Sunday, March 31, 2019

God's Family Values: Luke 13:1-2, 11b-32 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The 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. 13A 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. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But 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! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But 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; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But 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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.’ ” (NRSV)

The Father and his Two Lost Sons by Lawrence OP on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Long before Oprah and Maury began entertaining us with stories of family dysfunction, Jesus spoke a parable about a family that would make Dr. Phil’s face turn red…

Imagine these two brothers sitting on the coach:

Older son is complaining how younger son manipulates their father into giving him everything he wants. Father constantly favors him and lets him get away with everything. Meanwhile, older son remains steadfastly obedient, hard-working, loyal—and completely unappreciated.

Then younger son complains of how his older brother is “Mr. Perfect.” Success comes easy to him; whereas younger son has never been able to quite measure up. Tired with being the black sheep, he decides to strike out on his own. He asks for and receives an advance payment on his inheritance—but is ill-prepared to handle his newfound freedom. Then, a famine strikes, and he winds up destitute.

Remember—this is a parable. But most of us can easily identify with the dysfunction that exists in all family relationships. One can never do wrong; one can only do wrong. One gets away with everything; the other gets scolded for even the slightest offense. One is the shining star; the other is the family disappointment.

We talk about family values—hard work, respect, patience, fairness, personal responsibility, gratitude… These are important so that the family unit can flourish—and so that family members can flourish.

What makes this parable so outrageous is that the father demonstrates a complete disregard for all of them, especially forgiveness, where he’s absolutely reckless.

Traditionally, we call this the Parable of the Prodigal son, but all three persons are prodigal. In my opinion, the one who comes out of this looking worst is the father. Shame on him for giving the older, obedient son a stern lecture—while giving the foolish, younger son a banquet. Shame on him for enabling this whole thing to happen in the first place.

If this parable is about God (and it is), God doesn’t come off looking very good.

Here’s the thing—God made us in his image, so we return the favor. We demand a God who thinks like we think, who values what we value, who works in ways that are reasonable to us and that we can understand. Good people ought to be rewarded and the transgressors punished. Forgiveness is granted to those who are sorry for what they’ve done and who make satisfactory amends.

This is what we do—we assign value to people based upon their adherence to our values. We demand (and assume) that God does the same. We value human beings based upon their hard work, personal responsibility, success, and what (we believe) they contribute to society. If you violate the values, you have no place among us—until you make it right. Do the crime, do the time. That’s justice. That’s fairness. That’s righteousness.

But here’s the kicker: when it comes to God’s family values, it’s not the values themselves that are of ultimate importance. It’s the family members who are valued above all else. And those, who, from a human point of view, are unworthy of belonging still are included and valued.

God values human beings because that’s what God does. And the fullness of your value to God is revealed on the cross—regardless of whether you are slovenly unrighteous, slovenly self-righteous, or a genuinely worthy of sainthood. This prodigal God stepped out of heaven and suffered hell on the cross because that’s how much you are loved—regardless of whether you fully love God or couldn’t care less. This prodigal God forgives sins regardless of whether or not you are truly repentant. This prodigal God will never stop seeking you out, no matter how many times you wander off.

That’s not to say that God—or you—should tolerate or enable bad behavior. The righteous should be rewarded and the transgressors punished. But God wants to be known for God’s mercy; not punishment.

And you can’t truly repent and live a new life if you believe that you have no value in God’s eyes.

We are a society that says to its criminals, “you have no value.” And we act surprised when they re-offend. Treat someone like garbage and that’s exactly how they will act.

But when you’re valued, forgiven, and restored in relationship, then you can be born again.

Your identity is built upon the fact that you are made in the image of God and that your value is measured by the cross. The same holds true for neighbors, strangers, and the people who show a complete disregard for your values. One of the best ways to experience your value is to show someone else how much they are valued—particularly if they’re not strong, successful, self-sufficient, or squeaky-clean. To feel valuable, affirm someone else’s value. Share something of value. Forgive a sinner’s sins. Receive forgiveness as an affirmation of your value.

The bedrock of Jesus’ family values aren’t the values themselves— but the valuing of persons. This prodigal God loves the prodigal you—and willingly suffered death and hell because that’s what a prodigal God does.

All praise and thanks be to our prodigal God for God’s prodigal family values.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Jesus NOW: Luke 13:1-9 - Third Sunday in Lent

1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9
If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ” (NRSV)
Moreton Bay Fig Tree by Prescott Pym on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

“Go tell that long-tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler
The gambler
The back biter
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut ‘em down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut ‘em down.”

As a singer, Johnny Cash isn’t exactly in the same league as Pavarotti. Nevertheless, his is the song of a sinner who knows his time is running short and the day of reckoning is drawing near. Incidentally, this is one of the last songs he recorded before his death in 2003.

The song carries a message very similar to that in today’s Gospel: repent, or perish.

And that’s not without precedent: Paul reminds the Corinthians of when God struck down twenty-three thousand Israelites in the desert for their idolatry and immorality.

But Jesus sets the record straight: death does not discriminate against righteous versus unrighteous. Jesus refers to two deadly tragedies that were fresh in people’s minds—a brutal persecution of Galileans at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and a catastrophic building collapse where eighteen people died. Death can happen at any second, without warning. Therefore, the time for repentance is now. Tomorrow may be too late.

Remember—repentance is not something you do to make yourself right with God. Repentance is what Jesus does to you. Whatever the moment, whatever the situation, Jesus is present. You don’t have to go hunting for him or wait around for him to hopefully show up. You don’t need to clean up your home or clean up your act in order for him to come. Jesus is with you RIGHT NOW. His forgiveness and self-giving love turn you away from sin and self toward God and God’s purposes.

Therefore, NOW is the moment of salvation. NOW is the moment of deliverance. NOW is the moment where resurrection and rebirth begin.

How easy it is to forget that…

When you’re angry, you want to lash out. When you’re frightened, your fight, flight or freeze instincts kick in. When you’re depressed or discouraged, it seems impossible to escape it.

When something you crave is sitting right there in front of you, you want to grab it—and you don’t think of the consequences. Love and compassion are not your first instincts. Obedience to God’s will does not guarantee instant happiness. This is how quickly sin can take hold of you.

Lent is the time for discipline—which you need, so that you can be mindful of Jesus in the moment, no matter what the moment brings.

Jesus likens discipline to a landowner, a gardener, and a fig tree. No fruit had appeared on the tree. But instead of cutting it down, the gardener fertilizes it with manure. Isn’t that a pretty picture?

How do you feel about inviting godly discipline? How prepared are you for Jesus to dig up your life and fertilize it, especially considering what God uses as fertilizer?

We all would prefer a life without trials and without temptations. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to face changes and challenges. I don’t want to wait for God to answer prayers. And I don’t want to have to make difficult decisions, especially when none of the choices will lead to desirable outcomes.

But the result of that discipline is that when temptation comes, you’ll take Jesus’ hand as he leads you out of it. Troubles won’t get the worst of you. Anger won’t get the best of you. You’ll have peace instead of panic. You’ll have wisdom and guidance amid the confusion. You won’t give up on God or yourself when you’re disappointed. You’ll embrace change and challenge because they bring you closer to God. When you fail and shame gets its grip on you, you’ll know that you’re forgiven. When you find yourself drawn into something that you think is going to make you happy, you’ll hear the voice of Jesus saying, “follow me—and I will show you something better.”

Better still, you’re alert to Jesus’ constant outpouring of grace. You’re mindful of the little ways God is acting to bless you. You’re seeing the face of Jesus in your neighbors in need, whereas before you’d just walk on by. And, God forbid, a building is falling down upon you, you will know you’re in Jesus’ arms.  In Christ, the worst thing is not the last thing.

God’s grace is present in any moment. That is a gift too beautiful ignore or put aside until a more opportune time. And if, for whatever reason, you aren’t feeling the presence of Jesus in your life, know that your church is here for you. The purpose of your family of faith is to magnify the presence of Jesus. Trials are never as scary when a fellow Christian is walking beside you, as Jesus is.

Jesus is with you RIGHT NOW. NOW is the moment of salvation. NOW is the moment of deliverance. NOW is the moment where resurrection and rebirth begin.

So what does this mean for your next moment?