Sermon for 4th Lent -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
You may not be surprised to learn that I like statistics. For example, I track our worship attendances and patterns here at Mt. Olive: We have increased our worship attendance weekly average from 98 to 112 to 136 over the past three years. I also keep track of how many new members we have received each year: Today, eleven new members, is our largest group yet and more than 70 people, one-third of our congregation, have joined Mt. Olive since I became your pastor nearly two years ago. And, I am especially proud of our Bible study numbers – with our biweekly men’s and women’s Bible studies and our weekly email Bible study we have nearly 100 people studying the scripture every week! These numbers do give us a clue about the health of our congregation.
However, that is me and, fortunately, I am not God. Because our God does not track numbers or sins or even goodness. Contrary to so many people’s image of God, our God is not keeping a record of whether we’ve been naughty or nice - that’s Santa Clauss and, of course, I do believe Santa does keep such records! Seriously and fortunately for us all, our God is not keeping a tally on us, a tally to determine our fitness for heaven or hell. Not the way our God works. Our salvation has already been assured by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Signed, sealed and delivered for us by Christ.
Today’s Gospel lesson, the well-known parable by Jesus often called “The Prodigal Son,” got me thinking about this.
You know this story: It is about a father and his two sons. The good son, the older son, who stays home to run the family farm and, from all accounts, does that very well, the bad son, the younger son, who takes his inheritance and squanders it on “wine, women and song,” as the cliché goes, and the father, who, despite the younger son’s bad behavior and the older son’s opposition, welcomes the younger son back with open arms and reaches out to his older son with love and support.
Most of the time, we preachers focus on the younger son, often identifying with his taking off on his own, realizing he screwed up, and being overwhelmed by his father’s forgiveness and love. It’s a classic story of forgiveness and repentance.
But today I want to focus on the other half of the story, the exchange between the landowner and his older son. This parable sheds light on two very different reactions to God’s grace, God’s unconditional love for us all. One – when you are totally down and out – is to receive it with surprise and delight, just like the younger son in this parable. The other – when you have been working hard and trying your best – can be rather resentful, as it seems like it makes all your efforts overlooked at best and perhaps even worthless, just like the older son in this parable.
And I think these two responses reflect two dimensions of ourselves. One dimension – that of the elder son – reflects our life in the world and our need to keep track of things. To count, to make sure things add up, to quantify and measure and compare and the like. And often all this counting is not for its own sake, but is in service of a larger goal: fairness. We track things not because we often need to, but to keep things fair, to make sure things are running right, and out of a concern for equity. And, as I just shared, I like to count, too. And I certainly am one who wants things to be fair in this world.
But as important as counting is, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Especially in relationships. I mean, imagine counting every good thing someone did for you and using that to judge how much they love you. Or imagine keeping track of every unhelpful or hurtful thing people in your life do to you and demanding payment. (Worse, imagine them demanding payment from you for your mistakes!)
It just doesn’t work. And so the landowner, the father, in Jesus’ parable does something landowners never do. He runs out to meet his wayward son the minute he spies him coming from afar. He doesn’t send a servant. He doesn’t wait for his son to come. He dashes down the road like no respectable landowner ever would, making a complete fool of himself. Why in the world, after all, would he be so eager to see a son who claimed his inheritance early (which is kind of like he said he couldn’t wait for his dad to be dead) and then wasted it all. Not only that, he doesn’t even give his son a chance to explain or repent but interrupts his sincere (or maybe half-baked, it doesn’t really matter) speech but instead embraces and restores him immediately. Trust me, all the other landowners will be talking about his ridiculous and demeaning behavior at the first-century equivalent of the Lion’s Club that week. But this landowner doesn’t care because he’s a parent, a Dad, before he’s a landowner and so he doesn’t count all the wrongs his son has done him but only tries to count his lucky and innumerable stars when his son comes back.
And if that’s not enough, he then does something a landowner would never do yet a second time when he goes out to speak to his older son. He doesn’t call his son inside. He doesn’t relay a message by a servant. He goes out to plead with his son to come into the party. What should have been a command performance, in other words, turns into an embarrassing occasion where the landowner must beg his son to obedience. And all those who see him behave as no self-respecting landowner will be talking about this as well. But he doesn’t care, because before he’s a respectable landowner, he’s a parent, a Dad, who loves both his children more than anyone can measure.
And that’s when counting breaks down. When you love so much there is no scale adequate to calculate your devotion. The older son, he counts, and you can hear his ill-fated calculations saturating everything he says: “all these years…,” “you never…,” “This son of yours….” But the landowner – I mean, father, doesn’t. Can’t. Love like this, you see, cannot be measured, tracked, or managed.
Which is why I think Jesus’ life, death and resurrection show us just how far our prodigal God will go to tell us of God’s immeasurable love. Period.
All this is to say, once again, that we have a God who loves us – fiercely, vulnerably, courageously…and unendingly. Whether we have wasted opportunity after opportunity or have been quietly working away faithfully and wondering when we will be noticed, God loves us. Whether we have welcomed others who are down and out or have judged others for not measuring up, God loves us. Whether we think this news is the best in the world or barely notice it, yet God loves us. Whether we are in the church reluctantly or with joy, whether we have had a lifelong relationship with God, have just come to know God, or aren’t even sure God really exists, yet God loves us…truly, madly, and deeply.
At our weekly clergy text study this past week, Pastor Peg Schultz-Akerson shared with us the image of God with running shoes always on, a God always running toward us in love and forgiveness, a God who loves us today and always.
God loves you and me today and always, wherever, however and even whether you love God back, God loves you and me truly, madly, deeply. Today and always.
(Once again, thanks to the Rev. Dr. David Lose for many of the ideas and images in this sermon).
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Adding It Up
Sermon for 4th Lent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
March 5 & 6, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California