Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Come to the Party

Come to the Party
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32[1]
Tony Campolo is a Baptist sociologist, pastor, author, and a well-known speaker in evangelical circles. In a book entitled The Kingdom of God is a Party, he recounts a story from a speaking trip he made to Hawaii.[2] He relates how he woke up hungry for breakfast at 3 am, so he found an all-night greasy spoon diner. Much to his embarrassment, about 3:30 am several prostitutes came in and sat all around him. To him, the talk was loud and crude. Understandably, he was uncomfortable and wanted to make a quick exit. But just as he was about to go, one of them said, “Tomorrow is my birthday, I’m going to be 39.” As it turns out, this woman whose name was Agnes, had never had a birthday party in her life.
So Tony decided to wait until they left, and planned with Harry, the owner of the greasy spoon, to throw her a birthday party the next night. As you can imagine, Agnes was speechless. She actually asked to take the cake to her nearby home. As they waited for her, Tony led the group in prayer. At that point, Harry said “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Tony recounts that it was “one of those moments when just the right words came,” and he said “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for [prostitutes] at 3:30 in the morning.”
If you’re like me and you find yourself feeling a little uncomfortable with that sentiment, then our Gospel lesson is meant for us. The whole reason for the parables in Luke chapter 15 is that the religious people of his day found the company Jesus kept to be offensive.[3] The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are Jesus’ response to their complaint. In Tony Campolo’s words, Jesus answered them essentially by saying that the Kingdom of God is like a party![4]
What we may not catch at first glance is that the religious people of Jesus’ day were complaining because Jesus shared meals with “unsavory” characters. In that day and time, for Jesus to share a meal with “sinners” meant a great deal. It meant that he not only accepted them, but as one who proclaimed the Kingdom of God, it implied that God also accepted them.[5] That simply didn’t compute for the religious people of Jesus’ day. In their mind, either you were righteous, and God blessed you with his favor, or you were a sinner subject to God’s punishment.
We may find it surprising that Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son” was intended to answer that kind of mindset. We tend to think of it as a story of a dramatic conversion on the part of one who had “hit bottom.” And it’s true that the prodigal’s story is a striking example of conversion and the lavish grace of the father who embraces and forgives his wayward child.[6] But it’s also meant to illustrate the fact that the people who responded positively to Jesus and his message were not the “respectable” type.
As it turns out, the focus of the parable may actually not be on the “Prodigal Son” at all, but rather on the “Elder Brother.” In the parable, the father’s welcome to his wayward son is so extravagant, that he slaughters a calf and throws a party! In other words, the whole town is invited to celebrate his return. When the “Elder Brother” hears the noise at the house and finds out that his father has thrown a party for that no-good wasteful younger son, he’s understandably angry. We oldest children tend to be the “responsible” ones, the ones who try to follow the rules, the ones who try to please their parents.
And that was how the “Elder Brother” saw himself. As a result, he resented the fact that his father was throwing a party for the prodigal. In this respect, he represents the religious leaders who criticized Jesus for welcoming and embracing “sinners” in his offer of God’s grace. But this is where the parable demonstrates the true depth of God’s grace. Not only does the father embrace the penitent son who returned, he also goes out to embrace the resentful brother who refused to come to the party.[7] He says to him, “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” (Lk. 15:32). In reality, the father was inviting him come to the party and join in the celebration.[8]
Unfortunately, those of us who try to live our lives seeking to follow God’s ways can develop a fairly unfriendly attitude toward those we deem offensive.[9] In the story about the party for Agnes, Tony Campolo goes on to say that Harry responded to his statement about belonging to a church that throws birthday parties for outcasts by saying, “There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it.” I’d have to say that Harry’s assessment of the church is probably pretty realistic.
That’s where Jesus’ parable comes in. In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus said that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk. 15:7). The parable of the prodigal son and the resentful brother portrays that celebration in real-life terms. The father extends the same grace to the resentful brother as he does to the prodigal son, inviting him to come to the party. But the parable is open-ended: we’re not told whether he accepts that invitation or not. In this respect, I think this story may be more for us than people like Agnes and Harry. As we keep our distance from the “outcasts” of our day, God invites us to come to the party and join the celebration of new life.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/6/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See Anthony Campolo, The Kingdom of God is a Party: God’s Radical Plan for His Family, 3-9.
[3] “Sinners” did not necessarily mean that they engaged in immoral behavior. Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel According to Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX: 295: “Those designated as ‘sinners’ by the Pharisees would have included not only persons who broke the moral laws but also those who did not maintain the ritual purity practiced by the Pharisees.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ,112-113: “In the stories about Jesus the term ‘sinner’ is not yet defined theologically and universally as in Paul (Rom. 3.23). It is meant socially, as we can see from the paired concepts: well — sick, righteous — sinners, Pharisees — tax collectors. In the eyes of ‘the scribes and Pharisees’, ‘sinners’ are Jews who are not able or willing to keep the Torah and to follow the path of righteousness.”
[4] Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel According to Luke,” NIB IX:127: “Eating together, and not fasting, became the way in which the church remembered Jesus and declared the coming of the kingdom.” Cf. also Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, 154 where he says that the point of the story of the Prodigal Son is that “those judged undesirable by everyone else are infinitely desirable to God, and when one of them turns to God, a party breaks out.”
[5] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 186, where he observes that because the parable is so familiar many of us “have not felt the full impact of the offence of grace that it dramatically conveys.” Cf. also Culpepper, “Gospel According to Luke,” NIB IX:128: “By eating with toll collectors, they were making themselves unclean, but further they were showing their acceptance of the toll collectors. The Pharisees would have had no problem with Jesus for calling sinners to repentance. Had he called all the toll collectors to repentance, the Pharisees would have made him a national hero. The offense was that Jesus was demonstrating God’s grace by not requiring repentance before he would eat with toll collectors and sinners.” Cf. further Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 579: “As persons who respond positively to his message, toll collectors and sinners are represented in the parable as those whose (re)turn to God constitutes a restoration that calls for celebration. In welcoming such persons to the table Jesus is only giving expression to the magnitude and consistency of the grace of God.”
[6] It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that the Father’s compassion is a response to the son’s repentance. But that is not the image of the parable. This is demonstrated dramatically by the fact that the son isn’t even allowed to finish his rehearsed speech because of the Father’s joy over the simple fact of his return. Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel According to Luke,” NIB IX:305: “The picture is one of sheer grace. No penance is required; it is enough that the son has come home.” Cf. also Green, Gospel of Luke, 582: “it is the younger son’s return, and not his confession, that makes reconciliation possible.” Cf. similarly, Paul Tillich, “To Whom Much is Forgiven …” in The New Being, 9: “God’s forgiveness is independent of anything we do, even of self-accusation and self-humiliation.”
[7] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 189: “The father not only had two sons but loved two sons, went out to two sons …, and was generous to two sons … . … God’s love is both/and, not either/or. The embrace of the younger son did not mean the rejection of the older; the love of tax collectors and sinners does not at all negate love of Pharisees and scribes. Such is God’s love, but we find it difficult not to be offended by God’s grace toward another, especially if we have serious questions about that person’s conduct and character.”
[8] See Green, Gospel of Luke, 579, where he says that Jesus “issues an invitation to the Pharisees and legal experts who have responded to such a celebration, like the elder brother, with indignation. Will they align themselves with the divine economy and, having done so, join the celebration at the table with the lost who have been restored?” Cf. also Culpepper, “Gospel According to Luke,” NIB IX:295-96: “The scandal was that Jesus received such outcasts, shared table fellowship with them, and even played host to them. The God who showed mercy to the apostate Israelites in the wilderness rejoices over the salvation of every lost person like a shepherd who rejoices over the recovery of a lost sheep or a woman who rejoices over the finding of a lost coin. The question posed by the parables is whether we will join in the celebration—but to celebrate with God one must also share in God’s mercy.”
[9] Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel According to Luke,” NIB IX:305: “The elder brother represents all of us who think we can make it on our own, all of us who might be proud of the kind of lives we live. Here is the contrast between those who want to live by justice and merit and those who must ask for grace. The parable shows that those who would live by merit can never know the joy of grace. We cannot share in the Father’s grace if we demand that he deal with us according to what we deserve. Sharing in God’s grace requires that we join in the celebration when others are recipients of that grace also.” Cf. also Tillich, “To Whom Much is Forgiven …” in The New Being, 13: “The righteousness of the righteous ones is hard and self-assured. They, too, want forgiveness, but they believe that they do not need much of it.”

Tuesday, March 01, 2016


Isaiah 55:1-11[1]
Have you noticed that we live in a culture that actually creates dissatisfaction? For example, if you pay attention to the music in certain stores, you may notice they’re playing sad songs. They do that because they know if they can make you feel bad you’ll buy something. I find it interesting that every few years, car makers “update” their models. I don’t think they’re primary concern is making sure their product meets the latest quality standards. They want to make those of us driving the older models buy a new car. I won’t even try to dive into the world of clothing. Wearing last year’s fashions may be acceptable, but if you go back too far, well you just have to go shopping.
It seems to me that we believe that if we can only have that house we’ve dreamed of, or the job we’ve always wanted, or reach the goal we’ve worked so hard for, we’ll be satisfied with our lives. But unfortunately, reality usually leaves us feeling disappointed. I experienced something of that on the day I finally finished all my education. After spending 13 years working toward my Ph. D., the day I graduated was probably one of the biggest let-downs in my life! I had worked all those years, and when I graduated, they put my doctoral hood on me, gave me a diploma, and that was it. I felt like after all those countless hours of work, there should have been a band playing and fireworks going off!
The people to whom our lesson from Isaiah was addressed were a people who had learned to live with disappointment. Most of them had been born in exile, far away from the homeland that their parents and grandparents may have told them about. They had learned to settle for circumstances that were far less than satisfying because they had no control over them. Their people had been conquered by the Babylonian armies, and they had no choice but to live out their lives in a place that was far away from “home.” I would say they were thoroughly acquainted with dissatisfaction.
Into their disappointment and despair, however, came a prophet who promised them in the name of the Lord that they would be set free. They would return to their homeland and God would give them a whole new life there where they would live in peace and enjoy all the blessings they could hope for.[2] In fact, this prophet promised them that it would be such a great act of deliverance that it would make the Exodus from Egypt pale in comparison (Isa. 43:18-20). What God would do for them would be something totally new, something that they would never have been able to imagine.
I don’t know about you, but I wonder how I would have responded to such a surprising message. There they were, just doing their best to make it through each day, and this prophet offers them a hope that went far beyond their wildest dreams: God was going to act decisively to set them free from exile and return them home. I think I may have had a hard time believing it. I think they had a hard time believing it. When life leaves our hopes and dreams shattered in pieces, it can be easy to give up looking for anything better. When disappointment becomes our normal experience, we tend to have a way of just getting used to it.
I think the prophet knew that the people had some huge obstacles to overcome. So in our lesson for today, he warns them to stop putting their hopes in things that don’t have the power to satisfy.[3] By contrast, God was offering them a fresh start in life, another chance to find true happiness.[4] And all they had to do was to accept! Hear the words of the prophet again: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1). God promised to give them all they could ever want, and the only price of admission was to be hungry for something more.[5]
If you’re thinking it all sounds too good to be true, I’m sure, like me, you would have had lots of company among the people of that day.[6] Unfortunately, those of us who have been around the block a few times may have experienced enough disappointment that we’ve given in to cynicism or even despair. But the prophet knew that too, and his answer is that when we think God’s promises are too good to be true, we’re vastly underestimating God. He says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9). When we think that God’s promises are more than we can believe in, the prophet reminds us that God’s words of promise aren’t empty, campaign-speech promises. Rather, God actually does what he promises (Isa. 55:10-11).[7]
In a very real sense, the lesson the Scripture has for us today is that we find true satisfaction in life in the places we typically don’t look. Who would really believe that we could find true and lasting happiness only in the life and the love that God offers us. Surely we have to go out and get it ourselves! But the fact is that just trying harder to get what we want out of life usually leaves us even more disappointed. The way to be truly happy, to be truly satisfied with our lives, is to let go of our expectations, and the illusion that we somehow control our own destiny. The way to be truly happy is to accept God’s free gift of a new way of living that provides all that we’ve been looking for.[8] It’s been there all along—in the life and the love that God offers us all.[9] All we have to do is accept it. And when we accept that incredibly generous gift, that’s when we find that we can be truly satisfied in life.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/28/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Isa. 40:1-11; 42:14-16; 43:5-7; 49:8-13.
[3] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 180: “Second Isaiah has already made a strong case for God’s power and God’s abiding love for Israel. Now he turns in verses 6-9 to the essential point: He calls out to the people to ‘seek the Lord.’ The plight in which they find themselves traces not to weakness or inattention on God’s part. The blessing of the covenant of peace awaits them like an open door. Instead, they have chosen death, that is to say, they are preoccupied with wicked ways and selfish thoughts that cut them off from communion with the source of life. The prophet therefore urges them to ‘return to the Lord, that he may have mercy …, for [God] will abundantly pardon’ (55:7).”
[4] Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40–66” New Interpreters Bible VI: 482, “Chapter 55 capitalizes on the word of God from Isaiah’s day and sees it accomplishing what God intends in the present day. The waters that were once rejected—those connected with Zion’s secure status (Psalm 46)—are once again a source of strength (55:1). Wine and milk can be bought without money, for the expensive vines that became briers and thorns (7:23) are again there to be had (free wine) because they have been changed into mytle and cypress (55:13). Abundant milk had been promised in Isaiah’s day for “everyone left in the land”; that word has now come to fruition.” Contrast Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A commentary on Isaiah 40–55, 468, where he insists that the invitation does not come from God, but from Zion/Jerusalem, who is “inviting the people to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” He carries this theme throughout his interpretation of this passage. For example, Balzer (p. 476), sees the invitation to “seek the Lord” also as an invitation to pilgrimage.
[5] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 177: “an unusual invitation is extended. The list of those to be included is not limited to people of social standing, not even to people of sufficient means to come properly attired. The only requirement is hunger and thirst.”
[6] Cf. Balzer, Deutero-Isaiah, 479: “what human beings find especially incomprehensible is God’s will for salvation, his ‘compassion.’”
[7] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40-66,” NIB VI:483, “It is striking what sort of flexibility God is prepared to show with the word once delivered. Clear reversals of judgment, promised beforehand, are executed. Waters once rejected are offered again. Promises of an everlasting covenant with David are enlarged to include God’s people. The former word has gone forth and has not returned empty. In other cases, it has gone forth and undergone surprising adaptations, which no one could have imagined. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, the prophet reminds us; and yet God’s word, once delivered, maintains a sure continuity through time, accomplishing what God had planned originally.”
[8] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 177-78: ““The most precious gift of all, the gift of life in God’s presence, is free. All that can exclude you is your insisting that there are places you would rather be.”
[9] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: Three Movements in the Spiritual Life, 125: “In Jesus Christ, God has entered our lives in the most intimate way, so that we could enter into his life through the Spirit. … By giving us his Spirit, his breath, he became closer to us than we are to ourselves. … Praying in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, therefore, means participating in the intimate life of God himself. … We receive a new breath, a new freedom, a new life. This new life is the divine life of God himself.” Cf. similarly, Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 178, where she recounts how she learned that “prayer is more than saying set prayers at set times. Prayer, …, is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is happening, and it is not necessarily something I am doing. God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in The Midst.” Cf. also Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 25: “The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.” Cf. further Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, 66-67, where he says that living the life where “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” is a matter of living “connected to the Source, or to be ‘on the Vine,’ as Jesus says.” He continues by emphasizing that “this is something you can only fall into and receive—and nothing that you can achieve, which utterly humiliates the ego, the willful, and all overachievers.”