Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Category: Gospel of Luke

The Living and The Dead

Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb taking with them the spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb, but they didn’t find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.

The women were terrified and they bowed their faces to the ground. But the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead. He’s not here; he is risen. Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must suffer at the hands of sinners, be crucified and rise again on the third day.” Then they remembered these words and, returning from the tomb, they told all of this to the eleven and to all the rest.

Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But their words seemed to them an idle tale and they didn’t believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. Stooping and looking inside, he saw the linen clothes lying there. And he went home, amazed at what had happened.

I want to have a little fun and start with some optical illusions and see what we can see, together. This first one is a classic, I imagine most of us have seen before. I remember seeing it for the first time in my High School Psychology class:

Easter - OLD and YOUNG.jpg

(Some see an older woman, some see a younger woman; Some say that may depend on your age.)

Easter - Profile.jpg

(The way he’s looking depends on the way you’re looking, perhaps.)

Easter - Cat.jpg

(How many say the cat is walking up the stairs? How many say the cat is walking down the stairs?)

Now, the words from those guys in the dazzling clothes at the tomb in this morning’s Gospel, had me wondering about optical illusions and about the tricks our eyes can play on us – and our heads and our hearts, too. And their question is convicting and powerful and covers a lot of ground – when you consider it through the eyes of faith:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It seems, almost, like a rhetorical question, because they don’t seem to wait for an answer. Those guys in the be-dazzled duds, go right to reminding the women that Jesus had told them all of this would happen – that the Son of Man would be crucified at the hands of sinners, that he would die, that he would be buried, that he would rise again. “Remember how he told you…?”

Which they do, of course, finally; and it sends them back to where they came from telling the apostles and all the rest what they had found – or not found, as it turns out: That Jesus had risen. That death was defeated. That God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and love had won the day. Just as he had told them it would.

So back to that question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” I believe it’s more than just a rhetorical question for those particular women in that particular tomb at that particular time. It’s a question for the ages, really. It’s a question for us, still. And it’s one I want to wrestle with and be challenged by this Easter and more often, in the days to come.

Because we do – too much of the time – look for the living among the dead, I think. I don’t mean we’re rushing to tombs, or hanging out in cemeteries, or pal-ing around with ghosts, of course. I don’t mean that life is a series of optical illusions or mind games or magic tricks, either. But, if by “life” we mean joy and value and peace of mind and hope for the future and self-worth and meaning… than I think we go looking for that kind of life in all the wrong ways and places, too much of the time.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

I’d say, because it’s hard not to. I’d say because the world around us does its damnedest to make us see what isn’t there – life where there is none, I mean: joy and value, peace and hope, self-worth and meaning where none of those things can actually be found.

Joy in our Social Media feed; Value in our net worth; Peace through politics; Self-worth measured against the opinions of others and the list goes on, right?

We value money and things and stuff. We self-medicate. We over-work. We keep up with the Joneses. We strive for perfection and admire it in others. We are addicted and numb and going through the motions and holding grudges. We are pointing fingers and keeping secrets and talking behind backs. We are afraid of children of God who look or live or believe differently than we do. We are okay with the status quo. We avert our eyes from the suffering of our neighbor. We look out for Number One at the expense of Numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on.

Why do you…why do we…look for life and the living, among the dead and death-dealing ways of the world around us?

Because, just like those first followers of Jesus, we forget. We need to be reminded every once in a while about the places from whence real life comes.

Which is why I’m glad we’re here, today. What God does for us at Easter, is turn the tables on the ways of the world. In Jesus’ resurrection we’re meant to see the world through God’s eyes again. We’re meant to see that life comes from the ways of Christ. Real life comes from sacrifice and selflessness. Transformed life comes from humility and hopefulness. New life comes from graciousness and gratitude.

And the really good news of Easter is that, in God’s kingdom – which is alive and well among us, even now, people – life can come, even from the places that feel dead, to us; defeated; lost; failed; whatever you want to call it, or however it is you’ve experienced it, maybe.

Those of us who’ve been to Haiti or have heard the stories, find life in one of the poorest places on the planet every time. Our Agape ministry found some new life just Monday night on Indy’s east side, sharing food and friendship with some prostitutes like they do every month. Some of us experienced more than a little bit of life that same night in the prison up at Pendleton – a place where some light shined in the darkness for the inmates and for the rest of us, too, while we worshiped together.

Because of Easter’s good news – and thanks to those women who first heard and shared it so faithfully – we actually can, now, go looking for life and the living among the dead places of this world, and find it there.

I want to show you another picture of some upside down styrofoam plates.

Easter Plates Final.jpg

But then I want to tell you that one of these plates or bowls is right-side up. And once you find it, all the others will be right-side up, too. (Cool, right?)

God’s grace and love, God’s forgiveness and mercy and promise for new life trump the world’s judgment and sin and death every time – and twice on Easter Sunday. And when we remember that, everything is turned right-side up for us.

Because God has defeated even death for our sake, we are invited to see the world in a new, hope-filled, life-giving way. Because God promises new life to us, not just on the other side of the grave, but every day that we draw breath on this side of heaven – we are called to stop looking for life in all the wrong places.

Because of Easter we are allowed to see all things and all people – and to see ourselves, too – through the lens of resurrection.

And when we do that, God’s hope and intention and joy will be to see us live differently because of it: to forgive our neighbor; to love our enemy; to care for the other; to broaden our circle; to take risks in sharing the same grace and love and mercy we long for, ourselves; and to stop looking for life in the dead and deadly ways of the world – unless it’s our plan to shine the promise of God’s new life into that darkness for the sake of all creation.

Amen. Alleluia. Happy Easter.

Prodigal Grace

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (NRSV)

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there 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. But when he came to himself he said, ‘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.

But 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. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father[e] said to 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.’”

What an obnoxious man. What an obnoxious and irresponsible man. What was he thinking? Can you believe he did that?

Oh, sorry, some of you have blank looks on your faces. You know who I’m talking about, right?

You might assume I’m referring to the younger brother. After all, he’s the one who goes to his father and demands his inheritance (which is essentially the same thing as telling his dad he wished he was dead). And then he goes off and loses all his money on gambling and other examples of loose living. There he is starving to death and thinks, “I know, I’ll go back to dad, say I’m sorry and then he’ll forgive me for my unforgivable actions.” And by the way, we can’t even be sure that his apology was sincere. And then, what, he thinks he’s worthy of the huge celebration his dad throws for him? Give me a break. Yeah, he’s pretty obnoxious and irresponsible; but actually he’s not who I’m thinking of.

You might assume I’m referring to the father. What a gullible and irresponsible dope. What, he can’t say “No” to his son? He didn’t have to give him the inheritance. Oh, and don’t forget that when he saw his son approaching, he ran to him. A dignified and wealthy man of his time would never run. It’s so inappropriate – it was something only poor people would do. And he certainly didn’t have to forgive his son. Well, not only forgive, but throw a party? Give him the best robe and the best meat? Certainly not! He can’t even be sure that his son’s apology is really sincere. What a obnoxious and irresponsible man. The word “prodigal” means “wastefully extravagant.” Maybe the story should be called the “Prodigal Father?”

Sometimes I scratch my head wondering why this is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible because it bears such little resemblance to what actually happens in the world.

First of all, in the real world, people rarely go to such great lengths to say they are sorry. Most people just can’t bring themselves to say that they are sorry; even when they know they are wrong. As a society we put such a high value on winning that we condition everyone to be afraid of saying “I’m sorry.” We are taught that it is a form of weakness and vulnerability.

The other thing that is odd about this story is the enthusiasm which the father displays. Is anyone really that eager to forgive someone who has offended them? I mean, if someone told me they were sorry I would be happy, but I certainly wouldn’t go throwing them a party. I wouldn’t hold them in higher esteem than I did before they wronged me. There’s still a little bit of guilt we can hang over their heads, right?

Well, maybe this is exactly why this is such a well-known story – because it illustrates just how radically different God is from what we would expect. The world teaches us to believe certain things about human nature. But here, as the Word of God often does, we are confronted with the true reality and the good news that God is not beholden to our ideas of justice and forgiveness.

No matter how low we are; no matter how much of God’s blessings we have squandered; no matter how captive we are to sin; God is ready to run to us with open arms, sweep us off our feet, and throw a feast in our honor. The apostle Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. There is no “rock bottom” from which God cannot pull us out.

As it turns out, the prodigal father and the prodigal son are actually very accurate representations of the Christian faith.

So, which person is actually the obnoxious and irresponsible one in the story? The older brother. Boy, jealously does not look good on him, does it? Why is he so bitter and ungrateful? Just a reminder, this family is rich… filthy rich. And his dad says, “Everything that is mine is yours.” But is that enough? No, he wants a party too. He just can’t allow himself to forgive his brother so he goes off and throws a temper tantrum in response to the extravagant love demonstrated by his father.

Whereas the father and the younger brother show us how ridiculous the Christian faith looks in relation to worldly standards; the older brother shows us how ridiculous worldly standards of entitlement and justice look in relation to the Christian faith.

The older brother felt entitled to something greater than the grace and blessings which he had already been shown. And that is perhaps the greatest sin of all. What could our lives look like if we lived them in full realization that the love, acceptance, and grace we so desperately seek for our lives is found in God alone?

May you, like the younger brother, be surprised by the extent of God’s grace and love.

May you, like the father, breathlessly pursue opportunities to lavish forgiveness on those who have wronged you.

And may you, unlike the older brother, be eager to celebrate with those who experience God’s grace that is freely bestowed equally to all people.


All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.