Saturday, March 26, 2016

“Keep Your Eyes Open” - March 27, 2016 (Easter Sunday)

Luke 24:1-12

Nobody really wants to think about death.  We find all kinds of ways of putting it out of our heads.  That’s probably one reason that a lot of people try to celebrate Easter, the day of Resurrection and new life, without paying any real attention to Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion.  Even less take time for Ash Wednesday, the day of being told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

It’s normal, I suppose.  It’s painful to give too much attention to our own frailty and mortality.  Bruce Feiler wrote a book about his travels through the lands of the Bible at the tail end of the Iraqi War.  He recounts a moment when he managed to get a call through to his wife from Baghdad.  To get a signal, he had to stand in the street, exposed to the possibility of sniper fire.

“I’m wearing my body armor,” I said.  “It’s unbelievably heavy.  I pulled my back out.  And it’s impossible to take a nap in the car, the armor is so boxy. …It’s odd, but in some ways it was much more stressful worrying about coming here than actually being here, once you get over the sound of gunfire all the time. …Twenty people were killed this morning at a police station.  But the strangest thing about life here is how differently you process the information.  Unless the attack is immediately in front of us, or where we might be in a few days, it’s amazing how quickly the mind tunes it out.  The survival instinct is a powerful thing.”[1]

Yes it is; and part of it is not wanting to think about death and dying.

Another way to handle it is to look squarely at death and say, “Okay.  It is what it is.”  The biblical book of Ecclesiastes does that.  That’s where the group Kansas got the words for one of their hit songs:

“I close my eyes only for a moment, and the moment's gone
All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity:
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind.
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea,
All we do crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see:
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.
Now, don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.
It slips away, and all your money won't another minute buy.
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.
Dust in the wind, everything is dust in the wind.”[2]

In some ways, that’s probably an equally healthy or unhealthy approach in comparison to the whole avoidance thing.  I suppose you can overdo things either way.

            It was the realistic approach, though, that was taken by the women who went to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.  There was no question that he was dead.  They had seen the execution.  A member of the ruling council, Joseph of Arimathea, had provided a tomb and he and his colleague Nicodemus had seen to a hasty burial on Friday, before the Sabbath began and no work of any sort could be done.  The quick burial was probably why the women had returned with spices to prepare Jesus’ body.  The work had probably had to be left half-done because of the Sabbath catching up to them.  They were there to do what had to be done.
That’s the point at which it all turned strange.

“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’” [Luke 24:2-7]

How do you deal with that?

            You could say that, as sometimes happens when people are faced with the fear and the grief and the confusion of the preceding days, the time of Jesus’ arrest and torture and execution, a time when his followers lived in terror for their own lives, that delusions began to set in.  You could say that they had imagined those men in white talking to them.  That was the reaction of the other disciples when they ran and told them what they had seen and heard.  Luke says,

“Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.  But these words seemed to them an idle take, and they did not believe them.” [Luke 24:10-11]

Of course, then you have to explain how multiple people had the same hallucination.  You also have to explain where the body went.

            Life with Jesus was always odd enough and full of enough moments of unexpected wonder, though, that Peter, at least, gave them enough credit to go and see for himself.  It seems, too, that he didn’t waste any time about it.

“Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what happened.” [Luke 24:12]

And from there on, Luke starts describing how Jesus started to show up in unexpected ways to them as individuals and as a group.  He met two of them walking on the road about seven miles outside Jerusalem [Luke 24:13].  He appeared to Peter the same day, although Luke doesn’t give us any details [Luke 24:34].  While they were all checking in with each other about these events, he showed up suddenly in the middle of the whole group and then ate a piece of fish to prove he wasn’t a ghost [Luke 24:41-43].  That kind of thing went on for a period of forty days, until they watched him disappear again, this time into heaven [Luke 24:51].

            So, how do we process all of that?  Is it just an ancient tale, one of four versions contained in the same volume, each with slightly different details?  Is it the product of wishful thinking – an extreme version of that kind of avoidance of the reality of death that we all face?  Is it something that we would be better to write off as the mass delusion of a group of his followers in the face of the loss of leadership and the movement’s defeat?

            All I can do is invite you to stay open, the way that Peter did, to the possibility that there was more to Jesus than met the eye.  If you do that, if you can handle the open-endedness that brings to life, then the amazement follows.  Accepting that Jesus lives means accepting that you never know where he might show up.  Physically, he is no longer among us but he promised that when he went to God’s full presence he would send his Spirit to be with and among his people.  That Holy Spirit has been showing up unexpectedly ever since and doing wonders in human lives all the time.

            People continue to leave behind the slavery to death that is so much a part of life.  Because death is not the end, it has no hold over us.  We don’t have to fight tooth and claw against the effects of aging, but can accept it with grace as the gift of longevity.  We don’t have to hold onto our possessions as if they could protect us, and generosity can take the place of greed.  Jesus’ disciples have a long history of stepping in and taking care of the sick, even at the danger of exposure to disease, and of working as peacemakers even when it can mean being caught between opposing parties.  They can speak the truth to the powerful even when the powerful grow angry, and comfort the weak even when they have little strength of their own beyond the good news that the meek – not the strong – shall inherit the earth.  And when their time on earth wraps up, they can see that as a relief instead of a cause for regret, a transition rather than an ending.

            Look into the grave seeking Jesus and you will not find him.  Do you know where you will find him, though?  Everywhere else.  Keep your eyes open.

[1] Bruce Feiler, Where God Was Born: a Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 181-182.
[2] Kansas, “Dust in the Wind” from Point of Know Return (1977).

Thursday, March 24, 2016

“Road Dirt” - March 24, 2016 (Maundy Thursday)

John 13:1-17

Think about a time that somebody looking down at your feet and could tell where you had been.  You may have had grass clippings from mowing the yard.  You may have stepped in the mud.  Maybe your shoes were soaked from stepping in a puddle.  Maybe they were iced over after shoveling snow.  Perhaps they were dusty with that red clay-colored dust that’s impossible to brush off. 

Think about a time when you knew something from the way it felt when you took a step.  Have you ever stepped on hot tar or on a piece of gum?  Maybe you weren’t paying the proper attention when you were walking through a barn.  You might have walked on a freshly painted deck.  Maybe there was a reason for that sign that said, “Slippery when wet.”  Have you ever had sand in your shoe, or a piece of gravel?

Road dirt of whatever kind tells the story of where you have been and what you have been through.  It isn’t all just flip-flops and hightops that tell the tale.  Surely you have seen those memorials that consist of a soldier’s boots and helmet.  If you ever go to the Holocaust Memorial Museum at the Smithsonian, there’s a room which is simply filled with leather shoes that were collected from people headed into the gas chambers.

When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet at the start of the Last Supper, he was offering the usual hospitality to travelers – the difference being that it was the place of a servant, not the host, to do that.  It was more than that, though.  He insisted on doing it, even though it was considered by others to have been beneath him.  He even told Peter,

“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” [John 13:8b]

Jesus washes away – and wants to be sure we know it – the dirt and grime that we pick up on our journey from birth to death.  The thing about road dirt, too, is that some of it is your own fault because of where you’ve walked but some of it gets sort of splashed onto you by somebody else.

One time I visited an older lady who had once been a choir director and whose memory was still fresh among the singers.  They called her, “Sarge.”  I also knew somebody who had had the same woman as a music teacher in school and who grimaced when I mentioned I had gone to see her at a retirement community.  I asked about that and was told how she was known for barking at her students and making them miserable for any mistakes they made.  What none of them knew was that Sarge had, according to her sister, once been a sweet and agreeable person who had fallen deeply in love with a man who was a no-show on the day of their wedding.  He just left her waiting there.  Yes, that does sound like a novel, but in her case it really happened and it changed her.  She walked around with the memory of that day like a stone in her shoe for the rest of her life.

Another couple I knew were really terrific people.  Their oldest son, however, was convicted and sentenced under Megan’s Law.  When he was released from prison years later they found themselves taking him in, which meant that their grandchildren, their other children’s children, could no longer come to visit.  The grandparents would have to go to them, and they never, ever had contact of any sort with their mysterious uncle.  The sadness and loss were sometimes visible on their faces when they thought nobody was looking.

We don’t know an awful lot about the disciples who were at the Last Supper, but we do know that they had walked their own roads when Jesus called them to walk with him.

Peter, the fisherman, had a wife and her mother also lived with them.  The mother-in-law was sick when he met Jesus, and Jesus healed her.  James and John also had a mother who followed them around when they went traveling with Jesus.  She apparently also believed in him, so much so that she went to Jesus to ask that when he would be seated in glory he would give her sons the places of honor.  James and John were sometimes called the “Sons of Thunder”, and it occurs to me that maybe this nickname referred to her.  Levi had been a tax collector, which meant that he had been despised and hated by his fellow Jews.  Simon had been a Zealot, which meant that he had been encouraging others to despise people like Levi.  Andrew’s name was Greek.  What was that about?  How did Thomas come to be so insistent on proof?  Then there was Judas.  What motivated him?  People have been thinking about that question for two thousand years.
“And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” [John 13:2b-5]
He washed all their feet, even Judas’s.

            Everyone has their story, their background, their baggage.  Everyone has the dirt of the road on their feet.  It’s inevitable.  Jesus still rises from the meal where he meets his people, and wipes that stuff away.  After the meal was over, even the part at the very end where he shared the leftover bread and wine with them in a new way, he had a few more things to tell them and at the heart of it were these words:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” [John 14:27]

Saturday, March 19, 2016

“The Troublemaker Comes to Town” - March 20, 2016 (Palm Sunday)

Luke 19:28-40

            Have you been trying to avoid politics recently?  Have you tried to keep your opinions to yourself?  Good luck.  Wherever you stand on the current situation in this country, it will become clear sooner or later.  Jerusalem during that last Passover feast of Jesus’ earthly life would have made the Republican primary debates look like a love feast.  The city was like a shark tank where nobody
y could escape becoming part of the struggles among political and religious factions.  And, yes, politics and religion were completely entangled, and bullying had reached the point of assassination.

The Romans’ main concern was to maintain security so that they could

a) collect taxes to maintain their occupation;
b) maintain secure passage for both commerce and Roman forces traveling
between Egypt or Arabia and Greece and Rome; and
c) maintaining military bases that could be used to strike east against the Persian
Empire from time to time. 

A sign of their success in their eyes was the degree to which subject people were willing to recognize the authority of the Emperor and the power of the Roman gods.  The Jews had no choice but to recognize the Emperor’s power, but they refused to see things from the Roman perspective: that their one God had not protected them from invasion by Roman legions backed by Roman gods meant that their God was clearly not the almighty, all-ruling divinity that they believed.  This Jewish stubbornness was a problem.  They were stirred up from time to time by prophecies of a ruler who would restore their former independence.  “Make Israel great again!” 

When Jesus showed up, with people calling him “Son of David”, a royal title, it did not sit well with the Romans.  It would have been even worse if they had understood, as the crowds did, what he was signaling by riding in on a donkey the way he did.  He and his disciples might not have lasted even that week if the Romans had known the words of the prophet Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
[Zechariah 9:9-10]

No government, no political system, no party then or now likes to be told that it is not the be-all and end-all.  Nobody in power can stand to be told that they do not have all the answers and never will.  Have you ever tried to tell someone grasping for power to be quiet and listen to someone else?  The Romans worshiped a god called Jupiter Optimus Maximus – Jupiter the Best and Greatest.

            The enemies of the Romans would have cheered loudly for Jesus, or anyone, who was ready to condemn the ruling regime.  Here he comes!  Riding on a royal donkey! 

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

That’s why the Pharisees, who for all their failings were mostly good people, and very practical, tried to get the crowds to calm down.  The Pharisees were no friends of Rome but they didn’t want to see rioting and insurrection break out because Roman retribution would be bloody.  The Romans were people who would, if they suspected anyone of terrorism, kill that person on suspicion and often their whole family or village, just to play it safe.  Jesus, who normally shared a lot of their viewpoints, did not agree with them this time.

“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’” [Luke 19:39-40]

Clearly, this Jesus would prove a security risk.  One highly-positioned official would remark that it would be better for one man to die for the sake of the nation.

            Then there were the business and religious interests that come together in any city whose main attraction is pilgrimage.  Jerusalem may once have been an important place from an administrative standpoint, but by Jesus’ day the Romans were running things out of newer cities that they had built themselves closer to the coast, places with patriotic names like Caesarea.  What was left in Jerusalem was the Temple, but that was enough.  It was the heart of Judaism and drew visitors from throughout the Empire.  With the visitors came a steady income.  They couldn’t carry sacrificial sheep or doves with them from, say, Spain or Libya so there was both a need and an opportunity to sell them right there on the spot, right at the Temple.  Not long after Jesus showed up, he went berserk on them, and started chasing the sellers of livestock and the moneychangers out, shouting something about the Temple being a place of prayer.  He would have to go.

            Jesus was a troublemaker.  He didn’t stick to the implied rules and that the world throws out and the compromises that it reaches.  It got him killed.  The Messiah rode into Jerusalem to cheers and waving palm branches and was dead within five days.  He was killed because he was a threat to all kingdoms but the kingdom of God.  He called all kinds of systems into question and proclaimed that it is not by the acquisition or use of power that the Kingdom of God comes.  It comes by the gift of God and with humility such as the world neither knows nor understands.

            It has been almost 2,000 years since that became clear, at least to some people.  Even so, others continue to try to co-opt Jesus for their own ends.  He doesn’t let us do that.  He does not fit our boxes any more than he fit theirs.  He stood up to Pontius Pilate and refused to recognize the legitimacy of empire, but long before that, he had healed the daughter of a Roman centurion.  He condemned the injustice that devoured the living of widows and orphans but he called tax collectors like Levi and Zacchaeus to follow him.  He counted Simon the Zealot, a member of a group pushing for armed rebellion, among his inner circle, but he refused to take up the sword. 

            To this day, all kinds of rulers claim that Jesus backs them and all sorts of people commit all sorts of atrocities in his name, forgetting how he said to forgive your enemies and pray for the people that misuse you.  Demagogues claim that by purging all kinds of other groups they are only setting up a society where Jesus is honored.  It doesn’t work like that.  His mother was found to be pregnant before she and Joseph were married.  As a child, Jesus had been a refugee in Egypt.  His family at one point wondered if he had gone off the deep end and tried to get him to go home to rest and give up all his wandering.  A society that honors Jesus is going to have to be one that makes room for people whose backgrounds are sometimes embarrassing, who come from other places, and who don’t always follow the usual course in life.  A society that honors Jesus is going to have to be one that doesn’t just put people to death because they are inconvenient or turn easily to war-making as the answer to every problem.

            Jesus has shown us how to live, free of the political posturing and power-grabbing.  The Messiah has already come, and it is Jesus – nobody else.  He has given us directions and hope, hope that not even death can silence.  He has shown us that the grave itself is no impediment to the Kingdom of God.  In that hope, we can reject the wrong and see through its deceptions, and get on with the work of living out a living message of good news that is about peace and goodwill that comes from God.

            To be fair, there are even politicians who see that.  Bob Edgar, who was also a United Methodist pastor, served in the House of Representatives from Delaware County for several years.  He died three years ago, so he does not have any horse in the current race.  But what he said in a book published ten years ago is still true:

“God is calling each of us, I believe, to be modern-day prophets, to care for the least of these, to work for peace, to preserve God’s creation.  To accomplish those goals, we must reclaim the mantle of faith from those who have co-opted it.  For America’s faithful majority, the millions of us who are eager to reassert the values of compassion and peace and preservation in public life, we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.  And our moment is now.”[1]

[1] Robert Edgar, Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006) 15.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

“What’s All This with the Perfume?” - March 13, 2016

John 12:1-11

            It must have been a strange household there in Bethany.  Jesus had been friends with Lazarus and his sisters for a long while and he felt at home with them.  He stayed with them at their house just outside Jerusalem and in fact it would be from their house that he would set out when he entered the city in procession on Palm Sunday.

There seem to have been three in the family.  There were the two sisters, Mary and Martha, with their contrasting personalities – Martha the practical one, always at work in the kitchen, and Mary the mystical one, sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from him (as Luke describes her) or (as John tells us) sitting at Jesus’ feet so that she could dump perfume on them and wipe up the excess with her hair.  Oh, and this incident took place not long after Jesus raised their brother from the dead.  Lazarus was right there at the table.  John says that when Mary went and did this, they were giving a dinner for Jesus, so maybe this was a thank-you and a celebration.  We don’t know.

            We don’t know, either, what Mary had in mind with her odd gesture.  We do know where the perfume came from, because Jesus mentions it, and that might give us a clue.  He said,

“She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” [John 12:7]

I would suggest that her use of it the week before Jesus would leave their house to ride into Jerusalem and be killed can be taken two ways, and maybe they both apply.

            On the one hand, she might have been saying that Jesus was already as good as dead.  Mary did, after all, sit and listen to him intently and Jesus made no secret of his expectation of a violent death.  He had spoken openly to his followers, saying,

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” [Mark 10:33-34]

The danger that Jesus faced involved not only himself, but her family as well. 

“When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” [John 12:9-11]

To have Jesus as a guest brought Lazarus back from the grave but now it put them all of them at risk. With that in mind, maybe, she had gone so far as to buy perfume to anoint his body for burial. 

If the Romans killed him, though – if they crucified him – there would be no burial, because the bodies of such people were left on the crosses where they died to rot or to be eaten by birds.  In Jesus’ case, one of the ruling council, a man named Nicodemus, went to Pilate and pulled some strings to get special permission to bury him.  Mary wouldn’t have expected that exception, and so she might just as well use the perfume on Jesus in advance.

            On the other hand, maybe Mary had been paying close attention to what Jesus had been teaching, after all.  Maybe she had heard not only the part about Jesus being killed but also that prediction at the end saying,

“after three days he will rise again.”  [Mark 10:34]

If that were the case, maybe she was going ahead and using the perfume here and now because she knew he would not need it later.  After all, he had brought her brother back to life, and he had told her sister,

“I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” [John 11:25-26]

How could the grave hold somebody like that?  Why not use the perfume as part of this elaborate expression of thanks and as part of the celebration of life?

            I can see both possibilities.  That’s my dilemma.

            It reflects what we all face, too.  Do we see the inevitability of death or do we see the possibility of life?  Or maybe both?  Jesus’ rising came after his death.  Both dying and being raised to life were part of what he went through, and both together are what we need for our own salvation. 

He had to die because of this whole mess of sinful trouble that makes up the world.  Put a sinless person into the chaos of power politics and he will be ground up.  Put a person devoted to justice into an unjust and merciless world and he will be killed because his mere being is an affront to it.  Just by being himself, Jesus called into question and put to shame the normal ways that all of us go about doing things, and when those with power are called to accountability, they will wipe the account books clear by wiping out the questioner.

            He had to rise, because of who he is.  He is the one who did not deserve the least bit of what the world did to him.  He is the one who, out of all humanity in all time, did not having it coming to him.  He was in no way part of the system that grinds anyone down or looks down on anybody or treats anyone as in any way less than a child of God.  He knew that there would always be those who subjugate or take advantage of others.  That’s why he said to Judas,

“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” [John 12:8]

Because he was not part of that game, he did not have to abide by its rules.  Pride?  He had nothing to prove, nothing to be insecure about.  Greed?  Who can claim anything, when it already belongs to God?  Hatred?  Not worth it.  And because of all that, death?  Not the end. 

            He invites us, too, to step outside the boundaries that the world sets when it tells us that its ways are all that there is.  He invites us to go with him, sometimes to the cross, but always into a way not of death but a way of life.  That’s the sort of life where people can make the weird yet beautiful gestures sometimes, like Mary did with her perfume.  That’s the sort of life where people as unlike one another as Mary and Martha live as family, and where people like Lazarus leave their own graves of hopelessness and helplessness because they have heard Jesus calling them by name, too.  He turns things around in so many ways that the world itself changes for them.  They look out of their doors and what they see is not the Jerusalem that so often killed the prophets and turned away its helpers, but instead, as one of them describes it,

“I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, come down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’” [Revelation 21:2-4]

That new world is what he invites us all to be a part of.  Mary of Bethany, perhaps, was even close enough to smell it.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

“Coming to Yourself Again” - March 6, 2016

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

            It isn’t easy to make a radical change in your life, but it does happen. 

            Sometimes a change is forced on someone.  An accident of some sort can lead to incapacity, and either you adapt or you just give up.  A layoff can mean that someone has to move far away sometimes to find work or, if they cannot move, they may have to go into an entirely different field.  World events push people from place to place.  I remember the grandparents of one of my childhood friends.  To me they were those two old people with funny accents sitting at the kitchen table who used to have the appliance store on Saxer Avenue.  Later on I learned that their accent was Polish, and that they had somehow landed in Delaware County in the 1930’s because they saw the handwriting on the wall in Poland and left – the only members of their family to survive the pogroms against Jews that came even before the Nazis invaded.  In that light, living over the store on a busy road doesn’t sound so bad.

            All those are changes that are forced on someone.  The person who makes the change is reacting to external events.  Yet what about those other times when you have to revise everything and totally reorder your life because what you have been doing, maybe what a whole people has been doing, has become destructive and toxic?

            The obvious example of that is what often happens with addictions.  Someone goes through, often, a period of denial.  What they are doing is not really harming anyone, they will say.  Next comes the argument that if they are harming anyone it is only themselves.  Then something happens, whatever it might be, and they realize that they have just gambled away the next three months’ mortgage payments or crashed their car into someone else’s and the other driver is in an ambulance and the passenger is dead.  Maybe they realize that they have just taken their cousin’s grocery money to buy heroin, or that their child has just gone to bed without food so that they can feed their habit.

            It is a gift in a way if something happens that opens their eyes before it gets to that, or if it is nothing irreversible that says, “Hey!  This can’t go on!”

            There are less obvious moments, though.  There are problems that are harder to see that can still twist somebody’s life into something sad.  Often they are disguised in shapes that are culturally acceptable.  Hard work and diligence are something that people like me have praised so long and so sincerely that it has come to be called “the Protestant work ethic” – and I still want to encourage and honor that.  Taken to an extreme, though, it can ruin marriages and steal precious time from children or parents or friends.  It can also mean that there is no room left in a person’s life for God.

            Maybe there’s some kind of ingrown character trait that is causing problems.  When I was little, there was a man who lived down the street named Mr. Miller.  He was frugal.  He saved.  That is good, mind you.  On the other hand, there was one day not long after his wife died that he had a fire in his kitchen and when it was out, my father and some of the other neighbors helped him clean up and when my father came home he told us about how Mr. Miller had saved so many jars and containers and bags and so forth that there had been trouble getting to the stove where the fire started.  To this day, when I find myself setting aside a take-out soup container, I find myself asking if I shouldn’t just recycle it right away. 

            There are wake-up calls all the time if you listen for them.  The Prodigal Son probably had many along the way.  What finally got to him was hunger.  You remember how

“he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.” [Luke 15:14-16]
That did it for him.  He saw that the pigs ate better than he did.  It was an extreme experience – remember that for a devout Jew it was humiliating even to be around pigs, let alone take care of them.  Then imagine becoming jealous of them.  He had hit rock bottom.

            Then, Jesus said, “he came to himself.” [Luke 15:17]

            Think about that expression for a moment.  It was as if he was waking up from a nightmare.  His situation hadn’t changed – not yet, at least – but he came to the realization that he didn’t belong there.  That was not who he was, or whom he was meant to be.  He would have to get out of there.  That was the turning point.

            Mind you, it didn’t have to go that way.  He could have looked at himself and said, “I must deserve this.  Look how I treated my father.  Look how I wasted my inheritance.  Look at what a total fool I have been, and all the stupid things I have done along the way.  How could I do that?  What kind of worthless slime am I?”  On some level, he might even have been right about some of that. 

            And yet.  And yet.  And yet when he came to himself he remembered not only what he had done.  He remembered that he was also the son of a father who was far and away better than anybody else in his life, and who remained part of his life even when he was living in a far country.  The friends he had had when he had money weren’t around, or didn’t care.  “Nobody gave him anything.” [Luke 15:16]  But his father, he knew, wasn’t like them.

“‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’  So he set off and went to his father.” [Luke 15:17-20]

His little canned speech didn’t really get at it fully.  He would deliver it, of course, but before it even came to that, “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” [Luke 15:20] 

           The son may have forgotten who he was, and acted as he never should.  His father had never forgotten him, though.  He knew exactly who he was, and loved him.  A song by Robert Espindola called “The Prodigal” opens with a father singing,

“Are you listening?  Can you hear me?
Far across the lonely silence
where you lie sleeping?
I have left a light on the porch turned on,
and placed a key beneath the mat,
should you ever find your way back home.
I’ll be waiting up tonight, sitting by the light.
He is mine!  And I am his!”

            That’s the love that lets someone rebuild when they need to rebuild.  That’s the love that gives someone a new start.  That’s the love that doesn’t look at the past in a way that lets it determine the future.  That’s a love that trusts us and helps us to come to ourselves whenever we have wandered off, and even when wandering off doesn’t mean going as far as the Prodigal Son.

            When we come to ourselves it pushes us to seek and then to receive the grace that runs to meet us.  Life changes.  We become alive.