The Surprise of Being Beloved
All through Lent I’m preaching on the Matthew periscope of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. This is being done in conjunction with a curriculum we are also using in small groups throughout the church. This Sunday before Jesus is “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” we are hearing the voice of blessing in Jesus’ baptism. As a secondary text our study also provides the voice of Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son. It is this text that began speaking to me and became the lens through which to talk of blessing and celebrating relationship with God who looks on us as “beloved.”
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
We come to this parable, or this parable gathers us in to it. Now parables are not meant to be taken literally – they are stories that often back us into a transformed understanding of the world and the deep truth of God’s participation in creation. This story doesn’t have to be about families, it doesn’t have to mean that the father is God, nor should “father” and “brother” makes us think only of the men in our midst. Our interpretation and wrestling should focus more on the heart of the story – the deep truth it is mining on our behalf – rather than any of the particulars. At its heart this story is about celebrating the return of one who is lost; it is about restoring relationships and celebrating them without bitterness and judgment. Now that reminder given… I’m going to now break my own previously stated rule… and pay some attention to particulars.
We Presbyterians… or really any churchy folk – we make good elder brothers. We pay attention to his story for we know him all too well. We are so often the ones who feel we are doing everything we should be doing; who is getting it all “right” and yet… somehow we don’t feel the love. Somehow all our right answers aren’t connected to the Spirit and vitality that is meant to be ours. We are lost in our own righteousness. (Sitting outside in our bitterness even, denying ourselves the celebration because the wrong people are being allowed in.)
We also tell the story of the younger brother because we are all that younger brother – or at least we know we should claim to be him in our more honest moments… when we can stop being the elder brother long enough. The younger brother who chases after a different life – for whom the grass is always greener on the other side. The younger son who flushed it all down the toilet. And we become crippled with shame and feels far too unworthy… of love, or our adoption as sons and daughters of God.
However I was intrigued me this week was the story of the father, the untold part of his story. I was intrigued by that because we got to this text through the study that is shaping our Lenten Journey – Temptation in the Desert, and title of the section we are working on today is The Surprise of Being Beloved. I heard that title and thought of that surprise and immediately my head jumped to another snappy and provoking title, Philip Yancey’s book What’s so Amazing about Grace?
These titles were swirling in my head and I’m reading this story and thinking about the father, what is like for him? What was it like when his son came to him and said, ‘hey pops, I would like you to give me my inheritance now because you are kinda like – dead to me – and I’m ready to be dead to you and call this thing we have going between as done. I’m going out on my own.’
What was it like in the days and the weeks and the months after his son left, after they went through that awkward transaction – which I’m sure the father went through with a daze about him wondering if this was really real. What was in like that night staring up at the ceiling unable to sleep because he is no longer whole? Part of him has rejected him and I’m sure he is wondering things like: what did I do as a parent that my child walked away? Did I not love him enough, did I not say it enough, and did I not appear to want to know his story, to hear his hopes, to support his dreams. Was it really necessary for him to just cut me out? Where is he now? What is he doing now? Is he okay now?
And you know as well as me that this wouldn’t just be a night time thing. In the day time he’d catch movement in vision, “was that him… no, no it’s someone else.” Looking through the faces in the crowd wondering if somewhere just around the corner… if just around the corner the child of heart is waiting.
And then there is this, in our claiming of this story as our story the death may well have been literal. Far too many parents have born the burden of their child’s death. A death that is experienced over and over. You do not lose a child once, you re-experience that lose, that death every life transition you should have gone through with your child. You are re-visited by the pain, the lack, the death happening all over again. Why? Why has this happened?
A question whose answer never comes… cannot come. It is a question that lacks an answer all together. My child is gone. Cut out. That should be me celebrating over there… with him… but it won’t ever happen.
I realize that there are unloving families out there. I realize for some the idea of father is not one of love, and the idea of mother may be no better. Our brokenness knows no bounds. But for the sake of this story the father is the father wants nothing but to love the son, to behold the son and embrace the son, and be. With the son. This father is father of countless families where death struck, this father is the mother of countless lost sons. The parent here yearns to simply love her child, his son, our brother.
This typology of parent, if you will, this form of the idea of parent for you Platonists out there, this norm or ideal or whatever you will. This father wants nothing but to love the son. And why not. Wouldn’t I want the same? Wouldn’t you? This, child of you – heart of your heart, bone of your bones – flesh of your flesh – wouldn’t you do anything to find a way to be in relationship – to share lives, to seek the good of each other?
This father has carried death with him, for a part of his being has been dead… lost in sorrow, and he wants for nothing more than his child to crawl back from the grave – out of the mists – to say help me. Father? I am home.
In this light, when I think about what’s so amazing about grace… What is so amazing to me about grace is that it’s not surprising at all. Grace isn’t a surprise. Grace should never be a surprise – not from God’s side at least. For Grace is who God is, this parent – this father, mothers, brother, sister, friend – this one, this holy and loving one can be nothing other than Grace. It is foundational to God’s being, at the core of God’s character – God is love.
God who is creator of all that is, all people, all places, all things – these are all the children of God. And God exists to all of them as love, God years for nothing more than to be in relationship to all that is and love all that is and to celebrate that relationship for its intrinsic value regardless of what has been – or will be – the character of that relationship. All is worthy of God love by virtue of the nature of God’s love.
To (very loosely) paraphrase the prophet Hosea in chapter 11 giving voice to the inner wrestling of God with God’s inability to be anything but love to God’s children. ‘I am angry with my children, Ephraim and Israel. I am angry that you turn from me and cut me out and go away from me – but how can I simply let you go? How can I let you come to ruin? How can I act out of my anger? Because while I am angry and frustrated and feel thwarted in my desire for your well being by your clumsy choices… my heart is yet kindled for you – over and over and over again compassion bubbles up from the depth of my being for you… and am I not God. Is this not how it works, and has worked from the beginning. I am God. And I love. And I forgive. And I celebrate your return no matter how often you depart from me. I can do no other.’
God chooses love every time.
Grace in God is not surprising. This is what I think every time I hear the son proclaimed beloved in the waters of baptism. This is what I think when I hear a story that even the most wayward among us, even the betrayer and the forsaker among us (and within us) are pronounced beloved.
As I think about a father’s heart broken by the separation at the hand of his son. And there is nothing surprising about grace from our father, welcome from our mother… except for us. Think about this with me for a moment, its seem that from this story I understand that there are two and only two impediments to Grace we can experience and neither of them come from God or are about God.
The impediments to Grace are:
- Our own inner self that says to ourselves: I am not worthy.
- And our brother. Our brother who is all too quick to say – he is not worthy.
In this equation we cannot conceive of love because we think worthiness matters. We think that even though over there outside of the house is our brother who is as worthy as can be, but feels no love. His inheritance was not the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness and the fruit of his spirit is not Grace. And I stare into that abyss and what stares back at me is a challenge for the church. How often has the Church as an establishment been the elder brother who sought to deny reconciliation for our wayward sibling? Not just the resentment of this story but we further yet and run down the road to intercept this…. this former family – this son yours we no longer claim – and stop him from crawling before our parent telling him that he isn’t welcome that God has nothing but anger in God’s heart towards you who sinned before God and your family and the world, “you shouldn’t come home. You would not be welcomed there.”
That abyss stares out at me from the elder brother who knows much of worthy and little of love.
The impediments to Grace have nothing to do with God and everything to do with us. These two fold broken hearts – the worthy and the unworthy. The first part of us plays the elder brother preventing others from experiencing the love of God because we have deemed them sinners, unworthy of celebration. And the other part is that seed of unworthy in our own heart that is perhaps even the genesis of this judgment of unrighteousness. We are both children at the same time and the younger – wayward son – within us does not feel we are worthy of love. We cannot conceive of being the receiver of the unsurprising love of God. And so we are doing everything we can to prop up a sense of worth in our constructed world to try to get parental approval – to earn what we cannot believe we already have. After all, if we haven’t earned it how can it possibly be ours?
God is love. There is no other way God can be. And to our split selves of unworthy shame and worthy judgment a nothing but loving God speaks.
You were dead… and now you are alive. You were lost to me and now you are found. The father in this story says nothing about tomorrow, the father in this story being told to us by THE beloved of God says nothing about contingencies or worth or expectations to being welcomed. Not even a pause.
We create applications for God’s forgiveness. And God tears them up. How? How could you possibly imagine that you aren’t worthy of my love. You are my child. My creation. I know you inside and out. No matter how frustrated with you I may get I will always love you – you will always be my child. You can deny me, but I will never deny you.
You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
Thanks be to God.