Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Sunday - God Raises the Curtain on a New Act Three!

I have been talking this week about the story of our lives, a story that is also the story of Jesus, and I talked about these stories as having three acts - in Act One, we build up ourselves and our lives, growing and accomplishing new things. In Act Two, we are confronted with the inevitability of death. Our progress halts, our dreams disappear, the things we have worked so hard for come to naught, life turns to death. We can’t avoid it, we can’t go around it, we can’t hide from it or run from it. When death comes, whether it is the death of a cherished dream, the death of a secure financial future, the death of a marriage or a friendship, or even the death of health or a life of independent living, there is nothing we can do but succumb to it. We’ve all experienced this. Every story has an Act Two - a Good Friday.

But we are here this morning because we hope, we believe, we trust, and still need to hear the reminder that there is more. And thank God, there is. The curtain fell on Good Friday, on the scene of Jesus’ body in the tomb, unquestionably dead. But the curtain rises again this morning, just as the sun does in the East. There is more to the story! God has written a third act, one in which, as inevitable as death is, it is not the end. Death is not the end of Jesus’ story. Death is not the end of our story. New life is. The story of our lives is life––death––new life.

This is the story of Jesus. If we looked at only part of his story, it would be amazing, but taken together, it is more brilliant than the sun. In his life, this man who was God-with-us entered into the human condition, opening himself to others, making himself vulnerable to them in love, taking on their pains and their misery. He proclaimed love and forgiveness when hatred and vengeance were easier, he reminded those he encountered that God loved them more than they could imagine, and that they, too could love others. This was the first part of Jesus’ story, and the first part of ours. Taking part in life, establishing relationships, being vulnerable to others, growing in body, mind, and spirit.
Then there is the next part of Jesus’ story, and of ours, when all of that comes to an end, either through betrayal or negligence, and it closes in death. And we die, just as Jesus did. Really, physically, literally, Jesus did die. There is no question of that, although the early life of the church had doubters who couldn’t accept the reality of Jesus’ death - they thought instead that he only appeared to die, or that it wasn’t really him on the cross. But it really was Jesus and he really did die. Which, on its own, is also remarkable, that this person who told everyone to choose the path of love over hate, and the lives of others over his own, actually did what he said. He walked the talk, his death was consistent with his life, he didn’t back down at the last minute.

But there is even more, because, finally, we have his resurrection - the act that makes sense of everything that came before it. Jesus’ story did not end with death - the tomb was empty on Sunday morning. He was no longer there, in the place where the dead remained. Death was not the end of him. His story continues even now, because in God the story has no end. 

The significance of the story of Jesus goes beyond just being a good tale. It lies in the fact that his story is our story. His Act Three is our Act Three. As Paul writes in our reading from 1 Corinthians today, “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. ... All will be made alive in Christ.” New life is ours, as well. God did not leave Jesus in the tomb, and God does not leave us in our tombs, either.

Where you experience the end of something, God promises something new. Not the same that you had before, to be sure - that is just the old life renewed, that is not new life. God offers something new, something better, and so,
    • If you are experiencing the death of a relationship, take heart. God is going to offer you something new in place of it. It might not be another relationship in its place - it might be a new life where you are on your own, but it will be from God, and it will fill you with light. Remember the story of Jacob and Esau, the twins born to Rebekah and Isaac? Jacob took advantage of Esau and played a mean trick on him and took his birthright, and then his blessing from their father, and Esau was so outraged he wanted to kill Jacob. Because of the hurt they caused one another, their relationship died and Jacob fled his home forever. But God brought Jacob to the land of Laban where he met Rachel, whom he loved dearly, and who bore him Joseph, who went on to save the land of Egypt and Jacob’s family from famine. If the relationship between Jacob and his brother had not come to such a bitter end, Jacob would never have fled his home, never have met Rachel, and never have fathered Joseph, who brought life to so many people. When Jacob was going through the death of his relationship with is brother, God was bringing new life to not only Jacob but to a whole country of people. After a relationship has died, God brings new life.
    • If you are experiencing the loss of a home - the end of your time there with all of the wonderful moments and memories, take heart that God is preparing a new home for you. It will be unfamiliar at first, but God is already waiting there for you with love and light and new memories to be made. When Abraham and Sara were called to leave their home in Ur behind, to say goodbye to all of the family and friends they had ever known, God brought them to a new home in Israel, where he and Sara had Isaac, the son of their old age, new life for them, where they created a family that became the chosen people Israel, from whom Jesus came and created a new family of brothers and sisters in Christ, beyond what Abraham and Sara could possibly have imagined when they left their home in Ur. After we lose our homes, God brings new life.
    • If you are experiencing the loss of health - mobility, or memory, or strength - take heart that God is bringing new life here, too. To live more in the moment, to do nothing but experience the air and the light and the sounds of the day as they come to you minute by minute - this is a death to those who have spent their lives doing and accomplishing and being busy, but it is also a gift of grace from God - a new life of sabbath rest that many in the world yearn for, a chance to be still and hear the voice of God. Think of Job, who lost all of his children, and his home, and his health, whose friends turned on him and blamed him for his own misery, who wished he had been born dead, who said, “I loathe my life.” But as he sat in darkness, everything gone from him, God spoke to Job. Who hasn’t yearned to hear the voice of God - direct and unmistakable? Job, who experienced the loss of everything that made him who he was, received new life in the moment that God’s voice spoke to him - the same voice that at Creation said, “Light” and there was light - a voice Job would not have heard if he had been as busy living his life as he was before. After our good health is lost, God brings new life.
    • If you are experiencing the death of a dream or a long-held expectation of how something should turn out, take heart that as that dream dies, God is waiting to offer you something new. A new dream, or a new reality that you couldn’t possibly have imagined or expected. And if you are experiencing the loss of happiness, or even a loss of faith, do not despair. If you are struggling through depression, let me tell you from experience that God turns this loss and death into new life, too. You may be in your own dark tomb, but God will raise you just as God raised Jesus, and you will find that light and life is more brilliant than you ever experienced before, and your capacity to share in the pain of others is made deeper, so that you might be with others in their own tombs and walk with them into the new life that God offers them, too. After the sun has gone down, God brings new life.

Many forces in our lives will try to convince us that death is the end. That we will not make it through the loss of our .... whatever it is we face losing. We are told, or we tell ourselves, that we can’t handle it, that we don’t know how to get through it, that it’s too much. That our stories have only two acts - life, and death. But those are lies. Not because we’re strong, or because there’s no such thing as death, or because God will magically rescue us and make everything the way it used to be. It doesn’t work that way. The truth is two-fold - we will not make it through. We will die. We will go through Good Friday. These are true. But the second half of that truth is that God is walking with us through to the other side, where God will offer us new life, as we have been promised. As inevitable as death is, so, too, is the new life that follows. God, who raised Jesus Christ from death will raise us too, and our new life will be as glorious as his. This is the story of Easter.

The story of our lives is the story of Jesus. The story of Jesus is the story of our lives, individually, and as a community, and as the world. From Palm Sunday and the triumph of achieving new things, to Holy Week and the betrayal and abandonment of all that supports us, to Good Friday and death, to Holy Saturday and the existence after loss that can’t truly be called life. We all know this story - we live it every day. And now we come to the end of the story, which isn’t really an end - to the part that God has written - to the cross that is bare, to the tomb that is empty, to Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, raised from the dead, to Easter and new life for all of God’s children. The curtain fell on Good Friday, Act Two, the day of death, but God raises it again, nevermore to fall, the beginning of our Act Three that has no ending because it is written by the God of life, in the name of Christ, who never fails to bring new life after death, who is our joy, and our life, and our hope! Thanks be to God! Amen! 

Good Friday - The Inescapabity of Act Two

The curtain has fallen. Act Two is over. We are left with only death. We can’t avoid it, we can’t hide from it, we can’t run from it. Whether the death we’re left with is a physical one, or the death of a dream, or the death of a relationship, or even the death of possibilities, whether the death is our own or someone else’s, whether it was expected or unexpected, it always hits us with a finality that leaves us stunned.

Jesus told his disciples he was going to die. True, he didn’t say the words, “I am going to die,” but he was pretty clear that Jerusalem was going to be the end of this particular journey. And, in fact, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Death is always the end of every journey. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that every journey ends, and when it does, it is a death. Or a loss. Or The End. Whatever we call it, it is inevitable for all of us and for every thing that exists in this universe. 
It’s amazing, though, the lengths we go to to to avoid facing the end of something. You may have heard of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, and the five stages of grief. Most people think that this is how we react to death after it happens, but Kübler-Ross actually developed these five experiences as reactions to impending death - five things that people experience when they are facing death, whether literal death or the death of an idea or a relationship or a long-cherished hope. The five experiences, as you probably know, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and people can go through them one at a time, but we are more likely to experience several simultaneously, or even go back and forth between several of them multiple times. Who here hasn’t denied the impending death of something? Maybe it’s been the death of a relationship, and you find yourself denying that things are as bad they look. Or who hasn’t been angry in the face of death? When I faced the death of a particular dream of mine, oh, was I angry! Or bargaining? Who hasn’t engaged in earnest and intense prayer in the hopes of averting the death of something or someone? Christians are especially good at turning prayer into a bargaining tool, in the hopes of putting off the end as long as possible. We experience all of these reactions when faced with the end, but unfortunately neither denial nor anger nor bargaining is able to stop the end from coming. The curtain always falls. Act Two always comes to an end. Good Friday comes every year.

The particularly troubling thing about death is that it defies all sense we try to make out of the world. Death never makes sense when we look at the life that came before it. We spend our entire lives growing and achieving new things, learning and expanding; from the level of the smallest cell up to the biggest civilization, the human experience is one of growth and progress. But it never lasts. Nothing we do can make it continue on forever. The lives we’ve so carefully planned and carried out are scattered like dust. And so Act Two never seems the appropriate conclusion to Act One. We try to make sense of it. Our lives consist of day-to-day struggles to make sense of death. Religion, philosophy, the arts, even the sciences, they all try to make sense of the inescapable nature of the end.

Just look at how we try to make sense of Jesus’ death. In the Gospel of John, which we heard today, Jesus’ death happens because “the enemy” hated Jesus. Whether that enemy is the darkness that hates the light, or “the Jews” (the Gospel of John is unfortunately hostile towards Jews), or even us, whose sins made necessary Jesus’ atoning crucifixion, John tries to give meaning to Jesus’ death by saying that it happened because of someone else’s evil intentions. And so sometimes when we face death in our own lives, we search for someone or something to blame. Whether it is another person, or cancerous cells, or greedy businesses, or even secular society - we look for “the enemy” who is trying to end things for us, so that we can make sense of death. 

But, sometimes, there isn’t any enemy. Sometimes death comes and there has been no conflict, no enemy, no evil intentions. And so we search for another way to make sense of it. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the meaning of Jesus’ death is a bit different. In those Gospels, the writers try to make sense of Jesus’ death by saying that it was God’s will. Scripture was to be fulfilled, and Jesus’ death would therefore happen no matter what. Jesus says in the garden, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Some Christians try to explain death as God’s plan for us to receive new life. Luther was particularly fond of saying this - the waters of baptism drown us, kill us, so that we might receive the new life that God offers through Christ. We often turn to this explanation when death comes at the end of a long struggle. But again, it doesn’t explain why we have death at all - it doesn’t give meaning to this bizarre human story that we live, live, live, and then we die.

But really, no matter what explanation we choose to understand and give meaning to death, all of them fall flat when that moment comes. And comes it does. No matter what explanation we give, we cannot stop it from coming. We may say that death comes because a hostile force is out to get us - evil, the devil, sin - but there is no wall we can put up to keep it out, or fight we can give that will defeat it. We may say that death comes because that is God’s will for us - but there is no prayer we can make that will stop its arrival, or sacrifice we can offer that will take its place. It is truly a mystery. For all things, big and small, for individuals, for communities, for relationships, for dreams, death comes at the end. 

And so the question becomes, not why does death come, but how do we carry on afterwards? Once we have been through Good Friday, how do we get through Holy Saturday? What do we do the day after death? The Bible is - amazingly - silent about what happened the day after Jesus died. The Gospels all end the scene of Jesus’ Act Two by saying it was the Sabbath - the day of rest. But they don’t describe what happens among the disciples or what happens in the tomb. It’s almost as if the day doesn’t quite exist - nothing quite happens on that day. It is a day sucked out of the flow of time - deleted from history. An intermission that seems to go on forever. Which, I imagine, is what it felt like for the disciples. The day after the death of a dearly beloved one is often like that - a blur, vague, nothing feels real, dimmed, muted, a fog. The day after a significant loss everything feels like it has lost its meaning - we feel at sea and directionless. If I were one of the disciples, I probably would have just lay on the floor all day because there would have been no reason to do anything else. This is what we are tempted to do after every death.

But, and this is really of utmost importance, we are not the disciples. We know, in a way that they did not, that this is not the end of the story. Neither Jesus’ death nor the ones we experience in our own lives are the end. They are inevitable, they are inescapable, but they are not final. There is something after death, there is new life, Act Three. There is Easter.

It would be foolish for us to pretend today that we don’t know this. Today is Good Friday, after all. We are somber, of course, because Jesus did die, because even the Son of God accepts the way in which all things end, but we do not go through this day in despair. We do not, in fact, go through any death with despair. Instead, we go through it with sadness, yes, and also hope and trust. Trust in God’s promise of new life after death, a promise we know to be true because we have seen it in Christ’s own resurrection. A promise that we trust, and that fills us with hope, because our God is first and foremost the God of Resurrection and Life for all of creation.

The curtain has fallen. Act Two is over. But the story has not yet come to an end. We must sit through the intermission, true, but there is one act left to be played out. God has written a wonderful conclusion, we have only to hang on for a little bit longer, trusting that the best is yet to come and the curtain will rise again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Maundy Thursday - Helped and Helping Others through Act Two

Act One, Act Two, and Act Three - the different parts of the story of our lives. On Palm Sunday we experienced Act One - the growth of Jesus’ ministry amongst the people of Israel, his triumphant arrival in Jerusalem, and the crowd’s celebration that God’s reign was almost fulfilled. We also entered into the beginning of Act Two as we moved within the space of that hour from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday. Slowly and steadily, Jesus’ supporters fell away, his following started shrinking instead of growing. Just as in our own lives, his successes came to a close and the end came closer. Tonight, we begin the climax of our story about Jesus as the curtain begins to come down on Act Two. Tomorrow is the big day, but tonight we take part in the slow but inevitable tension that is building. 

Tonight, though, we turn our attention from the main character of Jesus, or even from ourselves as we star in our own stories, to the supporting characters. Every good story has minor characters who propel the plot along, whose actions influence the behaviour of the main character, people whose very existence bring about the confrontation that occurs at the end of Act Two. Snow White had the wicked Queen, Cinderella had her jealous stepsisters, Frodo had Sauron and his army of evil.

In the story of Jesus, these minor or supporting characters include two types in particular - betrayers and bystanders - and each participates in the end of Act Two in their own way. The betrayer, of course, is Judas. In every Gospel interpretation of Jesus’ story, Judas sets in motion the events that bring us to Good Friday. Judas is the one who leaves the side of his master to collaborate with the opposition - whether because he is deliberately motivated by evil or is simply and tragically misguided in his attempts to bring about God’s kingdom (interpretations of his motives are many and varied). We all have betrayers in our own stories - people who have forsaken their loyalty to us and taken up with those who oppose us, either intentionally or trying to do what they thought was best for us. We know what it is to break bread with someone and to have them turn on us in return, whether the betrayer is an actual person, or whether betrayal comes from failed investments or dreams that never worked out, or whether betrayal comes from our own bodies - as we get cancer or our heart fails or our mind starts to go. The betrayer is a significant character in Act Two of our lives, as we move from life to impending death.

And then there are the bystanders - the people who stand by and do nothing. Peter was one such bystander, along with the other disciples, the adoring crowds on Palm Sunday, even Pilate and Herod were bystanders who chose not to use their power to free Jesus. While Act Two is inevitable in every story - we all die, after all - every story ends - the bystanders make it all harder to bear. It is one thing to stand there and bear witness, as it were, as Jesus’ women followers did - watching everything and remembering it all. It is another thing to stand there and look away, and pretend everything is normal - to watch someone move from life to death and say nothing - not a word of protest, not a word of encouragement, not a reminder of the promise of Act Three, nothing. We also have these bystanders in our own lives - people in our own lives who walk along with us but don’t really see us. Who are busy with their own lives, and their own struggles, and don’t have the time, or take the time, to be with us in our own times of ending, or remind us that new life is coming.

As easy as it is for us to identify the betrayers and the bystanders in both Jesus’ story and our own, tonight I want us to think a bit about how we are the betrayers and bystanders in the stories and lives of others. Because we are, and we know we are, even when we want to deny it. “Not I, Lord,” we say. But we do - we betray others and in doing so, we betray Jesus. Whether we have literally betrayed someone, by lying or cheating or stealing, or whether our betrayal has been more figurative - telling someone they weren’t good enough to follow their dream, or that God didn’t love them, or that they deserved the misfortune they got. We even betray ourselves, when we believe the insults and demeaning words spoken to us, when we internalize the words and tell ourselves that we are no good, that we don’t deserve forgiveness, that we are hopeless and beyond saving.
And then there are the ways in which we stand by passively in the stories of others. We watch people face the closing of their own Act One, and we say nothing to them as they face their own death and loss. Maybe because we aren’t reconciled to our own ending, but how often do we see the pain of others and do nothing? On the news, on the street corner, in the church, even in our own families, we watch as others struggle to get through the loss of loved ones, of health, of dreams, and we find that we are the ones who are suddenly too busy or too preoccupied to help. When we don’t get involved, when we say it’s someone else’s problem, even when we engage in wishful thinking accompanied by regrets, we act as bystanders in the stories of others, even as bystanders in our own stories.We are, like Judas, like Peter, like Herod and Pilate, like the crowds, like all of the disciples, like the two criminals next to Jesus, guilty.

But as I said last Sunday, Act Two is not the end of the story - not the end of our story, nor the end of others’ stories. Of course, when we have been bystanders or betrayers in other people’s stories, it sure can seem like Act Two is the end. But there is an Act Three - it’s just that it can be impossible to see and impossible to believe in if we are still stuck in the tragedy of Act Two. It is impossible to accept the new life that God offers in Act Three if we can’t let go of the fact that not only do we die, but so do others, and moreover, we have played a role in those deaths.

And so God, who desperately wants us to continue until we get to the new life of Act Three, helps us. And so we come to tonight, and to Jesus’ actions on his last night with his disciples - his words and his deeds as the story of their time together comes to an end. Jesus, doing for us first what we are then supposed to do for others, makes the transition from Act One to Act Two easier by caring for those around him. Serving them, washing them, feeding them, and in all of those acts, forgiving them. Jesus forgives his disciples for betraying him - don’t forget that Judas shared in the Last Supper, too - and Jesus forgives his disciples for the role they were about to play as bystanders in his trial and crucifixion. And he does this so that when Act Three comes - when his own new life and resurrection comes, they would be able to face it. Ashamed at their own role, yes, but not devastated. (The saddest thing about Judas, by the way, is that at the end, he didn’t trust that he would be forgiven. If only he had been able to hang on through his guilt for just one more day!)

This is also what Jesus offers us, to help us get through our own losses and endings. Jesus offers us forgiveness and in that forgiveness comes strength. Yes, we have betrayed others and ourselves. Yes, we have stood by and done nothing, in the lives of others and in our own lives. But Jesus tells us, in his own Act Two as he did throughout Act One of his life, that we are forgiven. When we stand face-to-face with death, any death, we are forced to reexamine our own lives and to see where we have gone wrong, but Jesus tells us, through the water that washes us and through his body and blood, that we are forgiven. And so, we too, though ashamed at our own roles, are able to look forward to Act Three - to Easter Sunday - to the new life that will arrive after death.

Secure in this promise, tonight we renew our commitment to follow Christ in this as in all things. Tonight we do as Jesus did for us, washing one another, serving one another, feeding one another, and in these things proclaiming God’s forgiveness. We do these things here in this place for one another so that we might go out into the world, into our lives, and do them for others. We do them so that instead of participating in others’ stories as betrayers or bystanders, we might participate in their stories by preparing them for their own Act Three - by proclaiming to them that they, too, are forgiven and that they, too, will receive the new life that Christ offers to the world. As Jesus has done for us, we do for one another, and for the world, proclaiming forgiveness and thus prepared to face death and the new life that follows. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Palm Sunday 2016 - Act One, Act Two, and Act Three

Today - Palm Sunday - is the beginning of Holy Week - a seven-day immersion into the story of Jesus Christ - a story that’s also our own story. Every life is a story, after all. Every life has central characters, and minor characters. Every life has a theme - values that inform our choices and give them meaning. Every life has a plot - a sequence of events that occur - sometimes random and sometimes intentional - that don’t make sense until we look back at the end of it. And as every scholar of literature will tell you - whether the stories are from the great epics of Greek mythology, or the stories from the Bible, or from the works of Shakespeare, or even from the classic Disney movies - the stories that resonate most with us all follow a certain narrative arc. The stories of our lives follow this arc, as does the story of the church, and even the story of this congregation.

If we were to describe all of these stories like a play, it would be in three acts and it would go like this: Act One - the beginning of the story, would be about the development of the central character. You in your story, me in my story, Jesus in the Gospel story. If you think about the great Disney movies - Snow White or Cinderella, or if you think about other great movies, like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars - the first bit is all about the main characters and how they grow. How they begin to take their place in the world. Snow White leaves her home and encounters the seven dwarves and begins a happy life with them. Cinderella meets her fairy godmother and goes to the ball and meets her prince and begins a new relationship. Frodo leaves his home to set out on a new path of discovery of new lands and new friends and new responsibilities. Our stories, too, include leaving our home and meeting new people and taking on new roles and growing. Jesus left his home, and met his disciples, and grew as he proclaimed forgiveness and healing to more and more people. This church found its place and grew and offered a spiritual home to more and more Lutherans. Every Act One in the human story follows the same path - growing, gaining a sense of self, becoming who we are.

And then there’s Act Two. Act Two, of course, consists of scenes of conflict, tension, obstacles. In Act Two, the central character must now share the stage with others, people who would try to stop the main character from existing. In Act Two, the time of growing and gaining is brought to a halt, and the main character faces losing everything. In Snow White, she eats the apple and falls unconscious - dead to her dear friends, and it seems as if her happy story has come to an end. In Cinderella, midnight strikes and she retreats back to her cinders and it seems as if everything was only a dream that is now as cold as the ashes in her hearth. In Lord of the Rings, the main character’s best friend and guide and mentor, Gandalf, is dead and it seems as if Frodo’s entire mission is ended before it began. In Holy Week, Jesus’ Act Two is his betrayal by Judas, the passivity of his friends as he’s led away, and his death on the cross. Death is the end of our own second act - whether it is our actual physical death, or the death of a relationship, the death of a time that brought us great joy, or even the death of a dream. 

And then, of course, there’s the final act - Act Three. The stories that make us feel good, that leave us inspired and hopeful, they all have a third act. In Act Three, Snow White wakes up and looks into the eyes of her prince. Cinderella puts on the glass slipper, and becomes a real princess. Gandalf reappears and evil is defeated. Good Friday becomes Easter Sunday. Death is followed by new life.
The thing is, we never know where in the story we are. Or, even if we have a sense that we’re in Act Two, we often feel that we don’t know whether or not there will be a third act. Have you ever watched a movie with a young child - 2 or 3 or 4 years old? They don’t know about Act Three. They haven’t lived long enough. They know about Act One, but try watching a Disney movie with a young child. It’s all great until Act Two, when Snow White eats the apple, or Cinderella’s clock tolls midnight. And then! Oh my goodness - young children are shocked by Act Two, and devastated because they don’t know about Act Three! They don’t know that nobody ever dies in a Disney movie - they don’t know that the good guy always wins and the bad guys never triumph. (If you really want to mess with the psychological development of a child, turn the TV off halfway through every Disney movie - it would be appalling!) But their experience is the experience we have of living in our own stories. Us, Jesus’ disciples - we are never certain what’s going to happen next or even where we are in the story. What we thought was Act One turns out to have been the middle of Act Two, and sometimes what we thought was the end of Act Two turns out to be still only halfway through Act One. And who knows about Act Three? Which makes life alternately thrilling or terrifying. Today is Palm Sunday - a thrilling day as Jesus entrance into Jerusalem and heralds the coming of the kingdom of God. Today is also called Passion Sunday - a terrifying day as Jesus embarks on the week that will end in his crucifixion. Our stories - our lives - are thrilling or terrifying depending on whether we expect there will be a third act. 

There is, of course, a third act to our story this week. In the story of Jesus, Act Three takes place a week from now, when the tomb is emptied and Christ is given new life. Act Three is the sun rising again after the darkness and night of Act Two. But this Act Three is not restricted just to Jesus. God has written our stories so that we, too, will experience the same Act Three. Unlike young children who don’t know how the movie will end, we do. God sent Jesus to give us a peek at the ending of our own story, so that we might be thrilled, and not terrified. Easter Sunday is the movie spoiler that tell us how things will end for us. 
And since we know what our Act Three will be, it means that we live out Acts One and Two differently. It means that we live through Act One with humility and gratitude, knowing that whatever gains we have made and growth we have achieved, none of it will last forever. Act One is not the end of the story. On the flip side, we live through Act Two with strength and endurance. All of the losses and death we experience, none of this will last forever either. Act Two is also not the end of the story. We can do all of this because Act Three is the end, and it is an ending that God writes, which means it is an ending that ends in God. Our story is Jesus’ story. Our story is the story of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and finally Easter, of celebration and achievement, of loss and death, and of new life. So, whether you in your own story are currently in Act One or Act Two or you can’t even tell, I invite you this week to enter into the story of Jesus, and to receive the comfort of knowing that God has already written *your* Act Three, and it ends, like Jesus’ story, in Easter. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Lent 4 2016 - Reconciliation and Truth

So who do you identify most with in this story? The younger brother? His story is familiar to those of us with less than stellar pasts - a life of bad decisions followed by repentance and forgiveness and undeserved grace. We’re all a little bit of the younger brother, even if only in a small way. But maybe you identify more with the older brother. You’re the responsible one, who works hard no matter what, who never asks for anything in return, and who gets upset when the lazy, irresponsible sibling gets all the credit. I suspect that each of us also has that older brother inside us too from time-to-time, maybe when we’ve worked ourselves too hard, or haven’t spent enough time taking care of ourselves and too much time taking care of others. We understand his resentment and why he has those feelings towards his father and towards his younger brother.

How many of you identify with the father in this story? It’s not something we usually do. The father is a bit of a mysterious character - we don’t know why he does anything that he does, and his behaviour isn’t always the best. He enables his younger son’s irresponsible living by giving him the money he asks for, he doesn’t go out looking for him like the shepherd does with the lost sheep or the woman does with lost coin. He doesn’t actually tell his younger son that he’s forgiven when he comes back, and, as the older brother notes, he treats his two sons unequally. Why *would* we think of ourselves as the father?

Interestingly, though, when look at the details of this story, and when we place it in its larger context, and when we hear the reading from 2 Corinthians that we heard this morning, it seems that God is actually calling us to be more like the father. God is calling us to look at things from a new point of view.

The first hint we get comes from verse 4 in Luke Chapter 15. I don’t know why the lectionary cuts out the beginning of the story, but if you look at your reading, you will see we jump from verse three to verse 11 and leave out the middle. The middle is the two stories about the shepherd who had 100 sheep and lost one and went looking for it, and about the woman who had ten coins and lost one and went to find it. And these stories start with Jesus saying, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them....” And this story of the father and the two sons is also about someone losing something. By comparing us to the shepherd in the first story, Jesus is calling us to consider ourselves as people who have lost something, and as people who are called to find what we have lost. And in the case of the father and the two sons, with the father having lost one son to “dissolute living” and in danger of losing the older son by not appreciating him, Jesus calls us to think of ourselves as the father - “There was a father who had two sons.” Specifically, Jesus calls us to be the father who welcomes the lost, dissolute son, as well as the father who goes out into the yard to search for the older son, another lost one, to bring him back into the house. Jesus calls us to be the father who searches for those who feel like they aren’t part of the family, to remind them that they always will be.

Which is what Paul is saying in his second letter to the Corinthians. Paul says that God has “given us the ministry of reconciliation,” and that “we are ambassadors for Christ.” Paul is saying that we are called, like the father in Jesus’ story, to be people who go out into the world searching for others in order to make God’s family whole again. God is calling us to be ambassadors of reconciliation. To be reconcilers.

Which sounds pretty good to me! I want to be a reconciler. I want to help people reconcile with one another. I want to be reconciled to people. I want everyone to be one big happy family. Don’t we all?

Except that it’s hard. Being a reconciler, and being reconciled with the people in our lives that we’re alienated from - it’s hard work. It’s hard because to reconcile others to one another, we need to be ourselves reconciled, with God and with those in our lives.

And that is not easy because it requires us to be truthful about our relationships with God and with one another. We have to speak the truth and listen to the truth. Reconciliation is about right relationships, and we can’t have relationships that are built on dishonesty or secrets, because we can’t be in relationships with people if we are not our true selves. So truth is critical to reconciliation. We have to face up to the truth of our own role in the breaking down of whatever relationship isn’t working, and we have to speak the truth about the other’s role in the breakdown. Psalm 32 says, “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” When we don’t speak the truth, we suffer. As painful as the truth might be, refusing to speak about it causes even more suffering. “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” When we don’t speak the truth about a situation, resentments simmer, anger eats away at us, guilt builds. It’s toxic. Speaking the truth is the beginning of healing, the beginning of reconciliation: the younger son spoke the truth about what he had done - “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” - and even the older son spoke the truth, “I have been working like a slave for you, and yet you have never given me even a young goat.” I don’t think that either one of them had an easy time with that. Speaking the truth is one of the bravest things we are called to do in this world because first it means admitting that we have caused pain to someone else, and then it means admitting that there are deep, unhealed wounds within ourselves. Speaking the truth about relationships means admitting that we are connected to the other, and that that connection makes us vulnerable to one another and that that vulnerability can lead to pain.

But, as the Psalm says, when we speak the truth, things change for the better. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” Speaking the truth about the disrupted relationships in our lives, acknowledging that things are, in fact, not okay, leads to reconciliation. And when we speak the truth to God, even if that truth is “God, I am angry at you sometimes,” or, “God, I feel abandoned by you sometimes,” even when we say those things, God reaches out to us and brings us in and reconciles us to God’s self through Christ, reaffirming that no matter what, God remains in relationship with us. The same way that the father responded to the truth the older son spoke, by saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” God responds to our truth by saying, “Child, no matter what you feel towards me, you are always my child, and my grace is always with you.” God reaches out to us in reconciliation, as the father reached out to his older son. The first step in being reconciled and in being ambassadors of reconciliation is to both speak and hear the truth, and in that truth to affirm the relationship that exists.

Now - did you notice that in that one response of the father to his son, the father reminds the son of how important each person was to the family as a whole? He starts by saying, “Son, you are always with me.” Son is a reminder that the one standing outside of the house has a relationship with the father. And then he says, “we had to celebrate ... because this brother of yours...” The father doesn’t say, “because of my other son,” he says, “because of your brother.” Your brother. A reminder to the one standing in the yard that he also has a relationship with his brother. They are a family. They have relationships that needed to be reconciled - between one son and the father, between the other son and the father, and between the two sons - brothers - themselves.

God calls us first to be children reconciled with our God - to speak the truth to God and to hear God’s words of reconciliation in return - and then to be reconciled with one another, to speak the truth to one another and have compassion - and then God calls us to be the father in the story and help others to reconcile with one another - again, by speaking the truth and by reminding others of the relationships they have with each other. This is not easy work. I’m sure it was not easy for the father to leave the party for his younger son to go out and find his older son, and it certainly couldn’t have been easy for him to listen to his son tell him that he was a slave-driver who didn’t appreciate his son’s work and to hear that his other son had spent all his inheritance on prostitutes. It particularly couldn’t have been easy accept what his son told him and then to respond with love. None of this is easy. But God does all of these things for us first, coming out to look for us as we stand apart in our resentment, hearing our truth and reconciling us to God’s self through Christ, reminding us that we are God’s children forever and connected to our brothers and sisters, so that we in turn might serve the world in the same ministry of reconciliation, not counting anyone’s trespasses against them, sharing the steadfast love of God that we have first received ourselves, and reminding others that they, too, are our brothers and sisters, all together children of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.