Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sermon: A Calculated Faith

The Cross and the Prodigal Series                         
Luke 15.13-19                                                                     3 Lent, Communion
March 3, 2013

            A. Odd, isn’t it? We read a story from the Bible with three important characters or more, and choose one character for our focus – ignoring all the rest. I’m thinking of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. The evidence is in the common name we give this parable. All other characters are ignored except the Prodigal. What about the other characters: the father, the older brother, and even the community where they lives? What about them? Moreover, what was going on, in the first place?
            B. As you know, we are using Kenneth Bailey’s book, The Cross and the Prodigal, as our source for this Lenten series (1). He was one of my early teachers, and his work continues to be the standard for our understanding of this passage.

            It only takes a few days for the younger son to turn all his father’s property into cash, and it is a good thing. As he moves around the town, selling his family’s treasures for whatever he can get, the tide of anger against him is rising by the hour. The whole town knows what he has done to his father, to his community, to his heritage. And, they are outraged.
            A. According to Kenneth Bailey, there was a tradition in ancient Judaism, which held that a boy who lost his family’s heritage and wealth among the Gentiles and dared to return home would be met by the community. The community would break a clay pot in front of him and cry out: “This man is cut off from his people.” The ceremony was called the “Kezazah,” literally, “the cutting off.” I could not find any other confirmation of this term or the tradition except in Bailey, so we will have to look further for this. The point of the ceremony according to Bailey is that the community will have nothing to do with the man who has done this.
            The son who turns his birthright into cash and goes away to Gentile lands runs an enormous risk. If he loses the money, he cannot return home. He has no more rights to claim and no one will take him in. He has burned his bridges.

            B. In the far country, “he squandered his property in dissolute living.” I have no exact idea what “dissolute” living might be, so let’s check the dictionary. According to the online dictionary, “dissolute” means **Lacking moral restraint; indulging in sensual pleasures or vices**. Jesus does not give any details for how he wasted his money; all the details come from the complaint of the older brother later in the story. Perhaps the younger son spent his money on prostitutes; perhaps he spent his money throwing lavish parties to which he invited his newfound friends. Regardless, the day of reckoning arrived: all his fair-weather friends evaporated; his money was gone with no way of earning more.

            C. At this point, he surely thought of returning home. But, pride and the certainty that his community would not allow him to return kept him in the far country.
1.     He will have to face his older brother who has been silent up to this point. The later part of the story will provide the older brother plenty of opportunity to make the case against this younger wastrel.
2.     He will have to face the community. In everything he did to his father, he dragged the community in with him. By selling his birthright at fire sale prices, he brought out the worst in them; he put them at risk. They are not feeling very righteous about their part in this drama either; they stand ready to correct the way they shamed their longtime friend – the Father.

            D. Now, to add insult to the injury he has brought on himself, a famine arises in the land. In the 21st Century, such famines are reported around the world. There is transportation to carry food to the hungry; there is the moral sense that we should help our faraway neighbors. None of this existed in Biblical times. The news of a famine would not travel far; commodities, such as food, were hard to transport. Basically, a famine would leave people with little recourse except to hunker down in place and wait for better crops to come. The younger Son, as an outsider and no money, would have no real claim on local generosity. He was soon hungry.

            E. Then, according to our translation, “he hired himself out”; we assume that he got a crummy job. But, Bailey describes a different scenario; he prefers the more literal term, “he joined himself.” This is different from the job we have in mind.

[MEXICO:] When we were in Mexico after Christmas, I remember people standing in intersections with spray bottles and rags. They would approach to wash the windshield of the car. Without asking, they would rush over and begin furiously spraying and washing the windshield. Our driver was careful to shoo them away before they could get started. The unspoken deal required that if they could wash your windshield before you could object, then you would owe them a tip for their good service.

 This is the image of joining yourself to someone – not exactly a mutually agreed deal. Joining yourself is more like shaming the person into giving you something by providing some useful service. The younger son invaded a farmer’s pigsty and began to take care of the farmer’s pigs, hoping to get something for his trouble. It was not exactly a career path we would choose.

            F. The young man would have gladly eaten the pods he fed to the pigs, but his stomach would not digest them. He needed someone to pay him something so he could buy food. But no one gave him anything. Jesus describes a young man who has fallen just about as far down as anyone can fall. He must do something. No one is going to help him. He is hungry, and his next meal is nowhere in sight. What can he do?
            [APPLIC:] Let’s stop here to think about this scene. In every life, there are moments:
·       When we take stock of what we have made of ourselves.
·       When we consider our prospects given our current path.
·       When we reconsider the reasons we refused other paths to consider them once again.
Maybe you have felt like the Prodigal with no promising path open to you. Or maybe you decided that you had no other choice than the one you were on. It is instructive to recall that most such moments of reconsideration like this involve our faith in God. Such moments lead us to examine our most basic values and what is important to us. This is what I call, the “Come to Jesus Meeting.” Maybe you have been there recently; maybe you are there right now. While painful and often embarrassing, such moments of reconsideration have been the turning point to a better life for many of us. Recall yours, if you have had one, and be grateful for the lessons you learned. Slog through yours, if you are in the midst of one; learn the lessons life is teaching you.

II. The turn in the story is announced with the words, “When he came to himself…”
            A. Certainly, he took stock of the dead-end he had chosen. But, what can he do to change the situation? Repent of his actions? OR, something else?
            B. He began a conversation with himself:
            ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father.

What sort of conversation was this? Was it repentance? We have heard plenty of sermons on this passage in which this conversation was called up as an example of the repentance that each of us should bring to God. And, I suppose it could become that. But, I do not hear repentance in this conversation.
            I hear an admission that the young man is hungry and wants to figure out a way to eat. “My father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare.” If I offer myself as a hired hand, I could eat, too. It would be a good business deal for my father and for me.
            I do not hear any sorrow from the young man for what he has done to his father. I do not hear any appreciation for the responsibilities to his community that he abandoned. There is no awareness of *right and wrong* as he stands before God. There is only the calculation that my father’s hired hands have enough to eat and to spare, and maybe I could do that, too. Is this wholehearted repentance and return that he planning to offer to father and community? Or, is this a calculated return, which only offers enough and expects enough to keep from starving, but nothing more?

            [APPLIC:] What about us? How do we come to God; what sort of faith do we bring? Do we come to God in whole-hearted commitment OR with nothing more than a calculated step to move toward some life-goal?
·       Many headstrong young men have gone to church because that is where the girls were. Some years ago, I was the Associate Pastor in another church, working with the Single Adults. This single guy came along that I found a bit rough around the edges, so I asked, “What are you hoping to find here?” He was quite candid about it. There is a certain kind of lady that you find in church; he wanted to find one of those. Faith and Christian service and worship were barely on his list.
·       It used to be the case that one of the requirements for getting elected to public office in the South was membership in some prominent church in your community. Politicians would tick off their strengths, and found in every list was their church membership.
o   Years ago, a candidate in a nearby town published such a list of strengths, and membership at the Methodist church was on his list. This particular preacher had one of those message signs out in front of the church, which offered him considerable temptation to mischief. He published on the sign: “So-and-so is a member of this church, but he never attends.” According to the story, that message only lasted one day, but the point was made.
·       Membership in the church can be just one of the calculated things we do:
o   To live a good life or
o   To raise our kids well or
o   To spend time with our friends.
What we settle for is a calculated commitment – just enough, but not too committed; measured but not extravagant; hopeful but too smart to become totally dependent on God. Jesus gazed at the scribes and Pharisees who came to criticize him; they felt the question resting on them. Under his gaze, they knew the answer to the question about their commitment already. Even now, Jesus moves around this great church, visiting first one then another of us sitting here. We thought we could check off this once a week/Christian thing with church attendance on this Sunday morning. Jesus whispers the question of us: Is our commitment to God just a calculated thing? Not too hot; not too cold; just right?
·       Where is our wholehearted commitment to God?
o   Martin Luther is famously known to say: “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”
o   Are the martyrs and the missionaries who have given their lives without reservation across the ages merely curios of the Christian faith for us, OR in some sense do we understand and join their commitment?
o    [Luke 10.25-28:] 25 A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What do you read?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” 28 And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

The invitation to Christ is for that wholehearted commitment that trusts Christ in everything. It is the decision to follow Jesus as a disciple. It is the desire without reservation or condition to look and live and work more and more like Jesus.

            This is communion Sunday at church. When we come to the altar to receive the bread and cup, are we here *just figuring it out*? Or are we here to lay it all on the altar before Jesus? As Jesus laid it all on the line for us, he invites us to do the same. Without reservation. Without condition. Without other options. Let us come to God through Christ without wholehearted commitment and conviction that this is the life we must live because following Christ is life itself.

1. Bailey, Kenneth. The Cross and the Prodigal, Intervarsity Press

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