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Lent 2007 #1

Repenting of the Need to be Right

Readings: Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15: 1-3; 16b-32.

Introduction: Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent in the traditional Christian calendar – the forty day season of preparation for Easter that has been part of Christianity since at least the 3rd or 4th century, perhaps earlier, although not observed for the most part in church traditions like our own until very recently. We are part of the Protestant groups that followed the Anabaptists and Puritans in renouncing all of the so-called Christian holidays that were believed to be an invention of the corrupted Catholic Church. For that matter, our tradition is a protest against the protesters, at least those European groups that migrated out of state churches to the democratic freedoms of America. We have been slow to adopt any practice that looked like something ‘those people’ do, if by ‘those people’ we meant Catholics or Lutherans or Anglicans or…fill in the name of a denomination other than our own.

Doubtless it was a surprise to some readers of the online magazine New Wineskins when Greg Taylor started sending out daily email readings for Lent this year. Yet I have found myself faithfully reading them, reflecting on the power of personal renewal that comes from spending 40 days plus six Sundays in preparation for Easter.

I really appreciated the words of John Ogren that came in an email last weekend: “And this is the purpose of Lent; to help us enter more fully into the suffering and death of Jesus, so that we can more richly appreciate Easter and enjoy his resurrection life. Lent is a reminder that our call to discipleship was a call to take up a cross, that our baptism was a burial into his death, and that our daily life with Christ is a sharing in his suffering and conformity to his dying.

“In Lent we seek deliberate and concrete ways of remembering this so that we can live it more faithfully. The disciplines of Lent (fasting, prayer, acts of service, sacrificial giving) serve to mortify our flesh, so that our flesh, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can be made to share in the life of Christ and experience the God-given exaltation of his resurrection. Much of this, we know, will only be complete in that final Easter morning of general resurrection and transformation when Christ appears. So the season of Lent signifies and equips us for the Lenten life we lead until that final Day of Redemption."

Thus, it seemed like a good idea when Tim Woodroof asked me to speak in his absence that I come to you this morning with texts from the Christian season of Lent as listed in the traditional lectionary readings. That is, it seemed like a good idea until I read the texts! This week the Gospel text is so familiar! When a guy is coming in from the outside, you want him to have something fresh to say! I wanted something fresh and new – Tim wanted me to say something new. But we’ve heard the parable of the prodigal son too many times. We know this story and its context, a parable told by Jesus in response to his critics who cannot understand his choice of dinner companions. It is the third parable in Luke 15 that highlights God’s love for sinners; the willingness of God to put the 99 sheep at risk to go after the one that is lost. The joy of the woman finding the lost coin is like the joy of God when one of his lost children is found. We know these stories, this story of the loving father who, along with his two sons, makes a series of decisions that defy all logic and common sense.

The youngest son, because he is consumed with his own desires, shames his father and his family by demanding his inheritance while his father is still alive.
He then proceeds to do everything possible destroy every identity link with his past. He goes to a far country, denying his relationship to family and geographical heritage. He squanders his inheritance in loose living, thus denying any moral or ethical heritage. When the famine comes and he is flat broke, he further denies his Jewish heritage by attaching himself to a Gentile. Most offensive of all, he ends up taking care of pigs, the epitome of uncleanness. In the midst of total failure and collapse of his life, wishing he could eat the food served to the pigs, he “comes to his senses” – he repents – and remembers his father, and the hired servants back home who are now better off than he. So he composes his plea of repentance: “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

We know this story. While he is still a long way off the father, who has been watching for his son, sees him in the distance and has compassion on him and rushes to embrace him and kiss him – both physical signs of acceptance. The son tries to get his speech out, but is interrupted by the father ordering his servants to bring the best robe and ring and sandals – again, all signs of adoption, of re-investiture of son-ship. “And kill the fatted calf, and start the party.” There must be a celebration, “for this my son was dead, and now he is alive; (even more than that) he was lost and now is found.”

The parable would simply parallel the first two in this chapter if not for the rest of the story that follows. There is still the other son to be heard from, the one that did not leave, the one who honored his father and mother, and took care of the family inheritance, and for all of these years has been faithful in every respect. But it turns out, he has not thought of himself as a son any more than the younger brother. The elder son comes in from another day of work in the field only to discover that everyone else quit early and there’s a party going on. When he asks what’s going on, he learns from a servant that his estranged brother has returned and Dad is throwing a party. He is furious and refuses to go in. Just as the father went out to meet the younger son, now he goes out to meet the elder son. And Dad gets an earful: “All these years I have slaved for you and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a goat, much less a calf, that I could have a party with my friends.” Refusing even to claim kinship with his brother, he talks about this “son of yours” who devoured your living with prostitutes, and you reward him with a party.

The father entreats this son with the same love he extended to the younger brother. “Son, you’re always with me; everything I have is yours. But it was the right thing to do to celebrate, because you brother was dead and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” Suddenly it becomes clear that the elder son hasn’t felt like a son all of these years, he’s been a slave. Now he is enslaved by bitterness and envy, and we are left to wonder whether he ever did go into the party.

I know we are supposed to celebrate the love of the father who received both sons the same, loves both sons the same. But he didn’t! Isn’t the older brother right? There is no justice or fairness in this story. Who would give a rebellious son all his inheritance just because he demanded it in the first place? What kind of messed up, dysfunctional family are we into here? Everyone living in their time and ours knows that the inheritance comes after the parent dies, not before. But the father liquidates enough of the assets for the youngest son to get his share.
Why wasn’t there a party ever held in honor of the good decisions of the one who did his duty? How does a “loving” father raise two sons that are so unloving and so unlovable? And where is the female presence in this story – mom is completely absent! Maybe that’s the problem!

I know what you’re thinking. This is a parable, John, one of those stories of Jesus that can’t be pushed and stretched any direction one chooses. This is a story about the love and mercy of God. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to forgive sinners. It is the self-righteous who risk never entering the banquet of God. All of us who have been churched since our birth are supposed to feel the tension of our own Pharisaic older brother attitudes. All of us who have gone to a far country and denied our heritage and parentage and citizenship and dehumanized ourselves in every imaginable way are invited to hear good news of love and redemption.

For those of you that don’t know me – and even for those of you that I’ve had some relationship with in the past – let me tell you a couple of things about my life. When I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test a few years ago, I was assigned the letters ENTJ. Myers-Briggs is one of several personality profiles that were developed in the 20th century to help us figure out ourselves. So I’m a guy that is more extrovert than introvert; I think more intuitively than being a ‘just the facts’ kind of guy; I do indeed ‘think’ more than I ‘feel,’ and I like to judge – I prefer to make decisions rather than leaving things open ended.

When I first took the test, the counselor handed me a profile sheet that described ENTJ as the General Patton type – a person with leadership skills who always is knows he is right, especially when he is wrong! My wife and sons can tell you that is true! There is a genetic bent among the males in the York clan I was raised in. York males always know best! My grandfather, my father, my uncles – name a subject and they know! We know we’re right. As you can imagine, that makes for some ugly moments of high competition when one York male is right and another York male has a different perspective! I’ve spent most of my life believing that the goal of life is to think right and be right.

In other words I was made to be a Church of Christ preacher! Born and bread to be in a leadership role in a church tradition that, for much of the last century, needed to think right and be right about everything. Right doctrine and right practice separated one from the rest of the pack. And even when I gave up, when we gave up, the notion of being right, there was still the underlying ‘knowing’ of being better than. Not all that long ago I could be heard to say, “Well I’m still in a Church of Christ because I believe we still have more right answers than others.” Yes, I know we’re Christians only, not the only Christians, but we still have a lot of things right.

I have lived through the grace revolution in our churches, and come to know that we really are saved by grace not by works lest any of us should boast. I know that we are to be a people that lives out of Romans 8, not Romans 7. I also know how susceptible I am to being glad that I’m right about grace and not like ‘those people’ who still don’t get it. I’m glad to be a Zoe Group guy that gets it, that understands why contemporary praise and worship is so much better than the stale practices of those people with their legalism and 1960’s worship.

This is the season of Lent in the traditional Christian calendar, a season of reflection on the death and resurrection of Jesus. On this fourth Sunday, the texts are all about the God of steadfast love who chooses to love his children simply because he loves – not because any of them get it right. In fact, getting it right – as you know from your study of Romans – isn’t an option. Being loved is the good news of the Gospel, not getting church right.

So this year, as part of my personal reflections during lent, I’ve been trying to repent of my need to be right, the need to be so certain that I’m in the right church, teaching at the right Christian university, giving more right answers to my students. Repenting of the need to be the Bible trivia answer man. The call of the cross of Jesus confronts all of our human efforts to define life in any way that creates a class of human beings that are less than.

The good news of the Gospel this morning is that we announce a God who loves just because he loves! No matter how we may deny him and be given up by others as dead, God loves and longs to announce life over death. No matter how self-righteous we become or how many different ways we invent to pat ourselves on the back because we’re not like those people, the loving Father still comes to us and announces his love. And no matter how many ways I can find to critique the father in this story, he still runs to those he loves. Being right just doesn’t compare to being loved! The mission of God that we are invited to live is the mission of love for all – even ourselves. Not so that we can delight in ourselves but so that God can delight in us!

Delivered at Otter Creek Church, March 18, 2007.

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