Sunday, March 31, 2019

Rethinking Forgiveness

Luke 15:11-32

     If the parable of the Prodigal Son had been recorded in the Gospel of Matthew it would have begun, “The kingdom of heaven is like this.” I think all of my life I have been telling this story as if it was written by Matthew. If it was a kingdom parable, we would only be given the choice of relating to one of the two sons. Being the eldest sibling in my family I have found it quite easy to understand the dilemma of the oldest. There are expectations placed on the first born. We are expected to toe the line. We are supposed to be a role model. And when our younger siblings fail to live up to the example we created, we are held responsible. I understand the eldest staying outside in the barn as the return of the prodigal is celebrated. It is great that the sinner realized his waywardness but why throw a party? Is that the suitable action to curb inappropriate behavior?

Some of you may be younger sons or daughters. You might still remember those days of care free behavior knowing that whatever mess you left behind someone else will  clean up. Anne Lamont has sold a million books telling her story of being the prodigal. We love her books because they are about redemption. Someone had the courage and guts to clean her up, help get her sober and set her on a new path. And when Anne stumbled in the gutter, there was always a father-like figure that helped her start day one all over again. Stories like that make our personal redemptions possible. If the prodigal son can wade out of the pig slop, if Anne Lamont can leave a bottle of whisky unopened, by God I can pick myself up and head toward a heavenly destination. Whether we are the first or second son or daughter, we know if God is waiting out there ready to forgive, we can make something out of our hopeless lives.

It sort of makes you wish Matthew had included the prodigal’s story in his gospel. The problem is he didn’t. The story belongs to Luke and none of Luke’s retelling Jesus’ parable begin with the tagline, “The Kingdom of heaven is like.” Luke simply states, “A man had two sons.”

I suspect we all had a Sunday School teacher who told us that parables are an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. I went on the internet and typed in Earthly story with a heavenly meaning and I got page after page of explanation concerning the parables of Jesus. One site even offered flash cards to help with the parables. I could have used those when I took New Testament in Seminary.

But what if our Sunday School teacher was mistaken? What if originally the parables of Jesus were earthly stories with earthly meanings? What if the story of the prodigal really was just about a father and two sons? What if the role of the father is placed upon us? This creates all kinds of problems. If God is the Father then we not only expect God to forgive, we assume God’s forgiveness comes with none of the complications that muddy the waters of our efforts at reconciliation. But what if we, as the father, or the mother, or just a friend, are asked to confront the prodigal?

I was reading an article by Cameron Murchinson on this parable. His conclusion is, “Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we no longer to regard anyone from merely a human point of view. Insider/outsider, clean/unclean, initiated/uninitiated: such categories no longer work. God has instigated a new creation. We are summoned to see that when those who are lost are found, the work of reconciliation begins. We are summoned to this work and are encouraged to enter into its deep joy.”

I know Cam and highly respect his opinion, but forgiveness is just not that easy. We all have one or more than likely a dozen stories where someone has hurt us. Being high minded folks, we the wounded might initiate a conversation that leads to reconciliation. But it comes with a price. How often have you spoken the words, “I forgive”, but silently vowed, “I will not forget.” That is another one of those phrases we probably learned in Sunday School. In case you are curious, it is not in the Bible either.

But the Bible is not the only book I study. I once read if I refuse to forgive I am choosing to hold in all my anger and bitterness that the actions have created. I know when I am angry I am irritable, impatient, and certainly distracted. I know the older I get the less I enjoy drama. I know sometimes a conversation with the person who has hurt me reveals an injury that they have been harboring. And I also know that sometimes there is an ache so deep that a folksy parable doesn’t quite serve as an antidote.

I give thanks to folks like Desmond Tutu who wrote, “I have a dream where ugliness, poverty, war, greed, and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts of laughter, joy, justice, and compassion.”

I appreciate Francis Bacon saying, “I agree with Jesus that we are to forgive our enemies. But let’s not forget to also forgive our family and friends.”

I chuckle when I remember Oscar Wilde said, “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”

I wish I were as clever as Mark Twain who wrote, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

Yet, when the rubber hits the road, no image on forgiveness is more powerful than the one found in the 15th chapter of Luke.  A young boy, broken by his own appetites runs toward the place he once called home. On the porch waits a father, grief stricken that his son left, angry that a fortune has been lost, anxious for his son’s safety, furious that the prodigal has caused him such pain and yet still in love with the one who bears his name.

How hard it must be for God to love us. Yet sometimes we understand God’s consternation. We see the prodigal running our direction. A million scenarios run through our mind as to what we are going to do next. Thanks be to God, once in a while, we get it right.               Amen.                                           




Sunday, March 24, 2019

Ho, To Everyone Who Thirsts

Isaiah 55


        Tuesday is the day I set aside to visit the nursing homes in Charlottesville. My wife knows this and if I am lucky she will give me a list of items which she would like to be purchased at Costco.  I am not being facetious. On a good day one can literally eat lunch at Costco without spending a dime. I walk up and down the aisles until those very nice people holler out, “Hey! You interested in a peanut rolled in chocolate and bacon.” I know that doesn’t sound all that great but I don’t enter the store until I am really hungry. The venders don’t care how old I am. They don’t care if I am wearing slacks or jeans. They just want me to sample free food.  Honestly I can’t remember ever buying anything I sampled but that is not the point.  These folks seem so delighted to share what is on their plate and I am more than willing to oblige. It is definitely a win/win situation.

        I think the writer of Isaiah must have visited Costco. He beautifully paints a picture of God as a street vender. To anyone coming home to Jerusalem , God hollers, “Ho”. (That is Hebrew for “Hey.”)  “Ho, anyone who is thirsty, let me give you something to drink.” That offer is in sharp contrast to their lives as slaves in Babylon.  In Babylon, nothing was free. Anything offered was done so grudgingly and with a heavy price. But Yahweh declares to anyone who walks by, “Come and be satisfied.”

        Of course there is a problem. While I chow down on my peanut covered in chocolate and bacon, not everyone chooses to participate. Some eye the vender suspiciously figuring there must be a catch. Some look at me as if I have been taken in by the Tempters snare. Others don’t look at all, somehow embarrassed by the whole situation. I guess when you’ve grow up in Babylon it is hard to trust anyone.

So what is it Yahweh is so intent on selling? Why are we so suspicious when something is being offered for free? There are two critical words found in Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah. The first is covenant. In deuteronomic language this covenant, this pledge, is best understood through the promise, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”  Think of what had been offered the Hebrew people in Babylon. “You will be my slave and I will be your master.” All Babylon offers is a hard……. cold…… threat. In contrast Yahweh comes to enslaved people and says, Hey, are you thirsty for freedom? Hey, are you thirsty for a new life? Hey do you thirst for the opportunity to just say your name out loud without fear? Then come to my waters and drink.

So why doesn’t everyone rush to the waters? As members of the human species, by nature we are suspicious. Not everyone is telling us the truth. They might say what we want to hear but they feel no obligation to fulfill their promise. I bought my Camry eighteen months ago. When I walked into the dealership the first words I heard were, “How can I make you happy?” I made two simple requests. I asked for a car with an installed receiver for Sirius Radio and a CD player. The salesman replied, “No problem, I can do that.” Two hours later I am sitting in what I hoped will be a car that would  make me forget about my beloved Solara. As we were getting ready to close the deal I asked, “Now tell me how I am to transfer my Sirius subscription from my old car to this one.”  He replied, “No problem. You just download an app on your smart phone and connect it to your blue tooth.”  I responded, “What’s a blue tooth?” He stared at me, realizing with dismay that I was over 65. I bravely continued. “Where do I inject my CDs?” He responded, “No one buys CD’s anymore.”

People lie. Worse than that, they lie without blushing. So it might be hard to believe but the second word so critical to any reading of Deuteronomy, Psalms, or Isaiah is fidelity. In contrast to the oppressive and coercive words that have filtered into our common language, Yahweh offers a deep promise of reliability, trustworthiness, and loyalty. Yahweh said to the people of Israel, and continues to say to us, “I offer you a new heaven and earth. You have my word on it. What does Babylon offer?”

I realize for many of you the mention of Babylon has no significance whatsoever. It was an empire that existed over 2500 years ago. Let me so bold to suggest the idea of Babylon never disappeared.  Babylon is synonymous with anxiety. Babylon represents those who are coercive. Babylon is praised by those who celebrate exclusivity. Babylon wears us down. It is a burden that too often we accept because we can find no other alternative.

Jesus speaks about a Babylonian weight when he sings, Come to me, all who are weary and carrying a heavy burden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me.  I am gentle and humble. My yoke is easy; my burden is light.

Doesn’t that sound refreshing? Who among us doesn’t carry heavy burdens? We want to let them go but we can’t. The main reason is of all the coercive tools our culture has placed in our soul, number one is guilt. Is there anything more corrosive? The history of any religious movement owes much of its success to the power of guilt. Well here is a news flash. God didn’t invent guilt. We manufactured it all by ourselves. Guilt creates fear, loss of self-dignity, and anxiety. None of those are Godly traits.

Once a culture enslaves you through guilt the second burden placed upon us is exclusiveness. When the children of Israel were dragged to Babylon their captors showed them the mighty Ziggurats reaching toward the sky. “Become like us. No one can exceed our supremacy. We are as powerful as the gods.” Well here is the second newsflash. God didn’t invent the scoreboard. We did. Yahweh didn’t say, “Hey you with the white skin and the acceptable passport; you come to the waters.” Yahweh said, “Everyone who thirsts come.” Jesus didn’t say, “Only you who are male and an upstanding member of the synagogue have your burden lightened. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who are weary.”

Babylon thrives on anxiety and demands exclusivity; but God does not. If you thirst, drink. If your burden is heavy, let God take it from you. Hear the word of the Lord one more time. “I am your God. All of you are my people. I created you to be diverse. I created you to be colorful. I created you to have different experiences, different skills, different likes and dislikes. I created you to be one. I created you to offer water to each other. I created you to lift each other’s burdens. I created you to love.

Deb and I were traveling back from a birthday party a few weeks ago. My cell phone was properly connected to my blue tooth which was allowing us to mysteriously hear Sirius Radio entertain us through a station called The Village.   Richard Shindell was singing a song titled “I am”. If you are narcissistic this song has little meaning. But if you are familiar with the story of Moses and the burning bush, the song says everything I could possibly say about Isaiah 55. 


I am the stranded traveler,

I am the distant home,

I am a family waiting,

I am a silent voice.


I am the stricken faces,

I am the settling dust,

I am the stranger’s shoulder,

I am the ocean breeze.

I am, I am, I am.


I am the coffee vender,

I am the CPA,

I am the fire incurring,

I am a new born son.


I am the church bell ringing,

I am the passing peace,

I am the choir singing,

I am the swelling hymns.

I am, I am, I am.


I am the NY Harbor,

I am the Promised Land,

I am the closing borders,

I am the Rio Grande.


I am the River Jordan,

I am the raging peace,

I am the world in anguish,

I am a refugee.

I am, I am, I am.


“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace.” This is an everlasting promise that all will be safe, and beloved, and free at last.                                     Amen.