Lamb of God Lutheran-Episcopal Church, Fort Myers, FL Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Dear people of Lamb of God, “It is good to come back home!” It’s hard to believe, but seven years ago this community sent me and several other folks, out to take a risk and explore fresh ways to serve Christ, in folks in need of grace. Together we developed an emergent Sunday night worship gathering, we connected with people in 21st century wells like a local karaoke pub and a coffee shop, and we fed the homeless in downtown Fort Myers. We welcomed the least, lost, and lonely into authentic, emerging, Christian community. We worked together through the Spirit, to provide space for reconciliation and grace in the lives of those, who were very unlikely to enter the doors of a church.
Two years later, this community sent my family to seminary to prepare for the ministry God was calling us to do. After graduation and ordination, I served nearly three years in a traditional Episcopal community as pastor. The yearning though, to explore how the church could engage culture and make possible, safe spaces for authentic Christian community to emerge in unlikely places, led me to share a mission dream with our Episcopal bishop. So, here I am seven years later, once again, and as Diocesan Missioner for the Diocese of Southwest Florida, attempting to partner with clergy and lay folk throughout our diocese, to bring the Good News of Christ’s reconciling love, mercy, and grace to folks, who may never enter the doors of a church; whose numbers are growing exponentially.
The “American Religious Identification Survey” reported that between 1989 and 2009, the number of people in the U.S. who claim no religious affiliation at all, rose from 8% to 16%. In 2012, Pew research reported that number had increased in just three years, to 20%. The landscape of religious life is changing and so, as it was 2000 years ago, the church finds herself, being called to go out and do as Our Lord did. We must go out and once again claim our vocation, as witnesses to God’s unimaginable love in world. We must reclaim our Christian vocations as ambassadors of grace and as emissaries of reconciliation in the world. We must do what Jesus did.
“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This is the opening phrase of today’s Gospel reading, a beautiful parable of “grace.” In church we use this word grace quite a bit, but what does it mean? My favorite theologian is Paul Tillich and he explains grace like this, “Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.” The parable we heard read today is story of grace found through “reconciliation.” It is the story of a moment when light breaks into the darkness of relational estrangement, when relationships are restored, and people are drawn once again, one to another. Most of us have heard the parable of the Prodigal and his brother, and it may have become so familiar to our ears, that we miss the little nuances in the story, which offer an explanation of the depth of God’s unimaginable, reconciliatory grace.
First, consider the father in the story and his reactions to his sons. Imagine how offensive it would be for your child or a close relative to come and say to you, give me my share of your portfolio, now. “It’s my money, and I want it now!” In that culture, for a son or daughter to ask for an early inheritance, was tantamount to wishing their father dead. Now how foolish is this, the father actually gives it to him! Keep in mind, it was very complicated to just give up a significant portion of your wealth in those days. There were no corner ATM’s, no E-Trade brokers. More than likely, his father’s wealth was tied up in land and herds, and that meant actually going out and selling his land—liquidating his dearest material possessions. How foolish! The father was willing to give up what he had worked for his whole life, and merely for the sake of his son. What kind of love is like this? It is foolish love, and for many of us, we may have never experienced it and thus, we cannot seem to understand it. Things get even more foolish because, later in the story, the father does something absolutely incredible. When his son returns, the father doesn’t sit on the front porch tapping his foot saying, “when that boy gets home, just you wait.” No, the father meets his son half way down the road. As they meet, the,father does not condemn, chide, nor does he accept his son’s attempt to explain why he has returned. The father merely loves him as a son and welcomes him home. Listen closely, foolish love like this is not the logic of this world, it is the logic of God kingdom in which, even the least likely, the prodigal ones, and even those who are beyond the walls of the faith community, are reconciled, restored, loved, and given grace beyond imagine.
Now, consider the prodigal son, the repentant one, the who turned from his ways and came back home. Repentant … really? Are we so sure about that? Here he was in that pig trough (a horrid predicament for an Israelite – Kosher laws) and there, he came to his senses. I wonder though, was his coming home because he realized he had been a jerk to his Dad and brother and wanted to make amends, or was it because he was in the middle of the pig pen and out of desperation, he wanted a hot meal and roof over his head. Honestly, I don’t think it really mattered to the father whether his son was sincerely sorry for what he did, or if his son was sick of living with pigs. The fact is, the son came home, and the father was overjoyed. The foolish father (foolish in the world’s eyes) didn’t care what the son’s motivation for coming home was. I wonder how many of us have can identify with the prodigal one, or even with the father? Is it so hard to accept that God is overjoyed when our hearts are sick and tired of sojourning, no matter the motivation, no matter the intention? God welcomes us with open arms. Foolish love is something so hard for us to embrace, accept, and share, but imagine what it would be like, if we practiced foolish love like this with our sisters and brothers, and then take it one step further, and share it with those who have not even entered our fellowship?
So let’s consider the other sibling. He was ticked off at his brother and father, and rightfully so. I mean, he was right about his ridiculously permissive Dad, his wasteful and reckless brother, and he was right, even about how he had been faithful and hard working. But he, like many of us, often make a choice between being right and being in relationship. So, when his brother was extravagantly restored to the family by his foolish loving father, the older brother refused to celebrate the new life being restored. He even refused to acknowledge that the prodigal was his brother. He said to his dad, “This son of yours.” The father reminded him of the relationship he had cast aside, and reminded him that the prodigal one was “this brother of yours.” What if being in relationship with God and each other, were more important than being right? What if we swung open wide the doors of community and invited all into fellowship? What if loving God, loving neighbor, feeding the hungry, (spiritual as well as physical), actually trumped right belief?
Jesus taught us that in order to follow him, we truly must do as he did, and that means, we must love as he loved: God and neighbor … even the ones we don’t like, or even those we may not know. That is the ministry we have been given by virtue of our claim that Jesus is Lord. We are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation, and God’s emissaries of grace. So, how do we live into this Christian vocation? Sarah was a young woman struggling to make it each day. Nothing seemed to work in the favor. The car she purchased to get her to work each day was a mess: a broken bearing, engine noise, and now the battery was completely dead. She had just borrowed money from a friend to pay last month’s rent, and now the cost of the battery was way out of reach. As Sarah walked into the café where she worked, the look on her face reflected the darkness of despair that followed her.
There was a man, sitting at one of her tables who noticed Sarah’s unusual emotional distress. He overheard her call several auto stores trying to find a used battery with no avail. The man at Sarah’s table asked, “What’s wrong Sarah?” She told him her tragic week, and the man asked, “What year and model car do you have?” The man returned to his seat, searched on Google for a local auto store that had the battery. He arranged for the store to accept his check for the battery, and wrote it for the full amount. As he paid for his coffee and muffin, he looked at Sarah and said, “I found a battery for you at the local auto shop, and here is the model number and price. Ask for Jim.” She said, “I can’t afford that today.” He said, “Yes you can,” and handed her a check. She broke down in tears and said thank you. Foolish love can be a frightening proposition for many of us, because it requires us to step way outside our comfort zones, it means we will have to give up our desire to be “right,” and it will surely mean we have to go into those broken places of other people’s lives, meet them where they are, and shine the light of Christ for them through our love. See, it is when we respond to the needs of others, when we love foolishly, the grace of God, which is always present, emerges in us.
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.” God is “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” and we must go out and make it real, active, and transformative in, and through our lives. We need to claim and reclaim our true vocation, our common ministry, our response to God’s love poured out to us! “We are ambassadors for Christ, and God is making his appeal through us.” Amen