But Wait, There’s More – Much More

(sermon 5/5/19)

beach campfire

John 21

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

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Today’s gospel text is interesting in several ways. First, in that it’s quite clearly an added chapter to a gospel that had already been concluded with a nice wrap-up at the end of the chapter before – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” But then you turn the page and you see “But wait, there’s more!” and the gospel continues, by telling this additional story of the miraculous beach encounter between Jesus and some of his disciples. Second, it’s interesting in the way that the disciples recognized Jesus through his repeat miracle of telling them how to catch a huge amount of fish, a parallel to what Luke tells us he’d done early in his ministry when he was first calling some of these very same men as disciples. Related to that, it’s interesting, or maybe more accurately, it’s a little odd, how Peter responds when they realize it’s Jesus on the shore, by jumping up, throwing on some clothes, and jumping into the lake to swim to shore – which everyone knows, unless you’re John Fischbach, that the best way to get back to shore if you’re sitting in a boat is to just stay in the boat with everyone else and row in – and besides, if you’re going to swim in, why do you actually get dressed to jump into the water? You can imagine the other disciples just rolling their eyes and thinking “Well, that’s Peter for you; what are you going to do?”

But I think the most interesting thing about this story is its second part – Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Now Peter, who still has to be stinging from what he’d done wrong – his denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest just over a week before, is talking with Jesus, and Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. And three times, Peter confirms to Jesus that he loves him. Three times, a mirror image of his three denials, each time seemingly erasing the guilt and shame that lingered in Peter’s mind for each one of his denials; and each one being a reconfirmation of Jesus’ having forgiven Peter for those denials. It’s Jesus’ act of giving Peter a new start, and showing his love and acceptance regardless of what he’d gotten wrong before. From Peter’s standpoint, it had to be a powerful expression of love and hope at a time when he needed just that affirmation. That’s an affirmation that we all need at one time or another, when things seem to have gone off the tracks and we’ve messed up, and this story teaches us that Jesus offers it to us just as he did to Peter in this story.

At the same time, as the preacher David Lose has pointed out, Jesus gave Peter  two other things that we all need, too: first, we all need a sense of belonging, of being accepted for who we are by a larger group that helps us have a stable identity and sense of self, and self-worth. Our society touts individualism as maybe the most sacred aspect of our culture, but the reality is that, for better or worse, most of our self-identity comes from how others see and accept us. This is precisely why the way we welcome and accept others is so very important; the way we act and the words we say have immense power to  shape others in their own minds, and to make them feel loved and worthy, or not. In this story, Jesus has let Peter know that there is nothing that he’s done that has removed him from the fold of disciples. He is still a part of the beloved community of faith.

The other thing that Jesus gives Peter is a sense of purpose as a member of this larger community that he’s part of. Feed my sheep, Jesus tells him. Look out for others. Having a sense of purpose – knowing that who we are, and what we do, matters. Knowing that if we weren’t here, if we didn’t show up for life every morning, we’d be missed. It’s a well-proven fact that having sense of purpose in life is a far greater motivator than money, or power, or fame. Understanding that we have something of value to offer to other people is the most important aspect of living a life of joy.

In this story, the risen Jesus offered grace to Peter –  simultaneously offering him forgiveness, and a sense of belonging to a larger community, and giving him a purpose to carry out as part of that community.  And the risen Jesus offers the same to us. Through Christ, here, as members of this community of faith, we have the assurance that we’ve been accepted for who we are by God’s grace alone, and that we belong to this thing larger than ourselves, and that God has called each of us to make a difference, large or small, in this world of God’s creation.

In this world, we all struggle with guilt and shame about parts of our lives, and a sense of isolation and not belonging, and thoughts that we don’t really matter. This story was apparently an afterthought, an addition to John’s first printing of the gospel, but it’s good news for us that it was added – because here, Jesus offers us the cure for all of those struggles – through Christ, we have the assurance of forgiveness and the promise of a new beginning, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. He offers this to us in a way just as real as if, just as he shared breakfast with Peter that morning, he was sharing breakfast with us each morning – and in a very real way, he is.

Thanks be to God.

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Payback Playback

(sermon 2/24/19)

payback

Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

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So tonight is Oscars night, and many of us are probably thinking about thinking about movies – which ones are up for the major awards; which ones we’ve seen and which ones we haven’t. When I read this week’s gospel text, I thought of a movie too, but not any movie up for an award this year by a long shot. I thought of the classic film, “A Christmas Story” – you know, the one about Ralphie and his family and the Leg Lamp and the Red Ryder BB gun. I thought about the scene in that movie were Ralphie had blurted out a profanity, and as punishment, Ralphie’s mother cleaned his mouth out with a bar of soap.

ralphie soap

While Ralphie sat there with the soap in his mouth, he took comfort in the whole humiliating experience by plotting the revenge he’d get on his parents. After leaving home, he’d come back to visit, and they’d find out he’d gone blind – and he’d revel in the grief it would cause them when he let them know that he’d gone blind as a result of…. soap poisoning. Yeah, they’d be really sorry then…

ralphie soap poisoning

We can’t deny that we seem to be internally wired to retaliate, to seek revenge, when we’ve been wronged, and to get it in a decisive way. Maybe when we think about getting our revenge, we imagine it along the lines of something we’ve seen in a movie. Maybe something dramatic, like Mandy Patinkin in “The Princess Bride”: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

BKE1YY THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) MANDY PATINKIN PRB 050

Or maybe something even more hardcore, like Sean Connery in “The Untouchables,” “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

The-Untouchables

Or maybe you picture it being less intense, but with far more finesse and style, more poetic justice, like in the movie “The Help,” when Minnie baked her pie.

minnie-pie

In our heads, we know that not forgiving, getting revenge, getting even, is supposed to be wrong. In our heads, we know that it’s really self-destructive. Most of us are familiar with that famous Anne LaMott quote that not forgiving is like swallowing rat poison and then expecting the rat to die – but we know that even if it’s poison, at least in its one brief moment, it can taste sweeter than honey.

But we also know these words from Jesus. Don’t get revenge – love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t condemn. We know this is what he’s taught us. But… but… does Jesus mean that we’re all supposed to just be a bunch of pathetic doormats, letting people dump all over us, and we’re supposed to just let them?

Well, Christian thinkers far more intelligent than I am have considered that question, and they’ve come up with a split decision. The history of our faith is full of entire traditions, and many individuals in other traditions, who have come to believe that the only faithful understanding of being a follower of Jesus is to be a pacifist. And you’ve got others who come down on the other side, who believe in one form or another of the theory of “just war” – whether we’re talking about actual war, or just more personal, individual injustices like having a bar of Lifebuoy stuck in our mouths. Over the course of the past several months, we’ve gotten a taste of some of these people and their different takes on this question – from Dorothy Day to Tom Dooley to Reinhold Niebuhr to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I have to admit that I’ve never personally come up with a perfectly consistent, acceptable way to answer this question for myself, again, whether we’re considering it on a personal or geopolitical level. Some days, I think I hold to some version of “just war” theory; that there is a place in some circumstances for forceful, sometimes even violent, retribution. But there are other days that I think that I’m just rationalizing the question, and that whether I like the answer or not, the pacifists are right. I think about the Civil Rights movement – realizing, as you could see in some scenes in the movie “Selma,” that the civil rights protestors were taught, trained, coached, drilled, to not give in to their natural instincts and fight back, retaliate, when they were attacked with dogs and clubs, and beaten, and sometimes even killed.

selma movie scene

I realize that it was because of their non-violent response, when millions of people saw them on television, absorbing merciless beatings, that hearts changed, minds changed, far more quickly and effectively than if the protestors had actually fought back.

So how does this all pull back together for us? What might we take away from all of this to help us when we’ve been wronged and hurt by someone?

In today’s gospel text, Jesus was teaching the same message expressed by those non-violent civil rights protestors: that more good is accomplished, for them and for ourselves, by always extending love and forgiveness to others – and this is even more true when we extend that love and forgiveness to our enemies. As hard, as impossible as it is to accomplish without God’s help, more good is accomplished when we stop cycles of hurt or violence by refusing to reflect it back outward after it’s hit us. Jesus isn’t trying to burden us with a task that we can’t pull off; he’s trying to keep us from imprisoning ourselves, harming ourselves, which is what always happens when we refuse to forgive and when we retaliate when we’ve been wronged. Jesus is telling us that it’s in forgiveness, and not returning evil for evil, that we not only see a glimpse of the forgiveness that God has extended to us, but we also find real strength. We aren’t being doormats; we’re feeling the power and strength of God working through us, healing us, and healing others as well. Nelson Mandela was a man who knew a lot about forgiveness, and not retaliating. He’s quoted in one scene in the move “Invictus” as saying, “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”

invictus

That’s precisely what Jesus is trying to get us to understand in this passage, too. With God’s help, we can not only find forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong, but we can also find the strength to forgive others, which will free and liberate us as well.

We all have to wrestle with the question of pacifism versus some kind of concrete response within our own lives, within our own interactions with other people. When we do, we have to be honest and admit that Jesus comes down very strongly – more strongly than we’d often like to admit – in favor of pacifism – in favor of turning a second cheek over taking a tooth for a tooth. On the other hand, I guess we also recognize that Jesus talked about when being forced to walk a mile, to walk a second mile, but he didn’t say anything about a third. So maybe there are limits.

Wherever you might come down on this question as you try to faithfully follow Jesus’ teaching, at very least I think this much is without question: even if we feel that some kind of physical response is called for, it would always have to be in order to stop further harm, and with the intent of correcting the problem. But it can’t – it *can’t* – come from a spirit of seeking revenge. It can’t come out of a desire to feel good watching another person suffer or squirm. We might differ on some points, but on this point, Jesus gives us no wiggle room whatsoever. If we do something out of a spirit of revenge, we are completely off the ranch as far as Jesus is concerned. Seeking revenge is a guaranteed losing proposition, one that God tells us will always backfire in our own faces. When we want to play that dangerous game, we can almost hear Jesus saying “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”

ralphie glasses

Thanks be to God.

Schooling Jesus

(sermon 9/9/18)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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A little more than a week ago, Rev. Robert Wood died. He was 95. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him; I hadn’t either until I saw stories about his passing. It turns out that Rev. Wood holds an important distinction in church history – he was the first member of the clergy to write a book calling for the full welcome and acceptance of LGBTQ people in the church, and the church’s performing of same-sex marriages. He wrote his book in 1960. And he was the first member of the clergy to participate in a march calling for full civil rights for LGBTQ folk. That was in 1965. The church owes a debt of gratitude to Rev. Wood.

After reading his obituary, I was curious about his book – I’d never heard of it before – so I started to look for it, and it turns out that the entire thing is available online as a pdf file. So I downloaded it and was reading through it, and the obituaries were right – his ideas about church welcome and marriage were forty or fifty years ahead of where the rest of the church was. But I have to admit, a lot of what I was reading in the book was just… bad. It was peppered with all sorts of misguided negative prejudices, assumptions, and so-called conventional wisdom that the culture of 1960 just *knew* to be true, but which advances in biology, psychology, and other disciplines have now proven to be completely false. The great irony in this is that Rev. Wood was a gay man himself, and even he couldn’t escape internalizing all that negativity that you’d think he’d know  wasn’t really true. In the decades that followed the book’s publication, Rev. Wood’s knowledge and understanding grew, evolved, and truth be told, I’m sure that in the decades that followed, he probably felt pretty silly about some of the things he’d written in 1960.

Today’s gospel text deals with this same idea of the continual growth of understanding over time. In this case, it’s Jesus whose level of understanding evolves. In this story, Jesus is going from place to place, proclaiming God’s good news for the people – but up until this point, that message has really been aimed at Jewish listeners. In this story, though, Jesus is approached by a non-Jew – a Syrophoenician, an unclean Gentile; a religious and ethnic outsider, someone to be scorned and dismissed, and a woman on top of all that. In short, this woman had three strikes against her before she’d even opened her mouth, and when she actually does, Jesus shuts her down by dismissing her with the terribly insulting ethnic slur of calling her a dog. Stop bothering me, he tells her; I’ve got more important things to do than to waste my time with the likes of you.

Of course, we heard her answer – very pointedly telling Jesus I may be a dog, but if your God’s so great, surely, you’d think that God would give the dogs of the world the table scraps.

We don’t really know anything about this woman beyond what we can get out of her words here. Maybe Jesus’ insult hurt her deeply. Maybe she thought Jesus was being an arrogant jerk. Frankly, that’s what I’d have thought, if I were in her shoes. On the other hand, maybe she’d internalized all the negative messages that the culture had dumped on her, like Rev. Wood apparently had, and she didn’t think any better of herself than Jesus apparently thought of her. Maybe she thought that Jesus was right, she wasn’t worthy of Jesus’ time – but at very least, she believed that her daughter was. The preacher David Lose once wrote that she was convinced – she had faith – in the truth that her precious, innocent daughter was absolutely worthy and deserving of Jesus’ attention, and she was willing to do whatever it took to help her – even if it meant going toe-to-toe with this supposed great teacher and healer; even if it meant putting up with his verbal abuse.

Based on the story, it seems that Jesus got her point. It seems that on this particular day, Jesus had gotten himself schooled, and by a most unlikely teacher – an outsider among outsiders. He learned, just as Rev. Wood had, that even he had to gradually learn to get rid of his prejudices, his religious and cultural biases and assumptions, in order to have a fuller, more complete understanding of the fullness, the breadth of the kingdom of God. This gospel text goes on to talk about Jesus healing a deaf man, but as he talked with the Syrophoenician woman, it was his own ears that were opened. And this shouldn’t shock us, or sound like blasphemy. We know that three days after Jesus was born, he wasn’t tying his own shoes, or solving quadratic equations. That isn’t how the incarnation worked. We know that the scriptures say that Jesus grew in stature and wisdom; it didn’t happen instantaneously, so it shouldn’t bother us to imagine that he had to learn this lesson from someone.

Of course, that lesson that Jesus learned is just a short hop, skip, and jump to what we can get out of the story. I think there are two takeaways that we can get from this story. First, we learn these same lessons – that God’s love is for everyone; and that we can gain new insights into God’s love and about the kingdom of God – insights that we might be blind to from our vantage point, from the outsiders of our own time and place, whether we’re considering the church, or society in general. We can be taught, and have our faith deepened, when we hear the voices of those outsiders – whether we’re talking about people from other races, other ethnicities, other nationalities, whatever classifications might make someone an “outsider” to what we’re accustomed to.

I think that in general, Springdale has done a pretty good job at being open to hearing, and learning from, a broad range of people. We’ve probably been better at that than many, if not most, congregations. We’ve been open to, and accepting of, a broad range of people, and we’ll continue to do that even more, and even better, in the future.

There is another important point about this story that I want to point out. Jesus had to learn something in this story, to get a better understanding of the good news that God had called him to proclaim. But we don’t hold it against him that he had to learn this lesson. We don’t hold it against him that he didn’t know the truth of the expansiveness of the kingdom of God before the woman showed him that God’s good news was intended for her, too.

In the same way, we can acknowledge, just as one example, that the Presbyterian Church engaged in terrible abuse of Native Americans, especially Native American children – taking them from their homes and putting them in special schools that tried to strip them of their culture. We eventually grew in our understanding, and saw the great sin that we were engaging in, we repented of it, and we don’t have to hate the Presbyterian Church for its past mistakes. And similarly, Rev. Robert Wood held some really appalling beliefs about gay people, but he eventually grew in his understanding, and we can still consider him a great trailblazer in church history.

My point in all that is that each of us has grown in our own journeys of faith. I suspect that each of us, in some way or another, used to believe something as a part of our faith that we no longer do – that we look back on, and realize we were really mistaken about. Maybe it’s something that we feel a little silly about for having once believed it. Or maybe it’s something that has hurt people. Or whatever – the fact is, we’re all going to have something like that in our experience if we’re living out our faith in an ongoing journey of faith development.

And if we do, maybe it’s something that we aren’t proud of. Maybe that old belief is something that we feel guilt over. Maybe it caused a big falling out within the family, or with friends, or coworkers, or a similar setting. Maybe we’re carrying a bunch of baggage because at some point in time, we’d messed up with our way of understanding our faith, and what God is all about.

Well if that’s happened, this story shows we’re in good company. Jesus got it wrong in this passage. And the good news for us is that God didn’t beat Jesus up over having to learn this lesson the hard way, and neither will God beat us up when we have to go through the same thing. God knows that we call it a faith journey for a reason; that we’re engaged in a faith-building process. So in faith, and with God’s help, let’s be open to hearing what God wants to teach us, and from whatever teacher God may use to teach it. Let’s learn the lessons we need to learn. And let’s turn the rest over to God, and trust in God’s love, and not beat ourselves up over the reality that we aren’t perfect and never will be. God knew we weren’t perfect long before reaching out to us, and letting us know that we’re loved and accepted.

Thanks be to God.

It’ll Teach ’em a Lesson

(sermon 9/17/17)

forgive

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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When I was maybe five or six years old, I remember a short little animated TV commercial made by the Mormon Church that usually ran on Sunday mornings. The animation was very simple, just a step or two above stick figures. It told a story about a poor, struggling farmer who lived next to a rich cattle rancher. The narrator of the commercial said that one night, out of desperation, the farmer tried to steal a steer from the rancher in order to feed his family – but he got caught. The ranch hands who caught him took him to the rancher, who was in no mood for mercy, and he tells the ranch hands, “String him up – it’ll teach him a lesson.” Then the story shifts, and the narrator explains, “Well that very night, the rancher dreamt that he died, and he stood before his Maker in judgment.” – and at this point, you see the rancher standing there, nervous, hat in hand, fumbling with the brim, a big bead of sweat running down the side of his face – and the narrator continues, “And as he stood there awaiting his fate, he heard a voice say, ‘Forgive him – it’ll teach him a lesson.”

That simple little commercial that I’ve remembered now for fifty years was actually teaching a similar sort of lesson as this parable of Jesus’ that we just heard. This is what’s known as the Parable of the Ungrateful Servant. As you heard in the story, a servant owes the king an astronomical amount of money – ten thousand talents. A talent was a unit of money equal to 70 or 75 pounds of silver – so based on this past week’s price for silver, ten thousand talents would have been a debt of around 200 million dollars. It was an absurd, unrealistic amount, so it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is just making the point that it’s a debt that would have been utterly impossible to ever pay off – and that to forgive a debt like that would show grace and forgiveness of an infinite magnitude. By comparison, the amount that the second slave in the story owed the first slave – 100 denarii – would have been comparable to 14,000, maybe $15,000 dollars today – clearly, nothing like the first slave’s debt, but still, far from pocket change. It was a debt that most average people would be hard put to just let go. It wasn’t something trivial to just write off; to forgive that amount would definitely be felt.

Based on Jesus’ explanation, we can see the king as representing God, and that we’re being warned not to make the same ungrateful mistake as the first slave – that, in gratitude for the full magnitude of God’s living forgiveness of us, we need to offer similar, even costly forgiveness to others.

I know, most times that’s easier said than done. Even though Jesus framed this story in financial terms, I think the people who are the hardest for us to forgive are the ones who have hurt us in other ways. Non-financial ways. Ways that are offenses to our own sense of personal dignity, or offenses against people we love, or offenses against our sense of fairness or justice. Those are the hard things to forgive.

There’s a well-known story told by Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who was a young girl during World War II, and whose family considered it their Christian duty to hide Jews in their home from the Nazi occupiers. They did so until they were eventually caught, and the entire family were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. All of her family died there, and it was only through a miraculous clerical error that she was released. After the war, she wrote about her faith and her experiences, and was a popular speaker. She was speaking to a church group in Munich several decades after the war, and after her speech, a man from the audience approached her. Even though he was older now, she recognized him immediately as a former SS guard at Ravensbruck. He introduced himself and said that he had been a guard there, and that after the war he’d become a Christian. He said that he knew in his heart that God had forgiven him for his actions, but it would mean a lot to him if she could forgive him.

This was a man who oversaw the deaths of her entire family. She was dumbstruck. Even though she’d just given a big speech on the importance of forgiveness, here she stood with this man and she didn’t know if she could forgive him. But, thinking about God’s own forgiveness of her, she realized that as much as she didn’t want to, she needed to forgive this man. She recognized that forgiveness wasn’t a feeling but an act of the will. So she offered a simple prayer, telling God that she would offer her hand, a physical, unfelt gesture, but if there needed to be any emotion or anything else, it was going to have to come from God. So taking all the strength she had in her tiny little frame, she mechanically reached out and took the man’s hand. And when she did, she said she felt an indescribable peace, a warmth, and she was able to let go of the anger and hatred and bitterness that she’d felt for him. The man had asked her for forgiveness so he could have some healing and peace, but in the process, she received healing and peace, too. I think that’s precisely why Jesus stresses the importance of practicing this kind of radical forgiveness – the kind that we don’t want to offer and that the other person doesn’t deserve – the kind of forgiveness described in this parable.

We don’t want to forgive someone when we think it would mean the other person has gotten away with something, or it would make us feel like a doormat, a patsy. Jesus is saying through this parable that forgiving others, especially those that are undeserving of it, as counterintuitive as it might seem, is really the only way that we’ll be able to truly know the healing and peace that God wants us to have.

So sometimes we don’t want to forgive because it would seem to be an affront to our dignity, or justice. But other times, I think we can’t forgive others because there are things in our own lives that we haven’t forgiven ourselves for. Sure, like the former guard, we know that God has forgiven us, but *we* haven’t forgiven us. And because of that, we can’t be gracious and forgiving of others. Or maybe we really can’t imagine God forgiving us for something – some terrible thing we did, or didn’t do; some way we hurt another person.

Friends, we need to accept our forgiveness from God, and to accept that if God has forgiven us, then we have no reason to not forgive ourselves. We need to let go of that guilt or shame and accept that we’re the recipients of God’s love and mercy beyond our wildest imaginations. We need to accept the truth of that bit of the service that we do every single Sunday, the Assurance of Forgiveness – that in Jesus Christ, we are really, truly, forgiven; and that God has forgiven us far more than even the king forgave in this parable. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that. There is absolutely no reason to question that. The only question that I might have in all of this, I suppose, might be just *why* God would choose to forgive us with such illogical extravagance – and when I consider that, the only answer I can come up with is that God must think it’ll teach us a lesson.

Thanks be to God.

Perfectish

(sermon 2/19/17)

to-end-all-wars
Scene from the 2001 film “To End All Wars”

 

[Jesus said,] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)

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There’s a movie that came out a number of years ago called “To End All Wars.” It was based on a book written by a man named Ernest Gordon, which told about his experience as a prisoner of war for three years during World War II. Gordon was a young Scottish schoolteacher who enlisted in the army. He was captured during the fall of Singapore in 1942, when more than 80,000 British soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese army. He was interred in a prisoner of war camp, where he was part of the slave labor that carved a railway out of the jungles of what at the time was called Burma. The movie is a gripping, discomforting look at the brutality that human beings can subject others to;­­­ and more importantly, our response to being subjected to it. It tells the story of some of the prisoners opting for violence and revenge against their captors at any opportunity they could find, while others, including Gordon, drew on the teachings of their faith and opted for a course of non-violence and forgiveness – even when it seemed all but impossible, and even when it earned them the scorn of the other prisoners, who considered them weaklings, cowards, even traitors. “To End All Wars” is a very realistic film. It doesn’t pull any punches about the gut-wrenching depth of the brutality that the prisoners endured. And it doesn’t sugar coat the real human struggle, the moral dilemma, endured by the prisoners who tried against all their human instincts to live according to their Christian faith and not return evil for evil, while living in the midst of great evil. It doesn’t make the prisoners’ choices simplistic to make for an easier resolution to the story, even while it does ultimately offer the message of the correctness and the redemptive nature of the path of nonviolence and forgiveness.

I’d actually love to have a screening of the movie here some evening; I think it would lead to great, thoughtful conversation. And we Presbyterians can take a little bit of ownership in the story too, because Ernest Gordon, like most Scots, was a good Presbyterian. In fact, after the war he went to seminary and became an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland, and spent a large part of his postwar life serving as the dean of the chapel at Princeton University.

“To End All Wars” is one of the best movies that you’ve probably never heard of, and not just because it didn’t feature an all-star cast. It’s more likely that you never heard of it because it had the misfortune of being initially released on September 2, 2001 – just days before 9/11, which ushered in a time when even more than usual, not many people were interested in the film’s message of forgiveness of one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and not returning violence for violence.

I think of that movie a lot whenever I read this part of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that we heard today. There are some times when we might not be exactly sure what Jesus means when he says something. This isn’t one of those times. This is one of those times where his meaning is crystal clear. Don’t return violence for violence. Don’t just forgive, but love, your enemies.

And that’s the hard part for us, because it just goes against every fiber in our bodies. This just doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem *just.* I mean sure, God wants us to be peaceful, but we aren’t supposed to just become a bunch of doormats, are we? On Sunday after Sunday, we come together, and we pray that we would hear God’s Word, and that God’s Spirit would work within us to make us more Christlike. But if we’re totally honest with ourselves – and I certainly include myself in this – we don’t necessarily even *want* to become more like what we hear in Jesus’ teaching today.

Thanks be to God, though, for the great truth for all of us that God’s love, and God’s grace extended to us, is so great, so abundant, that it covers over us even when we don’t want to be obedient to the ways of the Kingdom of God. To be honest, it’s this reality of God’s grace – this completely unearned, undeserved love and acceptance of us even in our imperfection – that we give thanks to God for every week. We don’t give thanks to God for loving us because we deserve it, but precisely because we don’t.

Well, while Jesus’ words were perfectly clear, the question of how we’re supposed to apply them can sometimes be up for grabs. Christians have been debating how to do that from the very beginning; probably within five minutes of the words having left Jesus’ mouth. Are these words absolute? Do they apply in every situation, or are there thresholds beyond which they’re more of a general principle, but don’t literally apply? Does the perceived greater good of preventing some injustice by resisting violence with violence sometimes justify it? The whole Christian doctrine of “Just War,” as opposed to pacifism, hinges on that very question. We also know that at the same time that Ernest Gordon was wrestling with this question in the jungles of Asia, on the other side of the globe the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others, who planning to assassinate Hitler as a matter of faith, wrestled with this same question and reached a very different answer.

I can’t tell you categorically what the one, true Christian answer to this question is. I can’t even tell you if there is just one categorical Christian answer to begin with. But I can tell you that we all have to seriously consider this question as we try to come to terms with what it truly means to mold our lives in Christ’s example. How do we live out Jesus’ commands to turn the other cheek; go the extra mile, to forgive when we’re treated unjustly?

I think I can safely say that no matter how you hear Jesus’ words, and no matter how, or where, or even if, you set any boundaries or thresholds with regard to how to apply them, probably all of us would admit that we could do better at living up to even our own standards with regard to these teachings. We could do better. We all probably know that even by our own standards, let alone Jesus’, we aren’t perfect.

But we also probably know that out of gratitude for God’s loving acceptance of us in our imperfection, we should work to become at least closer to that perfection. If we can’t be perfect, we can all at least work to become more perfectish.

I thought that today, as we think about Jesus’ words here, and how we might move even in some small ways to living them out more fully, we could take a few moments to think about those things, thoughts, and attitudes within us that hold us back from doing that. No doubt, it’s something different for each of us. Maybe it’s a sense of pride, or ego. Maybe it’s an attitude that we don’t want to be seen by others, or ourselves, as a weak, or a doormat, or a loser. Or maybe it’s some unresolved anger or resentment from a past wrong that we’ve suffered, and we’re still looking for some kind of revenge or redress. Whatever it might be, let’s engage in a little exercise now. It might sound a little corny, and maybe it is, but I think its symbolism is important. Take that little slip of paper that we handed out to all of you, and just write a word or simple phrase that identifies what you think is holding you back from living out Jesus’ words here more fully. Then take the paper, fold it in half, and fold it in half again And then, [when you come forward to receive Communion (early service)/after the sermon (late service)], bring it up front, and [just before you get to the Communion servers (early service)], put your paper in the water in the baptismal font. And don’t just flip it in; push it in, hold it down deep below the surface of the water, until it’s good and wet, a soggy, waterlogged, unreadable mess. As you do that, remember your baptism and the promise that’s part of it: that in it, these kinds of obstacles and shortcomings were made dead to you, and to God. They were submerged under that water and left behind. And that you can indeed let those things go because you really are now a new creature, a new child of God, living a new kind of life on this side of the water. And letting go of those things, letting go of your feeling that they can control you, really will make it easier for you to at least become more perfectish.

In an era that’s still very much an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a tweet for a tweet, letting go of those things and moving toward a life more perfectish might not make a good plot for a blockbuster movie here – but I’m pretty sure it would be a big hit at the multiplex in the Kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God.

Cat’s in the Cradle (sermon 9/11/16)

 cats-in-the-cradle

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. 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 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 15:1-3, 11-32 (NRSV)

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That was it – he’d finally had enough. For years, he’d put up with his son’s nonsense, hoping he’d eventually straighten up and come around, but it hadn’t happened – if anything, he’d actually gotten worse. Irresponsible. Lazy. Spending money like a drunken sailor. Out all night, sleep all day, never buckling down and helping with the family business. Why couldn’t he be at least a little bit more like his older, more responsible brother? And now, in the latest of countless arguments, his younger son said, “Why don’t you just give me my share of things here, and I’ll get out of your hair – I’ll leave here and never look back!” And in the heat of the moment, he yelled “If that’s what you want, fine!” So he made arrangements to do just that. He gave the boy the money, turned his back, and walked away. He’d done everything he could; he couldn’t have expected to reasonably do anything more. That was that. As far as he was concerned, he’d washed his hands of the situation. The boy was on his own. As far as he was concerned, the boy was as dead to him as he was to the boy. And that was just fine with him.

But as the years wore on, he realized that it really wasn’t that simple. In spite of himself, his heart ached for his son. With the perception that only time brings, he’d realized that there was plenty enough blame on both sides of their dispute, and even though they were very different people, he recognized that the stubbornness that he saw in the boy that was so frustrating was really just a mirror image of his own. As time wore on, he realized that when the boy left, a piece of himself had died. He’d been diminished by it. The man never felt complete again after the son had left. He’d have done anything to have his son back, and to make amends, to heal the rift between them. But since he didn’t know where the boy was, or if he was even alive at that point, he didn’t see how that would ever happen. So he spent day after day living this painful partial life, wishing that things could be different.

And then that fateful day happened – from out of nowhere, he saw his son walking down the road, headed for the house. He was so excited to see him that he ran out to meet him, yelling out to him, looking like a wild man in all his undignified glory, welcoming him back with open arms, forgiving him for whatever he’d done in the past, and even apologizing for his part in the split. And later on, when his older son criticized him for making such a fool of himself by welcoming this troublemaker back, the old man said that it was like the son had been dead, but had come back to life – and in his heart, he knew that the same thing was just as true about himself.

Today’s gospel text is one of Jesus’ most well-known parables. And from the earliest times that we’re taught about it, we’re told that the father in the story represents God. And we then assume that if the father is God, then in the story the father is totally good, and blameless, and his actions are totally honorable – after all, how else could God be? We’re told that the son represents us, and that in Jesus’ time, it would have been a shocking, unthinkable insult for the son to have asked for his inheritance up front, and that that represents how offensive our sin and shortcomings are to God. And we’re told that the wild, undignified, unjustifiable way the father ran out to greet the younger son, and all the things that the father lavishes on the son, represent the full, extravagant, illogical forgiveness and grace that God extends to us. And finally, we’re told that the older son who stands up against the father, and who says that the forgiveness and welcome extended to the older son is inappropriate and uncalled for, represents those of us who get too wound up in moralism and legalism, and who don’t fully appreciate the nature of God’s grace, and who would withhold it from others. That’s the way the parable is usually understood.

But that’s the funny thing about parables – they can often be read and understood in any number of different ways, they’re deliberately ambiguous, and that allows them to speak to any number of different situations, and in different ways. In this case, Jesus doesn’t give us any definitive explanation of some single way that the parable is supposed to be understood. And while the traditional way of understanding the parable is a good one, it does require us to fill some missing blanks in the story, and to make certain assumptions about the characters, in order to get that message. But what if we look at the same parable a different way? What if we fill in the missing details in a slightly different way, and assign different identities to the characters in the story?

What if the father doesn’t represent God, but rather, us – either “us” individually, or collectively, as the church? If the father isn’t God, it’s easier to accept the idea that the father might have been just as much to blame for the friction between him and the younger son, as the son was himself. That makes it easier for us to hear this parable as maybe a message of reconciliation, but not reconciliation between God and us, but rather, between us and us. It makes it easier for us to see that reconciling with one another, and healing old wounds, and apologizing for our own complicity in those situations, even at the cost of our dignity and sense of being completely in the right, is extremely important in God’s eyes.

Is that an equally acceptable way to think about this parable, compared to the way we typically look at it? I think so. I know that the idea of reconciliation was so important to Jesus that at another place in the gospels, in Matthew, he tells his followers that even if they’re in the Temple, standing at the altar and ready to give their offering, and they remember that there’s a rift between them and their brother or sister, that they should stop what they’re doing immediately, leaving their offering right there, and go reconcile with the other person first, before even making the offering – maybe even suggesting that that’s the more pleasing offering to God.. That would certainly make people stare. It would be pretty undignified. And yet, it’s what Jesus recommends. Reconciliation is just that important to God.

I suspect that there isn’t a person here this morning who doesn’t have some kind of rift between themselves and some other family member or friend. Maybe you’re convinced you’re right and they’re wrong. Maybe you recognize that in an argument no one is purely right and no one is purely wrong. Maybe the rift has gone on for so long, you can’t even remember how it all started. Whatever the case, allowing ourselves to hear this parable in this alternative way can lead us to ask some questions of ourselves: How might God be speaking into the issue, into our hearts, to try to make peace, to achieve reconciliation between us and people we’re estranged from? How can we allow our hearts and minds to be open, and to keep our pride in check, to be willing to not just forgive the wrongs of the other person, but also to humbly apologize for the hurt and harm that we’ve caused in the situation?

And how do we do the same thing as the church? There are all sorts of people and groups that the church has hurt over the course of its history. In our last General Assembly, we heard apologies made to Native Americans, who we hurt, and whose cultures we tried to wipe out in the midst of our evangelistic efforts in the past. We heard an apology to those who have suffered sexual abuse perpetrated by Presbyterian church leaders in the past.  And we heard a “statement of regret” offered by the denomination to its LGBT members who have been deeply hurt by denominational theological positions in the past – and while not a full-fledged apology, it was at least a good half-step in the right direction that I hope will become a full apology sometime in the near future.

There are still any number of situations, either as individuals or the church, where we need to follow the lead of the father in the parable, at least the way I painted him earlier. There are rifts that are personal. Familial. Racial. Ethnic. Sexual. Theological. Ideological; even political – how many Facebook friends have you lost during the current presidential campaign?

So where do we start? I suppose first, by being honest with ourselves and admitting that the rift actually exists; sometimes we haven’t even admitted that. Next, by recognizing that we’ve got culpability ourselves, it isn’t all the other person’s fault, and in some cases, it isn’t their fault at all. We need to be willing to apologize for our part in the situation, and to work in concrete ways to fix the harm. Mostly, I think, by recognizing that no matter how hard real reconciliation might seem – and it *is* hard – no matter how unlikely it seems that we’ll be able to pull it off, that it’s what God wants us to do – and that God is willing to help us, transforming us and strengthening us in the ways that can make it possible. After all, if the traditional understanding of this parable is valid, and the father in the story represents God, then we can see that God is more than willing to engage in reconciliation, even when it costs some dignity or the ability to be seen as always right – and if it’s good enough for God to act that way, isn’t it good enough for us?

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.