Saturday, February 27, 2016

SERMON: "THIS SON OF YOURS" Luke 15: 1-5, 11b-32 February 27, 2016

From an unquestioned fundamentalist Christian environment I was pretty much handed a Bible and told, 'Read this and you will know what God is like.' Then about forty years later , supposedly as a preacher of the Bible, I realized that the Bible shows many different images for God, not one. And most troubling they are indeed often contradictory. But much Christian teaching still tells folks that God in the Bible, which  often ordered the murder of innocents and genocide,  is the same as the one seen in Jesus' depiction of God here as an emotionally moved compassionate father. Luke pictures a father God extravagantly and unconditionally embracing his wayward son asking no questions. I could not continue to hold such a split notion of God in my head. I think this remains a problem for many today.

The author of the gospel of Luke attempts to describe what he had come to believe was the idea of God which Jesus carried in his mind and heart. As ones encouraged by what we see as the nature and character of Jesus, we can responsibly choose the nature of the ultimate God to include what is described here. We might be convinced that such a view of God just might help keep humans from destroying themselves and the planet in this post modern impersonal age, whereas other images of god only lead us toward destruction. This very reading helps me in sorting out  the nature and the will of what humans have immemorially  referred to as God.

Luke begins here presenting Jesus as someone who became focused on the suffering plight of the most powerless and marginalized and morally discredited people in the country villages where he traveled as a poor teaching rabbi. He recognized these people were being horribly treated and despised by both their religious leaders and the Roman civil authorities. The poor were unable to establish a livelihood for their families. Life was unlivable. Luke simply says such persons were naturally drawn to Jesus and came to him for his words of encouragement. Luke implies that the religious leaders were annoyed at Jesus and saw him as a threat to their power over these ordinary folks. Luke says they grumbled accusingly to each other, “ This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Luke describes Jesus giving two quick metaphors about the nature of God: God's nature is like that of a shepherd who risks leaving the whole flock in order to find and bring back the one sheep that got lost. And God's nature is also like a woman who lost one of ten valuable coins and eagerly went to work sweeping the floor until she finds the one coin that was lost. I've noticed , as one prone to losing things, that nearly always 'endurance' is the key to finding anything lost. First my mother then my wife were always willing to help find my keys, billfold etc I had lost but for more than ten years I've been on my own. I'm now very aware that if I did not do the careful work of searching for such lost items then they are never found. So I hear Luke telling me something about how intent the ultimate nature of God is about finding a way to recover his creatures and whole creation when they get lost or disconnected.

Finally in more detail, as if to emphasize it, Luke speaks of a wealthy Father's two sons. The more adventuresome one , somewhat unappreciatively, asked for his full inheritance and headed out to see what he could make of life. Like many a person he pretty much made a mess of it. But he had in his youth at least noticed that his father likely had his best interest at heart. So with life wrenching humiliation Luke describes him returning home to beg a job from his father. But he never even got to make his apology or do any begging. To his amazement his father asked no questions, but instead ran out to meet his ragged child, embraced him and invited the whole extended family and workers to join him in a great party explaining that ' this son  got lost from me but is now found.' And so they began to celebrate.

Ironically Luke's theme does not focus on the young brother's story of 'getting lost' through his misguided, but maybe necessary, path of finding out for himself what in life is most valuable to him. But the emphasis here is on the seemingly irrationally extravagant acceptance by the Father of his son, without any need of apology or questions of where he had been or what he had done. No doubt most were expecting the father to drill his son and demand apology etc. But this at odds with Luke's description. The father was simply carried away with the fact that his son safe and home. He experienced an emotional high that demanded expression. That was all this Father needed in relationship with his sons. The younger son's process of development seems to be presented as a rather natural course of a human life finding itself. Life simply is not a perfect path by any means but one of much trial and error, success and failure.

An equally central concern of the whole teaching here is to examine the destructive disposition that frequently overtakes a human life and leaves it in an animal like state of complete self seeking. I'm speaking of that 'grumbling' elitist disposition of the leaders at the top of Luke's presentation. For he now returns to it. (Does anyone remember this 'grumbling state of mind' as displayed in Mr. Bluster on the Howdy Doody show? Well that is just another version of what Luke is addressing.)Only this time it is sadly occurring in the older brother. The attuned father listens when the older son takes him aside and demandingly asks, “What is all this making over 'this son of yours'.” The older brother is unable to really see his own returned brother but only now sees him as this despicable 'son of his father.' He then lets the resentment pour out. “ I've always been a good boy, never breaking the rules, always doing exactly the right thing but 'this son of yours' totally screws up , embarrasses you ; yet for him you throw this big party. We never do that here. Maybe I should not even try to be so good?” Luke has the father try to explain that his love for both sons is of equal quality but when either one has become dangerously forever lost , Well, “ We just have to celebrate his return. Please join us”, the father asks. Note the father makes no apology to the older son but makes clear that all are invited to celebrate. That is how it ends. This beautiful teaching about God and humans. This grumbling disposition is a life destroying trap that humans in all places and circumstances remain most vulnerable to.

Luke leaves his readers to reflect on this. To come up not only with how the story might continue but also to explore the implications of what his teaching about the nature of God and humans are in their personal lives. So I will not insult you reflecting intelligence by offering my take on what this story can mean today, no doubt many things. I do find myself contemplating these images frequently. You can use Luke's teaching to contemplate your own present life situation, with its complications of family, friends, work , play and even perceived enemies. Or how it might apply regarding your attitude to various misjudged, maligned and marginalized persons and groups in our communities , nation and world. And as you bring your own complicated life into contact with these images of an ultimate nature of God, Luke's images can still have a profound and living impact on how you sort things out. Perhaps we can consider we each have these elements within our most inner life. We are at times the younger son with all his youthful exuberance that always comes crashing down. We may also be at times the extravagantly compassionate father capable of embracing all that life brings, both joys and sadness, without making exacting demands on others and life. And perhaps still alive in us is that older grumbling brother, unable to open up to the explainable nature of how life happens and thus at times unable to either weep or laugh, but only to judge and grumble. We are not likely just one of these but all of them in the complicated packages we refer to as 'you, me and us.'

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