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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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FAQ’s of Faith: What Is Grace?

(a sermon for March 18, 2018, the Fifth Sunday in Lent; fifth in a series, based on Luke 15:11-32 and Ephesians 2:1-10)

So… GRACE.  What is it, and what does it really have to do with faith?

Not only a “frequently asked question” as regards faith, it’s a pretty good one as well; after all, so often when we use that word “grace,” we’re speaking apart from any kind of biblical or religious context. Outside of these church doors, for instance, grace becomes a way of describing the dancer’s leap or the poet’s word; it’s the manner by which we communicate our awe and admiration for those with the strength and ability to do something amazing or wonderful.  To be “grace-full” suggests someone with the skill to do what they do beautifully, smoothly and without wasted motion; it’s that intangible something that just seems to fill a particular moment, whatever it is, with perfection.

We also tend, do we not, to equate “grace” with something really good that happens to us; or perhaps more to the point, with something really bad not happening to us!  “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  Now there’s a quote that dates back as far as the 16th century (attributed to the English Protestant Reformer and Martyr John Bradford), but how often have we uttered pretty much the same sentiment; usually referring to one specific situation or moment in time when we chose to take one road in life rather than the other, a choice which made all the difference between our success or failure, wealth or poverty, righteousness or sin, and yes, even life or death!

Now admittedly, this does bring us a little bit closer to our biblical understanding of grace; by speaking of what happens to us as being “by the grace of God,” we’re talking about a God who shows forth favor – often unmerited favor – toward those whom he loves.  In fact, two words in ancient Hebrew that can be roughly translated as “grace” are, first, hen, which describes the compassionate response of a superior to an inferior, especially when that kindness is undeserved; and second, hesed, which is the word in scripture used to describe God’s loving-kindness and loyalty toward Israel, even when Israel turned away from God!  So then, “by the grace of God” ends up meaning that you may well not deserve it and probably don’t, but nonetheless the divine and almighty God – the very Creator of heaven and earth – this God loves you, and so here it is.  It’s yours, by GRACE.

I say all this as a way of preparing us for the hard truth of our Epistle reading this morning, in which Paul gets to the nitty-gritty of the matter of grace by letting the Ephesians and us know in no uncertain terms, “You were dead.”

That’s right… dead.  Dead and gone: as in the words of Dickens, “dead as a doornail.”  Dead “through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived;” dead in “following the course of this world;” dead from “following the desires of flesh and senses;” dead “by our nature [as] children of wrath, like everyone else.”  Friends, I would submit to you that this is not the kind of obituary any one of us would want for ourselves!  I’m reminded here of an obituary that ran in a Los Angeles newspaper a few years ago: it actually said that the deceased “had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. Her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing.”

Can you imagine (!); now there’s an argument for writing your own obituary ahead of time!  Here was a final testament of life that included no highlights of this person’s existence, just the low lights; it was the record of a life with no redeeming qualities whatsoever!  And that seems to be exactly where Paul is headed as he writes to these early Christians in the city of Ephesus (as The Message translates this, “You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience!”) and such judgment would seem to preclude any hope of their redemption or salvation at all!  All you were, and all you could ever hope to be was… dead!

But… you’ll notice that Paul is very clear about using the past tense in that judgment; as in, “you were dead.”  Because in fact there’s very good news to share here:  “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”  “He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ…” (The Message again) and here’s the thing that is so amazing about it: “He did all this on his own, with no help from us!”  It is “by grace [that] you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God.”  If I might borrow a great line from the Rev. Donovan Drake, a Presbyterian pastor out of Tennessee, just when we figure that all is lost for us, here Paul “pulls away from the grave news and towards the great news:” that we are made alive in Jesus Christ so that we might join him in the work that he is doing and dwell with him in the highest heaven… even when we don’t deserve it!

I love what Drake goes on to say about this: “God has set forth a bail-out package of enormous proportions! The amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is gathering up our sins, our failures, our pains, our brokenness, our pasts, our presents, and our great illusions of foresight into the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection,” and we are saved.  “This is huge,” concludes Drake, “so huge that many cannot seem to fathom its size and scope.”  You and I, are all-too-human tendency is to decide that we somehow have to earn our way into the good “graces” of God (there’s another way we use that word!); that is, if we only act better, do better, be better than maybe – just maybe – we might squeak by with just a modicum of divine approval now and eternally.  But that’s not grace: grace is the assertion that “while we still were sinners Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8) and rather than being dead, we are indeed made alive together through Jesus Christ.  And ultimately, that this happens has nothing to do with us at all, but everything to do with the infinitely graceful gift of God unto those whom he loves; all we need do is accept the gift.

Like most of you, I suppose, I’ve always been very fond of our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son; although I must confess to you that every time I return to this parable of Jesus, the more convinced I am that history and tradition has misnamed it.  Now granted, Jesus intended the story to illustrate the “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” (Luke 15:7) so the story of the sinful younger son who “comes to himself” and decides to return home to his father and face the music does ring true.  But more and more it seems to me the real truth of this parable is in what happens next; and what happens next is… God!   In the story, of course, it’s the father who saw his son “while he was still far off” in the field and goes running after him, but in truth, it’s God!

Did you notice in this story that the father never actually says anything to his son?  That there’s no effort to extract a confession from him, no “what have you got to say for yourself, young man?”  And that there’s just this loving embrace and the kiss, this incredibly emotional welcome home; and that it’s only after all this that the son can manage to get his confession out of his mouth; and that even while that’s happening the father’s busy calling the household staff to get the party started!

And that’s why I really do believe this ought to be called the “Parable of the Forgiving Father!” Because such forgiveness is utterly amazing, isn’t it?  The scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time would have insisted (and quite honestly, so many of us even today would have to agree) that for such forgiveness to have taken place all laws and statutes would have to be followed to the letter, with everything from that moment on done properly and in good order; in other words, repentance followed by good (no, make that perfect) works being the only justification for any kind of forgiveness.  But now here’s Jesus, saying with all boldness that ours is the God who just up and forgives the transgressions of this so-called “prodigal,” not because all the dots have been connected, but just out of love (!); all because of that relentless desire of God has that every one of his children should be welcomed home, and that there should be this unending joy “in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

That’s what grace is, you see… because ultimately, in the same way the younger son couldn’t change the hopelessness of his own sinful situation, there’s nothing you or I can do about ours: you can’t change what’s been done in your life; you can’t fix what is broken between yourself and God; and you can’t raise the dead… only God can do that.  But the good news, now and always, is that by grace, God does do that, and he does it for you and me by the redeeming power at work in Jesus Christ.

The story goes that during a British conference on comparative religion some years ago, the renowned theologian and author C.S. Lewis was asked in the middle of a very intense discussion what he considered to be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world’s religions.  Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy… it’s grace.”  And despite the brevity and simplicity of his answer, not to mention all the other sharp divisions that people of different faiths will sometimes espouse, on that one point, at least, everyone had to agree.  I love what Philip Yancey says about this; he writes, “The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity.  The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law – each offers a way to earn approval.  Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”

Turns out that our the glory of our Christian faith is ultimately is found not in our doing, but in our receiving; and so in that regard, I suppose that it’s not wholly unconditional, for it does require each of us to take hold of what we’ve been given.  But when we do, we become the recipients of “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  We are made part of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (1:9) And we are given life heretofore unimagined; full and abundant and eternal; all because of this incredible, unmerited amazing grace that’s borne of divine love.

In the end, you see, grace is all about love.  As Frederick Buechner says so very well, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Dear friends, the good news of this and every day is that we are loved beyond measure and by grace we are saved; and in a sacrificial act that will change the world forever, God’s own son is about to show us just how true of a thing that is.  So let us watch and wait, even unto the cross, for this gift of grace to unfold very soon now; so that we might embrace it as our very own.  So that there, for the grace of God, will go you and I.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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