Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32: Forgiveness and What Does Prodigal Mean, Anyway?

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

This week’s reading is one I wrote about when I used to prepare curriculum based on the lectionary for our church school, so I’m mostly using that here.

Most of us probably know the story of the prodigal son. I wasn’t even exactly sure what the word “prodigal” meant, in spite of my familiarity with this parable. Honestly, I’m sure most of us don’t use the word much except in the context of this particular story, either. I actually just looked it up and it didn’t even mean what I thought it meant. I thought it was something like “describing someone who deserts someone or something else and then comes back” but I guess that was just the influence of this parable. The real definition is: “Spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.” So much for my degree in English.

So the story is that the younger son of a rich man decides he is not satisfied with life at home and he’s ready to go out on his own. Rather than seeking his own fortune, though, he goes to his father and asks for his inheritance early. His father is sad about it, but goes ahead and gives him the money. Can you imagine the nerve of this guy? Anyway, he takes the money and runs off to live on his own. He becomes quite the playboy and squanders all his inheritance away on partying and fast living. Next thing you know, he’s down and out and far from home. He ends up taking a job feeding some guy’s pigs and realizes he’s so poor and hungry that he’d be happy to be eating what the pigs are eating. Finally he realizes he’d be better off back home, even if he’s just a servant to his father, believing that’s all he can be since he wasted away the money and love his father gave him. So he returns home and as it turns out, his father is thrilled to see him, throws a big party for him, and welcomes him home. Meanwhile his older brother, who has stayed home and worked dutifully for his father, is angry that his wasteful, loser brother is getting all this affection and attention. The father tells him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” This older brother is sort of standing in for human beings in general–we don’t always understand God’s love for others; sometimes human beings try to deny that God loves everyone unconditionally. The father stands for God, whose love is above all we can imagine and who can forgive whatever bad things we do, but he is also an example of how we should strive to be. And of course the wasteful son represents us when we have done wrong things and need forgiveness.

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C: Luke 13:1-9: Do Right

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

People ask Jesus about a horrible event that had recently occurred–Pilate had Galilean worshippers killed with the added gruesome detail that their blood mixed with the blood of animals they brought for sacrifices. Jesus asks them if they think this happened because those people killed were more sinful than other Galileans. He says they weren’t and also asks about people who’d died when a tower fell on them. He says that they were not more sinful and that the listeners should think of that and change their own lives.

Here we have an age-old religious and philosophical question–are people punished for being sinful and why do bad things happen to good people. Jesus insists that those people weren’t killed because of their sin. We all know that bad consequences can come of bad actions, but also, sometimes bad things happen for no good reason. But Jesus also says not to be obsessing about those things but to instead be right with God ourselves, regardless. Do the right thing, no matter what comes. Love God, love your neighbor.

Second Sunday in Lent, Year C: Luke 13: 31-35: Defy the Foxes

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Some Pharisees warn Jesus that he should hide because Herod wants to kill him. He responds,

“Go tell that fox, ‘Today and tomorrow I am forcing demons out of people and finishing my work of healing. Then, the next day, the work will be finished.’ After that I must go, because all prophets should die in Jerusalem.”

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets. You stone to death the people God has sent to you. How many times I wanted to help your people. I wanted to gather them together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you did not let me. Now your home will be left completely empty. I tell you, you will not see me again until that time when you will say, ‘Welcome! God bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’[b

Luke 13:32-35 (Easy-to-read version)

First, I love that Jesus calls Herod a “fox”–meaning a cunning and sneaky creature who kills other animals. Second, I like the corresponding imagery of Jesus as a hen gathering chicks under her wings for protection, though he himself is in danger as a prophet. His great desire is to serve the poor and marginalized, to protect them from the foxes of the cruel domination system of his time, but that’s exactly why he was himself in danger from that domination system. And we must follow in his footsteps. Think of the great world changers of history–people like Ghandi and the Martin Luther King, Jr.–in defiance of the powers-that-be and with love for the downtrodden, they stood up for love and justice. They faced hardship and even death itself to change the world for the better. May we have the courage to do the same.

First Sunday in Lent, Year C: Luke 4:1-13: Jesus in the Wilderness

You can see all the lectionary readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus is fasting in the desert, where he is tempted by the devil for 40 days. Jesus of course resists every temptation–temptations for food, temptations for power, temptations to test God and make a dramatic spectacle.

This is an apt beginning to the 40 days of Lent, our own journey of sacrifice and resisting temptation–a time to prepare our hearts and grow in the love of God. Just as Jesus spent his time in prayer and preparation before beginning his ministry, we dwell in somber reflection and growth approaching Easter. Let us continue in that preparation.

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C: Luke 6:27-38: Way of Love

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Like in the last week’s lesson, Jesus continues to turn traditional viewpoints on their head. Love enemies, bless people who want harm to come to you; pray for people who bully you, turn the other cheek. Again, we could skim this and miss how revolutionary it must have been when he first says it.

Jesus says we shouldn’t be praised for loving those who love us–that even sinners love those who love them. Anyone can love someone who loves them or do favors for those who can return the favor. But Jesus has a harder teaching–love your enemies, give without expecting something in return. Don’t judge or condemn, forgive and you will be forgiven.

This is indeed a hard teaching, but also one Jesus links to our relationship with God. The more we live this way of love, the more we can draw near to God.

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C: Luke 6:17-26: A New Way to See the World

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is with a large crowd; people from all over have come to hear him teach and to be healed. Jesus heals them and begins to preach.

This is one of those things I don’t want to paraphrase:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.

Luke 6:20-26 (NRSV)

These are the Beatitudes. Most of us have heard them before–perhaps so often, in fact, that they have become clichéd. But consider them in the context of when Jesus first speaks them–turning expectations on their head. The poor have the kingdom? The hungry will be filled? Those who weep will laugh? It’s not how the world sees things; it’s not how we see things day-to-day, but it’s how Jesus calls us to see things and how he calls us to seek justice in the world.

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C: Luke 5:1-11: Fishing for People

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus is beside Lake Galilee and a crowd is pushing to get closer to him. He escapes the scrum by getting into a boat with a fisherman named Simon. Then he teaches the people on the shore. When he’s done he asks Simon to take the boat to deep water to catch some fish. Simon protests that he caught nothing all night, but he agrees to try. Sure enough, they catch a ton of fish, so many that their nets are breaking.

Simon falls down before Jesus, saying he is a sinner. His friends James and John are also amazed by Jesus. Jesus tells Simon not to be afraid, and tells him from now on he will fish for people instead of fish. The men from that day left all they had to follow Jesus.

Here Jesus acquires some of his disciples with the help of a miraculous catch. Then he brings them along to catch people with him. I’ve done some fishing in my life and it comes with no guarantees. It involves attracting the fish in some way, hooking them, and bringing them aboard a boat or up to a dock and then to shore. It’s a combination of work and good fortune–or perhaps the good fortune can sometimes be a miracle. These men had worked all night without a catch until Jesus stepped in. The same can be true for fishing for people. We can work our little hearts out at church to attract people and evangelize and run programs, but it takes some Jesus to actually catch any hearts and bring them to God. We do our part, but we must stay in sync with God to do his work.

Please also note where Jesus begins his ministry. He doesn’t go straight to the temple in Jerusalem, the religious hot spot. He will eventually get to that, but he starts out in the countryside in smaller towns. He goes straight to the people, not to the religious leaders. His heart is for those on the margins, not for the rich and powerful.

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C: Luke 4:21-30: Service to All

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

In last week’s lesson, we see Jesus proclaim that the scripture from Isaiah is coming true in the presence of the people in the synagogue in Nazareth. In this week’s lesson, we see what happens next.

People are amazed and exclaiming “Isn’t he Joseph’s son?” Jesus tells them he knows they will expect him to do the same things he did in Capernaum there in Nazareth, but he says a prophet is not accepted in his own hometown. He tells the story of Elijah, who was sent to help only to one widow in Israel among many–and how Elisha healed only one leper among many, and that a man from Syria, not Israel.

The people don’t like this and they try to force him out of town–taking him to the edge of a hill to throw him off, but he walks through the crowd and walks away.

Jesus is telling the people of his hometown not to expect preferential treatment from him–he won’t play favorites. Followers of Jesus today often also fall into the trap of expecting to be special to God to the exclusion of others, but that’s not a game Jesus plays. He serves all and wants us to also serve all. We are to welcome and serve with no preference for people who are like us.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C: Luke 4:14-21: Jesus’ Mission Statement

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

I’m preaching this Sunday so what follows is basically my sermon (though it will no doubt change a bit in the moment).

Just imagine something for a moment with me. Father Owen on a Sunday morning reads the Gospel as usual. We are all watching him (or maybe we’re reading along in our bulletin, but hopefully we’re paying attention). Then he just sits down and says “OK, that scripture is fulfilled today” and that’s the end of his sermon. We’d be like, “What? What is happening?” But you’re out of luck this morning, I have a lot more to say—you won’t get off that easy.  But keep that in your mind as we move on.

Next let’s bring our imaginations to the time of Jesus. This is a little more difficult since we haven’t been there. Jesus has been baptized and then he has been tempted in the wilderness. He then returns to the area of Galilee where he grew up. Today’s Gospel says he returns “filled with the power of the Spirit.” What does this mean—filled with the power of the Spirit? It’s no small thing—when Luke tells us that Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit, he’s letting us know that now we’re getting down to business. You don’t describe someone filled with the power of the Spirit if they’re just planning to have a snack, take a nap, maybe catch a football game. Being filled with the power of the Spirit means something significant. He begins teaching in the synagogues of various towns, and word begins to spread that he is something special.

Then Jesus’ ministry truly begins with today’s Gospel, and he announces it in his own hometown.

He arrives in his hometown of Nazareth and is asked to read from the scriptures on the Sabbath. Someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah. He finds a particular passage (now take note this is also what we do on our Sabbath day–we look into the scriptures to learn something every week).

I’m going to read this again; it’s important: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:19 : Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6

What’s interesting to me is that he is very deliberate about the passage he reads, and he adds a bit from another part of Isaiah. So he knows exactly what he intends and this makes it more meaningful.

Then Jesus sits down. (From what I understand it was common practice for someone presenting in the synagogue to read a scripture and then sit down before explaining it.) He then says, as everyone stares at him expectantly, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, “This text is about me and I’m about to blow your minds.”

The response of the people of Nazareth will be continued in next week’s Gospel reading–you’ll have to come back for that (I feel like I’m giving you a cliffhanger—but you can also read it in any of the Bibles here). Today it’s all about what Jesus is saying. You could call this passage Jesus’ mission statement, because it’s indeed what he goes on to make the focus of his ministry–to bring good news to the poor, to tell the captives they are free, to proclaim sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and to tell everyone the time has come for the Lord’s favor. 

His carrying out this mission is apparent in everything he does—in what he teaches, in his healing ministry, in his surprising responses to questioning by religious leaders, in his miracles—and this mission is what leads him to the cross. Then he rises from the dead and his mission continues in the hands of his church. Sometimes the church has followed his mission and done it very well and of course sometimes it’s done it poorly or even as if following a very different mission.

Let’s break this mission statement down. First, to bring good news to the poor. Jesus was very focused on poverty. He was very focused on money. There are people who count these things and they have calculated that he talked about money more than anything else–but he talked about it in the sense that earthly things are fragile and fleeting. In that time people who were wealthy were often considered blessed by God. Honestly there are a lot of Christians who think that way today. They think if you’re poor, you must have done something wrong—never mind income inequality, the effects of racism, classism, the difficulty in affording higher education—poverty is somehow a sin and a reflection of bad character according to some people. Recently Franklin Graham (he’s the son of the famous Christian evangelist Billy Graham) said in an interview, “A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume.” This was in context of him saying that the United States has been a force for good because of its wealth. I think I get what he’s trying to say, but it comes across very dismissive of the poor and their intrinsic worth, worth that Jesus would never deny.

 There are ministers (some are themselves multimillionaires) in the pulpit this morning telling their congregations that they just need to pray harder to be blessed with money. They teach that they lack faith if they struggle financially. But later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are you that hunger now.” Jesus had no disdain for the poor but only for those who mistreated the poor and trampled them on their way to their own riches. He often contrasts the poor with the wealthy. After blessing the poor, he says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” His words of comfort were for those who needed it, not for the already comfortable. Most of us probably know the story of Jesus watching people donating money at the temple. He saw the rich men donating large amounts very ostentatiously—obviously showing off their wealth while they were at it. Then he watched a poor widow give two copper coins and he said that she had given more than all the rest, because they gave out of their abundance and she gave all she had. That was how Jesus cared for the poor. He brought good news to the poor because they likely saw themselves as unworthy as well. They internalized that harsh assessment of poverty being their own fault, but Jesus gave them comfort and intrinsic value.

Next, Jesus said “proclaim release to the captives.” Often this is interpreted only metaphorically—freeing people captive to sin or freeing us from certain ancient laws. It’s true that I can’t recall an incident of Jesus personally setting captives physically free—but he did have a message of hope and freedom. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and 20 percent of the world’s imprisoned population. Do we really have more law-breakers than other nations? Even as the rates of violent crime and property crime have gone down, our prison population has increased dramatically for decades, thanks to harsh sentencing and mandatory sentencing laws and I think also due to a certain culture of condemnation and retribution for even minor offenses. Our prisons are disproportionately populated by people of color. In addition to our regular prisons, we have those detained at the border seeking asylum. Our country has increased spending for prisons dramatically compared with the increase in spending for education. The amount of tax payer money spent for state and local prisons increased at triple the rate, compared to public school education. If Jesus began his ministry in this decade, I think he would call us out for all of these alarming statistics.

Jesus also talked about recovery of sight to the blind. This was very literal in the Gospel when he healed the blind and many other people. Healing was an extensive and essential part of his ministry. Healing should also be a part of our ministry, whether spiritual or physical. Healing is complicated and difficult, but it’s part of our calling as followers of Christ. Of course, we should work to make medical care more accessible and affordable for people and that’s important, but healing isn’t synonymous with curing. To cure someone is to eliminate their disease. To heal someone is to make them whole. That goes beyond the medical. How are people healed? Sometimes they are literally cured, yes. Sometimes they are healed of addictions. Sometimes they are healed of their own closed-minded bigotry. Sometimes they are healed of loneliness. We may not experience the kind of miracles Jesus performs in the scriptures, but healing still happens and we are called to care for our fellow children of God.

Jesus also says he’s called to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Isn’t that a beautiful thought—freedom for the oppressed and the Lord’s favor? So many of us have been treated badly, so many people have been marginalized and abused by society and by other people. And Jesus had a message of hope for them, for us. And he calls on us to carry on this mission, a mission to the poor, to the captives, to the blind, to the oppressed—to all the people our culture has rejected and neglected.

Today’s reading from Corinthians is also about the church, the Body of Christ, and how we are called to live out the mission of Jesus. We are all part of that body and we all have our own purpose within it. We all have gifts and skills to use for the church and for society. Those gifts are all different. Your gifts are not the same as your neighbor’s. Those gifts work together to make a functioning and thriving body of Christ, working together for the good of the church and the world, carrying out the same mission.

I want to challenge all of us to think about Jesus’ mission over next two weeks as we approach the date of our annual meeting. How are we fulfilling our role within the body of Christ?—both as members of Grace and members of the larger church. How is Grace working toward these goals? I could tell you some wonderful things Grace is doing, but I challenge you to look into it in the coming week. You can check out the website for information on all the ways this church is at work fulfilling Jesus’ mission or you can come to the annual meeting on the 10th and hear the voices of those doing that work and inviting you to join in as well.

So let’s go back to where we began—in our imaginations. We have heard the scripture. The Holy Spirit is within us as followers of Christ. We are called to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to heal the broken, to free the oppressed, and to proclaim the goodness of God. Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. Amen.


First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22: Years of Preparation for Service

You can see all the lectionary readings for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

As we did a couple weeks ago, we read about John baptizing people and telling them that one was coming who would do much more. Then Jesus arrives to be baptized, too. While Jesus is praying, the sky opens and the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove. A voice from Heaven says “You are my Son, the one I love. I am very pleased with you.”

I was reading various resources about this passage and this particular sermon from Sermons that Work at EpiscopalChurch.org stuck with me as she asks the question: “But why did it take so long for Jesus to make this decision to become public with his understanding of the character of God? In that first century, which afforded a much shorter life span, thirty years was a very long time.”

This question made this become personal for me. I am already 44 and just beginning on the path to become a priest, though the inkling that I was called to ministry came to me when I was just a child. Like Jesus (and I don’t often compare myself to Jesus, I can assure you), I am starting my ministry later than might be expected, but on the other hand I can only imagine his whole life was leading to that point and mine it its own minor way has been leading to this. This gives me some assurance that it’s o.k. to start a little later in life, knowing that the age of 30 must have seemed much older back in that time. We become adults later and die much later (on average), after all.

The sermon I linked goes on and is worth a read, but I particularly love the end.

Jesus’™ thirty years of preparation before his public baptism remind us that it takes time to get ready for God’s mission. How many countless hours did Jesus spend in prayer? What study, what thought, what agony he must have undergone before appearing in front of John to ask him to baptize him. It is never too late for any of us to say “€œyes” to God.

The courage of both John and Jesus calls us to repent from fear, to turn our backs to the voices that urge us to be cautious. Justice must be proclaimed, even at the cost of endangering our lives. The chosen of God, the beloved of God are not guaranteed happiness and prosperity, but life in him who calls us to himself. Oh, to hear the words “With you I am well pleased.”

You Are My Beloved, Epiphany 1 (C) – 2007 by Katerina Katsarka Whitley