This last Sunday I preached on the first temptation of Jesus in the desert as part of our Lenten series on the Temptations (yes I just lost some of you who are now singing My Girl in your head). This temptation is to turn stones into bread so Jesus, who is “famished,” can eat.
Along the way of wrestling with this temptation I ended up in the Genesis creation story. In the second story of creation man is created first (it should be noted that in the first story man and woman are created at the same time so we probably shouldn’t make anything about the primacy of man) but is lonely. God declares that being alone isn’t good and after the rest of creation was found not to be fitting partner God creates more humanity and Adam greets Eve with relational harmony, “you are bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.”
We are created for relationship. We are created to relate in goodness with one another and with God. But the story doesn’t continue like that. Created for relationships we become over-consumers and our over consumption threatens balance. We consume fruit, knowledge… and eventually (and not long at that) each other in the story of Cain and Abel. Instead of recognizing our interdependent relationship with the world we see in creation and each other (and even in God) something to be consumed. And fear that we won’t get to consume as much as the next person we became in competition for resources and predominance (because he or she who is predominant can command more).
Balance is lost, boundaries are lost… and created for inter-dependent relationships we instead become hoarders of more than we need to sate our desire to consume more than what would be enough.
This is what came to me as I stare – with Jesus – at the stone. Would Jesus become a consumer? Would Jesus take creation and turn it to his profit? He could… “if you are the Son of God…” but he didn’t.
Jesus – identifying fully with humanity in his deprivation, need, and temptations has a different notion about what it means to be Son of God. We know from his baptism that God has identified him as “God’s son, in whom I am well pleased.” Son of God status is not up for grabs… but what it means to be Son of God is. And the Son of God doesn’t fall prey to the temptation to make his primary identity be a consumer. It is by his reliance on the “word of the Lord” that he lives. I am not what I eat… I am who I belong to, and “body and soul I belong to God.”
Now I share all this to get to this point. Because when I put myself into this temptation there are many ways I can talk about a temptation to over-consume, and a desire to know myself by the “things” I have and the “things” I consume. But maybe because Genesis had already been on my mind where I feel pulled to hear this text challenge me is my desire to be an over-consumer of time. Boredom is perhaps the hunger we in 21st Century America really wrestle with. We dread being bored. We dread being hungry for something to do. Maybe it’s because we aren’t certain about who we are so we define ourselves by the things we do, and in constantly doing we don’t have to come face to face with our inner undefined selves. Maybe it’s because we are so convinced that we need to be producers and achievers that we believe there is something selfish to doing nothing. Maybe it is because we think there is a pride attached to being so “in demand” by the world around us that we don’t actually have time for relationships anymore, even with ourselves.
Our children do not get bored. They play video games, watch TV programs (do you remember when there was only like 2 hours of the day when cartoons were on TV? Our kids don’t… because its 24/7 now), go to club soccer, and karate dojos, and swim team. Most of this is good stuff… but when we do all of it the one thing our kids don’t know is boredom. And they don’t know it because I won’t let them; we won’t let them. We are so busy doing we don’t even know the people who live on our own street. It’s not the kids fault, it’s the parents who do it – tempted by society to believe that idle play is a waste and that boredom should be kept at bay at all costs. Tempted to believe that a productive adulthood must be achieved by programing our children like machines. Over-programmed machines.
It is easier to see in our kids… but it is true of most of us as well. We have turned the stones to bread, we have taken idleness and forced it to be productive. Only from the beginning (yup Genesis again) God knew that wasn’t a sustainable way. That way killed (consumed) relationship… and each other… and ultimately ourselves. So God rested… and commanded that we rest. God called for fields to lay fallow because even creation needs to rest, and God called us to let our livestock and slaves rest because… rest is a good in and of itself. Its seems by God’s decree rest is a “right” and an “obligation” to be defended, protected, and obeyed. Idleness is next to godliness. Because even God rested.
So as you journey in lent – as you find yourselves led, driven even, into the wilderness by the Spirit – may this be a time when you can look into your own life and see where you have sacrificed relationships in the name of consumption – consumption of things but also of time. And in that confrontation may you be guided to a way you might flip that script in your life. That you might rest, relate, reorient, and be reborn by the Spirit.
“God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” –Genesis 2:31
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.
While we often talk about what we are giving up for Lent I’m not always sure about the practice. I guess it works for me if you can flip it into a positive statement about what you are taking on for Lent. In my mind lent is about taking on the cross in a journey with Christ to Jerusalem. This often necessitates some kind of “giving up” but only a giving up that deepens our journey. The question then I get is: what is the gain in what you have given up? If you give something up that leads to life – then you are most likely on target with Christ’s call to follow in his way.
We do not follow an acetic God for whom sacrifice is about self-negation for its own sake – at least I don’t think so. I think we follow a God wants to bring a balance between our loves of self, God, and mostly neighbor. This means we have may have to give up some fascination with our own convenience, privilege, entitlement, power, and glorification in order to do this on behalf of the other. But what is more important is that second part… what it’s on behalf of. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he lauds those who pray and practice in secret rather than for all to see. The ones who do it for all to see that he calls out are still actually about self-promotion. There is no communal gain to their pious practices.
So for me I have to ask myself – what is the communal gain to what I’m “giving up?”
So here is what I’m trying to do this year. It’s a practice I received from James Bryan Smith’s Apprentice Series of books which I highly recommend to any small group or pair of readers (Good and Beautiful God, Good and Beautiful Life, Good and Beautiful Community). The spiritual practice is summed up as “choosing the slow lane.” And that is really what it is. He describes it as picking the longest line at the grocery store, driving behind that driver who is going 5 mph under the speed limit, intentionally scheduling a long meal with friends, making sure to arrive places early so we aren’t in a rush to get there. (He warns we actually need to practice margin first – we need first to learn to schedule less in our day so we CAN go slow. That is practice I have working at for a while now – I’m not necessary good at it, but it’s a journey.)
I’m going to practice at this during this Lenten season (and beyond, why stop a good thing) – not just doing it but doing so without the resulting rise in blood pressure. Because my time isn’t so valuable that everyone else should get out of my way. Because sometimes when we slow down we notice things we wouldn’t have seen before (a person hiding in a tree who wants to meet us, a nameless person who needs some healing recognition of their personhood, a person’s who testimony will become an encouragement to us for renewed ministry). So if you want to name it as a giving up – I’m giving up the need to put my timeline ahead of everyone else’s. I’m giving up the sense that I need to be in hurry. But if you want to flip to a positive and life-giving statement: I’m taken on the practices of slowness so I might be able to find out what blessings I’ve been missing out on, what blessings I’ve been denying others, and what blessings God has in store for me… going slow.
What are you giving up/taking on as you journey in way of Christ to the cross… and beyond?
Last year I wrote about the “imposition of ashes” (you can find it here). This idea still is sitting with me this year – that the we are meant to be imposed upon. Ash Wednesday (Lent, discipleship, Jesus, God… take your pick) is not meant to be convenient but is meant to be an interruption of our normal routines and responses.
So I’m sitting with this thought this morning even as I see and hear about friends, colleagues, and neighbors who are dispersing ashes to people on street corners. The part of me thinks the church needs to get out from behind our walls loves this. The part of me that is dwelling on imposition struggles with it. What happens when me make our rituals convenient? Are we simply hawking jewelry for people who have no interest in making time to be imposed upon? I wish, in asking this, to wrestle with it for myself (but with you) so please don’t hear this as simply belittling those outreach efforts, by all means keep dispersing and reaching people where they live – the gospel desires to be preached and practiced in a myriad of ways. I simply wonder where is the line of when the church places convenience as a greater priority to the depth and work of discipleship – which is entirely inconvenient. Jesus’ calls to discipleship require people dropping nets, abandoning family, and leaving work undone.
And the church struggles with this. Our desire to be relevant and our fear about declining numbers makes us think of ways to reach people who not otherwise be willing to engage in rituals of communal faith. We recognize that small spirit led moments may lead to deeper engagement that would never happen without a chance encounter on the street corner. We also feel the call that the church is more than a building and we cannot make everyone come to our home court and fit our cookie cutter images of faithful practice.
But when Jesus bids up pick up our cross and die, to drop our nets and follow… immediately, and to be one who walks in the way of him who has nowhere to lay his head Jesus is calling us to something radical and life-stopping: a full-on interruption of our way of being. Such a stopping (I’m not saying pausing… I’m thinking full-on stopping) is about as counter-culture as you can get these days. Our lives have no time for stopping. I read an article recently about the side-effect of “convenience technology” thanks to my friend and colleague MaryAnn McKibben Dana (who has lots of life transforming things to say about Sabbath… another “stopping” moment that is life-giving) that speaks unexpected but wonderfully to this (you can read it here). My summed up version is that when technology makes things faster we sometimes lose its deep fulfillment. The best analogy the article offered is that we can hike up a mountain and get a wonderful view and a sense of accomplishment. The same view can be had by driving – but do we really get the same sense of fulfillment when we eliminate the sense of journey, of struggle and experiences, that hiking to the view offers us?
What happens with drive up ashes? I am not saying it isn’t significant… but I can’t help but feel it has lost most of its deeper meaning as the ritual beginning to a season of lent, of repenting (turning and re-orienting) and following in the way of Christ as he travels to the cross… and beyond. Easter without Good Friday means nothing. Good Friday without Palm Sunday is not nearly as unexpected. Holy Week without the journey is – to me – lacking in its holiness. Christmas Eve is my favorite evening of the year, but Lent is my favorite season. Something of its ashy somberness appeals to my soul. My most profound understanding of God is one who brings life from death – and experiencing and engaging the death is as important (if not more important) than the life. There is so much death we cling to we must find ways to part with it. And I believe this requires that we stop. That we look the death in the eye and name it for what it is, and then we must let it go. This is the way to abundant life. And the way this ashy God invites… no imposes upon me to stop, alters my understanding of grace and connects me to resurrection life in a way that no triumphant assembly ever can. It is entirely inconvenient, and that is well with my soul.
Thanks be to God.