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Polling Place: a Sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost
August 3, 2015, 2:33 pm
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Have you ever heard a news report that cites some poll or another and wondered who on earth these people are who are supposedly representative of the nation?
I know I have. But this week, I got to be one of those people! It took the polling company at least six times to actually get in touch with me, but then I patiently answered their questions while trying to get the baby dressed for bed. Or maybe the caller was the one who was really being patient, as I asked for the question again, or tried to remember if 5 or 1 was supposed to be mean strongly agree.
I came away from the experience with a clearer sense of what I actually felt. There’s a commitment that comes with saying aloud what you’re thinking that brought me some clarity.
We could use that clarity as we enter our exploration of Ephesians this morning. So, I have a little poll for you. You’re welcome to write down your answers, or just think of them in your head.
On a scale of 1 to 5, in which 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree, what is your reaction to these statements:
-I am comfortable in this congregation.
-I belong in this community.
-I am a good person who tries to do what is right.
-My life experience and expectations about the world are similar to those of others in this congregation.
-The way I live my life has an impact on my place in this congregation.
-If people knew everything about me, I might not be welcome here anymore.

Our reading from Ephesians calls listeners to remember who they are and how they got into the community. What are you discovering about your place in this community? On what is your security here founded?
When we read the Bible it’s really important to remember the context of what we’re reading. The context is like the backdrop, the stuff everyone who’s writing assumes we know and experience- stuff about the way the world works, how people interact, and the struggles we face. Context is everything taken for granted as the way things are. The context of all of the New Testament is the struggle within the community of God’s people. There is tension between Jewish people and the Jewish people who worship Jesus as the messiah. There is tension between the Jewish people who worship Jesus as the messiah and the Gentile, or non-Jewish people who worship Jesus as the messiah. There is tension between the first disciples of Jesus, and their followers, who are Jewish and think people who worship Jesus should also be Jewish, and the later disciples of Jesus, like Paul and his followers, some of whom, like Paul, are Jewish, and others of whom are not Jewish, and think people who worship Jesus don’t have to be Jewish.
The code word for Jewishness in the New Testament letters is circumcision. Talking about circumcision gets a few giggles from confirmation youth and confused eyebrow raising from adults. When you read or hear about circumcision in the New Testament, treat it as a code, or symbol, for all the laws and rituals that are part of Jewish people being Jewish. For the Jewish people of this time, and for generations upon generations before, Jewish identity- being the chosen people of God- was lived out by following God’s laws, rituals, and regulations. Circumcision, rituals of cleanliness, and even things like the Ten Commandments, are all part of what makes a Jewish person a Jewish person, part of God’s chosen community.
Jesus comes into the world, fulfilling the Jewish hope of a messiah from God. For the people who recognize Jesus as savior, especially as more and more people who were never a part of the Jewish group, the chosen people of God, come to recognize Jesus as being sent from God, the big debate becomes who belongs in Jesus’ community. For whom did Jesus come to save? Just the Jewish people who had been waiting for him? Or for everyone? Or for everyone who decided to join the Jewish community so they could be a part of Jesus’ community?
Ephesians is written by Paul’s followers, to these people who are trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ. Paul’s on the side of Jesus being for everyone. Paul’s Jewish, he’s part of the in-group of God’s chosen people, but he doesn’t think that’s important anymore. Paul’s a Pharisee, he’s been really good at following God’s law, but he doesn’t think that’s important anymore.
Now that Jesus has come, the only thing that matters, your only entrance into the community is Jesus himself. Now, everyone is welcome.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what group you’re a part of, or what you’ve done, nothing about the individual matters, it is Jesus alone who makes you a part of the community.
Ephesians opens by talking to the new Christians- remember who you are and how you got into the community. It was Jesus! Not you!
You had no claim on God, no right to a place in the kingdom of God- but Jesus came and found you and brought you in and found you a home.
The image we get in Ephesians is that of a building. You might imagine a school, a big building that is divided into littler rooms, keeping groups separated. In the past, one group was loved and favored and known, and the other was not. But now, Jesus has come in. He’s carrying a big sledge hammer and he goes after those walls. Plaster is flying, walls are crumbling, and finally, there is no more division. All are together, everyone is united.
Those walls are the law. Jesus destroys God’s law. Circumcision, ritual, ten commandments- all of it is destroyed, ended, abolished. The law was put in place so that people would know who they were. The Jewish people lived a different kind of life so that they would remember they belonged to God, and so that their neighbors would know the Jewish people were the chosen ones of God. The law was about showing you were a part of the right group.
Jesus makes you a part of his group, whether or not there’s anything right about you at all.
In Jesus, no one can say, “I belong more than you because I live in this right way” or “you don’t have a place because you haven’t followed this rule.” Where the law leads to pride and self-righteousness, Jesus leads us to humility.
“Remember.” Ephesians calls us to remember our place. Remember your place. Jesus has given you a place among the beloved and claimed saints. Jesus has made you his for life. It’s not something you did. You didn’t earn it, and you can’t lose it. Only Jesus’ faithfulness to you matters, and he has already proven that in his death on the cross and resurrection to life.
Remember that your place is secure. You don’t have to live in fear.
Remember that your place is dependent on Jesus. Live in humility rather than self-righteousness.
Jesus breaks down the dividing walls. Think of all the barriers and divisions in our world today. From crossing the aisle to crossing the tracks, bridging the gap- how is Jesus calling you to be a part of pulling those walls down?
Jesus is at work here at Cross, to build us together spiritually, so that we might be part of the great household of God. Jesus is breaking down walls in order to fit more people. Jesus is the reason there is room here for you. It’s not what you’ve done or haven’t done, it’s not whether or not you have the right opinion or stand on the right side of an issue, it’s not your family history or your current status.
As Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, he pushed away any power you have in making yourself welcome or unwelcome in God’s community. Jesus went down into hell to destroy death’s power to separate us. Jesus rose so that our identity as the people of God would last from now through eternity.
This is a place of welcome for all of God’s people?
Strongly agree.


A Sermon on Luke 17:11-19
October 14, 2013, 8:34 am
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                As I come to this gospel text from Luke, I’m confronted with the fact that I have very rarely been the outsider. Sure, there have been awkward times, when I haven’t quite fit in, or showed up in the right clothes or makeup. I remember the first community bridal shower I went to at my church in North Dakota. I wasn’t quite sure if I was expected to go since everyone was invited and it was at the church. I had never met the bride, but her parents were active at the church. There was a community event outside that morning, so I went straight from that casual outdoor event to the church for the shower. I didn’t realize that most people went home in between, and changed into dressy clothes. I felt rather inappropriate in my jeans.

            There are other times when I know I’ve stuck out. Like when I’ve travelled abroad and realized I was the racial minority for once. And there have been times when I’ve been told point-blank that I don’t belong, like when I dared to try to sit in someone else’s pew when I visited a church where Jeff was preaching.

            But for the most part, doors open for me, mall security guards ignore me, and people haven’t taken one look at me and sent me on my way. Some of you don’t share my experience of privilege, but I’m willing to wager that many of you do.

            For those of us who come into society from a place of privilege, of belonging without even recognizing that right, this text from Luke can be a challenge. It’s a challenge because it’s another example of Jesus welcoming and uplifting the outsider, and calling us to consider what kind of prejudices and closed communities we support.

            In this text we meet a group of characters, identified by the only marker anyone in that society would care about: they are sick, they are lepers. In the Bible, when we read about lepers, that might mean any kind of skin condition, but you can be sure that it would be obvious. What makes it even more obvious is that these people are obligated to shout out their presence so that everyone can avoid them. No one wants to get near to them, or touch them. Now, the idea of germs wasn’t exactly understood at this time, but the idea of purity and pollution was really big. This was a big part of religious understanding that affected social life. Really simplified, some people, or actions, or diseases, or bodily fluids, or states of being, like being dead, were dirty, polluting. Depending on what or whom you came into contact with, you might not be able to participate in things like worship until you went through cleansing rituals. These lepers are labeled as dirty, polluting people, people to avoid.

            When they approach Jesus, we see that they do so in the way they have been trained, keeping a distance. So they have to shout at him: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus notices them. Jesus instructs them to go to the priests, and as they do so, they find that they have been cleansed of their leprosy. They are made clean. Jesus has restored their lives.

            But only one of them seems to really notice. To notice who it is who has healed him, and notice what that must mean about this man Jesus. This one turns back from the other nine healed lepers and approaches Jesus, praising God and thanking him, casting himself before Jesus in humility and worship.

            Then we learn another detail that digs into our self-assured status: this one is a Samaritan. Jesus is travelling the region between Samaria and Galilee. Now, being a Samaritan is another strike against you if you’re looking for community among the Jews, people like Jesus and his disciples. Samaritans are considered outsiders, who don’t worship God correctly.

            So here we have a Samaritan leper, who not only is cleansed of his illness by Jesus, but is an example of faithful insight, because he was the only one to recognize Jesus as more than a healer- as someone identifiable with God, someone to whom one could praise God. Jesus commends his faith, declaring, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” This Greek word for well also carries the meaning of salvation. This outsider’s faith in Jesus has saved him.

            All ten received healing and new life from Jesus. But the text makes me think that only this Samaritan received the transformative gift of faith that recognizes Jesus as God’s presence on earth. This is an awesome story of God’s work among those outside the bounds of welcome society, of properly religious people. It can also be a word of judgment for those of us who live every day comfortably welcome everywhere we go, or who have been lifelong faithful members of a church, and know the right way to worship and live a Christian life.  

            Maybe the other nine went so quickly to the priest because, not only did Jesus command it, but they had been taught that’s simply where you experience cleansing and how you get back into relationship with God and the community. They knew the way religion was supposed to be, and weren’t ready to see Jesus as anything more than a great healer and teacher from God. Their ways of thinking about God were so set, they were so eager to be rejoined with their community and their worship life, that they were blind to God enfleshed right in front of them.

            There’s a real challenge in this text for those among us who think we’re good Christians, who have inherited a sense of what church life is like. We may find it more difficult to follow Jesus as he pushes us towards reaching out and welcoming those who don’t share our life experiences. God is at work and being revealed to those outside our churches. Those of us inside can find that threatening.

The church today is at a real tipping point. Attendance and participation in church life has gone down across the board. Many people look back fondly at the church of the 1960s, when pews were full and Sunday Schools teeming. This was a time when it was expected that you be a part of a church and everyone knew what that meant. This is not the world we live in today. We live in a world that is closer to that of the disciples and the early church: when we have to recognize God working not only in our buildings, but in our wider communities. We are at a time when we have to point to and celebrate signs of Jesus, explaining to others who this Jesus is and what he is doing, so that they can join us in praising God.

When I think about this Luke text, I wonder if it might be easier to know and trust Jesus from a place of less privilege than I experience. Maybe there’s something about being outside the tradition, not being so formed by the rules, that makes it easier for the foreigner to stop and recognize the one who restored his life. It’s scary to consider that those of us who have been lifelong members of a church, formed by what we’ve learned in Sunday School, might have a more difficult time recognizing the new things God is doing. But that realization is also a beautiful place for many of us to begin. Our God is so awesome, that God is at work in ways we never realized before. Our God is not confined to our expectations, but is breaking out expectations apart so that more and more people can be welcomed into the healing community Jesus is creating.

There can be some growing pains, and some stumbling, when community is formed among people who aren’t used to being together as equals. I know it’s difficult to worship with those who don’t behave as we do, or join at a dinner table where the scripts are different than those we know. But there is a great gift to be had when we live into the diverse community Jesus is forming, not waiting until the resurrection to experience the wideness of this community, but seeking it out right now.

Your challenge this week is to notice where you are uncomfortable. When are you among people you’re not used to interacting with? When do you shake your head at the inappropriate actions of another? When are you confronted with someone whose life story is so different from your own that you have a hard time relating or even believing it?

Notice that time, and consider how God is at work there. Can you see Jesus bringing life to that outsider? Can you hear Jesus calling you to welcome that person in? Or perhaps calling you to break apart the barriers that have separated you?

God welcomes each one of you through Jesus. Jesus gifts you with his saving life. This salvation comes from Jesus alone, and not through your own work. But my hope is that you can join me in praying: “Jesus, make me open to your gift of transformative faith, a relationship that will change me, and help me to recognize you in the many places, even unexpected places, where you can be found.” Amen. 

Welcome, Lost Sinners: A sermon on Luke 15, 1 Timothy 1
September 16, 2013, 9:11 am
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Sometime last year, Jeff and Laila and I were headed back to Wisconsin, but on our way, we stopped at the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. One of the children in our congregation was having a difficult surgery. While Jeff went up to visit this child, Laila and I stayed in the entry waiting area. There was this very large circular couch, and we were playing in the middle of it. Laila’s idea of playing at that age was to empty her diaper bag. So, she took everyone out, one by one, and then laughed at Mommy trying to clean up her mess. After a few rounds of this game, she must have been getting bored. So she started climbing around on the couch, or walking alongside it. I bent down to collect another item from the diaper bag game, and when I straightened up, I couldn’t see her. One moment she was right there, and the next, she was gone. And in that moment, everything from my perspective froze, and I began to frantically search for my lost child.

This is the kind of desperate search I hear Jesus talking about today.

We meet Jesus, talking to the Pharisees and Scribes, the religious people, in parables. The image Jesus uses in our reading is that of two lost things: a sheep and a coin. The thing that is so striking about these lost items is that they don’t even realize they are lost.

That seems a little strange when I think about Jesus’ application, when he says, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Can a sheep repent? Can a coin repent? Does either have the capacity to realize they are lost and do something to return themselves to their proper place?

When it comes to me and God, I’m not so sure I’d recognize if I was lost. Maybe you have, or maybe you haven’t. It seems like Christians find it a lot easier to point out who else is lost, but find it a lot harder to see the state they are in themselves. I don’t know if words like lost or sinner or disconnected really make sense to people today. Repent is maybe even more of a foreign word.

I tend to explain repenting as being reoriented, brought back into right relationship with God and the world. Sometimes we think of repenting as saying we’re sorry, or realizing we’ve done something wrong.

But through these parables, Jesus isn’t asking us to examine our hearts to evaluate just how lost we are: Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God: the very nature of who God is- who God is for us. These parables are about the one searching, the one who works to reorient us.

In those moments when my heart stopped, searching for Laila, she had no clue she was lost. I was the one who felt the lack. I was the one ready to tear apart the couch, call the security guards, and run out into the street, calling her name. She was completely oblivious, standing on the opposite side of the couch, just out of my angle of sight.

In Jesus’ parable, the coin has settled on the floor, somewhere just out of sight and out of reach. Somewhere really, really far out of sight and reach, since it takes sweeping the floor and adding the light of a lamp to find it. In our world, where coins aren’t worth much, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that this woman is so distraught about her lost coin. Would you or I even notice if one rolled under the couch?

But she knows. She isn’t complete without this coin. It is special to her, a part of her.

If you always wear a ring, or a watch, you might understand this feeling. Your finger has become used to having that ring: you have a indentation or a tan line where it always sits. If you can’t find your watch and go without, your wrist feels oddly light, and you’re constantly checking the time, and feeling at each check its loss.

God notices when something isn’t right, when the connection is strained between creator and created. Consider this word that God speaks through Isaiah to all God’s people: God says to you: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” You will never be forgotten and your loss will never go unnoticed.

God knows and loves each one of you. When you think of all the people that have ever been and ever will be- and of yourself in the midst of these many people, maybe you can think- who am I among so many, that God would be able to know and care for me?

That’s part of the wonder I hold for God.

A few year ago, I read The Shack. Some of you may have read it and have your own opinions about it, but there is one part, one phrase, that reflects what I’m getting at. The character representing God the Father would often say about the particular person she was talking about: “I am especially fond of…” It confused the main character- how could this person talk about being uniquely fond of so many people- if everyone was so particularly liked- wouldn’t that be a contradiction? Here’s a bit of their dialog:  “You seem to be especially fond of a lot of people,” Mack observed with a suspicious look. “Are

there any who you are not especially fond of?”

She [Papa] lifted her head and rolled her eyes as if she were mentally going through the catalogue of every being ever created. “Nope, I haven’t been able to find any. (118)

These parables, and this excerpt from the Shack, remark on God’s almost ridiculous attention to each person, even and especially to those who don’t seem to care for God at all. Why leave 99 sheep unprotected and unwatched to chase after that one stupid sheep who managed to get himself lost? If five twenty dollar bills fell out of your pocket along with a one dollar bill, and the one began blowing down the road, would you really chase after it before collecting the twenties?

Jesus’ parables tell of God’s extraordinary attention and love for those who don’t seem to be worth the effort. Remember the comments that have led Jesus to tell these parables. The righteous, law-abiding Pharisees and scribes are commenting on who Jesus keeps as company. Jesus has been eating with tax-collectors and sinners. He’s been hanging out with people whose lives show they hold no interest in being good citizens or people of faith.

We, who can become used to phrases like “sinners and tax collectors” as we read the Bible, can sometimes whitewash those characters. We might think, oh, they were greedy, or just not very nice, or they didn’t attend worship. But when we hear Paul’s letter to Timothy, his explanation of himself, it really drives home how great of sinners these sinners really were.

Paul, one of the major founders of our understanding of the faith, a great apostle, who spread the news about Jesus throughout the nations, was a sinner. And not just a little one. He killed people – lots of people- and had others kill for him. He did this because he thought they were teaching wrong things about God. He killed people who believed in Jesus.

Yet Jesus chose this man, this sinner, to be the one to carry his message to many, many people! Jesus not only hangs out with sinners, he works in their lives and gives them responsibilities in the kingdom of God.

There is never a point at which we become too lost for God to give up searching for us. Never a line we can cross that when God brings us home there will be grumbling at our presence rather than rejoicing. God has the power and desire to find you and turn you back towards a loving and life-receiving relationship with God.

May you know the joy of God’s finding you, and be so filled with that joy that you join God in welcoming the lost into your community.

On the Horizon: A Sermon on Luke 7:1-10

Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am so excited for those of you who are graduating this year. I envy you the adventures you are about to have. You might have plans or dreams for your future, maybe you’ve planned out the next years and are already envisioning yourself in a future profession. Maybe you have no idea what’s coming next, all you know is that you’ve completed one stage in life, and, ready or not, something new is coming.

On the night of my high school graduation, I wasn’t so sure I wanted something new. I had been at the same school since kindergarten. The people and work and rhythm contained in my circle of life were familiar and comfortable.

After stopping in at a number of parties, my friends and I found ourselves at a park on the lakeshore. We sat up on the hood of the car and looked out over the lake. Out into the horizon, clouds came together and lightening flashed. We sat in the calm safety of our present situation, fascinated by tumult of light and sound in the distance.

Calm and safe in the present, looking out towards an unpredictable show of energy, catching only glimpses of the shape of the waves and the clouds as they are lit by the crackling light.

Graduates, you’re there: facing down the path to your future, and yet still enclosed by the life you’ve known.

As a church, we celebrate this time of transition with you, proclaiming that God is with you through the changes in life, and calling you to join God at work where you are and where you are going.

But the reality is, each of us always lives on the cusp on the unknown. Many find that what they’ve always believed was most stable in life isn’t. From career, health, and family life to new callings in discipleship, none of us is certain about what will come next. We don’t know what will come when the horizon God has prepared comes closer.

Reading the four gospels, I find it curious that each portrays a Jesus in different degrees of omnipotence, different stages of knowing. The biggest difference is between John and the synoptic gospels: in John, Jesus seems to be more aware and confident of his mission and the part his death plays in continuing that mission. I say this because in today’s reading from Luke, we hear that Jesus is amazed. Jesus is amazed at the faith of the Centurion.

In this scene, we find Jesus surprised by what he encounters on earth. Perhaps even his thinking is changed, his vision expanded, by this unexpected interaction: a faithful response from an unexpected direction. As we continue in Luke, we’ll see Jesus’ understanding of the fullness of the scope of his mission grow, as he encounters God working and God calling him to work outside the boundaries of the Jewish community.

We’ll get a better sense of what’s so surprising about this situation if we step back and explore the literary context of this passage and the historical context of these people.

We’ve picked up the Gospel of Luke in the seventh chapter, and we’ll be continuing a series of reading from this center of the gospel for much of the summer. We’re jumping in right after a long section called “The Sermon on the Plain” which includes Jesus teaching things like,

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (6:27-28)

35But 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.

43 ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit;

This is important to know when we come to our reading for today because all this talk about enemies and who can do good is being lived out in the interactions of the people whose stories we’ve just read. Jesus, and all his people, the Jewish people, have been promised a kingdom and a holy land from God. They’re living in the land, but it is certainly not theirs to rule. Israel is part of the Roman Empire, and while the Jews have some ability to govern themselves, it’s the Roman officials who carry the power. The centurion in the gospel is one of the leaders of the occupying force controlling Jewish land. He, and all his people, are the enemy.

Now, he’s a smart man. Maybe he was just a nice guy, but I think he knew how to be political and win the favor of the people. He’s worked the system of patronage, building a Jewish synagogue for the local people, earning their thanks and good will. He’s used his finances and influence to build what they want and earned more influence and favor.

One the day we meet the centurion, this man who has 80 men under his military command, has no power to heal his favored slave. He’s heard of Jesus, and his reputation as a healer, and he addresses him as a fellow man of power, whose word affects reality: making things happen even from a distance.

Jesus is amazed to find such a level of trust coming from this centurion.

This centurion is outside the boundaries of the community for whom Jesus saw himself working. He’s not a Jew, although he seems to be interested in learning more about the God they worship and this one who comes from God, Jesus. His uniform sets him squarely outside the circle of Jesus’ community, outside the place where God is expected to be working. He’s not one of Jesus’ people, he’s one of the enemy.

It is precisely in this enemy, in this outsider, in this stranger from the unknown, that Jesus, the crowd, and we see God already at work. God has already placed a recognition of and trust in Jesus in the centurion’s heart.

God asks you, through this text, if you’re open to being amazed by how and where and in whom God is working. God is already working outside our boundaries, among people we’ve assumed to be apart from God. If we look, if we enter into relationships, we may find that we will be surprised by encountering an example of faith where we least expected it.

Graduates, I’m excited for you and the adventures you’re about to have, the spaces you’re going to be exploring, and the new ways you’ll meet God.

You’re about to be thrown out of the routine you’ve known. The jarring of this change, although it may be easy and wonderful for many of you, forces you into exploring the world and your life with fresh eyes.

Many of the rest of us don’t really have that external push. We’re not going to be forced out of our known life and community, we’re not going to be stretched out of our comfort zone, we’re not going to encounter God in new ways… unless we become committed to seeking out that experience.

I give thanks that God is at work here, as we gather, and in your lives. But I find the truth that God is at work outside of this place, among people I don’t know, whose lives look different from mine, to have life-changing potential. If God isn’t just about me and my people, but is actively healing and bringing life to the whole world, then I am called to live in a way that reflects God’s care for each person, of every nation.

At the far edge of the horizon is the dawn of the new kingdom God is bringing. When we enter in and look around at all who are included by God’s welcome, I’m thinking “amazed” is going to be an understatement. For today, may we be open to the glimpses we receive of the wideness of God’s work. And give thanks.

Party with the Father: A Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 “The Prodigal Son”
April 2, 2013, 9:07 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Today we hear one of Jesus’ more famous parables, the Prodigal Son. On the surface, it comes to us as a portrait of a family with broken relationships. Whether or not they are in our family, most of us know what it is to have relationships strained and severed. Jesus uses our ability to relate with that portrait to answer the questioning religious leaders and reveal to them, and to us the great depth of God’s love.

The beginning of the chapter sets the scene: wherever Jesus is teaching, society’s undesirables are following. It’s not only the good religious people, but the people who have done everything wrong whom Jesus welcomes. This has made the good religious people uncomfortable. So, Jesus launches his teaching with a number of parables that show God’s longing and desire to search for and welcome back those who have never known God, or have turned away.

Whether you’ve heard this parable once, or many times before, you may not have noticed some details, so we’re going to look a little deeper at the text. These details have to do with the timing and order of thoughts and events. The first has to do with the prodigal son. He’s feeding the pigs in a foreign country and starving, not being allowed to even eat the pigs’ food. In this miserable state, the text says “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!’” The part our minds tend to focus on is his second thought, “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.”

We tend to hear that the horrible situation the son found himself in was enough to make him repent, realize his primary sin of selfishly breaking relationship, and desire to work towards the restoration of that relationship. If we read too quickly we can miss the sense that he’s not primarily worried about his relationship with his father, he’s focused on himself. His question is, how can I get myself to a better place, where I’m not starving, and what do I have to say in order to get it? He’s still stuck on himself. What we might consider his repentance speech: “Father, I have sinned” may not be quite as sincere as I’ve always considered it, after all, he isn’t first saying to himself “I have sinned,” but only saying it in the context of his plan to get what he wants from his father once again. Because he isn’t aware of his primary sin, he isn’t looking for healing there, he isn’t even considering that his Father may be more faithful to the relationship than expected. The son isn’t seeking to become a member of the family again. He may not even see restoration into his role as son as an option. Hungry, he heads for home, rehearsing this speech.

The second detail to note is the timing of the father’s decision to embrace his child. The text reads, “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” (20b).

We might imagine that the father has not seen nor heard from this son from the day he left. On that day, the son irrevocably declared that his father was dead to him by demanding his inheritance and severing their relationship. Now he comes back filthy and starving, stinking of the ways he has wasted his father’s money. The son hasn’t had a chance to give his speech, there are no apologies. The father simply sees an opening, an opportunity to take his son back, and he runs for it.

It makes me wonder what this father has been doing in the intervening years. I think of families whose children have run away, or have become so estranged that news is no longer shared. I think of the improbability that this landowning father would have recognized his son from far away when one would expect his concentration is focused on tending the estate. Since he did see the son from afar, I can imagine the tension of hope that has been this father’s constant companion. How often he must have been looking up the road for the years since his son left- haunted by a vision of his son’s back and longing for one of his return? Has he planned how he will welcome him back, how he will protect him from the anger of the rest of the family and neighbors who also know the depth of the insult his demand for the inheritance had been?

The joyful celebration following the welcome of the first son can leave us forgetting the second son. He remained with his family, working hard to run the farm and continue to support the family. But he was in the field, doing what he was supposed to be doing, when the other son returned and the party began. When he learns what has happened, “he became angry and refused to go in.” He is not left in his anger, “His father came out and began to plead with him.” The father invites this son to let go of wanting exclusive rewards for his good work, and to join the party to welcome the restoration of the one who was lost.

Jesus tells parables so that those listening would hear themselves into an encounter with God. In our Bible, Jesus tells this story to Pharisees and scribes, good religious people, who are angry that religious Jesus would welcome and eat with sinners. Jesus has come from God to bring the kingdom of God, and so his parables, and his life, show what this kingdom is like. The prodigal son is the sinners, who, even though they remain in sin, and continue to do things that turn them away from God, are so loved by God that God runs to them, even before they change their ways. The righteous, resentful brother is the religious, who have become so wrapped up in their work to be holy that they have put boundaries around God. They expect God to restrict God’s love and blessing to those who do what God wants, and when Jesus shatters their expectation by bringing sinners into the celebration, they are resentful of God and their hard work or perhaps simply confused by this new, unexpected welcome for all.
Jesus tells parables so that we would hear ourselves into an encounter with God today. It’s a blessing to be beginning a new ministry here with you all, but it’s always difficult to preach to a new group of people and a new congregation. I don’t know where each of you find yourselves in this story, or how our congregation might fit in. Are you feeling overwhelmed in a difficult situation that you’re all too aware you’ve created for yourself? Are you discouraged over broken relationships you’re not sure will ever heal? Are you frustrated that you work hard to do good and yet so many others seem to be rewarded for working only for themselves? Or maybe you find yourselves like me, some days sitting with the pigs, realizing that you’re not getting where you hoped by acting alone. And other days, pouting outside the party, because you weren’t recognized for your work.

If the father was to stand for any of us, maybe he would not have known what his reaction would be until he saw the son coming. Maybe he would have intended to chase him away if he ever had the audacity to show his face again. Maybe, only on a good day, that moment of recognition would have changed his heart to mercy.

But the father in the story stands for Jesus, and God’s work to build the kingdom through Jesus. Even if you can’t quite relate to one or the other of the sons, the important thing is to hear and wonder at God’s awesome grace. All three of these parables in chapter 15 are meant to proclaim that God expends infinite energy to find and welcome even one person. Jesus lives out this parable, running to all the children of the world as he runs to the cross. There he embraces all suffering, so that he might draw all people through death into life and joy with him.

This good news is for you, daughters and sons of God. You don’t have to worry and wonder what God’s reaction will be when he recognizes you, broken and distant. Jesus runs to you, embracing you, allowing the dirt accumulated from the places you have been to touch him and stick to him. If you don’t relate to the first son, perhaps you hear in the second son your own righteousness. Jesus says to you that you are also most dearly beloved and God is drawing you into the celebration as well. You can live your lives in the painful state of both these sons, never acknowledging the gifts of the Father, and yet God continues to come to you, to welcome you, to forgive and love you. The party begins here today, as all of us sinners and saints are brought together into one community of joy. This party continues into eternity, when we will be hesitant in our celebration no longer, but will fully experience the welcome of God.