serving Towson, Morgan State and UMBC

Blog

Relationship is more important than virtue

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 11, 2013 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (0)

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

 

We start this evening at the dinner table.  Where Jesus is doing the Jesus thing- enjoying the company of the wrong people.  The people who weren’t good enough for an invitation anywhere else.  The people who were too poor or too rowdy or who were caught up in a profession that wasn’t all that good and holy.  And we know Jesus didn’t just do this once- it kind of became a habit.  He kept eating with these kind of people and had the audacity to treat them like actual human beings.  

 

And the good people got ticked off.  And they’re doing what good people too often do- grumble and complain, wondering why Jesus would waste his time and risk his reputation on these unclean ones.  And I’m sure that Jesus got tired of explaining himself and getting into a debate that would never end, so he just shut them up with story.  A story they had to live into and find themselves in.   

 

And it’s a story that we know so well we barely hear it anymore.  It’s about a family with an irresponsible son and a father who is embarrassingly good.  So good that people probably ridiculed him because he was willing to welcome back his messed up son who had wasted every last scrap of what his father had given him. And he didn’t just let him come home to stay- he ran out to meet him and gave him gifts that he was too irresponsible to be trusted with.  Instead of giving this son a lecture and some strict rules, he gives him love and celebration.

 

And the folks listening to the story probably thought- “This is exactly the kind of crap we’re complaining about, Jesus.  Enjoying people before they do right.  That’s irresponsible.  It’s unfair.  They deserve a lecture, not a welcome.“

 

But Jesus just smiled.  Because this story wasn’t about what was good or moral or even deserved- it is about what was needed.   This was a father who knew his sons. Loved his sons.   And he knew a lecture wasn’t going to change a darn thing.  Lectures you can tune out.  But you can’t fully tune out love, even when you want to.  Love breaks your heart open.  

 

So at that moment, when his son was broken and hungry and ashamed, the father knew he couldn’t bear a lecture.  Couldn’t bear the coldness of his father merely being polite in letting him come back.  He couldn’t be welcomed back into a relationship unless his father did something so full of obvious love that it took his breath away and took him against his will back into this family that he had no business being a part of.   

 

There would be time for hard words to the younger son.  There would be time for him to hear what was expected of him, time to make amends.  There would be time to bear fruit worthy of a son of so loving a father. But when he was hurting and broken, he needed love first.  He needed someone to take complete joy in his presence and honor him for all that he would become.  He needed an embrace that ran out to meet him.  

 

These are not the ONLY words of the father to this son.  But they are the words that are needed in the moment. Because when we are broken, God gives us what we need, rather than what we deserve.  

 

This is how Jesus’ love always is for the one who is falling apart, who has drifted far away, who has messed up.  And this is something we rejoice in.  And it’s usually the part of the story that we talk about.  But I don’t think it’s the main reason Jesus told it.  Because he told it to people a whole lot more like the elder brother.  Those who were asking, “so what about us? “

 

What is the love for those who have stuck around?  Who have tried to follow and not done a horrible job at it?  What about us who have worked hard to be faithful? We’re not perfect, we’ve done some bad stuff, but like him we may not have done something so publicly bad and wasteful and sinful like this other guy.  And sure, all sins are the supposed to be the same and we’ve lied and coveted and stuff, but can’t we get past being politically correct and just admit that we haven’t made as many bad choices?  

 

But Jesus just keeps telling the story of the elder brother, the one who is supposed to know better and behave better.    The one who has hung around the father long enough that he should have known his heart by now.  

 

But instead of celebrating that his dad was doing the thing his dad did best- welcoming and celebrating and loving without limit, the elder brother can only see his father wasting his inheritance on a kid who was immature and irresponsible.   Wasting his goodness of someone that wasn’t worth it.  Instead of this brother seeing that he is loved by a father whose love is good enough and wide enough to love even his idiot brother, he just sees unfairness.    

 

But thankfully, even though this brother wants to live by what is fair and wants to pout outside the party, this loving father doesn’t treat the older brother like he deserves, either.  He deserves to be ignored and left outside.  But the father knows he needs his dad to come to him again.  To assure him of the love that he’s questioning.  

 

It may be a quieter assurance, not as much of a celebration as he was hoping for, but his father reminds him, “You have family that you thought was gone forever.  You have a brother to share your life with.  And even in the midst of a party for your brother, I am standing here with you, loving you and inviting you to celebrate with me.  I dearly want you to be family to each other and to know how much I love each of you.  So get over yourself and let me love how I will love. Enjoy this love instead of trying to control it..  And get yourself inside to this feast!”

 

They seem like harsh words, not extravagantly loving ones, for a son who had done all the responsible things.  But they are the only words to break through this brother’s pride and open his heart to the father’s love.    The point is not following all the rules, the father says.  The point is to love who I love and to be family together.  That’s what I want more than anything.   So quit your being responsible and just love your brother!  

 

And just as the older brother is left with his mouth wide open in surprise, I’m sure the good religious people were left speechless.  Because Jesus says what simply does not make sense.  Jesus tells all the rule-abiding folk that their relationship to their these ones he’s eating with is what really matters.  More than anything, Jesus says, God is the father who loves both his sons so desperately that their relationship is more important than their virtue.  

 

So all these folks I’m eating with are your family, Jesus says, whether you like it or not.  They are your nutty, inconvenient, irresponsible family.  And you may do all sorts of good things in the world, live by all sorts of good rules, but if you don’t recognize these as your brothers and sisters and know the love I have for them, you don’t really know who I am.  And then you don’t get to enjoy how good my love is.  So get to know them, celebrate with them and then you can celebrate with me.  

 

Because there’s a party.  It’s happening whether you like it or not.  God is going to keep loving your brothers and sisters AND you like this even if you think it’s a bad idea.  So come and eat and enjoy the love that you get to live in and come meet the rest of your family who gets to live in this love with you. 

 

What we do matters

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 26, 2011 at 11:35 AM Comments comments (0)

Matthew 21:23-32


Sometimes it seems like Jesus and our parents have something in common when asking questions.  Did you catch it in the parable?  How Jesus sets the religious up by asking them a simple question- “What do YOU think?”  He asks them, “There’s two sons- when their father asks them to do something, one says no but then goes out and does what he’s told and the other one says yes but does nothing.  Which of the two did the will of his father?”  It’s one of those questions with an obvious answer. 

 

Have you ever gotten stuck in one of those questions by your parents?  Where they ask you a question with such an obvious answer that you’re forced to give them an answer you really don’t want to give, the one that makes you admit what you’ve done wrong.  Just like our parents do sometimes, this evening Jesus is confronting the religious leaders.  But instead of yelling at them, he tells them a story and makes them pass judgment on themselves, admitting that they have too often said good things but not done the work of the Father.  And I really don’t like that about this parable- because it also makes us squirm, it makes us pass judgment on the ways we’ve been living. 

 

But us good Christians know that the Christian life isn’t all about doing the right things- because we all mess up.  It’sabout trusting and believing in Jesus when we mess up, right?  It absolutely is, but too often we fall back on that assurance when we get irritated that someone is pointing out how we’re not living like we’re supposed to.  If you read the parable again, Jesus never says that either of the sons are unloved, he never says that either of them are disowned or thrown out by their father no matter what they do.  Jesus simply points out what we already know is true- one of the sons is following the will of the Father and the other is ignoring it. He’s holding up a mirror to how we live our lives.  He’s calling us all out for saying one thing and doing another.  For looking good withour words in public, yet not doing the will of the Father in our lives. 

 

And although we get angry when people pull this questioning trick on us, Jesus isn’t doing this to tick us off.  He’s calling the religious leaders out and he calls us out so that we can be changed.  So that we can look ourselves square in the face and admit what we did not want to admit.  That we often let other things get in the way of following Jesus and that we too often trust Jesus’ goodness and fool ourselves into believing that we don’t need to do anything in response.  We may be loved no matter what, but we are not always living out that love.

 

Whenever I hear this story, I picture the second son being one of those kids that always listens to his father and wants to do what’s right.  So, when his dad asks him to work, he says yes right away, but as the day wears on, he’s busy doing other things- good things, but not his father’s work- and somehow the day ends before he’s ever had a chance to go into the vineyard.

 

AndI picture the first son lazily sitting on the couch watching TV and when his dad comes in to give him some chores. And I hear him complaining that he didn’t really want to do any work and even if he did, he had homework and a project coming up.  And his dad doesn’t say a word, but he leaves the room disappointed.  And the son turns back to the TV, but the shows stink.  Andhe realizes he doesn’t have that much homework, so he changes his mind and thinks he’ll surprise his dad and do some work in the vineyard after all.     Maybe I have that picture, one with a little more sympathy to the second son, because I know too often who I am! 

 

That’sthe picture I always have in my head, but I’m not sure that it’s quite accurate.  You see, if you read other translations of this parable, it actually says that the second son “repented” after he said no.  And the usual word that the writers in the Bible use for repent means to change the activities of your mind- to change your thinking- as in the first son thinking that it might be a nice idea to help out his father. 

 

But the word used for “repent” in this parable is different.  It’s a word that means to change your priorities and to change what you care about. It’s not about making a logical calculation of what would be a wiser thing to do.  It’s about your heart being changed by your relationship with the one who asks you.  So maybe it’s a little more accurate to think of the first son thinking again not about the work, but about his father.  And while he’s thinking about his father, he feels such a deep respect and love for him and feels so deeply loved by this one that gave him life that he suddenly can’t think of anything more important than running into the vineyard.  He isnot a son who didn’t have anything better to do- he’s one who suddenly can’t imagine that there actually IS anything better to do.  His heart has been so completely overwhelmed by his father that he begins to care about different things and have different priorities. 

 

Jesus says that what matters is that your heart is changed by the one who asks you to work.  You can still start off being a stubborn person who often says the wrong things and isn’t quick to want to do work.  But what truly matters to the Father is that in the midst of your stubbornness, your heart becomes changed by the one who calls you.  That your priorities begin to be your Father’s priorities and that you begin to care about the same things that your Father does. 

 

It was during my second semester of college that I first felt called to be a pastor.  And as this call became real for me, I did something that still doesn’t make complete sense to me.  I didn’t seek out a Lutheran church to attend- in fact, I kept going to the evening mass at the Catholic church that I liked.  I didn’t call my pastor back home to talk it over and I didn’t start researching seminary.  But what I did do was suddenly feel completely compelled to start volunteering at a nursing home. 

 

I don’t have a really good explanation for what I was thinking at the time and what led me to this.  I just remember that when I thought about pastors, I thought about people who had different priorities.  They struck me as people who did good things for other people.  So if I was going to be a pastor, then I needed to start caring about people and doing good things for them, too.  And for me, that meant that I started taking the bus twice a week to the nursing home to help set up bowling pins for activity time. And I sat and listened to Rachel tell me the same story over and over every week.   Feeling called to be a pastor meant I started borrowing a school car and driving other students over every Sunday afternoon to visit with the residents.  And it even compelled me to volunteer at an adult day-care center when I studied abroad in Japan, where I could barely understand a word the older folks said to me.

 

I somehow had a sense that being a pastor- being a professional follower of Jesus- meant having different priorities than the rest of the world.  That it meant caring about different things. That didn’t mean I had to discard all the other things I liked, but it did mean that what was at my core was different.  What took precedence in my life was different.  And it meant for me, that from then on, the things that I was compelled to do would be different.  Because I was called to be a reflection of the One who had called me. 

 

And I did have part of it right back then. Following Jesus does mean changing what we care about and changing the things that we do.  But it didn’t have anything to do with me being a pastor. All of us are called by Jesus and asked to work in the vineyard- the world that needs us.  That is what gives us our need to serve, our need to change our priorities and our need to live differently.  I may be a really visible Christian, but we are all charged with doing the work that Jesus calls us to. 

 

Following Jesus means letting our entire lives be turned upside down by him- making his priorities our priorities and what he cares about what we care about.  It doesn’t mean being born into a Christian family, going to Tuesday night discussion, praying before meals, wearing a cross necklace, or belonging to a church. Doing the will of the Father means being changed by God’s call to us and God’s authority over our lives.  It means doing what Jesus calls us to do not because we want to, or because it’s fun, or even because it seems like the most productive thing to do at the time.  It means following Jesus in lives of service and worship, of prayer and study simply because we have been changed by the one who calls us in love.  

 

Justl ike you may choose to start studying more because you put a high priority ongetting into grad school, following Jesus means choosing things that strengthen your faith and help you be about Jesus’ work, simply because being loved by Jesus makes it that important to you.  It means things like choosing to pray before you go to class so you don’t forget about it later in the day.  Things like serving at a soup kitchen every week instead of having more free time.  Things like giving away your money before you get some of the things you want because there’s nothing more important than sharing with those who need it.  

 

We are children of the Father- loved and treasured no matter what we do.  But we are also called to work in the vineyard- to be about the work of the one who loves us.  To be a reflection of the one who calls us.  And going into the vineyard matters-to our God and to our brothers and sisters. 

 

 

The kingdom of heaven is like. . .

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 19, 2011 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (0)

Matthew 20:1-16


Every day was pretty much the same for the workers where I grew up.  They went to the strip mall on the side of town at about 6:00 and took their place in line. A few business folk ran into Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee on their way to work, but otherwise the parking lot was empty. Just a line of men waiting as the sun is just coming up, hoping that they will find work today. 


And the first truck pulls up and the driver gets out and checks out the line. “You four,” he says, “come with me.  $7.25 an hour is the going rate these days, right?  So, $90 for 12 hours, then.  Hop in.” And the 4 men climb in the truck and head off to a day of landscaping work in the hot sun.  


And the rest of the men in line wait, hoping other trucks will come.  They wait all the way until 9:00 am when the same truck comes by again.  And the driver chooses 4 more men to join the first group and promises to pay them whatever is fair.  And the same truck comes back at noon and at 3:00 to gather more men.  By 5:00 at night, the parking lot is full as commuters have gotten home and are heading to the grocery store or picking up a pizza for dinner.  But in the corner, there are still 4 men,waiting and hoping.  And in an act that seems like mercy, the driver invites them to the last hour of work for the day.


When it comes time for pay day, the workers who came late don’t expect much. But they’ll take anything to bring home to their families.  And they get their $90 paycheck and they can barely believe their eyes.  They have enough to buy food tonight and finish paying the rent!  And the rest of the workers see his joy and start thinking how good this boss is. Until they see their paychecks and they look just the same.  And the ones who worked and sweated and whose backs are aching look at their paycheck and it almost seems like dirt to them.  No extra pay for their hard workin the hot sun? And these lazy folks who moved a few plants around at 5:00 get the same pay?  Then what was the point of working so hard?  This isn’t fair! 


And the boss asks those first workers, “What’s your problem?  Are you jealous because I am good?”  Your pay is still exactly what I promised you.  You have everything you need for the day.  I haven’t cheated you or taken away what is yours.  But I never promised that I would be fair.  I wanted all my workers to have enough so I gave some more than they deserve. What does that matter to you?  You have all you need.  Go home to your families and enjoy what you have. 


And the boss is so annoyingly right that their pride is hurt a little. Yes, he was fair to them, but don’t they deserve to be valued more?  Don’t they deserve to have the boss give them a gold star in front of everyone?  This is not the way the world works! 


It’s true, it’s not the way the world works, Jesus says.  But it’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Just like the boss, the kingdom isn’t fair, but it is good.  It’s a place where everyone gets what they need- from the one picked first for their strength to the one picked last because he had a broken foot and barely knew how to work a shovel.  It’s a place where everyone gets chosen just because they need the work.  It’s a place where we don’t ge twhat we deserve- but where we always get what we need. 


It’s a beautiful kingdom to look at, especially when you are struggling to have enough or mourning for your brothers and sisters who go without.  But it’s so far from what the world looks like. And I think Jesus tells us this parable is so that we can begin to see with kingdom eyes. 


So that we can begin to ask- what would it look like if everyone who showed up hoping for a job actually got work to do?  And what if everyone got paid enough to provide for their families? What if the janitor and the secretary and the CEO all got paid based on what they needed to live on, not what type of work they did?   


It may not make a lot of sense as our country’s economic policy, but what if this is how we lived as followers of Jesus?  What if this is how we handed out our love and our welcome and even our possessions?  What if we gave to those who need it rather than those who deserve it?  Imagine what it would look like. 


It would probably look like a little like the Israelites in the wilderness who went out to gather manna in the morning.  Every day they went out to gather it side by side, but at the end of the morning, those that had families of 10 ended up with more than those with families of 3.  No one had too much and no one had too little.  They all had enough.  It wasn’t what they deserved- but it was what they needed.  It was God’s kingdom at work. 


And in the early church, the Scriptures tell us that everyone shared all that they had so that everyone had enough.  The rich sold their possessions so no one would go without and they never bothered to ask how much work their brothers and sisters did before they gave them what they needed.  The followers of Jesus worked to make the goodness of creation enough for everyone. They wanted to right what the world had messed up.  It was God’s kingdom at work. 


And still, Jesus sets a table of bread and wine every week where everyone has enough- the lifelong follower and the person who barely even believes anymore. The one who deeply wants to receive Jesus and the one that’s only going through the motions.  The person who has labored among those who are poor for 40 years and the one who still doesn’t like giving a few cans of food away to those who need it.  The table is set for all of us.  No matter how long or how well we have served God, Jesus invites us all to the table where everyone gets an equal share of love and forgiveness.  At this table, everyone gets exactly what they need and no one gets more than anyone else.  It’s not fair, but it is good.  Just like the God who loves us. 


This is what God’s kingdom is about. And it’s what God’s kingdom will always be about- whether we’re ticked off because we’ve been working hard without recognition or whether we’re amazingly thankful for getting far beyond what we deserve.  Grace and love and blessings are given how God wants to give them.  And we are promised that although it won’t ever be fair, it will always be good.  So we given two choices- we can work in God’s kingdom where everyone gets paid the same or we can sit outside and pout about how it’s not fair.  Either way, it’s not going to change God’s goodness- it’s only going to leave us out of enjoying it.     


A Jewish story tells of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appeared to him and granted him three wishes, but with one condition- that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer was thrilled and wished for 100 cattle.  Immediately he received 100 cattle, and he was thrilled until he saw that his neighbor had 200. So he wished for 100 acres of land, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had 200 acres. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye.


You see, you can either enjoy what you have or you can begrudge what your neighbor has.  But somehow, Jesus knows, you can’t do both.  We can choose to see the goodness of the kingdom or we can be ticked off that those that don’t deserve it get a piece of it.  We can rejoice that we are chosen to do work in the kingdom of God or we can curse God’s mercy and try to earn recognition for ourselves.  We can be proud of our hard work and think about how superior we are or we can rejoice that we have a paycheck that gives us everything we need. 


No matter our choice, God’s kingdom remains the same.  It is one where all who want to work are chosen, where no one goes without what they need, and where our loving God gives us all we are promised and far more than we deserve.  It’s not fair- it’s better.  Because it is good. 


So come, enjoy the gift you have been given.  Enjoy God’s goodness.  And enjoy bringing others to know this God who is good beyond our understanding.