The First Witnesses
SLIDE 3: FIRST WITNESSES
The New Testament contains approximately 15 different resurrection appearances of Jesus – nine accounts in the gospels, one story in the Book of Acts, and five appearances referred to by Paul. All of these resurrection stories are at least a little bit different from one another, and several of them are very different from each other. Of the nine different resurrection narratives in the Gospels, there is one detail all of the stories share in common – the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. The men were all in hiding and only the women had the courage and devotion to Jesus to venture forth to the tomb to complete the grisly job of completing the burial preparation. As in so many other situations women’s work was dirty work.
SLIDE 4: WOMEN WITNESSES A SCANDAL
The prominence of women as witnesses of the resurrection was a scandal, because in First Century Judaism women could not be called as witnesses. They were considered to be property, chattel, livestock, so inferior, that they were not permitted to testify in court. So of course when stories circulated that the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus were women, the general culture dismissed such nonsense. Who would trust the report of women, and so by the time of Paul the narrative had changed: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also. . .”
SLIDE 5: THE LEADERSHIP OF WOMEN
Only twenty-five years after the death of Jesus the narrative had been altered to appear as if the first witnesses were men, first to Peter and then to the twelve. If the early church was going to sell its story to the people of their time, they felt they had to accommodate their message to the misogynistic, the sexist beliefs of the general culture. But even with Paul’s attempt to accommodate to the patriarchal customs of the Roman Empire, the early church still persisted in following the radical way of Jesus liberating and promoting the leadership of women.
SLIDE 6: EQUALITY OF WOMEN SHINES THROUGH
For instance, even though the Gospels tried to cover up Jesus’ radical egalitarian attitude toward women, the truth still shines through in several places. In the story of Mary and Martha, Mary was encouraged to engage in the discussion with the men, rather than being relegated to the women’s work Martha, and presumably the male disciples wanted her to perform. In the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps older that any of the other gospels the male disciples complain to Jesus that he was treating Mary Magdalene as an equal to them.
SLIDE 7: ST. THEKLA
Despite Paul’s attempt to accommodate to the sexism of the Roman culture we still find references to women in his letters who were described as Apostles and the conveners and shepherds of house churches. Women in the early church were serving as priests, pastors, and bishops. Consider the tradition in the Syrian Orthodox Church of St. Thekla who is described as a disciple and companion of the Apostle Paul in the 1st century. She is given the title “Equal-to-the-Apostles” because she accompanied St. Paul in founding churches, because her witness converted so many others to Christ, and she was the first woman martyr for the Christian Faith.
SLIDE 8: IMAGE FROM THE CATACOMBS
We also have artistic confirmation of the leadership of women in the early church. Recently in the catacombs of Rome a picture was uncovered and restored that portrays a woman presiding at the Eucharist. Arms held out in blessing this image attests to women, who were serving in a priestly capacity leading congregations of the faithful as late as the second and even the early third century of the Christian era.
SLIDE 9: ANTOINETTE BROWN BLACKWELL
So what happened? When the church sold out to the Emperor Constantine, in the early fourth century, and became the established religion of the Roman Empire, they completely accommodated to the patriarchal sexist culture of Rome. Women were put in their place for 1500 years until the United Church of Christ ordained Antoinette Brown Blackwell in 1852. She went on to advocate for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and the right of women to vote. And since that time women have slowly but surely been liberated and empowered both in the church and in society.
SLIDE 10: SPIRIT OF CHRIST IN THE EMPOWERMENT OF WOMEN
Now why am I talking about the importance of women in an Easter Sermon? The first witnesses of the resurrection were the women followers of Jesus, and they went on to fuel the incredible growth of the early church. Second, Easter is not about what happened two-thousand years ago, Easter is the celebration of the continuing presence of the life of the resurrected Christ in our world today. If Jesus is not alive and among us today, then the empty tomb means nothing. It is just a hollowed out place in the rock, where Jesus can no longer be found. And I would submit that there is no more important evidence of the presence of Jesus in our world today than in the liberation and empowerment of women that is transforming our world. I know there are political candidates, who complain about “feminism” and “political correctness,” and there are some churches who still want to consign women to the kitchen and the vacuum cleaner, but the most important transformative force in the world today is the liberation and empowerment of women.
SLIDE 11: ISIS THE OPPRESSION OF WOMEN
If you don’t believe me, allow me to ask you a question. ISIS probably represents the most radical attempt to defeat modernity and Western culture, and take the world back to the middle ages. What is one of the most important strategies of ISIS? It is the oppression of women! And let me ask you what does ISIS fear the most? Do they fear Russian war planes? Do they fear American drones? Do they fear the collective disapproval of the civilized nations of the earth? Maybe, but what ISIS really fears is the liberation and empowerment of women.
SLIDE 12: MALALA SCARES ISIS
The image that scares the bejeezus out of ISIS is a courageous young woman, Malala, working to teach girls and other young women to read. The radical Islamists know that if Muslim women and girls are liberated and empowered, their days are numbered. At this time in history the world is being transformed by the empowerment of women. Let me share with you an example.
SLIDE 13: WILLIAM AND DONNA BAUM
One of Beth’s childhood friends William Baum and his wife Donna in retirement have been serving as Mennonite Missionaries in Guatemala. They have been working with indigenous people to help them purchase their village’s land. Until they own the land they cultivate, these native people have no chance to get ahead. They also set up in these villages small microcredit banks to make loans especially to women to set up businesses to manufacture and market their crafts and other products. The key to these microcredit banks is that they put the women of the village in charge of them. Why? Because the women will make sure the loans are paid back, and they will not engage in corruption. Also as women become entrepreneurs, they are empowered in the lives of their families and in the life of the village.
SLIDE 14: THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST IS ALIVE IN OUR WOLRD TODAY
A women who is earning her own living can stand up to her husband and her male relatives. And like in Bangladesh, when women are empowered to earn a living, they choose to have smaller families. The liberation and empowerment of women is transforming the world. Jesus started the movement to lift up the status and dignity of women, the first witnesses of the resurrection. The spirit of Christ is alive in our world today.
SLIDE 3: EVERYONE WAS HYPED
Jesus and his disciples burst into Jerusalem like a juggernaut. We call it Holy Week, the Jewish week of the Passover, a time to remember and celebrate God saving the people of Israel from Slavery in Egypt. Everyone was hyped. Would this be the time when God would work another miracle? Would God lift up a second Moses to lead his people to freedom from the Romans? In fact, the week started out sort of like that with Jesus leading a great crowd into the City and marching to the temple challenging their oppressors. But as soon as Jesus and his followers crested the Mount of Olives and started down into the Kidron Valley it was like the free fall of an emotional roller coaster that is the wild ride of Holy Week.
SLIDE 4: PLACING THE PALMS AND RIBBONS ON THE TREE
This morning as we place the palms and the ribbons on the resurrection tree allow me to encourage you to sign up for all of Holy Week. I know in our busy, busy lives it sometimes seems hard enough just to make it on Sunday mornings. Recent studies have shown that “regular” church goers are only attending about twice a month. So I understand to set aside a Thursday evening to come to church in the middle of the week is a big deal. So let me spend some time reviewing the events of Holy Week this morning in an effort to help you understand what you might be missing, if you do not attend our Maundy Thursday Communion and Tennebrae Service.
SLIDE 5: BETHANY AND BETHPHAGE
Jesus had timed his journey to Jerusalem so he arrived about mid-morning on Palm Sunday the first day of the week. Thousands of Jews journeyed to the Holy City, and they were camped out on the hills around Jerusalem for the great spring religious pilgrimage.
Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from the East on the Jericho Road. At the foot of the East side of the Mt. of Olives, the side opposite Jerusalem, Jesus paused at the village of Bethany, while he sent two disciples on ahead to the village of Bethphage at the summit of the Mt. of Olives to secure a donkey and her colt for the “ride” into the great City. When Jesus reached the crest of the hill with Jerusalem laid out before him, he wept, anticipating the challenges that awaited him, and some people think in anticipation of the destruction of the City forty years later. Then he mounted the donkey and his disciples began the political demonstration, waving palm branches and shouting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
SLIDE 6: THE GAME WAS AFOOT
At the same time Jesus was approaching the Golden Gate on the East side of the City, Pilate and a troop of Cavalry were entering Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate on the West. The game was afoot. There would now be almost no opportunity to back out.
SLIDE 7: FOLLOW THE MONEY
When Jesus entered the temple he most assuredly sealed his fate by overturning the tables of the money changers and driving the sellers of sacrificial animals out of the Temple Courts. These were the very real profit centers of the religious establishment, (follow the money) and Jesus’ rebellious action could hardly be ignored. But how and where to arrest him? He was a popular anti-establishment figure and the crowd would make every effort to protect him from arrest and trial.
SLIDE 8: IT IS EXPEDIENT FOR ONE MAN TO DIE
After cleansing the Temple Jesus left the City and returned to the other side of the Mt. of Olives to Bethany, where he spent the night in an undisclosed location. According to the text of the story, when the inner circle of the Sanhedrin met, and they were wringing their hands over what to do about Jesus, Caiphas, the High Priest, set the drama in motion when he said: “Don’t you understand that it is expedient that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation might live?” And so the plot to kill Jesus began.
SLIDE 9: WHO JESUS WOULD NAME AS PRIME MINISTER
Each day Jesus walked into the City and taught freely and openly in the Temple. Several groups of Sadducees and Pharisees asked Jesus trick questions designed to give the authorities a pretext for his arrest, but the temple police made no attempt to detain him in broad daylight in front of a large crowd. And so, the followers of Jesus were lulled into a false sense of security. They even began discussing among themselves who Jesus would name as his Prime Minister, when he was crowned King.
SLIDE 10: CLOAK AND DAGGER
But the plot to betray Jesus was already underway. Judas, the treasurer of the group, one of the inner circle had already made a deal to betray his master. He was only biding his time, looking for the right opportunity to lead the temple guards to Jesus, when he was alone and at night. But Jesus was smart. He slept in a different undisclosed location every night. When he arranged to eat the Last Supper within the gates of Jerusalem, he did not tell any of his disciples, where the dinner would take place. He sent Peter and John into the City, looking for a man carrying water. Carrying water was women’s work and so a man carrying a water jar would stand out in the market place. They were to follow that man, and when he entered a house, they were supposed to give the pass word: “The Teacher says, ‘Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples.’”
SLIDE 11: AND THE DRAMA GOES INTO FREE FALL
At that meal Jesus shared the bread and the cup with them, and Judas slipped out to inform the authorities they would be able to arrest Jesus in the middle of the night in the Garden of Gethsemane. From the high point of excitement on Sunday morning to the high point of intimacy on Thursday evening, the drama of the last hours of Jesus life goes into free fall.
SLIDE 12: HE PRAYED EARNESTLY
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed earnestly for courage and strength. Right up to the moment he was arrested he could have gotten up, walked up and over the Mt. of Olives and disappeared into the Judean Wilderness. He chose to stay and face arrest, while his closest friends fell asleep in the Garden. When the Temple soldiers led by Judas showed up to arrest Jesus, all of the disciples ran away and deserted him.
SLIDE 13: BETRAYED, ABANDONED, TORTURED
And so the story plunges on into darkness. Betrayed by a friend with a kiss, deserted by all of his other followers Jesus faced the hatred and torture of the Temple authorities alone. A rigged meeting of the Sanhedrin declared him guilty of blasphemy, but still the Chief Priests wanted the Romans to execute Jesus. Better the crowd be angry with Rome than the Temple.
SLIDE 14: DRAGGED OFF TO PILATE
And so with the dawn Jesus already roughed up by the Temple thugs was dragged off to Pilate, the Roman Governor to be accused of treason against Rome. And of course one Jew more or less made little difference to Pilate. During Passover any potential unrest had to be crushed. And so the Governor had Jesus flogged and then signed the order for his crucifixion.
SLIDE 15: DEATH BY CRUCIXION
Crucifixion was the ultimate journey into the darkness of pain and degradation. The victim was often forced to carry the cross piece to the place of execution. Then they were stripped naked, and either tied or nailed to the cross piece which was then hoisted into place atop a pole, while their feet were tied or nailed into place on the pole.
SLIDE 16: FOOD FOR SCAVENGERS
Some victims lasted exposed like this for days until exhausted they could no longer raise themselves up to get a breath, and then they died of asphyxiation. Sometimes in order to hurry the process along, the legs of the victims were broken, so they could no longer push themselves up with their feet hurrying the process of asphyxiation. Then as a final degradation the bodies were left on the crosses without benefit of burial for the wild animals to come and consume. Crucifixion was a journey into the very heart of spiritual darkness. Imagine becoming food for scavengers.
SLIDE 17: MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME
As I have learned in the past year pain all pain is worthy of being acknowledged, and when pain is persistent and suffered over a long period of time it can lead us into a black hole of despair. And not just physical pain, but also the emotional pain of betrayal, abandonment and depression. And so at the very bottom of the roller coaster of Holy Week we hear Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
SLIDE 18: DUST AND ASHES
So we close our Tennebrae Service on Thursday night in darkness. The emotional roller coaster hits bottom. The resurrection tree is stripped of all the Palm branches and all the colorful ribbons lie in the dust and ashes of defeat, and we leave in silence to come back on Sunday morning with the new flowers we have brought from our gardens.
SLIDE 19: EASTER MORNING RESURRECTION TREE
If we come on Easter Sunday morning to decorate the resurrection tree with flowers, without having accompanied Jesus into the black hole of despair on Thursday, then we miss the fullness of the joy of resurrection. We miss the truth that we must die in order to come to new life. And that is the great truth that Holy Week wants to teach us. So allow me to encourage you once again to sign up for the whole Holy Week experience. Come on Thursday to eat and drink at the Sharing Table of Jesus, and then join with us in remembering the last twenty-four hours of Jesus’ life, so we might be prepared for the full joy of Easter morning.
SLIDE 3: PASTOR JOHN ROBINSON
Pastor John Robinson was not allowed to accompany the courageous band of Pilgrims who were setting out for the New World. He was too old. Only younger members of the Pilgrim congregation were allowed on board the Mayflower, because it was deemed that only strong young people would be likely to survive the rigors of setting up life on the unexplored continent of America. As it was half of them would perish during that first brutal winter. Pastor Robinson was fifty-five, and the age cut-off for the settlers leaving for the great Wilderness was thirty-five. So with great vision he offered them a prophetic insight to take with them to the New World.
SLIDE 4: GOD IS STILL SPEAKING
He told them not to be constrained by the wisdom of the Old World. As they set forth to try to establish the Commonwealth of God in a new land, they should be open to the possibility that God might reveal to them new truth, “For God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.” Pastor Robinson’s words are the inspiration for the United Church of Christ “God Is Still Speaking Campaign.” We are not constrained by a narrow, literal, fundamentalist reading of the Biblical text, but we are free even compelled to seek the new truth God is revealing to us as a Pilgrim people, who are commissioned to establish the Commonwealth of God in the Wilderness of our twenty-first century post-Christian era. God is doing something new in our time.
SLIDE 5: RISING FROM THE ASHES
But what is God up to, and where are we going in the Dark Wood of Post-Christian America? Eric Elnes addresses the future of churches in our culture in his book the Gifts of the Dark Wood. He calls the spiritual communities who are likely to survive the “shake out” of religious institutions “misfit communities of faith.”
Currently there are a number of misfit communities that I see rising from the ashes of the world’s dead and dying religious traditions. They cater to a diverse crowd. Yet there is a spirit within them that transcends differences.
SLIDE 6: MISFIT COMMUNITIES
All these fringe, sometimes experimental communities are part of something very interesting and mysterious happening now at the grassroots. In the eyes of many the old orthodoxies of the classic world religions, which centuries ago provided light and life to the faithful, have drifted far from the spiritual “fire” that gave them birth. The classic orthodoxies have become stale and rigid, fleeing from mystery and uncertainty, promoting a one-size-fits-all path to spiritual or worldly “success’ and showing precious little tolerance of difference or appreciation for diversity. They are crumbling.
SLIDE 7: MOVING THE TRADITION FORWARD IN RESPONSE TO THE SPIRIT
To label these fringe communities misfit does not mean that they have abandoned their native traditions. Rather, in the history of world religions, the unorthodox tend to reflect the growing edge of faith. Later they become the new “center” of a transformed understanding of the faith. These new misfit communities are not throwing out the ancient tradition but deeply honoring it by moving the tradition forward in light of fresh insight from the Holy Spirit, which continues to speak (God is still speaking) in our world.
SLIDE 8: AN INTERFAITH CONVERGENCE – THE NEW CENTER
What is particularly intriguing about this development is that as these communities respond to the Holy Spirit they are discovering a substantial foundation of common ground between adherents of many faiths. For instance, certain Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities are discovering that they share more in common with one another than with the orthodox strands of their own traditions. Even though the framing beliefs of these emerging and converging communities remain distinct from one another, their core values are looking increasingly similar.
What follows are twelve characteristics that, in my experience, constitute the new foundation of spiritual common ground. They are part of the new identity toward which these communities are moving, while retaining beliefs and practices that are distinctive to their particular traditions. I believe the time is coming when these twelve attributes will be part of what is considered the new “center” of adherents of many faiths.
SLIDE 9: WE ARE NOT THE ONLY EXPRESSION OF FAITH
- These communities are letting go of the notion that their
- particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet. They are embracing an understanding that God is greater than our imagination can comprehend (or fence in), and thus they are open to the possibility that God may speak within and across all faith traditions.
- SLIDE 10: NO LONGER A LITERAL INTERPRETATION
- They are letting go of literal and inerrant interpretations of their sacred Scriptures while celebrating the unique treasures that their Scriptures contain.
- SLIDE 11: NO LONGER DOMINATING NATURE
- They are letting go of the notion that people of faith are called to dominate nature. They are embracing a more organic understanding of human relationship with the earth.
- SLIDE 12: BELIEFS NO LONGER USED TO DIVIDE AND EXCLUDE
- They are letting go of empty worship conventions and an over emphasis on doctrines as tools of division and exclusion. They are embracing more diverse, creative, engaging approaches, often making strong use of the arts.
- SLIDE 13: LETTING GO RACIAL, GENDER, SEXUAL ORIENTATION PREJUDICE
- They are letting go of racial prejudice and a narrow definition of sexual orientation and gender identity. They are embracing with increasing confidence an understanding that affirms the dignity and worth of all people.
- SLIDE 14: PHYSICAL WELL BEING IS AS IMPORTANT AS SPIRITUAL WELL BEING
- They are letting go of an understanding that people of faith should only interest themselves in the spiritual well-being of people. They are embracing a more holistic understanding that physical and spiritual well-being are related.
- SLIDE 15: NO LONGER IMPOSING THEIR VISION ON THE WIDER SOCIETY
- They are letting go of the desire to impose their particular vision of faith on wider society.
- SLIDE 16: LET GO OF LIBERAL, MODERATE, CONSERVATIVE
- They are letting go of the old rivalries between “liberal, moderate and conservative” branches of their faith. They are embracing a faith that transcends these very definitions.
- SLIDE 17: NO LONGER JUDGING OTHERS IN THE AFTERLIFE
- They are letting go of notions of the afterlife that are dominated by judgment of “unbelievers.” They are embracing an understanding that, as God’s creations, God is eternally faithful to us, and that all people are loved far more than we can comprehend.
- 10 They are letting go of the notion that faith and science are incompatible.
- They are embracing the notion that faith and science can serve as allies in the pursuit of truth, and that God values our minds as well as our hearts.
- They are letting go of the notion that one’s work and one’s spiritual path are unrelated. They are embracing an understanding that rest and recreation, prayer and reflection are as important as work, and that our work is a calling and expression of our sweet spot.
- They are letting go of old hierarchies that privilege religious leaders over laypeople. They are embracing an understanding that all people have a mission and purpose in life in response to the call of the Holy Spirit. It’s no longer about who wears the robes but who lives the life.
- When I read these twelve attributes of misfit spiritual communities I said, “He’s talking about United Church!” Apparently we are not alone. There are other brave communities of faith who are reaching beyond the traditional expressions of faith to embrace a new way of being followers of Jesus, or Moses or Mohammed in the world. God is doing something brand-new in the world, and we are part of that movement. If we are struggling financially as a congregation at the moment, understand that we are on the cutting edge. We are where God is trying to do a new thing.
- Now lest we become too prideful, being on the cutting edge is not easy. When God summons a congregation to become part of doing a new thing, it is a challenge! And there is no guarantee we will succeed. Earlier in his book Eric makes the statement that for God right failure may be more important that right belief. So let us not sit back and assume that everything is going to be O.K. because we are on the cutting edge.
- So let’s consider four challenges we must face as we move through the Dark Wood. First, when we are on the cutting edge, we are navigating uncharted territory. It hasn’t been done this way before, and we will experience anxiety as we move into an uncertain future. We will be challenged to trust God.
- Second, moving through uncharted territory we will have to rely upon hints and inspirations from the Holy Spirit. As a congregation we will need to pray for guidance and discernment and then take time to prayerfully listen for direction from God. Congregations are often too impatient to wait and listen for the still small voice of the Spirit, and then trusting what is often the counter-intuitive direction of the Holy Spirit. We may want to run the church like a business, while God is summoning us to reach out with ever greater generosity and mission.
- Third, diversity is hard. Homogeneous groups are much easier to make work. But on the cutting edge we are called to become a diverse community of faith, and embrace our diversity as a source of strength. We need to practice appreciating other people in our congregation who are different from ourselves.
- Now there are many more challenges thriving on the cutting edge, but allow me to mention one more. The fourth challenge is making an experimental community of faith work financially. When God is doing something new, guaranteed there will be financial struggle. This congregation has done its best stewardship in the past around tangible assets: paying off the first mortgage, raising money and paying off the bonds for the sanctuary, raising money for the building campaign. Out on the cutting edge we are challenged to raise money for intangible programs: Sunday school, youth group, mission, leadership development, coaching for transition, advertising.
- We have been called to the tests of the cutting edge. Let us embrace the challenges God has placed before us: anxiety in the face of doing a new thing, prayerful trust in God as we move through uncharted territory, embracing and making diversity a strength, and making it all work financially. Have faith my friends and God will bring us through.
SLIDE 5: THE PRODIGAL SON
On Ash Wednesday we talked about the first third of the story of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The lost child turns toward home, not because he loved his father, not because he was missing life on the farm, but because he was desperate. He was sleeping and eating with the pigs! And for a good Jewish boy that was certainly hitting bottom. No this manipulative scoundrel of a kid had finally come to his senses. “Here I am eating and sleeping with the hogs, while my father’s hired servants have soft, warm beds and bread to eat. Here’s how I will manipulate the old man. I will go home and tell him, ’father I have sinned before God and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son, take me back as one of your hired servants.’”
This ne’er do-well of a child did not understand the dynamic of love. And so he was overwhelmed by the love and forgiveness of his father. Now we can question the father’s wisdom in taking back his rascal of a son without any preconditions. And we can debate whether or not the father was fair to the elder brother, who certainly felt like he had been wronged. But rather than focusing on the father’s behavior, I would like to spend most of our time meditating on the elder brother, for whom I truly feel sorry.
SLIDE 6: THE OLDER BROTHER
The older brother was coming in from a long hard day in the fields, and he heard music and the sound of dancing, laughter and the distinctive aroma of the fatted calf. When he left in the morning there were no plans for a party, a celebration, so he stopped one of the servants and asked, “What’s up?”
When he found out they were celebrating the return of his brother he was angry and stood outside the house pouting. When his father came to beckon him inside the older brother turned on his father with pent up rage and resentment: “I have worked for you and slaved for you all these years, yet you never even gave me a goat that I might make merry with my friends.”
SLIDE 7: FELT DISCOUNTED
Now I would like to cut the older brother a little slack. He really had been a dutiful son. When his brother left taking a third of the estate with him, all of the responsibilities fell to him. And based on his complaint he never even got an “atta-boy” in return. He felt taken for granted, taken advantage of, disregarded. His decision to stay on the farm his sacrifice wasn’t valued.
SLIDE 8: MISSED HIS BITE OF THE BIG APPLE
One commentator one time pointed out that when the older brother said: “Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up. . ,” how did he know what the younger brother had been doing? Or was the older brother projecting his own desires, imagining what he would have done, if he had left the farm and gone off to the big city. Maybe the older brother was envious that he had been stuck with the drudgery of the farm work and had missed his bite of the Big Apple.
Of course the father had no idea how much the older brother resented his decision to stay on the farm, rather than taking off for the excitement and the pleasures of the Big City. He assumed his older son’s loyalty was motivated by his love for his father and the simple virtuous life of the farm.
SLIDE 9: REMAINING VIRTUOUS OUT OF FEAR IS NO VIRTUE
Now having cut the older brother some slack let me try to explain why I feel sorry for him. First, he never had the guts or the gumption to follow his fantasies and take a bite out of the Big Apple. To remain virtuous out of fear is no virtue at all and only leads to regret and resentment. He didn’t stay at home out of love and loyalty for his father, he was stuck there because he was afraid to do anything else.
SLIDE 10: RIGHT FAILURE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN RIGHT BELIEF
In our study book The Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes asks, “Could it be that right failure is more important to Jesus than right belief?” Thinking about this question allow me to go back to the beginning of Lent and the statement from, John Dorhaurer, the new General Minister of the United Church of Christ: “I want you to prepare to fail. I want you to give yourself permission to take risks and then be there to receive the risk-takers with grace when they fail, and to learn from those failures and pass on what we learn to others.”
SLIDE 11: PRISONER OF REGRET AND RESENTMENT
If the older brother really loved life on the farm, if he had been motivated by love for his father, then living a virtuous life would have been his highest joy. But since he didn’t leave home, because he was afraid he became a prisoner of regret and resentment.
SLIDE 12: STANDING OUTSIDE THE PARTY
The second reason I feel sorry for the older brother is he would not come into the Party. His father came out to beg him to come in. He even assured the boy, “All that is mine is yours!” But the older brother steadfastly, and self-righteously stood outside the door pouting. As a result, he missed a potential opportunity to find reconciliation with his brother, bask in the love and generosity of his father, and be in fellowship with his entire community.
SLIDE 13: SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS ITS OWN PUNISHMENT
Self-righteousness is a curse that carries its own punishment. There may be a momentary rush of vanity from looking down on other people, but self-righteousness is like living in a spiritually gated community. You not only keep other people out, but you keep yourself in, until the false pride that is the foundation of self-righteousness becomes a prison that cuts off relationship. Now since self-righteousness is the curse that carries its own punishment, I don’t see any need to imagine any penance for the older brother other than standing outside of the party. Standing outside of the love of God. Self-righteous people relegate themselves to a special spiritual prison, where they stand cut off from God’s love.
SLIDE 14: WELCOMED HOME
Now since this is a Parable of Jesus let me share with you the Good News. Jesus didn’t explicitly include this in the story, but if you use your imagination you can see that it is there. The younger brother has come home – good news for all of us. Even if the younger brother came home for the wrong reasons, he is still welcome and some day will learn how to respond to the extravagance of his father’s love. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome home.
SLIDE 15: THE DOOR IS ALWAYS OPEN
And the older brother can come home too, when he finally walks through the door. For you see the father did not close the door. I know in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens, the door is shut, and I believe that was an addition to the narrative added by the early church not Jesus. The story of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is about being prepared for the possibility of a long wait, not punishment if you fall asleep. And that is why God is still speaking is so important. We aren’t stuck with the negative punishment interpretation the early church read into Jesus. The door is open. The older brother is free to step through at any time. The father will not force him or compel him to come to the party, but the door is always open – remember that. I even believe that death does not close the door. God is always open whenever we are willing to come home. God waits for us.
SLIDE 16: FORGIVENESS
Now let me point out some practical implications of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Our motives for coming home to God do not have to be pure. God is ready to accept us no matter why we have returned. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome home. We must never assume we are beyond God’s forgiveness. God’s love is wide enough and deep enough to forgive whatever we have done. God also asks us to forgive others and welcome them home. It may not be easy. Forgiveness may take time. But just as we have been forgiven, so we forgive those who have hurt us. Holding onto grudges only hurts ourselves. God asks us to come inside to the Party, there is no sense remaining outside pouting.
SLIDE 17: THE CHURCH IS NOT A GATED COMMUNITY
The church is not a gated community. It is not our job to keep people out. It is not our purpose to judge anyone’s character or what they have done. Everyone is welcome. Every Sunday is intended to be a celebration of the infinite love of God. Come home to God’s embrace.
SLIDE 18: COME TO THE PARTY
If for some reason we become angry with God. It is O.K. Our alienation from God is our alienation not God’s. The door is always open. God never closes the door. God’s love is eternal. Whenever we are ready, we can come to the Party, because the Party is for us.