Sunday, February 3, 2013

Joining the Party


Everyone gets angry from time to time.  Anger can seethe or boil over or explode.  We can stuff it or be carried away by it or manage it.  
The effects of anger can be withering.  When we direct our anger outward it can intimidate and diminish and dismantle others.  Anger turned inward becomes sadness and self-loathing.  As a habitual response to the world, anger infects our character with resentment and contempt and leaves us bitter and lonely.
Anger is also very revealing.  Reflect for a while on the circumstances to which you respond in anger, and you will likely discover that something you hold dear seemed to be at stake. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "The Woman Looking into a Hand Held Mirror"
Sometimes our reflections show us that we have responded to a threat in the environment around us.  We were trying to change the world to protect what’s important to us.  Just mess with a parent’s kids and their fiery reaction will illustrate my point.
But anger is also revealing when it is the truth that blows our circuits.  If the truth riles us up, then there is something about ourselves that needs changing or stretching.  Anger can be an act of resistance to the spiritual growth to which God invites us.
This spiritual dynamic is at work in today’s Gospel. (Luke 4:21-30)  Jesus outrages the members of his hometown synagogue by pointing out the meaning of two Old Testament stories.  Their hearts burn with such rage that they actually set out to kill him.
The story of Jesus’ contentious homecoming tells us not only about the people in his home town.  It holds a mirror up to all of us.  That story tells us about a misconception that we hold dear, the truth that Jesus teaches, and the freedom that Jesus’ truth offers his listeners.
Let’s unfold the story with the following questions:
What is the misconception that we hold dear?
What is the truth that Jesus tells?
How does this truth set us free?
Religious Entitlement

The people in the crowd that day in Nazareth shared a common spiritual misconception.  It’s a misconception we harbor to a greater or lesser degree ourselves.  A parable that only Luke records will help us see it.
We call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but the parable actually contains two brothers, and it is the older brother that helps us crack open what happened at the synagogue at Nazareth, and what sometimes obstructs our own daily walk with Jesus.  (Luke 15:11-32)
Since this is such a familiar parable, we can deal with it in broad brushstrokes.  The younger of two sons demands his inheritance from his father.  Contrary to all expectations, the father agrees without an argument.  The young man moves out, blows his fortune on fast living, and winds up living in the gutter.  When he comes dragging home the father is so overjoyed to see him that he doesn’t even let him apologize and throws him a homecoming wingding.
Look closely at the older brother.  He is steaming.  He cannot believe that the old man threw his deadbeat brother a party.  And he says as much.  If anybody is entitled to a party around here, it’s him.

Paul Gauguin's "Why Are You Angry?"

Every day he got up and did all his chores.  Not once did he shirk his duty or step out of line or cause his father heartburn.  He’s straight as an arrow.  And now the father owes him.
This is precisely the attitude of what you might call religious people.  We go to church.  We follow the rules and throw in some good works.  We even give money.  We deserve a reward.  God owes us one.  You could call this the Attitude of Religious Entitlement.  We get a party because of what we have achieved or how we have acted or what we believed.  It’s unfair to let others into the party who have done nothing to deserve it.
There’s just one problem.  God’s grace doesn’t work that way.  And that’s just what Jesus told the crowd that day.
In Jesus’ time, it was common for Israelites to believe that the Messiah would come to deliver the faithful children of Abraham.  (John 8:39)  Everybody else was out of luck, an outsider.  That’s why his old neighbors expected Jesus to do a few healings and exorcisms for them.  They were entitled precisely because they had been faithful, at least mostly faithful, to their religious lineage.
Jesus then refers to the stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian.  (1 Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 5:1-14) Two Gentiles.  Through the prophet Elijah God miraculously sustains a widow and her son throughout a famine.  God again shows his miraculous favor, healing the Gentile general Naaman of leprosy through the prophet Elisha.
No wonder the Nazarene crowd boiled over with anger! Jesus had just told them that their piety and moral correctness and scriptural literacy and charitable contributions do not obligate God to show them special favor.
Being religious is fine.  But it doesn’t win points with God.  It doesn’t force him to put you on the guest list for his party.  And this brings us to the truth Jesus came to tell. 
God’s Guest List
God loves everybody.  No matter what.  God’s love is not a response to what we have done or failed to do.  God is all initiative.  Everybody, and I mean everybody, is on the guest list.
The prodigal son and the honor student.  The woman caught in adultery and the cloistered nun.  Christian persecutors like Paul and martyrs like Stephen.  The Altar Guild and the biker club.
Jesus is God’s invitation in the flesh.  Come one.  Come all.  Drop the pretenses to getting what you’re owed and accept the only gift really worth receiving.  Love you cannot win.  Uncoerced, unguarded, unremitting love.
Robert Farrar Capon tells a modern parable of his own to make the point.
A man walks into a pub and meets Jesus at the bar.  Jesus says, “What’ll you have? The drinks are on me.”

Paul Klee's "Struck from the List"

The man says, “I will have a drink, but I always pay my own way.”
Jesus responds, “No really, I insist.”  To which the man again says, “I buy my own drinks.”
Jesus says, “You don’t understand.  You’re money’s no good here.  Only I can buy the drinks at this bar.”
The man stubbornly asserts, “I always pay my own way.”
Finally Jesus says, “Then to hell with you.”
We can do nothing to put ourselves on God’s guest list.  God has already put us there.  Jesus is the unmistakable invitation issued by what Timothy Keller calls the Prodigal God.  But we do have the challenge of accepting or rejecting the invitation.  We can live our lives as guests of the scandalously gracious God or simply refuse to join the party.
And this leads us to a final reflection.  What is life like when we accept the invitation and join the party?
Join the Party
Let’s return for a moment to the Parable of the Two Brothers (or the Parable of the Prodigal Son).  The older brother resented the father’s graciousness toward his younger brother, so he refused to go the party celebrating his return.  
The older brother would only join a party with an exclusive guest list.  As a result, he was left alone.  Outside.  Probably wailing and gnashing his teeth.  And he was not left out of the party because he wasn’t successful enough or popular enough.  It’s not that he lacked the right clothes or social graces.  He left himself out of the festivities because he insisted that others must be excluded.
But when we accept the Gospel of mercy and grace, we recognize that the only party that God will throw--and he will throw it for all of eternity--is a party for the wayward who are found, the sick who have been healed, the pigheaded who have learned to laugh at themselves, and the lowly who God himself has raised up.
When we finally stop toiling to measure up to God’s infinite standards, we can begin to live under the canopy of his gracious, infinite forgiveness and mercy.  And we can begin to do exactly that right now.
You see, God sent Jesus Christ to change the world.  Not with a magic wand.  Not in an instant.  But piecemeal.  In scattered outcroppings.  In families and friendships and congregations.

Ilya Repin's "Evening Party"

We inhabit the God-changed world by being the God-changed world.  We forgive slights and celebrate differences.  We care for the weak instead of leaving them in the dust.  We refuse to get ahead at the expense of others, in fact we cannot conceive of what getting ahead would be like while others suffer want or violence or oppression.
Believing Jesus’ message of grace sets us free to start the party now.
This sermon was preached at St. John’s, Minden.

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