Sunday, August 25, 2019

“Repairer of the Breach”

Isaiah 58: 9b-14
August 25, 2019 
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

Have you ever seen a levee fail? I’ve never seen it in person, but I remember seeing a video earlier this summer of a levee failure in Iowa. One moment there was a clear division between rising floodwaters and dry land. The next moment, chaos. Water came tumbling out of the river, people ran away and jumped in cars to escape. In a matter of minutes the previously-dry land was covered in at least five feet of water. 

All it took was one weak spot in the levee for this to happen. One spot where the power of the waters had worn it down created a breach.

The Prophet Isaiah speaks to ancient ears and says that God will make the hearer “repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” The image of people steadfastly working together to repair what is broken, to shore up structures built for the common good, is a powerful one. And it makes me think about all of breaches in our current world...all of the broken places that threaten to bring chaos and pain to so many. 

Examine with me the image of a levee. Bravely and boldly holding back water that threatens to overwhelm. Standing nearby are two people….one looks at the waters and is filled with panic - climate change is a crisis, we have only moments to repair this levee or the entire planet is doomed. The other looks at the same levee and says, “Everything looks fine here. Calm down.” 

How can these two people work together for the common good?

Later in the day two more people come along. This time, the waters lapping at the levee are the fear of gun violence. Bending down to examine the levee, one person says, “It’s simple. We need common sense restrictions on gun ownership.” The other person looks incredulous, “What are you talking about? It’s clear that what we need are more good guys with guns.” 

How can these two people work together for the common good?

The sun begins to go down but two more people gather by the levee. As they look at the rising waters, talk turns to immigration. One person says, “Immigrants are the heart of this country and many of the people at our southern border are seeking asylum. It’s clear we should welcome them with open arms.” The other person looks disgusted and shakes their head saying, “Absolutely not. We need to build a wall and station troops at our border to secure it.” 

How can these two people work together for the common good? 

Every generation has their rising floodwaters to deal with. Every generation must find some way to come together, build and maintain structures that protect. Every generation must figure out what to do when the levees are breached, when chaos rushes in, when security seems like a dream, when repairs must be made. 

Isaiah lived in a time of massive political unrest. Biblical scholar Brennan Breed makes it clear: “Among the many problems in [Judah] were widespread economic [plunder] and enslavement of the vulnerable by the wealthy elite, a deep-seated fear of foreigners and cultural change that fueled an obsession with ethnic...purity.” [1]

Hmmmm. 

The people, standing at the edge of the floodwaters, begged God, “Why don’t you hear our prayers? Why don’t you come to save us? Can’t you see that we are about to drown here?”

And God spoke to the people through the Prophet Isaiah and said, your fasting and prayers - your religious rituals - mean nothing to me unless they are backed up with action. I think the people of Isaiah’s time were probably a lot like you and me….when things aren’t going well, we fall back on what we know. We slide into old routines that give us comfort. We tend to double-down on doing things the way they’ve always been done...just more of it, with extra fervor, because we’re not sure what else to do. 

But Isaiah speaks to the people and says, God wants you to do a new thing. The fasting God wants is this: loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free. Share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your homes.

If you do these things, says Isaiah, you will live. You will call out for help and God will say “here I am.” If you remove oppression from your communities, if you stop pointing fingers, if you stop speaking evil, if you satisfy the needs of those who are afflicted, THEN God will guide you, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong. Your ancient ruins will be rebuilt. You shall raise up the foundations of many generations. You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

The fast Isaiah suggests is revolutionary because it refuses to be contained in one simple box. It’s a both-and. Isaiah tells the people they must commit to acts of charity AND acts of advocacy. Feed the hungry, he says. Invite the homeless into your homes. Fill up the Blessing Box, volunteer at Second Helping. Show up at the Pride Parade. Smile at a stranger. Stop and talk to a person who is asking for money, even if you don’t have any cash to share. Fill up Backpacks of Hope to give to a migrant arriving in Texas. Go for long walks in nature and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation. None of these things are going to save the world on their own...but neither are they insignificant. 

And while we are doing these small, everyday tasks to alleviate pain, we are also called to loose the bonds of injustice. This means we are to work to change the very systems that create chaos. It’s not enough to sandbag when the water gets high, we also are supposed to go to city council meetings that last for hours. We are called to advocate for a living wage, call our legislators, give substantial amounts of time, money, and energy to organizations that are working to build just systems. 

We can’t do all of this at once, obviously. And if we try, we are certain to burn out quickly. What I appreciate about Isaiah’s words...this call to BOTH help those who are hurting AND changing the world so that fewer people get hurt is this: we have options. There’s no one right way to do the work. And if I find myself weary of calling my legislators, well, perhaps it's time to focus on acts of everyday kindness and charity. Eventually, if I spent time among those who are hurting, I will discover new ideas for advocacy. It’s not one or the other. It’s both-and. 

And in all of this work, all of this repairing, God says we do not do the work alone. Isaiah reminds us, “God will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong.” I don’t think Isaiah is talking about YOU as an individual. I absolutely think we each get tired as individuals...but the beauty of being called into community is that we are accompanied by others and by the Spirit. When we get tired, others step up. When they’re tired, we step up. 

Throughout all of this work...all of this holy work of repair...we are called to follow in the Ways of Jesus. Thank God we have a model, right? Or else it would be so very easy to give up completely. 

Jesus’s methods of repairing the breach are creative. He’s not afraid to bend or break the rules. He’s not afraid to ask hard questions. He understands that all of this is for love...and that love can be fierce, challenging, convicting. 

In todays’ story from Luke’s gospel, Jesus chooses the way of Love as he heals a woman on the Sabbath day. One of the religious leaders gives him a hard time, saying, “Tsk, tsk. You’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath, you know,” but Jesus speaks plainly: it’s always the right time to choose love and compassion. 

Jesus’s highest law is Love. In all he does, it’s Love. This is why he has no trouble identifying the greatest law...we are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Full stop. Everything else flows from this. If we get this right, everything else ultimately falls into place. If we get this wrong, nothing else we do can really matter. Will we get it wrong? Absolutely. Are we forgiven and freed to try again and again? Absolutely. Dr. King called Love the “most durable power” [2] and that power includes the Love and grace of God to forgive us when we fail. 

This highest law of Love is why some of our most revered repairers of the breach are so firmly committed to nonviolence. Nonviolence is not simply about refusing to bear arms and fight back. Nonviolence is a way of being, a commitment of the heart. 

Walter Wink, writes about what he calls “The Third Way” of Jesus. Wink says “There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and (3) the third way of . . . nonviolence articulated by Jesus.” He continues: this Third Way, the Jesus Way, “bears at its heart love of enemies” and is “the absolute litmus test for Christianity.” [3]

Dr. King says it’s also the only practical way to make any real, lasting change. Writing in 1964, he said that choosing the path of Love is not utopian. Instead, it’s the only practical reality that makes sense in a world armed to the teeth. “All other methods” (except nonviolence) “have failed,” writes King. “Love is the absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.” [4]

With these words, Dr. King reminds us that we should never underestimate the power of even small, seemingly-private acts to change consciousness and culture. By choosing love, he says, “Those of us who believe in [nonviolence] can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system can be built.” [5]

Sometimes we repair the breach by feeding the hungry. Sometimes we discover we are on our way to removing the yoke of oppression. Always, we choose love. Not the kind of love that says, “anything goes,” but the kind of love that calls even our enemy to be better. The kind of love that believes we are made to resist and transcend evil. 

Across the centuries, Isaiah speaks to us today. He says: when you feel overwhelmed this week, do something different. If you usually spend all of your energy doing small things, try advocacy. If you get really wrapped up in advocacy, try doing one single concrete thing to help someone who is struggling. 

In all things...try praying for your enemies. 

I know, I know...that’s hard. But, I hate to tell you this: no one ever said following Jesus was easy. Will praying for our enemies change them? I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is this: praying for my enemies changes me...changes my heart. Thanks be to God. 

NOTES: 
[2] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/liberation-curriculum/classroom-resources/king-quotes-war-and-peace
[4] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/liberation-curriculum/classroom-resources/king-quotes-war-and-peace
[5] Ibid.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

“At the Intersection of Love and Loss: Easter”

John 20:1-18
April 21, 2019
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw…”

It’s a story that reaches right out and grabs you….right from the beginning. This tale of “resurrection madness” as pastor Ted Loder calls it, is one that still pull and tugs at us...even centuries later. [1]

We fumble towards understanding - grasping onto the bits and pieces of the story that make sense….only to find the whole thing crumbling apart as we try to wrap our heads around all of the parts that make no sense at all.

At times, we give up on making sense of it at all. Instead we let the reality of Easter wash over us in hymns, images, emotions, rituals, experiences.

Some years we turn away, our hearts and minds unable to grapple with Resurrection.

No matter how we respond, the story stands. Peering out at us from the pages from these ancient texts. Our ancestors whispering and sometimes shouting at us from a long ago place and time.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw…”

There’s so much we don’t know about that first Easter morning. If you tried to put together a storyboard of what exactly happened, you’d quickly give up in frustration. The accounts from our various gospels certainly aren’t in agreement. It’s unclear how many people were there, where it happened, whether Jesus appeared somehow or was just missing. In some versions the women run and share the news of what they’ve seen - in others they are silent. There may have been earthquakes, soldiers falling down, or angels bearing silent witness. There is fear and joy and weeping and disbelief.

One of the only consistencies between the different versions is this: the Resurrected Christ appeared first to the women. Which is exactly what you would expect from one who came to turn the world upside down….privileging those who had been pushed aside by the patriarchy, amplifying the voices of those the world tried to silence.

And so, each year, when we come around to these texts again, it’s only natural to notice the particularities of each gospel. I don’t know about you, but I find myself incredibly thankful that the stories can’t be harmonized. It seems to me that Resurrection is not something to be understood as much as experienced. And the fact that the stories don’t line up neatly is a reminder that it’s not the facts that matter here...the important stuff….what keeps us coming back year after year, are the deeper truths that lurk just below the surface.

The particularities of the Gospel of John are these:
  • Jesus is laid to rest in a garden
  • Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s dearest friends, is alone when she comes to the garden first thing in the morning
  • Upon finding the stone missing, she runs to find the other disciples, because she initially thinks someone has taken him away
  • There is an awkward foot race between Peter and the Beloved Disciple (we don’t know his name) as they each try to get to the tomb first. It seems to me this is probably not the right time for a competition over anything, but I digress. The footrace stands.
  • Eventually, after much jockeying over who will be the first one to get into the empty tomb, Simon Peter goes in and sees the burial shroud resting on the ground...no body to be found anywhere.
  • Finally, they come to understand what has come to pass. We are told that “they believe” and leave to go home.
  • Apparently they just leave Mary standing there, crying. I told you their behavior was a bit awkward.
  • And so now we have a second part of the story. Mary, who had come to the tomb early in the morning to do what women always did - care for the body - is left crying, alone, outside the tomb.
  • Only not alone! The other disciples have left, but through her tears, Mary sees two angels sitting inside the tomb. Were they there a few moments ago when the men were in the tomb? Did they somehow miss them? We aren’t told.
  • Mary continues to weep because she is worried about the body of her friend, which seems to have been stolen. Suddenly, another character appears. Mary assumes he is the gardener and she implores him to help her find her friend’s body.
  • The gardener calls her by name and suddenly she understands its not the gardener at all. It’s Jesus, her teacher! He cautions her not to hold on to him because what she is seeing is just temporary. He’s not here to stay. He’s going on to God.
  • Mary leaves the garden and runs to find the other disciples, preaching the first Easter sermon, “I have seen the Lord!”

It is a particularity of John’s gospel that there are really two accounts smushed together. Peter and the Beloved Disciple jockeying for the favored place in history as they try to see who “gets it” first is one story. And Mary standing outside the tomb, weeping quietly is another story.

When the two are told together, it makes for a powerful text about the expansiveness of Christ’s resurrection. It turns out that Resurrection is for everyone….those who push in front of one another to get there first and those who bear silent, still witness. The active and the quiet. The weeping and the running. The awkward and the appropriate. The jubilant and the heartbroken. All are invited to bear witness to the newness God brings. Alleluia!

It is also a particularity of John’s gospel that the whole thing takes place in a garden. Jesus prays in a garden. Jesus is executed in a garden. Jesus is buried in a garden. And so we are invited to remember other gardens in our holy texts. The garden at the beginning of the world in Genesis….and the garden at the end of the world in Revelation. Christ stands in the midst of the garden, holding all of this together. Birth and death. Beginning and end. Time and space beyond time. Alleluia!

It is also a particularity of John’s gospel that this is not the first resurrection account. If you turn back to John 11, you’ll see we’ve already had a resurrection in this gospel. Jesus’s dear friend Lazarus died and was dead for four days before Jesus came and resurrected him. We are reminded of this earlier resurrection when we hear that Mary was standing outside Jesus’s tomb weeping….just like Mary of Bethany stood with Jesus outside her brother Lazarus’s home and wept. And just as Mary Magdalene saw the resurrected Christ through her tears, Jesus, too, wept and prayed and bore witness to God’s great love that extends even beyond death as he saw his liberated friend walk out of a tomb. Alleluia!

The particularities of John’s gospel point us towards an expansive promise of resurrection that goes way beyond a one-and-done magic trick unique to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. One of the reasons I’ve never been too obsessed with hard facts when it comes to Jesus’s resurrection is that I don’t think this one story is the point. The point is not that this one man rose from the dead, however you understand that. The point is that this particular story points to a wider truth: that God is in the business of Resurrection. Always and everywhere. Alleluia!

Resurrection is not a one-time thing. It’s not about understanding what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. It’s about following Christ’s gaze to the bigger story….that we are loved by an unending love bigger than we can understand. That the power of that love cannot and will not let us go. That all of those painful parts of being human...the inconveniences, the hurts, the loss, the despair, the agony….they are only part of the story.

God exists beyond the pain, the hurt, the loss….God walks with us through the messiness and terror of our lives, holding us together when we are falling apart. Propping us up when we tumble to the ground….or maybe just cradling us gently while we rest. Always, always, always whispering our names...reminding us of who we are and whose we are. Calling us into and out of and beyond ourselves. Connecting us to one another through the power of resurrection love. A love so big that even death cannot stop it.
A love so scandalous that is causes us to catch our breaths, burst into tears, burst into song as we proclaim the unstoppable hope of Easter morning. Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

We may not quite be able to wrap our heads around it, but no matter. Mary was confused, too.

But there, at the intersection of love and loss, Christ dwells.

Whether we are jostling with our friends to show off or barely holding it together while we stand next to the grave of a loved one, Christ meets us there. Christ comes to us, calling us by name. Calling us into and out of and beyond ourselves. Standing there where love and loss are intertwined. Standing there - unwavering -  beyond death, beyond understanding, beyond the illusion of our separateness.

Standing there holding it all together.

With us. For us. In us. Beyond us.

Even now. May it be so.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

[1] https://comelearnrest.com/2015/04/06/resurrection/

Sunday, April 7, 2019

“Jesus Saves”

2 Corinthians 5: 16-21
April 7, 2019
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

If we put 100 Christians together in a room and asked them what Christianity is all about, we would get more than 100 answers. Christianity is a pretty big place, after all.One answer I am fairly confident we would hear is some version of this one: Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.

Whew! There is a LOT to unpack in that sentence, isn’t there? Some of the other things we might hear under the surface of that statement are….
  • salvation is about going to heaven after we die
  • Like a sacrificial lamb, Jesus’s blood covers our sins
  • God needed to be paid a ransom for our sins in order to save us from hell

….and probably a lot of other assumptions, too.

This is certainly the way I learned about Christianity as a child. I learned that we humans were sinful and that our sins would make us go to hell after we died….EXCEPT(!) Jesus had come and, through his death, he took on everyone’s sins, and his sacrifice cleared our sins, enabling us to go to heaven, saving us.

I am guessing this is familiar to a lot of you, right? I know, from talking with many of you over the years, that for some of you this understanding of Jesus simply doesn’t work for you anymore….that you find it to be problematic.

What I didn’t know for a long time was that this is NOT the only way to understand the phrase “Jesus saves.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that there were other ways to understand salvation, other ways to understand the crucifixion, other ways to understand Resurrection. One of the things I appreciate about being a part of the United Church of Christ is that there is no requirement that we will all believe the same things. “Belonging” in the UCC isn’t about what we believe, it’s about our commitment to be travelers together as we seek to follow Jesus.

When I read this week’s text from 2 Corinthians, where Paul is talking about how we can become “new creations” through Christ, it made me think about the many, many ways I’ve heard other Christians explain the newness they’ve found through Christ. And so I’d like to just lift up some of the diversity of experience within Christianity this morning. My hope is that you might feel encouraged to grapple with what it means to you to call Jesus savior. Maybe that language feels good to you. Maybe it doesn’t. However it feels, know that we don’t all have to feel the same way. We don’t have to believe the same things in order to love each other or support one another. Thanks be to God!

Okay, so obviously books and books and books have been written about this topic over literal centuries. This brief sermon is not going to be at all comprehensive and may feel a little disjointed. Can we still dip a toe into these waters together this morning?

Great.

So….let’s start with the idea of salvation. What do we mean when we speak of salvation? Well, some folks are thinking primarily about what happens after we die. But others think about salvation as something that happens here and now. The quality of our life, before death, can change significantly when we decide form ourselves in the Way of Jesus.

For some Christians, the statement “Jesus saves” is less about what happens after death and it’s also not really about Jesus’s death, either. Some people find salvation through Jesus’s life and ministry, seeing him primarily as a model and teacher. When we try to literally follow in the footsteps of Jesus, living the way he showed and the way he taught, we can find ourselves as new creations. Our daily life on this planet may be transformed. That’s one way of understanding “Jesus saves.”

Others have said, “Yes, that’s important, but what are we supposed to do with the prominence of Jesus’s death and resurrection in our holy texts?” A big part of what makes Jesus unique are these accounts.

Some would says that, just as we learn how to live by watching Jesus live, we also learn how to die by watching Jesus die. One of the key functions of religion is to help us humans grapple with what it means to be mortal….because none of us are getting out of here alive. For some Christians, having a savior show us how to die is a powerful and important thing.

Father Richard Rohr often talks about descending religions vs ascending religions. He says Christianity is a descending religion. God “descends” to earth in the form of an infant human. Jesus “descends” to death. The work of being Christian is about getting comfortable with our mortality, llearning how to descend gracefully. Through this work, we find salvation, and Jesus is a qualified guide. That’s another way to understand “Jesus Saves.”

Now I want to shift gears a tiny bit and talk about the first part of that statement: Jesus. More specifically, I want to talk about the idea of Christ, which is not Jesus’s last name, but a title. It means “anointed one,” Messiah, savior. Although we are accustomed to thinking of Jesus and Christ as synonymous, there are some theologians who have pulled them apart a bit. Some Christians believe that the Christ-force, which is God, has existed for all eternity and has been revealed to us in numerous ways, including Jesus.

I’m going to say that again, because it’s a lot to take in: some Christians believe that the Christ-force, which is God, has existed for all eternity and has been revealed to us in numerous ways, including Jesus.

Some say that this Christ-force (God) is revealed to us in all of creation, through the ancient stories of the First Testament, and is still speaking to us even today. Jesus of Nazareth, who is imbued with the Christ-force, isn’t just a one-off. Instead, he points the way to a more universal truth which is that God is present in every thing and for all times. Because this is so very hard for us humans to believe and remember, some would say Jesus saves because he reminds us of Emmanuel: God with us. Some Christians believe this was a unique aspect of Jesus, while others see the Incarnation as a reminder of God’s presence in all creation.

For many, the idea that God is present with us here on earth….either through a presence that permeates all space and time OR through the unique person of Jesus Christ, feels very much like salvation. This sense that we are never alone, never separate from that ultimate force of Love that is for us….that’s a very comforting thought. It’s a belief that helps us transcend their fears about death because it helps us remember that God is with us even through that transition into whatever comes next. It also encourages and inspires us to try and be our best selves or seek the good in other people because if God is always present, Love is always present.

When I hear Paul’s words to the church at Corinth…. “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!” I think about the ways I have experienced the Christ-force in my own life. I think about the Christ that I see in the birds and squirrels who hop and scurry around the bird feeder in our yard. I am reminded of the Christ that I’ve witnessed in the faces of people I love….and even in the faces of total strangers. I think about the ways that I’ve found new life even in the midst of great pain and suffering. I am reminded of how the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection give me hope that there’s always something more. And I think about Jesus’s death bearing witness to God’s solidarity for and with those who are oppressed….and how that solidarity points towards liberation for all people.

What do you hear when Paul says we are being made new? What comes to your mind when someone says “Jesus saves?” Your answer today may not be what it was five years ago, or what it will be five years from now. Your answer may feel firm and wonderous….or murky and elusive. You may be so put-off by these questions that right now isn’t even the right time for you to engage with them.

And yet….still we are able to choose to travel together in this work of being human….this work of following Jesus together. Thanks be to God for companions on the journey.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

”Letting go of resentment. Cultivating grace.”

“Letting go of resentment. Cultivating grace.”
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 31, 2019
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS

Even Jesus couldn’t put God into a neat and tidy box. This God that our ancestors worshiped….that Jesus revealed to us through his very presence...that we still struggle to engage and encounter. This God will not be explicated, made palatable, contained.

We try, with words, to approximate our experiences of the Holy….but words fail, no matter how carefully we try to choose them. I think this is part of the reason that Jesus spoke in parables...even for Jesus, there were certain aspects of God that defied neat and tidy explanations. And so it made more sense to speak of them in stories. Stories that engage our senses. Stories that invite us to be participants, not merely observers, as we seek to understand and experience God. (As a side note, this is also why rituals, like gathering at the table for Holy Communion, are so powerful. They don’t explain God to us, they invite us to participate in the reality of God.)

Of all of the things that are difficult to understand about God, one of the most difficult, I think, is God’s grace. Words may only be approximations, but these words from the Rev. Paul Zahl resonate with me: “Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is loving coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable…” [1]

When Jesus tried to explain God’s grace to his followers, he often used parables. “The kingdom of God was like this:
...a sower went out to sow…
...a master went out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard…
...there was a man who had two sons…

You know, I never liked this parable about the prodigal son when I was a child. Because, of course, I saw myself in the role of the older son: responsible, dependable, dutiful. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to raise your hand if you identify, but I know I can’t be the only one here who TOTALLY understands why the older son was so grumpy and resentful when his younger brother came home and was warmly received. And so, for many years, I primarily thought this story was a cautionary tale. Just one more thing to check off on a long list of things to check off if I wanted to be a good person. “Don’t be resentful like the older son.” Check.

And that is one way to read the story, for sure. But to put the older son at the center of the story is to miss a lot of what is happening here. For starters, the older son is not the main character (as much as he might like to be). In fact, if you stopped the story after verse 24, it would feel very different. Because verses 11-24 are all about the younger son and his father. The younger son asks for his inheritance early, he goes off, wastes it, falls on hard times, finds himself shoulder to shoulder with pigs (actual pigs, eating out of the trough with them), and finally, at the end of his rope, decides he needs to go home, head hung down in shame, to beg his father to take him in as a servant.

He arrives home and before he can even apologize for his actions, his father runs to greet him, embracing him warmly, welcoming him back to the family, and throwing a party in his honor. “Let us eat and celebrate,” he says, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

If the story ended there, it would just be a warm, fuzzy, feel-good story about God’s grace and love, right? How sweet that God loves us even when we are unlovable. How nice to be held in God’s tender care even when we mess up big-time.

But then (but THEN!) we are reminded there is another character in this story. At the very beginning, Jesus said, “there was a man who had two sons.” And the older son is toiling in the fields, just as he’s been doing day-after-day, year-after-year. When he comes back after a long day’s work, he is surprised to discover a party. Music, dancing, the smell of a juicy steak roasting over the fire.

He is filled with anger.

The resentment of the older son is certainly easy to understand. And that cautionary aspect of the story, is a good teaching. Because when we allow ourselves to be cast in the role of the older son, we miss out on so much in life. When we constantly compare ourselves to others...when we work ourselves to the bone hoping to be recognized….when we hold onto anger and resentment because the people we are closest to don’t behave the way we think they should….well, when we do those things, we miss out on a lot of parties.

When we cling to resentment, we often miss out on joy. We often destroy relationships. We often find ourselves on the outside looking in, alone.

But the reaction of the older son does something else, too. It highlights what is, I think, the more important message of this story. The older son’s reaction invites us to grapple with the scandalous nature of God’s grace.

I imagine someone in the crowd as Jesus told this story sputtering at the end, “But that’s not fair! The father was wrong! He didn’t treat his sons fairly!” And then maybe Jesus smiled, answering only with his eyes.

God’s grace doesn’t seem fair to us humans. If there’s a force in the universe that loves us completely, no matter how messed up we are, well, then, where’s the incentive for good behavior? How is that fair to those who work hard to be decent human beings? Where’s the justice?

These are good questions.

(Lengthy pause.)

Oh, you thought I was going to answer them?

Jesus told stories to try and approximate the radical nature of God’s love and grace and care...which seemed as unfathomable to ancient ears as they are to us today.

I was listening to a podcast with Father Richard Rohr earlier this week where he talked about how we humans struggle to understand the depth of God’s care for us. Rohr said that he’s been told that human brains are actually unable to conceive of the infinite, so maybe it’s not our fault that we struggle to understand God’s scandalous grace and love. [2]

But again and again, Jesus invites us into the story. He doesn’t give pat answers. He simply weaves stories that seek to unveil just the tiniest bit of who God is….and what our life might be like if we were to live more fully aware of God’s presence around and in and through us.

When words fail, art sometimes steps in to fill the void. This is why all the great world religions are full of art. Music, visual arts, poetry, architecture. These are all ways that we try to enter the story.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to read Henri Nouwen’s classic book The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen was a famous pastor and theologian who was from the Netherlands and spent most of his adult years in North America (fun fact: as a young man he trained in psychology with Karl Menninger in Topeka). Nouwen was a prolific writer and often wrote about his personal and private struggles. He wrote about complex relationships, loneliness, depression….and the messiness of trying to live a faithful life.

A few years before he died, back in the 90s, he visited the Hermitage in St. Petersburg to spend time in contemplation with Rembrandt’s work from 1669, the Return of the Prodigal son. You may have noticed you have a reproduction of it in your bulletin this morning. From this encounter flowed an entire spiritual journey which Nouwen shares in his book.

One of the things you’ll notice as you look at the painting is that the focus is on the father and younger son. The older son stands alone, at a slight distance, receding into the shadows a bit. Our eyes are drawn to the place where the younger son encounters his father. Nestled into the father’s body, warm and strong hands grasping his shoulders, the son is welcomed home.

Nouwen notes that Rembrandt created this painting near the end of his life. The wisdom contained within was hard-borne from pain and suffering during his life. As a young man, he lost three children in their infancy. Only his fourth son survived, and his young wife died shortly after the child was born. Later in life, struggled immensely to make ends meet. One of the greatest painters Europe has ever known was buried in an unmarked paupers’ grave. This painting of the Prodigal Son was made shortly after his son died.

Nouwen says that Vincent Van Gogh once looked at this work and said, “You can only paint a painting like this when you have died so many deaths.” [3]

Rembrandt and Nouwen knew what it was like to have died many deaths. They knew the relief of falling in front of God, utterly destroyed, and trusting that God’s warm embrace would be there to catch them as they fell.

God’s scandalous grace may seem insufferable, unfair, inconceivable when we stand at a distance like the older son. But when we stumble, when we fall, when we die those many deaths that are ours to endure over the course of a lifetime….God’s scandalous grace feels like good news indeed.

Thanks be to God for all of the things about the Holy that make no sense at all.

Amen.

[1] Sprinkle, Preston. Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us, foreword
[2] Another Name for Every Thing podcast, season 1, episode 5.