Easter Sunday 2016

Mary Mag2 by bruce wolfe - old mission santa barbara
Mary Magdalene, sculpture by Bruce Wolfe

We Have Seen Jesus

(John 20:1-18)
by Ann Weems 1934-2016

O Lamb of God! O Lamb of God! O Lamb of God!
With the slaying of the paschal lambs,
you died upon a tree.
Your sheep scattered
and hid in darkness
weeping.
It was over.

Three days those who loved him
huddled,
their hearts trembling,
their faces swollen from tears.
They would no longer see Jesus.
He himself had said from the cross,
It is finished.
They felt finished, too.

While the early morning
had not yet found its sun,
on that first day of the week,
Mary Magdalene walked
through the darkness
to the tomb
and found the stone rolled away.
She ran and found Peter
and that other disciple
whom Jesus loved.
They have taken Jesus out of the tomb,
she said, and we don’t know where to find him.
Peter came into the tomb

and saw the linens lying there,
the head linen rolled up by itself.
Then the other disciple came into the tomb
and he saw and he believed.
He saw and he believed.
We who have sought these Lenten days
to see Jesus …
do we see and do we believe?
Who do we say that he is?
He is the one who gathers the children
to himself.
He is the one who speaks with women,
even foreign women, even Gentile women,
even women of the streets.

He is the one who sits down to eat
with tax collectors.
He is the one who eats with sinners.
He is the one who touches lepers.
He is the One.
The disciples went home.
But not Mary …
no, not Mary …
she stayed,
she wept.
She bent to look into the tomb,
and there she saw two angels,
one at the foot where Jesus had lain
and one at the head.
“Woman,” they asked,
“why are you weeping?”
“They have taken away my Lord,
and I do not know where
they have laid him.”

I do not know where he is!
Did you not know I would be
about my Father’s business?
Who do you say that I am?

Mary said, Rabboni.

Having turned, she saw
whom she believed to be
the gardener,
Woman, why are you weeping?

Whom do you seek?

“Sir, tell me where you have laid him, and
I will take him away.”
All Jesus had to say was ”Mary!”

Mary, Mary, Mary,
Oh, Mary,
Do you not know me?
“Rabboni!”
Yes, she knew him.
She knew Jesus.
She ran to tell the others:
“I have seen Jesus.”
And there it is …
our Lenten search,
that which we have waited for,
that which we have sought,
that which we have worked for.

He is not some goody-goody god;
he is Justice
he is Mercy
he is Humility

he is Love.

And Mary saw him;
Mary knew him;
Mary followed;
Mary believed;
Mary ran to tell the others.
Later that night,
when the doors were shut,
Jesus came to them
and stood among them
and said, ”Peace be with you”

as he always did,
and he said it again,
after he had shown them
his hands and his side.

“Peace be with you.”

From the beginning
it had been Peace.
It was the song of the angels
in Bethlehem.
It was the song of Jesus,
and Peter preached it to the people:
“You know the message
God sent to the people of Israel,
preaching peace by Jesus Christ.
He is Lord of all.”
If we see Jesus,
we know that
he preached peace,
but the thing that’s
so hard for us is this:
we do see Jesus,
and we know Mary
and Peter and all the others
believed that we are to
love our neighbors as ourselves,
but that was then and this is now
and it is a different world.
We are a different people.
Can’t we disciple in a more
modern way?
Not everyone can preach peace.

Can’t we be on the kitchen committee?
Can’t we make more rules?
Can’t we write a check?
And yet, and yet and yet,
he said, as God sent me

I send you.

Receive the Holy Spirit.

He sent them out
just as he sends us out
to all the nations
to tell God’s story
of peace and goodwill.

Easter comes.
The shroud that covered
the world is destroyed;
for our God has swallowed death.
We shall no longer look
for him among the dead.
He calls to us to follow,
to believe in our hearts
that the people of this world
will someday love one another.
Really
Love one another.
If we believe, we know that
that is not a naive hope,
but God’s promise.
We shall not die,
but we will live in him
who died for us.

On Easter morning
and on every morning,
let us in chorus sing:
“This is the day the Lord has made;
Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
And then with Mary,
let us run to tell the others:
We have seen Jesus!”

from Advent’s Alleluia to Easter’s Morning Light: Poetry for Worship, Study, and Devotion by Ann Weems.

Melancholy Messiah (sermon 3/20/16 – Palm Sunday)

palm sunday processsion

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” – Luke 19:28-40

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Palm Sunday is always one of the most enjoyable Sundays of the year. With the added fun of the children processing in with palms, and the joyful spirit of a lot of the music typically performed on Palm Sunday, it’s definitely one of my favorite worship services, and I suspect it’s probably one of yours, too.

The gospel text is also one of my favorite stories to try to insert myself into, to walk around within it and try to experience it through the eyes of the people involved in the story. And what a story it is. Just imagine it unfolding. First, there are the two disciples who are sent out to commandeer some transportation for Jesus, and when the donkey’s owner asked the two what they were doing walking off with his animal, they just told him “Oh, the Lord needs it.” I have to admit that if it were me, I’d have probably said something along the lines of, well if the Lord needs it, he could darned well buy it, or keep on walking. However that part of the story actually played out, move forward to the scene of Jesus now about to set out from Bethany on his way into Jerusalem – a fairly short trip, just about two miles in total. Imagine Jesus, sitting on the back of this ridiculously small animal, his legs practically dragging on the ground, looking more like an adult on a kiddie ride at the amusement park than the messiah come to save the people of Israel. And yet, even given that somewhat unimpressive image, the people are ecstatic, shouting in joy, laying cloaks and branches out in front of him the way they would for a king or a victorious general coming home from a battle, shouting out verses of scripture referring to the coming messiah – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna – save us, save us!”

And Jesus starts out from Bethany, and he follows the narrow road leading downward and curving along the edge of the Mount of Olives, and looking straight ahead on the next rise in the landscape, he sees the entire city of Jerusalem laid out in front of him – all of the hustle and bustle of the city, now more than doubled in size with all of the pilgrims there for the Passover, full of activity and Roman soldiers out in the streets to keep order, and straight ahead is the Temple and its walled outer courts, dwarfing everything else in the city.

What must Jesus have been thinking as he rode along, knowing what was about to unfold? Knowing that all these people who were in that moment singing his praises and loving him and thinking he was the greatest thing since sliced bread, in just a short while would all reject him. They’d toss him out like last week’s newspaper, some would curse him, some would even yell “Crucify! Crucify!” when Jesus didn’t act the way they’d expected once he hit town, and they’d all run off to look for the next would-be messiah. I can only imagine that there were mixed feelings. Feelings of despair over the fate that he knew was about to befall him. Feelings of sadness, and no doubt even anger and some sense of betrayal, over the fickle loyalties of those people surrounding him. But along with those feelings, and I think surpassing them, were feelings of compassion and love for them. He would go into the city, where for several chapters of the gospel now people had been warning him not to, that he’d be arrested and killed if he did; and he would do what he had to do, and not just what they wanted him to do, because he loved them all too much not to. If he didn’t love them, well, Jesus was a smart man. I imagine he’d have turned the donkey around, never gone into town, and headed over the horizon in the opposite direction. Maybe just find a nice quiet job somewhere working construction, or as a fisherman, and settle down into a simple but stable life, maybe even raise a family. Despite what must have been a very real temptation for him in that moment, he kept riding forward, in the midst of the cheers and the celebration, into the city.

Frederick Buechner wrote that despair and hope both rode together into Jerusalem that day – just as despair and hope travel together on every road that we take ourselves. Despair at what in our own craziness we bring down on our own heads in life, or what’s dropped on our heads due to the craziness of others; but also hope in the one who travels the road with us, and who’s the only one of us all who isn’t crazy. Our hope is in the one who gave us the greatest gift in spite of ourselves and our pre-set expectations of the way he should go about things, the gift of showing us that the power of self-giving love is more powerful than anything else the world can offer as a substitute. We carry the hope that by the grace of God the impossible will happen, and that this one who rode into the city on a donkey will ride into our hearts too, and that because of it, we’ll know true peace – peace in our hearts and peace in the world. That’s surely a hope worth singing and dancing, and waving branches, and shouting for joy over.

Thanks be to God.

Jim Crow in Lavender

I just saw this news story coming out of Atlanta, about a man who was arrested for having poured boiling water on two gay men as they lay in bed:

Atlanta boiling water snip

This, on the same day that the Georgia legislative branch passed a bill and sent it to the governor for signature, designed to protect people who want to discriminate against others – most notably, but not exclusively, LGBTQ people, and primarily aimed at protecting those who oppose marriage equality – based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs” opposing marriage equality.This is one of a series of copycat bills moving forward in a number of state legislatures across the country.

I assume that the man who gave second- and third-degree burns to his victims did so based on his own “sincerely held religious beliefs” against their so-called “lifestyle choice.” For the record, the assailant has been arrested on two counts of aggravated battery; additional federal hate crime charges are being considered. While they aren’t hard to find online, I’ll forego sharing the gruesome images of the men’s scalded flesh and subsequent skin grafts required due to those sincerely held beliefs.

I simply don’t understand how our country has gotten its head stuck up its hindquarters to this degree. How could people ever think it’s acceptable to violate someone’s civil rights simply because someone’s religious beliefs supposedly condone it? It’s like the country has fallen victim to a collective Constitutional insanity. We don’t allow this kind of legalized religious-based discrimination against any other segment of our population. Every time people have tried to assert such a right in the past – notably, against women and blacks and other minorities – the arguments have been ruled unconstitutional. Just think about it: where else in our legal system do people successfully assert a constitutional right to deny the rights of others simply on the basis of how sincerely they believe in the correctness of that denial? Where else in our society to we allow legalized persecution of a group of people at one magnitude based simply on “sincerely held religious beliefs;” while merely implementing those exact same beliefs to the next order of magnitude constitutes a federally-recognized hate crime?

These legislative attempts to legally discriminate, wrapped in the gossamer-thin camouflage of supposed religious liberty, disgust me. I’m an ordained Presbyterian minister. I also happen to be gay. But I’d be just as disgusted with these attempts to impose a new Jim Crow, only now dressed in a lavender suit, regardless of my sexual orientation – and people across the board, especially those who are truly serious about following the teachings of Jesus Christ, should be equally disgusted. Religious liberty does not grant civil license.

Religious freedom does not confer blanket supremacy over the civil law of the land. It isn’t a “get out of jail free” card that trumps the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. There simply is no right in this country for one person to discriminate against any other person on the basis of the former’s religious views, no matter how “sincerely” or “deeply” held they may be – as if the depth to which someone believes a hideous falsehood somehow makes it a legally protected truth. I don’t have a constitutional right to rob a bank and give the money away, simply because I have a “sincerely held religious belief” that the rich aren’t sufficiently following Jesus’ admonitions to them to care for the poor.

The depth to which a person holds beliefs that would condone injuring another is no valid justification for that injury. Rather, it’s an illustration of just how strenuously our society has to work to put an end to that kind of ignorance, and bigotry, and injury to begin with. People who would argue for a supposed religious right to discriminate against others should be ashamed of themselves, and as people of faith, we need to stand up strongly and loudly against those claims and the attempts to codify them into state law. Our courts should rule that the basic legal argument behind all of these copycat laws is absurd – and they should do it sooner rather than later.

What’s Your Fragrance? (sermon 3/14/16)

death valley spring bloom

Death Valley “Super Bloom”

First Reading – Isaiah 43:16-21:

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

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Second Reading – John 12:1-8:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

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A few years ago, I was walking through a nice department store when I accidentally strayed into the section selling men’s and women’s colognes and perfumes. Now, I’m not a cologne kind of guy. To be honest, I own exactly one bottle of cologne. It’s still about half full, and I distinctly remember buying it on a trip to Bermuda in 1993. Clearly, I was out of my element in this aisle of the store. One by one, several pretty young women came up to me asking if they could spritz me into olfactory nirvana by sampling whatever bottle they had – explaining that this one had a sporty, adventurous scent with undertones of lilac and jasmine; another one was reminiscent of the great outdoors, with hints of pine and cinnamon.

cologne sales person

One by one I declined their offers, until one of them asked me “Well, what’s your current fragrance?” I felt completely intimidated by her question, like she was expecting to suddenly speak some language I didn’t know, and in the moment I was worried I was going to blurt out that my current fragrance was probably best described as “Decaf coffee with notes of stale Cheetos.”

I was reminded of that experience, and the whole topic of fragrance, when I read our two Lectionary texts for today. When I read the first one, from Isaiah, talking about God creating a new thing that’s springing forth, a rebirth, water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, it made me think of a picture I’d seen online a few days before. It was the picture you have as an insert in your bulletin this morning. It’s the “Super Bloom” in Death Valley. Every year, the Spring rains in Death Valley prompt all of the wild seeds that the winds had blown across the landscape, lying dormant all year long, to suddenly burst forth, filling the place with new growth and beauty. It only lasts for a few weeks, before all the growth dies off again for lack of water, but during that short time, as you can see, it’s an incredible thing. When I saw the picture, I began to imagine what it would be like to be there and experience it with all my senses – the beautiful colors, the fresh air mingled with the smell of all the wildflowers blooming as far as the eye could see. For those few weeks, I guess you could say that God’s current fragrance might be called “Death Valley Wildflowers.”

That fragrance couldn’t be any less extraordinary than the one that filled the house on the night we heard about in today’s gospel text – Mary expressing this most incredible and intimate sign of her love and devotion to Jesus, breaking out a huge amount of perfume that was so expensive it made Coco Chanel and Hugo Boss look like a couple of posers, and working it into Jesus’ feet with her own hair, of all things. Just imagine being there – Jesus and the disciples are there at the table; and so is Lazarus, who’s been something of a celebrity ever since Jesus rose him from the dead; people looking at him as much as they were looking at Jesus himself. Martha is there, of course, bringing dinner from the kitchen to the table for all of them, when she looks down and oh good Lord, what’s Mary doing this time; and the fragrance of the meal and the perfume are filling the house like incense lifted up to God.

There’s no question that from the standpoint of the ledger sheet, Mary’s actions didn’t make any sense at all. From that standpoint, Judas’ criticism made perfect sense; to be honest, if we’d been there, most of us would probably have felt the same way. But Jesus’ response to Judas was a reminder that neither humanity, nor the Church, live by the ledger sheet alone. There are times and places where extravagance is a justifiable way to express our love and devotion to God.

This story prefigures a struggle that has gone on within the Church since its very beginning. Architects, painters, sculptors, stained glass artists, musicians, and any number of other artists, have been commissioned by the church to express God’s grandeur and transcendence in extravagant and expensive ways. Through their creativity they’ve expressed their own devotion to God, and they’ve made incredible artistic contributions to human civilization in general. Their work was their own fragrant offering of themselves and their talents to God.

At the same time, others in the Church have claimed that these artistic achievements are beautiful, and possibly well-intentioned, but they just aren’t appropriate for a church that was established as the earthly agent of a poor, itinerant rabbi who owned next to nothing and called his followers to personal sacrifice and denial in service to others as a primary way of serving and pleasing God.

You find these two views throughout the entire history of the church, and it’s still going on. When he was in Philadelphia during his recent U.S. trip, Pope Francis made some people very uncomfortable and upset when he complimented the ornate, high walls and beautiful windows of the cathedral he was preaching in, but then pointed out that the church is not at all about building walls, but rather, breaking walls down, using its resources to reach out to others through acts of charity and service.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis in Philadephia, Sept. 26, 2015. (Tony Gentile/Pool Photo via AP)

And of course, Westminster is part of this struggle, too. This congregation is the heir to previous generations of the faithful who expressed their devotion through the beauty of stone and wood and stained glass and organ pipes. The question for Westminster isn’t so much “Were all these expenses appropriate when they were made?” but rather, “What is appropriate for us now, as we follow God’s mission into the future? What, in our time and place, is an appropriate balance between extravagant expression and prudent use of financial resources to serve as many of God’s people as possible?”

As an architect, the issue of this balance was a theological question that I thought about, and wrestled with, long before I entered the ministry. And to be honest, I still haven’t reached a completely sufficient answer to please my own mind, let alone please yours as you think about the question. The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is this: To go to great expense through architecture, art, music, or similar things as an expression of love and devotion to God is a very good thing, and pleasing to God – but only as long as it lifts people’s spirits and makes them more devoted to God, specifically inspiring them to greater acts of helping and serving others in need. If that act of extravagance – whether it’s expensive perfume or a cathedral or the Pietá or a Tiffany window – does that; if it leads the people of God to greater and greater outpourings of service to others, then it’s something pleasing to God. But if it becomes something revered in and of itself, and its preservation takes precedence over the mission of being the body of Christ to those in need in the world, then I don’t believe it’s pleasing to God at all.

Michelangelo-pieta

La Pieta, Michelangelo, 1498-99

And when it comes to that kind of expression, every one of us has to discern what our particular gift is, what kind of extravagant offering we can make to God. Maybe you create art. Maybe you sing, or play a musical instrument. Maybe you make musical instruments.

george and lori at westminster auburn

George Yu, guest violinist this Sunday, and award-winning violin maker. Each instrument bears the inscription Cantet anima mea fervorem Dei salvificantem – “Let my soul sing God’s healing passion”

On the other hand, maybe you know your way around a financial report like nobody else; or maybe you’re a wizard in the kitchen and can plan and organize dinners and social gatherings for the church; or maybe you know how to get through the red tape and bureaucracy at City Hall that needs to be hurdled to get a new homeless shelter up and running. Each of these gifts, each of these talents, used appropriately in service to God and to others, is our own perfume, our own fragrance, that we can offer to God with the same kind of devotion and extravagance that Mary did in today’s gospel text.

Most of us probably know what gift, what talent, what our own fragrance is that we can offer to God. And if we don’t, I think it’s especially appropriate during this season of Lent, this time of deep personal reflection and contemplation of our spiritual lives, that we should do everything that we possibly can to discern what our fragrance actually is. You might even say it should be our

obsession cologne

Thanks be to God.

All or None (sermon 3/6/16)

rembrandt prodigal

First reading

If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.   – Deuteronomy 21:15-21

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Gospel Reading

Jesus said, “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 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.’”     – Luke 15:11-32

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This may be the best known of Jesus’ parables; if it isn’t, it’s probably only second to the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s important to understand that Jesus is being challenged by the religious leaders of his time because he’s going about things in unorthodox ways. His teachings are running against the long-standing religious and social norms of the day, and they’re using that to challenge his validity, and Jesus offers them this story as an answer to them.

Even before we start to think about the parable, I invite you to feel free to imagine it in ways that maybe speak more directly to your own life. You could imagine the father as a mother, or the children being a sister and brother, or two sisters. However the parable speaks most fully to you, feel free to make that shift.

In telling this story, Jesus starts off by painting a word picture for us of a young person who does one of the most despicable, disrespectful things they could do to a parent – to ask them for their inheritance in advance. It’s the equivalent of the child telling the parent that their only worth to the child is the money; that they’re better off dead, so the child can go live their own life. It would be an awfully boorish thing to do now, and it was even worse in first-century Jewish culture. You heard in today’s First Reading the scriptural context for how much people were to honor their parents, and that famous scriptural injunction that mouthy, uncooperative children should be taken out and stoned to death – although thankfully, the fact that the Jewish people have survived to this day is evidence that they apparently didn’t take that particular scriptural command too literally. Still, it does illustrate how important the idea of children being respectful to their parents was in this culture. These scriptures would have provided the context, this was the background cultural understanding of Jesus’ listeners as they heard about the younger son’s actions. They would have been outraged at what the son proposed, and they’d have been shocked and scandalized that the old man actually agreed to it.

They’d have been just as shocked at the way the father welcomed the son back – running out into the street, casting aside any decorum, and treating this terrible son as if he were an honored guest. They would likely have seen the father’s actions as disgusting; they’d have seen him as a fool.

Remember that we have the benefit of knowing how this story ends, but those original listeners didn’t. And frankly, as they heard the story unfold, they’d have likely cheered when the eldest son, who’d respected his father and played by the rules, laid into his father for going all wobbly over the return of the troublemaking son. They’d have all been better off if this troublemaker had never returned. And you have to assume that, human nature being what it is, the elder son was wondering what the financial implications of the brother’s return would be for him. Would the old man hold a hard line regarding any inheritance, saying he’d already gotten his and squandered it; or would he welcome him back into the financial fold, too, meaning that the inheritance that the eldest son was in line for was going to shrink? It just wouldn’t have been right or fair. The elder child’s anger was justifiable.

So we can imagine how shocked Jesus’ listeners were when he turned the story in a way that gives the father credit, and discredits the elder son’s righteous anger. Jesus uses the father’s actions to justify his own actions of associating with the undesirables of religion and society, which was being seen as crazy, disgusting, contrary to the scriptures in the eyes of the religious leaders. I imagine that many, if not most of the people hearing Jesus’ story took his point as anything but good. It just didn’t comport with anything they’d learned or had as a reference point before.

It probably doesn’t sit much better with us, either. The younger son’s actions were deplorable, and there are supposed to be consequences to a person’s deplorable behavior, even if that person is someone you might love. And all of us have likely felt the anger and pain of seeing someone else being treated in a way better than their actions merited, often even coming at our own expense, when all along we were playing by the rules, keeping our noses clean and doing what we were supposed to. I’ll offer a personal example: I remember many years ago when I was a young architect in the corporate world, and as part of a year-long corporate restructuring, there was a new Vice President’s position being established. In conversations with my boss, he told me that if I achieved certain things, hit certain benchmarks, over the course of the coming year, the job would be mine. And I met all of those benchmarks. In fact, I surpassed them all by a long shot, but – and you know where this is going, don’t you? – in the end, my boss ended up giving the position to a golfing buddy of his – who I was then tasked with training so he’d know how to do the job. That was in 1988; I remember that because just a year later, in 1989, the exact same thing happened to a character played by Steve Martin in the movie “Parenthood.” I love that movie, but I have to admit it’s always been painful for me to watch that part of the story play out.

But whether it was a scenario like the one that happened to me or it was something else, we’ve probably all experienced someone else benefiting unfairly, and at our expense, so we can all relate to the feelings of the older son through some experience or another.

But many of us can also relate to the actions of the supposedly crazy, foolish father. Many of us have had children or other loved ones do something stupid, maybe really stupid, or self-destructive, or hurtful to others. And we’ve wrestled with what our proper response should be – where is the line between teaching consequences for actions and graciously forgiving and moving forward? Where’s the line between tough love and enabling destructive behavior? It’s the age-old parental dilemma, and each of us ultimately draws that line at different places, I suppose in accordance with our Myers-Briggs personality type or some similar classification. But in the end, regardless of where we draw the line, I suspect we’ve all actually crossed it at some point or another, in favor of a more generous and accepting attitude. We’ll second-guess ourselves and wonder if we should have taken a harder line, to be sure, but still, we’ve all likely crossed that line. In one way or another, we’ve all been the father in the parable.

We can draw a lot of thoughts out of this parable, but I think that one important point is that through it, Jesus illustrates that wherever God must draw that kind of line when dealing with us, it must be ridiculously far away from where any of us would draw it. God’s level of acceptance of us – you could even say, God’s willingness to look foolish or weak for us – is apparently far beyond our sense of reason or fairness. It seems that when it comes to God’s reconciliation with us, and the kingdom of God, even when it comes at great cost, it isn’t a matter of choosing between the elder child or the younger child, it’s an all or none proposition where God chooses “all” – and if that decision comes at a cost to anyone, it’s to God, and not us. It’s a truth that can shock us.

But after we’re shocked, hopefully we’re grateful, too – because just as we can imagine ourselves as the elder son or the father, we can all surely see ourselves in the face of the younger child from time to time, maybe especially so as we reflect on our lives as we journey through Lent. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all messed up, and suffered consequences for it. At times, maybe some of us have felt like we’ve crossed a line that we could never cross back over, into the graces of our loved ones, or even into God’s own good graces. This parable shows that when we think we’ve stepped across a line that we think is impossible to get back over, God simply erases it, and maybe redraws it on the other side of the two of us.

Thanks be to God.