Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015
There is something very wrong with this picture.
Kings are not supposed to be riding on donkeys. Queen Elizabeth rides in an open black carriage pulled by black horses and she waves a couple of fingers as she passes by her adoring subjects. Or she rides inside in long black limousine. President Obama rode to his inauguration in a whole motorcade of shiny black limos. Exactly two years ago now, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander became the new king of the Netherlands. I take note of things like this. He’s worth well over ten billion dollars and he’s one of the richest monarchs in the world, after Queen Elizabeth. I promise you he did not ride to his coronation on a borrowed donkey. And on his coronation day tens of thousands of people cheered and celebrated and the whole city of Amsterdam was all decked out for a grand celebration. All the royal families of Europe were there dressed in their finest, and many from other countries as well. (And had their pictures taken.) And I don’t even know the words to describe the fine clothing and the long fur cape and medallions that the new king wore.
Not like Jesus. The witnesses to his impromptu coronation were children and widows and homeless people and the poorest of the poor.
President Obama lives in the White House. Queen Elizabeth has no less than eight royal palaces and official residences. King Willem Alexander owns three palaces. Jesus was homeless. He wandered up and down the country wherever he was needed and he said himself that he didn’t have a place to lay his head at night.
So there’s something very wrong with this picture. That a king should ride on a borrowed donkey into his capital city. And that he should be surrounded by homeless people and that raggedy looking children with snotty noses and poor men and women should be the ones to cheer him.
But if we think about it for a moment, we understand. We’ve been camping out in the book of Luke for the past several weeks, and each Sunday we’ve been listening as Luke tells us a little more about who Jesus was. He was born in a barn and the first people who saw him were common, rough shepherds. He talked about God constantly and the Kingdom God but he was hated and feared by the religious leaders. The people who loved him were sick and homeless. They had been harassed for too long by Roman soldiers and thrown into poverty by the Roman government. They were desperate for some relief. He healed them and fed them and ate with the poorest of them. He cuddled children. He had long conversations with prostitutes and women were the heroes of many of his stories in a day when woman had no value at all. All of that we have learned from Luke in the past several weeks.
So we should not be surprised when they are the ones who are shouting and waving their tree branches on the day of his coronation. They shouted “Hosanna, Hosanna, Save us Save us,” which is what Hosanna means. Who else would there have been waving and shouting like that? Certainly not the religious leaders. Certainly not the rich Romans. Certainly not the tax collectors. Certainly not any of the Roman kings who were threatened by the thought of another, Jewish king trying to overthrow them. It was the people who loved him and owed their lives to his care who cheered him on his coronation day. They were the ones who had pinned their hopes on him and believed in the impossible.
But there’s more. We know how the story ends. We know that in five short days this king was dead. Betrayed by one of his inner circle. A combination of the religious leaders and the Romans staged a mock trial in the middle of the night. They had accused him of being the king of the Jews and of trying to overthrow the Roman government – a very serious charge. They stripped him naked and they beat him bloody. Somebody had found an old purple cloth and they draped it over his shoulders like kingly robe, in mockery. They made a crown of thorns and pressed it into his forehead until he bled. They forced him to walk to his own death, amid crowds of people and they executed him on a hill in public sight. Passersby stood and watched and gawked all day long for hours as he struggled to die. As though it were some kind of media event.
But we also know this about Jesus: that he was the Son of God. Luke has also told us that these last few weeks. The voice of God spoke twice in his life powerfully: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” He was the very son of God. There he was, sitting with God wherever heaven is, in the eons and eons before anybody started counting time, hovering over the nothingness and watching and participating while God created everything there is from all that nothingness. Watching God fling the galaxies upon galaxies into their places, and the universes we have yet to discover and count and name. Watching while God flung the sun and the moon into their places. Watching the oceans appear, watching the dry land come into sight. There and participating as God put into the place the natural order that governs the tiniest of us. Mighty. Powerful. Sharing in the magnificent mystery of it all, beside his father. That is Jesus also. That’s the Son of God who is riding into the capital city on a borrowed donkey amid the cheers of outcasts. He’s the son of God. That’s the man who was betrayed and beaten bloody and accused of being a king and executed.
And that’s the Jesus we read about in our first lesson for today.
In the years just after his death his earliest followers sat in their homes together worshipping on the first day of the week. They sat, maybe twenty of so of them in their homes all over Greece and Turkey and beyond in little family groups. They sang and prayed and read scripture together and they ate bread and drank juice and remembered his death as he taught them to.
And they recited a creed together – the creed we have read this morning. They recited that Jesus was the Son of God, fully entitled to all the glory of God and the grandeur of God and the power of God and all the perks of being God. But that he willingly relinquished that power, and came to this earth, as slave of the poorest and lowliest and sickest. And died doing that. But that God exalted him from the humility of his life and the shame of his death. And in their homes in Greece and Turkey those early Christians recited the rest of the story - that they and we and millions with us in every time and place would bow down to the risen Jesus, and confess that he is Lord of our lives.
And that’s how the story really ends. That’s how the story continues. Three days after his death, on the first day of the week, he came back to life again, in the power of God. And now he lives with God at his rightful place in heaven, wherever heaven is, for the eons and eons of time to come. Hovering over the world he created in love and pity and power. And all over the world people of every race and every language and every country – rich and poor, men, women and children, offer their lives in obedience to their king. They offer what is best and strongest and brightest and most creative about themselves. They offer every minute of every day of every week to be slaves in his service. That’s the end of the story. That’s how the story really ends. That’s how the story continues. That’s what those early Christians recited a few years after his death. That’s what we are a grand and glorious part of today in Rockford, Michigan.
And we are beginning to ask ourselves in Rockford, Michigan: How can this church be a part of that upside down, unpredictable, grand and glorious kingdom? What almost impossible thing will this church do next for this Savior we claim as our king?
3/22/15 North Kent Presbyterian Church
Rev. Linda Rogge Rubingh
Last week we heard how a young boy gave Jesus his very small lunch and over 5000 were fed — we saw how what a child offered became an occasion for a miracle and that there is NOTHING impossible with God. Today our word from God tells us in no uncertain terms that children are ordained for praise. Ordained for praise! I’d like us to look at what children being ordained for praise actually means, and how Jesus’ view of children is (we believe) critical to the future of our churches.
II. What is the special ordination of children to praise?
In vs. 16 of this chapter Jesus uses a startling word to sum up his view of children’s role in the church – Ordination. The Leaders of the Church at the time, the Synagogue, say “Jesus, do you hear what these children are saying? Yes, replied Jesus, have YOU never read “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise?”
Now let’s think about what just happened: Jesus has just finished flipping over tables, driving out the money changers from the temple courts. It’s kind of a famous scene from the bible. Less well known is what Jesus does next. He sets up and adhoc hospital right there in the middle of the temple courts and starts healing people. Both of these things were UNHEARD OF and absolutely AGAINST THE RULES … BUT: during both of these events – the teachers of the law and the Pharisees do nothing. It’s not until the children start shouting “Hosanna!” that the religious leaders lift a finger. You can mess with the people using the church to exploit people financially, you can allow “proper worship” to be interrupted by setting up a hospital in the worship space – but boy oh boy – when the kids start getting loud and shouting praise – that’s the last straw! Jesus says “Don’t you know they’ve been ordained for praise?” The word he uses there is the Greek word Katartizo, which means to prepare, to create a space for, to establish, to perfect, to complete. Have you never heard that from the lips of children you have prepared, you have perfected, you have completed praise?
In our church we ordain ministers, elders, deacons — what does their ordination mean? It means someone feels called to a certain kind of ministry, the call is confirmed by that person’s faith community, then the person is trained (for ministers of the word and sacrament we send that person away for a very long time to a place called seminary). In the case of calling a minister, a church like you looks for just the right person to lead them. When they find him or her – they call and ordain them for a particular ministry. The people of God reserve a place for this person and invest it with authority and responsibility. It’s a place right up here in the center of the God things of the church (for ministers, elders and deacons) and those people who are ordained are expected to lead us towards God.
Ordination means calling out, giving special training, authority, a role and then a physical and metaphorical space in the church to act. Is this really what Jesus is talking about for children?
Well, let’s see. A little earlier in Matthew’s gospel the disciples are arguing about who’s the greatest in God’s kingdom, and this is how Jesus answers: He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name, welcomes me.”
You know, when they ask Jesus this question, He didn’t say: Very important question! Let’s dismiss the children for children’s worship so we can talk about it. NO - he does the opposite. He says to the grown ups: stop what you’re doing and watch – because the children are going to teach you about God. “Unless you change and become like a child – you can’t be a part of my kingdom”
And in Matthew 21 – our story today, children are given a place to shout God’s truth. It’s not a place in the church basement, or far away at a VBS or summer camp. It’s a place right up front at the altar of God in the center of the God-things. And when the Pharisees try to shut it down, Jesus doesn’t say – “well, it’ll be over soon this is just the children’s portion of the worship, just give them a second.” He says – “this is their ordained place. Up front. Praising, singing, shouting and telling everyone clearly who I am. God has ordained them for delivering a special kind of praise.
Jesus is saying “Children have a leadership role to play. Don’t give them a passive role, or think they just need to be entertained. They are ordained, to be in the center of the God things from the back of the church right up here to the pulpit, establishing and perfecting praise.
III. Why are children ordained for praise?
Right now you should be asking a question, and if you’re not, get it in your mind right now: Why? Why is it children who get this special ordination, and why is it so important to Jesus? The answer is found in Jesus’ crucial entry into Jerusalem.
The bible says there was a huge crowd, some in front, some behind him, there’s building excitement. This is a political event for the people, here is a “son of David” entering the city of David. In the context of a Roman occupation, to have someone who can multiply food, raise the dead, and speak with authority to power, make their move and enter the city of David – it was event charged with political and religious significance. The significance isn’t lost on anyone and so they began to treat him as an entering king. The air is electric with expectation and long years of oppression fuel the crowd’s celebration as they follow Jesus into the city. At some point a chant begins. We don’t know who started it. Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!
“Hosanna” was an ancient word. A prayer really. It originally meant – LORD SAVE NOW!. It was a cry for help. And it became used so often it turned into a praise: Lord I praise you – because I know you are the only one who can save now. What a wonderful word. Lord I need you to save and I praise you for saving– in a sense it’s the whole gospel in one word. So the whole crowd is shouting “Hosanna”– and over half the crowd would have been children. We don’t normally picture it this way when we read our bibles –but who was in the crowd, really? It was women, men, families, TONS OF CHILDREN IN THAT CROWD.
They enter the city, then get to the temple. Then all of a sudden Jesus starts SCREAMING at the money lenders. And he begins getting in their face, pushing tables over, and then all of a sudden he as a whip and he starts whipping people. Talk about a way to kill a party. The chant dies instantly. No one’s celebrating anymore. Everyone is staring a Jesus with horrified awkward silence. And they’re silent and maybe even afraid as Jesus begins healing people right in the middle of the temple (that was so against the rules). Well almost everyone.
Over there, in the corner, are the kids. The kids have been watching this whole thing. They watched as their parents shouted and danced on the way into town. They watched Jesus act like a super hero knocking stuff down and healing people. And they watch as their parents stand in uncomfortable silence with a heaviness in the air. Well THIS IS NO FUN! Let’s get that song going again! They join hands and form a circle. AND START SHOUTING - Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest! Why are they shouting?
Because they still can!
The adults could do it on the road when they were outside of Jerusalem, but right here in the middle of church? The adults are quiet. They maintain decorum. Because they know, and the Pharisees prove them right – that one should never shout in church. But the children don’t know that. They give out a shout! HOSANNA! Why are the shouting?
Because they still can!
One of the programs Trevor runs at New City is called City Sail, a free sailing school that teaches kids the art of sailing while providing confidence and communication skills they will use for the rest of their lives. A couple years ago, the two City Sail boats were out on the Hudson River, bright sunny summer afternoon, 9 kids on each boat, and they get closer and ready to pass each other. When they get within hearing distance all the sudden the first boat breaks out “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding!” Other boat shouts back: “In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight!” Back and forth back and forth — and everyone sailing on the waterfront can hear them. Why are they shouting God’s praise?
Because they still can!
These are not strange, inappropriate things, the kids are shouting, these are the responses that are called for. We adults can get so crusted over by life that we don’t give the right response, because we’ve gotten jaded into believing it’s not proper somehow. But Jesus says – children are ordained for praise, because they still can!
That’s why children have a special ordination. They teach us, so naturally. They see the value of a thing and then respond accordingly. Dad, It’s SNOWING!!!!!.” Mommy look at all the pretty puddles, let’s jump in them!!!
We say as grown ups: “You’ve been invited to live in eternal union with the creator GOD….” and we say. Amen.
But you tell a kid – later today we’re going to have ice cream – and they say WHOOOOAAAA!
The flip side is true too – children instinctively know when something is too much for them, and they need help. They have an innate sense of their limitations and their need for help, and they just ask. Adults have a hard time with this. I need help. Let’s all say that together “I need help.” That was hard wasn’t it? Not for a child. How many times a day do they say it? Mommy!!!!! I can’t reach it. Daddy, I got a sliver. Granny – it’s not fair! Auntie – make it right! Children instinctively know they are dependent on others. They don’t have the illusion of being self sufficient. For a child to say “LORD SAVE NOW” is completely natural.
We grown ups can be numb to the beauty of ordinary things and blind to our own need for help. Jesus says – in both of these areas – unless you change and become like a child you can’t really come in to my kingdom.
IV. How do we ordain children for praise?
HOW can we help our churches be a place where children are ordained to lead us in praise?
1. The first thing we can do is get rid of any barriers that might stop children from coming to God. Remember the time — It’s actually in Matthew 19 — when a bunch of parents were bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus, and the disciples are like “WHOA, no no no, you need to get out of here, this isn’t your spot, Jesus has REAL work to do. And Jesus says STOP!! Don’t hinder them, let the children come to me, for the kingdom belongs to such as these. So what are some things in our churches that might hinder our children?
What about our bricks and mortar, our buildings? We’re called to be good stewards
over our “things” but is keeping our stuff clean and perfect more important than
keeping our kids? When our children come to church, do they feel like it’s a place
for them, or something like a museum with a lot of things they can’t touch or use?
2. The second thing we need to do is build on ramps for children. If we want our kids to be front and center we need to build access points for them to get up here. We have to put time, energy, money and leadership into the ministry to children. We need to be creative and not let our time with children be the LAST thing we prepare for. Think about the time someone usually gives to a children’s message vs. the time usually spent on a normal sermon for “the adults.” What would happen if we put the same energy and time into a children’s message?
3. The third thing we need to do is train, train, train. People ask us at NC – how do you do that? How do you get your teens to do all that. And the answer is simple. You’ve got to spend TIME training them to lead well. So we don’t go on trips for snowboarding. We don’t really do a whole lot of trips to Great Adventure. Instead we have training retreats. What if 50% of our youth group meetings were spent preparing our kids for outreach or leadership?
If we want children to have a strong role of up front participation and leading then we need to spend time training those people. If we want teenagers to run the sound booth – we’ve got to train them. If we want teens to lead worship, we can’t come here and wing it.
4 Trust children with leadership…. In the center of the God-things.
Allow them to be up here, reading scripture, offering the prayers, creating ways and spaces
for the shy kids, and every other kind of kid to participate in the life of the church.
Have two kids Shadowing a deacon or an elder, learning the beautiful work of the Body of Christ.
I preached my first sermon when I was in 8th grade, I was 13. It was pretty bad theologically, not horrible, but I know a little more now than I did then. What I remember is people surrounding me with encouragement, hugs, congratulations and love. They welcomed me and wanted me to be in the center of the God things and lead them in praise.
… I want to ask you, if you’re a parent or grand parent or have a child in your life, to stand. What’s your hope for your children/grand children 10 years from now? Where do you want them to be spiritually? 10 years from now, will those children have left the church? Or will they be in the center of the God things, leading praise to God?
Have you not read “From the mouths of infants and children you have ordained praise?”
Matthew 19:13 “Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Matthew 21 “Have you never read that from the lips of children and infants God has ordained praise?” Don’t you know that children have been chosen to be the special bearers of a unique kind of praise to God. I’d like to unpack Jesus view of Children today under that heading – the ordination of children. What is it? Why Jesus calls for it? and How we can do it? What, why and how….
You can’t really understand this word HOSANNA which is at once an admission of desperate and complete need and at the same time is an appropriate recognition of the value of the God who saves.
Rev. Linda Rogge-Rubingh from New City Kids, Inc.
Scripture: Jn 6:1-13; Luke 9:10-17
The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God!
Please pray with me: Lord, let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, o Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.
I thought we should spend the few moments we have together today thinking about what a child can offer.
Because what happened here is that Jesus asks his ministry team (his friends, his congregation members) to do something – there was a need in front of them, a “call” on their lives – and what did they do? They panicked! They panicked!!
They have absolutely no idea how to do the task before them, they’re completely depleted of resources and they’re flummoxed, and probably even a little angry at being given such an impossible task. And in the midst of all this adult angst – a child appears, a little boy, and what does he do? He simply offers Jesus what he has. And the offering becomes the occasion for a miracle. An occasion for demonstrating the fecundity, the unfathomable and immeasurable abundance of God.
20 years ago, my husband Trevor and I moved to Jersey City NJ to start what we thought at first was going to be a new church in a high-need urban neighborhood. We went with almost nothing, literally – no people, next to no money, no building, and certainly no clear idea of how to do what at the time we thought was the task before us. And after 2 miserably hard years of failure, God spoke very clearly “What do you have?” Well, we had a handful of 7th & 8th graders always hanging around.
But what could a handful of young adolescents (and two inexperienced, suburban-raised pastors) possibly offer in the face of our call to the poor in the city? The call to raise up a community of faithful believers in a place desolated for long generations. What could we possibly offer in the face of all these overwhelming needs of the city?
God had continually been laying upon us the needs of children and teens. There were, and are, thousands of children and teens in the city — Jersey City, Grand Rapids, almost every city in our nation – children and teens hungry – hungry just like the crowd around Jesus that day – desperately hungry for hope, for love, for purpose, for opportunity, hungry for God. In the face of an impossible task, what could we and a few middle schoolers possibly have to offer?
Well, what happened was that we offered what we had — which at the time felt like nothing — and God worked a miracle. We said to the kids “God wants us to start this After School Center, but we need YOU to do it, and they said “ok.” The same teens who the movies and the papers tell us will likely wind up in jail, on drugs or dead – these same teens, when given the chance of leadership, and at the same time told repeatedly “God loves you and has a plan for your life, plans not to harm you, but plans to give you a hope and a future,” they said “that’s cool; can I bring my friends?”
We said “You are an essential member in the body of Christ right now, and not when you’re older” and then gave them real jobs to do:
• We need you to be a tutor
• We need you to teach a rap class
• We need you to be the teacher for the drum class
These kids offered themselves, freely, and the Lord has taken what they offered, and made it the occasion for a miracle. New City Kids has two locations in Jersey City, NJ, one now in Grand Rapids, and one planning to open in Paterson, NJ next fall. So far we have over 150 children every day in the ASC’s, and we currently employ about 85 teenagers. At New City Kids, by the mercy of God, we have seen first-hand God turning what was once empty into something very full and alive, taking what was once very little, and making it more than enough.
When Jesus made this request of the disciples, to feed the whole crowd when there was absolutely no food anywhere – “find a way to feed these 5000 people” – the ministry leadership thought it was impossible. They were Exasperated! Deflated, Confounded.
“This is an impossible task Lord!!”
We, right here and now, are a gathering of Jesus’ friends, his disciples. You are his ministry team! What is the thing before you today that is impossible? To what have you said “this is an impossible task?” When have you, like the disciples, in exasperation said “But we don’t have enough money!”
Churches can sometimes feel some anxiety during an interim time as you think about your mission, your call, and planning for the future. Do you wonder if you have enough resources to prepare for the future of your church?
Is declining church membership in our denomination an impossible challenge?
What do you have before you personally, that seems impossible? A broken relationship that needs healing? An illness that seems overwhelming. An unexpected job loss or financial loss.
You may, like the disciples, be completely overwhelmed and deeply angry at both the impossibility of the tasks before you, and feeling utterly ill-equipped and under-resourced for the job.
But hear this: When the disciples presented Jesus with that little boy’s measley 5 loaves and 2 fish, Jesus didn’t say “okay everyone, let’s pack it in, we really can’t do this.”
No— because Jesus knew the One who made all the fish in the oceans. And Jesus knew the One who in the very beginning had made everything out of nothing at all. How hard would this be for Someone like that?
I want to encourage you today to Stop thinking about what you don’t have, stop thinking about everything that you are not; these things are of absolutely No Consequence to our God, who created us as his workmanship, in Christ Jesus, to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do! (Eph. 2:10).
The smallness of that boy’s offering, the inadequacy of the offering, didn’t matter to Jesus. What mattered was that he offered it. Then Jesus used what was offered as the occasion for a miracle. It was the most natural thing in all the world to do this, because it’s what God has been doing from the Beginning: taking the nothing and making it everything. Taking the emptiness and filling it up. Taking the darkness and making it Light.
What matters to God is not what you offer, but that you offer whatever it is you have, -- as Mother Teresa says – that we give with total surrender.
Today, in the season of Lent, as we approach the Cross. As we approach the victory of an empty tomb — this season which can expose our emptiness, perhaps our confusion, our doubts, our inadequacies — all that we don’t have … Could we not remember something together? Could we not remember today, that the miracle that bought our redemption on the Cross, began with an act of surrender, with what a child offered.
I want to encourage us today to remember that When the Word became flesh and blood, and made his dwelling among us, When the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, it was the most amazing surrender, a beautiful offering of a child – and it was an occasion for THE miracle. THE miracle that leads to a Cross, in which his emptiness purchased our fullness. Jesus says “I have come that you might have joy, and that your joy maybe be full and complete.” What started as a beautiful offering of a child becomes an occasion for the demonstration of God’s fecundity, God’s abundant character toward us. God lacks nothing, and we, when we trust our lives to Christ, lack no good thing.
Would you, with me, today, identify the thing before you that you’ve been naming “impossible .” Maybe you’ve been too afraid to even admit it, or acknowledge its presence. And then let us – with anticipation – offer God what we have, remembering what our loving God does with what a child offers.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
It may very well be that you wake up every morning of your life, confident of God’s love for you. You have always felt close to a loving God. That from the time you have been a small child, you have never once doubted God, or wondered where God was or who God was or what God was up to in your life. If that’s the case, you can take a little nap for the next few minutes. Because you don’t need to hear what comes next. Or maybe you are a parent and all your children are perfect and have never given you any cause for concern and you have never spent even a moment of your life worrying about them. If that’s the case, you can think about what you’re going to do this afternoon because you don’t need to hear what comes next. Or maybe you are very busy all day long doing good in your family and in your work and for your friends. And you have never felt the least bit resentful that you are doing so much good for so many and nobody ever does anything nice for you. If that’s the case, you can write out your grocery shopping list now because you don’t need to listen for the next few minutes.
But if you have ever felt far from God, or worried about your kids, or if you have ever been resentful, then listen to this story about three men.
As you listen, maybe you will find yourself in the story. Maybe you’re more like the older son, or more like the younger son, or maybe you’re a parent yourself and you will know how God feels.
Read the dramatic reading.
Let’s say that there was a man who had two sons. The oldest son was a perfect kid. He got up in the morning without being nagged. He did his homework without fussing and got good grades. He spoke respectfully to his mother and father and did what they asked him to do without talking back. He had good, wholesome friends whom his parents were happy about and he married a young woman whom they loved. When he was an adult, he joined his father in the family business and worked beside him. He had good work habits, and when the time was right, he took over the business and did well with it.
His father loved him dearly and was proud of him, and counted on him, and in the way we all do, maybe he didn’t say that often enough.
The father’s second son was another story altogether. He gave his parents trouble almost from the day he was born. He was lazy, and made poor choices of friends, and sassed his parents and disobeyed them openly. He was rebellious and argumentative and made bad decisions and barely made it through high school. His father worried about him constantly and spent a whole lot of sleepless nights over his second son. He did everything he could to put his son on the right track. He tried gentle encouragement, and he tried tough love. In the end, he simply gave him over into the care of God because that’s all he could think to do.
And then came the worst day of all. The second son came to his father with a bold and crazy plan. He wanted to go off to another country and spend his inheritance and get rich quick. His father was heartsick of course, but talking didn’t work, and reasoning didn’t work, so after all that, the father wrote his son a huge check, and cried as he disappeared down the road.
A long time passed and the man continued working in his business alongside his older son, whom he loved and appreciated but maybe forgot to say so. He had a large number of loyal employees who all worked hard and the company did well. He never heard a word from his second son and had no idea where he was. But he never forgot that rebellious son of his. He prayed for him constantly and agonized over him, and worried over him, and longed to hear some word from him or see him again.
He developed a habit of looking out the window, that father did, watching for him. There was no reason he should think that he would ever see him come down the street again, but somehow it gave him comfort to watch.
In the meantime, the second son did about what we could have expected him to do. For a while he lived the good life, eating and drinking in fancy restaurants and staying in luxury hotels and flying all over world in search of one scheme after another that never came to anything. He made friends with people like himself who helped him spend his father’s money foolishly.
And when it was gone, so were his friends, and so was his fine lifestyle, and he felt lucky to find himself a job on a farm. He was hungry and cold and penniless and lonely and feeding pigs, of all things. And homesick. When he hit rock bottom, he came to his senses. He prepared a little speech for his father about how sorry he was, and about how he knew he wasn’t worthy to be a son any more after what he’d done, but he’d beg to come back home as one of his father’s day laborers. He practiced saying that speech a time or two and then he started out for home.
But on this day, too, his father was watching for him, and ran to meet him on the street, and hugged him and kissed him and sent everybody running in every direction for new clothes for him and all the makings for a proper barbeque party to celebrate his homecoming. He wouldn’t hear of any talk about being a day laborer and he couldn’t stop laughing and grinning and hugging his son and he called all his friends and neighbors and relatives to celebrate.
The older son (the hardworking faithful one) heard all the commotion and all the hugging and kissing and watched in the background while the Barbeque celebration was being prepared and he was understandably offended. He said to his father, “I’m your faithful son. I didn’t go off making bad friends and wasting your money. I’ve been here working hard and helping all along, and why didn’t you throw a party for me? And why couldn’t you have thanked me for my hard work and faithfulness all these years?”
And the father said to his faithful son, “of course I love you and everything that is mine is yours. But your brother has been lost to us, even almost dead to us, and we have to celebrate his homecoming.”
So maybe you’re more like the older son, faithful and hardworking, and always present and reliable. Then feel the love of God and the affirmation of God soak into your bones, and know the joy of living your life in constant companionship with God.
Or maybe you have a child or two of your own, and you’re more like the father. You know the anguish of one child who breaks your heart and wanders off. And you understand God’s great delight and even ecstasy when that one returns.
Or maybe you’re more like the younger son. You’ve been somewhere off here and there far from God and you’ve had lots of questions about God. You’ve been lonely for God and out of touch with God. And now you’re coming home – to feel the loving arms of God around you and hear the joyful welcome of the One who has longed for your return.
Because that’s how God is.
The story is pretty simple. Jesus is up there in the northern part of the country, not far from his home town of Nazareth. It’s early in his ministry before he’s gone on down south to Jerusalem.
One day some highly placed religious leaders – elders in the synagogue - came to Jesus with a message. They had been sent by a Roman centurion and they asked Jesus to heal the servant of the centurion who was very ill – about to die. And in case there should be any doubt about this, or in case Jesus might be inclined to deny his request, the elders also added that the Roman centurion was sympathetic to the Jews and had even built a Jewish synagogue. So Jesus went with them to the centurion’s home. It wasn’t far, but on the way there, a very humble message came from the Centurion telling Jesus not to bother to come – he didn’t have to take time out of his very busy schedule to come. But if Jesus would only say the word, he knew his servant would be healed. And Jesus turns to the crowd that was following him (you remember that there were always crowds of people surrounding him wherever he went) He turns to the crowd and says, “I haven’t found this kind of faith anywhere in Israel.” Which would have been deeply offensive to the crowds of Jewish people who were surrounding him.
And the next thing we know, the servant is completely healed and entirely well. And Jesus goes on down the road to a village called Nain and there he brings back to life a young man who had died and was actually on his way – being brought to the cemetery.
But here’s the story behind the story.
If we had been in that crowd of people with Jesus that day we might have heard some comments. Some protests. Some strong protests. We might have heard people say to Jesus, “Don’t you know who this man is? He’s a Gentile. Didn’t your mother ever teach you the difference between Jews and Gentiles? This man doesn’t follow our customs. He doesn’t worship with us. He doesn’t know our Scriptures and he doesn’t obey our laws. He eats pork! He does all sorts of things our scriptures tell us not to do. Don’t you know that Jews don’t associate with Gentiles? We don’t go into their homes, or eat with them or talk with them on the street or have any contact with them at all. Our laws strictly forbid that we should do such things. Don’t you know that? So why would you go to his house? Even if he did build us a synagogue. This is a betrayal of everything we’ve been taught in our scriptures for hundreds and hundreds of years.” Somebody would probably have said that.
And somebody else in the crowd would say, “The man is a Roman! Where have you been all your life, Jesus? Don’t you know that the Romans have come sweeping across our country, overpowering us? Their governors have taken over our cities and they’re writing our laws to their own advantage. We’re paying outrageous taxes that go straight all the way to Rome and we’re being bled to death. We have to pay taxes to use our own roads and to sell our own merchandize and produce. And have you seen that gigantic extravagant, magnificent palace that Herod has built right there in our own back yard, Jesus? That we are paying for. Your good Jewish neighbors in Nazareth are literally starving to death and he’s building his huge, magnificent, elaborate palace. And you want to even talk to one of those Romans? You want to heal his servant?” They would say to Jesus “Aren’t there enough little Jewish boys with epilepsy for you to cure? Or aren’t there enough disabled Jewish beggars in the streets for you to attend to, or enough Jewish women with serious medical conditions? Everywhere you go Jewish people are clutching at your clothing and listening to what you have to say. A whole country full of Jewish people needs you desperately. Do you have to heal this Roman?” Somebody very well may have said.
And then they would want to say to Jesus, “And besides all that, the man is a Centurion. He’s a soldier. He’s the commanding officer of a hundred other soldiers, all based twenty-five miles from your home in Nazareth, Jesus. Surely have seen them. Surely you have met them on the streets. He’s the commanding officer of the men who are harassing your mother and your sisters in the streets. His soldiers are demanding huge bribes from your father and your brothers – just to guarantee their physical safety. Why would you want to heal his servant?” They might very well have said.
And we today know more of the story. And we want to say to Jesus: “These are the men who rounded you up that night in the garden of Gethsemane while you were praying. These are the men who hauled you off to be tried in the court system in the middle of the night. These are the men who pounded spikes in your hands and feet and hung you on a cross. These are the men who stood in their places at the foot of your cross and gawked at you and watched your agony for six hours while you died. And while they waited for you to die they entertained themselves by dividing up your clothing and shouting insults at you. Are you sure you want to go out of your way to heal one of them?” We would say.
And Jesus looks at us in that way that the does and he says, “Yes, I healed that man. Yes, I responded to the request of a Gentile, Roman, soldier. I healed his servant. And what I discovered is that that Gentile, Roman soldier has more faith than any of the rest of you. Who keep all the laws, and know all the scriptures and can recite them. You’re very careful who you associate with. You hang out with all the right people and you stay away from the wrong people. That Gentile, Roman, soldier has more faith than any of you. And God’s love reaches all the way to this Gentile, Roman, soldier.
And we shake our heads because we do not understand and we can’t imagine it. And we acknowledge that there are a lot of things about the Upside down topsy turvey kingdom of God that we do not understand.
So your assignment for this week or this month, or for the season of Lent. Your assignment is to think about people whom you might consider to be far from God. People way outside of the boundaries we sometimes construct for God. Way outside of God’s love. People whom we think God would never claim. Because of where they live or what they believe or how they behave.
And then sit in front of God with that for a bit and see what God says to you.