Prodigal Son 3 – Beyond Belief

In 1859 Charles Blondin became famous for walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  After his first successful attempt he began to do it many times with different gimmicks.  But, the time he is most famous for is the day he walked across niagara falls blindfolded pushing a wheelbarrow.

The crowd ooh’d and aah’d with each step, the tension mounting over each movement.  And when he completed his 1/4 mile walk the crowd erupted with cheers.  The story goes that Blondin played to their emotions asking if they believed he could do it again.  The crowds cheered that yes they believed he could do it again, that he was the greatest tightrope walker ever, that he could do anything.  Then Blondin responded by inviting someone from the crowd to get into the wheelbarrow.

The crowd that had just been cheering, dead silent. . .  No one volunteered.

There is a difference between believing something and having faith in something.  The crowds believed Blondin could do it, but no one was willing to get into the wheelbarrow.

For the las couple weeks we have been looking at the parable of the prodigal son, and we’ve learned a great deal.  But, none of these were actually the point of the story.  This story was told in a real place, at a real time, for a reason, and this time I want to get at the reason Jesus told this story.  In order to do that we have to back up to the beginning of the chapter.  At the beginning of chapter 15 of Luke we find that “tax collectors and sinners” were all gathering around Jesus, and instead of sending them away, Jesus welcomes them.  And there’s some pharisees and religious leaders who begin to mutter about Jesus hanging out and eating with sinners.  They seem to have this idea that if Jesus was really of God he would be too good to hang out with the likes of these folks.  But, Jesus doesn’t seem to care about appearances.  He doesn’t seem concerned at all about what people think of him.  He knows what he’s there to do, and if it makes him look bad in the process of it, it doesn’t really seem to bother him.  Actually, in some places he’s accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.  He hangs out with the wrong crowd, and people, especially religious people, don’t think highly of it.  So, he tells a series of stories.

The first story is about a good shepherd who saves a wandering sheep.

The second is about a woman who finds a lost coin.

And the third is about a father who has two sons.

Most every sermon I’ve heard on this story has made the focus the son who rebels.  They tend to talk about God’s love, and how nothing you can do is beyond the reach of God’s love, how God is always welcoming us back.  These are good messages, it’s even a part of the first of this series.  But, it’s not the point of the story; it’s not the reason Jesus tells the story.

The story is actually about the older brother who refuses to go in to the party.

The story ends with the older brother refusing to go in, and the father telling him that everything he has belongs to the older son, but that they must celebrate because the other son was lost and is found, was dead but is alive.  If this story were a movie, we wouldn’t be too pleased with the ending.  We are left asking what happened.  Did the older brother go in and join the party?  Did he decide to stay outside while everyone else had a great time?

And that’s the point.  Jesus is asking this question of the pharisees and religious leaders.  These other people are growing closer to God and they are upset that Jesus isn’t acting the way they think he should.  The question is whether they will join the party, or whether they’ll continue to sit there and criticize.  It reminds me of another event in Jesus’ life, the story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19.

One day Jesus was passing through Jerico.  By this point people knew who he was and crowds began to gather to see him.  And there’s this tax collector named Zacchaeus, who was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.  Since he was short he couldn’t see over the crowd, so he climbed up a tree in order to see Jesus.  Jesus spots him in the tree, tells him to come down, that he has to stay at Zacchaeus’ house today.  And everyone begins to scoff because once again he’s hanging out with “sinners.”  As a result of this encounter Zacchaeus pledges to give half his possessions to the poor and give back four times the amount of anything he had cheated from anyone.

But this is the question, why did Zacchaeus have to climb the tree?  Yes, because he was short, and yes, because he had no friends.  But there’s one big reason Zacchaeus had climb the tree.

The Crowds.

There are all these people trying to get close to Jesus, and their attempts to get close to him is keeping Zacchaeus from being able to get close to him.  A large group of good, well meaning people are simply trying to to get close to God, and in the process they are keeping others from getting close to God.

The crowd in this story is a lot like the Pharisees that caused Jesus to tell the prodigal son story.

There are places where Jesus even says to do what the Pharisees say, for the most part they’ve got pretty good doctrine.  But faith is something beyond belief.  In the book of James he says that even the demons believe the right things and shutter.  Faith is beyond belief, it’s an actual trust.  And what we’ve really been doing for the last couple weeks is talking about faith development, growing a mature faith.

In the first stage of faith we most all want something from God.  Maybe it was some big evangelism crusade, and you wanted God to save you from Hell. Maybe you had gone your own way for a while and everything came crashing down around you, so you wanted God to fix your life.  But, whatever the reason, for the most part most of us get on a path towards God because like the two sons we want something.  But hopefully, if we hang around long enough we’ll get to a second phase.

In the second stage we move from wanting something from God to wanting God.  Hopefully, we’ll hang around enough and experience God enough to discover that a deep experience of God is more valuable than the stuff we can want from God.  And it’s not that we no longer want things from God.  We will still want safety for family, for the cop to not pull us over when we spot them on the side of the road, etc.  It’s just that wanting something from God is no longer the focus, we sort of transcend that, but it’s still included.  But, if we get close enough something changes in us and we move toward the third phase.

In the third stage of faith we move from wanting God to having been around God enough that we become somewhat like God.  Our focus goes from getting God to wanting what God wants.  Our thoughts and heartbeat become increasingly like God’s.  In this stage of faith we are actually willing to sacrifice our relationship with God in order to see happen what God wants to happen.

Imagine being in Jerico that day, seeing the crowds, seeing Zacchaeus.  And imagine for just a minute that you wanted to see Jesus, but once you see Zacchaeus it becomes more important to you that he see Jesus than that you see Jesus.  Imagine, you go to Zach, you take him by the arm, and you begin to drag him through the crowds, and you bring him to Jesus.

Of course, the irony is in the fact that in giving up wanting to see Jesus so that Zacchaeus can encounter him, you actually get closer than you would have otherwise.

It is possible to believe all the right things and want a deep relationship with God more than anything else, and to actually stand in the way of what God is wanting to do right there in your midst.

Last week we talked about the story of the demoniac, but we didn’t actually finish the story.  After the swine have died, and the people have asked Jesus to leave the man from whom Jesus had cast the demons asks Jesus to let him go with him.  He wants to become a follower of Jesus.

Now in the gospels we have a lot of people Jesus invites to follow him.  Some leave everything they have, drop what they’re doing and immediately follow him.  Others just can’t do it.  They have too much wealth, they have something going on, or some other excuse.  But this time someone asks to follow Jesus, and it is one of the extremely rare occasions where Jesus says no.  Jesus tells the man to go back to the town and tell of what God has done for him.

This is a picture of the ruins of a byzantine monastery at Kursi.  Kursi actually became one of the major epicenters of the early church, and it all traces back to an encounter one man had with Jesus, and the fact that he was willing to listen to Jesus enough to go about doing what Jesus wanted rather than following Jesus himself.

First stage, we want something from God.

Second stage, we want God.

Third stage, we want what God wants.

Because it’s completely possible to be so focused on getting your personal relationship with God deeper that you can actually stand in the way of others getting closer to God.  It’s possible to be so occupied with getting closer to God that you actually stand in the way of what God is wanting to do.

The point of our faith is not to simply have a list of correct doctrines to check off.  It’s a bit like a trampoline.  We can know everything about it, what the frame is made of, how many springs it has, what it’s weight capacity is, etc.  We can believe that it will support our weight and that we could jump on it.  But, the point of a trampoline is not belief, it’s to jump.  And unless we actually jump on it, we don’t actually have any faith in it.  Similarly our faith is something that is to be lived out.  We are not to simply believe a bunch of things about God, we are to trust God.  We are to live out our faith, not in order to try and earn God’s love, but as a response because we have been so captivated by God’s divine love that we already have regardless of what we have or haven’t done.  We respond with this lived out faith because we are compelled to by the vision of what God wants this world to be like and we want to be agents of helping bring heaven to earth.

Blondin walks a quarter mile across a tightrope blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow.  The crowds cheer until he invites a volunteer to hop in the wheelbarrow for him to do it again.  The crowd goes quiet, no one accepts the invitation.  However, in August of 1859 his manager, Harry Concord, climbed on Blondin’s back and rode across the falls.

It’s one thing to believe, it’s another to to trust, to have faith.

Prodigal Son 1 – Worth and Waiting

So, there was a man who had two sons.  The younger says to the father that he wants his share of the inheritance now (a very 1st century Jewish way of saying, I wish you were dead).  The father could say no, but he doesn’t.  The father actually does it, he gives the younger son the inheritance.  The son then goes to a foreign country and wastes his wealth in wild living.  Then a famine comes in.  Having spent his wealth and being hungry, the son hires himself out feeding swine.  He is so hungry in fact that he longs to eat what he’s feeding the pigs (yum, sounds delicious).  But then the son comes to his senses, and realizes it would be better to tuck his tail between his legs and head home.  He prepares a speech, “Father I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”  As he’s coming home the father spots him a long way off, runs to him, throws his arms around him, and begins kissing him.  The son tries to get out his speech, but the father isn’t interested, he’s ordering rings and sandals and robes to be put on the son.  He throws a party for the whole area because he is so glad his son that he had been so worried about had made it back home.

But, the older brother hears the party and refuses to go in.  The father comes out pleading with the older son to come in.  But, the older son is upset, saying that the younger had gone off and squandered the wealth and in return gets a party.  He, the older brother, on the other hand has done everything right and never even got a little party for his friends.

Part of what strikes me about this story is the speech the younger son prepares, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”  There’s something in that word, worthy, that just stands out to me.  I almost want to sit down with the younger son and go, let me get this straight, before you were worthy to be called his son, now you’ve messed up and you’re no longer worthy to be called his son?  Is that how parent/child relationships work?  Is it about earning attaining, and achievement?  And we don’t just see this with the younger son.  It’s implicit in the older brother’s response – he’s squandered your (our/my) wealth, whereas I haven’t.  It’s as if he’s saying he isn’t worthy to be called your son and have a party thrown.  I am.  I’ve done all the right things, I’ve done everything you’ve asked, and even though I’m worthy you haven’t done even a small get together for me and my friends.

Now, the father in the story represents God, just in case you didn’t know.

And while I find this dynamic, this use of the word worthy quite odd, I have found this is what we are often tempted to do.

Sometimes we tend to think of ourselves as unworthy of God’s love because of what we do or don’t do.

Sometimes we tend to think of ourselves as worthy of God’s love because of what we do or don’t do.

I have heard people say that they couldn’t come into a church because of the things they have done.  That if they came in the roof would collapse of God would strike them with lightning.

Yet, the image that Jesus paints of the Father is completely different.

This father has been sitting watching, waiting for the son to return.  He spots him a long ways off and runs to embrace him.

And it raises a question.  What is your image of God?  Is God this dark, cynical character waiting and watching for you to slip up, anticipating the moment you step out of line so that He can smite you?  Is that what God really wants, to punish and torture and all God needs is a justifiable excuse to take you down?  Or, is God more like the father in the story, filled with beauty, and love, and grace, waiting and watching for you to make a good choice so that God has an excuse to celebrate with you?  And this is an important questions, because as Thomas Merton once said,”That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

We tend to give our love based off of what people do.  We tend to assign worth to people based off of accomplishments and/or personal interactions.  But even we get out of this rut sometimes.

This is my boy Sam.  He is 5 years old, and hasn’t earned me a single dime.  As a matter of fact, he’s cost me quite a bit of money.  He hasn’t made a bunch great accomplishments, or done anything to merit being worthy of my love.  And yet, he’s my boy, and there’s nothing on the planet worth more to me than him.  There are times he makes choices that aggravate me and there are times I’m disappointed in decisions he makes.  But the reason I have those emotions are because I know what he can be, and I want so much more for him than what he’s choosing in that moment.  The fact is, there is nothing he can do to make me love him more, and there’s nothing he can do to make me love him less.  My love for him and his worth to me does not work in the scale that the two sons from the story seem to think it should.  And when I see this picture, I don’t simply see my son.  What I see is just a glimpse of what God feels toward us.  Only, what I’ve found is that God feels this so much more toward us than we could ever imagine.  Life is a gift.  Each moment, each breath, each conversation, each glimpse of beauty and experience of wonder is a gift given by a heavenly Father who says that everything He has is ours.  God is looking for an excuse to throw a party, and each moment we are invited to join in.

May you see God in the way Jesus presents the father in the story.  May you know that your worth is not found or lost in what you do or don’t do.  May you know the grace and love of God in an intimate way.

May your eyes be opened to the party that is being thrown, and may you join in it.

Announcement and Experiment

I think most know by now, but in June I’ll be back under an appointment.  I’ll be serving part time at Hopewell UMC.  This I am quite excited about.  So, for the last couple weeks I’ve been dusting off my sermonizing brainstorm abilities.  With this I have a little experiment I would like to try.

I love to give messages.  I enjoy the studying, learning about a topic or a passage, finding out about the background, finding new nuances, treasures that bring new life to a piece of scripture as well as my understanding of the world.  I like to sit and try to figure out the best way to present what I’ve found so that maybe it will resonate with others.  I would almost be happy writing messages without having to deliver them.  However, I do have an issue with sermons; it’s a one way conversation.

I bring all this stuff to the table, but in the typical worship environment there’s no room for questions, exploration, other’s ideas and thoughts.  I’m not a big fan of the simple talking head.

So, what I would like to do is try to experiment with technology to make the messages a bit more interactive.  Therefore, I am going to attempt to let you in on what I’ll be talking about.  I would love to hear your thoughts, what passages and topics mean to you.  I’m quite confident that the feedback will shape the messages, help them to take forms and shapes that will resonate with people in ways I would have never thought.

So, I will be starting at Hopewell on Father’s Day, and in holding with the tradition of my dad, I’m going to begin with the parable of the Prodigal Son.  At this point it is shaping up to be a three part series.

So, this story can be found in Luke 15:11-32.

I welcome most any and all thoughts, but for those who don’t have something immediate to say but would love to participate here are some questions to stimulate your thinking.

Questions:

What does this parable mean to you?  What is it about?

Who in the story do you resonate with?

Have you resonated with different characters at different times?

Why do you think the younger son asked for the inheritance?

Why do you think the older son stayed behind?

Why did the father give the younger son the inheritance?

What about the way it ends?  What do you think happens?

Why do you think Jesus told this parable?  Who was he speaking to and what point was he trying to make?

Why do you think Luke included this story?  How do you think it’s connected to the scriptures surrounding it?

Are there any words that stick out to you?

Do you think the younger son actually repented before returning home, or was this simply a “he came to his senses” calculated move?

If you were the father, would you be looking for the younger son, or would you go about your business and wait for him to tuck his tail between his legs and come crawling back?  Would you respond like the father, or would you make him suffer a bit?

Do you think this parable is connected to any other stories in the bible?

 

I look forward to hearing your responses.

Luke 15 Critiquing the Pharisees Part 1

As I previously mentioned I am starting a series of blogs about some of the parables of Jesus. Several of these stories have really captured my attention in unique ways for some time, and I wanted to share some of the dynamics and insights I’ve found within them. Some of the posts will be long, others will be extremely short. And of course I’d love to hear your thoughts along the way, get to share in the things that you’ve found that I’ve missed. So with that said, let’s get started. The first parable (or set of parables) I want to talk about is found in Luke 15, the familiar parable of the “Prodigal Son.”

The parable of the man with two sons commonly called the Prodigal Son doesn’t actually begin at verse 11. In actuality it starts no later than verse 1. This chapter begins with a scene in which Jesus is teaching and “tax collectors and sinners” were gathering to listen to him. The Pharisees and teachers of the law are grumbling about the kind of company Jesus welcomes and eats with. It is in response to this grumbling that Jesus tells three parables. The first is a parable concerning a lost sheep, the second is a parable about a lost coin, and the third is a parable concerning lost sons. These stories are interesting in that they serve in very subtle ways to both justify Jesus’ activity while simultaneously condemning the activity of the religious leaders of the day.

Question: Why is the sheep and the coin lost? Now certainly sheep can wander off, but by and large sheep tend to flock together, they’re followers. That’s why you wouldn’t want to mix sheep and goats. Goats wander, sheep follow. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a critique against the shepherd, but certainly could be especially in light of the second parable about the lost coin. Unlike animals, coins don’t simply wander off. The coin is obviously lost due to mismanagement (unless of course she has a two year old, in which case this would be completely understandable). How does someone lose a day’s wages?

Jesus is obviously defending himself, he is the one going off after those who are “lost.” But, could this also be a critique against the religious leaders of his day?
As we move toward the parable of the two sons we will see that lostness can occur for multiple reasons. But, looking at these two parables together we find that one reason for lostness can be mismanagement. Could it be that Jesus is saying to the religious leaders of his day that he wouldn’t have to be the one finding the sheep or coin if they had done their job correctly to begin with?