Note: This is #4 in a series of posts. If you have not read the Foreword to the series, I hope you will do that first: Foreward
Luke 15:13 Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country…
I can remember so vividly our 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Lemon, reading to us with such enthusiasm the classic, The Tale of Two Cities. Mrs. Lemon came from a family of actors. Her brother-in-law was the famous Arthur Honeycutt, and the way she read to us was to make every word come alive. When she read, I could actually see the faces of the characters, could feel both their pain and the joy. It’s been about 68 years now, but in some ways—just like yesterday.
You probably all know the story, and if you haven’t read it, you may well have seen it in the couple of movies they made about it. Basically, it’s about England and France during the great and terrible French revolution. The English commoners and the aristocracy had long been at peace with each other. They had learned to live together because each group of people had both their rights and their privileges.
But not so the French. There were those who were literally starving and there were those who lived in opulence. The masses had put up with this for a thousand years and now it was coming to a head. A time of terrible food shortage came and the masses had nothing to eat. They appealed to their king who was supposed to take care of them for their paying taxes and serving in his armies and fighting his wars.
They came and asked for bread. Simply bread and that was all. “The people have no bread,” they said. And the word came back, “If they have no bread, let them eat cake.” That was a case of terrible ignorance or terrible arrogance and in either case the masses would not put up with it any longer. “If we are going to die of starvation, then maybe we ought to die for treason!” And so they rose up and took over their country. And now a 1000 years of rage welled up and spilled over. Taking over meant destroying, imprisoning and killing. The Guillotine was invented and heads began to roll. It became a public form of entertainment, much the same way the Romans turned out to witness the slaughter of their enemies 1500 earlier.
Civilization lost more than a millennium. Life wasn’t worth a penny. Royalty was beheaded and then the aristocracy and then they turned on each other. Meanwhile, London continued to be the civilized country that had been for more than 500 years. People lived and died in relative peace and calm. Church bells rang and people attended and prayers were offered. And those who were thinking of going to France decided it would be a very bad idea to go- at least at this time.
In a way, this is the same picture which Jesus paints for us, in this parable of the Two Cities. One is right here at home, where the Jews lived peacefully with each other. They had their synagogue and the Sabbath was a given. People ceased from their labors and went and listened to the Word and prayed. The elders sat in their councils and elaborated on the Law. People lived and died in relative peace. And it was a good life. Neighbors looked out for each other. Workers worked their trades and there was bread enough and to spare. And as He told us in another parable, if anyone received an unexpected guest, even late at night, and he was unprepared for him, all he had to do would be to knock on the door of a neighbor and ask for some extra bread to serve his guest. Things were good. There was indeed bread enough and to spare.
But there was another city—a distant one. A different kind of people lived there. And like the French, there was a thousand years’ worth of pent-up rage abiding there. It was, as we say today, a dog-eat-dog world. There was no bread for him and as far as those who had some were concerned, they well could have said, “Let him eat cake.” In the boy’s own words, “I perish here with hunger.” Death was all around him for as Jesus tells us about the young boy, nobody would give him anything.
A tale of two cities—but a parable of life and death. A parable of good and evil. A parable of night and day. A parable of light and darkness.
And Jesus bids us to walk in the light. He bids us to come to the city of the living God. David wrote about it 1000 years before Christ. He said, “There is a river whose steams make glad the city of God, The holy habitation of the Most high. God is in the midst of her and she shall not be moved. God will help her right early.”
That city is the Holy Church. The Church is made up of all the true believers. And the church locally is defined as those who gather around the Word and Sacraments. It is the coming together of God’s people to hear His Word and as we did last Sunday, receive a new member via baptism and as we did last Sunday and as we do this evening, receive the Sacrament of the Altar.
There is a river whose steams make glad the city of God. That river is holy baptism. And how we rejoice every time we baptize someone. How happy we were to renew our own baptism last Sunday in that special service coming to us from the LWML! How glad we were to receive little Frederick. The world would look on and say, “What good does that do for you? A baby can’t believe and a baby will spell out trouble. It will cry and fuss and the mother will have to carry it out.” But we say, “No! A baby in the church making any noise is music to us.” How sad this would be if we were all in our 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s and not one little one, be it antsy or fidgety or at sleep.
There is a place to come to where there is bread enough and to spare and that is here at the Lord’s Table. The younger son recalled that even the hired hands had it. This would refer to the least in the household. Not the sons and daughters, not even the servants who lived there, but the ones who drop by and do a day’s work and get a day’s wage. The dedicated and the most casual member, whether he comes every Sunday and every Wednesday and every time the doors are opened, or literally comes once or twice a year, has the invitation to come and dine at the Master’s Table. The guest as well as the member. It doesn’t matter, the Bread of the Altar is freely given to all.
The tale of two cities, the difference between staying home and doing your own thing or gathering together around word and sacrament. The difference between denying yourself and taking up a cross and following Jesus, or pampering yourself and putting yourself first. The tale of two cities. In the one where they finally do starve to death, as this younger son would have done, had he stayed there, or living, as he finally did when he returned to his home, will also be the difference in what a person finally hears as he passes from this existence to the next. Either, “Depart from me, I never knew you” or “Come blessed of My Father…..” Amen.
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