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When the Stones Shout Out

(a sermon for April 14, 2019, Palm Sunday, based on Luke 19:28-40 and Philippians 2:5-11)

There are just some moments in life for which nothing else will do but loud, joyous, full-throated, totally spontaneous yet wholly intentional, and ultimately unbridled shouts of praise!

The Red Sox win the World Series; the Patriots win the Super Bowl… again (!); or you’re at a concert and you’ve just heard your favorite singer give the most amazing musical performance ever.  Or it’s that moment you suddenly know, without any shadow of any doubt, that you’re in love and you “don’t care who knows it (!),” or it’s what happens when you get the news you’re going to be parents – or grandparents (!) – or maybe it’s that singular, once in a lifetime,  experience of revelation when all at once and maybe just for an instant, everything in your life makes perfect sense!  But whatever it is, understand that more than just a rousing cheer what I’m talking about here is this instinctive, primal, even primordial need and compulsion to cry out for joy!  It’s the praise that emanates from head, heart and soul, and it’s quite literally wired into our DNA:  Theodore J. Wardlaw of Austin Presbyterian Seminary in Texas writes that even babies know that kind of praise.  “She doesn’t know her own name; she doesn’t know the name of God; she cannot walk and she cannot talk; but she knows even at that early age that – with the beginning of dawn – the only appropriate thing to do is to sing a baby song of praise.”

Actually, scripture is filled with examples of that kind of joyous praise: the Psalmist using every imaginable instrument – from “lute and harp” to “loud clanging cymbals” – in order to proclaim, “Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!” (150:3-6); Mary reacting to the news of the Christ Child growing in her womb, “’My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’” (Luke 1:46-47); or even the awe struck reaction of good ol’ “Doubting” Thomas when he finally understood that the Risen Christ was standing right before him:  “’My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  Once again, it is in us to praise; but even more than this, as Wardlaw goes on to say, all this seems to suggest “that praise lies beneath everything else as nothing less than the vigorous intentionality of God… because nothing is more appropriate or more timely than praise.”

And that, beloved, is in good part what the “triumphal entry” of Palm Sunday is all about.

Now this account of the Palm Sunday parade along the streets of Jerusalem is one of a handful of stories that appear in all four of the gospels; which tells us, first of all, just how important of an event it was in the telling of the story of Jesus’ life and ministry and most especially in how it figures into everything else that is about to unfold.  This is, at least in a storytelling sense, the true beginning of the Passion story; so it’s significant in that sense alone.  It’s also kind of an unusual story where Jesus is concerned, as it does seem at first glance to be “the one departure from Jesus’ aversion to acclaim.” (Philip Yancey, “The Jesus I Never Knew.”) What with all the Hosanna shouting and the adoring crowds spreading clothes and tree branches across the road, it’s to say the least a unique moment; for “though Jesus usually recoiled from such displays of fanaticism, this time he let them yell.”

In fact, did you notice something about Luke’s version of this story we shared this morning?  For one thing, there’s not a palm or even a “Hosanna” to be found!  In this version, though there is reference made to people “spreading their cloaks on the road,” as well as on the back of the colt on which Jesus was riding (and we do get the account as to circumstances how that colt was acquired), as Luke tells the story you really don’t get any sense that there were palm branches being waved in the air, nor is there any reference to a “happy throng” of children dancing ahead of the approaching Messiah!

And yet, despite the conspicuous absence of, as the song goes, the “green palms and blossoms gay” that was part and parcel of “the festal preparation,” there is no absence of utter joy and unbridled praise, starting from the very moment that Jesus was “approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives” down into the city of Jerusalem and “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’”   It’s funny, you know; a phrase that we use a lot today would seem to apply in this circumstance: that whole thing appeared to happen organically; but the truth of it that Jesus’ disciples just “did what came naturally,” [Wardlaw] and so did everyone else!   The closer this “triumphal entry” came to the city itself, the more people there were who were moved to join them; and the more people who gathered along the city streets or who followed on behind, or who ran on ahead to lay down their cloaks for a makeshift royal carpet and yes, to wave some palm branches in the air in royal tribute to us, the louder the shouting became!  In that moment of grand celebration and of prophetic fulfillment, “They sensed, somewhere in their guts, that nothing was more appropriate or timely” – or absolutely required at that moment (!) – than for them to burst forth shouts of praise!

And you know what happened next; it was so joyous, so spontaneous and uncontrollable, so filled with praise and thanksgiving unto God and the King who comes in his name, and perhaps most of all,  so very, very loud that immediately the powers that be, that is the gathered Pharisees, had to put a stop to it.  And so they went to Jesus – actually, in the true fashion of Pharisees in every place and time they probably sent a committee (!) – and in the name of all things ordered and correct, they told him, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” [The Message]  Order them to stop…. Now!

And to this, Jesus simply responds – and I have to imagine it’s with a sad smile and a shake of the head – “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

It’s an amazing response; one that affirms that what was happening that morning on those streets of Jerusalem was not only appropriate, it was necessary; this was praise that needed to be expressed, the clear vision of God’s glory being proclaimed with singular and overwhelming intensity!  And that’s how we usually read that verse, isn’t it; that you can tell the “rabble to be quiet” all you want, but you can’t stop the praising.  Tell this crowd to stop its praising, and the very rocks that line the walls of this sacred city of Jerusalem will do it for them!  Don’t you see, you can’t stop it:  no matter what you do, you Pharisees, the shouting will continue and all of creation will keep on singing and praising God’s holy name: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Hosanna in the highest!

And you know, really, that should have been the end of it right there; at this point, the Pharisees should have simply gone home grumbling, the celebration should have continued unabated and there should have been all rejoicing at the coming of God’s Messiah. Or at least that’s how it should have been. But of course, as we know, there was more to it than that.

It’s been pointed out by some biblical scholars that along with the idea that the crowd’s shouting could not possibly have been silenced, Jesus’ words about the stones crying also may well have been a reference to some words of judgment spoken by the prophet Habakkuk that says that going against God would make “the very stones… cry out from the wall… the plaster respond[ing] from the woodwork.” [2:11]. There’s also a passage from the Old Testament Book of Joshua that speaks of a stone serving as a witness to the faithlessness of God’s people [24:27]  So now we have this incredible faith-filled proclamation of God’s providence and salvation, and what does Jesus say to the Pharisees who would shut it all down, and who would condemn Jesus, the very one who comes in the name of God, to death, “even death on a cross?”

He says, even in the silence the stones would shout out… but this time in judgment.

It’s interesting, you know; and as many times as I return to this story and begin my own walk of faith and discipleship on this so-named “holy” week I can scarcely wrap my mind and heart around it: how on Sunday there’s this huge crowd waving palms and shouting their hosannas unto Jesus, the one known to them, proclaimed by them as their Messiah, an yet come Friday morning, the same crowds are angrily calling for his crucifixion.  As many times as we’ve heard the story I can’t even begin to fathom of how Jesus – the one who was and is our teacher, our healer and our friend, the one who has brought light and life into the world – would be betrayed and abandoned and denied by those closest to him; or how he was so angrily – and easily (!) – mocked, beaten and condemned to a horrible death on a cross, a tortuous death reserved for the worst of criminals.  All this, and so much more than this, even as we all stand again at the foot of the cross, remembering his agony and suffering even as he spoke aloud to those who had condemned him, saying “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]

It’s the journey we all share – the inevitable movement from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to Good Friday – but I don’t know about you, but as we draw ever nearer now to the cross there’s a question I cannot help but ask:  Where’s the shouting and praise now?  When did “hosanna in the highest” become “crucify him?” And was I, am I, there “when they crucified my Lord?”  What happens when in my silence the stones shout out?

It’s a somber and difficult question, to be sure; but beloved, it’s an important one as today we consider who Jesus truly is and what even now he offers us.  I hoping you really heard the song we sang during the offertory, about how there “Ain’t No Rock Gonna Shout for Me,” because not only is it a great old spiritual, but the words of the chorus say it all:  “Rocks, keep silent!  Jesus comes to set me free.  Rocks, keep silent! I’m gonna shout in victory!  Rocks, keep silent! Jesus reigns in majesty.  Ain’t no rock gonna shout for me.”  It’s a song that not only reminds us on this day of days who Jesus is and what he came to do, but it also tells us that if we fail to give him our praises, if we turn away from him in his hour of need, if we deny him not only with our words but by our lives then all that will be left is the sound of the stones shouting in our place; each and all bearing witness to our silence amidst sin and despair.

Beloved, on this day of all days, as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ we cannot stay silent.  We cannot let our praises go unsung!  Because, if I might quote Theodore Wardlaw’s words one more time, this isn’t “pollyanna praise, it’s not pie-in-the-sky praise, not whistling past the graveyard praise, not something sweet place among us just to make the world more beautiful praise.  It’s praise  that instead gives us vision, that enables us to see the world more clearly,” and it’s praise that reminds us that in the name of the one whose name we praise we are rescued, we are forgiven, we are redeemed and we are made alive, now and forever.

Ain’t no rock gonna shout that for me! How could it ever?

We are not meant to be silent, beloved… we are meant to sing and to shout and to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus our Christ!  It’s as simple and as profound and, as we stand beneath the cross of Jesus, as agonizing as that.

So… let our praises be heard!  And as Paul proclaimed in joy and praise, let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God… humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross… so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the eart, and every tongue” – every tongue (!) – “should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on April 14, 2019 in Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

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Filled With the Fragrance

(a sermon for April 7. 2019, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on John 12:1-8)

The smell of a field of wildflowers in summer, or of a pine forest in early springtime…  

…that distinct whiff of a breeze coming off the ocean at low tide;

…the aroma of baking bread,  an apple pie fresh out of the oven, and, oh yes, the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day (!);

…the distinct fragrance of wood smoke coming from cedar kindling burning in the fireplace;

…even the faintest scent of the perfume that your grandmother used to wear, or of the “Sir Walter Raleigh” pipe tobacco that was your father’s favorite back in the day;

…sometimes that’s all it takes!  Years and years may pass; you might live a thousand miles away, and maybe it even involves people and memories that you haven’t thought about in… forever!  But then, you’re out somewhere and catch one whiff that one familiar smell… and you’re back: back at Grammie and Grampie’s house when you were just a little kid; back at the hunting camp “shooting the bull” with your father; back out on the beach watching your own children running around, dodging the seagulls and building sand castles. You know what I’m talking about here; for each one of us, there are bound to be some specific fragrances that we forever associate with special times, places and people!

And it’s no mere sentimentality; there’s actually scientific precedent for this.  People who study such things tell us that while the memory of words and logic and data go to the so-called “thinking” part of the brain, the memories involved with our five senses – most especially the sense of smell – go to the emotional part of the brain which is known as the amygdala. That’s why the smell of certain foods will always remind us of home; and that’s why even the hint of that one long forgotten but oh-so familiar fragrance brings back a lingering, very precious memory of that loved one and of what he or she meant to us.  What happens in such a moment, you see, is that the fragrance enters the nostrils, but then it fills the heart.

Actually, you know, in reading our text for this morning, I wonder if, years later, there was a moment when Mary – perhaps she was out in the marketplace gathering food for the day and there was this lingering scent from someone on the street who passed by her, or maybe there was just the fleeting aroma of something, someone off in the distance – I wonder if suddenly Mary stopped, breathed in deeply, and then said to herself, “Jesus…”  I wonder if there was a time when Lazarus – himself having experienced what it was to have been brought from death to life – if he again smelled that perfume and remembered where that glory had come from and who had brought it forth.  Or, for that matter, what about Martha, busily serving her guests at the house in Bethany, or the other disciples who were no doubt nearby when Mary broke the alabaster jar and began to anoint Jesus’ feet; was there a time when they once again smelled the sweet smell of perfume that filled the room that day and thus immediately were transported back to the scene, perhaps lost in the memory and sighing a bit as they remembered; perhaps even whispering aloud, “Oh yes… that was the beginning, wasn’t it?”

Like I said before, sometimes the fragrance is all it takes to truly remember.

The thing about this passage from John’s gospel is that it’s deceptively simple.  Coming as it does after the raising of Lazarus and just before the “Triumphal Entry” of Palm Sunday, this account of a dinner at Lazarus’ house almost seems like a bit of exposition; a transition, if you will, into the events of the last week of Jesus’ life.  I mean, on the face of it, it’s a dinner party, isn’t it; and with everything that implies:  good food and conversation shared amongst friends; hospitality to the “max” courtesy of the ever-diligent Martha, and a warm, relaxed atmosphere that lingers well into the night.  But then this thing happens that nobody’s expecting: Mary takes this container of perfume made of pure nard – which, by the way, is this very aromatic amber-colored oil derived from plants grown in the Himalayas, of all places; and which was so expensive that scholars estimate that it not only represented a year’s worth of wages in Jesus’ day, but in today’s currency might have had a value of as much as $10,000 (!) – and then proceeds to pour out the lot of it (likely a pint or so) so that she might anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping the excess oil and its perfume with her long, flowing hair!

It is a gesture as extravagant – and as sensual – as it sounds; John, in fact, makes a distinct point of saying that in this moment Lazarus’ “house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”  And it’s an amazing moment; though, in all fairness, it’s also a bit confusing.  First of all, why wouldn’t Mary simply wash Jesus’ feet, as was customary in terms of offering hospitality to one’s guests?  And if she were going to be anointing Jesus, why anoint his feet rather than his head (it’s worth noting, by the way, that in Matthew and Mark’s version of this story, it is Jesus’ head that’s anointed with this precious perfume, which makes Mary’s actions here all the more striking)?  And quite honestly, wasn’t what Mary did there rather impulsive and more than just a little exorbitant?  John does make it very clear here about Judas’ questionable motives in making his comment about how the money wasted by such an act could have benefited the poor; yet in all honesty, we can scarcely blame him for casting doubt on Mary’s good sense!  Admittedly, the whole thing does come off as a bit over the top, if not totally unnecessary… as the question becomes, why?  What was Mary doing?

Well, part of our answer comes from Jesus himself:  “’Leave her alone,’” Jesus says in response to Judas’ angry dismissal of what Mary has done. “’She bought it…’” (that is, this very costly perfume) “’…so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.’”  She bought it for his burial!  That’s very interesting; because not only would this explain the anointing of Jesus’ feet as opposed to his head (since in Jesus’ time, the anointing of a body for burial always began with the hands and feet, those places where the signs of death are often first detected), but it also suggests that Mary knew what was coming.  The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, in a pair of commentaries she’s written on this passage, writes that “Mary may have been the only disciple in the room who truly comprehended what was to come in the next days. And while one would be hard pressed to say that Mary was comfortable with this certainty that Jesus would die,” nonetheless, she anoints his feet as was – or would soon be – the custom.  “Perhaps there also was nothing else for Mary to do by then,” Hunt goes on to say.  “Perhaps this was all that was left – for her to kneel before Jesus, anoint his feet, and then to wipe them with her hair.  Perhaps there was nothing more for her to do but to do as she did: holding herself still in the deep acknowledgement of the gift of the one who was right before her.”

And so it was; this gesture of true faith, of exorbitant, extravagant, grace-filled act of utter thankfulness and of truly sacrificial love, offered up in fullness in anticipation of an infinitely greater sacrifice to come… and not only was the room was filled with its beautiful fragrance but also and most especially by an all-encompassing awareness of what it represented. In one sense, it was a memory yet to be! It’s no wonder that in Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (26:13)  And so it was.

So, friends, how about you?  Do you remember?

I think it’s safe to say that our particular tradition of faith does not usually include the fragrance of candles or burning incense as part of our shared experience of worship; in fact, I must confess that quite often what I smell the most up here on a Sunday morning is coffee brewing out in the Fellowship Hall!  No, our “act and attitude” of worship and devotion tends toward the sense of sight and sound, along with the occasional tender touch of care and compassion; and, might I add, on a Sunday such as this, the taste of a piece of broken bread and a sip of wine from a shared cup.  So maybe this room isn’t overflowing with the scent of $10,000 perfume; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with the fragrance of love.  It’s there in our remembrance of what Mary did in that act of singular devotion; it’s there in the memory of how Jesus turned his heart toward Jerusalem and willingly submitted himself to death – even death on a cross (!) – so that we might have life abundant and eternal because “God so loved the world.” (John 3:16)  It’s there as we offer up our own precious gifts of faith and love for the sake of that world and of the people whom our Lord loves beyond measure and in a way unending.  And it’s there in in our worship and praise of the one who gave his all to us; in the words of Dennis Ignatius, Malaysian ambassador and Pentecostal Christian, “When we lift our hands in praise and worship, we break spiritual jars of perfume over Jesus.  The fragrance of our praise fills the whole earth and touches the heart of God.”

I like to think that as we worship together, as we sing songs of faith and love, as we pray for another and for a hurting world, what we do breaks spiritual jars of perfume in this place!  And I hope and pray that the same  will happen now as we come to our moment of “holy” communion; it’s time for our table meal with the Lord, that we somehow experience his presence in bread and wine, perchance to truly remember the sacrifice that he has made – and continues to make – on our behalf.  As we so often do in this congregation, in a moment we will sing, we’ll pray, we’ll pass the plate from person to person as we take and eat and drink, and we’ll be thankful for what we’ve been given… but the best part of it all?  As we do, the air around us will be filled with the sweet fragrance of his love and power; a fragrance that we pray will linger in our hearts and lives today and tomorrow and on every day that comes; a fragrance that will continue to remind us that we are ever and always loved.

So breathe it in, beloved; breathe it all in…

And may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2019 in Communion, Jesus, Lent, Love, Sermon

 

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Welcomed Home

(a sermon for March 31, 2019, the 4th Sunday in Lent, based on Luke 15:1-32)

Tell me the truth now; when you heard this morning’s scripture reading, didn’t you think to yourselves, Oh, I know this story; I know where this is headed!

Actually, I’d be really surprised if you didn’t have that thought; after all, not only is it safe to say that this story of “The Prodigal Son” is among the most beloved of Jesus’ parables, quite honestly it’s probably logged more pulpit time than nearly anything else in the gospels!

I know I’ve preached on this passage several times over the years and no doubt you’ve heard it more times than that; and from every possible perspective, from that of the rebellious younger son who runs off and squanders his father’s money only to end up feeding pigs in a far off land, to the elder “good” son who stayed home to run the family farm; and of course, from the point of view of the waiting father who welcomes his once-presumed-dead prodigal son home with great rejoicing!

It is a wonderful parable about sin and redemption, grace and joy and our very human tendency to stubbornly refuse those things!  Which is wonderful; the trouble is, however, this is one of those biblical stories so familiar to our ears that it’s pretty much become like one of Aesop’s Fables, in which we can skip right ahead to the moral; which in the case of this story would be, “No matter how badly you have messed up in your life, pick yourself up, wipe the pig slop off your clothes (!) and go home; because there’s love and forgiveness waiting for you there, and once you’ve been welcomed home you can start over where you left off…

…oh, and if you happen to be the older son in this parable… stop your pouting, and go to the party already!”

That would be the moral of the story as we’ve always known it.  Not that this is wrong, mind you; it’s just not wholly what Jesus was getting at when he told the story!  You see, one of the problems with the over-familiarity we have with stories like this one is that they’ve lost, shall we say, their “shock and awe” value! When Jesus told this parable, he intended it to be surprising, shocking, even in a way offensive to the ears hearing it; not as the warm and fuzzy bit of self-help advice that we so often glean from it.  And the key to understanding that comes in knowing that Jesus offered up these parables not so much for the benefit of the inner circle of his followers and well-wishers, nor were they even directed primarily to the crowds of the curious that surrounded them, but rather they were for “powers that be;” that is, the Pharisees and scribes who were, as Luke succinctly puts it, “grumbling,” and complaining that Jesus was spending altogether too much time in the company of sinners and lowlifes.

Actually, in this instance, Jesus tells three parables which when told together culminate in that story of the prodigal son.  The first is about a lost sheep, or more accurately, about the shepherd so passionate about finding that missing member of the flock that he’ll leave the other 99 behind while he beats the bushes in the search.  And, wouldn’t you do that?  Oh, and while I’m on the subject, Jesus goes on to say, who among you, if you lost a coin – even if was only one coin out of ten – isn’t it true that you’d fairly well tear the house apart trying to find that one single coin?  And once you’ve found it – the sheep or the coin, don’t you just want just call all your neighbors and friends to celebrate that that which was lost is now found!

So… given all that, how about that rebellious younger son?  I mean, yes, he essentially tells his father to drop dead – whatever I’m getting in the inheritance, give it to me now because, Pop, I am out of here (!) – but tell the truth, which one of you wouldn’t do that for your son, to give everything you ever had and worked for to this obnoxious, ungrateful rebel kid of yours?  And then, once he’s left and he’s wasted all your money on parties and gambling and women, and then comes home looking like “the wreck of the Hesperus” and smelling of a pigsty, who among you wouldn’t welcome him back home with a hug and a kiss, not to mention the biggest homecoming celebration anybody’s ever seen?  Who among you wouldn’t do that?

Cut to the faces of the scribes and Pharisees, and of course, their scowls say it all:  No… nobody would do that…ever!

I mean, lost sheep and missing coins, that’s one thing; but feasts and fatted calves for lazy, irresponsible prodigals, that’s just crazy talk!  Actions have consequences, Jesus, and bad behavior results in punishment, that’s just the way it is; it’s what our sacred law says and that’s how we’ve always matters such as this, so why would you even suggest such a thing, Jesus!

And that’s when Jesus lets the shock give way to awe:  oh… excuse me, did you think I was talking about your behavior?  These aren’t stories about what you do; these are stories about what God does, about how God behaves.  Don’t you get it?  God is the seeking shepherd who will sacrifice nearly everything in order to bring the lost one home; God is that woman who is relentless in her search for one little lost coin amongst many.

And yes, God is that waiting father, who when he sees his son “while he was still far off,” doesn’t even consider what’s gone on in the past; just that his beloved son who he believed to be dead and gone from his life forever was home! And so he ran – of course, he ran (!) – he literally sprinted across that field to embrace him and welcome him and celebrate his return.  Because “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance.”

Or to put it another way, forgiveness is ours to receive and that forgiveness comes from God.

Last week, you’ll remember that we talked a lot about the importance of and need for repentance: that crucial opportunity that you and I have to change and turn around and do what needs to be done to bear fruit before God; and the need for and the receiving of forgiveness is all wrapped up in that.  But that gives rise to a question, one that is very much a part of this parable and, for that matter, one that’s been debated across the ages: what comes first, the repentance or the forgiveness?  Asked another way, in order to be forgiven do we first need to come clean for all your sins and start a new life, or is the new life the result of being forgiven?  Truth is, we can make a case for both points of view in this story.  Quite honestly, our human attitude – not to mention the way we do confession in the church – it tends to side with the idea that repentance is required for forgiveness.  But that’s what makes the story that Jesus is telling about this sinful, “prodigal” son so radical.

I love what the late author and Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon wrote about this: he maintained that even when the younger son “[comes] to himself” there in the pigsty, there is no real repentance.  “This is just one more dumb plan for his life,” he said.  Yes, he does confess the sin. “That’s true.  He got that one right.  ‘And I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Score two.  He gets that one right” too.  But then he gets it dead wrong:  he starts to negotiate; he tries to rationalize out what his best bargaining points are. Maybe I can work as a hired hand, or whatever; honestly, this is not unlike a kid coming to confess his or her transgression and then adding, well, at least I’m being honest about this so that maybe it’ll reduce my time of being grounded?

Ultimately, wrote Capon, “this is not a real repentance; it’s just a plan for a life.  [But] what it is, is enough to get him started going home, and consequently, when he goes home, what happens next is an absolutely fascinating kind of thing.”

It’s God.  God is what happens!  Did you notice in this story that the father never actually says anything to the son?  There’s no effort to extract a confession from him, no “what have you got to say for yourself, young man?”  There’s just this loving embrace and the kiss, this incredibly emotional welcome home.  It’s only after all this that the son manages to get the confession out of his mouth; and even then the father’s already busy calling the servants to get this party started!

It’s amazing, isn’t it?  The scribes and the Pharisees, and yes, even you and I, we tend to think that in order to receive the forgiveness and restoration we’ve been seeking we’ve got to do everything properly and in good order; but here’s God who just up and forgives, not because all the dots have been connected but simply out of love!  And it’s all because of this relentless desire of God that his children should be welcomed home; that’s the source of this amazing and unending joy “in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

And don’t misunderstand here, the prodigal does repent; it’s just that as Jesus tells the story, the real confession and the true repentance comes about in celebration of the forgiveness that he got for nothing!  None of us, you see, can earn forgiveness;  there was nothing that the prodigal son received in his homecoming that he actually deserved.  For all practical purposes, he was indeed dead; he had ceased to be his father’s son.  And yet in his father’s arms he rises from the dead and he’s able to take his place again at his father’s side.

And yes, I totally get the anger and frustration of the older son – don’t you?  I mean, doggone it, he was the “good” son!  He’s done everything right, and we can understand how he isn’t about to sit down at the same table with what Barbara Brown Taylor has beautifully described as this “self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who has cost his family so much grief.”  sThe older son represents every one of us who have strived to do the right thing and follow all the rules and yet feel like we’ve never gotten the credit we deserve for doing so. It’s a telling tale that even when the father makes his case for forgiveness, we’re never told whether or not the “good son” ever buys his father’s argument.  And we do understand that kind of reluctance; for just like the older son, we do like to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and it does feel kind of good if you’re the one vindicated in the process!

But at the end of the day, you see, it’s not about what we do.  Yes, it is good that we’re living the life of faith as we should, great that we’re “walking the walk” more than merely “talking the talk.” But ultimately, it’s what God does that matters. And here’s the thing: this old, familiar story serves as a fresh reminder to all of us that what God is doing in Jesus Christ, what’s soon to happen on the cross – indeed, what’s already happened on the cross – is all about God’s utterly indefatigable determination to welcome each and every one of us home from wherever we have been, no matter how far off.

There is deep within each and every one of us a want, a need, a deep yearning for home.  It might be found in a physical structure, it could be with a family or a circle of friends, and it so often finds its expression in our gathering together as the people of God in this sacred place… a place, a people, a life where we feel truly welcomed home.  Well, the very good news is that God wants to welcome us home… the question is, what will we do about it?

To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, while all this is going on with the father and the older son, “there is a banquet going on.  You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and there is plenty left to eat.  Your father won’t make you go in the house.  He’ll just stand in the yard with you to protect you, the same way he protected your brother.”

But, here’s the thing you need to remember: he does want you to come to the party and to come as you are! This is a true celebration; it is a gift to be forgiven and to be welcomed home.  All you need to do is say yes… accept the gift that’s offered you and come inside!  And when you do, if you do, then nothing’s ever going to be the same; life… new life is yours.

So come on in, because the celebration is on…

… and thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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