Let’s Get Hollerin’

Let’s Get Hollerin’

In the past two and a half weeks my wife and I crossed eleven state borders and travelled over 5,000 miles as we journeyed around the United States. Our travels took us up the Rocky Mountains, down through the desert of Utah, and the oil fields of Texas. We hiked on snow-capped mountains in Colorado and through tent rock formations in 95 degree temps in New Mexico. Mountains, rivers, and deep ravens created natural boundaries for state and county lines.

Photo taken on our recent road trip somewhere in San Antonio, Texas

The whole time we were crossing borders I was paying attention to the tragedy happening down on our southern border. Children being separated from their parents. Families seeking safety from violence ripped apart violently. Politicians say, “Zero tolerance” and those seeking asylum say, “We can’t go back.”

This is not a political speech. It is a sermon. This is not about being Democrat or Republican. There is plenty of blame to be had by all. It is not even about being American. It is about the kingdom of God. It is about following after a savior who puts people loyalty above party loyalty.

I won’t say it isn’t political. The moment we claim Jesus is lord, we make a political statement. If we say we follow Jesus, we follow the way of one who teaches us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and who says the way of forgiveness is the way to eternal life. If Jesus is king, then our citizenship is the kingdom of God.

Our current politics can be defined as border politics. The situation at our southern border is just one example. We separate and divide ourselves to the point that border control defines all our relationships. We have established clear boundaries between our political parties. Our economic system has created a separation between the rich and the poor. The United Methodist Church has drawn a line in the sand over sexuality and made that our boundary line that we are willing to divide the church over. Wherever you find racism, sexism, and ageism you will find a border wall. If we are honest with ourselves, Christians have built some of the biggest walls.

And yet, we follow the One who was all about breaking down walls. Jesus spoke to people that he shouldn’t have been speaking with, he touched the untouchables, he ate with the outcast, and he invited into his fellowship the unwelcomed. He spends his life violating clearly defined boundaries.

Jesus lives without regard to the established walls that separate, rules that categorize people, and borders that define national loyalty.

In his first message, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

The pain of poverty, the horror of oppression, and the brokenness of the body and soul know no boundaries. If Jesus is savior of one, he is savior of all. If his kingdom has come, it has come for all. If the politics of Jesus is boundary breaking, then shouldn’t it be the same for his followers?

It is not so easy. In the account of Jesus meeting a woman from Canaan, we discover that before we can be about the business of boundary breaking we must confront our own prejudices. It is impossible to follow the boundary-breaking savior while building our own border walls of discrimination.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)

She is called “woman.” Gospel of Mark calls her a Syrophoenician. Gospel of Matthew claims she is a Canaanite. The point is that she is not Jewish. But what she is, is persistent. A woman with the audacity to get in the face of the Son of God and demand healing for her daughter. A no-named, no-status woman who was not afraid to walk through a group of men and ask for mercy for her daughter. A foreigner calling out the Messiah of her people’s enemies. Here we have a boundary-breaking, change-maker woman who is not afraid to tear down some borders.

In a world where the demons of sexual exploitation and slavery are destroying our children, we need bold witnesses like the Syrophoenician woman. In a world where the demons of racism are claiming some to be less than human, we need change-agents who won’t stop until justice is for all. In a world where kids are being driven to suicide because of the judgment put on their sexuality, we need ground-shakers to disrupt fear and prejudice. In a world where children are separated from their parents, we need transform-tripping adults to stand in the gap.

When I see Jesus’ response, it looks, well, not like Jesus. Her plea for help was met with a boundary of cultural prejudice. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says (Matthew 15:24). Or as John 3:16 might be translated, “For God so loved the United States, not the world; for God so loved my people, not your people.”

She continues to beg for his mercy. He gets more insensitive, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). Dogs! Did Jesus just call this woman and her daughter a dog? When was the last time you heard someone called a dog and it meant as a compliment? Here is the second person of the Trinity, God-in-the-flesh, the I AM, and he is calling someone created in His image a “dog!”

Throughout the gospels Jesus shows a boundary-breaking presence but here we have a boundary-shaping reality. I believe what Jesus is doing, he is doing on behalf of his followers. He knows he has in front of him a woman who is not afraid to shake hell and run off demons if needed. Other words, he knows what type of faith she has.

When she starting crying out for Jesus to help her daughter, he remained silent. His disciples encouraged him to tell her to keep quiet. “She keeps shouting after us” (Luke 15:23), they said. He gave her the response that his disciples wanted him to give. He replied with a cultural response that they would have been familiar with – you dog! But when she persisted and refused to back down, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table” (Luke 15:27), he responded in a way that would have dumb-founded the disciples. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Luke 15:28).  

Jesus plays the cultural bias, religious prejudice part and by doing so he highlights the absurdity of exclusion.

There are many voices in our world that are silenced, lives that are oppressed, hope that is devastated, and situations that are simply demonic. As Dr. Brian Blount put it in a sermon to seminary students at Princeton, “It’s the kind of world Marvin Gaye sang about in his song entitled “Inner City Blues,” where he sang the line, “It makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands.” Like the woman in today’s passage, when our children are being robbed of their life, it ought to make us wanna holler. When man-made barriers keep people from experiencing their God-given freedom, it ought to make us wanna holler. When borders stand in the way of someone’s safety, it ought to make us wanna holler. When children are abused, it ought to want to make us wanna holler. When the poor are taken advantage of, it ought to make us wanna holler. When someone is judged based on the color of their skin, it ought to make us wanna holler. When church traditions keep someone from experiencing the grace of God, it ought to make us wanna holler. When authority figures stand in the way of reconciliation, it ought to make us wanna holler. When healing is restricted, it ought to make us wanna holler.

Dr. Brian Blount continues in his sermon, “I think this is why Mark (and Matthew) kept this story in their gospels. They wanted us to holler for transformation the way that woman hollered for the transformation of her daughter’s life situation……If that woman could stand up to Jesus, I think Jesus was telling us, we ought to be able to stand up to anybody else or anything else on this planet. ‘You want change?’ he seems to be telling the woman. ‘Then you’re gonna have to fight for it. You’re gonna have to raise your voice.’”

It is time for the church to recommit itself to hollering. It is time we show our compassion through our actions and with our words. May it be said that kids are safe, families are together, and bullies have been silenced because we hollered for justice. May it be said that country club neighborhoods are not places of loneliness because we hollered for community. May it be said that homeless shelters are empty because we hollered with our actions. May it be said that every person knows they are loved by God and the church regardless of race, sexuality, or disability because we hollered for love.

May it be that in our hollerin’ and the actions that follow, Christ hollers back and every demon is cast out and the world is more beautiful than ever before. Let’s get to hollerin’ church! Amen.

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville Ga on Sunday, June 24, 2018)
(References taken from: Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 134)

The War Continues

The War Continues

53861Lather on the SPF 35 and throw some ribs on the grill, summertime is here. The Memorial Day holiday marks the beginning of the season of flip-flops and homemade strawberry ice cream. In the midst of our BBQ’s, parades, and family festivities let’s not also forget that it is a day of remembrance.

Today we remember the sacrifices made on battlefields in order that we may be hopeful for tomorrow. It is also true that for many soldiers returning home the battle continues to be fought.

A study released in July 2016 by the U.S. Depart­ment of Veterans Affairs documented that in 2014 an average of 20 veterans per day died by suicide, with especially high rates among male veterans aged 18–29. memorial day

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” the psalmist cries out in Psalm 130. Like many men and women returning home from war, the author of the psalm has found himself in a place that he did not expect; a place that is fearful and dark.

The faith community must be committed to being with those in the depths of despair. We freely demonstrate compassion from the trenches because this is where God meets us. Through Jesus and the cross, God has come among us in our dark places. Despair is deep but the Good News we share is that joy is even deeper.

In Acts 16 the Apostle Paul and his travel companion, Silas, are arrested and imprisoned after performing a miracle on the streets of Philippi. As they pray and sing, an earthquake breaks open the prison cell doors. Thinking that his prisoners have escaped, the soldier guarding the prison doors draws his sword to kill himself. But Paul and Silas have not fled. They tell the prison guard, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

They stayed and shared with the soldier that his life had value. We can do the same. The Veterans Crisis Line is 1-800-273-TALK.

Thus, this Memorial Day, we honor the men and women who have paid the ultimate price while also praying that those around us who are still fighting a war within know that we are all here.

Be Beautifully Bold

Be Beautifully Bold
lion 1
I took this photo while on safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve

Poodles are cute. If I was choosing between a lion and a poodle as a pet, I would chose a poodle. But if I was lost in the woods, I would want the protection of a lion. Of course, only if I was friends with the lion.

In C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” Mr. Beaver is explaining to the children about Aslan the lion. Aslan is the Christ figure in the book and having never met a lion before, the children ask, “Is he safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Oh no…… He is not safe, but he is good.” aslan

The modern church has made the word “safe” synonymous with “good.” This has caused us to misunderstand Jesus’ call to discipleship. We have come to see following Jesus as a comfortable life. We follow Jesus to the church and attempt to make it a cushioned reality.

If we were to take a quick scan through the bible, we would discover there is nothing comfortable about following Jesus. David standing before the Philistine giant says, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” Three Jewish boys about to be thrown into a fiery furnace declare, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Esther hearing about the possible genocide of her people, tells her uncle, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” She does this after being questioned by her uncle, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Teenager Mary after hearing she would carry the hope of the world in her womb says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Then later she hears from a prophet in the temple, “A sword will pierce your very soul.”

When the greatest authority in your life is a God who refuses to stay dead after he is killed, then it is going to take boldness to follow. It will require leaving comfortable places, confronting controversial issues, and challenging the status quo. It requires a bold faith.

In Acts 4 when Peter and John are told rather forcefully by the religious officials to remain quite about their preaching of Jesus and the resurrection, they spoke even more boldly. What made them stand out was not their communication skills or their biblical knowledge, but their boldness. The scripture says, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

The thing that excites me about the followers of Jesus in the millennial generation is I see their boldness. They are the generation that sees upfront what only my generation has seen at a distance. They are the generation that speaks loudly where the generations before has only whispered. They are the generation that leads with their hand and feet where the generations before only talk of the good fight. The next generation is showing all of us what it means to be beautifully bold.

Where my generation has taken a poodle, dressed it up like a lion and call it faithful living. The next generation is exposing the poodles in the church and chasing after the lion of Judah. I am hopeful that this generation is going to teach us all how to live like Jesus in the modern world.

Erwin McManus, a pastor and author in California, has written, “We have put so much emphasis on avoiding evil that we have become virtually blind to the endless opportunities for doing good. We have defined holiness through what we separate ourselves from rather than what we give ourselves to. I am convinced the great tragedy is not the sins that we commit, but the life we fail to live. You cannot follow God in neutral. God has created you to do something. It is not enough to stop the wrong and then be paralyzed when it comes to the right. God created you to do good.”

Here is my challenge to you: Don’t attempt to discover who you are in the presence of people. Discover who you are in the presence of God. Live your life chasing after the Lion of Judah. Don’t be afraid of the frontier places that he may lead you. Don’t get distracted by the poodles that my generation have put in front of you. You are created in the image of a God who chose to be identified as a Lion. As a follower of the Lion of Judah, you are seeking after an untamed, unsettled, resurrected Christ. Look for the paw prints of a lion in your life and follow them. Be beautifully bold in how you live this next chapter of your life. Where is God calling you to be beautifully bold?

Message given to a group of high school students at a graduation dinner in Gainesville, Ga

lion wallpaper
(Free wallpaper for your phone. Right click and save)

Living in the Gap of Knowing and Not Doing

Living in the Gap of Knowing and Not Doing

I am Not Myself“From dust you have come, to dust you will go.” If you had the courage to come to an Ash Wednesday Service, you would have heard those words spoken over you as you were marked with a cross. I say courage because it takes a certain amount of audacity to come to a worship service where you are reminded of your own mortality.

My family was unable to attend the Ash Wednesday Service this year. Maybe that was for the best. I have always found it challenging to place ashes on the forehead of my children while reminding them of their own death. It is difficult to places ashes on any child. If your child came to my station during Ash Wednesday, I placed the cross on their forehead with the words, “You are loved by God.” On this Ash Wednesday, because of recent events, I would have found it even harder to tell them, “Remember you are dust…” It seems they get that message loud and clear from the world.

You are loved by God. If there is any week that our children needed to be reminded of that truth, it is this week. We are mortal but we are not hopeless. We are broken but we are not unloved.

The word Lent is an old Saxon word meaning “spring.” It is not in the bible but the theme of Lent as a season of devotion and self-reflection is found throughout the pages of scripture. Moses fasted for 40 days when he talked with God on Mount Sinai[i]. Elijah fasted for 40 days on his journey to meet God at Horeb.[ii] After his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus was led into the wilderness and for 40 days he was under intense temptation to become something other than what his heavenly Father intended.[iii]

Ash Wednesday is the starting point into Lent. The purpose of Lent is to give us an opportunity to clean out the clutter in our lives, rearrange our priorities, and find space for new life when it comes at the end of the forty days. A lot of people give up certain things – chocolate, caffeine, social media, fatty foods, or negative talk. Fasting is the religious way of talking about it. Another way of understanding the spiritual discipline of Lent is rediscovering the power of “no.” “No” stands in the way of immediate desires. It is disruptive to our wishes and dreams. “No” means withholding something that we want.

We want what we want for a reason, and “no” always runs contrary to those wants and desires.

During Lent we practice saying “no” so that we can enjoy a greater “yes.” So, what do you need to say “no” to today in order to enjoy a greater “yes” tomorrow? Think about it this way: Give up what is necessary so that something good may be added.

It is so easy to say “yes.” It is easy because we like our lives full. We like to be busy. It makes us feel important. It drives us to be successful. “Yes” feels the vacuum of loneliness. “No” creates space. The mid-20th century Catholic theologian Hans Ur von Balthasar saw the work of Jesus as remaking the self by unselfing it. Jesus opens up a “vacant space” in us for the Spirit of God to renew us.

If our lives are filled with to-do lists and projects and deadlines and wants and shoulds, then there is no room for the Spirit of God to work on renewing us in His image. Lent is giving permission for God to “unself” us and create space for the Spirit to work on renewing our self in the image of Christ.

A self full of itself is a conflicted self.

You may not realize it but you need this. How many times this week did we say, “I decided to do good, but I didn’t really do it; I decided not to be bad, but then I did it anyway?” I know I need to exercise, but I was too tired when I got home. I know I shouldn’t go over to his house, but I went anyway. I know I should not have gossiped, but I said it anyway.

The Apostle Paul understands your pain. Listen to the way he describes it:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:14-20)

Why do we find it so hard to live up to our own expectations? We want to do good, but we fail to do it. We desire to live right, but give us a week and we have slipped.

At the end of his life Jesus is praying in a garden. He knew that soldiers were on the way to come and arrest him. He tells Peter to stay awake and pray. Peter falls asleep. Jesus gets upset with him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?  Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”[i]

I get it. Don’t you? I am willing but find myself weak when it counts. We are driven to despair by our conflicted self. We come to church and make promises and then we fail to live up to those expectations. The gap between willing and doing is universal. It not only affects us as individuals. It has damaging consequences on a society.

God created a garden for humanity but we have turned it into a war zone. We talk a good talk but we take no action. We say this will be the last one but we do nothing to ensure that it really is. We send our kids off to school with words like, “Remember your lunch money, remember your mama loves you, and remember to turn in your homework.” But if we keep talking without acting, we might as well add, “And remember you are from dust and to dust you shall return – possibly today.”

When the people of God talked about offering prayers and fasting, God replied, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?[i] The prayers God hears are those that beat to the rhythm of justice. The fast God notices is the ones that gives up hate and violence.

As a society we seem stuck in the gap, the gap between knowing what is right and actually doing what is right. Violence disrupts. Lives are taken. Fingers are pointed. Blame is cast. Hands are washed of blood. And the cycle of death gets put on repeat. Are mass shootings a gun problem, a mental illness problem, a public safety problem, or a heart problem? The answer is “yes!” As long as we continue to remain divided and refuse to move the conversation past heated debates, it will remain a pride problem and we are all guilty.

As followers of Jesus, we are to be about living the ways of the Prince of Peace. Our moral framework is loving our neighbor.  As Jesus followers we make decisions that seek the welfare of my neighbor. When it comes to mass shootings in the United States what decisions need to be made that respect the sanctity of life and show love to my neighbor? In other words, what actions do I need to take that will demonstrate that I am living out the prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?” We are not going to get it perfectly right. We will fail. But the good news is that Jesus has come to meet us in the gaps, the gap between what we know is right and not living up to it. Jesus has come to meet us in the gap between our failures and God’s desire for our life. Amen.

Next week we will discuss how Jesus is in the business of redeeming failures.

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First United Methodist Church)

[i] Isaiah 58:6-7

[i] Mark 14:37-38

[i] Exodus 34:28

[ii] I Kings 19:8

[iii] Matthew 4:1-11


An Ash Wednesday Valentine Kind Of Day

An Ash Wednesday Valentine Kind Of Day

image1An Ash Wednesday Valentine Card might read something like, “Roses are red, violets are blue, from the dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” For the first time since 1945 Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. The day we solemnly reflect on our mortality by getting a cross-shaped ash smeared onto our foreheads is the same day we express our love with chocolate and roses – my wife prefers daisies.

At around thirty years old, Jesus has a powerful experience when his cousin, John, baptizes him in the Jordan River. Coming up out of the muddy waters Jesus experiences God’s claim on his life when he hears, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[i] It is with the self-awareness of being the Son of God that Jesus is led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness.

In the wilderness Jesus finds himself being tempted by the devil. The temptations thrown his way are not what we normally think of as temptations – lie, cheat, and steal. Jesus finds himself being confronted with choosing a way of life and a vocation that is less than what God would have him to be.

The struggle is real.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our struggle to spend the next forty days re-claiming our identity as the beloved of God. In a world where we are tempted to choose an identity and vocation less than what God would have for us, it is good to have a season of self-awareness. ash wednesday

The journey begins with an ash marked cross on the forehead that forces us to humbly recognize that we are from the dust and to the dust we shall return. And yet, receiving the ashes in the symbol of a cross is a reminder that we are claimed by God. We are mortal but we are not hopeless. We are weak but we are not forgotten. We are broken but we are not unloved. I’d say that makes for a pretty good Valentine Day message.

[i] Matthew 3: 17

The Tale of Two Brothers, Part II

The Tale of Two Brothers, Part II

tale of two brothersYou can stay home and still be lost. You don’t have to squander love on wild living to create distance between those who love you. You don’t have to get locked up to live your life behind bars. Jealousy can do it. Pride can do it. Anger can do it. Fear can do it. Bitter self-righteousness is as nasty as sleeping in the mud with pigs. Dining on resentment is no better than dining on pig slop.

Last week we looked at the youngest brother. The one who squandered his father’s love and then wanted to return it broken. What we discovered last week is that God’s capacity for finding us is greater than our talent for getting lost. If you haven’t listened to the message, I want to encourage you to go to gfumc.com and listen.

Have you ever had to welcome a loser back home? Have you ever had to go to a promotion party for someone who you weren’t sure deserved it? Have you ever had to say welcome home when what you really wanted to say was get the heck out of here?

No one asked the older brother what he thought about having his pig-loving, family betraying sibling back home. No one asked what it felt like wearing the second best robe because the best one had been given to the younger brother. No one asked what it was like to pick up the slack while the younger brother was wasting his life at binge parties. No one asked him how it felt to watch his father have sleepless nights staring through the blinds hoping for his son to come home. And now, you want him to sit down at the same table with this self-centered, reckless-living, careless brother and have a feast? You want him to join a homecoming party?

Preacher and scholar, Fred Craddock told a story about the time he was teaching Sunday School at a small rural church. On this particular occasion he discovered that the weekly lesson was based on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. In his lesson he invited the class to imagine that the story ended differently. In Craddock’s version, the prodigal son “comes to himself” and decides to go home and throw himself on his father’s mercy. As he gets close to the house, he hears the sound of music and dancing. He asks the servants what is going on and the servant says, “Your father has killed the fatted calf and is holding a great feast for your older brother, because he has served him faithfully for so many years!”

Craddock let the ending sit silent in the room. Suddenly there was a loud thud in the back of the room where a woman had smashed her fist on the table. After an awkward moment of silence, the woman looked around and said, “And that’s the way it should have happened!”

Most of us love with a calculated love. We consider the sacrifice. We weigh our options. We love by putting our heart on a scale and calculate the benefits. If the benefits outweigh the risks, then we will share our love. But if the risks are greater than the benefits then we give out measures of love.

The father in our story refused to love this way. He risked public shaming. He chanced getting mocked. He opened himself up to getting hurt. The father taught that sometimes it is more important to be reconciled than it is to be right. Sometimes you have to hike up your skirt and run through town as an embarrassment to embrace a son who just wants to come home. Sometimes you have to put down the ego and give out vulnerable love. Sometimes you throw caution to the wind and love courageously.

The older son counts. You can hear it in his voice, “All these years I have been working like a slave…….you never given me even a young goat……..when this son of yours came back.” I have brought you home nothing but straight “A’s.” I have top performed in my class, in my sport, in my career. I have done everything to earn your love. The father says you can’t love this way. Unconditional love does not exist on the scales of calculated devotion.

In 1668, toward the end of his life, Rembrandt painted “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It now hangs in a hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the painting as you move down from the father’s face, you notice the dirty and ragged rags of the returning son’s clothes. The bottom of his feet are visible with one sandal lying on the floor. The son’s bald head is being embraced in his father’s lap. It is as though the son has just walked in and falling at his father’s feet. The son has come home, let him be embraced. Rembrandt Prodigal Son

But just off to the side you will notice the older son. He is draped in a red robe and standing with his arms crossed. The light shines on the older son’s face and the look of condescension is written all over it. The son has come home, let him be kicked out.

The power of Rembrandt’s painting is found in the distance between the father who is embracing the wayward son and the older son who stands off to the side. It’s hard to enjoy a reunion party when your heart is full of resentment. Gratitude and resentment cannot occupy the same heart. It doesn’t take running away from home and living a reckless life to find yourself far away from home. It only takes letting resentment take root in the heart. Love cannot be found at home when resentment lives in the heart.

Forgiveness can be hard to swallow. Unconditional love can be hard to wrapped our minds around. Grace can seem so careless. That is until we realize whether we stayed home or not, we are all sinners. We are all in need of being loved.

Dr. Tom Long, one of my professors at seminary, tells a story of the time one of his students went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own. At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a home delivered pizza. As they headed for the phone booth – before the days of cell phones – a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change. The father reached into his pockets of his coat and pulled out two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said to the homeless man. “Take what you need.” The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went his way.

It only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a phone call. Can you spare some change?” The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”

If the prodigal son story teaches us anything, it demonstrates to us that somedays we have opportunity to show grace and others we are begging for grace ourselves. And no matter where we find ourselves coming home depends on grace.

If any story deserves a happy ending, it is the tale of two brothers. The father does for the older brother what he does for the younger brother. He goes out to meet him. This is where the story drops off. How does it end? Shall we put aside our resentment and go to the party? Will we keep denying grace even when it keeps us from coming home? Will we sacrifice our own wholeness to simply prove a point? You tell me, how does the story end? Amen.

(Luke 15: 11-32 Preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Georgia)

A Tale of Two Brothers: Part I

A Tale of Two Brothers: Part I

tale of two brothers“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15: 2). This is how it started. This is what motivated Jesus to tell three stories about lost things, lost animals, and lost people. The religious elite criticizing his eating habits, questioning his motives, and interrogating him on his mission. Three stories to demonstrate his purpose.

A farmer has one hundred sheep. One carelessly wonders off. The farmer leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to go look for one lost sheep. When he finds it, he calls to his friends and neighbors to celebrate.

A woman losses a valuable coin. She turns her house upside down to find it. When she does she goes door-to-door inviting her neighbors to join her in the celebration.

Then there is the tale of two sons. The rebel. The perfectionist. A father who loved both. The youngest set out on a path of destructive selfishness. The oldest stayed close to home but lived in judgment and jealousy. Regardless of where they found themselves, both brothers were lost. Both were in need of grace.

In the next couple of weeks we are going to explore the tale of the two brothers. In the parable it is two different individuals but if we are honest with ourselves there is a little bit of both in us. We can as quickly turn from asking forgiveness for ourselves to denying forgiveness for others. When it comes to ourselves we want a God of mercy. But when it comes to others we want a God of fairness.

In his recent memoir entitled In the Sanctuary of Outcast, Neil White recounts his eighteen-month federal prison sentence for bank fraud. Neil was not sent to any ordinary prison. He was sent to a leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. He and other similar inmates who had been convicted of white collar crimes shared space with the last people in America disfigured by leprosy (show image on screen). In the early days of his stay, Neil does everything possible to avoid being near the Hansen’s diseased outcasts. Over time and learning more about the condition, he befriends a number of them. He comes to admire their tenacity as they cope with the cruelty of their condition and living in a forgotten world.

One evening, the lepers were holding their annual spring dance. The inmates were assigned to set up tables and sound equipment in the ballroom. The party started before they were able to leave the room. Patients limp and wheel and slide onto the dance floor. Scarred limbs in the air and disfigured faces are radiating joy as they move to the music. An elderly woman motions for Neil to dance with her. As they move around the dance floor, suddenly the party is interrupted by a leper named Smeltzer. He screams out, “You are not invited! No inmates at our party! You are not welcome here. Get out!” Quietly, Neil and the other inmates exit through the door. Neil writes in his memoir, “We just got kicked out of a lepers dance.”

Have you ever felt that low? Have you ever felt that you were not even welcome at a party for the unwelcomed? Sometimes a divorce can make us feel that low. We are not sure how our old friends will receive us. We are not sure what the neighbors are saying. A battle with an addiction where we have hurt those we love leave us in a place of unwelcome. Sometimes those who have a spouse or a child that has committed suicide are left feeling ostracized. They feel that the questions are being directed back towards them. They are afraid to leave the house. A person struggling with their sexuality and trying to make sense of their feelings feel unwelcomed even among those that are supposed to make them feel supported.

And sometimes it is just being the baby in the family and always feeling judged by the accomplishments of the older brother or sister. Living under the constant shadow of someone more successful than you can drive a person to do irrational things. We don’t know what drove the younger brother in the story to demand his father’s inheritance. It may have just been simple selfishness. It could have been a rebellious streak. It could have been he was tired of playing by the rules of the house. Regardless, he finds himself neck deep in pig mud. A big-time player turns into a big-time loser. He starts out in a righteous home and ends up in a pig sty. He plays his father’s love to claim a portion of his father’s fortune and then blows it on a binge. He abuses it and he strays from it. He squandered it and now he wants to return it broken.

This is where Jesus gets so frustrating. I got enough religion in me that I can understand letting him back in the house. But maybe he should come in through the backdoor. Let’s let him eat in his room by himself. Let’s put him on probation, a trial period. We need to create a schedule so that he can work off some of the money he took from the old man. There is a lesson or two that this boy needs to learn.

A party. We going throw this kid a party? Here is where it gets challenging. If I were the kid, I would long for the mercy. But If I am the one asked to show the mercy, well I might need to see some proof that you have changed.

The word prodigal means wasteful and reckless. If you ask me, we need to rename this parable. If anyone is being reckless and wasteful, it is the father. The kid hasn’t even apologized. The father cut him short of a full apology. He saw him coming. He didn’t wait until he got to the front door. He hiked up his skirt for all the town folks to see and ran across the field and embraced his irresponsible son.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story called “The Capital of the World.”  In it, he told the story of a father and his teenage son who were estranged from one another.  The son’s name was Paco.  He had wronged his father.  In his shame he had run away from home.

In the story, the father searched all over Spain for Paco, but still he could not find the boy.  Finally, in the city of Madrid, in a last desperate attempt to find his son, the father placed an ad in the daily newspaper.  The ad read:  “PACO, MEET ME AT THE HOTEL MONTANA.  NOON TUESDAY.  ALL IS FORGIVEN.  LOVE, PAPA.”

The next day, in front of the newspaper office, eight hundred Pacos showed up. All seeking forgiveness. All seeking the love of their father.

If your name is Paco or Tony or Julie or Sherry and you feel that you have no one searching for you, then I want you to know that God will seek out ever Meth house or Methodist Church, Bar or Baptist or Hell hole or dark valley until you are found. The world may have given up, your family may have quit searching, your friends left you alone, but God is on the hunt and God won’t stop until you know that you are loved. God’s capacity for finding us is greater than our talent for getting lost.

For those worried about wayward children, friend, or family members, I want you to know it is not their remorse that forces God to set a banquet table, it is not their desire to start over that causes God to kill the fatted calf. It is not their getting their life together that causes God to be on edge until their return home. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is limitless. God’s love is soaked in grace.

One of my favorite stories in Philip Yancey’s excellent book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, comes from an article in The Boston Globe about an unusual wedding banquet:

Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered a wedding banquet. The two of them pored over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive taste, and the bill came to $13,000. After leaving a check for half that amount as a down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.

The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this a little longer.”

When his angry fiancée returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the Events Manager could not have been more understanding. “The same thing happened to me, Honey,” she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. “The contract is binding. You’re only entitled to $1,300 back. You have two options: to forfeit the rest of the down payment, or go ahead with the banquet. I’m sorry, Really, I am.”

It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party – not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.

And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken “in honor of the groom,” she said – and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants, and addicts took one night off from the hard life of the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.

Grace. Grace is being welcomed to a party by someone who came to eat with sinners. Amazing grace. Amen.

(Luke 15: 11-32 Preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Georgia)