Monday, April 25, 2016

"God's Crazy Love"

Preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2016

Scripture readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The whole fifteenth chapter of Luke is about being lost and found. First, Jesus tells a story about a flock of one hundred sheep, where one sheep gets lost, and the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to find that one lost sheep. Then he tells the story of the woman with ten small silver coins, who loses one and searches her dark, dirt-floored house until she finds that single coin.
Walking along Lower Crab Creek
North of Desert Aire/Mattawa WA: April 2016
Then Jesus tells the story we call the parable of the prodigal son. You know the word prodigal is one of those words I seem to have to look up every time I come across it. “Prodigal” means “wastefully, recklessly extravagant.”
So the story (which is what parable means) is about this younger son who rebels, and leaves home, and so he’s as good as lost to the family. Then that lost son comes home which (by the way, in that time and place) he would never do if he had a shred of dignity or honor.
His honor is less important to him than the power of being found, and he has begun to be found. He gets found first by the memory of his father’s love.
But there is another lost son in the story. The other lost son is the older brother. He’s lost, even though he never left home, even though he never rebelled, even though he never went astray, not even once in his life.
The reading about the Israelites returning to the Promised Land is also a lost and found story. It’s not about them finding the land that they lost, because they had never really possessed the land in the first place. They were the ones who were lost. They had been lost in slavery in Egypt. They were also lost in themselves. They were lost in the slave mindedness they got during their stay in Egypt. Even though God led them and showed his presence to them every step of the way, they were lost from God because they couldn’t know or trust God as long as they were thinking like slaves.
The old pioneer hero Davy Crockett claimed that he had never been lost: only bewildered, but never lost. I think that the so-called righteous, respectable people, who found so much to complain about with Jesus, would have picked up Davy Crockett’s boasting for themselves: never lost; only bewildered.
With the sheep and the coins, some are lost and some are not and (so far as that goes) the righteous people would have agreed. They could see some sense in searching for a lost sheep, or a lost coin. But they would never have searched for the kinds of lost people who were sought out by Jesus.
The people Jesus searched for were “sinners”. The word for sinner, here, is an archery-based word for missing the mark. Something in their lives, their habits, their attitudes, their mistakes, their actions missed the mark. Somehow, they missed their purpose and their meaning in life.
To the righteous, respectable people, the lost people, the people who miss their purpose and meaning in life, don’t deserve to be found at all. They don’t deserve to be sought out. They don’t belong. They shouldn’t be brought in because they don’t fit.
For the righteous and respectable people there is a deeper issue that reveals their hearts. Missing the mark could be a sad thing but those who missed the mark didn’t make the righteous people sad.
The righteous people who looked down on Jesus enjoyed measuring people and making comparisons. For them, to miss the mark was the same thing as not measuring up. Even now, righteous and respectable people often use a scale of measurement that puts themselves at the advantage.
They didn’t like the story of the prodigal son at all because it used a measuring scale that put them at the disadvantage. Jesus has a way of doing this, and we need to listen to Jesus.
In the story of the righteous, respectable older brother, you find the righteous people being set straight. They no longer have the shelter of a world where some are lost and some are not lost. They no longer have the entertainment of making comparisons and judgments. Both children are lost in their own way. This gives us the indispensable knowledge that we are all lost. At least we have all been lost and (therefore) we should love the lost.
This gives us the indispensable knowledge that the righteous, respectable child has also not measured up. The respectable child has missed his purpose and meaning in life just as much as his younger brother. At the end of the story the lost son is the one at home, and the respectable son is the one standing outside, refusing to come in.
We can see what his problem is, so long as we think that this story is not about us. We can see that the older brother is awfully good; with the accent on the awful part.
These stories of Jesus help us identify ourselves as lost. They tell us how and why the Lord seeks us out in order to find us.
The lost sheep nibbles its way into trouble; nibble by nibble. At first, the sheep is safe with the others, eating what they are eating. But he or she inches in a slightly different direction. It doesn’t seem different, but it leads into a slight cleft in the hill, and the sheep follows the cleft and disappears from sight. It’s just following its nose, nibble by nibble.
The lost sheep follows its nose. It follows whatever is right in front of it, and it feels right. The change is so gradual that it goes unnoticed. A change of heart can change unnoticed.
Some sheep start out in rough, dangerous, barren places; and so do some people. Following the first thing that appears to them leads them to danger right from the very start. They don’t seem to have a chance. Other sheep start out in a good place, and so do some people; and it takes them time to get into trouble, and to know that they are lost.
Little by little, nibble by nibble, people find their way into places where there are drugs, or the abuse of alcohol, or getting in over your head in relationships, or using your credit card too much, or looking at certain pictures, or telling half-truths, or simply shutting people out. There are little lies, and little thefts, and little procrastinations. Little by little, we show ourselves to be capable of awful, and shameful, and isolating, and destructive things.
Or we creep into the more respectable habits of anger, or bitterness, or selfishness, or greed, or self-pity, or excuse making, or complacency, or pride. Nibble by nibble we are lost sheep.
The lost coin is just there. It can’t move. It can’t change. Even though it is silver, even though it is someone’s treasure, it’s lifeless. This lostness is like being paralyzed. Perhaps we spend all our energy in finding reasons why we can’t do this, and we can’t do that. A church can do this too. Sometimes depression can play a part in this. Sometimes fear can become the main habit in life. This is a terrible lostness: the lost coin.
Then, there is the lostness of the prodigal. I have never understood the prodigal son, because, in my life, I am the older brother. Yet I am a prodigal too, I am wasteful of my purpose and meaning in life in my own way
The word “prodigal” never occurs in the story. It is just a word, outside the Bible, that somehow got stuck to the story. But prodigal is what everyone in the story does son does: Prodigal means being extravagantly wasteful.
The younger son wasted everything. He wasted his share of the family fortune. He wasted years of his life. He wasted and ruined his relationships. He lived as though he were the only one in the world that mattered.
He actually was not as bad as the older brother thought. The older brother accused him of doing things that Jesus doesn’t tell us that he did. Still he was lost.
If we see the younger prodigal as someone who only thought about himself, then the thing about the deal he wanted to propose to his father makes sense. He wanted his father to make him a hired servant. This is not a slave, but an independent employee.
He wouldn’t have to be tied down by his Father. He wouldn’t have to put up with his snippety brother. He could support himself and be his own man. At least, under his own roof, he could keep on doing what he wanted, how he wanted, when he wanted.
The prodigal only pretended to make commitments. He only made deals that served himself and spoiled things for the people who should have mattered to him. He knew no other way to live. This is a kind of lostness and emptiness. Notice that the father stopped him before he could make the deal that he planned.
There is another kind of lostness and emptiness in the older brother. There is such a thing as being awfully good, with the accent on the awful part. This is Jesus’ portrait of the people who complained about his welcoming sinners. They were good: awfully good.
The older brother should have negotiated with the younger one to keep him from going away in the first place. The older brother should not have accepted his share of the estate, when the father divided it between his sons.
The older brother wanted to cut a deal of his own. He wanted to be the only son. It’s as if he said to his father, “I will be a slave to you if you will love me alone.” But the father kept on loving both his children even though neither of them deserved it. The older brother hated this.
Now we can clearly see, in this story, that the older brother didn’t love, or respect, or honor his father. He could do everything his father wanted, from sun up to sun down, and still not be, deep in his heart, his father’s true child. He was a prodigal; wasting his purpose in life.
So the Father spent all his being his own prodigal. He wasted his days on one unsatisfied and extravagant desire. He never stopped wanting both his children to really come home and be his children. The Father was probably laughed at by his neighbors as the ultimate prodigal: wasteful with his love.
The older brother is the picture of the righteous, respectable, religious people in the synagogue. The older brother is also the picture of the righteous people in the church. The older brother thought he was always innocent. He thought his motives were holy, and right, and fair.
In the story, he can’t fool us, but he has totally fooled himself. The only way that you and I can be truly innocent, and the only way that you and I can have the holiest of motives for what we say and do; is by fooling ourselves.
This is what the parable is about. It means that, in the church (as in the old synagogue), we often navigate among ourselves by living a poetic fiction. As if we were watching a fantasy or a science fiction movie, we can only really enjoy it by suspending our knowledge of reality.
We are tempted to use the church and our place in it to create an illusion of righteousness and respectability. Even if we share the story of being a prodigal, we want to escape from that story. In the church we are tempted to create a culture of respectability, because one of the basic temptations of human nature is pride.
If we listened to Jesus we would know that we are neither innocent nor holy. If we listened to Jesus, we would know that we were sinners too, and that we have come home to him by grace every day.
In the stories of Jesus, in Luke fifteen, only one in a hundred sheep was lost, and only one coin in ten was lost. But, in the father’s family, at any given time, half the children were outside, and only half of them were inside. According to that ratio, if this place were the Father’s house, at least half of the children who belong here are outside. According to this ratio, at least one half of our family in Christ must be composed of prodigals. And if they came in, the righteous people might leave.
The story asks us what the respectable children are going to do about this? The respectable son seems to say that he’d rather be outside his father’s house than inside with the prodigal. He’s hurting everyone; even himself.
We don’t know the end of this story. Jesus ends it before the end, in order to make it a question to us. What will we do with the prodigals? No! That’s not the only question. The other side of the coin is: What will we do about ourselves?
The cure for us is the same as the cure for the prodigal. The prodigal was still ready to cut a deal until the father ran and caught him at the edge of the village. The father overwhelmed the prodigal with love, protection, and extravagance. He simply defied all expectation and belief. It was a scandalous grace: a scandalous welcome. He shamed his family’s name.
If some of us are respectable children, then we need to know that we too can be scandalous and ugly in our respectability. Surely the prodigal knew, in his heart, that his older brother didn’t deserve their father’s love. Probably the prodigals around us know the same is true of us. It is true. We need to see this for ourselves.
These stories tell us that God uses all his wisdom, and wits, and skill to seek us out.  God is eager to do this.
There was a husband and wife who were walking in a crowd and he took her hand. She smiled at this and she asked, “You don’t want to lose me?” And he replied, “I don’t want to have to look for you.” God has a passion to seek us out. God uses every possible means to find us.
We have so much to learn. First we need to learn that God’s love for us is not respectable. It’s scandalous. The Father in the story gave everything he had to his children. Even though he maintained the right to use the estate while he lived; strictly speaking, it was no longer his.
In the same way, God, in Christ, on the cross, at great pains, has given us everything that is his. It is all ours: his love, his righteousness, his hope, his peace, his joy.
The stories tell us that joy is the lesson of God’s story. God so loves the lost, no matter how respectable or unrespectable they may be in their lostness. God comes in Christ and he recovers us for sheer joy. The cross is Jesus’ way to win us, but even the cross is about joy, the joy of overturning all our excuses, and explanations, and justifications of ourselves.
God is a prodigal. The cross is how God welcomes all of us, and gives us life. “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) If we belong to this love, we must be prodigals too. If we claim this love, we will practice and model the same love in our lives with others. We need to do scandalous things in order to welcome other people for Jesus.

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