(Click above to listen to the preached sermon. If you can’t see the audio player, click here to open it in a separate window to listen.)
Many of you know that when I’m asked by my seatmate on an airplane what it is I do for a living, I’ve been know to say, “Um, ….I work for a non-profit?”. Because when I say “I am a pastor” then I have to sit through whatever reaction they have. I’m used to people sort of looking at me suspiciously either because they are pretty sure I just lied to them or because I now represent an institution they distrust. Which I totally get. But the reaction that is the most exhausting is from people who for some reason feel guilty or like they have to justify to me why they don’t go to church when in all honesty, I seriously don’t care. One of the more interesting things folks will say to me is: “I’m not religious or anything, I just hope that being a good person is enough.” To which I always want to say… “enough for what?” … avoiding the punishment of burning in the eternal fires of some kind of imaginary hell?
No wonder people act weird when I say that I am a pastor – since apparently to so many of them – even those who have nothing to do with Christianity – I broker in a moral reward and punishment system. Like we are all rats in some kind of cruel cosmic lab experiment – receiving shocks from God for going the wrong way and little reward pellets for going the right way in our existential maze.
But Christianity has completely lost the plot if it makes itself out to be some kind of sin management program for people who want to ensure they are good enough to avoid punishment and receive rewards. When in reality, this faith is about raising the dead. It’s about forgiveness and reconciliation and mercy and love and a God who would go to ridiculous lengths to remind us that all that is God’s is already ours.
Yet two days ago I received a heartbreaking message on the wall of my public FB page. It was from an 82 year old woman who is terrified that God is angry at her and so she is afraid to die – she had been so condemned by the bogus reward and punishment system of false religion that at the end of her life rather than her faith being a source of comfort for her it is a source of torment for her.
So this week I started to wonder if maybe this was exactly that kind of thinking that made Jesus tell this parable of the Prodigal son.
Since basically here’s what the first 3 verses of our Gospel today say: Now all the bad people who should be punished were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the good people who should be rewarded were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes bad people and rather than punishing them for being bad, he totally just takes them out to dinner instead.”
So Jesus told them this parable of 2 sons.
The first son took his inheritance and left town and squandered everything he’d been given. Like a child who if given the freedom to choose for themselves what they eat, they gleefully gorge themselves on Fruit Loops and Snickers for breakfast and Mountain Dew and Funions for lunch and a dinner of only double stuff Oreos and by the next night they are begging for broccoli. The younger son had been belligerently independent and self-focused – so sure that if he got everything he wanted that he would be happy but instead he was miserable.
And so returning home with his head hung low he glances up and sees the Father running to him – before the younger son could even get his totally rehearsed speech out of his mouth the father throws his arms around him and covers him in love. What was lost is found, what was dead is alive says the Father. None of which are moral categories.
These things call for not condemnation, but a party! And so the father hires a DJ and an amazing caterer and there is dancing and song and drink and joy.
The younger son may have squandered his freedom in self-indulgent excess. But the older son was just as wasteful.
The older son squandered his freedom by not thinking he had any. He didn’t believe that all that was the Father’s was his. He squandered the gifts of the Father by living a life of mirthless duty. And coming home from the field he hears the party underway and resents such a lavish show of love thinking it a limited resource. He was being a complete ass and yet again, the Father comes to him reminding him of the great love he has for his child.
The father sacrifices his dignity twice by running into the street to embrace his children – not as a reward for the children being good but because that is simply the Father’s nature. We are children of a God who does things like that. So in response to the incredulous religious people of his day who were trying desperately to uphold their reward and punishment program Jesus told them a parable about a seemingly bad son and a seemingly good son and how not one thing about their behavior had any effect whatsoever on the heart of their father. All the love that the father had was theirs no matter what. Everything the father had was theirs. So the tragic thing about this story isn’t that one was selfish and one was resentful, the tragic thing is that neither of them trusted the love of the Father. And when that love is not trusted as being sufficient – we replace it with a punishment and reward system.
I like to imagine that the older brother finally relented and came to the party. And after refusing to dance or eat or drink anything, the groove of that Marvin Gaye song was too much to resist and his head started bopping and toe started tapping and the next time a waiter passed with a tray of Champagne glasses he took one. Eventually he smiled at his younger brother from across the room and the resentment and jealousy melted away and when they embraced it was as though the heart of their Father burned between them and again, they loved each other. And soon the younger brother started helping in the fields again. And they both became agents of the same grace and mercy and love and reconciliation that they received from the Father.
If my work as a pastor and a theologian does nothing else in the world I wish it to do this one thing – that those in my care may know this: If you have been told that God is some kind of punishing, capricious, angry bastard with a killer surveillance system who is basically always disappointed with you for being a human being then you have been lied to. The church has failed you and I am so sorry.
For some reason there is so much of Christianity that has felt more comfortable with a punishment and reward system than it is with living in the pure love and freedom that Jesus has secured for us.
So if you hear nothing else hear this: that angry punishing God is not the God I know. And it is not the God revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. This Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors and pissed of the religious authorities (because he was so clearly free from their control) and who loved and healed and forgave people indiscriminately – well this Jesus was God’s way of telling us who God is.
So when I reject my identity as beloved child of God and turn to my own plans of self-satisfaction, or I despair that I haven’t managed to be a good enough person, I again see our divine Parent running toward me uninterested in what I’ve done or not done, who covers me in divine love and I melt into something new like having again been moved from death to life and I reconcile aspects of myself and I reconcile to others around me.
But I’m human, so inevitably some anxiety or resentment sets me off and I start the whole cycle over again. And that’s ok. Because we have endless opportunities to lift our heads and see how the Divine Parent is running toward us – calling us home. Reminding us of God’s love for us and freeing us to be agents of reconciliation.
So when you wander looking for what you need, or when you live in such a small way because you don’t think you have what you need, know this: you already have everything you need. All the grace and forgiveness and mercy and reconciliation of God is already yours. So forget that whole “I hope being a good person is enough” – THAT’S NOT EVEN REALLY A THING. The mercy, love, forgiveness and reconciliation of God is a thing and it is enough and all of it…every single ounce of it is already yours – it will not be taken away as a punishment and it will not be granted as a reward, it is your inheritance as a child of God. You have what you need and the DJ has been hired and the dancing begun and the feast prepared before you even walked in this door. So come to this feast of bread and wine knowing that everything God has is yours and it is enough. AMEN.