November 29, 2010

I hate him for the waste.

Frugality. My father had raised us to be frugal. And I remember the time that he forced us to look up the word in the dictionary. Frugality: discretion in practical affairs, a reluctance to spend money, thriftiness, prudence, a disciplined economy of material goods… At first, you see, we could comprehend no other way to live. Every day we’d wake up to a work sandwich with a few chores on the side. And every night we’d stuff the money that we made into our pillow cases and slept on it. And that was the time-honored routine. We worked to live and we lived to work. And if the rest of the world wanted to spend their hours in waste and squalor and lazy loafing malingering, that was their business. Our business consisted of taking care of our property and that’s what we did. We shared and we worked together for the enhancement and advancement of our property… until the day that he wanted to play, until the night that he packed up his duffle bag with heirlooms and demanded his inheritance now. Now, he said, to father’s face, nearly causing him a stroke then and there. I want it now. I don’t want to wait for your death. I want to take what belongs to me and go far, far away. These are the words of my father’s son and to this day I hate him. I hate him for what he did to father, but mostly I hate him for the waste.

If you want my honest opinion, he belongs with the pigs.

So here’s my honest opinion. As far as I’m concerned, he belongs with the pigs. Am I sorry that we didn’t always include him in the plans we had for the farm? Am I sad that he left us? Am I angry that he wasted everything that he’d been given, everything that we sweat for, bled for and cried for? Yes, yes and yes. Of course, I am. But listen closely. When this swine demanded his inheritance then and there, it was as if he wanted my father dead then and there. And it nearly killed him for real. Hell, it nearly killed me. I can’t bear to think of all the extra chores I’ve had to do. I can’t bear to think of all the times I just wanted to relax just for a brief moment, but I couldn’t because he was gone, because there was no one to do what needed to be done, because father counted on us, and because now he just counts on me.

There is no way I’m going in there!

There is no way I’m going in there. If I were to go into that party, everything in my life would be turned upside down. If I were to take one footstep in the direction of that celebration for my so-called brother, forget it. All my life, from the moment I could walk and talk I’ve prided myself on these principles: loyalty, hard work, perseverance and consistency. Father, I’m been loyal to you. I’ve worked hard for you. In the midst of famine and foul weather I’ve persevered for you. And when you’ve told me that we can’t afford a party with my friends, I’ve believed you. But father, this kind of party is not consistent with any of that. Who are you? I thought that I knew you. I thought of you as someone severe and harsh and so impeccably fair. But now I don’t know. All I know is me and I’m not going in there. There’s no way I’m going in there. The only way I’m going into that party is if he… Unless he…


I’d like to start off this morning by pointing out the obvious. And the obvious point, based upon the Luke 15 passage, is that whenever we lose something—whether it’s a set of keys, or a sheep, or a cell phone, or a sheep—whenever we lose something and then find it again, invariably that lost thing is in the last place that you and I look for it. Now, by saying that, I’m not just trying to be clever with words. But I am trying to illustrate the fact, that when it comes to our spiritual growth, place matters, and how we intentionally look at a place matters.

For example, in one of my favorite films—the 1990 classic, The Mission, Robert DiNero plays a slave trader. He has been employed by a Spanish nobleman to capture slaves in the Portuguese territories of South America. As the story unfolds, all that interests him is the making of money and the love of a woman who will eventually betray him. He does not think to pay attention to the dangerous beauty of the wilderness in which the Guaraní natives have lived for centuries. But when he kills his brother and dares to repent of that sin, the Jesuit priest tells him how it must happen. Rodrigo Mendoza must return to the very place above the falls where he had trapped and bound other human beings. He must go to that place and receive their forgiveness as well as God’s. And maybe in that place, the forgiveness of the Guaraní and the forgiveness of God is the same thing.

Place matters. When Jesus first tells the story of the shepherd losing a sheep we’re not quite clear on where, geographically, he’s located. In chapter fourteen, where we left off last week, he had just been reclining at the dinner table with “a leader of the Pharisees,” which is a little bit like saying that he’s eating with the Bishop, or he’s having a few drinks with the President of the Rotary Club. But, as of Luke 15:1, Jesus puts himself in close proximity with “the tax collectors and sinners”—or perhaps it’s they who have approached him. Either way, the Pharisees and the scribes don’t like it, and as they begin to grumble, what’s obvious is that no one is upset with the content of Jesus’ words so much as with where—with the place—he says them. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Now, of all the locations in my life where I have truly paid attention, I’d like to lift up a day when I hung out with a veterinarian from a small town. Doc Rodabaugh took me places. He took me to homes that reeked of kitty litter. He took me to barns where the cows needed milking. And he took me to the muddy pastures, where a flock of sheep had been assaulted by a pack of mangy dogs. One sheep, I remember, had been mauled pretty badly. And as we approached him with the owner of the farm, I looked around that place and thanked God. Something about it made me feel more grounded than any book of the Bible that I had ever studied. And yet, something about it also transported me back the people and the places and the vulnerable animals that Jesus himself must have known. Jesus himself must have stood in this kind of place. Otherwise, how could he have said this?
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

You see, it’s remarkable that in responding to the Pharisees and scribes Jesus doesn’t bombard them with a whole bunch of spiritualized and other-worldly rhetoric. It’s remarkable that in talking about “heaven” Jesus turns our attention back to the word on the street. And the word on the street and on the family farm is that losing things sucks! Losing things—like a sheep or like a silver coin, or like a younger son—is a terrible, terrible experience.
Can you relate? Can I get an Amen?

“I’m losing it,” says the young woman upon arriving home with her new dress. “I can’t find my credit card. Have you seen it?”

“I’m afraid I’m losing it,” says the batter after striking out for the third time at the company softball game.

“I must be losing it,” says the teacher as she stands at the blackboard, forgetting how to explain a difficult problem to her students.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” writes the poet, Elizabeth Bishop;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last,
or next to last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster…

Losing, you see, isn’t really something that we can avoid. You may be the most meticulous person around. You may conscientious when it comes to time, your money and your belongings. You may even be extremely competent as a student, a spouse, a parent, a friend, a colleague or whatever. But to be alive is to lose. It is to lose the body that you once had, the marriage that you took for granted, the innocence you once guarded, and probably more than we realize, to be alive is to lose each moment that we have wanted to go on and on forever and ever.
We know what it’s like to lose. And once we’ve become experts at it for the one hundredth time, only then may we be ready to make the following connection: it’s always in the last place that you look. It’s not in the first place, where we’re not even sure yet that we’ve lost anything. It’s not in the second or third place, where we’re certain that we’re going to find it right where we left it. What we have lost is only available again in that place where we’re afraid that we’re always going to be lost. Right then and there, God finds us.

God finds us like the shepherd in the parable of Jesus finds the sheep. He finds it only after the sheep is so exhausted that it can’t even wander off anymore. It simply stops in a place and waits to be found. Have you stopped wandering? Isn’t the grass over there as green or as snow covered as the grass over here? Stop in this place, and be found, be finally found. Amen.

All The Best Parties

November 15, 2010

This morning, since we are now headed into the “party” season, I want to ask you to consider what makes for the best parties. For example, is it the food? When it comes down to Friday night and you have a choice of ordering out or going to a party next store, isn’t it really the guacamole dip that makes the final determination? Or is it the music? Will there be a live band? Will the hosts break out his collection of country western CD’s? The Greatest Hits of the Seventies and Eighties? Would you rate a gala that features Bach and Chopin better than you would rate the backyard BBQ that revolves around the vocal styling of Snoop Dog or AC/DC? What is it that makes for the best parties? Is it the fun people who are just like you and who therefore know the next slurred word that’s about to come from your mouth? Or could it be the interesting, exotic people, who are not like you at all, the elusive celebrities, the famous athletes, the prolific authors?

I know the standard answer to each and every question that I’ve just asked and that answer usually hinges upon a value judgment. What makes for the best parties depends upon what you, as an individual, value. And what you as an individual value is probably going to correspond to whatever it is that makes you feel good about yourself. That is to say, if you’re at enough parties with Kim Kardasian or Brad Pitt, you’re going to feel pretty good about your looks or perhaps your status in Hollywood. But, you see, there may be a profound problem our evaluation of what constitutes the best parties and I think that problem has been raised by Jesus in Luke, chapter 14.
In Luke 14:16, Jesus identifies “someone” who “gave a great dinner and invited many.” So, right from the start of his story, we don’t know how to evaluate this party before we find ourselves in the middle of it. The text simply says, someone gave—someone apparently who commands a certain level of respect and authority inasmuch as he can send a slave… Within the rubric of the story, however, the slave has been given only one line: “Come; for everything is ready now.” And this invitation, of course, will be the only point of contact between the enigmatic host of the party and those who receive the invitation and reply with regrets. Presumably those who accept the invitation will come to the celebration and actually meet the host, whom the reader of or listener of this story can only identify as the one who gave.

Now, let me pause here and make this connection: Is there any entity in your life, who is mysterious and only known for the capacity of giving, of giving everything, of preparing everything, of making everything available and ready?

Tom Long once told about a sign that he observed being posted within the elevator door of a modest hotel. It read that the party that had been announced to be in Room 213 had been a hoax. You see, apparently, what had happened was that a group of miscreants had posted a previous sign that read Party in Room 213—All Welcome! So, when a bunch of lonely people started to show up, the occupants of that room became at first confused and then angry.
“There’s no party here!” they must have said to the weird man in his bath robe. “There is no party,” they must have yelled through the door as two teenagers knocked up. “There’s no party,” they must have repeated to the woman with three small children. “There’s no party,” they must have echoed again and again to the elderly man in the wheelchair and to the housecleaning lady who just got off work…

And what I’d like to point out, according to today’s passage, is that there really is. There really is a party that’s based upon nothing but the givin-ness of things. There is a party that truly celebrates the grace of these particular neighbors and these particular hotels and highways. There is a party and the church that been called by God has been sent like that slave to embody the invitation. “Come; for everything is ready!”

And, you see, there’s no way to evaluate that kind of party—based upon the grace of God—without actually stepping into the middle of it. People do, of course. Like the three recipients in the story of Jesus, people make value judgments about the party—and by doing that they exclude themselves. This is really important for us to understand. If the church is like the slave who has been sent to extend the invitation, it’s not our job to exclude anybody from anywhere for any reason. But, ironically, here’s the catch. The only reason we might have to exclude anyone is if they exclude themselves by not valuing the grace that’s been given, and in this case, it’s not us that doing the excluding at all.
Listen again to the excuses that are provided in the story of Jesus:
• “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it.”
• “I have bought five yoke of oxen and I am going to try them out.”
• “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.”

Now, in ordinary, twenty-first century life in North America, these reasons for not attending a party will pass the test. According to Emily Post and Ann Landers, they are legitimate. But, within the teaching authority of Jesus, we have to admit that the first two excuses might be categorized as consumer-driven excuses. That is, the first and the second person who turn down the invitation have each “bought” something, and it’s this buying which they value more than what has been given. The third person to turn down the invitation is getting married, and so, that we understand. Who can argue with that excuse, except that elsewhere in the teaching of Jesus he says quite emphatically that whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me. So, could it be that he feels the same way about our wedded wives and husbands? We have to wonder. And again, given the invitation to value the grace of God above all things, is there a possibility that Jesus wants us to celebrate the grace of getting married or the grace of not getting married before we celebrate the exclusive nature of being married? Again, we have to wonder. All we know from the passage in Luke 14 is that third excuse comes without much explanation and maybe that implies that for this person, if you’re married and have a family, there’s no need for grace!
In the Jane Austen novel, Emma, telling the tale of Miss Emma Woodhouse, there is a special character who self-identifies as “an old married man.” Mr. Elton, as you may know, also happens to be the pastor of the local parish, and during the past several months Mr. Elton has been riding the proverbial roller coaster of English, upper-crust society. His patronness, the Lady Katherine Deburg has preferred that Mr. Elton marry, and so, upon meeting Emma, he proposes. She in turn declines while simultaneously trying to play matchmaker on behalf of Miss Smith. Miss Smith, coming from the lower class, is beneath the dignity of Mr. Elton, who moves on and marries another. These convoluted relationships may provide an excuse for Mr. Elton, except for the fact that he is supposed to value the grace of God more than anything, more than his reputation, more than his pride and more than his marriage. But let’s listen into the conversation on page 281, where Mrs. Weston, the host of a party, attempts to get Mr. Elton to dance with a lonely woman:
“If Mrs. Gilbert wishes to dance,” said he, “I shall have great pleasure I am sure… for, though beginning to feel myself rather an old married man and that my dancing days are over, it would give me very great pleasure at any time to stand up with an old friend like Mrs. Gilbert.”

“Mrs. Gilbert does not mean to dance, but there is a young lady disengaged whom I should be very glad to see dancing—Miss Smith.”

“Miss Smith—Oh! I had not observed. You are extremely obliging—and if I were not an old married—but my dancing days are over, Mrs. Weston. You will excuse me. Anything else I should be most happy to do, at your command—but my dancing days are over.”

Now, if you are wondering what any of this impolite behavior has to do with our gathering together at Latah Valley this morning, let me tell you.
I’m wondering if your dancing days are over, and I’m wondering what you value. If you value the grace of God as we express it in this community of faith, known as Latah Valley, you will look at your pledge card like a dance card. And today, on Commitment Sunday, you will revise your regrets and turn away from a world in which buying and selling constitutes the bulk of life. Today, you will also turn away from a world which values your own private family—your wife, your husband, your children, your parents—and you will make yourself available to dance with every lonely and dejected soul that we can find.

In the novel, you’ll be glad to know how Mr. Knightley will eventually be noticed by Emma leading Harriet Smith to the set. He will dance with her. He will dance, not because he’s interested in Miss Smith romantically, but maybe because he envisions a party where grace matters the most, and where what’s given is more valuable than what’s bought or sold. Amen.