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One Family. Period. (March 31, 2019)

This was my sermon, given at Green Mountain United Methodist Church as part of an ecumenical “Pulpit Exchange.”

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: . . . 11 “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “

I am so pleased that it’s been a full ten years now that the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have enjoyed full-communion partnership. That is significant for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that we can do this kind of pulpit swap without worrying about kickback from our respective bishops.

But also, together we are making a statement to the world that unity in Christ can be celebrated in the very midst of our diversity. Even when you note our distinctive histories and practices, we have much more in common than we have differences. That matters.

Far too often the world only sees the church expressing division and disunity. They only notice our self-righteous declarations of correct doctrine. They only pay attention to those times of arrogant positioning on narrow biblical interpretation. In the face of that, together we are proclaiming to the world unity in Christ. And if they take a look at the Methodists and the Lutherans, they will see what a celebration of unity in the midst of diversity looks like.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that in our world this message of unity and common purpose is far more important than any message of division or exclusion.

It seems to me that we set an example for the rest of the church as we recognize the diversity among us and still joyfully celebrate our unity in Christ.

It seems to me that in the midst of divisive activity meant to exclude certain people, we can boldly proclaim that by the grace of God we are One Church that has room for all.

And the United Methodist Church, through public statements by the Western Jurisdiction, the Mountain Sky Conference, the Council of Bishops, the Commission on a Way Forward, and notably the actions and voice of this congregation, are claiming the life-changing love of Jesus Christ for ALL people.

We in the ELCA, and specifically we at Lutheran Church of the Master proudly stand with you in support and admiration as you boldly proclaim on Green Mountain that God’s love includes everyone—without exception. Regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, documentation, political views, religion, or anything else that to some may divide, you reveal the risen Christ by lovingly including anyone. I’m proud to stand in this pulpit today.

You walk in good company. Not only with Methodist tradition, but also with scriptural consistency of God’s radical, extravagant, all-inclusive love. Today’s text is just one of many that make clear the radical love for all of God’s people. I want to turn to that now.

A father loves both his sons. Even though they are as different as night and day. The younger son is selfish and disrespectful. He’ll get a share of the property after his father has died. But asking for his share of the family property before then is way out of line. The father doesn’t have to grant the request—some would say he would be foolish to do so. It not only is reckless, but makes the father (and the whole family) look untrustworthy to the entire community.

Yet the only thing this parent hopes for is the return of this child. If you notice, the parent doesn’t wait for this prodigal to repent or make amends or prove they won’t do this foolish thing again. No, the point is that this parent’s love for their child knows no limits, no boundaries, no conditions. If this horrible child is loved this much by their parent, how much more is the Divine love for any of us. Without limits. Without boundaries. Without conditions. Love that seems foolish, extravagant, beyond reason. Love that has to be celebrated with a party. Love that restores this child, not just into the periphery, but to full status as part of the family—complete with rings and robes and sandals. Because all are invited. All are included. All are loved. There is One Family, and whether this child deserves it or not isn’t the question. The only thing that matters is the waiting arms of this loving parent. That’s what God’s love looks like. That’s the image in which we are created and that we are called to reveal to the world.

There’s also the elder child, the self-righteous one who clings to their resentment and anger. They think this inclusion of the unworthy sibling is unjust—even unrighteous. From this child’s perspective, their parent’s love for the younger one shows a disregard for faithfulness. Yet, this elder one knows better than anyone how radical God’s all-encompassing love is. They are offended and scandalized by this love. Because it goes beyond sensibility, beyond righteousness. Unconditional love is going to be offensive to some. Because it includes people some of us would rather not include.

So this loving parent reaches out to this child too. They affirm this child’s place in the family and invite this one also to come to the party. Because all are invited. All are included. All are loved. There is One Family, and whether this child deserves it or not isn’t the question. The only thing that matters is the waiting arms of this loving parent. That’s what God’s love looks like. That’s the image in which we are created and that we are called to reveal to the world.

As we strive to love all people the way God loves all people, we can’t help but be One Church.

Both children are included. Both have a place in God’s love. Whether any child deserves it or not isn’t the question. Because all are invited. All are included. All are loved. There is One Church, and whether any of us deserve it or not isn’t the question. The only thing that matters is the waiting arms of a loving God. That’s what God’s love looks like. That’s the image in which we are created and that’s what GMUMC is revealing to the world.

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Posted by on March 30, 2019 in Sermon

 

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A Foolish, Wasteful, Outlandish God (March 6, 2016)

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: . . . 11 “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What do you think? Is it possible to overstate God’s love?

Is it possible to exaggerate God’s grace?

Is it possible to make too much of God’s forgiveness?

How can we ever “overdo” these primary aspects of God? If anything, we have a tendency to restrict them or narrow them or lessen them. We usually add some condition to God’s love with something like “when we come to God ” or “if we repent.” That misrepresents God, and makes God into something more resembling us than, well, God.

Which is why this parable is so beautiful. It is about as strong a statement of God’s grace as anything in scripture. Even though we call it “The Prodigal Son,” it’s actually a parable about the hugeness of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. This is a parable that tells us that God goes overboard, that God is extravagant, that God’s love is so unconditional that it doesn’t make any sense.

Take a look at it. No matter what’s going on in your life, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how hard you work, no matter how good you are,no matter what you believe, the bottom line is the same in this parable: you are loved, you are included, you are wanted as part of God’s celebration of love—love for you.

The younger son asks for his inheritance—basically telling his father he has no use for his father alive. He’s wants to act as if his father was already dead. Are you one who doesn’t get along with your family?

He then pretends he has no family or community that cares about him to the extent that he goes off to a distant country. Are you one who pushes away anyone that might care about you?

He spends everything in dissolute living: completely, selfishly, and foolishly. Are you one who is foolish with money, who wastes it or makes really bad choices with it?

Then he finds himself living out the consequences of his really bad decisions. He’s starving. Are you one who doesn’t have enough?

Finally he realizes there is a source of food—but it’s back home. He has already abandoned his place in the family, so he thinks maybe he can get hired on as a worker on his father’s property. He practices his speech to convince his father to let him work on the farm. Maybe he’s sincere, maybe he isn’t. It doesn’t matter, because—

The father doesn’t give him a chance to make his speech. The father abandons all dignity and decorum and runs out to meet his son and embraces him. The father loves him and welcomes this son regardless of anything the son does or doesn’t do, says or doesn’t say. That’s how exceptional the father’s love is!

Then the father throws a huge party for this wayward son. Everything goes into it! The biggest and most wasteful use of funds there ever was! It’s a foolish thing to do. But that’s how outlandish the father’s love is!

Then the elder son catches wind of what’s going on. The good son, the obedient son, the loyal son. Is that you?

He is resentful that his brother gets everything! Are you one who feels slighted because others are getting more than you are?

He refuses to join the party, because it’s stupid, because it is wasteful, because he resents the injustice of it, because he feels as if all his work for all these years is simply taken for granted. Is this you?

But the father comes out to this son too, just like the father did for the younger son, and pleads with him to join the party. Because the father’s love includes this son too.

And the father tells him that everything he has belongs to this son, and that this son has a special place in the father’s heart. Please come with me. Please come to the party. Please celebrate with me. Please eat and drink and dance. Because I love you both. The father’s love doesn’t leave anyone or anything out. No matter what.

And it doesn’t make sense to us sometimes. And we think God has to have some limits, some conditions. Right? It would be foolish for God to love that way.

And that’s the point. God simply loves you. All out, over the top, foolishly loves you. God throws away dignity, wisdom, protocol, reason because God is head-over-heels in love with you.

Whether you have a close family or your family has disowned you. God loves you completely.

Whether you have a life filled with supporting people or are completely alone. God loves you absolutely.

Whether you are foolish, wasteful, and addicted, or whether you are prudent, wise, and resourceful. God loves you madly.

Whether you’ve cause your own difficulties or whether your difficulties aren’t your fault at all. God loves you passionately.

Whether you love God or whether you disregard God. God loves you fiercely.

Whether you were dragged here or whether you never miss a Sunday. God’s love for you never changes.

Whether you throw away every opportunity or whether you are waiting to be recognized for your hard work. God loves you more than you know.

And there’s a party. For all those God loves. For you. Because sometimes love just makes you celebrate.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2016 in Sermon

 

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God Loves Dysfunctional Families–Even Yours: 4 Lent

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Of all the parables Jesus tells in the gospels, this is, I believe, my favorite one. For some reason, God has captured me with this story. No matter where I am in my faith journey, God speaks to me in it.

Let me tell you what God is saying this time. This story is not about a son repenting but about how deeply the father loves him. This is not about the son coming home but about the father’s joy at feeling whole again. This is a story about the joy of a father overflowing out of himself into the whole town! He’s grieved the loss of one of his sons. He’s longed for both his children be in the house, was desperate for his love to be made complete in a relationship with both kids. And now it seems to have happened! The son who left has come back. The one who was lost is found. His family is restored! Broken relationships are whole again! They get to start anew, all is well, all is forgiven. Though the younger son has a speech all practiced, the father isn’t even listening—because the father’s deepest desire is fulfilled: his relationships with those he loves are whole again.

But there’s a new problem that develops at the end of the story. At the beginning of the parable the younger son removes himself from a relationship with the father; now at the end the older son is doing the same thing. He cannot share his father’s joy. He is separating himself.

Isn’t that the way with families, though? You kind of get one relationship doing OK and another one fractures. In spite of the love you share, something goes wrong, a misunderstanding takes place, a word is spoken carelessly, an unwise decision is made, and everyone is affected. It just seems like when one relationship is finally doing OK, there’s a new misunderstanding with someone else.

Families are complicated. They’re messy. Every family at a deep level understands itself to be somewhat dysfunctional. Quirks, weird behaviors, painful issues that aren’t talked about, unresolved resentments that can stay under the surface, situations where you kind of have to walk on eggshells to keep the peace. Families are difficult. They can sometimes be hard work.

The only thing families have going for them is love. If the basis of family relationships is everybody behaving well, then no family has a chance. It’s not good behavior, it’s just loving each other. If in some imperfect, broken way, we manage to do that, that’s the best we can do. Everything else has to fit somehow around that.

That’s expressed in this parable. A strained family with damaged relationships. Two different brothers, each with his own brokenness. One runs away to find his own life, the other thinks good behavior will give him life. But it is the father’s great love for both of his sons that is the point of the story. Simple unconditional love for his two very different sons. A love that reaches out to each one, that includes each one, that drives his relationship with each one.

If good behavior was the foundation of their relationship, the older son would be the favorite. If individuality and self-expression was the foundation of their relationship, it would be the younger son. But that’s not the case. The father just loves his children. Period. That’s all the matters, it’s the bottom line, it’s the foundational piece.

So, of course the father will welcome the prodigal son back home. Of course he’ll run out to him in a very undignified fashion, give him robes, rings, parties, fatted calves.

And, of course the father goes out to the son who has always been obedient to bring him into the party. The father doesn’t love this older son any less, doesn’t appreciate him any less. But this is a celebration of the father’s love and joy that that has been restored and simply can’t be contained. It’s spilling out everywhere! The father thinks everybody should be celebrating! A fatted calf is way more than one family can eat; the whole town is included! Everyone is invited to share in the joy of the father, because this son of his—one of the sons that was lost and that he loves so deeply—is now found.

Whether that son leaves again or not isn’t the point. Whether the other son continues comes to the party or not isn’t the point. The father loves them both, no matter what. When love wins out, that’s a cause for celebration.

This is a story of the power of a father’s love. Of God’s love.

And it’s not based on good behavior; it’s not based on obedience. It’s not based on fixing brokenness or repentance or anything else that we do or don’t do. It’s a story of God’s love for each one of you. Prodigal, obedient, reckless, faithful, inside, outside, connected, on the fringes. You cannot make God love you more with obedience or repentance, and you cannot make God love you less with disbelief or selfishness. God’s love for you simply cannot change. Period. God has a death and resurrection invested in you. God’s love isn’t going anywhere.

And here’s where it gets fun. Sometimes, we see God’s love win out. Sometimes we get to see one of God’s beloved children get a new start, experience real forgiveness, recognize that they have been touched by grace. Sometimes we even get to be part of that. But always, we are invited to celebrate. God speaks in this parable. And the point isn’t to call sinners to repentance as much as it is to invite everyone to celebrate God’s love.

If we do nothing else in worship, we should at least celebrate the reality of God’s love that has made us new. Sometimes we get to see that in real ways. Always we get to celebrate it. God’s love is for all people. God’s love wins out. You are forgiven, and we’re all invited to that celebration.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2013 in Sermon

 

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