Sunday, November 30, 2008

THE PERPETUAL PRESENT




















I.
Christianity, through no fault of Jesus, became early on a religious movement inordinately preoccupied with the future. Jesus was clearly not future focused; he very much lived in the present moment and pressed his followers to do the same. There was more to do “right now” than they possibly could have gotten done so why waste energy pondering the future?
One very memorable place where Jesus taught the futility of futurism was in what scholars now call his Sermon on the Mount.

...if God...clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?”, or, “What will we drink?”, or, “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your God knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the reign of God and divine righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Matt 6:30-34 NRSV adapted).

Jesus, without a doubt, has kicked into hyperbole here. Of course people who lack sufficient food and adequate clothing for the elements with which they must contend surely will wonder how those items are going to be provided for them and their loved ones. It’s nearly impossible, humanly speaking, NOT to wonder where the next meal is coming from. Jesus’ point is that being preoccupied with such matters won’t make them happen--especially tomorrow’s meal. If food is an issue, worry about it one day at a time. Worry about it today for today and not today for tomorrow.
Jesus certainly did offer a few comments here and there about how he, very generally, thought the present chapter of human history would come to an end or to a major transition, at least. Again, though, being preoccupied with the ways and means history as we know it would close down was an utter waste of time. Something out there was coming; things won’t always be the way they are right now, “but about that day or hour,” Jesus said, “no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only God Godself” (Matt 13:32 NRSV adapted). Jesus makes it very clear that he and God are not one and the same entity, and he tells his followers that God knows; but no human being, including he himself, the Child of Humanity, knows how this chapter in human history comes to a close. How in the world could Jesus have been more clear than that?
Do you see in what I just quoted you from Jesus any impetus whatsoever, any mandate, any encouragement to try to predict when the end of the present world order will come to a close? No, you don’t, because it’s not there!
Even so, that hasn’t stopped Jesus’ followers including those who first heard him say this with their own ears from predicting the immanent end of the age. Here’s an interesting fact to keep in mind: not a single person who has ever attempted to predict the end of time as we now know it has been correct. No prediction of the end of time has in human history to date ever been correct. Human history continues.
Frighteningly, there have been and there are those who believed that they could force the end to occur and that they should do so because everyone could immediately begin enjoying her or his next world reward--no more waiting and no more struggling with the problems common to earthlings.
In the earliest days of his presidency, Ronald Reagan, feeling the constant nearness of “the football,” the plans and procedures that could instantly unleash nuclear attacks on a vast number of global targets, wondered out loud if he might be God’s instrument to bring the great battle of Armageddon to pass--essentially destroying the world and forcing God to end history as we now know it. I was scared to death when I read in a Louisville newspaper early one morning about what was going on in his head while Nancy was down the hall on the phone with her astrologer, getting guidance for the day. Robert Patterson, an Air Force major who carried the football during the Clinton administration, explained that the specifics of the football’s contents are, naturally, classified. Patterson confirms that the leather-bound satchel manufactured by Haliburton does, indeed, contain a handbook detailing options for unleashing U.S. nuclear weapons, and the military aide carrying the football would be expected to help the president implement the turning of Planet Earth into hell. Patterson told the press long after his tenure as football carrier had passed that everything one might imagine is in the 45-pound case, instructions about “...everything from firing a tactical nuclear weapon, one of them, to full-born Armageddon.”
It was well attested during Reagan’s presidency that he had a keen interest in biblical prophecy--particularly what he read in the Bible as end-time predictions. In Mr. Reagan’s personal diaries that were published, I believe, just last year, there’s an entry for June 7, 1981, and it reads, “Got word of Israeli bombing of Iraq--nuclear reactor. I swear I believe Armageddon is near.” We’re lucky to have lived through those eight years, and the last eight, by the way. I’m not sure who told whom what, but the word is that the football was opened on 9/11.
I’m one of those non-eschatological and/or non-apocalyptic followers of Jesus. I don’t think God has ever or will ever make any plans for destroying the divinely-created world. I don’t buy for a second any theologically literal readings of the story of Noah’s Ark. I believe there may well have been a great flood and a Noah who managed to escape death with a handful of his family members. What I don’t believe is the introductory part of the story that gives as a reason for the flood God’s anger at humanity and God’s sorrow that God had ever created our forebears to the point that God was willing to destroy them, wiping them and most animals off the face of the earth.
That sounds like something a frustrated human being might do, but not God. Brilliant 18-year-old Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein in that year of her life and had it published by the time she was 21. In her Gothic novel--and, by the way, the first ever sci-fi novel written in any language--Shelley has her Dr. Frankenstein become so disgusted with the life he has tried to create that he leaves the creature for dead with thanksgiving that the creature is dead; at least he thought the creature was dead. That callous and uncaring attitude would certainly come back to haunt Viktor Frankenstein, but at the time he made the decision he was happy with it; and we understood his feeling.
God, though, isn’t one of us. God could not create humanity and bathe us in divine love--making provisions for both our failures and our successes, our potential and our frailty--only to let the divine surprise and the divine anger at human rebellion fester and grow until it had to explode in a divinely-ordained death sentence for almost the whole of humanity.
This issue of whether God is fundamentally a God of love or fundamentally a God of angry judgement--and the two absolutely canNOT go together--has a tremendous impact on how persons of faith are able to view where God fits into human life past, present, and future. If God is capricious and arbitrary in the present and beats up on imperfect human beings in the here and now, I think there is every reason to believe that God will keep on being God, just this kind of God, in the future. If you’re not happy with the God of your present, you’ll likely not be happy with the God of your future.
Maya Angelou, a very wise woman, gives this advice, and I’m paraphrasing. If someone tells you who she or he is, you should believe it. I’d say exactly the same thing is true of God.
As most of you know, I don’t think God has a name and, therefore, never told anyone the divine name. The words we have for God describe God in some kind of way, but they don’t name God. The most famous of these descriptors is YHWH, four consonants eventually known as the tetragrammaton.
From the burning bush, God told Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery, and Moses said, “Sure thing. What could be easier than that? I’ll do it today, but whom shall I say has given me my orders?”
God’s voice from the burning bush said, “YHWH.” It’s obviously descriptive of the Deity though not a name, and it means, of all things, something like: I will be (future) who I am (present).


II.
The Christian season of Advent, from which our Silverside season called Expectation evolved, is a season in tension. Advent is concerned with the past as well as the future; Advent prepares the faithful to re-celebrate Jesus’ birth, often referred to as his “first coming,” as well as his “second coming” or reappearing. There’s right much attention given at Jesus’ ascension to his returning to earth in the way he left. Certainly, too, the book of Revelation in one place pictures the once-crucified, now resurrected and empowered heavenly Jesus coming to earth to claim the souls of those who manage to live, with faith in tact, through the great Roman persecution of Christians at the end of the first Christian century. The problems with literalizing either or both of these sources, the ascension and any part of the book of Revelation, is that they are symbolically-based and were not intended to be taken literally, which remains at the heart of most of the major theological crises that presently and that have ever plagued the Jesus Movement.
The doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection answered some problems for some of Jesus’ first followers and created others--problems, that is. Resurrection meant that Jesus’ was not bound by death, that the cruel execution of Jesus by Rome wasn’t the last word on Jesus. If, however, resurrection must be bodily resurrection, which some branches of Christian theology demand, then you have the problem of what to do with the resurrected body that isn’t suitable to long-term earthly living.
The only Gospel writer who chose to wrestle with this problem was Luke, and Luke deals with Jesus’ so-called ascension both at the end of his Gospel and at the beginning of the sequel to his Gospel, which we call the book of Acts. The version at the end of the Gospel of Luke is quite abbreviated:

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God (Luke 24:50-53 NRSV).

Since worship is for God alone, we’re not sure what Luke meant here by “they worshipped him,” but it was some sort of act of reverence. In any case, Luke, in this manner, got Jesus’ body off of earth and into heaven. One wonders why if God really wanted to make an impact with Jesus’ resurrection God didn’t resurrect Jesus in a body that could have functioned on earth indefinitely. Why the limited resurrection body? And why take Jesus off the earth when he clearly could have had so much more impact staying on earth and talking to people voice to voice and face to face?
There is no mention in the Gospel version of this story, in Luke’s account, of Jesus’ return to earth in any form; the subject simply doesn’t come up. In the fuller version of the story that Luke tells in his volume two, or the book of Acts, there’s much more going on, and there’s an explicit reference to an earthly reappearing, which may be a very important detail, but we have to keep wondering why none of the other Gospels mention it, not even mention it.
Here’s how Luke expanded upon his first account, his very brief Gospel account:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set by divine authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:6-11 NRSV, adapted).

This was their last shot to make Jesus their messiah, and he still didn’t bite. The reference to Jesus restoring Israel is exactly what good Jews expected from their messiah, and this effort Jesus had no part of.
They also had one last shot to ask him face to face what the future held regarding God’s plan for them, and Jesus--again refusing to let those who were his followers be preoccupied with the future--told them the future was God’s business, not theirs; and he meant that in the nicest possible way! What they needed to focus on, he told them, was the outpouring of God’s energy upon them in the here and now, which would allow them to serve God in the present. God’s energy would burst within all the faithful, allowing them to be God’s witnesses, telling the story of the God Jesus had taught them, all over the place; all over the inhabited world.
Then, as Luke told the story, there was this merger of elements of the stories of Jesus’ transfiguration and resurrection. Jesus’ resurrected body begins an upward movement, going skyward. As it does, it is enveloped in a cloud, as Jesus was when he was atop the Mount of Transfiguration. Then suddenly standing with the people, not flying through the air with Jesus, are two men in dazzling robes, reminiscent of the tomb-side messengers who explained the details to those who came to Jesus’ empty tomb. These messengers say to the handful of people gathered to watch Jesus’ ascension into heaven, “Why are you standing here staring up into the sky? Jesus will return the same way you have seen him depart.”
Ever since that story circulated, there have been some in Christendom--sometimes, lots; sometimes, not so many--who have been standing around looking up into the skies waiting for Jesus to come back the way he left in the ascension story. The problem, I say again, is that this story, which only Luke tells, is almost certainly not meant to be taken literally, and doing so creates problems. Another problem is that since this story was told, we have found out that heaven isn’t up there somewhere, that God doesn’t live separated from us, but rather right here; in us and among us. If heaven is where God is, then heaven isn’t up there at all.
In any case, the admonition by the men in dazzling robes is another mandate to get over a preoccupation with the future and get on with life now. What the men were saying to the sorrowful followers bidding their beloved Jesus an earthly farewell is, “Don’t worry. When he comes back you’ll know it; therefore, get on with life now.”
I used to require beginning preachers in practice preaching labs to choose the ascension story as one of a few that had to be covered in a term; meaning, someone had to take this text and use it to develop a sermon to be preached in front of her or his classmates. When I was teaching in Switzerland, Uwe Scharf, my former student who is now Dr. Uwe Scharf, Director of Pastoral Services at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, ended up with this text. It was usually one of the least desired, and ending up with this story from which one had to write and preach a sermon was a lot like being the last person chosen for a softball or a dodgeball team.
Being the exceedingly conscientious young man that he was, Uwe--then only about 20 years old--finally went to his systematic theology professor for advice. The theology professor who became my great friend, Professor Thorwald Lorenzen, told Uwe that it was a silly assignment, assigned by a silly American visiting preaching professor and that good German Christians like the two of them knew better than to think much about a story like the ascension. Thorwald told Uwe to come back to me with a proposed sermon title for his ascension sermon: “What Goes Up Must Come Down.”
I said, “Well, I don’t hold out much hope for your sermon, but I will give Dr. Lorenzen an A for his creative sermon title.”


III.
To ponder the future is really the privilege of the safe and settled. When all is well, we may, as a luxury, ponder the future, but when we are seriously threatened we can only think of today or even the present moment. In a survival mentality, the only part of the future that matters is having one; we are trying to live through the hour or the day. A healthy, choice place to be is one where we are not threatened and where we intentionally choose to concentrate on the present.
In recent months, we in the United States have felt more threatened than we’re accustomed to feeling. The presidential election was a luxury, a time when a democracy could make an investment in the future by voting for a leader who would help get us to where we want to be, where we hope to be, where we need to be.
Aside from the election, though, we have felt under economic siege, and in that survival mentality we generally haven’t thought a great deal about the future. Our hard-earned money; invested for our future, for our retirement years; lost over a period of months tremendous value. Only a handful of our citizens are wealthy enough not to have been bothered wondering or worrying about how we might pay for our children’s educational expenses or how we might be able to live independently in our twilight years. Tons of our fellow citizens began losing their jobs. All of us knew of someone who lost her or his home; others are on the verge.
The US financial strongholds in the minds of the average citizen--the big investment companies, the big mortgage companies, and the big auto manufacturers--were all suddenly in danger of going under. Suddenly, it seemed to us, the future had to take a back seat to the present. We had to approve bailouts for all of these failing business entities--one after another. No wait! No one asked us; they promised our money away without asking us. They promised our children’s money away without asking them or us. They who? Oh yeah. “They” are the elected leaders whom we elected to watch out for our best interests; that’s who.
The horrors in Mumbai this week remind us that terrorism is far from a thing of the past--in places we know about and in places we don’t. One Associated Press report put it this way:

It took just 10 young men armed with rifles and grenades to terrorize this city of 18 million and turn its postcard-perfect icons into battlefields until security forces ended one of the deadliest attacks in India’s history early Saturday.

When we need to worry about keeping safe today, thinking too much about the future just doesn’t work, just doesn’t make sense. Some of our fellow Americans were among those murdered and injured, but we grieve for all those lost to the terrorists for all are a part of the one and only human family.
Black Friday is supposed to give the retail world an indication of how much US citizens who have money to spend are going to invest in Christmas shopping in any given year. For people in this economy to let go of any of their money is a sign of optimism that the economic problems are going to be solved. So, day before yesterday was supposed to look pretty good according to what I’ve read, and yet clouding any reasons to rejoice is the story of the Walmart employee who was stampeded to death by shoppers rushing into the store at opening to buy what to them was worth more than the well-being, yeah the life, of a fellow human being. I’m willing to bet that when the stampeders, aka murderers, are singled out, some of them will have church affiliations and were headed in to buy gifts to exchange in honor of the baby Jesus. How can we feel good about ourselves as a people or hopeful about the health of our nation when something like that happens? My heart breaks for the man who died and his family; by the way, he was a temp a Walmart spokesperson said, someone not very experienced with store openings sent by the manager to open the doors to a mad mob. Local union critics from the Long Island area are slamming Walmart, saying that with the right preparation and supervision this could have been prevented. I tend to agree with that, but even so it’s the people behaving as rabid animals who are ultimately to blame.
You know, we have many truly hungry people in this country, and not a one of them went to any such lengths to get food, the need to be fed being a much more basic need than the need to get a Walmart bargain. That is powerfully telling to me.
Jesus believed that there would be an ending to the present world order and that God would be in charge of that ending or transition. He believed that the signs of this ending or transition would be clear to anybody who knew enough about the world to read the changing of seasons. He also believed that no one knew when this would happen except God Godself.
Let me get back to something I tossed out a few minutes ago without developing. We want to be able to get to the place where we focus on the present, the perpetual present, not because we are threatened in some kind of way forcing us to concentrate on getting by in the present. The future shouldn’t be either an escape for us so that we can avoid dealing with serious problems in the present or what we get to think about because we’re so well set in the present that we believe we have a right to claim our place in that future out there. Christianity has been guilty of pushing people to think in both of these wrong ways about the future. On the one hand, when life is good, it teaches that things will only get better for the faithful. On the other hand, when life is rough, Christian futurism has been escapism; it has been a counting on Jesus’ return or God’s intervention otherwise to bring human history or at least this chapter of it to a close.
The bottom line is this. The future, whether our escape or our paradise, may or may not come to us. All any of us really has is the present. We have today, or more precisely right now. The best connection to the future is a well-lived present, a well-invested present. Oddly enough, the season of Advent taught the faithful that the end of time, signaled by Jesus’ visible return to earth, was to be celebrated even though the end of time by most reckonings will be sparked by an angry God who takes what Noah’s God did to the world near its beginning and repeats it except more violently and more broadly. I can’t find a single thing to separate in that.
Our church’s Season of Expectation is a season of awareness of all the ways in which God makes Godself known--the beautiful ways, the wonderful ways, the loving ways. Jesus taught us that this is what we can expect from God so I invite you to celebrate that God with me and the Jesus who taught us about this God.
The world as we know it will end when it biologically and chemically self-destructs or when we crazy humans destroy it and each other. The first of these we can’t do anything about unless it is to take better care of our Planet; the latter of these we can do much about by living out and promoting the God of love whom we have learned about through Jesus.
Therefore, let’s concentrate on the present where we know for sure we can make a positive contribution to God’s people and God’s world. Now. The present is perpetual.
Sir Winston Churchill didn’t get heavily pious about his perspectives of the future. He said, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.” And Mark Van Doren, the poet and educator, put it this way:
There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give all our attention to the opportunity before us.

Amen

Sunday, November 23, 2008

SILENCE AND SPEAKING














Pastor Martin Niemoeller




I.
You know these now famous words from Pastor Martin Niemoeller, but you may not have known that they were his words since, for some odd reason, they are often quoted as having come from an anonymous source.

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,
There was no one left to speak out.


The Holocaust was a tragedy in response to which no human words are adequate. One of the most comfortable responses for Holocaust survivors to their captivity as well as the horrors they both witnessed and endured has been to keep silent--as much as possible, simply to let the abuses and the utter inhumanity remain in their past. While there is no cure for damage to body and soul inflicted on Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals as well as the physically and mentally handicapped, keeping silent toward the end of reclaiming any personal wholeness for those few fortunate enough to have escaped rarely worked. Various reasons are given for the silence, but some Holocaust survivors say that one of the major reasons they kept quiet for so long was that no one wanted to hear what they’d been through. Others said reliving those experiences was too painful for them.
Most of them kept silent for some thirty years after their liberation. There were exceptions, but not many. Otto Frank published his daughter’s, Anne’s, diary in 1947. Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, came out in English in 1961. One historian suggests that the pivotal event that caused society to be willing to listen to survivors was a 1978 television miniseries entitled, “Holocaust.”
There was the first official gathering of Holocaust survivors in 1981. This meeting took place in Israel, and younger Israelis along with journalists in attendance were stunned that there were no recoded accounts of what the survivors had endured and witnessed. Things began to change.
One of the most important ways for the Holocaust survivors to validate themselves as humans after having been under the control of people who treated them as subhuman was to speak out. No more time for silence.
The poet in Ecclesiastes chapter 3 says, “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to speak and a time to keep silent.” The question is, “When?” When are people who are trying to live as closely as we can to the example of Jesus supposed to speak up, and when are they/we supposed to keep silent?
The Reverend Dr. Marilyn Sewell, in a blog, gave this answer to the question:

We speak when we have the power to save a life--or even to redeem a situation that's going downhill, to the detriment of the group (of whatever kind). And we speak when we are called upon to speak--because of time and place and historical moment--to right a wrong or to remove one of the claims of injustice. Yes, to speak up and be wrong is sometimes embarrassing, sometimes hard on the ego. But to wind through one's days never taking the risks set before us is to really not live at all. What are we trying to do--to be safe? What a fantasy that is! No one of us in mortal form is ever safe. We have only this moment, only this hour, this day, to live with integrity and passionate love. Don't waste another minute with idle reflection. It is always too risky to be silent when anything wrong can be set right, and you have the power to do so.


Pastor Niemoelloer’s famous words remind us that very often the persons being abused or mistreated aren’t able to speak up for themselves. The mandate to speak up isn’t by any means simply to be an assertive American so that other Americans and especially the business sector doesn’t get another one over on us. Assertiveness training was popular several years ago precisely because too few people were speaking up for themselves and were routinely, therefore, getting run over by others and the system. There may still be a few people around who need assertiveness training, but many fewer need it than used to.
It is precisely those who are not directly affected by some injustice, therefore, who must speak on behalf of those who are. Those who wear the faddish bracelets these days and appear to wonder WWJD, what would Jesus do, really don’t have to wonder at all on this count. A correct and immediate answer to that question always is, “He would be speaking up on behalf of the abused and downtrodden. He would be defending the rights of people at the periphery to be treated like human beings--deserving of justice, compassion, and love.” In other words, that question, “What would Jesus do?”, leads at once to a second question, “Who in our community, nation, or world is being treated inhumanely?” As soon as an answer has been formulated, we speak and act in their defense, in their favor.
For whom should those of us with more power than most any other citizens of the world speak out?


We should speak out in favor of anyone whose opportunities to be fully human are diminished or restricted. Women’s rights, gay rights--all such designations are in actuality synonyms for human rights. There isn’t any need to give a certain group of humans its own name and its struggle for rights a special name. Doing that, in fact, is, in and of itself, racist, ageist, sexist, and so on. There is no such thing as full human rights until all humans have full human rights.


We must always speak out on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Children and elders who are abused and unable to speak for themselves will always need advocates who won’t be quiet until they are safe. Sadly, there are those sick people in any society who will express their pathologies by hurting those who can’t defend themselves. Whatever it takes for little children and frail older people to be safe from harm has to be done. We can’t be silent about this at all.


All Americans deserve access to the best available health care, and those of us who have such access must not become complacent about those who don’t. The poor are not less deserving of opportunities to be free of pain, to be free of disease, to be whole than are folks with funds. Since few power people listen to the poor, however, someone else must break the silence and demand health care for the poor.


I think we humans increasingly have the responsibility to speak up for the rights of animals whom God designed to inhabit the planet with us. There is no acceptable reason whatsoever to abuse any animal. Someone has said, compellingly I believe, that a country’s level of civilization can be determined by how its citizens treat animals. The brilliant physician/musician/theologian, Albert Schweitzer, once wrote: “True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: ‘I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live.’” In another place, Dr. Schweitzer wrote: “A person is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him [or her], that of plants and animals as well as that of,,,fellow [humans], and when he [or she] devotes self helpfully to all life that is in need of help. Only the universal ethic of the feeling of responsibility in an ever-widening sphere for all that lives-- only that ethic can be founded in thought.”



II.
I am so moved by much of the story of the great prophet Elijah. One of lessons we learn in a most unlikely circumstance is that God Godself occasionally has chosen to be silent. Elijah has the high point of his ministry on Mount Carmel, no pun intended, and he expects because of what happens when, at his request, God shows up the prophets of Ba’al, the praise of people and of God. He gets the praise of people with no trouble--most people anyway. His queen, Jezebel, was a worshiper of Ba’al, and she took the showing up of her god and the subsequent execution of prophets who served Ba’al as a personal offense, which she intended to avenge by killing Elijah.
No one could protect Elijah from Jezebel; the only thing he could do was to try to run from her, and he did. He did, but he wasn’t happy about it at all. Elijah believed that having served God so well, God owed him protection from the likes of an evil, pagan queen--as he thought of her. From all indictions, there were no such provisions. Elijah ran as hard as he could, and the more he ran, the more angry at God he was and the more depressed he was about his plight. He finally found his way to a cave where he was making an art of sulking when whom should he hear calling his name but God Godself.
God asks Elijah what in the world he was doing out in the middle of no where in a cave. As I’ve told you before, when God asks a question like that it’s always a trick question; I encourage you to refuse politely to answer if God tosses one of these your way. It’s the same kind of question God asked Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden after they’d eaten the forbidden fruit, “Who told you that you were naked?” God asked. Well, that led to a very messy answer, and an incriminating one!
Elijah bites though, and he says to God, “Well, God, if you really want to know that truth, it’s mostly your fault. I do all these great feats in your name, and you still allow me to be subject to the powers of an evil, pagan queen. What’s up with that? All these years I’ve been operating under the impression that people who serve you get nice rewards, not life-threatening situations to deal with. I’m faithful to you like no one else, and look where you leave me? Look how long you waited finally even to speak to me.”
God said to Elijah, “Oh, I’ve been speaking to you all along. You just haven’t been listening. After the big display of divine power on Mount Carmel, you had in your mind that I speak exclusively in the grand and dramatic, and you should have known that this isn’t the case.”
Elijah said to God, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Come out of the cave and stand on the side of the mountain here.” Elijah did so.

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11-12 NRSV).


God was speaking in the silence when Elijah demanded that God’s voice be boisterous. God doesn’t bend to our whims, though. If Elijah wanted to hear God, he would have to listen to the silence.
Mother Teresa once said,

We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature--trees, flowers, grass grow in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.


If you’ve ever taken the time to read the Gospel of Mark or listened attentively while someone else read key portions of it to you, you encountered the strangest thing. Early twentieth century New Testament scholars referred to the phenomenon as the “messianic secret.” Those who seem to see in Jesus the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew hope, which is certainly the conclusion that a number of early Christians wanted others to see, are shushed by Jesus himself. They are told to shut up, to keep quiet, to keep their observations to themselves.
Here’s an example, from right in the middle of the Gospel.

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him (Mark 8:27-30 NRSV)
.

What? Why would he do that? Isn’t that supposed to be the right answer in the minds of a number of early Christians? Shouldn’t Peter be getting a pat on the back for a change? Shouldn’t Peter who often had said the wrong thing and had his foot in his mouth as a rule, shouldn’t he get some accolades this time? “People have more speculations about who you are than we can keep up with, but if you ask me,” Peter says, “I’m willing to go on record saying that you’re the messiah.”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” Jesus responds. “Keep your mouth shut about that, and I mean it.” The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus sternly ordered Peter and his colleagues to be silent on the subject of Jesus’ identity. If they didn’t have the freedom to answer frankly, wonder why Jesus asked so open-endedly?
Here’s another one:

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him (Mark 1:21-26 NRSV).


These are especially strange stories, these where the demons whom Jesus exorcises name Jesus as the messiah only to be shushed by Jesus. Looks like even a demon who tells the truth has to be affirmed for that much good. Not so in the Gospel of Mark so either what they say isn’t true for Jesus--meaning he realizes he isn’t the hoped-for messiah--or there is some other reason unclear to the rapid reader of Mark.
Scholars have been intrigued with these passages in Mark, and there are several of them, at least since the earliest parts of the twentieth century. Why would Jesus have responded the way he did to demons and to people who were at least trying to tell the truth?
Dr. Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a highly respected scholar among progressive followers of Jesus, says that there’s no need to make a big deal about it, that Jesus is generally misunderstood in the Gospel of Mark; this would mean that Dr. Ehrman does not see Jesus as the messiah.
William Wrede, the first scholar, a German, to give this matter--the so called messianic secret--major attention, said that Jesus shushed the demons and Peter and others because it wasn’t time for his identity to be made known; there would be a time for proclaiming Jesus’ messianic identity, but it seems never go have come in his lifetime. If at all, this becomes clear at Jesus’ death.
I don’t know what all to make of this, but I think it says something about the importance of keeping some of our theological speculations to ourselves--at least until we’ve had plenty of time to test them and ponder over them. What we take to be certain, what others may have convinced us to be correct, may--still--not be correct at all; this may especially be the case when some new experience tests what we are presently thinking. Unless tested over the long haul, our early hunches may not, after all, be suitable in the least. When it comes to some of the great mysteries, times to keep silent may well be the order of the day.


III.
There a story from the life of Jesus as the Gospel writer Luke tells it, and I love this story; it’s very stirring to me. The story is a part of the passion/palm Sunday narrative. Jesus is riding along on the little donkey colt--in stark contrast to Pontius Pilate’s mighty military entrance on the other side of Jerusalem, as we have recently learned from Dr. Borg and Dr. Crossan.
As Jesus rode along, some of the pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem for the celebration of their great festival--certainly not all or even most of them, but some who had seen one or more of his miracles--spread their cloaks, their outer garments on the ground, carpeting the path over which the little donkey would walk. This was a sign of respect done in response to one whom they sensed was a great person; the placing of their cloaks in the pathway of Jesus’ donkey is what many pilgrims would have done had official royalty ridden by them.
We are not surprised, then, that those honoring Jesus began to call him a king, “Blessed is this king who comes in God’s name!” This may have signaled that some of them took Jesus to be the messiah Israel had been hoping for and looking for since ancient times. Jesus, of course, wasn’t that messiah, and the clearest of signs that he wasn’t had to do with his refusal to gather troops to take on Rome. Still, many people hoped for an individual, personal messiah, and at that moment, given group mentality, Jesus looked liked a good candidate. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of God,” some of those pilgrims yelled out. “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” That was an odd thing to add, don’t you think? A wish or a blessing for peace in heaven? Was heaven, they place they thought of as God’s abode, not at peace? Had heaven ever been in any state other than at peace?
The Pharisees had, as usual, some reps watching their nemesis, Jesus, and they objected to even the slightest implication that Jesus might have been the messiah so they tell Jesus to make the pilgrims shut up. Jesus responded, “These people are praising God; you know, if I tried to get them to shut up, the very stones would break their silence and shout praise to God” (Luke 19:40 preacher’s paraphrase).
Technically, the Pharisees didn’t mind people praising God. What concerned them is that being in the presence of Jesus prompted them to praise God. This made the Pharisees uneasy since they wanted only devotion for the ancient law and the God who could be experienced in those laws to prompt people to praise God. Jesus as an impetus to praise God was an especially frustrating and frightening reality for them to contend with.
Those pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem may have been wrong about the messiah thing, but they weren’t wrong to praise God and to connect Jesus to God. Neither were they wrong to keep Jesus and God as separate entities. Jesus is not to be praised; only God is. Jesus is not to be worshiped; only God is.
Thanksgiving is upon us. If at no other time of the year, I think that this national holiday gives Americans the perfect opportunity to break the silence and speak out thanks for our blessings. I realize that many Americans don’t feel very blessed at the moment, and we all know why. Hunger and homelessness are on the rise. Unemployment has spiked. We had the first halfway decent news in the stock market on Friday that we’ve had in months; investments are still in danger, and those who are living on fixed incomes truly feel the pinch.
Fully aware of the intense struggles faced by many of our sister- and brother-Americans, and similar or worse struggles faced by sisters and brothers around the world, many of us still have been blessed to the point of amazement, and if at no other time let’s not be silent about that. We have to be careful not to sound like the Pharisee that seriously ticked Jesus off who thanked God in public that he was superior, and another worshiper, a publican, wasn’t.
The last thing we need to do on Thanksgiving is to thank God that God has blessed us while, at the same time, God has willed others to struggle and suffer and be hungry and have no place to live. With any advantage any person of God has ever realized, the only acceptable response has been to share out of abundance so as we speak our gratitude for our good fortune, in the same breath, we articulate how we will use what we have to help others. Thanksgiving is not a haughty holiday, and Thanksgiving is not a hoarding holiday.
The ancient Hebrew prophet, Habakkuk, was railing against idols in his prophecy, and this is what he had to say:

What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it—a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak! Alas for you who say to the wood, “Wake up!”; to silent stone, “Rouse yourself!” Can it teach? See, it is gold and silver plated, and there is no breath in it at all. But the Lord is in the holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before God! (Hab 2:18-20 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).


For Habakkuk, to be in the presence of living God is impetus for being driven to silence.
Here’s an interesting challenge to keep in mind. Habakkuk thought the presence of God was generally exterior to human beings. People encountered God at holy places, such as at a shrine or, especially, in the holy of holies of the great Jewish Temple. We have learned since Habakkuk’s time that God may indeed be beyond us, but certainly, in addition, God is within us--within each of us. If the presence of the living God drives God’s people to silence, what does that say to us? The Apostle Paul, for that matter, says that our bodies are God’s temples so what does that say of the drivenness to silence in the presence of the living God?
Obviously, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, being in the presence of God called forth a variety of responses, not just silence. In fact, being in the presence of the living God has prompted God’s people to praise God and to celebrate loudly and, not infrequently, ecstatically!

Praise the Lord! Praise God in the sanctuary; praise God under the mighty firmament! Praise God for mighty deeds; praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness! Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp!Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe! Praise God with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord (Psa 150).

In our public religious lives and in our private religious lives, there is a time to speak up and a time to keep silent. There’s a time to kick it, and a time to sit in utter silence, a time to sing a communal hymn with great gusto and a time to stop making any joyful sound whatsoever.
Silence is tough for us. We live in a culture that tells us silence is a bad thing while some kind of noise is a good thing. If you’ve noticed, even in informal conversation we’re uneasy with silence so at pause points in the flow of our talk we fill in sounds. Beginning public speakers has a tremendous problem with this issue these days; they are petrified of silence. They’re afraid silence makes them come across as uneasy or unprepared or just plain lost so they fill in the sounds of silence with vocalized fillers--repetitive words such as “well” or “now.” Or they fill in with wordless sounds such as UHM or AH.
Despite modern western resistance to it, silence can still be golden, as long as it isn’t doesn’t stem from either copping out or carelessness. Jean Arp said,

Soon silence will have passed into legend. Humanity has turned its back on silence. Day after day people invent machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation... tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster the human ego. Anxiety subsides. Inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.


Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A TIME TO KEEP AND A TIME TO THROW AWAY










I.
Once upon a time, there was a merchant who decided to take a trip by ship with some of his friends. For some reason, he took with him a chest filled with gold coins and precious stones.
Not so long after the ship set sail, the merchant overhead some of the crew members whispering to each other. “When we are a long way from port, we will toss that merchant overboard and divide the contents of his treasure chest among ourselves!”
In response to what he’d heard, the merchant engaged the friends with whom he was traveling in a fake argument. They knew what was going on, but the crew members who were planning to get rid of the merchant didn’t. The merchant’s friends pretended to claim loudly that the treasure in his chest was at least partly theirs, and they demanded that he divvy it up and give them their stash on the spot. The merchant refused, insisting, also loudly, that the treasure was all his. This charade attracted the attention of the crew members who thought that the argument was real. They were shocked beyond words when the merchant threw his treasure chest overboard yelling out to his friends as he did, “If it can’t be mine, it will not be yours either!”
When the ship sailed into home port and the crew members and passengers returned to their homes, the merchant filed a lawsuit against the crew. He said, in the suit, that he feared for his life, having heard the crew members’ rumblings about their plan to get rid of him in order to make his treasure their treasure. The judge questioned the crew members and found that the merchant was telling the truth. He found in favor of the merchant and ordered the crew members to come up with enough money to compensate for all the merchant had thrown into the sea to preserve his life.
Then the judge asked the merchant how he’d come up with his ingenious plan. The merchant replied, “The book of Ecclesiastes, which says that there’s a time to keep and a time to throw away.”
When I took up teaching the Native American intro course at Wilmington University, I stumbled into the fascinating world of the Native American berdache or Two Spirit native. Anthropologists use the word “berdache” with numerous tribal groups around the world, not just with Indigenous Americans. Some natives also use the word, but not all of them do.
Native Americans who are gay and lesbian have, for generations, been referred to by numerous tribes as “Two Spirit people”; this is much more common among natives themselves than “berdache.” Generally, Indigenous American tribes believed that a homosexual had the best qualities of both males and females operative in one body; they were thought to be more powerful, more balanced, more gifted than one who was “only” female or 
“only” male. Until the modern media to which natives were eventually exposed taught them that homosexuals are to be demeaned and diminished, many Native American tribes honored and revered their Two Spirit people frequently encouraging them to become their sacred storytellers or their medicine women and medicine men or even their shamans, priestesses and priests, some of the most highly honored and respected members of the tribe.
I want to stress that in time gay and lesbian natives also came to suffer the results of prejudice as with many of their non-native sisters and brothers. It is heartening, though, that many Two Spirit natives today believe their tribes are returning to the traditional way of affirming and blessing them. One younger Two Spirit native is very heartened, and he has said, very compellingly to my ear, “Natives are learning to embrace the views of our ancestors. Two Spirit people are increasingly celebrated today. Our people are continuing the practice of affirming all of our people, unlike the Whites who cast many of their members to the side because of issues of sexuality. Natives have largely not thrown any of their people away.”
I’m afraid Proposition 8 is one more way for some Americans to try to throw others away. The vote on November 4 made same-gender marriages illegal in the state of California. Voting “yes” on the proposition was a way of saying that marriage is reserved for one woman and one man in relationship to each other; actually, one woman for one man or one man for one woman AT A TIME! As far as I know, there isn’t any limit to the number of times men and women can divorce and marry again.
I have a hard time believing that most people in our culture care two hoots about who marries whom; sometimes the persons getting married themselves haven’t been too careful or too picky about it. I think those who voted in favor of Proposition 8 were primarily voting against the very idea of homosexuality, as if a vote will make it go away or as if upholding an only half-successful straight institution will cure those crazy gays.
A buddy of mine who is a sociology professor in California and who also happens to be African American believes that the large turn out of Black voters there to help get Obama elected also helped defeat same-gender marriages. But we certainly can’t lay the whole blame on the doorsteps of largely African American churches. The underlying hatred of gays and lesbians by a significant sector of Americans is often fueled by churches of all stripes who preach God’s love for all people, but immediately set out to limit those who are to get the full blessings of God’s love.
This week at the seminary, my practice preaching students were delivering their sermons that I call “pastoral moment” sermons: wedding sermons, funeral sermons, communion meditations, baptism sermons, ordination sermons, and so on. The student who delivered the wedding sermon did, I thought, an excellent job with his sermon content and, from all initial indications, so did the rest of the class. I thought we had completed our class critique of his sermon so we were getting ready to move on to the next nervous student when one member of the class spoke up and said, “I think in view of what’s going on in the world today that anyone preaching a wedding sermon should never miss the opportunity of saying somewhere in the sermon that God ordained marriage for one man to one woman.”
I responded to that. I said, “Well, your opinion is heard and respected; however...” “However, comma,” my New Orleans friend, Ed Broussard, used to say in the midst of one of those pregnant pauses when something more was certainly about to be said. I said to the sincere student, “Well, I can’t find any specific reference to God’s ordaining of marriage, straight or gay, but if God did ordain the marriages in the Bible, God ordained polygamous marriages as these were exclusively the kinds of marriages we know about in Hebrew scripture and predominantly the kinds of marriages we know about in Christian scripture. Would you preside over a man’s marriage to his second or third wife while the other or others were still living?”
I believe that monogamous long-term relationships are absolutely wonderful for those who can build them healthily, and if it is important to the couple to legalize such a relationship for whatever reason then I’m all for that. I believe if that privilege is available to one American it has to be available to all Americans who want it, gay or straight. It’s long past the time when our society should have stopped making people in minority groups feel that they are thrown away by the larger society. We have to wonder how many people voting against legalizing same gender marriages are in bad marriages, have never been married and have no prospects for marriage, are presently in a marriage but cheating on a spouse with someone of the same or opposite gender. Victorian mores didn’t work in the Victorian era; they’re certainly not going to work today!


II.
Most of what I know about the organization called Resettlers I learned from hearing Trina Gardner talk about what she has done as a part of that organization. If I understood correctly, Resettlers comes in to help people in residential transition decide what they can reasonably plan to keep and what they need to get rid of in moving from one home to another smaller home.
I gather that most of the clients of Resettlers are senior adults moving out of their beloved homes--often where they have lived for decades--surrounded by possessions they love; yet, in their retirement home there simply isn’t going to be enough room for many of their possessions, typically not even a fraction of what they presently own. Resettlers tells them rather objectively and unemotionally what can reasonably fit into their new home. That’s a tough, tough part of this generally necessary transition.
Some things will be sold; other items will be given away, and some things once deemed important are thrown away. We identify with the things we have kept around us for a long time, and when they are gone many of us feel a sense of loss.
Sometimes we need to throw out something that is broken or that no longer works. I encourage couples who are having marital difficulties not to put a spouse in this category. If the razor we have enjoyed more than any razor we have ever owned breaks and the repairperson tells us it can’t be repaired because replacement parts are no longer made, we may still hope and struggle for a while hoping for healing. Eventually, though, we need to let it go; a broken electric razor isn’t of any real value unless it becomes a part of a modern sculpture. It probably makes the most sense to dispose of the old razor in an environmentally responsible way and break in a new one.
Churches have a terrible time knowing when to throw away most items, especially those that have been given to the church as gifts. For example, we have in our basement right this minute a chair that we call the “Bunyon Chair”--Bunyon as in John Bunyon, not as a toe problem. This chair was given to our church many years ago by someone who had served Queen Victoria, and it is said to be a replica of a chair or the chair mentioned in John Bunyon’s most famous literary work, The Pilgrim’s Progress. I’ve been here about eight and a half years, and I found out about the Bunyon Chair less than two years ago. I was so excited! I ran out and bought a couple of versions of The Pilgrim’s Progress with notes to be able to find more readily the references to the chair. I’d read the book years ago but didn’t remember anything about a chair in there. The books didn’t help me find anything, and two Bunyon scholars whom I emailed didn’t bother to answer me.
Whether the chair figures prominently into the story we still don’t know. Our member, Professor Jeannie Rymer, whom we lost to California, is a retired professor of interior design at the University of Delaware; she is a historian of chairs, and she couldn’t find anything out about the chair nor could she validate its functionality as a chair. I believe we may have tried to sell it on eBay, but as of yet we haven’t been able to give it away. I think our Church Council will back me on this: anyone who pledges more than $50,000 to our budget next year may own the priceless Bunyon chair and its lovely glass case.
I’m hooked on cell phones. I hate it, but I am. I can’t imagine not being accessible to a phone anywhere I happen to be, and I can’t imagine not having a phone to use if I need one any time, any place. Even so, I understand Rob Beschizza who wrote an article for the online, “Wired: A Blog Network.” Mr. Beschizza’s article was entitled, “Ten Reasons to Throw Your Cell Phone Away.” Here they are:

A cell phone makes its owner’s life more complicated than not having a cell. This really is related to all we try to get our cell phones to do for us and how we have to keep one more electronic device up to date with information and maintenance well.
It’s expensive--almost always much more expensive than the most liberal estimate of cost per month.


To have a cell phone, you have to sign a one-sided contract. It’s true.


Once people know you have a cell phone, they expect to be able to reach you whenever they want you or expect you to explain why you had your phone turned off.


Its minimally inventive. I don’t know about that. I think it’s rather impressively inventive given the fact that I started talking on telephones on party lines in Halls Crossroads. Cell phones seem like quite a jump from there.


It must constantly be recharged. True, and that can be a pain.


It knows where you are.


They have caused numerous serious auto accidents, and that was before texting while driving began.


They invite the presence of cell phone accessory kiosks.


They promote rude and formerly socially unacceptable rules of conversing--especially in the hearing of others.


You might want to get rid of your cell phone!
About fifteen years ago, HarperCollins published a book by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy entitled Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. The book chronicles the studies by a team led by an anthropologist at the University of Arizona who studied garbage with this premise in mind: what people have owned and thrown in the garbage “can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever may.”

Garbage doesn't lie. The evidence of junk-food wrappers, liquor bottles and [adult] magazines often flies in the face of what we tell ourselves--and what we tell others--about what we do. By comparing the results of surveys of food consumption with the contents of the respondents’ trash containers, the garbage project discovered a phenomenon they called the Lean Cuisine syndrome--people consistently underreport the quantity of junk food they eat, and overreport the amount of fruit and diet soda they consume. Most people also underreport their consumption of alcohol by 40 to 60 percent; on the other hand, heads of households regularly exaggerate the amount of food their families consume--the Good Provider syndrome. “What people claim in interviews to have bought and consumed, to have eaten and drunk, to have recycled and thrown away,” the authors write, “almost never corresponds directly or even very closely to the actual remnants of material culture in their Glad or Hefty bags.”


Oh my, so what do you SAY you throw away, and what does your garbage say about you?
When we lived in New Orleans, we knew a number of professors who were on the faculty at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Only two of them were officially members of our church, though, since the then-president somewhat unofficially prohibited his full-time faculty members from belonging to the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. Full-time faculty members were given houses to live in right on the campus compound; that seems like a lovely arrangement at first blush, but when you realize how closely the president could keep an eye on you if you lived right under his nose it may not seem like such a great deal.
The consumption of alcohol was strictly forbidden on that campus, and faculty members and students weren’t supposed to drink even away from campus. Some of the faculty members did drink, though. They had to keep their drinking a secret, naturally, and this meant, among other things, that when they had empty wine bottles or beer cans or liquor bottles to dispose of, they couldn’t put them in the campus garbage, which was picked up by student workers who might see what was in a professor’s trash can and eventually put 2 and 2 together.
We knew of a few professors who liked to imbibe, and they had to carry their empties off campus in the trunks of their cars. Some of those professors attended our church, at least part of the time; and some of them when coming to church brought their empties to the dumpster of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church for safe, nonjudgmental disposal. Can you imagine living like that? If I had any members in that church who didn’t take an occasional sip of alcohol, I never met them, and they loved the seminary professors who sipped secretly just as much as they loved anyone else who needed a progressive faith community.


III.
The least wasteful people I have ever known are those who lived through the Great Depression; many of these folks I’ve known through the years remained frugal even though they may have grown wealthy. They never bought anything excessive, and once they had something they rarely threw it away. The poet in Ecclesiastes, upon observing human behavior, said that there are times when folks keep things and a time when they throw things away. “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to keep and a time to throw away.”
In the First World today a good number of us live by the rule of excess. We routinely buy more than we need--much, much more than we need. Marketers are onto our cultural materialism too. They know how to make us want particularly those items that we clearly don’t need. The current scary economic picture in our country will, according to more than a few influential economists, make this coming Christmas season a huge disappointment for retailers. I, as much as anyone else, hate the reason this will be the case if, in fact, that’s the way it unfolds, but a Christmas minus materialism can’t be all bad. Overspending and celebrating materialism and the ease of going into debt in Jesus’ name is ludicrous.
I mean, just ponder how skewed the notions are. Some say gift giving at Christmas is based on the fact that the wise ones from the East brought gifts to honor Jesus, and because they brought gifts to Jesus we should give gifts to each other. Is there any logic to that at all? If we were going to take our cue from the wise ones, when celebrating Jesus’ birth shouldn’t we give gifts to the kinds of things Jesus would have endorsed if he had had any money? On this Silverside Stewardship Sunday, that’s an awfully good question we should ask ourselves. If you know of a church with missions and ministries to strugglers of all types, the kind of people to whom Jesus’ gave most of his time and attention, you might think of your annual pledge to that church with the gifts-to-Jesus parallel in mind.
Also, though, the wise ones never celebrated Jesus’ birth; they didn’t make it over to Nazareth until Jesus was a two-year-old toddler so if we give gifts to mirror their practice we should forget about Jesus’ birth and use the gifts to commemorate his toddlerhood. By the time the wise ones saw Jesus, he was in the dwelling he shared with his parents, Mary and Joseph; there were no smelly shepherds around, no lowing cattle, and most significantly no heavenly angels in choral concert.
When we overspend and when we are over-gifted, we have a disposal problem. Most of us don’t live in dwellings large enough to accommodate all we acquire so we have give away or throw away. According to the latest statistics I know about, we U.S. residents generate about 230 tons of trash every year; that breaks down to about 4.6 pounds of trash per person per day. Even with our growing emphases on recycling in several places, only about a fourth of those 230 tons of trash is recycled. The rest is either incinerated contributing to pollution problems or dumped or buried in landfills. Many of our nation’s landfills have been closed, and the Environmental Protection Agency says it’s for one of two reasons: One, they simply get too full to use any longer; two, their contents begin to contaminate drinking water. It only makes sense to realize that disposing of each person’s daily 4.6 pounds of trash is an especially challenging problem for urban areas.
So, there’s a time to keep and a time to throw away, but what do we do when what we throw away smothers us or poisons us? Some few folks are careful to dispose of potentially hazardous waste in responsible ways; batteries don’t go in the “regular” trash but to places that more safely dispose of them, and biohazards are buried in containers that will last long enough to keep us safe, but not our children and grandchildren.
The two most effective and easy ways to deal with this issue are recycling and using less packaging materials in products we buy and in what we ship. The materials used to package products we buy astound us. How hard should it be to open a shirt or a fingernail clipper? How involved should opening a pair of scissors be, scissors we bought specifically to open hard-to-open wrappings?!? Ellen Degeneres has a hilarious standup routine with this very subject worked into it.
About a third of all the trash the United States sends to landfills is packaging papers and plastics--the leftovers, if you will, from fast food purchases, prepackaged and processed foods from grocery stores, and so on. There’s a time to keep and a time to throw away and also a time to stop generating senseless trash that ends up hurting us and our Planet.
It’s interesting to me that Jesus never used the word “hell”; nor did he use any synonym for it--not “sheol,” “not “hades.” Jesus compared a person’s separating himself or herself from God as like being tossed into Jerusalem’s big garbage dump, its landfill to the south of the city where all sorts of refuse was thrown including the bodies of criminals executed by Rome. This is where Jesus’ body would have ended up after his execution had a few of his brave followers, all or mostly women, not pled for special permission to dispose of his body.
This big garbage dump outside Jerusalem was called “gehenna,” and Jesus used the word specifically; yet, some translators consistently ignore that and translate the word as “hell” anyway. That’s just irresponsible.
Many Greek proper nouns, as far as I know every name of a person or a place, has a meaning, but when translating proper nouns we don’t use the meaning of the name as the translation; we use the name as a name. Knowing the background of the name is often interesting or important, but a name is still a name so if we see Jesus’ name, for example, in Greek, Iesous, deriving from the Hebrew Yeshua, we still translate his name as his name not as the name’s meaning, which is something like “God saves” or “God is salvation.”
My name, as most of you know, is David, which is a Hebrew word meaning “beloved,” and what more apt name for a pastor than David since pastors are universally loved by all people, especially all of their parishioners. It’s an amazing life.
Anyway, when you see the word, “David,” in a text, you translate it David and not beloved. It is odd and inappropriate, then, for interpreters to see gehenna in a text and translate it as “hell” or “hades.” The only acceptable translations are “Gehenna” or “Valley of Hinnom.”
Tellingly, the only ones known to me that Jesus ever said would have a Valley of Hinnom or fiery garbage dump experience were those who thought of themselves as faithful or God’s favorites but who in reality had separated themselves from God in the very rituals that they called religious. These were people who had managed to turn religious practices originally intended to draw them into close communion with God into vehicles separating them from God. And, by the way, these kinds of separations were present-tense separations from God, not eternal separations from God in the next realm.
Jesus didn’t want anyone to be lost to God in this world or the next. In the stirring third chapter of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus comes under the cover of secretive darkness to have a chat with Jesus about how he might inherit God’s kind of life not only in this world, but also in the world to come. Jesus told him that he needed to be born from above, and the writer of the Fourth Gospel goes on to explain:

For God so loved the world that God gave God’s unique child, so that everyone who believes in God may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send God’s unique child into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through the ministry of that child.


Amen.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A TIME TO LOSE




















I.
According to the poet in Ecclesiastes 3, “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to seek and a time to lose.” The set of paradoxical descriptions of what goes on in human experience really catches my ear--especially the “lose” part. We use the word “lose” a lot in American English. I think immediately of several things we most of us don’t want to lose in general.
Veterans’ Day is two days away. We don’t want EVER to lose our sense of gratitude for veterans who have served this country toward the end of protecting and ensuring our continued freedom as U.S. Americans. In the same instant we sense that gratitude, we are particularly mindful of those women and men in the armed services actively protecting our nation’s well-being right now. Steve Shaw made several tours to Iraq, and P. J. Anderson is there now. Let us never lose our gratitude for them and all who served and are serving with them!
We don’t want to lose our balance, and as we get older we justifiably become increasingly concerned about that although Dr. Helen Cohen, who is an ENT doc at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston insists that loss of balance is never simply a matter of one’s age. If we lose our balance, something more’s at stake than age. As of August this year, statistics reveled that in our country alone there have been 300,000 admissions for broken hips alone, and many of these have been caused by falls. Again, though, it’s never just age that leads to a fall; other factors such as inner ear problems, heart ailments, and neurological difficulties can be the culprits; many of these can be successfully treated.
We don’t want to lose a bet even if the payoff costs us nothing in terms of dollars; remember that there are bets made in which the loser has to perform some embarras-sing act for the entertainment of the winner. In New Orleans, our church was directly across the street from Tulane University’s fraternity row. There were numerous Sunday mornings when the results of Saturday evening frat dares were on display for all to see; I learned much more about them than I ever cared to know.
We don’t want to lose our sense of direction; some of us are more thankful than others for GPS devices and cell phones that help us find our destinations. These GPS systems may save the men in our population the tremendous embarrassment that comes upon them when they have to stop and ask someone for directions. We don’t want our team to lose any games, much less the championship or the pennant. Some fans take very personally anything that they believe contributes to their team’s losing. They will blame their team itself as a last resort; before that, they will blame the referees or the umpires, bad coaching, the unfavorable conditions for a visiting team, prevailing curses in a given region such as the curse of William Penn, or horoscopes.
We don’t want to lose our pensions with the help of either Enron and its ilk or with the help of a vastly incompetent Treasury Department in cahoots with greedy and careless CEO’s and CFO’s of so-called financial institutions. Some of our fellow citizens have, though, lost their pensions through these very means, and numerous others have had to extend their working years to deal with the latest Wall Street fiasco that didn’t happen overnight, but rather happened as the Neros on Wall Street and in the federal Treasury Department fiddled while the Rome of our investments burned.
Closely related to the financial crisis in our country is the massive loss of jobs. Most of us don’t want to lose our jobs; even if we have jobs we don’t like, we don’t want to lost them. We want to leave a job when we our-selves, without pressure of any sort from the present job, decide we want to make a change. We don’t want to lose a job because someone else decides that we are no longer suitable in a job or because a horrible economy forces companies to cut back.
Last month alone, 240,000 Americans lost their jobs. So far this year, 1.2 million of our fellow citizens lost their jobs--not because they were performing poorly but because their employers couldn’t pay them any longer. The unemployment rate in our nation today is 6.5%.
We hope not to lose our focus as individuals, as families, as a church, as a nation, as the whole human family. Focus is so very important to seek. Individuals without focus either accomplish little in life, or even though they may accomplish a great deal they aren’t focused enough to know or notice it! Families without focus become dysfunctional, and organizations, like churches, without clear focus die. Churches must not lose their focus, which implies that they had focus to begin with. Churches can’t be all things to all people, and no church can run all programs. If we let ourselves be pulled in too many directions, we will end up doing nothing well, but we will be so busy that we won’t realize how we’ve let what should be our focus, our true strength, slip.
Many of us, plenty of us, don’t want to lose an argument. There are some in that number who get their personality and self-image tied up in the impossible impression they develop that they aren’t and can’t be wrong about anything. Of course, they alone believe that about themselves. I have known people--none in Delaware, of course--who will go to any lengths to win an argument even if their argument isn’t really the winning argument. There must be an appearance, at least, that they won and, thus, getsthe last word.
In relationship counseling across the years I’ve seen functional arrangements in which one partner always gave in to the other’s more strongly stated opinions and preferences even though the acquiescing partner knew she or he was often more correct when a difference of opinion arose. She or he had been consoled across time by the inner knowledge of who was really right most of the time, and the smile that spread on her or his face in the midst of conflict wasn’t so much a giving in to the partner with the need to be the argument winner all the time, but rather a smug inner confirmation of who was really the most correct, most of the time.
A candidate doesn’t want to lose an election, and her or his supporters don’t want their candidate to lose. Sena-tor McCain lost the presiden-tial election this week, but he touched us all with his amazingly gracious, and I think historic, concession speech. He honored President-elect Obama, and he called the country to-gether; he called his sup-porters to stand fully behind the new administration. The concession speech is much more difficult to deliver than the victory speech. Obama’s victory speech was also historic and moving; I was moved to tears by both speeches, but I still believe, Obama’s personal grief notwithstanding, that Senator McCain’s speech was much more personally demanding and difficult.
People around the world are widely enthused about the results of our presidential election; so many believe we sought and found the person for this hour in our history. I don’t know who to thank for what has happened this week--not God. God cer-tainly doesn’t get involved in American politics or any other variety so I won’t thank God (even though I was very pleased that Sarah Palin’s god to whom she said she was praying didn’t answer her election day prayer).
Obama and Delaware’s own Joe Biden and the beleaguered voters who elected them in an electoral landslide have brought our nation and our world a reason to hope. I listened, one afternoon, to NPR coverage of a telephone call to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s home in South Africa to get his reaction to the election. In his typically straight-forward yet kind-spirited manner he said that the days of bullyboy politics have to be over along with unilateral-ism if the United States of America truly wishes to be a leader among nations. Two or three times during that interview he said to the American people, “Thank you for bringing all of us hope.”



II.
There are things within ourselves that we don’t want to lose. Here are some examples.
You don’t want to lose your confidence. Self-confidence is typically a prerequisite for accomplishing any worthwhile goal. I heard first from my parents and later from other mentors this piece of advice: “If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will believe in you.” That is powerfully true, and too many capable people in the world today are falling way below their potential because they don’t believe in themselves. Surely, one of the qualities that any great teacher wants to instill in her or his students is self-confidence. Destructive rather than constructive criticism of a student at any age gives that student reason to believe that she or he really can’t do it.
I believe that the Obama victory speech the other evening was a self-confidence builder for supporters who heard it. “Yes, we can,” he said, believing, I am convinced, that together we can solve some of our pressing problems. And, “Yes, we can,” his supporters would repeat back to him antiphonally. There, supposedly, were one million of them there. “Yes, we can.”
In most contexts and circumstances in our culture, we affirm the importance of maintaining one’s self-control. We don’t like, are often uncomfortable with, someone’s losing her or his self-control. There are exceptions, of course. I don’t like bars and have been to only a few across the years. What I know about bar behavior comes mostly from my son, Carson, who was a bouncer for a bit. With my limited experience augmented by his plentiful tales on the subject, I have to say that a good number of bars must encourage and applaud the loss of self-control. I had a student in speech class some time ago who referred in every speech she gave during the term--all five of them--to some situation in which she was intoxicated. She and her friends and in some of her stories her siblings evidently found her falling-down drunk status terribly amusing, and they, no doubt, served as enablers. Those of us who aren’t up in arms about drunk drivers are enablers too, by the way.
Participants in so-called charismatic worship services may also lose their self-control with the approval of their fellow worshipers; in fact, that’s exactly what’s expected in those kinds of contexts. They may jump and hop or roll around on the floor; they long to slip at least slightly out of consciousness and start speaking in tongues.
Anger is real human emotion; there’s nothing wrong with being angry, but we can’t let anger manage us. Anger as a basis for the loss of self-control can lead to hurting oneself or others, sometimes fatally. Self-control is an important part of anyone’s emotional health and a necessary expectation for a society that chooses to operate according to the principle of orderliness.
You don’t want to lose your virtue. There used to be a societal standard that said if you lose your virginity at the wrong time, with it goes your virtue. Chastity as a suitable definition for the word “virtue” is today, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the seventh and last option; it’s falling out of favor, and we mostly need to know about it in this regard so that we can understand the literature and the mores of eras gone by. Even so, it’s difficult to justify promiscuity as a suitable substitute to virtue.
A few years ago, I sat down with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, and in the catch-up conversation he mentioned a mutual friend of ours from college days, got me caught up on that friend, and concluded his comments about the friend by saying, “He has lost his faith.” That’s a red-flag phrase and a catchall phrase. “Faith” is both an abstract word and a multifaceted one.
Ultimately, in the context of Christian theology, I think, faith is a response that humans reserve only for God. Faith means so much more than simply believing that there is a God. Faith is the response of someone who believes that God is, causing her or him to have confidence in God. One of my seminarians said recently that in order for faith to be more than belief alone, one must invest oneself fully in the object of faith. Indeed, the book of James insists that demons believe that God exists, and they tremble. They believe in God, but they don’t have faith in God. Now, I’m not asking you to start believing in demons; I’m simply using the book of James to illustrate the difference between belief and faith. Faith is much more than mere belief, mere intellectual assent.
Did my friend mean that our mutual friend who was not present had lost his confidence in God? Not really. What he meant was that our friend didn’t believe in God the way we had as young Carson-Newman preacher boys. I was immediately aware that my friend, though claiming to have read my books and sermons, had not; or else he would have known that the god of my early theological embrace was not a god I could either believe in, much less faith in, today. There truly are gods in whom we have believed in our lives for whom faith should indeed be lost.
The part of discussing whether or not God exists with those who claim to be agnostic or atheist that makes me most uncomfortable is that I may come across as not respecting their views. I don’t mean for that to be the case. Still, I sense that many of those who claim agnosticism or atheism as their theological orientation actually have a problem with naming God, and what they’re rejecting are perspectives on God that they find reprehensible. In those cases, loss of faith may be the most important, healthful experience that could ever have come someone’s way. I believe there is a God of love worthy of our faith.
There are a few things we never want to lose in terms of how others are able to view us; three of these come immediately to my mind: credibility, respect, and trust. I want those who know me, both publicly and privately, to be able to believe me, to be able to respect me, and to be able to trust me. Most folks I know want the same for those closest to them.
It’s interesting to me as someone who studies and works in the world of rhetoric--and I hope at least somewhat interesting to those of you who don’t--that Aristotle in his Rhetoric, which has endured as probably the greatest book on the subject ever written, lists a public speaker’s credibility as one of the most foundational qualities needed for ethical persuasion. Dealing with ethos, from which we get our English word, “ethics,” Aristotle insisted that a good bit of what makes a speaker believable or not was established before the speaker ever opened his mouth; I don’t know of any women Aristotle would have had in mind in his time and place who would have done public speaking. If you know me, am I the kind of person who is likely to tell you the truth, and if you don’t know me do I seem and sound like someone who is telling you the truth? I want those who encounter me, and especially those whom I love, to know me as someone who is truthful and credible.
I don’t want others to lose respect for me; I’m sure you feel the same way. Of course, there are those who believe that if there isn’t complete agreement on all issues there is no possibility for respect. There are Democrats who won’t respect any Republican, and Republicans who won’t respect any Democrats. There are persons of color who won’t respect any white folk, and there are white folk who won’t respect any person of color. Isn’t that bizarre? I suppose the most stunning recent example I’ve heard along these lines had to do with the Facebook posting by University of Texas’s backup center shortly after Obama was declared winner of the presidential election. Buck Burnette put on his site that now was the time for hunters to gather because of who would soon be living in the White House. That young man has since been dismissed from the team.
Trust, I think, comes from the ability of others to believe us and respect us; both feed into trust. It’s nearly impossible to get through life without trusting others who accompany us on our journey. Some of the most painful moments any of us have struggled through have been caused by our trusting the wrong people. A kid at school tells a friend a secret, and the so-called friend blabs the secret all over school. A patient trusts a physician who misdiagnoses purely because of carelessness; not all misdiagnoses come from carelessness, but some surely do. A constituent trusts a politician to keep her or his promises and try to make that constituent’s life better; once elected, the politician doesn’t even pretend to care about that cause. Sadly, once trust is lost, it may never be regainable.


III.
All of our readings today have been taken from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and each one is about something precious that has been lost. Luke groups the stories together and turns them into a kind of trilogy. There’s a lost sheep, a lost coin, and finally a lost son.
As far as we know, in each case, no one did anything careless; that is, whatever was lost wasn’t lost because the person to whom the lost item related did anything careless or irresponsible. The sad reality is that in life we sometimes lose things and people who are important to us, and often we lose them through no fault of our own. There’s no one to blame, no one at whom to be angry--not even ourselves since we weren’t negligent.
All three of these stories are parables that Jesus told so one thing we know right off the bat is that we are dealing with symbols for how life would be if people lived according to God’s standards. The characters are themselves symbols and not historic individuals though their experiences surely tell stories of what countless people have gone through in their lives.
When Jesus told these parables, he expected his hearers to ponder them and draw their own conclusions in response to them. Jesus didn’t interpret his parables for anyone’s benefit. A parable can’t mean anything and everything depending on who’s hearing it like a Rorshcach picture is supposed to; there certainly may be various meanings and various appropriate responses. I say that because I want you to know if you saw something in the parables I didn’t see or if you drew a different conclusion than I did, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work. I am not, therefore, sharing my views with you today to cause you to drop your view in preference for mine.
Before we look at each of the three parables individually, I want to tell you that in each of these three stories, God is the one who loses something, and each response to what has been lost is the divine response. Each object lost, in all three cases, is a person or a whole bunch of people represented by the one.
In the first parable in Luke’s trilogy, a shepherd has been assigned the task of caring for 100 sheep. Shepherds very often were not the owners of the animals over whom they watched; more typically, shepherds were hired hands. They weren’t very high up on the social ladder both because they were hired hands and because they lived with more animals than with humans; some of us have days when we realize that living with animals is much less complicated than living with people!
The other dynamic in being a shepherd is caring for a more financially stable person’s livelihood. To lose a sheep or to let harm come to a sheep was to lose money for the owner of the sheep and to minimize her or his ability to pay you to do shepherding work. It seems to me that a flock of 100 sheep was quite a large assignment for one person to manage on his or her own. Most of the time when we read about shepherds in Jewish and Christian scripture, we find them with other shepherds. Yet, in this parable of the lost sheep, there’s only one guy that some cheapskate hired to take care of 100 sheep.
One of the sheep wanders away. DUH! That was bound to happen.
My take on parables is that there’s always something unsettling about the story. In this case, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep for which he can account to go out in search of the one lost sheep. It was not a good plan on his part. He should have kept the ninety-nine together as best he could and reported to his boss that one was unavoidably lost; I’d guess that the boss would have expected some periodic loss of merchandise. But, no. This particular shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to fend for themselves if thieves or wolves came while he went out to search for the one sheep that was lost--having absolutely no confidence that he could find the sheep that was lost. The probability was that the lost sheep was already dinner for some family of wolves or humans. Even so, the shepherd takes the risk.
So, I already told you that God is the one in all cases who loses something in these stories. I’d say that the shepherd represents God. God doesn’t want even one sheep to be lost to God. In case the sheep has lost its way or in case it’s hurt somewhere and can’t come back to the fold, God goes out in search of the sheep, and this isn’t some halfhearted search. God puts God’s all into it.
Every human is just that important to God. That is remarkable love, isn’t it? If another is lost when God gets back from the search, which by the way is successful, God, after some serious celebrating, will go right back out in search of another lost sheep.
In the second parable, God is a poor woman who loses one of the only ten coins she has in the world. One coin was probably equivalent to what she could make working all day long if and when she could find work. Some scholars believe that a savings account in those days was a necklace onto which all of one’s coins were strung. The string broke one day, and the coins rolled in all directions on the dirt floor of her dwelling. That she had any coins at all beyond the one that she needed to eat that day made her a bit better off than many of the people in her time and place. Still, she needed every coin, and it may have been that those were not just her coins, but the coins that she and her husband had amassed together. There was more at stake than just her loss and sense of loss.
She lights every oil lamp she can lay her hands on and gets out her broom, but the dwelling was dark. It was hard to see in there under the best of circumstances. If the coin had gone under a mat, it could be found; if it had gone down into a crack or crevice, though, it was probably gone for good.
Thankfully, she sweeps her coin out of a dark corner, and she calls all her friends together to celebrate her discovery. God is that woman, and when God finds one of us who has been lost God celebrates and shares the wonderful news that an irreplaceable part of what God found of value has been recovered.
God has been a hired hand so far in Luke’s parabolic trilogy and a poor woman. Finally, God is a man with clout and class, and, yet, God still suffers a loss.
In the final parable, God is a man of means with two sons who help him manage his lands and his animals. The older son is meticulously responsible; he plays it by the book in all circumstances. His world is entirely black and white, with no hints of gray. He works hard because he takes it to be his duty to do so, and he’s loyal to his father, at least in part, because it is specified that he should be that way by Jewish laws governing his people.
His younger brother he can’t stand, can NOT abide. His kid brother isn’t much of a worker, and he takes their father and the family’s wealth for granted. One day, there’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. The younger son comes to the father who has never done anything but love him, and says, “Look, you can’t live forever, right? Even so, why should I wait until you kick the water jar to get my share of the inheritance. Pay up, pops. I need to live my life the way I see fit, and I need to start doing that now!”
Though highly unusual, there was a provision for early distribution of inheritance to one’s sons; daughters got no money as far as we know unless there were no sons. Anyway, the father’s heart breaking, he gave his younger son his part of the inheritance, a lesser portion than what went to the first-born son, but still substantial.
This son, who by the way could have been a middle-aged man, takes the whole stash, moves to another city from which he makes no effort to stay in touch, and wastes every dinarius on “riotous living,” the text says, and that has been translated in the most “National Enquirer”ish ways imaginable. Later on, the older brother accuses his younger brother of wasting the money on harlots; this probably tells us more about the older brother than about the younger brother. All the narrator gives us is “riotous living.”
In whatever ways he managed to do it, he wasted away every last bit of his substantial inheritance. He awakened one day without enough money to buy a loch or a bagel. He had to get a job, but he had no skills except for helping his dad so he landed a job working for a Gentile farmer who sent him out to the fields to tend his hogs, a high offense to a Jew; but he had no choice if he wanted to eat.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the father has never stopped missing his son, never stopped worrying about his son, never stopped hoping the son would come home. In this case, the son had cut off the father, and the father could not go out in search of his son. All he could do was wait. The late Helmut Thielicke, German theologian and pastor, published his retelling of this parable under the title, “The Waiting Father.”
So, the father waited, and finally his thoughtless, thankless son comes home begging for the opportunity to get a job as an hourly worker; he doesn’t dare ask to be received as a member of the family. The audience is poised to see the father justifiably dress down the son and perhaps even disown him, but Jesus’ parables always were upsetting the apple carts. Instead, the father falls down embracing his son and crying his eyes out and calling on the servants to put on the biggest of bashes to celebrate his son’s return.
Sometimes, God can’t go out to search for those who have decided to lose themselves to God. All God can do is wait for the child to return; some do, and some don’t. God’s response is always the same if someone is found--no exceptions: tears of joy and a grand celebration for what was lost even to God is now found.
Amen.