Luke 15:1-32

Often in the middle of a funeral, we’ll hear Psalm Twenty-Three. And often when this happens, I’ll point out a miracle in the psalm that once you see, you can’t unsee. It was shown to me by the writings of Reverend Kuenning’s seminary colleague, Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. And we know that, and we need that, and we love that. But this isn’t just a meadow with a lake. The LORD is leading us through the wilderness, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the sharp terror of grief that lurks and pounces on the ones we love. If trauma were a place it would be the wilderness.

The wilderness is haunted by angels and wild beasts. Everybody knows that. You might meet up with the devil. You might meet the person you’ve been missing most in all the world. In the wilderness, forgiveness might hunt you down and knock you to the ground, and when you look up, you’ll think you are seeing the face of God. It’s happened before. All of this makes sense.

But here in the Twenty-Third Psalm, in the middle of the wilderness, you’ll never guess what God has gone and gotten up to. Except you might. In the middle of the trauma, God has set up a table and laid out a feast… Imagine a flashmob Thanksgiving on a highway. And here I am in the middle of a funeral telling the people about a table! What’s it even doing here!

I know we’re not at a funeral right now. I also know, whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re in some kind of wilderness. It could be the season of Lent. It could be depression or grief. It could be the pandemic which feels like it should be over, and yet, it goes on and on…

I wonder what all we have lost in the past year —actual people for one. But we’ve also lost parts of ourselves. I wonder if things will ever go back to normal because that’s what we say we want, but I don’t know…

What I can tell you for sure is that all of us are in the wilderness. This puts us at risk of meeting up with sorrow and angels, of following God through the shadows and getting hunted down by mercy. Right here God has gone and laid out a table with a feast, and look, it’s not your fault, and it’s not mine. It was not our idea to get out of the car here, but there’s a table in the road. And the table is a fact.

The table is laying a claim on your soul and mine. Now what are we going to do…

 

Today the scripture Karen read arrives like canisters on your counter —three splendid parables that come as a set. Now any Bible scholar worth their salt will tell you a parable is not an Aesop’s Fable. Don’t go rooting around expecting to find a clear moral of the story. The purpose of a parable is to induce the Kingdom of Heaven not assign an action item, and the Bible scholars are right. Mostly. It’s just… I think this trio of tales really might be charged with a shining imperative. See what you think.

What happened was the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling because Jesus has been eating with tax collectors and sinners. You can imagine the unauthorized dinners, the tables where they don’t belong! So Jesus tells them…

First a shepherd had one hundred sheep when one goes missing. Well you know this injected distress into the flock; the other sheep began huddling and baaaing! So without even thinking, the shepherd takes off determined to find the one who’s lost. And he does! But that’s when it occurs to him that he has gone and left ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves in the wilderness. He was blaming himself the whole way back.

The first miracle is he found that missing sheep, and it wasn’t even hurt. The other miracle is when he gets back to the flock, he finds the other sheep are also unharmed. All one hundred are together and okay! He had not realized he had been holding his breath until the Hallelujah whooshes out. So now, you know what he has to do…

Next, a woman lit the lamp and swept the house searching for the coin she had lost. The whole time she is cursing herself. The money was important. She wanted to be smart, so she hid each coin in a separate location. This way, if thieves broke in and got some of the money, they might not find it all. Only thing is, she forgot where she hid the last coin.

The first miracle is that her search works; she finds the coin! The other miracle is that when she does, she finds some part of herself that had gone missing. She finds her own forgiveness. So come on, of course we know what she has to do…

Ah, then there’s this… The father knew as soon as his son took off that this was a mistake, but what was he supposed to do? Here his younger son is thrilled to be heading off into the world, dreams in his head, money in his pockets! The light flickered in his father’s eyes, and I’m telling you, the old man knew he had lost his son. Giving him his inheritance was practically signing his son’s death warrant.

If you want to know what kind of father can allow his son to go to his death, yeah. We could ask God.

In this story, the first miracle is the son got up from the dead. The Bible says he came back to himself, and in a strange turn of sequence, in his resurrection, the younger son found repentance. He came back home.

The other miracle happens later. The older son charged his dad with tears in his eyes: How could you do this! He ruined everything, but I’ve been working so hard. How could you throw him a party?! And when the old man told his firstborn son: A claim has been laid upon us, you know what we have to do… I’m not saying the older brother was happy to agree, but the miracle is that when his father explained this, I think the older son believed him. He saw the light in his eyes.

Okay for just a minute, can you imagine being one of these folks’ neighbors? Here you are living your life, having a Tuesday, when your phone rings and your neighbor is out of breath. It’s urgent. You’ve got to come and help! Quick log onto Zoom. Find any ice cream you might have in the back of your freezer! Drop what you’re doing. We’re having a party, and we need you! I don’t know if you’ve ever been summoned to an emergency celebration, but this really happens to the neighbors in the Bible. They really do show up to find there’s a table with a feast…

In the middle of the parable, in the middle of the wilderness, there’s a table. And I can’t even protect you. The table’s laying a claim on your soul and on mine. The food is hot, the band is ready, the LORD looks at you with a Here, let me refill your glass… I mean what are you going to do?

 

All through the Gospel, we hear Jesus predict his death. As the author of Luke tells it, again and again, Jesus warns the disciples that the cross is coming. Again and again, they don’t understand —how could they. Maybe this time, in this trio of teachings, Jesus isn’t trying to help us get ready for his torture and execution. Maybe Jesus is trying to prepare us for what comes after. Because can you imagine if he goes and gets up from the dead and we don’t even have a celebration?

What if this is when we need to be getting ready to come back to life, and as much as I talk about doing this, What it will mean for me to come back to life? is a real question rising up in my heart.

And you’re right, the timing couldn’t be worse. It’s the middle of Lent. It’s the middle of a pandemic. Normally, we’d prefer to save the party until after the hard part. It’s why it feels strange to describe a celebration in the middle of a funeral! But what if the Gospel is messing with the sequence on purpose? What if it’s not only the case that repentance leads to resurrection, what if it goes the other way too?

The first miracle is we might find ourselves coming back to life. The other miracle is this is going to change our minds. It’s going to change our hope that things will just go back to normal. Now we’ll need another reason to live. The first miracle is how God pours forgiveness from her Spirit into ours. The other miracle is that we might forgive ourselves. You might forgive you. Are you even ready for that…

You and I know, we are still in the middle of the wilderness. Weeping may linger for the night, they tell us, and they’re right, and it’s still night. But it could be that even here, there’s an impulse in your heart that is longing to praise God, and all I’m saying is you’re right. Your own rejoicing that had gone missing? You might find it back.

The first miracle is that right in the middle of the middle, God has set up a table of peacemaking. Sure it doesn’t belong in the street, but here it is. This table is laying a claim to your soul and to mine so go call the neighbors! The other miracle, well that’s up to us… Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

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