Lent 4, Year C, 2010

Jesus drove the Pharisees and the scribes CRAZY.

The author of the Gospel of Luke does a wonderful job of portraying the way the Pharisees and scribes followed Jesus around, unable to tear their eyes away from what they thought was a theological train wreck.  They have spent years of their lives following every rule, gaining knowledge of every bit of law and scripture, and gaining power step by logical step.  And then Jesus, a carpenter, strolls on the scene and immediately starts captivating his followers with his powerful words about God’s love.  I picture the Pharisees and scribes a little bit like principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I picture them so unsettled that they get a little obsessed, a little unhinged, but they just cannot stop themselves from following Jesus around and getting even more agitated.

What the Pharisees and scribes REALLY can’t stand, what just drives them batty, is who Jesus invites over for dinner.  They cannot reconcile why a man who claims to speak for God would hang out with tax collectors and “sinners”.

Jesus takes pity, or a jab, at the Pharisees and scribes and he explains his behavior using three parables:  the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the Prodigal Son.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, a young man approaches his father and asks for his share of the inheritance.  And while this is a greedy question, it is also an incredibly hurtful question.  The young man is implying that his father is worth more to him dead than alive.  The young man is rejecting the relationship with his own family so he can go party in the big city.  And although the father must have been devastated by this betrayal, the father complies with the son’s wishes, and gives him his share of the estate.

Like many a young man before or since, the prodigal son blows through his money, much sooner than he expects and is soon reduced to working on a farm, envying the slop the pigs enjoy.

He soon comes to his senses and decides to go home, eat crow, and hope his father takes him back.

We all know what happens next of course. Before the young man can get a word out of his mouth, his father is running out of the house, throwing his arms around his son and welcoming him back into the fold.  The prodigal son makes his repentant speech, but his words are just icing on the cake for the man’s father.

And just this story alone would be lovely.  The image of a heavenly father welcoming us rebellious children back home with open arms speaks deeply to us about how much God loves us, even when we make mistakes.

But Jesus’ parable has a wrinkle.  And the wrinkle is the older brother.  The older brother who has always been faithful to his father.  The older brother who took on more work when his good-for-nothing sibling took off to the big city.  The older brother who did not have any extra money, who never got to go to the big city, who never went to a party.

When this older brother comes home from the fields, smells the celebratory fatted calf cooking, and realizes his brother is safely home, he is furious.  He complains to his father that he has never had so much as a celebratory goat cooked for him despite his years of faithful service and now his dissolute brother gets an entire fatted calf?  He’s so mad he even accuses his brother of using his father’s to sleep with prostitutes, a claim that is made nowhere else in the text.  Older brother is NOT HAPPY.

The father pleads with the older brother, reassures him that all the father’s property will still go to him, and invites him to join the celebration.

We never find out what the older brother decides to do.  Jesus leaves the Pharisees and scribes hanging, leaves us hanging.

Instead of mocking or rejecting the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus is offering them the same invitation the father offers the older son.  You are still welcome here.  Jesus may be hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, but the Pharisees and scribes are still welcomed at the table.   Jesus’ may be changing the game, and showing how God includes those on the margins, but that does not mean that God is shoving out the establishment.  The question is whether the establishment wants to join the party!

There is never a scene in the Gospels where the Pharisees and scribes look at one another and say, “Let’s take a risk!  Let’s join this Jesus and see where he leads us!”  Until the very end, they resist his invitation of a new way of being in relationship with God.  They are so tied to the rules and regulations and the old way of doing things, that they cannot join the party, even though they have an open invitation.

Whether we like it or not, those of us in the Episcopal Church, for the most part ARE the establishment.  We have money and power and hundreds of years of liturgical tradition to which we cling.  There is great value in all that tradition, but the danger remains that we will cling to the past and refuse an invitation to new life that Jesus puts in front of us.

Paul and I have been to several conferences and meetings of Episcopalians lately and we’ve noticed a disturbing trend.  More than once we have heard people make speeches during which they lament the demise of the Episcopal Church.  These particular priests were a generation older than we are, and my understanding is that they were lamenting the Episcopal church of the 1950s, when the church was rich both in numbers and in finances.

I have to tell you, I think these speakers have completely missed the mark.

I may be biased, but I fell in love with the Episcopal Church in 1999, when it was already “declining” according to some perspectives.  The Episcopal Church of the 1950s was probably great.  I bet members wore really snappy hats and that children had more time to be involved in church life and that people tithed a bigger percentage of their income.  But from my perspective, the Episcopal Church of this decade is much more exciting, much more like one of Jesus’ dinner parties, than the church of yore.

I love the Episcopal Church.  I love the traditions, the fancy words, the music, the liturgy.  But what I love most about the church is its welcome.  In this new, modern Episcopal church people of different races are allowed to worship together, gay members do not have to hide their sexuality, and as a youngish woman, I get the honor of being your priest!  None of that would have been possible sixty years ago.  I love the Episcopal church because we’re allowed to ask theological questions that would have made the hairs on the back of the Pharisees necks stand up!  I love the Episcopal Church because we’re allowed to read about the Gnostic gospels or world religions without someone offering to pray for our souls.  I love the Episcopal Church because to us, worshiping God is more than just having a bunch of “correct” answers.  We are invited to enter into mystery, together.

So, when I hear people lament the end of the Episcopal Church I want to tell them they are missing the party!  We may not be as powerful politically or financially as we once were, but who cares?  Being a Christian is not about power, it’s about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  And I can think of no better place to be a disciple of Jesus than at the party the Episcopal Church is throwing right now.

And I hope we are inviting everyone to that party, the outcasts and the establishment; the Prodigal sons and their judgmental older brothers; those who are mourning what our church once was and those who are just discovering us.

Amen.

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