Monthly Archives: March 2016

03-27-16 EASTER: AN IDLE TALE

Please scroll below for the audio and text of Rev. Dr. Sumner’s Easter Sermon, but, first, here’s two videos from our Easter Service we thought we’d share 🙂 …

EASTER: AN IDLE TALE?

Luke 24: 1-12

 

Thomas Cahill is an author I’ve come to admire and enjoy. He is skilled at bringing history to life. He has written a series of books that he calls “The Hinges of History.”  It includes How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, and three other books. One of the other ones is called Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. That book, perhaps more than all the others, rightly describes the major hinge of our history: that is, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Without the last piece—the resurrection piece; the Easter piece—Jesus might have been known as just a loving man, or even a failed messiah. But on this morning ages ago, Easter made Jesus the hinge of history. Our calendars are organized around him with dates that are listed as either B.C. (Before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini: the year of OUR Lord!) What an honor for the risen Lord! Some have renamed the years before Christ as BCE or Before Common Era, and the years after Jesus as CE, or Common Era, but the hinge is still Jesus. What a tribute.

 

People through the ages have given testimony to the power of this day and to this man Jesus. Methodist minister and author Leslie Weatherhead, for example, wrote: “’Did the resurrection really happen?’ you ask. It was a long time ago, and the accounts vary. I am not going to attempt, this morning, to answer the question ‘How did it happen?’ I’ve attempted that in my book The Christian Agnostic, but in my mind I am certain that Christ survived death, proving his survival to his followers, [and] appearing to them repeatedly in ‘another form.’ And the fact that accounts differ seems to me to authenticate the story. Streamlined identity of story would make one suspicious of collusion.”  [“The Sunday After Easter,” sermon by Weatherhead]  Days before Jesus’ crucifixion, when he was gathered with his disciples, Jesus comforted them with these words according to John’s Gospel: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” The preacher Henry Sloan Coffin commented on this text, juxtaposing it with Jesus words from the cross. Coffin said: “Suppose when Jesus cried, ‘Father into Thy hands I commend my spirit’ there was no Father there, but an impersonal Force—the uncaring, unfeeling Order of Things—His life and death [would be  considered as] a ghastly blunder. ]That] he was pitiably deluded; and with the best of intentions he deluded others. He would then have been considered by] history as the supreme Charlatan.” Preachers today may be considering the Case for Easter from their pulpits, as a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney may argue the merits of case before a judge. But on Easter, preachers do not consider the merits of the Easter event before a judge; they do it for congregations, where some are doubters; some are seekers; and some are followers. And some are just bystanders with cheerful clothes! But what have others said about this Hinge of History event, this Easter event? Is it, indeed, an idle tale? Twentieth Century English Mystery writer Dorothy Sayers once wrote: “[This] is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to conditions he had laid down, and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. Is this the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero? If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy of being called exciting? The people who hanged Jesus [on a cross] never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought him too dynamic to be safe.” {“The Greatest Drama’]

 

Years of paintings, stories, and Sunday School classes may have watered-down, or made us paint pictures of Jesus with a soft brush. Instead, the one who shook the foundations of the world urged listeners to see the world as it might be, not the way it was. He urged people to love those who hate them; he told people not to retaliate, but to turn the other cheek. He talked about a world where everyone would have enough, in part because people shared with others.  He challenged human authority when it didn’t line up with Divine authority. But when it came to his Heavenly Father, he submitted, and listened and carried out Heaven’s plan.  This extraordinary man was not an earthly king, nor a prince, nor an elected leader. He was a carpenter from Nazareth who wanted people to think and feel on a higher plane. He asked the world to change when it was not ready to do so.  Is it ready now? Is the world ready to set aside vengeance for kindness? Hardly. How long will it take? Who can bring this message if not this King of kings and his bride, the church?

 

People throughout history have tried to describe Jesus’ impact on the earth, but few have done it as well as the anonymous person who wrote these words:

He was born in an obscure village, the son of a peasant woman.

He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter’s shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he became a wandering preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of those things one usually associates with greatness.

He had no credentials but himself.

He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies and went through a mockery of a trial. He was executed by the state. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind’s progress. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that One Solitary Life.

 

Who is Jesus to you: an historical figure; a religious leader; a Savior? Your answer matters, especially to God. If Jesus was just a Charlatan, as Leslie Weatherhead mused, or a scam; then 2000 years of faithful people have been fooled. But if we let the testimony of countless men, countless women, countless youth and children through the ages count for anything, we have a legacy of testimonies to the power of God, made most evident in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “He saved others; he could not save himself.” But God could save him; and did! And God, through Christ can save you too. You too can have everlasting life! Honor him; follow him; and learn from him. That can make all the difference.

 

It is Easter! We have followers here; seekers here; doubters here; and indifferent people here. Without lining up miles of people to testify to you, I hope you might consider Easter as nothing like an idle tale. It is the event around which our calendars are ordered.

 

Let me close with these words. The author of books like The Chronicles of Narnia, and Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, started life as a non-believer. He became a Christian, convinced of the things about which we speak on Easter. That is quite a change in worldview! In his essay “The Strangest Story of All,” he writes this:

We come to the strangest story of all, the story of the Resurrection. It is very necessary to get the story clear…. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had, for the very first time, been forced open. This is something quite distinct from mere ghost-survival. I don’t mean they disbelieved in ghost survival. On the contrary, they believe in it so firmly that, on more than one occasion, Christ had had to assure them that he was not a ghost. The point is that while believing in survival, they yet regarded the Resurrection as something totally different and new. The Resurrection [reports] are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being had arisen in the Universe. Something new had appeared in the Universe: as new as the first coming of organic life. This Man, after death, does not get divided into “ghost” and “corpse.” A new mode of being had arisen.

 

May the resurrected life, today, be more than a theory for you, from this day forward. May it be your reality with Jesus in the next life; in that Holy City.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 27, 2016

03-20-16 PALMS AND PASSION

Luke 19: 29-40

Have you ever felt like you were forsaken? Left to handle things on your own?  Wondering where God was?  The prophet Elijah once wondered that. Even though he was God’s prophet, his fear overcame his confidence in God. He was spent—worn down—after the contest of Mount Carmel, when King Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel, made him feel like a marked man.  In 1 Kings 19 he asked the Lord if he might die.  I have heard people ask that; tell me that they have asked the Lord if they could please die. Elijah was feeling that. He was discouraged and felt overwhelmed. So he lay down under a broom tree, a pathetically sparse tree that provided no shade. But God had not left him. God instructed an angel to be a holy messenger; holy messengers are around even today. This one said to Elijah, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too much for you.” The angel had a destination for him: a holy mountain: Sinai also called Horeb; the place where Moses encountered God when he received the Ten Commandments. Elijah went there and encountered God too, but not like Moses did. Instead, he faced wind, and earthquake, and fire: things often associated with the power of God. But God was not in them. Where was God? Gone? No; God was there, in a still small voice. God could be heard in the silence. And Elijah finally felt that God not only heard him, but responded to him. God never abandons his prophets.

At another time, the Bible tells the story of Job; most believe it is a fable of sorts, where God allows Satan to do whatever he wished to Job because he had faith that Job would never forsake him. And so the story goes that Job is faithful but he endures painful and agonizing events in his life. His wife doubts him; his friends taunt; and they say that Job must have done something wrong because God was cursing him so much.  Only later, after everyone had his say, and God thundered back a reply, did Job get his fortunes restored, twofold more than he had. God had never abandoned his faithful man Job.

The annals of history leave us with some others who also wondered about the presence of God: St. John of the Cross for example; the Spanish Carmelite monk imprisoned as a Christian by Christians. At first God seemed missing or distant; but eventually the scales fell from John’s eyes and he found God again, and he loved God with all his heart. Mother Teresa, we learned after her death, did her tireless work but sometimes wondered if God were present, or if God even cared as much as she did.  She was privately discouraged over many of her days, even though publically she showed faith.  God never left her either, and those for whom she cared were forever in the heart of the Almighty.

As Jesus entered Jerusalem all those years ago, he had cheering crowd of supporters, the scolding of Pharisees, and the threat of Romans close to calling a stop to Passover, which always drew Bike Week-like crowds for that holy week. Everyone was on edge because of the crowds, the noise, the people seeking lodging, and the many gatherings. One could cut the tension with a knife. In spite of that atmosphere, Jesus was headed into that mix. He was coming down the Mount of Olives, and a cheering crowd containing many political nationalists, met him, believing him to be the man who would overthrow the present government and return Israel to self-rule. Other people called him a king, and spread their garments on the road in front of him. The Nationalists waved the palm branch because, during the Jews’ one time of self-rule, the palm was the national symbol and was on their coins. They shouted “Hosanna,” which did not mean “Praise the Lord” like “hallelujah” meant; it meant “Save us!” It was a cry for political, and perhaps personal, revolt. In the beginning, Jesus heard and accepted the cries of adoration; he bathed in them to the point that when Pharisees told the disciples to quiet down, for fear of inciting a skirmish or riot, Jesus dismissed them. “If they be quiet,” he responded, even the stones will shout!”

Our Lord feels charged up; affirmed; and ready to carry out his tasks. There is darkness looming ahead for him, but not today. Today he feels bad for the city.  There is a place on the Mount of Olives where tradition says Jesus paused to utter his lament. He, begins to weep out of sorrow, and says: “If only you knew today the things that would keep the peace, but you do not. So peace will elude you and those who come after you.”

This week that we call Holy Week in the first century A.D. was a trying and dreadful time for Jesus. We don’t know if it was just to fulfill Scripture, to repeat it, or because he felt it, but on the cross he quoted Psalm 22, crying out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Had God left him? Perhaps it felt like it. Have there been times of trial when you couldn’t pray to God; or hear any response; or see any actions; or find any angels? Jesus felt what you have felt. And so as this service will close with more of a sense of foreboding, contrasting with the joyful processional in the beginning, it reflects events in our own lives that can cut both ways. Like a couple being overjoyed with the news that they are expecting a child, and then a miscarriage brings sorrow. Or when you and your spouse have shared many happy years together when along comes a challenging illness that changes your plans. Or when you are just about to make the home purchase of your dreams, and you lose your job. These are the manic/depressive situations of life, and Jesus knows them too.  Wallace Hamilton, Pastor Emeritus of the Pasadena United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, Florida addressed the question of feeling forsaken in his famous sermon “Where Now is Thy God?” Catherine Marshall, beloved writer and the widow of wonderful Presbyterian minister Peter Marshall, felt such emotions that she described in her book, Light in My Darkness: An Intimate glimpse of Her Season of Disappointment and anger with God, offering hope to Anyone Who has Ever Experienced Spiritual Silence and Darkness. When her granddaughter, Amy Catherine died, she wrote these words in the chapter she called “The Clouds Descend,” she wrote:

I believe that Satan won the victory last summer in the Amy Catherine situation. His handiwork is all through it…. At the time of Amy Catherine’s death I could not feel Jesus’ presence in her hospital room. On the contrary, I felt evil there. We did not walk in any glory days following. Far from it! There was dissension, blame flung about, nitpicking over various decisions, a sense of failure.

She was asked: “You’ve been through these dark times before, haven’t you? What about those occasions during your widowhood when you felt estranged from God?”

And Catherine answered: “They were more like dry periods … they never lasted very long…. [But] For months now there has been real darkness. I feel like I’m talking to the ceiling [not connecting with God].   Pp. 169-175

Jesus, of all people, felt forsaken too. Catherine Marshall, Mother Theresa, St. John of the Cross, and maybe you, or someone you know, have felt that way. In each case, light dawned to drown the darkness, but only after time, and work, and crying out.  I have felt such darkness and wrote about it in my doctoral paper. And today, you might expeerience the silence of God, or feel forsaken the way Jesus thought he was. But he was not forsaken. And God will never forsake Jesus, or you, or me.  Be comforted by these words from Deuteronony 31: “Do not fear or dread; for the Lord your God goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

And from Hebrews 13:5 “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

Several people have claimed authorship of the beloved story called

“Footprints in the Sand.” It has comforted generations of people who wondered about God’s presence in their darkness. It goes like this:

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed that he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonged to him, and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set up footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.

This really bothered him, and he questioned the LORD about it. “LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints.  I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”

The LORD replied: “My precious, precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

This is the week when Jesus experienced the fickleness of humanity: cheering for him in one instance, and shouting “Crucify him” in the next. He knew the agony of darkness and of feeling alone. Because of what he felt this week, he assures us that he will never do that to us; he will never forsake us. During most of our lives we might agree with the sentiment of the old spiritual that says: “I want Jesus, to walk with me.” But this week, it is Jesus who feels alone; abandoned by his followers. This week, Jesus wants you … and me … to walk with him. Can you do it? Can you think about his agony this week, and his dark days, and not skip over them to Easter? It is the most wretched week of Jesus’ life. After the palm branches have withered and the cheering has faded, who will stand with the Lord?

Who will be at the cross with Jesus?

Let us pray:

Dear Heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: today our service has had palms, and passion. We have cheered for Jesus, and remembered those who jeered against him. Today we waved palms as we assigned a special title to Jesus: Savior. The Palms cry out to him “Save us!” And save us, he has!

Thanks be to you O God, for your amazing plan for salvation.

Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  March 20, 2016

03-13-16 SETTING PRIORITIES

SETTING PRIORITIES

John 12: 1-8

For better or for worse, grief and guilt are powerful motivators. Out of them, people may purchase a casket beyond their means; out of them, grown Millennials or Baby Boomers may feel the need to move back home to help an aging parent. Out of them, we may agree to do something our spouse asks us to do that pushes the boundaries of reasonableness. But we are human; we are emotional; and we react to our feelings. Sometimes emotions change the agendas of our week, or even of our lives. Grief and guilt in particular can change our schedules. Take grief for example. In just the past two weeks, we have had hundreds of people come through our church doors because of grief, attending memorial services. They changed their Saturday plans to be there. As many in our nation mourn deaths—recently former first lady Nancy Reagan, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia among others in the national spotlights—television coverage has shown how many people rearranged their schedules to be at the service.

Guilt, on the other hand, can cause us to do things for people that we may not have done ordinarily, but we—playing judge and jury due to something we did to someone in the past—decide that we must do what we’d rather not do. Like going to a big family reunion instead of going on your own vacation; perhaps it’s doing something for a classmate because you ignored or treated him or her badly at an earlier time. Or it’s giving in to a request someone makes of you that goes against your principles, or even against the law. Guilt and grief are powerful motivators, and sometimes they change our priorities for a day, or even for a season of our lives.

Today in our John 12 passage, there is much more to think about than what the nine verses tell us.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are not just people Jesus met, they are his friends; good friends.  Just a chapter earlier, Jesus was told that Lazarus was dead. But, according to John 11: 5 “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he [still] stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  Jesus had a plan; he was not being heartless. But Martha, in her grief over her brother’s condition, could not think; she could only beg her friend Jesus to help them. And in her mind, Jesus failed them. Later, in John 11:32, her sister Mary came to the tomb. Jesus had arrived, and she fell at his feet saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We don’t know the exact tone of her voice, but we know she was crying. Was she uncontrollably sad; was she filled with anger; how was her grief making her respond? We don’t know. What we do know is that, like other people in grief, she had not forgotten her sad event. In Mary and Martha’s case, their anger or sorrow ended up turning to joy (and possible embarrassment) because they hadn’t trusted.

So now we get a complication: Jesus himself was less than a week from Passover, the time when he planned to go to Jerusalem, foretold to be a very painful week ending in his own death. Jesus had foretold his fate to his disciples; perhaps had he shared it with his friends in Bethany too?  Jesus was deliberately staying out of the public eye. According to John 11: 54, “Jesus no longer went openly among the Jews, but went to the country near the wilderness called Ephraim.” Now in our text, Jesus returned to the vicinity of Jerusalem, to Bethany just two miles off. He returned to the place where he had raised Lazarus; but this time the emotions were different. Now, instead of grief—a powerful “g” word—other emotions filled Martha’s and Mary’s souls: guilt and gratitude. Perhaps they were feeling guilty for not trusting Jesus with their brother’s care; or perhaps they felt grateful for what he did, but they had never properly thanked him? Mary knows, I believe, that Jesus is going to the Passover and that, perhaps, they will not see him again. What could she do to make amends for doubting him? What could she do to bless him on his journey?  Mary comes up with a striking action, perhaps motivated by both guilt and gratitude: she anoints his feet with very costly oil, called Spikenard, or “nard” for short. It was a fragrance of extravagance for wealthy people, and one of necessity for those who are burying loved ones. She might have had a supply of it to use on her brother’s body that never got used because he came back to life. Most Jews would have been used to being anointed with other less costly oils on their foreheads. The head of a household might do to that then send guests on their way.  Or as David proclaimed about his Lord did for him: “Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” So anointing was natural; anointing feet was not; wiping it off with ones’ hair was not. Was it out of guilt, out of gratitude, or even out of grief that Mary chose the costly nard?  The great author and observer of nature and humanity Annie Dillard, has said this:

“One of the things I know … is this: Do not hoard what seems good for a later place …; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water…. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Nard was an extravagance that a person not wrapped up in the emotions of a moment might call wasteful. Someone like Judas, for example, called it wasteful. But in Mary’s state of mind, it was the right thing to do. You know: because of guilt, gratitude, or grief, priorities can get re-set. Some people have very expensive funerals, for example. Rare is the funeral home hearse that is not a Cadillac or Lincoln or some other fine automobile. We honor our dead; and as people who rave about Hospice remind us, we honor our dying people too: with extravagant loving care and attention. It is what we do, so often. But in Mary’s case, she was extravagant in an unusual way: she anointed Jesus’ feet. Why anoint the feet? And why use her hair? One Presbyterian minister, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, suggests that “by wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, Mary ensures that the fragrance will linger on her own body in the days to come.” [Christian Century, March 2, 2016, p.18] Reputable women did not let down their hair in public in the first century. Except, that is, to show great love, when people were known to set aside social mores. Last week we learned from the prodigal son story about a father  who ran to meet his son; ran in his robes and pulled them up to expose his legs; something no respectable man would have done; but he—like she did it—out of love. And, as the saying goes: “It was meet and right so to do.”  Feet; this was not an ordinary anointing by a householder; it was an extraordinary act of love by one who felt unworthy of Jesus and his mission. And this woman, out of deference to Jesus, bowed down like a servant before him and wiped his feet. Jesus honored her servant posture and action just a week later, when, according to John 13:5, he himself knelt down and washed the feet his disciples. Mary’s example likely inspired Jesus’ action, and today it can inspire us:  Jesus came to serve, not to be served. It is a message for our day too.

When you leave today, grief and guilt might guide some of your actions. There are times when extravagance helps your soul and honors loved ones. But on your other days, let gratitude guide your actions; gratitude to God, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to those who have shown you grace, love, or hospitality.

The Apostle Paul said “Return no one evil for evil.” {Romans 12: 17] How might our world change if we followed that imperative?  May Mary’s example of extravagant love comfort you in grief, assuage your guilt, and lead you to gratitude for the rest of your days.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 13, 2016

03-06-16 Lent 4c

… sorry, but sermon audio is unavailable for this sermon 🙁 ….

The parable for today is one we have heard time and time again. This well known tale of Luke’s is possibly the most famous and and retold parable in the Bible. Some have said that it condenses the message of the gospel down into one compact story.

 

A son tells his father the first century equivalent of “I wish you were dead, so give me your money,” and the father, rather than getting mad, sells off half his land and gives the cash to his son.

 

The son makes the kind of wise financial decisions that many young people setting out on their own make, and soon finds himself broke. He is half starving to death and working with the most unclean of animals to his people. Realizing anything would be better than this, he goes home to beg his dad for at least a job.

 

But Dad, instead of doing what is expected, runs to meet him and welcomes him back as a son and a member of the family. He is so happy his son is back he throws a party. The story could well end there and we would get the same sense that the other parables of the lost give us: the lost will be found and their return is celebrated!

 

But Jesus keeps going, in part I suspect because the Pharisees are there listening and grumbling. He tells of the older brother, sulking out in the fields instead of coming and joining in with the party. Dad goes out and says, “Come join the party!” And the son spews out resentment and anger and how dare dad give away stuff to his no good younger brother when he had been here and behaving all along.

 

Dad says to the older brother (and the Pharisees listening in) “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.” End Scene.

 

I think part of the reason we keep coming back to this story is that we can relate to the characters. Each of us has felt like the younger son at times – eager to get away, abashed by our mistakes, willing to do almost anything to get back to our old lives.

 

While we may not have told our parents the equivalent of “I wish you were dead already,” we have all disappointed the people we love. We have all run away from responsibilities. We have all done things we are ashamed of and we have all found ourselves in situations we regret.

 

We all have days when we feel unloved and worthless.

 

And yet, each of us has felt like the older brother as well – hardworking, diligent, and then resentful at the undeserved gain or unpunished wastefulness of another. We have all been overcome with resentment of the seeming injustice of the world. We have all had those days where we felt like we did everything right and played by the rules and yet the reward, the love, the joy goes to someone else. Someone who doesn’t deserve it nearly as much as we do.

 

There are days we want to cross our arms and stand out in the field and avoid the party because it is not fair.

 

But, at the heart of it, this story isn’t about the sons. It’s not even about us. This story is about the father, about our Father, and the way he loves us even when we are being our most rotten and undeserving.

 

When the younger son returns, shamed and broken, by all rights the father should cast him aside. Indeed, the neighbors would have been within their rights to curse or attack him for the shame he brought upon his father. Certainly the father would have considered to be very gracious indeed if he had just accepted the younger son back as a hired hand.

 

But instead, the father runs to meet his son to ensure none of the neighbors would get to him first. He lifts up his robe and runs as fast as he can to welcome this son he thought had been lost to him. No one above the age of childhood ran back then, No one would let their ankles show in public like that. To welcome his son, the father brings even more shame upon himself.

 

And yet, he welcomes his son with joy and celebration, not even bothering to listen for an apology or wait for an explanation.

 

Ernest Hemingway wrote a poignant short story called “The Capital of the World.” In it he tells about a Spanish father who wants to reconcile with his son who has run away to Madrid. In order to locate the boy he takes out this ad in the El Liberal newspaper: “Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven. Love, Papa.”

 

Paco is a common name in Spain, and when the father goes to the square he finds 800 young men named Paco waiting for their fathers. “All is forgiven.” How many of us have longed to hear that in our lives? How many of us would show up for that promise?

 

As long as one of our sisters or brothers is broken by the world, cast aside as irrelevant, called a sinner by the rest of us, then we are at a loss, and God’s heart is broken. God will never stop reaching for the one because God’s love is too wide, God’s grace too rich to cease looking for the lost, for those whom we deem unredeemable.

 

Then there is the son who stayed. The one who went out to the field instead of joining in because he was so mad that his father would welcome back the other son. He yells at his father who comes out to find him, for welcoming his brother, for not giving him more. For not offering him a party that he never asked for.

 

Rather than arguing with him, the father instead tells him. “Everything I have is already yours. I am with you. But I had lost him. And now that I have him back I shall celebrate. ” The older son loses nothing when the younger is welcomed home. But he is still angry that his brother doesn’t get what he older feels he deserves. He wants him punished. The older son wants his brother to be cut off from the family forever for what he did. That is what the younger deserves.

 

Yet God isn’t about deserving. Grace isn’t about fairness. God is about loving God’s children, even on days they are being rotten.

 

It used to frustrate me that we never found out how the elder son responded. Does he come and join in the celebration? Does he stay in the field sulking? Does he ever get a party of his own? Does he ever even ask for one?

 

But we never find out because the story isn’t about the elder son or what he does. This parable is about the father, about the God who goes above and beyond welcoming all. God welcomes the wayward sinner who reluctantly returns when he has nowhere else to go.

 

And God welcomes those who resent the widespread nature of God’s grace, those who complain that it is not fair. God welcomes all of us at our worst, whether we accept that welcome or not.

 

This parable is about who God is and how God welcomes and calls all of us in to the celebration. As we read this text, we have to ask ourselves, how will we respond?

 

On days we relate to the younger brother, do we come back to God, trusting in our welcome home?

 

And when we are being the older brother, do we come inside and join the party, even if we don’t think the other guests deserve it?

 

God is waiting with open arms for all of us. In this Lenten season, what will you do?
Let us pray. “Holy Lord, sometimes we return to you because we have nowhere else to go. And sometimes we leave your celebration, upset by the people you include, the ones who don’t get what they deserve. But you run to meet us any way. You welcome us with open arms and say “Come home. Come to the celebration. Come.” Help us to hear your welcoming call and return again to you. Amen.