.  Jesus in this single, simple, surprising act, speaks to all of this for all of us. And by getting his own hands dirty as he cleans up our 'feet,' we are reminded once more of all the gifts God intends for us.

  1. Have you ever participated in a foot-washing? Were you the washer of feet or did you have your feet washed?  What do you remember of the experience?
  2. I'm not certain that 'foot-washing' has the same symbolic punch it would have had two thousand years ago.  Can you think of something else which would have the same impact today? What would it be?  Or does 'foot-washing' still do it?
  3. Where do you find yourself in this familiar story?  Can you see yourself reacting like Peter did?
  4. In a sentence or two how would you summarize the good news of this story today?  For you?  For your congregation?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"The Successful Completion of the Mission..."

Luke 22:14-23:56

"The successful completion of the mission was never seriously in doubt."

His grown children were quoting their dad as we sat and planned his memorial service.  Apparently this was his signature line, one they heard so often that when they spoke of him they also spoke this in unison. Without a doubt, as they were quick to share, these words and all they represented had been gift and challenge and sometimes burden to them their whole lives long.

"The successful completion of the mission was never seriously in doubt."

This was the mantra of one highly successful businessman who apparently kept other values close as well as evidence by his family gathering when as his health faltered and failed and he breathed his last.  To be sure, they all spoke of him with gladness and genuine affection when we sat down to consider the details of the day when we would commend him into God's eternal care.

"The successful completion of the mission was never seriously in doubt."

I can't get the line out of my mind perhaps because they don't generally reflect my own outlook on life.  Doubt is something I am very familiar with...  but yes, I will use it in his memorial service sermon on Sunday for even as one who sometimes wonders along the way still, it does so fittingly points to how our journeys with Jesus are.  Because of Jesus' death and resurrection. Because of our having been baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection,  no matter where life takes us, we do believe that the end is assured, that its 'success,' if you will, is never seriously in doubt.  Still, as we approach Holy Week once more, it is certain that the first time through, one surely had cause to wonder.  There may, in fact, have been room for doubt.  Indeed, I would guess those who lived through that first Holy Week doubted plenty.

For in fact, failure was strewn all over those fateful days.  In Peter's denial: his unexpected willingness to simply lie. In Judas's betrayal --- in his handing over his mentor and friend, whether it was for financial gain or following some kind of other ideal, we'll never know.  In the quickness of the other disciples to abandon Jesus, no doubt running for their own lives.  In Pilate's capitulation to the crowd.  Over and over again, there is failure all over those fateful days.  Just as there is failure all over our own lives...

A couple of weeks ago as we considered the role of Pilate in the events that led to Jesus' death, someone stopped me after midweek worship and asked, "What if Pilate had manned up?"   I was brought up short with him for a moment, wondering as well .... what IF Pilate hadn't caved?   What if he had done the right thing? What if...  then would Jesus not have suffered and died?   And what would that have meant for all of us?

Only Pilate didn't 'man up,' of course.   And other than a handful of women, the disciples headed for home as quickly as they could. And Peter for all of his bravado, in the end couldn't admit to even knowing Jesus.   And Judas bent to demands other than the ones he had learned in the presence of Jesus and handed him over.    Even in the garden of Gethsemane as Jesus struggles mightily with the fate that is before him, one might argue that "the successful completion of the mission" was seriously in doubt.

Only that is where it turns of course.  That is where we first realize that for all of our human tendency to abandon those to whom we have pledged our loyalty, to betray those we love, to deny even knowing the One who has changed our lives, Jesus would not, did not fail.  Oh, as we stand with him in the Garden of Gethsemane now we hear as he struggles and questions and grieves, but still he does not fail.  It could have been otherwise, of course.  For without a doubt even then it was not too late. Jesus could have slipped into the night, gone back to Nazareth and picked up another life.  One that didn't include betrayal by one friend, and denial and abandonment by others.  One that did not include taking on the burden of sin of the whole world and suffering a shameful death.  It could have been otherwise.  It was not not because of anything the disciples did or didn't do or anything you and I would do or would not do.  It is only because of who God is and how God is and what God does, not only once, but over and over again that it did not fail.

And this is what now allows us to say, "The successful completion of the mission was and is never seriously in doubt." Even in my acknowledging and comprehending these two thousand years later how profoundly those close to Jesus failed him then, still I know I do the same as they.  Denying if not in my words, then in my actions.  Betraying what I hold most dear for a whole lot less, much of the time, than thirty pieces of silver. Running for my life, my reputation, my future over and over again.  I am all of them, each of them.  And so as I witness Jesus' suffering and death once more this season, I can rejoice in the 'successful completion of the mission' only because of what he did. And for this, again this year, and every day of the year, I can only be grateful.

  1. Where do you see yourself among those who first 'failed' Jesus so long ago?  Are you Peter, Judas, Pontius Pilate, or the disciples who fled as quickly as they could?  What about their failure do you identify with?
  2. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Surely, that was a turning point in the events of that week. What must it have been for him to finally trust God and move forward?
  3. Do you think the 'successful completion of the mission was ever seriously in doubt?'  Why or why not?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

On Costly Nard and Cheap Hand Lotion

John 12:1-8

The image is still fixed in my mind.

My dad was sick.  We were deep into the long, hot summer after his first surgery and his recovery was, to put it simply, not going well.

Several of us were home to visit.  Daddy sat up in his recliner --- his legs stretched out, swollen still from where they had removed the veins for his heart bypass surgery.  The rest of us were settled in around the room, running out of things to say to fill the silence.  It was impossible to ignore the illness that was ever present among us now.  I expect it was why we had gathered then.

It was in the midst of that long silence that my sister, Martha, suddenly jumped up and left the room. When she returned, she carried a bottle of hand lotion.  She knelt before my dad's outstretched legs, poured the lotion into her hands and warmed it before ever so gently rubbing it into his tortured limbs.

I have never forgotten it --- this gesture of tenderness offered between daughter and father.  I have never forgotten it and it comes to mind whenever I encounter again the story of Mary anointing Jesus in our Gospel lesson now or in any of the Gospel lessons which offer the same image, although we are unclear in the other accounts as to just who it was that poured that pound of costly nard on Jesus.

I imagine even the pungent fragrance of that expensive perfume could not cover up the odor of impending death that was also ever present on that day so long ago.  I know that smell, perhaps you do, too.  Only it appears the others gathered then refused to acknowledge it --- for in the telling we have before us now Judas, perhaps representing the others, is fixating on the cost of that perfume and is speculating on the good it could have done had it been sold.  At this late point in the story, even Judas appears not to recognize what is right in front of him.

The cheap hand lotion my sister used that summer's day had little earthly value, but the gesture was the same: borne of a deep love and courageous acknowledgement of the struggle which permeated our time together then.  I would not venture to guess that she was acknowledging the actual nearing of the end of his life here.  I've never asked.  Still, it was a visual turning point of a reversal of roles in our family.  After that, it was true that nothing was to be quite the same again. Whatever else it was, it was certainly a tender gesture which pointed to the profound value that one life had for all of us.  And in that moment, there seemed nothing else to do.

Perhaps there also was nothing else for Mary to do by then.  Perhaps this was all that was left --- for her to kneel before Jesus, anoint his feet, and then to wipe them with her hair.  Perhaps there was nothing more for her to do but to do as she did: holding herself still in the deep acknowledgement of the gift of the one who was right before her.  Perhaps she sensed his impending death ---- Jesus surely says so.  If that was the case, she was doing then what we all too often wish we had thought to do. She wasn't waiting for him to die to acknowledge the gift he had already been.  She was pouring it all out right then...
  • What do you think compelled Mary to pour out a pound of costly perfume on Jesus?  Was she honoring his life, acknowledging his impending death, or was it some combination of the two?
  • This is the only Gospel account of the anointing of Jesus which identifies the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. What else do you remember about her?  How does her behavior here fit with what you already know of her?   
  • It is only in John's Gospel that Judas is identified as the one voicing his objection to Mary's action.  It is interesting to lay the parallel accounts alongside one another. (See Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and Luke 7:36-50 to compare the differences.) Matthew's account, for instance, has all the disciples speaking up. Why the difference?
  •  What does it mean for you to 'pour it all out' on the feet of Jesus?  How would that be a gesture of trust, of faith, of love?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Stories We Find Ourselves In

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

There is such a story in the family I grew up in.  We heard it
over and over again at the dinner table as children and somehow we never tired of it.  Even though we knew the ending, every time it was told again we would be pulled into the drama of it... tearing up in sadness and laughing with wonder before it was done being shared again. I sat at my mother's table last Saturday night and listened as she told it again -- recalling even minute details these more than fifty years later.  I surely cannot tell it as she can, but I offer you a bit of that story now.

In 1960, before any of us were born, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  She was teaching school and all the children were required to get a skin test for TB.  She went first to show them it wouldn't hurt.  Hers flared up and before she knew it she lost her job and was sent off to a TB sanatorium in Milwaukee.

The injustice of the story is that she wasn't really sick. The spot on her lung was the size of a dime. She was exhibiting no symptoms.  A doctor who was an alarmist made the call that she needed to go to the sanatorium and so she did, and even though once admitted her doctor there said she didn't really need to be there, once you were in, it was not easy to get out.  She wound up staying for nine weeks.  I expect it felt a whole lot longer than that.

She and my dad had been married less than a year when this happened. They were just starting to build a life together and were brought up short by illness and by the fear of what this disease could mean for her, for them, for their future.  And suddenly she found herself cut off from not only her husband, but also her extended family, her work, her church, her co-workers, her friends. She still speaks of her loneliness in that time.

She also speaks of the wonder of that time.  The story never gets told without her recounting how my dad visited every day after work.  And that family and friends wrote letters and sent gifts --- so much so that when she was released it took many trips to carry it all the car.

And she speaks of how it opened up her world. For the first time she encountered people who were unlike her self: different socioeconomic statuses, different races, different experiences altogether.  She left that time with a greater understanding of and appreciation for those differences among us, which perhaps she would not have gained otherwise.

But the bit of the story that we loved the best was this. There were rules in the TB San and my mother tended to follow the rules.  One of those was that you could not leave the grounds without permission.  My dad was not so much of a rule follower and on one particular early evening visit with much vigor he talked her into leaving the grounds with him for ice cream. Finally, she went, no doubt anxious the entire time.  The next night?  She was waiting at the entrance and when he arrived she greeted him with "Let's go!"

As I said above, the four little girls in our household could not hear this story too many times.  In its telling we learned about love and devotion. About tragedy and hope. About death and resurrection, if you will.  I've heard this story my whole life long and I have to say, I still can't get enough of it.

And so it is we come to Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son, this oh so familiar story most of us have heard so many times we could tell it again without looking at the page.  I expect it is so beloved because we can find ourselves in this story, whether we identify with the wayward son, the righteous son who stayed at home, or the father whose love could not be contained and only wanted to gather his children close.

And as we hear this story, too, we hear about love and devotion, heartbreak and healing, failure and redemption, death and resurrection.  It is, perhaps not our story in the same way as are those heard at our own dinner tables growing up,  but as members of God's family, as followers of Jesus, it is still ours. And for this reason, I expect it shapes us, too, even as we enter into it at different times in our lives with new understandings and expectations and experiences to inform us.

And so I find myself sitting with this familiar story now and wondering at where I find myself within it this time through and what it has to offer our shared journey as we hear it in this season now.

It is so that many of the faithful, most of the time, find ourselves identifying with the older brother.  A long time ago I read this story to a confirmation class --- I don't know if they had ever really listened to it before.  And I asked them to illustrate it for me.  Over and over their pictures and the explanations which followed demonstrated their indignation with the younger son, for every single one of them claimed to be the older sons and daughters:  the responsible ones, the ones who stayed at home, the wronged ones.  I get that. 

And yet, this time through, somehow I find myself not proud of that at all, for in spite of my self- righteousness, I do recognize that my behavior is hurting the father in the story.  My resentment  is hurting God who only loves the one who has gone astray and who has finally come home.

And this time through as I hold this story close I am wondering if I am not the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter after all. For while I may never have left home, I know that there are ways in which I squander the inheritance God has given me.  I do not care for God's good creation as I should.   I do not value enough the grace, the love of God which has been showered upon me, and like the prodigal son I waste it instead of freely giving those gifts away.  I pay attention to what I shouldn't and I neglect what I should not and when I stand still in the truth of that, I know that like that prodigal sometimes I wait until there is nothing left before I consider venturing home.

Oh, yes this story we have heard so many times is indeed our family story, for within it we find ourselves. Indeed, as we listen to it again we learn once more of failure and redemption and fear and hope and forgiveness.  And as we listen to it this time perhaps we again find ourselves shuddering in fear and in grief at how we break our Father's heart and then laughing aloud in wonder to picture God running down the road to greet us, welcoming us home.
  • You know this story well. What strikes you this time as you hear it again?
  • In what ways is this story from Luke our 'family story?'  How has it shaped you over time? What have you learned as you have heard it repeated over your lifetime?
  • Where do you find yourself in the story this time through?
  • What is the value of repeating the same stories over and over again?