Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Approval vs. Obedience



John 15:18-27
Preached at North Valley Friends Church
March 31, 2019

I was out walking the other day, thinking semi-random thoughts, and this one came to me: “Give us this day our daily bread” does not refer to my daily need for approval. In point of fact, needing approval has been a weakness of mine that has given others the opening to manipulate me, even into doing things I disapprove of.  I would give examples but they are too embarrassing. 

I remember when I had just gone through an involuntary detox from approval seeking, and found myself in contention for the job of yearly meeting superintendent, and getting that job required the APPROVAL of the YM.  Quakers call for “approval” in our non-voting decision-making. It sets some of us up for pathology.

So it comes as an unpleasant shock to hear Jesus say as reported in Luke in the anti-beatitudes: “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that’s how their ancestors spoke of false prophets” (Luke 6:36). 

And here, in this passage from John, Jesus says, “I chose you from this world, and you do not belong to it; that is why the world hates you.” That’s even worse than having a few detractors, even worse than failing to win universal approval.

So I have some questions. Who is this “world” character, anyway? The Gospel of John has at least 58 verses with Kosmos (the Greek for “world”) in it, sometimes twice, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined have around 16. The world is a constant presence in John’s Gospel, and it is almost always what we might term the human world—the world of crowds, of politics, of religion, of nations, of money, of education, of culture. It is the world humans always build around them—all the ways humans find to organize themselves and set up expectations with rewards and punishments. We can hardly move in a day without encountering systems, and we violate their norms at our peril.

And this world is hostile to Jesus and to Jesus’s followers.

Why?

When Jesus came into his calling and mission, he was not the first Messenger from God, the first wonder-worker his people had seen. He was not the first charismatic leader that crowds followed around. But he was the first one to do so with the public designation from God, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

It isn’t clear how much of the crowd heard this as Jesus came up out of the water of the Jordan. His cousin John, who was baptizing, witnessed it. “I have seen it,” he said, “and I tell you that he is the Son of God.” Taken up in his spirit by God’s Spirit, John said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But some time later, from a jail cell, John sent messengers to Jesus and asked, “Are you the one? I thought you were, but now, you’re not what I was looking for.”

Jesus answered, “The blind can see, the lame can walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised to life, and the good news is preached to the poor. Happy are those who have no doubts about me!” (Luke 7:22-23, Good News Bible)

We think from our vantage point, how sad that John couldn’t continue believing in Jesus as the chosen and sent one, the Son of God. If we saw a guy with these abilities, we think, we wouldn’t doubt that God had sent him. But just like then, today Jesus would act or refuse to act in ways that raised questions. I think we too would wonder.

In this gospel of John, Jesus frequently confronts expectations from his followers and pours cold water on the fire of their enthusiasms.

His mother asks him to do a little miracle regarding wine at a wedding to spare the hosts embarrassment. (This reminds me of a lot of my own prayers for Jesus to intervene in my life.) Jesus tells her, “You must not tell me what to do. It isn’t the right time.” The most baffling part of this story is that Jesus does do the miracle, and his mother appears never to doubt that he would do what she said. But even in the doing of the miracle, Jesus upends religious practice by using water containers set aside for ritual washings, which were so important to observant Jews. Suddenly, these are full of great wine (John 2). Christianity as it could be is, to quote Jacques Ellul, “an explosive ferment calling everything into question in the name of the truth that is in Jesus Christ, in the name of the incarnation.” (39) Note that phrase, “calling everything into question in the name of the truth that is in Jesus Christ.” Might that make anyone you know uncomfortable?

Jesus visits Jerusalem at Passover. When he comes to the outer courts of the Temple, he drives out the animals brought there to sell for sacrifices, and he turns over the tables of those who exchange money so that worshipers had the right coinage for religious purposes.  The marriage here of commerce and religion is one we can recognize when we look around our Christian subculture. Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2). The authorities said, “What miracle are you going to do to show you have the authority to reorganize the Temple?” And Jesus was right back at them, “Tear down this Temple and I will raise it up in three days.” He baffled the authorities rather than complying with their demand. Later, his followers realized he was talking about his body and the resurrection, but at the time, how preposterous! And notice how in identifying his body with the Temple of God, Jesus overturns the tables of religion as well.

Nicodemus visits Jesus at night to ask some questions quite respectfully. But Jesus says to him, “You have to start over, you have to be born all over spiritually. You can’t bring all this religion and whatnot with you if you want to follow me.  Just like the wind blows without your input or expertise, God’s Spirit moves me, and will move you too if you are reborn in your spirit” (John 3).

So we can see some reasons why following Jesus might be dangerous. First, Jesus undermines the power of religion. He violates the norms, he disrespects the system, and he asserts that he is as holy as the center of worship itself, and that God’s spirit tells him what to do and when. He is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and righteous.  People who are reborn and free from the rules of morality, religion, and hierarchy, but instead are obeying the whimsical Spirit of God rip the fabric of the human Kosmos. They are new wine in old bottles and the bottles burst. They are new cloth on old clothing and they tear holes rather than mend them.  The systems of the Kosmos, of the world, see them rightly as destroyers, and they hate, persecute, and kill them.

And it isn’t just religious leaders who recognize the threat that God’s Holy Spirit poses to the systems in place. The masses have their own systems that they want Jesus to fit himself into. They want a wonder-worker, and when Jesus makes wine out of water and feeds crowds of more than 5000 using some kid’s lunch, they know they’ve found their man. They like the healings and the resurrections. But Jesus refuses to let their desires be his guide. He calls them petulant children in the marketplace, complaining because they piped and he didn’t dance.

He tells them that he knows why they are following him—bread and miracles—and that unless they eat his body and drink his blood they have no part in him. He offers them springs of living water in themselves, the Spirit of God. He says he is the bread of life, he says he is the light that God sends into the world, and he says he is their only help and hope for freedom.

They shocked and appalled—they deny needing help—we have never been slaves—this saying is too hard—God is our father, too—come on, just tell us if you are the Messiah.

Jesus does not offend for his own ego reasons, his need to look special and chosen. He’s not speaking truth to power because he likes to annoy people. He says, and we can believe him, that everything he does and says is in obedience to what his Father tells him to do and say. His radical obedience to God is what is so upsetting to the systems he finds himself in conflict with.

And this passage we have before us from John 15 tells us that Jesus is sending the Spirit to fill us, the Spirit who reveals the truth about God and comes from God. This is the Spirit who moved Jesus through his days, from whom Jesus heard what to say and do and when to say and do it. No system in the world is going to welcome a person or group that bases their lives not on what the powers-that-be want or expect but on a relationship with the living and present God. 

I want us to keep two verses in mind as we listen today. “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. And you will find rest for your souls.”
And, from the same Jesus: “You who want to be my disciples will take up your cross daily and follow me.”

Jesus says, Put down your heavy loads and all the expectations of your country, your religion, your family, your followers, and just follow me. Listen to and obey God’s Spirit. This is your freedom and your daily cross.

I was pushed to read portions of Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity as I thought about this passage in John 15. Ellul challenges us with the idea that the death and resurrection of Jesus has set us absolutely free. Both Jesus and Paul teach that those led by the Spirit are free in every respect. As Ellul phrases it, “a risk with no cover, a joyful and perilous acrobatic feat with no net!” (43)

He goes on to say that this radical freedom is not what humans are looking for. Freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom from war, freedom from conflict, sure, but radical freedom? Not so much. Here’s how Ellul describes it:

[Radical freedom] carries frightening social risks and is politically insulting to every form of power. …On every social level and in every culture, people have found it impossible to take up this freedom and accept its implications. (43)

The freedom acquired in Christ presupposes perfect self-control, wisdom, communion with God, and love. It is an absolutely superhuman risk. It devastates us by demanding the utmost in consecration. Free, we are totally responsible. We constantly have to choose. (42)

For there is freedom only in permanent self-control and in love of neighbor. (167)

I agree with Ellul that absolute freedom is hard to embrace. I want habits, norms, guardrails, laws, insurance, peace treaties, and so on. But it is clear that Jesus was working without a net, living each act in obedience to God, finding himself not satisfying anyone and not being understood or approved of by anyone, even his mom. Now who wants to follow Jesus?

Well, a small determined part of many people does in fact want to follow Jesus, to be set free by the his life, death, and resurrection. For instance, I want to live in contact with God, I want to do what God tells me, I want this relationship to be alive, not static. Maybe you want that, too. 

My good dead friend, George MacDonald, challenges me every day with his insistence on charismatic obedience.

“Do you ask, “What is faith in [God]?” I answer, The leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of [God’s way and God’s self]; the leaving of your trust in [humans], in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as [God] tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this obedience.” 

“Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because [God] said, Do it, or once abstained because [God] said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in [God], if you do not do anything [God’s Spirit] tells you.” 

So let me end by asking myself and you as well to consider that Jesus wants to partner with us in our daily lives and to lift from us the burden laid on us by human systems. Jesus wants us to be free. And as we learn to live in freedom, we ask God’s Spirit for help, we listen, and when we hear, we obey.



Calling and Commitment


Mark 3
Preached at Newberg Emerging Friends Church
March 17, 2019

When I first began thinking about the part of Jesus’s story that is in Mark 3, I did what I’ve done with the Bible for most or all of my life. I compared myself to Jesus, and I found myself failing again.

I don’t measure up. The main way I can identify with Jesus is that he was angry with those who were so stubborn and wrong. But no one has plotted to kill me because my commitment to healing and setting people free is so disruptive. I’ve barely been maligned at all; to my knowledge no one has said I was inhabited by the devil. No one has thought I was crazy, in need of protection against myself, because I give my whole life entirely to healing and setting people free.

So since I don’t measure up to being Jesus, I will instead ask what this part of the story reveals about God through Jesus, who is visible God. And to do that, I may need to see how I identify with others in this section of Jesus’s story as told by Mark.

Jesus saw a man with a paralyzed hand in synagogue one Sabbath. Jesus asked the people: “What does our Law allow us to do on the Sabbath? To help or to harm? To save a life or to destroy it?” No one answered him.

When We Are Paralyzed
Have I ever been paralyzed by grief or guilt or trauma or fear? Well, yes. I recall a time when I was up to my neck in recovery from childhood sexual abuse and I could not bear to sit in church. I felt moved (I hoped by God’s Spirit) to drive to Champoeg Park. I found that the road I was on was all torn up with “no through traffic” signs. As I idled there, wondering what was next, a big dark green American sedan drove through in the opposite direction, and the driver leaned out and said, “Don’t worry, you can make it through.” I heard the voice of Jesus in that, and I turned around and went back to church. 

It’s obvious that Jesus could have said that to me during open worship in church, but it wouldn’t have had the long-lasting impact of the acted parable of my drive to Champoeg. Jesus often says to those of us who need healing, “Stretch out your hand.” 

Jesus was angry as he looked around at the congregation, who didn’t affirm the healing, saving nature of God (and of God’s Law), but at the same time he felt sorry for them, because they were so stubborn and so wrong. So he healed the man.…The Pharisees went out, met with their political enemies, and together they made plans to kill Jesus.

When We Are Righteous
One of the sporting events in the Christian world is badmouthing the Pharisees and identifying whoever opposes our ideas with them. But have I ever been angry at other believers because they are so wrong and so stubborn? Well, yes. (In fact, this sounds a bit like marriage …) So I need to make the effort to identify with the Pharisees.

Sabbath was hugely important to the Jewish people. And among them, the Pharisees were carefully observant because they believed that if Sabbath were properly kept just once, Messiah—king, healer, and liberator—would come. Three major prophets—Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah—singled out Sabbath-breaking as the reason for the Jewish nation’s collapse and exile, and called Jews back to keeping Sabbath.

So it is no wonder the Pharisees are so angry when Jesus breaks Sabbath as he does in this chapter. They believe he has just made it impossible for Messiah to show up on that particular day. Ironically, and perhaps this is why Jesus is compassionate towards them, their King, Healer, and Liberator is right there among them. They can’t see him because of their anxiety and fear.

I wonder what I carry around that is like the Law about Sabbath. What moral obligations occupy me and prevent me from seeing what God is doing by unexpected people and means? What moral obligation fills me with fear and anxiety so that I do not help, heal, save life? What am I so stubborn and so wrong about? Is there anyone that I object to God pouring out grace and healing on?

It is clear that healing and setting people free disrupts the systems of religious and political power, and that these principalities take it ill. But it is also important to know that Jesus does what he does because he is God, not because he’s a rebel just for kicks. In point of fact, what Jesus does is exactly what Sabbath is about—healing and freedom. He fulfills the Law and the Chosen One of God has come.

A large crowd followed Jesus—descendants of Jacob from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem, descendants of Esau from Idumea, Gentiles from Tyre and Sidon. They were drawn by the stories of what Jesus was doing—healings and exorcisms—and the crowd was so great it nearly crushed him. It is clear from what happened to Jesus that healing and setting people free was hugely attractive to masses of people, so attractive that it drew ancient enemies into a single crowd pressing ever closer to Jesus—so many that it was a danger to Jesus and those close to him.

Jesus ordered the evil spirits to be quiet about who he was. As evil spirits, their shouting was meant to derail God’s messenger and his message of healing and freedom, perhaps to bury him in notoriety, to disrupt his ability to teach who God is and how God loves.

So, rather than embracing the enthusiasm of crowds, Jesus went up a hill, called the Twelve to him, and commissioned them to be with him, to preach, and to drive out evil. Then Jesus went home. The crowd there was so pushy neither Jesus nor the Twelve had time to eat. And teachers of the Law from Jerusalem were saying, “He has the spirit of evil in him, and that’s why he can command demons.”

So Jesus told them a parable, the punch line of which is this: “No one can break into a strong man’s house and take away his belongings unless he first ties up the strong man.” Meaning, I have obviously tied up the strong man. You have seen that I am stronger than the devil, than evil, in any fight, which is why I can set free the people evil is trying to destroy.

Then Jesus warned them: When you see God’s Spirit at work healing people and setting people free from oppression by evil, and you say that work is done by the devil, you have just stepped outside the possibility that God’s Spirit can work in you. And you will never be able to recognize or understand how God loves and forgives.

Do I look at the healing work done by others and suspect them of being motivated by selfishness or evil? Do I look at others working for freedom for others from oppression and question their priorities?

His family heard that Jesus had gone mad, so they went to take charge of him. It is clear that devoting one’s life to healing and setting people free worries the family—it looks crazy.

Someone in the crowd said to him: “Your family is here and they want you.” Jesus said, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? … Whoever does what God wants is my brother, my sister, my mother.”

Since I can’t be Jesus, I want to be Jesus’ sister. So it is important to see what it is that God wants me to do. Jesus insists everywhere that God wants me to help, not to harm; to save life, not to destroy it; to set free, not to leave imprisoned. And Jesus illustrates by example that standing by and doing nothing when I can do something helpful is in fact doing harm.

And God wants me never ever to use the Law—the Bible or some other code of moral behavior—as an excuse to ignore those being harmed, destroyed, held prisoner by evil.

And who does God want me to be? Someone humble enough to bring my paralysis into public view, someone obedient enough to stretch my hand out when Jesus tells me to, someone open enough to God’s Spirit to see God at work in all healing, liberating actions, someone aware enough to recognize that God has compassion on my opponents and is eager to forgive.

Jesus insists everywhere that God wants us to help, not to harm; to save life, not to destroy it. Our globe is full of problems that seem so complex that we are paralyzed, but our daily lives have in them ways we can be on God’s side, doing what we can to help, to heal, to save lives, disrupting those who do harm, who inflict pain, who treat other lives with cavalier carelessness. We can live into our absolute dependence on listening to God’s Spirit each day and doing what God’s Spirit tells us to each day. Remember that Jesus has tied up the strong man and now we are free to liberate those he oppressed and imprisoned. God’s Spirit helps us recognize where God is at work healing and setting people free so that we can join in.

Queries for Open Worship

How have I experienced the healing, freeing Spirit of God?

How have we as a congregation experienced the healing, freeing Spirit of God”

What opportunity is in front of me to join in with God’s healing, freeing mission in the world?



Monday, January 28, 2019

Four Brothers and God’s Grace

Preached at Tigard Friends Church 1/27/2019


I want us to look at two stories from the Bible that use the relationships between older and younger brothers to explore what God wants from each of us, and how each of us has our own unique relationship with God. Ultimately, both stories give brilliant pictures of God’s grace to each of the brothers and also to each of us.

The first story is of the first brothers, Cain and Abel. They each specialize in a different branch of agriculture. Cain raises grain, and Abel raises sheep. When it comes time to thank God for the harvest, each offers something of what they have raised.

God graciously accepts Abel’s offering and rejects Cain’s. We do not really know why and must infer it from what happens next, namely that Cain carries the seeds of murder in his heart.

If we identify with Abel, we are working hard and giving part of what we produce to God. We are glad to see that God graciously accepts our offerings. We are also innocently oblivious to the inner dynamics in other people and trust that they mean us well. Abels are often surprised by the envy and hatred of others.

When Cain sees that God has rejected his offering and favored his younger brother, he becomes afraid that God has rejected him and as a result he is jealous and angry. God speaks to him directly and says, “Why are you angry? If you behave well, you will be accepted. If you behave badly, sin is at your door and wants to eat you up.” Cain says, essentially, “Whatever.” We see here the commitment of God to our free will, in that God could easily have prevented Cain from killing Abel and did not. It is always surprising how and when God intervenes in human affairs.

What in us might identify with Cain? Perhaps it is actual rivalry we have with our siblings. Perhaps our parents favored one child above the rest.  The first child has to watch parents get more lenient with second and third children. Perhaps now that we have grown up, we can see that our sibling has more trappings of success; we can see that though we work as hard or harder, everything goes our brother’s way. Even in religion, our sibling has a sunnier relationship with God and doesn’t seem to be afraid that God will reject her offering. Our sibling’s serene confidence is all by itself annoying.  Perhaps someone tries to reassure us that God will accept our offerings if we do the right thing, which we interpret as meaning we need work harder to earn God’s favor. Now we’re angry because we already tried that and failed.

So then Cain invites Abel out into the fields and kills him. This murder derives directly from the deadly sins that Cain has embraced in his heart. First, envy, then anger, then hatred. But just recall that they all are rooted in Cain’s fear that God does not love him as much as God loves Abel.

God again speaks to Cain directly and says, “Where is your brother?” Cain replies, “How would I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” God says, “The earth itself cries out for justice for your brother’s blood. Therefore, you will be cursed by the land, which will not bear fruit for you. You will wander homeless.”

Cain says, “My sin is too bad for your grace. You have cast me out and you will hide your face from me, and I am a homeless wanderer. Anyone who finds me will kill me.” God replies, “No, in fact, whoever kills Cain will be punished even more severely.” And God places a mark on Cain so that no one will kill him.

So Cain departs from the face of God, a fugitive on the earth. But he finds a wife, they had a son named Enoch, and Cain builds a city and names it after his son.

Now why was Cain’s offering unacceptable? God’s rejection of the offering was not a rejection of Cain, which we can see in that God shows up to talk with Cain again, but it brings Cain’s inner life into the open. Cain is prone to comparing himself to others, which has its roots in fear of being unacceptable or inadequate, and which becomes envy when he sees God accepting Abel’s offering. This envy evolves into wishing Abel ill and progresses to actively eliminating the competition for God’s favor. Perhaps Cain sees God’s favor as a limited resource, so if Abel gets some, there is less for Cain.

I have found that this story stirs up in me a desire to do whatever it takes to be acceptable to God, so I can be as good as Abel, the one God likes best. It makes me want to be and do good so that God will be gracious to me. This impulse derives from the part where God says to Cain, “If you behave well, will you not be accepted?” When I respond this way, with increased good intentions, I miss the point, and the good I do is marred by its origin in comparison. St. Paul tells us to rejoice when others rejoice and to weep when they weep. This is impossible to do when I am comparing myself to others and becoming envious as Cain does.

I also have shared in Cain’s sense of being cast away by God. But note: Cain is the one who says that God is banishing him from God’s presence, and this internal state is what he carries with him. However, we know that we cannot elude God’s presence, though it is not always comfortable to have God so close. As the Psalmist David says, “Where can I go to get away from you? If I ascend into the heavens, there you are. If I make my bed in the grave or descend to hell, there you are.” And as Job the theologian says, “Could you not look away from me for one moment so I can swallow my spit?” So the distance between Cain and God exists only within Cain.

I also have shared Cain’s idea of justice. A murderer is beyond grace, deserves to be rejected and cast out of decent society. A murderer deserves to have the life taken away that he or she took away from someone else. This is justice, and Cain expects it. It makes sense, like adding 2 plus 2 and getting 4, or more appropriately subtracting 1 from 2 and then from 1, ending up in nothing and no one left.

It is interesting to note that the physical earth cries out about Abel’s blood. The need for justice runs through the universe and executing justice is God’s problem. We humans tend toward revenge rather than justice, and when God limits our revenge to eye for eye, we think that’s God’s idea of justice. But the prophet Micah says to us that we ourselves are to do justice and to love mercy; loving mercy mitigates against eye for eye justice. Instead, we judge God’s justice and mercy by our own, which hardly does justice to God..


What we learn about Grace

First, God’s grace shows in God’s willingness to have unique personal relationships with humans. God speaks directly to Cain, confronting him with the truth about what is inside him and then later with what he has done. God is gracious enough to confront us, to remind us of our ability to choose good, and often to give us time to grow into better people. There is no question that Cain chooses to behave badly, so it is easy to ignore the fact that when God confronts his attitude, this is grace to him, reminding him that he has a choice, and that God exhibits grace to him even when he has chosen very badly.

Second, God describes to him how the physical universe cries out because of Abel’s blood, and that there are life consequences for Cain, the farmer. The exercise of our free will has consequences, sometimes ones we see close up, sometimes ones experienced by subsequent generations or peoples far away. God’s grace doesn’t often (or perhaps ever) remove the physical and temporal consequences of human choices.

Third, God does not, in fact, shed Cain’s blood in payment for Abel. This calls into question our idea that the later Mosaic law that says, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life expresses God’s ideal. God’s grace uses a different kind of math to achieve justice. Furthermore, God’s grace makes us question our own simple understanding of justice. Indeed, God protects Cain from others who might kill him as a murderer.

Fifth, Cain does in fact wander, but eventually he has a family and builds a home and a city. So, in a moment when God could be exactly just and take from Cain the same life Cain took from Abel, God instead shows Cain mercy, gives him protection, and allows him to live a full life.

I won’t speak for everyone here, but I do think it’s common to be envious when we see God taking care of other people, particularly other people we see as second to us, either by birth order (as for Cain), by morality, by nationality, by some other measure. The psalms are full of questions to God: Why do the others prosper? Why are you so unhelpful to me?. “Why do the wicked prosper?” we complain with the prophet Jeremiah. We often have a desire to see God’s justice distributed on the bad guys and to have God’s mercy and grace distributed to us.

Our response to seeing God’s favor showered on other people reveals to us the state of our own souls. St. Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” But if I’m obsessed with fairness, I may well rejoice in others’ misfortunes and weep only over my own. Turns out, God doesn’t like that. God will confront me directly and warn me about my envy and fear of unacceptability.

The second pair of brothers is the famous unnamed pair in the story we call the Prodigal Son. Jesus tells this story in the context of stories about God caring for the lost. Two brothers and a father, and the younger asks for his inheritance and goes off to waste it in wild living. The older stays home and works like a slave for their father while keeping an eye on his future inheritance.

The younger is working as a swineherd when he comes to his senses. He realizes that the pigs are getting more to eat than he is and that his father’s slaves live in more comfort than he does. He decides to go home and plans a repentance where he offers to work for his father as a slave. 

And when he nears home, the father, who has been watching for him since he left, runs to meet him. The father orders up for the prodigal son the best clothing, the finest jewelry, and the fattest calf for a (prodigal) feast. “My son who was dead is now alive!” he says.

When we identify with the younger son, we can celebrate whole-heartedly the gracious welcome of the father. We see how God is always waiting to welcome the wanderer back with open arms and heart. We are relieved to note that there is a welcome for bad brothers, the Cains of the world, and this encourages us to leave our unsatisfying self-made lives and run to God. I’ve found this so hopeful when I’ve clearly made a mess of things and found that God’s love is nonetheless constant.

But when we identify with the older brother who has worked all his life to please his father, we can learn some additional things about God’s grace. First, it is possible to live a life surrounded and infused by God’s presence and grace and never notice. It is possible to believe that we are earning God’s favor by our diligence and devotion. And when we do not recognize that we owe everything to God’s grace, it is maddening to see God ladle it out over a person who has forsaken God and goodness. It scandalizes our sense of fair play, of justice even, especially when there is no acknowledgement of our own moral excellence, when the only notice we get is to be invited to welcome the wastrel back.  We didn’t even get to throw ourselves a birthday party! I myself have said to God, “I know you’re gonna let that so and so into heaven and I’m not happy about it.”

The father’s response to his sulky son (who may be thinking about inviting his brother into the field to kill him…) is to confront his inaccurate view of their relationship head on. First, he calls him, “My son,” affirming their intimate relationship. Second, he reminds him, “Everything I have is yours.” The father remains committed to the son’s best interests, despite the son’s self-absorption. Third, he says, and I imagine gently, “But isn’t it appropriate to celebrate when our son and brother comes back from the dead?” He invites the son to rejoice with those who rejoice, to join the party.

So what do we learn from looking at these sets of brothers side by side?

1.     We humans have a tendency to compare ourselves to others.
2.     This tendency is often destructive of inner peace and relationships with those others. It leads to envy and other deadly sins.
3.     We humans tend to want God to be just to other people and gracious to ourselves.
4.     However, God’s grace surrounds and infuses our human lives, whether we recognize it or not. God’s grace reminds us to go home to God, protects us when we are wandering, offers hope for something better.
5.     We cannot and do not earn grace. Grace means favor we have not (and cannot) earn.
6.     Our response to seeing God’s grace in action for ourselves and for others needs to be gratitude (which includes the word grace). God’s grace is gratis—or free—and this is true for us and for those we have written off as prodigal, wicked, naïve, or prissy.
7.     We can tell we have the right attitude about God’s grace when we can rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

One of the dominant metaphors for God’s kingdom is a feast, a party. Let’s be grateful for how God’s grace surrounds us and how God is gracious to others as well, and we can be the life of the party in the kingdom of God.