Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Below the post will be a link to the preached sermon.
Luke 15:1-3, 25-30
Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, we find it hard to believe you will erase for us what we will not erase for others. So, we find ourselves taking up our bookkeeping again and again. It may have been what the Older Brother did. But, it is not what the First Born of all Creation does for us. Remind us this day, again, that grace makes life both lighter and more purposeful. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
It was Jesus, after all, who said,
“You will always have the poor among you.”
Maybe Jesus was looking back to the words in Deuteronomy,
“there will never cease to be those in need on the earth.”
Jesus words came as he perceived the disciples judged the woman who anointed Jesus head with expensive perfume. Matthew reveals the disciples were thinking the price of the perfume would have fed quite a few poor folks. Jesus does not dispute the command in Deuteronomy that may or may not have prompted the disciples to judge. But if you are inclined, it could well be that Jesus reply to the disciples,
But you will not always have me.
has the same sense in his response to Martha when she complained about Mary not helping in the kitchen. There is a better way than keeping books on others who do not live up to your expectations, your rules. Not only will the poor always be with us, it appears there will always be another group.
If there is another group that will always be with us, it will be those of us that refuse to put the books away. You know, the sort that always keeps your score for you? And, if I were a gambling person, I would wager many of us bookkeepers are of the first born variety, like the Older Son in Jesus crazy story. Think about it.
We first born types are the experimental bunch. Those of us that presented our parents with their first experience of parenthood did not have a clue they did not know what they were doing. But they were the parents. Parents make rules and level punishment for breaking those rules. We learn the rules early and often. Even though we may glimpse grace from the rigidness of those rules on occasion, we tend to internalize that the world is made up of rules. We go to school and this is reinforced. We learn about stops signs and speed limit signs and our suspicions that the way to order our lives is by rules is confirmed. We may talk back, break curfew and run a stop sign, but when it all came down to it, our parents were more Moses and we were more Israel. Only after our siblings were born did we learn how easy it was to change those laws. Just be born second, or third, or . . .. One of the hardest things for we first born types to do is let go and realize that just because it was a rule for us, did not mean that our parents did not learn from their first experimentation. The repeated and reinforced vision that the world is about keeping rules leaves and left us with a legalism that is hard to shake. Having become parents ourselves, we learn to look back with some measure of sympathy. We cannot slight them for their lack of experience before having us. However, we tend to look with a critical eye at our younger siblings to see if they keep the rules as well as we think we did.
It often shows up in the playful complaint – “We never got to do what [insert the name of your sibling] is getting to do at that age.” I know, I have heard it too. After the first experiment in parenthood, Dads and Moms make adjustments. If too many rules are hard for children, think about the parents keeping up with them. It is not uncommon to reduce the number of rules for those born after.
Think about what happened with Israel. After the 10 commandments it seems a good idea to some to develop a code of about 613 rules to live by. Their story is like ours would be. If we have trouble with ten, who thinks we could sustain 613. Tensions always existed between those who kept the law and those who didn’t. Even worse, a group was raised up within their people group that reminded the people of the most important command. By the time we get to Jesus, he knew we needed it simple, to the point. Love God and love others, though his idea of loving others included our enemies. He may have pointed to a simpler code but he set a higher expectation.
Simpler – two commands – and an increased scope only proved that we could not keep the rules. We still don’t too well.
We older siblings have it written like sharpies marked into the books of our experience that those who followed us should reward us for paving a smoother way! If you are like me and your youngest sibling was born enough years removed to be nearly raised as a first-born only child, you secretly wonder who kidnapped your parents. Someone gave them a legalism laxative! See, you will always have those sibling bookkeepers with you!
Sibling rivalry rears its head when the Older Son discovered the party going on. After all to read his response to the invitation to come to the party, is like hearing the airing of grievances. It sounds like a typical first born. Can’t you hear it? “After all he did to this family.” Remember, when the Younger Son requested his inheritance it benefited the Older Son. How soon he forgets. He received his inheritance at the same time the Younger Son asked for his. It does not take much imagination to think the Older Son stewed at the prospect he would be left to take care of all that was left to him without the aid of his younger brother. If that was not enough, it was a double whammy when the Older Son learns the Younger Son returned having partied all his inheritance away and is now the featured guest at a party thrown by his father. Maddening I tell you!
Whether or not you are the first born, surely you empathize with the Older Son. He never left. He remained faithful. He did the work. What’s more it is clear that the Older Son thinks the book he has kept on his brother in contrast to his own book should give him the right to criticize. He likely thinks he should have been consulted since the fatted calf would have been his.
Some things never die. And that is my first point.
The only figure in the story that does not die is the Older Son. Look at it again. When the Younger Son asked for his inheritance it was to wish his father dead. Dispossessing himself of all he had the Father gave everything to his sons.The death of the Father gets the story rolling. Yes it is a type, a sign, of death. The Younger Son realized that he was no longer worthy to be a son so that his very standing as son was gone. He reckoned himself dead. The fatted calf, innocent, became the festive feast. Only the Older Son did not experience any type of death, figurative or otherwise.
Our book keeping dies hard. Even though in Christ our need for these books die with his death, we find ourselves from time to time keeping book on everyone else in order to justify our own books. Or, put another way. We like it when there are others who live up to God’s standard less than we do. It makes us feel better about ourselves. Smug. And, it seems the Older Son is full of smug. Surely you can hear the Pharisees level the charge against Jesus. It comes with that tone we all have heard. It is the sound of coming guilt, of impending shame. You are not as good as we are. If some things never die in us, in the way we look at others, it should not be a surprise to find this smug attitude present in and among Christians and even in churches as we look at others. Sometimes it does not need to be said. It is often felt.
Tommie texted me the message on a church sign. We do often wince at some of the messages that get displayed. The sign read,
We come to church to hug necks, not wring them.
Many people feel like they have been wrung out after having run the gauntlet of comments that sound more like the people in church have been keeping book on you. It takes many forms. Rather than, “It does my heart good to see you,” we re-introduce ourselves. We draw attention to absence by asking, “Where have you been?” Little do we know just what has been going on. But, it is enough to give pause to coming back after feeling wrung rather than hugged.
Some things need to die. And that is my second point.
Our book keeping, that is what needs to die. Our failure to put away our books after having been crucified with Christ, dead, and buried and raised to walk in a brand new life only serves to illustrate how difficult for our egos to let go. We so need to have control. We fool ourselves into thinking we are free only to suffer the greatest rule enforcer – our ego. Somewhere we got the idea that keeping the rules sets us in better standing than all others. Just ask us. And here is where it gets dicey. It is in an honest assessment of our book keeping that we realize just how lousy at it we are. Now we won’t tell you. We don’t want anyone to know. So, we keep a second set of books – one set for us and one set for those around us. Give us the chance to point out how you are not keeping a good book and you can be sure we will. The Older Son.
If there is an attitude that will surely undermine the Gospel, the Good News message, carried in the bodies of those of us trusting Jesus it will be the mixed signal that in fact we are trusting our books more than Jesus. This story, this parable of grace is taking aim at those of us who think Jesus too pious to hang out with those whose books are all in the red. It is for us who think ourselves better for the books we have kept on ourselves appear better than those people.
Who cannot feel that?
Given the reality of grace, we hurt ourselves. And that is my final point.
The Father learns that his Older Son refuses to enter the party. Just like he did with his Younger Son, the Father goes out to the Older Son. It is there he makes the appeal. The Older Son is affirmed in his faithfulness. He is applauded for his work. He is reminded that all the Father has is his. We are not given what the Older Son decides after the Father makes an appeal. But it is clear that the grace extended to the Younger Son has also been gifted to the Older Son. Yet, the Older Son refuses to die. That is, the very measure he has used to give himself solace in comparisons to his Younger Brother fuels his anger and he is left in our vision standing outside the party. He only hurt himself.
But 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.
Grace is received. And, grace is an ethic by which we who have been made alive in Christ live. If grace does not compel a response then it is not grace that has grasped us. Standing outside, refusing to eat with sinners and prostitutes, determined not to go to the party is a sure sign that bookkeepers will always be with us.
But . . . They need not be.