Sunday, March 14, 2010

Extravagant, Overwhelming, Breathtaking... and Unexpected God

If I ever meet Barbara Brown Taylor, I owe her, at the very least, lunch. Yes, I thank her in the sermon text, but I what I don't say is that her sermons gave me some direction last week, and changed my entire sermon path this week, and in a very good way, I think.

As always, comments, criticism, and the like are deeply appreciated.

Joshua 5:9-12

The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So he told them this parable:
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"


This is the Word of the Lord.

Many thanks this morning to the writing of Barbara Brown Taylor for help in building this sermon.

Our God is a God of the unexpected. An extravagant, overwhelming, breathtaking God!

Now, this isn't so easy to see in our Gospel reading this morning; after all, the parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best-known, most-preached parables in the Gospels. We approach it as a parable about repentance, most of the time, because to our 21st-century Western minds, that's the obvious message: no matter how bad we mess things up, if we repent, God is faithful –eager, even – to take us back, to restore us to fellowship with God.

There's nothing wrong with that view, of course; yet as you might expect, there's more to this parable than meets the eye.

Remember that when Jesus told this parable, he was speaking not to 21st-century American urban and suburban Protestants, but to first-century Middle Eastern Jews. Most of those listening to Jesus were farmers who worked and lived on land that had been in their family for generations untold. In their society, one didn't grow up and move away, one didn't strive to make it alone, to be self-sufficient, independent, autonomous. Each generation took the place of the one before it on the land, raising the next generation to do the same after. Your livelihood, your status in the community, your identity, all of this came from the soil.

So for a son to refuse to fulfill his duty to the family was reprehensible. Horrible! And it gets worse! The patriarch of the family, the father, held a place of honor in society. Patriarchs didn't run. Patriarchs didn't get up from the table when a guest arrived. Patriarchs did not plead with their sons, they told their sons what to do, period. Add to that the fact that a son would never, ever receive his inheritance while the father was still alive! The rabbis had a saying: “three cry out and are not answered: he who has money and lends it without witnesses; he who acquires a master; he who transfers his property to his children in his lifetime.”

What's more, dividing the inheritance meant more than just writing his son a check. The father had to divide the land, then watch as his son put that land up for sale – there was no way the community could not see the shame, both of the disrespectful son and the father who could not control his children. I mean, honestly! What is a bag of gold when you have land? Who ever heard of such a thing?

And of course the son throws his money away, losing it all to Gentiles, no less, and of course he is reduced to wallowing in the mire with pigs. And up to now, the people listening to Jesus are right there with him. Nothing at all out of the ordinary with this scenario, happens all to often. So often, in fact, that the Talmud describes a ceremony to deal with it—a qetsatsah ceremony, to punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles.

Here’s how it works. If he ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people. After that, he will be a cosmic orphan, who might as well go back and live with the pigs.

Perhaps some of the people who have been around Jesus for awhile hear the Prodigal's words, “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,'” and thought that making the son a hired servant would be a very compassionate, loving thing to do. Certainly better than qetsatsah, and perhaps the son could work enough to buy back a little of the land he'd lost. Perhaps, in time, if the son is faithful in his service to the father, he can earn a place at the foot of the table. Surely this is the message of the parable! That even when we sin and dishonor God, we have the opportunity to work our way back into God's good graces. What a message of freedom, what a message of hope!

But they ain't heard nothin' yet!

Our God is a God of the unexpected. God is extravagant in mercy, overwhelming in love, breathtaking in compassion. The son returns, and before he can approach the house his father does that thing that patriarchs do not ever do! He runs! Runs! Crashes into his son with a warm embrace, and before his son can get out his well-rehearsed speech, his father has covered his rags with a robe, has put a ring on his finger, has killed the fatted calf!

I've said it before, I'll say it again: preposterous! What kind of patriarch – what kind of father – what kind of God – would do such a thing? Ignore propriety, thumb his nose at tradition, flout the rules? You don't just forgive, man! There are procedures for this kind of thing! There are expectations! What will the neighbors think?

Propriety? Tradition? Expectations? God is extravagant in mercy, overwhelming in love, breathtaking in compassion. There are more important things than rules, than what the neighbors will think!

Not many more days now, and Jesus will top that last hill overlooking Jerusalem. He may look like he's walking, but no. If we are the Prodigal in this story, then he is the father, and he is running – to the Cross? Yes. Because in the mind of our extravagant, overwhelming, breathtaking God, what is important is not what we have done to hurt the relationship – how many times we've sold our inheritance, wallowed in the slop, and come dragging back up the road. What is important is reunion –reconciliation – healing the relationship between ourselves and our God.

All during the season of Lent, I've been asking questions about our faith: should it cost us something, and if so, what? And here, while the party is going full blast inside, stands the other son. He is angry, and isn't afraid to let his father know all about it! “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

And you know, when it comes right down to it, he's right! It isn't fair, is it? It isn't right, is it? We can take the high road, and deplore the faithful son for refusing to take part in his father's joy, but can we – must we – not also admit that we understand – even agree with – his point?

Maybe that's part of what faith should cost us, though – the right to be “right.” The right to be angry at who the father wraps in his embrace, insulted at who gets to wear the ring and the robe, indignant over who gets the fatted calf.

And isn't it interesting that the father doesn't just let the indignant son stew in his own juices, doesn't ignore the problem because he's too busy having a party? The father doesn't react in anger to being chewed out by his son, or love him any less for it! “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Faith costs us something. Peace and reconciliation always involves change, always provokes a crisis. You can’t have peace and stay exactly who you are, or even who you want to be. Sometimes you have sacrifice things as real as land that has been in the family forever. Sometimes you have to sacrifice honor, rightness, and even self-respect. Sometimes you have to run like crazy to protect your loved ones, even those loved ones who have done you irreparable harm. It’s all a matter of priorities, and for this father, reunion is all that matters. Extravagant, overwhelming, breathtaking reconciliation. Reunion that finds the lost and brings them home. Reconciliation that brings the dead back to life.

Oh, yes, it feels good to stand in the yard. It feels good to know who’s right, who’s wrong, and which one you are. But 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.

Faith costs us something. We can go to the party as we are, as long as we don’t insist on staying that way. Our God is a God of the unexpected. God is extravagant in mercy, overwhelming in love, breathtaking in compassion. God's banquet doors are flung open wide, the table is spread and the chairs pulled out for anyone who will come.

So... you gonna stay out here all night, or are you coming in?

10 comments:

  1. Nice.

    Somewhere in this last week I heard someone expounding on this passage. They pointed out that the fatted calf would have been enough to feed the whole village and that the father's holding this party and feeding the people of the village would have created reconciliation between the son and the people he had broken faith with.

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  2. Well done.

    I believe the elder son, the good one who stayed home and did everything his father asked of him, just didn't understand his father's heart. The son says, "For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends." He didn't understand his father's heart. His father desired a relationship, but the son had only seen his father as someone to work for and obey. He obeyed the rules, but he did not have a close relationship with the father.

    Some of us have been taught that we are saved so we can spend the rest of our lives serving God. We are told that to please God, we should be in the church every time the doors are open. We are to be working, in some capacity, for the church = working for God. Some of us have had a pastor say from the pulpit that we should be winning souls, at least one a week. We should be witnessing.

    I cannot speak for others, but I have been in enough churches to know that too few have taught that God is wanting a relationship. He wants to have fellowship with us. He wants to fill us with his love, fill us with his Holy Spirit. He delights in us. He desires our time, our adoration, to walk and talk with us. Jesus died to reconcile us to God, so that wall of separation between us would be torn down.

    Surely, those who work for their salvation, their acceptance and recognition in the church do get upset when a prodigal comes in and receives Christ as Savior, and the pastor wants them to be accepted on equal with the "good people". How unfair!

    I have been in church where the "good people" were fine with sending missionaries to foreign lands, but could not open their hearts to the "bad people" in the community who had come to Christ eager to live a new life. And I have been in church where the most prodigal of us were welcomed and drawn in and we all partied together. I prefer the latter.

    "How great is the love that the Father has lavished on us that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him."
    I John 3:1

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  3. You are so very welcome. Thank you for allowing me to respond.

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  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  5. Once again, Ken, allow comments on your blog and you'll be permitted to post here.

    Also, you might want to check with eBay, I'm sure they've got a sense of humor you can buy for cheap.

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  7. John, I know this is not following the thread. Changing topic: How do we reach the people in our culture with the gospel? I don't know another way to contact you and share it.
    http://baptistmessenger.com/guest-editorial-contextualization-without-compromise/

    I would like to have your feedback on this. I found it very interesting.

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  8. I'll give it a read and let you know. Might be tomorrow night or so, though.

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