Lent 3: Family Stories

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Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

There’s a bit of a theological problem in our readings for today: the readings from the New Testament seem to entirely blame people for their suffering. I found my way in the only way I know how: family stories.

Weddings and funerals have one thing in common: they are times when families — both blood family and chosen family — gather. As such, family stories flow freely, with or without the help of a little wine.

If you are part of any type of family, you know something about family lore.

Family lore tells you who your family is and where you came from and what you’ve come through and where all the dark parts are. Family stories are full of pride and fear and tears and usually, not just a little laughter and joy.

Weddings are a time when families embarrass their newly married relative with stories of first crushes and awkward preteen years and that time they got so mad that they almost killed the kid as a teenager. Funerals are less joyful occasions, but there is some joy; funerals are a time when a person’s chosen family and their blood family compare notes about who a person was. It is often at the funeral when you learn just how generous and caring your family member was by hearing friend after friend tell of all of the things they did for the people in their life. Family stories flow at weddings and funerals, and they produce some of the holiest moments.

Family stories paint a picture not only of who individual people are, but what the family is like. 

The Bible, above all, is family stories. It paints a picture of who we as a family of faith are. Sometimes, we may not like what we see, while other times, we’re filled with pride with what we read. Still other times, you might hear a different story if you heard it from a different uncle — and with four Gospels, there’s always another uncle to ask.

The Old Testament, especially, is family stories: stories meant to be told around a campfire, stories of pain and tragedy and wrongdoing and woe and pride and return and love and faithfulness.

When it comes to the Old Testament, I hear one thing all the time from a lot of different people: boiled down into very Lutheran terms, it’s the idea that the Old Testament contains Law and the New Testament contains Gospel. To put it in less Lutheran terms, it’s the idea that the Old Testament is judgement and the New Testament is grace.

This kind of thinking does help us with some things: namely, it helps us explain the most egregious parts of the Old Testament that bother us the most. And, to be sure, there is plenty to bother us in the Old Testament: a God that seems to punish people on demand for the smallest infractions of the law, some downright weird stuff, and let’s not forget stories like that of poor Uzzah, the guy who died because he tried to catch the ark of the covenant as it fell (see 2 Samuel 6).

Saying all of that bad stuff belongs in the Old Testament, in the past, seems to be a way to explain these uncomfortable stories. It’s easy, after all, to tell ourselves that God got much nicer after God became flesh in Jesus. 

If you find yourself drifting towards this way of thinking, don’t worry. I’m not calling you out. After over three years together, I know a lot of you quite well. If we took a poll, a goodly number of you would freely admit to having used this kind of thinking before, especially when dealing with a difficult passage. I certainly have. It’s just theologically neater and easier when we can find a simple hack like this to explain a problematic passage. 

But you all are smart. You know that if you scratch the surface with a little logic, you run up against problems with this way of thinking rather quickly. First, there’s the simple fact that our Jewish neighbors don’t have a New Testament, and to insult the “Old Testament God” as judgmental is to not only insult their faith as lacking grace; it is to play into the same tired tropes that have caused Christians to think less of our Jewish neighbors and their faith for millennia.

Besides that, the Old Testament is how we got Jesus. It is the only Scripture that Jesus ever quoted. The Hebrew scriptures are the only reason we even know about him. It is the Hebrew culture, with its Scriptures, that gave us Jesus.

Oh, and of course, there’s no small amount of judgement in the New Testament: like when Ananias and Sapphira drop dead for lying to the apostles about money (see Acts 5:1-11), all of Revelation, and both the 1 Corinthians passage and the Gospel lesson for today. Given a choice between today’s Old Testament readings and today’s New Testament readings, which would you say have more grace?

The Isaiah reading is pure poetry and grace: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” 

Meanwhile, Jesus leaves us to contend with a fig tree being uprooted for not producing fruit and we get that sneaking feeling that you tend to get when someone tells a story and you suspect that they might be talking about you.

Here’s the big thing that my Sunday school students have heard before: most of the New Testament was written primarily to convince you that Jesus is the real deal and Christianity is the truth. That’s why its stories are generally more appealing to you — they were written that way!

The Old Testament, on the other hand, wasn’t written to convince you of anything. The Old Testament is family stories: the kind you tell at weddings and funerals and behind closed doors. All the dirty laundry of the family is in there. These are the kinds of family stories that tell you who you are and where you come from: with the hard parts and the parts we can be most proud of.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

In this part of Isaiah, the Israelites have been in exile for a long time in Babylon. Their country was conquered and many people were killed and others were taken away as exiles. A good chunk of the Old Testament tells this story of exile and pain and return and joy. And here, in this last part of Isaiah, the exiles are returning, and God’s grace is ever near. The people feel God’s love and generosity in a way that they haven’t for years. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.” 

These are family stories. Remember when we were conquered? Remember how hard it was to be away, and in captivity in Babylon?

Remember when God brought us home? 

No, the story of the Babylonian captivity is not a simple story. Our faith family wrestles in the Old Testament with why an all-powerful God would allow God’s people to be captured. A lot of the passages posit that it was God’s judgement. Family stories are rarely simple stories. True family histories are messy and complicated and what story get depends on which aunt or uncle or second cousin you ask. 

The people in the Gospel story really want another family story to be simple. They come to Jesus with a very specific story: one where some Galileans had been murdered by the Romans recently in the midst of worship: those killed are described as those “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” It is not unlike the countless murders we have heard of, most recently, in New Zealand — of people of faith being killed as they offer their worship — only in this case, it is not a terrorist, but the state who does the killing. 

It was fairly common at the time to assume, like the Israelites often did, that if an all-powerful God allowed such a thing to happen, it must be judgement. People still assume such things today.

Jesus isn’t having it. “Do you think they were worse sinners than the other Galileans?” Than you? You think that because something bad happened to them that they deserved it? Jesus cites another disaster and asks the same question. Then he says: repent.

As I used to say to patients in the hospital who thought God was judging them by making them sick: “If everyone who deserved God’s judgement got sick, we would run out of beds in this hospital. We would all be sick.” Tragedies happen. Illnesses happen. Even violence happens, because humanity is destructive. We have proven very great over the years at hurting each other. But even when it is no one’s fault, suffering and death happen.

Taken with the rest of what Jesus says, the message is pretty simple: repentance is our only hope of breaking the cycle of human destruction. Destruction breeds destruction. Harmful behavior causes harm to you and to others.

But love creates love. Love gets you somewhere. Love bears fruit. Love will bring you home — no matter why you find yourself lost.

In today’s readings, the New Testament sings the verse of Law, but the Old Testament sings the chorus of Gospel.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.” 

No story that is real is simple. This Gospel story isn’t easy to boil down in ten to twelve minutes. We could spend years debating why good things happen to bad people, and I will be the first to say that I don’t know. We will not solve the problem of human suffering in this hour together.

Family stories are complicated. Our faith story is no different. 

Here’s what I do know: love brings us home. Love is full of grace. Love is generous. Love tells us who we are, and love makes a family. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

If you remember, I’m referencing all five of our congregation’s chosen values in my sermons during Lent: the first Sunday of Lent, I talked about how we are a sacramental congregation, forming our life together around worship. Last Sunday, it was inclusivity, as Jesus opens his arms like a mother hen to gather us all in, and how this congregation seeks to replicate that extravagant welcome. This Sunday, it’s generosity. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

Our Savior’s people are generous. You have given far above your size for years and years, you have resettled refugees, and you have helped make countless people’s lives better and you continue to do so every single week. You do that because you have come to the waters of baptism and you know who your family is. You do that because you know how much God has given you. We do that because we know that that’s the way God rolls, and we want to be generous like that.

So come to the table of grace. Here is bread and wine without cost. Here is Christ offered freely. Here is love. The kind of love that brings you home.

Because it’s not just weddings and funerals where we share family stories: it’s the kitchen table, too. And in our faith family, the communion table is our kitchen table, where we are free to bring our understanding of the family, our scruples, our doubts about the family, our problems with the family or certain parts of it — but all of us, all of us, are loved as family. 

So whether you’ve been part of this faith family for years or you just started coming here, come to the table with us, where bread, wine, and love are all free. Where the stories might be complicated, but the love is always strong.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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