Thursday, April 4, 2019

Prodigal - Lent 4, Year C T'shuvah! Week 3

Some stories in scripture we’ve heard so much, so often, so many different times, that we miss the whole story.

I think the prodigal son is one of those stories.  We’ve heard it so many times. In so many ways.  As a children’s message. As a drama. As a choral reading.  In Sunday School. In Bible Study.  In sermons.

Here’s a throwback – the very first children’s message I ever did, at a youth worship in my childhood congregation when I was about 16 – was about the prodigal son.

I taught the kids a song I’d learned at Girl Scout camp.

“I shall arise and go unto my father
and shall say unto him
father I have sinned
and against heaven and before thee
I am no more worthy to be called thy son.”

Camp music in the full King James language to boot.

Of course, the message was about a wandering son who had squandered a great deal – he’d boldly rejected his father, asked for his inheritance and then spent it all on a wild lifestyle for a season.  And returned home to ask for forgiveness.  Because THAT is mostly the story we tell about these verses.

I remember this story most as a story about a son who came back in shame, apologizing, owning his poor choices.

And of course, there is so much more to it than only that.

This week as I was sitting with this text, and sitting with Lent, I was struck by this detail:

“…while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion;

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I wonder.  Have you ever been wronged by someone you dearly loved? 

Have you ever found yourself in the spot of knowing that you would forgive all the past mistakes just to have the person who has turned their back on you return?

Have you ever found yourself in the spot of scanning the horizon just waiting for someone to turn back to you?

Knowing that no matter what they had done, you would fold them into their arms and tell them they were beloved?

I think sometimes we get so tied up with the lost son’s actions and then subsequent decision that we miss this detail that while the son was still far off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion.

Before the son could speak a word.  His father was filled with compassion.

Do you know how we define compassion?  To have sympathetic concern or pity for the misfortune of others. 

His father had concern for HIS misfortune. The father had concern for the hardships his son was facing.  From far off…as he saw him approach…

In the Jewish tradition, rabbis would practice midrash – that is both understanding what is IN the text and perhaps what is “BETWEEN” the text, or revealed by the gaps in the text.

Here’s what I imagine in the gaps of the story.  I imagine a high spot on the property where the father would look out over the road every single day… waiting….

…and I also imagine that on the day he had watched his son walk away, he also hoped for the day that his son might return.

When we leave the path to God with God, there are people looking for us – watching for our return. 

And of course, God is looking for us too.

The text continues:

“ he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

I have had the experience of friends and family waiting for me expectantly. I have had the experience of God waiting for me expectantly. 

I wonder, do you have that experience?  Can you remember a time that you were received not with scolding and correction but with love and joy, or even pity for what you’ve endured in your time of separation as you returned? 

The experience of being embraced – no matter what?

I am struck that the possibility of being embraced without condition makes returning a whole lot easier.

And with God, we’re not just hopeful that is how we are received.

That is how we are received.  Period.  Full stop.  Jesus demonstrated it again and again – with Zaccheus.  With the woman at the well.  With every healing  miracle.

I feel like t’shuvah – the work of turning back to the path with God toward God – is a whole lot easier when I know there is someone waiting for me to make that turn.

This week I have been immersed in a new podcast, this one entitled “Another Name for Every Thing,” which features Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. 

Fr. Rohr is writing some amazing things right now.   The conversation that caught my ear was about mirroring…about the way when we look to God and really see God, we mirror God’s light.  And in mirroring God, we mirror God’s goodness.  And others see that, and then they mirror what they see in us.

This idea is rooted in the goodness of God, the goodness in which we are created that is at the root of the idea of t’shuvah…returning to goodness.  In mirroring God, we offer ways for others to also mirror God.  All of that goodness gets mirrored…bouncing around in the world.  Lighting up the dark corners.

And that has me imagining that the Father, who looked out with compassion on his son’s returning, might have experienced similar compassion at some point in his own life.  SO THAT he was able to share that with his son.  So that he waited with anticipation and compassion.

The other often overlooked part of this story then is the rule-following do-good brother.  You know – the one who has stayed home, worked the family land, respected his father.

He is coming in from a hard day in the fields and hears the merriment and laughter.  He asks a slave what is going on…and upon hearing of his brother’s return, he becomes angry.

And the father comes out to comfort him. To remind him that this son has always had his father’s love.  That everything the father has belongs to him….but we celebrate because what has been lost has been found.  What we thought was dead to us is alive.

We don’t know how the son received his father’s comfort.  The text doesn’t give us “the rest of the story.” But the father has mirrored the same kind of full-hearted love to the loyal son. 

The father has mirrored the same love with both of them.  I wonder what the loyal son might reflect from that moment forward?  I wonder what of his father’s grace he might mirror?
Here in the fourth week of Lent, I think we are called to acknowledge that we’ve all been lost at some point. And the point of our whole Lenten focus on “t’shuvah” – is the awareness that we all find ourselves off-road, perhaps tire deep in the mud and muck of life. 

We have this season to refocus our journey…to remember the path we’re called to walk toward God with God.

And to remember that God waits for us on that path

…I imagine Jesus gazing out over the road…watching and waiting.  Breath held each time in anticipation that we will return.

And others wait for us there too.  Our friends – those who will love us with Christ-like love and compassion for the hardships we’ve encountered while we were off track.

We’re called to return, and we’re called to receive others with the compassion of the loving father as others return to the path with us.  Because when we remember the grace we receive – the grace of God that waits for us – we can mirror it back into the world for others. 

Imagine grace upon grace.  Compassion upon compassion.  An avalanche of love and acceptance and return…

What a gift that we can all be a part of.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Faith...and Fertilizer: T'shuvah Part 2 on the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C

10 years ago, we bought our home from Dot Santini Renner – Dot was a member at the nearby United Methodist Church – she was the last of the Santini family to live on Santini Road, also related to the Burtons, of Burtonsville.  She was 92 at the time – and she was preparing to move to Riderwood, a retirement community not too far away.  She’d occupied the house we were buying since it was built in the 50s, but she’d grown up in 2 other houses on the street – because at one point in time, the street was the farm lane that ran back to a couple of family farms, the kind where houses just kept getting added for the next generation.

She was a founding member of the Burtonsville Garden Club, and the yard had been lovingly planted with perennials over many years.  She’d cultivated her own hybrid lilies, and we are still known as the place where the “Burtonsville Blush” lily was hybridized.  

As she’d aged though, she’d planted lots of invasive ground cover – so we have spent LOTS of time clearing vinca and monkey grass and violas and bamboo.  But also in the yard are a few really OLD lilac bushes.

I love lilacs.  I love the way they smell and I love the color.  There is a lilac right outside the picture window in our living room.  I identified it right away, even though we moved in February.  I waited that first spring…waited and waited.

Alas.  Green leaves. No blooms.

We did some strategic pruning.

And I waited that second spring…waited and waited.

Alas.  Green leaves. No blooms.

More pruning. 
And I waited that third spring…
And a fourth…
And a fifth…
And a sixth….

Some years it would set one cluster of blooms. One.  On a ten foot shrub. A little glimmer of hope.

Then I came outside one fall to my husband strategically eye-balling its prime location. “I’m thinking about digging this out and planting a magnolia in its place.”

I’m from Chicago – a northern city.  Magnolias are not my thing.
Lilacs are my spring thing.  In northern cities, lilacs line the highways with that gorgeous purple in the early warm days of May.

So I made a deal…let’s just keep it one more year.  We’ll cut it way back. We’ll clear some of the growth underneath it.  We’ll amend the soil.  C’mon…this lilac is the one thing in the yard I don’t want taken out right now.

And guess what…it bloomed that next Spring. Not just one lonely bloom stalk…it really bloomed.

I like to joke that it knew it was being threatened. It changed its ways.

Today’s scripture touches on a fig tree similarly threatened, right?  And the gardener who cares for it wants to give that fig tree one more chance to bear fruit – one more chance to be well and good.

I’m grateful for all the times I’ve not been “cut down” for seasons of dryness, for seasons of less than stellar behavior, for seasons of fruitlessness.

Here in the season of Lent, we’ve been talking about this word, t’shuvah – rooted in repentance, it is an ancient Hebrew word rooted in how we “turn toward Good,” as in turning back to right relationship with God.  Sometimes we want to focus on turning away from whatever bad behavior, whatever sin, whatever distraction is keeping us from right relationship with God – keeping us in sin.  And t’shuvah helps us accomplish that turning away by turning toward the good.

T’shuvah recalls that we are created in God’s good image, for relationships with God. We are created in goodness.  We are not ultimately bad or evil. But sometimes we wander (some more than others) and we have to find our way back to the path toward God with God.

Each week of Lent we’re looking for clues that help us to turn. Maybe clues that help us know when we’re not on the path, maybe clues that help us find our way back.

Our first reading today is from the prophet Isaiah.  It captures the essence of the role of prophet.  In our culture, we tend to understand prophets as those who have the ability to predict the future.  But if you really read the prophets – if you spend time studying the prophets – their real role is to call it like they see it.  Sometimes that is a critique.  And their role is to remind us of who God has been time and time again. 

And so Isaiah is speaking into the exile in Babylon, into a time and a place where life is really hard, where everything seems off and hopeless. And he’s casting a vision of food and wine without price – nourishment in a season of dryness.

He’s reminding the exiled who God has been to them and their anscestors time and time again.  The God who delivered the Hebrews from the wilderness, the God who made manna and quail show up each day as needed, the God who promised David victory – this God is able and willing and will. 

If you are thirsty, come.  Come buy and eat.  Wine and milk without money and without price.

It’s not so much future telling as it is seeding hope.  Hope rooted in who God has been, what God is doing, and who God will continue to be. 

The prophet is encouraging those who are beaten down and hopeless.  And the prophet knows from experience that the wicked and unrighteous will receive pardon – they will receive bread and milk and wine without price because God’s done that before and will surely do it again and again.  Just turn…just come back to the path.

And in the gospel reading for today, we have Jesus receiving some questions about justified punishment it would seem….  He’s asked about some Galileans who are rumored to have been somehow tortured or punished by Pilate, their blood mingled with other sacrifices.  Those questioning Jesus seem to want assurance that this violence is not for them, but that it is for people who are somehow worse than them. 

They want to do an accounting and find out that they are safe somehow.  They want an explanation for hardship that has befallen others around them.  (It’s that list that we’ve talked about – they want to look at what someone else has done and see that surely that is a sin that deserves torture.  And I don’t do that thing…)

And Jesus doesn’t really provide reassurance – but he reminds them that they are all subject to hard things.  And he suggests that they need to repent.  The word repent here is a greek word, metanoiae…that comes from two parts – meta which means with, after or behind (a multi-purpose preposition of sorts) and Noeo which has to do with having understanding…  And so Jesus is suggesting that they need to understand in their context what they might need to change about themselves. Turn back.

And then he goes on to something else it would seem, but of course the teaching is related.  He goes on to tell them a parable about an unproductive fig tree.  The person who planted the fig tree is frustrated because the tree hasn’t been producing fruit.

But the gardener charged with tending the tree suggests it not be cut down quite yet…instead, let’s give it some extra care.  Let’s dig around its roots, and apply some manure…

I love that.  I could preach a whole sermon series on how we become fruitful through manure.  C’mon, that’ll preach!  We don’t actually know how the experiment goes – and the gardener suggests that if this doesn’t work, the fig might still need to be cut down.

But I know how I feel about my lilac.  It was back for a year.  If it doesn’t bloom for a couple more, I’ll keep fighting for it.

I certainly like to think that God is fighting for me, and that if I am willing to let my roots be cultivated and fertilized, I might be more fruitful year by year. 

T’shuvah…how is it that we find our way back to the path to God with God?

We are probably being called back by prophetic voices – voices that are naming what is unrighteous or unjust right in front of us and around us, voices that are also reminding us that God is good again and again. God has handled our human wanderings time and time again.  With love.

As we turn back, we might need to amend our soil, examine our strategic location in the Sun or with the Son, we might need to heed that prophetic voice and prune some behaviors or distractions, some idols.  We may need to let someone else tend our rehabilitation, helping us and watching us with hope for the next season.

…At our Methodist roots, this is the work of sanctification – the work of becoming more holy in this life.  The constant work of tending the vine or the bush or the tomato plant of our lives so that we bear fruit. 


In the season of Lent as we explore how we return to the path God has created and Jesus has called us to and walked alongside us, we are reminded to have faith in the God who is, was and will be.  While we attend to the necessary work of becoming more fruitful.

Can we hear that call and find our way back?

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Wilderness - T'shuvah Part 1 (Lent 1)

On any given day, something like this happens at my house:
I walk into the bathroom where I discover the hand towel is missing, and I realize that there are clean towels in the laundry room that need to be brought upstairs. 

As I walk out of the bathroom, I spot an empty glass that needs taken to the kitchen to be washed. 

I pick up the glass, head down the stairs, find a few dishes in the sink that haven’t made it into the dishwasher. 

I rinse dishes, stack them in the dishwasher and look at the clock – 11:50 (and my wrist buzzes, because at 10 minutes before the hour, my Fitbit must remind me that I’m trying to get a minimum of 250 steps that hour – 138 to go!)

and so I walk to the mailbox, because the mail is usually delivered around 11 and that will burn up some steps.

I pick up the mail, sift through the pile, sort out the junk mail that goes right to the recycling bin and open a note from a friend…

which reminds me that on my to do list is the task of writing a thank you note to someone. 

So I head upstairs, pull out a notecard and write a quick note.

Hmm. There are no stamps in my drawer…so I walk downstairs and find my wallet, which generally has a stash of stamps. 

But also in my wallet is a receipt from a recent expense for the seminary. 

So I run upstairs to put in on my desk in the right pile. 

And then I grab my glass of water which is empty and head to the bathroom to fill it because I’m thirsty.

Where I notice there is still no clean hand towel.

And so…I head back to the laundry room. 

That, my friends, is a pretty common thing at my house.
How about yours?

I think that kind of resembles what it looks like at times to try follow God – you know…that Way we just spent five weeks talking about?

It seems to have a lot of moments when we’ve gotten off-track and we’ve forgotten our why. We’ve forgotten our ultimate destination.  We’ve forgotten that it’s all about God.

This Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent. Often in Lent we focus on the things we do wrong. The things we are not doing.  The church has historically focused on sin and repentance during these forty days.  

We’re still focusing on an idea related to repentance, but it is even more ancient. And I think it’s more helpful.

We’re focused on the idea of t’shuvah.  Which is an ancient Hebrew word.  When we think of repentance, we often think of turning away from sin.  But the word t’shuvah is just a wee bit more nuanced than that.  T’shuvah really focuses on turning…toward what is Good.  Turning toward God. 

To fully embrace the idea of t’shuvah, I think we also have to be clear about what sin is.  Sin is that which separates us from God.  Sometimes we want to be able to come up with an itemized list of what sin is and what sin isn’t.  I am sorry to tell you – it’s not quite that simple. 

Sin is that which separates us from God.  And then, t’shuvah is the work of mending that separation -- of moving back toward our relationship with God.

And for me, that connects to the discussion we’ve had over the previous five weeks – about The Way – The Way as the path we have with and toward our relationship with God.  The way to God.  The Way that Jesus showed us in his lifetime. 

So…it’s almost as if we’ve talked about the map of this journey we’re on. We’ve talked about the path.  And now, we’re talking about the times we find ourselves “off the map” or straying from the path.  The times we’re distracted from relentlessly pursuing God.  The times we get metaphorically distracted by the dirty glass, and the Fitbit and the mail and our thirst, forgetting the original plan.

Let’s start with something very important... t’shuvah – returning to the good – is rooted in our beginnings – our beginnings created by God, in which God said, “it is very good.”  So we’re not beginning as sinful beings.  We’re beginning in the beginning, when we were created in all of God’s goodness.

So let’s turn to our scriptures for this week that point us to the wilderness.

I’m a big fan of “wilderness.”  It’s one of those recurring themes in the Bible – folks get lost in the wilderness, folks wander in the wilderness, folks wrestle in the wilderness.

Ishmael, son of Hagar and Abram, grows up in the wilderness after he’s driven out of Abram’s household.  Jacob wrestles with God while sleeping beside a river in the wilderness. Moses leads the Hebrews through the wilderness over 40 years with God’s guidance.  Jesus is driven out into the wilderness after being baptized by John in the Jordan. 

Wilderness seems to be a place of “lostness,”

Lostness has its place, I think, in keeping us turning toward goodness. 
Lostness has a place, I think, in helping us know where we are and where we are NOT.  Lostness can be a place where we are keenly aware that we’re not on the right path.

In our lostness, I think that the stuff of wilderness turns on all of the warning sirens for us, it fires all the endorphins.  I think about the scenes of Snow White running through the scary woods where tree branches seem to reach out for her and tree roots slow her down. I think about all that the students of Hogwarts learned in the Forbidden Forest – sometimes you make friends in the wilderness places, friends who will help you out of a pinch.

And yet, the wildness referenced in the Bible was generally NOT a big dark forest.  It was a wide expanse of dessert where no landmark could be seen, where the sun beat down and the night were probably quite cold. Where the place where the sky met the earth was blurred…

Wilderness is also a place of discovery.  It is a place that causes us to have to slow down, think about what we’re doing. It can feel dark and isolating, and so we might feel great motivation to move along…to find our way out.  We can learn things in the wilderness…

Look at all the Hebrews learned – they learned that God could and would provide – day-by-day enough manna to eat.  They learned to trust Moses’ leadership.  

This wilderness…it has something to do with t’shuvah! It has something to do with the way we are called to turn back to goodness.

In the text from Deuteronomy is a reminder and instruction.  When you finally come into the Promised Land, remember all that has happened to you and your people over generations.  Remember what God has done for you, and make an appropriate tithe in the Temple.

Israel’s faith in God is rooted in a story of God’s faithfulness, even when the people failed to keep covenant.  God just kept showing up.  God was revealed in wilderness times again and again.

God is with us in our wilderness times.  God is with us in those times when we cannot quite remember where the path is.  Even in our lostness, there is God. Can we remember in those moments, even if we cannot see our hands before our faces for the darkness that surrounds us, that God has been with us in the past and is with us now and will be with us….and not just with us but for us?

When Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan after John’s baptism, he is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and immediately drive into the…


At the beginning of LENT we read this story often dramatically entitled The Temptation of Christ...  And yes, it is a story about temptation.  But I want us to hold on to the thing that bears Jesus through this wilderness time. 

Jesus relies on obedience to God. 

For every temptation set before him, he cites a key piece of the Law – a key tenet in Jewish faithfulness to God. 
One does not live by bread alone.
Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.
Do not put the Lord your God to the text.

I have this image – a steely eyed Jesus looking temptation in the eye and just saying….

Only God.

And the devil shows up with the next alluring thing.

And Jesus looks temptation in the eye and says,

Only God.

Only God.

Let’s remember too that detail about Jesus’ state of being when he was driven into the wilderness.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit.

He was prayed up, you could say.
He was full of assurance that he was beloved of God.
He had just heard from God – this is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

He was full of the Holy Spirit.
And like the instructions given in Deuteronomy…
He was able to remember that God was with him.
That Deuteronomy passage offers some guidance.

What has God done for me in the past?
What can I ask God to do for me now?
Who can walk with me in this Wilderness?
Can I remember how I was created for goodness?
Can I remember that I bear the image of God?
Can I give thanks for what God has done?

Sometimes our journey toward God with God as we follow The Way looks suspiciously like me trying to put a clean hand towel in the bathroom.

Except the distractions are bigger. 
We’re distracted by self-reliance.  We’re distracted by money and stuff.  We’re distracted by Facebook and the evening news and gossip.  We’re distracted by a drive to be right.  We’re distracted by putting ourselves first. We’re distracted by judgment.

It’s a wild place in the wilderness. But wilderness is where we get our loudest reminders that it is time to turn back toward God.


In this season of Lent, while we are watching for how we are or are not on The Way that leads us back to God, we can take our cues from the lostness of the wilderness.

We can remember what God has done, is doing, will do.
We remember that we are beloved.
We remember God is with us.