Lent 4, Year C, 2016

When I was in high school and college, teachers loved group projects. Maybe that has always been the case and is still the case, but in the late 90s, the group project reigned. Group projects, I suppose, are designed to help a person learn to play nicely, to function well on a team. But as every tightly wound over functioning person knows, group projects are the WORST. In group projects everyone gets the same grade, whether one person does all the work or whether the work is evenly shared. You can be a member of a group project and do nothing but snap your gum and you can still succeed! Where is the justice?

I hate to break it to you other over-functioning types, but today’s Gospel is not going to make you feel much better. Well, it won’t at first. But hang in there, because this Gospel contains grace for all of us, whether we think we have it all together or whether we don’t.

Today’s Gospel is a family parable. We have a father and two sons. His eldest is a hard working, responsible typical first born. His younger son? Let’s just say he’s still “finding himself”. In a move that must have infuriated his older brother, the younger son asks for his share of his inheritance—while his father is still alive—and then goes and blows it all on fast cars, whiskey and women. Soon he is broke and working a terrible job as a pig feeder. The moment he realizes he would be grateful sharing the pigs’ food he “comes to himself”. He remembers who he is. He wakes up. And he goes home.

He prepares a whole speech, but before he can open his mouth, his father runs to him with open arms. Not only is this young man welcomed home, but his father throws him a huge party. His brother, though, is not happy. While the younger son has been out partying, who has held down the fort? Who has consoled their father? Who has done extra work? The first born. He just cannot understand his father’s forgiveness. His father assures him that “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” but we are left not knowing if he ever comes around to accepting his father’s love and letting go of resentment.

Jesus told this story to some Pharisees who were NOT happy with the company Jesus was keeping. They couldn’t understand why Jesus would spend time with tax collectors and sinners when he could be spending time with the rule followers. This prodigal son parable is the third one Jesus tells the Pharisees in response to their grumbling. The other parables are about a lost sheep and a lost coin. To Jesus, this prodigal son is also lost. And Jesus’ job was to find all the lost people and tell them how much God loves them.

And let’s be honest, the prodigal son is not any more lost than the first born son. Because the first born son thinks all his hard work and responsible behavior is what makes him a worthwhile person. He believes that love can be earned.

At the WomanKind conference at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond last weekend, Nadia Bolz-Weber was the keynote speaker. Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, but if you saw her on the street you would not guess that about her. She is 6’ 1”, has short spiky hair, wears combat boots, and is covered in tattoos. On one arm is a huge Mary Magdalene and on the other is Jesus. Bolz-Weber is a recovering addict, and once made a living as a stand up comic. So, not your typical pastor. She pastors a church in Denver called Sinners and All Saints that was designed for people on the margins, but now attracts a wide variety of followers.

One reason Bolz-Weber has been so popular, besides the fact that she curses like a sailor, is that she seems to truly, deeply understand the concept of grace. She was lost and she was found, and she continues to have a deep understanding of what it means to be found by God.

During her session at WomanKind, she talked about how all of us have an ideal version of ourselves. My ideal self, for example, goes to the gym three times a week and does yoga the other days. She reads poetry for fun and definitely does not snap, “Get your bottom in the car seat!” every single morning. My ideal self has a tidy house, eats quinoa, and drinks green tea. She does not have a problem with sugar.

There is a part of my brain that thinks I’ll get there some day. Like, if I just tried hard enough, I would get my act together. But Bolz-Weber reminded us that this ideal version of ourself? IT DOES NOT EXIST. It is a fictional person. The actual self? The sloppy, chocolate eating, Entertainment Weekly reading self? That is my real self. That is the self that God loves. Bolz-Weber says the Lutherans understand the gap—the gap between the real self and the ideal self as the Law. And the Gospel is the answer to that gap. Jesus came to live in a human body because he loved actual humans and he wanted to redeem the actual human experience. Jesus does not love our ideal selves because our ideal selves do not exist.

Even the most responsible of us have this ideal self. And I think this understanding of the gap between our real self and our ideal self helps us understand God’s grace better. We may not all have spectacular moments of failure like the prodigal son, but that does not mean we do not need grace. Because none of us is perfectly comfortable in our own skin. We all think there is something else we need to be doing to be worthy of full love and acceptance. We all are striving to meet these ideals, to hit some external mark of success. In an interview with Commonweal, Bolz-Weber says,

“Any system where the message is: through your own striving you can become pure in some way, morally, ethically or politically—that’s impossible. That’s what we call being “under the law.” And when you’re under the law there are only two options: pride or despair. You’re either prideful about the way that you’re nailing it, especially if other people aren’t, or you despair that you can’t live up to it. Either way it’s not good news. But we all think the law will save us.[1]

But the law won’t save us. We’ll either be in the position of the prodigal son—who completely fails to live up to expectations and feels deep shame, or we’ll be in the position of the first born son—who is so blinded by pride he cannot allow himself to experience the love of his father.

And I’m not just talking about religious law here. We delude ourselves into living under all kinds of systems of law—if we eat nothing but local food and drive a Prius we’ll be saved, if we make more money than our parents we’ll be saved, if we believe exactly the right conservative or liberal principles we’ll be saved, if our bodies look thin or strong enough we’ll be saved. All these systems lie to us.

Jesus did not come to earth just for the sinners and tax collectors. He came for everyone, Pharisees and Prius owners included. Jesus is the prodigal father, with his arms outstretched, delighted his son has returned. Jesus is the prodigal father, who would be just as delighted to celebrate his first born son.

Jesus chooses to love us, our actual messy imperfect selves. He chooses to love you. Right now. Not because you deserve it, not because you have your act together, but because his Father created you and his Father loves his creations.

You are loved by God whether you are rich or broke, responsible or a “failure”, whether the people in your life are kind to you or if they are awful, whether you complete your checklist every day or never get out of bed.

If you were a coin that went missing, Jesus would turn over every floorboard in this church to find you. If you were a sheep that wandered off, Jesus would hunt you down, throw you over his shoulders and carry you back home. If you were his son and you spit in his face and ran away from home, Jesus would run down the road to meet you on your way back.

So, we can let go. Let go of that ideal self. Get to know your actual self. And get to know the God that loves you.

Amen.

 

[1] https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/we-all-think-law-will-save-us

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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.

Proper 20, Year C, 2007

Have you ever seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?  The movie is a very funny satire about a man named Brian who lived during the time of Jesus and gets mistaken as the Messiah.  Though Jesus is not directly involved in the plot, there is a hilarious scene that takes place during the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is preaching, but the crowd is so large that those on the edges cannot quite make out what Jesus is saying. 

When someone asks what Jesus just said, a man says,

MAN #1:

    I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.

and a woman replies:

MRS. GREGORY:

    Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?

Her husband clarifies:

GREGORY:

Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

Later another man, instead of hearing Blessed are the meek says,

MAN #2:

    You hear that? Blessed are the Greek.

GREGORY:

    The Greek?

MAN #2:

    Mmm. Well, apparently, he’s going to inherit the earth.

GREGORY:

    Did anyone catch his name?

You get the idea.  The joke is funny because we do wonder if those who wrote the Gospels got everything Jesus said right.  Today’s gospel reading, frankly, is a prime example of a time when we preachers look at a text and wonder, perhaps, if Jesus was a little off his game when he said these things.  Or maybe his followers just flat out misheard him.  Even the great theologian St. Augustine said about this passage, “I can’t believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord.”  We’ll never know exactly what Jesus said, but just because a passage of Scripture is confusing is no reason to abandon it, so let’s dig in.

This is another one of these congregation participation sermons, so let’s all open our Bibles to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 16.

You’ll see the passage has three parts-a long story about a dishonest manager, then verse nine which obscurely reflects on the story, and then verses ten and on, which try to neatly wrap up some aphorisms about money that really have very little to do with the above passage.

These last verses are so neat and tidy; they seem incongruous with the rest of the passage.  Remember that the Gospels were oral stories handed down, and then edited into a coherent text.  So, it is entirely possible, that Luke or one of Luke’s editors had two separate Jesus stories they combined for our passage today.  For now, we will treat them just as that-and focus our attention on the first part of the passage, which presents enough problems as it is!

In this ambiguous passage, a dishonest manager gets fired for cooking the books, and then as his final exit, works some shady deals, possibly cheating his boss-and then is rewarded for this deception!

So, to understand this more deeply, let’s relocate the parable-imagine there was someone, probably Corin Capshaw, who owned all of Old Trail.  He owned the land, the houses, and the shops in the Village at Old Trail.  Every one who lived and worked in Old Trail rented their property from Mr. Capshaw, but because he is a busy man, he can not manage all the property himself, so he hires a manager. 

Keep in mind, this is all imaginary and the Beights family runs Old Trail with the greatest of competence and decency.

In this system, the manager has the authority to rent out not only the property, but also objects to the tenants at a very high commission.  So, say you wanted to clean your new coffee shop and you needed a power washer.  You could borrow a power washer from the manager, and when you were done with it, you would return the power washer and also give the manager a fee-say a hundred jugs of olive oil.  The owner gets some of this fee, but the manager also takes a commission. 

So, in this imaginary story, the manager is not only pocketing these fees, but he’s doing something actually bad, too-some sort of “squandering the property”.  Perhaps he’s lending things he’s not supposed to lend or skimming money from the rent.  We’ll never know.

Mr. Capshaw has it within his rights to have the guy arrested, but instead, he shows mercy and merely fires the manager.  The manager is desperate because he doesn’t really have any other skills and does not want to do manual labor or become a beggar so he comes up with a scheme. 

He needs other people to really like him, and he needs it to happen stat.  If people like him, perhaps they can find him a job or let him live with them.  In any case, he gathers all the people that owe him debts from borrowing powerwashers and the like and he goes through the list systematically and slashes their debt.  He makes some friends, his boss gets his portion of the money and his property back, and they get a great deal.  Everybody wins.

The manager notes this and is very impressed.

And then the passage gets really weird.  Jesus says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  Huh?

Is Jesus saying if we’re going to make gains from dishonest wealth we should at least make friends out of the deal? So when we’re caught we have some place to go? Whaaa?

Who knows?  This passage is messy, the manager is messy, the editing is messy.  It’s all very messy.

Now, I want you to keep your bibles open and find the parable that occurs directly before this parable.  What is it?

(Parable of the Lost Son)

If you’ll notice, our parable today has a very similar arc to the parable of the prodigal son.  A young man acts in a disgraceful way in each, and also experiences some degree of redemption.  BUT, where the parable of the prodigal son is all extremes-the complete depravity of the son, the complete forgiveness of the father, our parable today is much more murky.

We’re left not knowing exactly what is going to happen to the manager-or even exactly what he did wrong.  We’re not even entirely clear how the owner feels about the manager-is he really angry, does he feel forgiveness or even pride by the end of the story? 

While the Prodigal Son is a beautiful and perfect parable, its story of sin and redemption is so extreme, I think not all of us can relate to it very well.  Most of us, when we sin, when we hurt ourselves or other people, we do it in small ways.  Most of us don’t have the chance to get our inheritance early, turn our backs on our families, and go wild in the big city. 

However, even those of us who are “good”, who are more like the older brother in the prodigal son story, screw up.  When we screw up, it’s usually saying something before we think, or making a really bad, but not malicious, judgment call.  We may be a little greedy, a little unethical.  In short, I think most of us are much more like the manager, than the prodigal son.  We do our best to support ourselves, and if our livelihoods get threatened, we’re not above engaging in a little creativity to save our necks.

And redemption in our lives is not always as dramatic as the father’s loving embrace in the prodigal son story, either.  When we’re being forgiven, we do not often have a huge emotional experience of deep reconciliation with our loved ones or with God.  We may just feel the small satisfaction that comes with knowing that a relationship has been repaired and that we are safe in the affections of another.

Yes, the story of the manager and the landowner is messy, but our lives are messy, too.  Life is not a fairy tale or a movie-problems don’t get resolved in dramatic sweeps with violins singing in the background.  More often than not, we don’t see the easy solution, we don’t understand what God is doing or what God wants from us.

And maybe this frustrating, confusing, messy passage is a gift to us-a reminder that not everything needs to be tied up neatly for life to have meaning.  A reminder that grace comes even in the midst of confusion and misunderstanding.  A reminder that even our stupid, petty, daily sins are greeted with grace.

And yes, perhaps even the cheesemakers and the Greeks are blessed, for God’s grace encompasses all of us, even when, especially when we don’t understand how.