A Revolutionary Love for the Prodigal

This is the sermon I preached on March 31, 2019, at First Church Simsbury.

Prayer for a parent when a prodigal departs; Luke 15:11b-32

This Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most well-known stories in the New Testament. I started to say that it is also one of the most beloved stories, but for reasons I will soon reveal, this is not always the case.

A man has two sons. This man must be wealthy because he owns slaves, a farm, and livestock. The younger son asks for his half of his father’s inheritance, even though his father is still alive. The father agrees, and the younger son, the prodigal (a word meaning recklessly extravagant), travels to a far-off land where he squanders his inheritance on dissolute living. A famine descends upon the land, and the prodigal is forced to hire himself out to feed pigs, and for a Jew, there could be nothing worse.

Broke, hungry, and living in a pig sty, the younger son hits bottom and decides to return home, apologize to his father, and ask if his father will let him work on the farm as a hired hand.

In one of the more powerful expressions of love and forgiveness in scripture we read that the father sees his son approaching from afar, and runs to embrace and kiss him. The son apologizes, and the father treats him as royalty, directing servants to bring a robe, a ring and sandals for his son, then uttering these well-known words, “the son who was dead is alive again, he was lost and now is found.” The father then throws a huge party to celebrate his son’s return.

At this point, the older brother enters the story for the first time. He is out working in the fields when he hears the party. Asking what is going on, he is told that his younger brother his returned. He doesn’t share his father’s joy, in fact, he’s angry. Why should his younger brother who is such a screw up get a party, after all, the older brother has been faithful to the father, laboring on the farm without complaining while his brother was out spending his father’s money on prostitutes. The father answers his older son in a way that is surely unsatisfying, saying “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours. But your brother who was dead, now lives; he was lost and is found.”

As most commonly interpreted, the father in the story represents God. This interpretation leads us to find ourselves in the two sons.

In my experience people have one of two reactions to this story. For those who identify with the prodigal, those who are all too aware of their own failures, this is a story about God’s amazing grace, forgiveness, love and mercy. God doesn’t just forgive our transgressions, God runs to us, and lavishes us with abundant and unconditional love. But for those who identify with the older brother, those who feel like they have worked their whole lives to do what is right, only to see others apparently less faithful rewarded, well, these folks become very hurt and angry about this story. It can feel especially personal when people were literally that older sibling with a younger prodigal that always seemed to be favored by a parent.

This dynamic makes this parable either the most beloved or most upsetting story in the Bible.

But this poem by a gifted poet and UCC minister, Maren Tirabassi, reminds us that there is a third way to hear this story, from the perspective of the parent of a prodigal child. Indeed, this is not an uncommon experience, watching a troubled child leave home, sometimes breaking off relationships with parents, sometimes draining parent’s resources, often causing hurt and fueling worry.

Tirabassi writes:

God, help me love
this one who is walking away —
without imagining the worse,
anticipating a sweet, “I told you so,”
or curling up tight
around my own hurt feelings.

Let me to paint encouragement
across my worried face,
wave even when no one looks back,
send letters and emails
that don’t ask pointed questions,
keep tears out of my texts,
and whine out of my heart.

Let me set aside the robe, ring, shoes
and celebration dinner menu
to be prepared
whether the return is in triumph,
or disillusion and shame.

Welcoming is not something
that happens at the last moment.
Getting my love ready
for that road dust kicked up in the distance
may be the most important
work in my life.

I may never know what is going on
between here and a pig farm.

It’s not really my business,
and if it helps for the story to be told,
it will help more
if I never repeat it.

God, help me love these children
out the door,
love them while they are missing,
love them maybe home again,

because I know what it is
to be loved.

I know some of you have hurtful experiences with a prodigal child, some of whom have yet to return. Tirabassi reminds us of how challenging it is to love our prodigals with open arms and open hearts.

As with those who identify with either the older or younger sibling, Tirabassi also speaks to a literal application of the parable to family relationships.

But I offer yet another way to understand this parable, not as specific to individuals or family relationships, but to ways we all assume roles as both older and younger siblings, or more broadly sinners and righteous.

Jennifer Sanborn, the Community Leader of our Young Adult Service Community, recently introduced me to the work of Valerie Core (spelled Kaur). Kaur is a Sikh (spelled Sikh), a civil rights lawyer, award-winning filmmaker, educator and author of Revolutionary Love. I recommend her TED Talk, 3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage. Kaur sees love as a public ethic and shared practice to be used in the fight for social justice.

Kaur quotes the founder of the Sikh faith, guru Nanak, who said, “I see no stranger, I see no enemy;” she then shares a lesson her grandfather taught her, “to see all the faces I meet and wonder about them. If I wonder about them, I will listen to their stories even when it’s hard, I will refuse to hate them even when they hate me, I will even vow to protect them when they are in harm’s way.” That’s what it means to walk the path of a Sikh.

Following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centers, Kaur realized that America’s new enemy looked like her grandfather. Her Sikh uncle, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was murdered standing in front of his gas station in Arizona. Because Sodhi wore a turban, his murderer, Frank Roque, assumed he was a terrorist.

The local TV stations told Sodhi’s story, showing him to be an active and caring member of the community; he was planting flowers when he was shot. “Stories,” she says, “can create the wonder that turns strangers into sisters and brothers. Stories can help us see no strangers.”

In her TED Talk, Kaure says that her camera became her sword, her law degree her shield, and she became part of a generation of advocates working with communities facing their own fires. With every film, every lawsuit, Kaur thought she was making the nation safer for the next generation. But when her son was born, she realized that her son would grow up in a country more dangerous for him than the one she was given, there would be moments when she could not protect him, and times when he would be seen as a terrorist, just as “blacks would be seen as criminals, brown people as illegal, gay and transgender people as immoral, indigenous people as savages, and women and children as property.”

So, after fifteen years of trying cases and making films, Kaur returned to the gas station where her uncle had been murdered with his brother Rana, drawn by the question, “who have we not yet tried to love?” With her heart pounding in her ear, they call her uncle’s murderer in prison. Frank Roque had said he was going to go out and shoot some towel heads, and should kill their children too.

To wonder why, and make this call was an act of fierce will. Kaur’s every impulse said, I can’t, but she asks him, “Why did you agree to speak with us?” “I’m sorry,” he responds, “but I’m also sorry for all the people killed on 9/11.” Kaur becomes angry at the killer’s failure to really take responsibility for murdering her uncle.

But his brother Rana is still wondering about the man on the other end of the phone, still listening, and responds, “Frank, this is the first time I hear you saying you feel sorry.” Then Frank says, “Yes, I am sorry for what I did to your brother, one day when I go to heaven to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother, and I will hug him, and I will ask him for forgiveness,” and Rana replies, “We already forgave you.”

Kaur concludes, “Forgiveness is not forgetting, forgiveness is freedom from hate. When we are free from hate we see people who hurt us, not as monsters, but as people who themselves are wounded, who themselves feel threatened, who don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to hurt us, to pull the trigger, to cast the vote, to pass the policy aimed at us. But if some of us begin to wonder about them, listen to their stories, we learn that participation in oppression comes at a cost, it cuts them off from their own capacity to love.”

This is what I concluded listening to Kaur’s TED Talk alongside the parable of the Prodigal Son. I learned that we are all older brothers who judge others as prodigals. And we are all prodigals in need of forgiveness. Kaur and Roque’s self-righteousness locked them in a closed loop of anger and hate. Each wielded the righteous anger of the older brother against those they condemned as sinners.

And we are all called to respond as the father, to embrace the other, with what Kaur calls revolutionary love, a love that sees no stranger. Kaur invites us to train our eyes to see others as brothers and sisters, to wonder about the other, to listen for their stories.

As both prodigals and elder siblings, both wayward and trying to remain faithful, both in need of love and forgiveness and needing to love and forgive, let us again hear Tirabassi’s opening words and conclusion:

God, help us love
the ones who are walking away —
without imagining the worse,
anticipating a sweet, “I told you so,”
or curling up tight
around our own hurt feelings.

God, help us love these children
out the door,
love them while they are missing,
love them maybe home again,

That we may one day celebrate together, the dead come to life, the lost found, siblings all.

Amen.

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Love: It’s Not What You Think (or Feel, or Believe)

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on February 24, 2019.

Matthew 25:34-40, Luke 6:27-38

Achiri Nelson Geh, a young activist deeply involved in the independence movement in southern Cameroon, knew he had to flee: Police officers had killed his brother, and they were looking for him. Making his way by plane, boat, bus and foot to Mexico, he surrendered to United States authorities at the border in the hope of winning asylum.

But his new life wasn’t what he expected. He has spent the 21 months since then inside three federal immigration detention centers, imprisoned until he can collect $50,000 for a bond, while his asylum case winds through the appeals court.

Achiri’s story, included in a New York Times article that our member, Pricilla Hurly handed me two Sundays ago, was on my mind when I turned to this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ radical and challenging command to love our enemies.

Achiri is considered to be an enemy by authorities in his own country, clearly unloved there, his life threatened. Now, seeking asylum in the United States at a time when some see immigrants as enemies, it is fair to ask, what would it mean to love Achiri Nelson Geh?

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Jesus insisting that I love my enemies, I feel rotten about myself, because I know I don’t feel loving toward those who have hurt or betrayed me, those whom I judge as a threat to me and my family. A pastor though I may be, I am only human, and asking that a feel love toward these people when I feel only fear and anger? Well, Jesus, that’s simply asking too much.

But as I reread verses 27 to 31, I began to hear something else in Jesus’s words. Maybe he isn’t telling me what to feel, but pointing toward how I might act toward those whom I distrust and fear, toward those I might consider enemies.

What if we read Jesus’ admonition to love your enemies this way? Love your enemies, and this is how. Do good to them. Bless them. Pray for them. Give to them. Maybe Jesus isn’t talking at all about feeling love, but acting a certain way toward those who make us feel most angry and afraid. Still not an easy task, to be sure, but maybe more manageable than asking us to feel something we just don’t feel.

This week I heard a story on National Public Radio about how Martin Luther King responded to his anger. The reporter told a story about King when he was in high school. He had won an oratorical contest, and he and a beloved teacher were riding home on a bus. The white driver told them to give up their seats to white passengers and cursed at them. They stood in the aisle for the 90 miles back to Atlanta. Decades later, King said that was the angriest he had ever been in his life. King’s daughter, Bernice, would retell the story, saying that in that moment, her father came dangerously close to hating all white people, identifying all white people as his enemy.

In college and theological school, King learned about nonviolent responses to injustice. He realized these strategies offered a productive way to channel anger that would otherwise destroy both others and himself.

During the year long bus-boycott, someone threw dynamite at King’s house. He rushed home to find a crowd of supporters who were ready to riot. Instead, he calmly stood on his porch and spoke about following the teaching of Jesus to love your enemy.

It is hard to imagine that King was feeling love for his enemies in that moment, but he had learned that he could act out of love, even toward those who hated him.

For a time King had an advice column in Ebony magazine. Someone once asked him, “How can I overcome my bad temper, when I am angry I say things that hurt people.” King replied, “A destructive passion is harnessed by directing that same passion into constructive channels.”

In Jesus’ day, relationships were viewed as reciprocal. A person behaved generously towards another person in the expectation that in the future, the generosity would be returned. But Jesus challenges this notion.

‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.”

If Jesus’ followers relate to others based only on reciprocity, they simply reinforce existing divisions between so-called friends and enemies. Instead, Jesus implores them, and us, to:

“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Here again, Jesus does not emphasize feeling love, but the love we demonstrate to those for whom we feel anger. Do good, give without expectation, be kind and merciful.

In Matthew 25, Jesus takes this a step further, saying that when we respond to those who are often judged the enemy, the poor, immigrants, and prisoners, we are, in fact, responding to Jesus himself. Jesus calls these “the least of these who are members of my family.” When we give food, drink and clothing to the poor, we feed and clothe Jesus. When we welcome the immigrant, we welcome Jesus. And when we visit the prisoner, we visit Jesus.

Which brings us back to the prisoner, Achiri Nelson Geh. In that New York Times article titled: ‘A Light for Me in the Darkness,’ Aciri’s story continues:

One day this past summer, a lifeline arrived: Not the $50,000 bond, but a letter from Anne-Marie Debbane, a professor of geography at San Diego State University, near the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where he was housed for the first 20 months. “I am terribly sorry for what you are going through both in Cameroon and here,” she wrote

Mr. Geh, now 29, was elated to hear from someone, even someone he had never met. “Thank you for your letters,” he wrote. “It gives me courage.”

Here begins an old fashioned correspondence that bloomed into a friendship, part of an unusual epistolary campaign initiated by San Diego State professors and others in suburban San Diego. Over 200 volunteers now write letters, offering “commissary and moral support” to detainees.

When we judge someone to be an enemy, whether asylum seeking immigrants or a family member who betrayed us, we dehumanize them. They become caricatures comprised only of their worst traits and behaviors.

By exchanging letters with prisoners at Otay Mesa, volunteers developed understanding and empathy. In time, they would send Christmas cards, poems, and pictures and updates about their own families. They would also send small amounts of money to the detainee’s accounts so they could purchase extra food and drinks.

Through their correspondence, they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. And by doing so, they dissolved assumptions about those many consider enemies. By writing simple letters, the least of these came to be seen as family members.

Now to be fair, I don’t think these San Diego volunteers understood these immigrants as their enemies, nor was it necessarily their desire to follow Jesus that inspired them to write.

But this story got me wondering, what if we each took an opportunity to be pen pals with someone we are inclined to judge, not to change their mind, not to persuade them of something, but simply to share a bit about ourselves and invite them to do the same.

I am not suggesting that you do this with someone who has actually hurt or abused you, or someone who may still pose a threat to you.

But, for example, I have very strong feelings about racism. If there is anyone I might consider to be an enemy, it would be someone who is unapologetic about their belief that white people are superior to people of color. It is helpful for me to think about exchanging letters with such a person, not to change their mind, to simply share a bit about myself and invite them to do the same.  I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that we shared much in common, certainly universal human experiences of love and loss, and I might come to empathize with them around these experiences. I may or may not come to feel love toward them, but the simple act of welcoming the stranger through letter writing may dissolve some assumptions between us.

I’m not sure how practical such letter writing is, but it might be an interesting exercise to ponder this morning: Who do you fear? Who makes you angry? Who do you perceive as an enemy? Can you imagine yourself exchanging letters with one of these, who is, after all, a member of Christ’s family?

You might even write such a letter, not to send, but as a spiritual practice. What would you say? How did it feel to write? How would it feel to get such a letter back in response?

What do you think?

Catholic Sex Abuse Scandals: Who Knew?

This is one of the more sensitive things I have ever posted about. So, let me first say to my Catholic brothers and sisters that I have enormous respect for the Catholic faith. I have attended any number of deeply meaningful mass, loved and been inspired by priests, nuns, and Catholic lay people, taken classes in religion at a Catholic university, and consider Catholic Liberation Theology to be foundational to my faith. The continuing sex abuse scandals break my heart, most of all for the victims, but also for all Catholics whose faith is being rocked to its core.

It is with all this in heart and mind that I say this. It appears that sex abuse has been so pervasive in the Catholic Church, for so many years, around the world, that it seems likely that few if any priests, bishops, or popes were unaware of its prominence. This does not necessarily mean that every cleric knew of particular instances of abuse, though many must have, but just about every clergy person must have known that such abuse was prevalent.

I was an officer in the Navy for seven years, from 1984-1991. I don’t know if this is still the case, but at the time, it was part of the Navy culture that when a ship would pull into port, many of the sailors, officers and enlisted, would head to the bars and engage the services of prostitutes. Tales would be told with great bravado of the wild times had with these “bar girls.” Of course not everyone participated in these activities, and some would quietly express their disapproval. But EVERYONE in the Navy knew that this behavior was pervasive. It was part of the fabric of Navy life, and went largely unchallenged.

I knew of the Navy culture that demeaned women through unbridled prostitution. I was present for some of it, attending shipboard parties in such bars. Though I never joined in the gleeful celebration of this behavior, I also never protested.

I am not saying that abusive priests would brag like a sailor about their predatory behavior. But I can only imagine that most priests knew that such behavior was part of the fabric of Catholicism. Many no doubt quietly disapproved, but did not actively challenge it.

Certainly, those who sexually abused anyone should be prosecuted to the full extent of civil and church law. And those who used their power to actively cover up such crimes should also be held accountable. And efforts at reform must acknowledge and confront that this is about so much more than some (a lot of) sinful priests, but that systemic and cultural issues underlie it all. I am hearing such acknowledgment in recent critiques of Catholic patriarchy and clericalism.

But, if I am correct in my assessment, there must also be a reckoning with the fact that many priests knew, dare I say, all priests knew, and few if any challenged the behavior or the institution. The silence of the presumed “innocent” perpetuated the sins of the guilty.

Any sincere effort at repentance and reform leading to forgiveness and healing must include this confession.

Of course I welcome any discussions of or challenges to this perspective.

 

Forgiveness: A Work in Progress

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 17, 2017.

Matthew 18:21-35

Those of you who get our mid-week email know that I have had a difficult time finding my way into this sermon on forgiveness. My placeholder for a sermon title is “A Work in Progress,” which meant that when it was time to send out the email and print the bulletin this sermon was only a work in progress; it still is. But it also means that I am a work in progress when it comes to forgiveness, as are each of you.

There are three contexts in which we desire forgiveness.

Some struggle mightily to forgive someone who has hurt or betrayed them.

Others acknowledge the hurt they have caused another, and seek forgiveness from that person.

And still others work to forgive themselves for a wrong they have perpetrated.

Like many, I have experienced all three of these scenarios at one time or another.

Reflecting upon forgiveness in each of these contexts can be extraordinarily painful. I know a number of your struggles to forgive or be forgiven, and I don’t doubt that we could each share painful stories of forgiveness denied. Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis acknowledges that the topic of forgiveness “sets in motion — deeply, tragically, painfully — memories of those people I was reluctant to forgive. It sets in motion thoughts of those waiting for my forgiveness. It sets in motion reminders of those whom I don’t think I can ever forgive.”

I think the pain we experience around forgiveness leads to a common understanding that forgiveness promises relief of our pain. In this sense forgiveness is transactional. In return for forgiveness, I will feel better. Good feelings between myself and another will be restored.

And, in addition to being painful, according to theologian David Lose, forgiveness is just plain difficult.

“I don’t mean,” he writes, “the occasional moment of warm-hearted forgiveness, overlooking someone’s minor slight when you feel magnanimous; nor do I mean the spontaneous forgiveness you feel when someone is genuinely contrite over some accidental – and again preferably minor – fault. What I mean are those things that are really hurtful; those times when the person seems disinclined to take responsibility, let alone apologize; those episodes that continue to wound each time you remember them; those words or deeds that have marked you deeply and painfully and feel like they’ll never go away. Those are things that are so incredibly hard to forgive.”

At a loss as to where to begin, I googled things like “Top 10 Ways to Forgive.” But after pouring over various self-help lists, I had still not found anything especially helpful. Desperate, I turned to the Bible.

Let’s begin by looking at the Greek word aphiemi in the Matthew passage, translated here as forgiveness. Its primary meanings are to send away, release, leave behind, and let go. Matthew uses this same word quite literally when he writes that Peter and Andrew aphiemi, or left their nets to follow Jesus.

Isn’t that interesting, this suggests that forgiveness isn’t about the restoration of good feelings toward someone, but has more to do with releasing and letting go. This might mean releasing attachment to a wrong committed by or against us, and could even require letting go of and leaving behind a person.

Forgiveness is more than a feeling.

The Matthew passage begins with this short exchange between Peter and Jesus. Peter asks Jesus if it is enough to forgive someone who sins against him seven times, and Jesus responds not seven but seventy-seven times. To the casual reader, this might sound like Jesus is setting an impossibly high standard for forgiveness; “OMG Jesus, it’s hard enough to forgive once, and you are asking us to forgive how many times?” But this exchange actually references a passage in Genesis. God promises a “sevenfold vengeance” against anyone who kills Cain; remember Adam and Eve’s son? Sometime later, Cain’s descendent Lamech promises mortal vengeance against a young man who injured him, not sevenfold as God promised, but seventy-seven fold.

Isn’t that interesting? This suggests that anger and hatred multiply over generations.

So, rather than setting an impossibly high bar for forgiveness, Jesus is using a reference from the Torah to demonstrate the power of forgiveness to restore cosmic balance. He is demonstrating a correction to thousands of years of self-centered retribution in order to break the cycle of violence that grips humanity. Jesus is inviting Peter (and us) “to undo the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in cycles of envy, hatred, and retribution across the generations to this day.”

Again, the goal of forgiveness is not to hurt less. There is not a quid pro quo, do this and feel better.

Then Jesus tells a parable about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. The king’s servants would travel the kingdom collecting taxes. They were permitted to squeeze some extra money from the peasants for themselves as long as the king gets his cut. It appears that the tax collector in this story had failed to pass along the required percentage he collected, and now owes the kind the enormous sum of 10,000 talents. It would take a laborer about 15 years to earn one talent, so 10,000 talents would take 150,000 years to pay back, obviously impossible.

The servant throws himself upon the king’s mercy, and the king forgives all of this impossibly large debt.

Having just been the recipient of this extraordinary act of forgiveness, the servant is approached by another servant who owes the first servant 100 denarii. Now a denarii is a day’s wage, so this servant owed the other the equivalent of 100 days of labor, a lot, but attainable. But the servant who had just been forgiven by the king refuses to forgive the other’s debt and throws this one into prison.

In this story we might look to the king as our model, that like the king we should seek to be infinitely forgiving.

But the king in the parable represents God. Thankfully, we are not expected to fill the role of God in any of the parables that Jesus tells. God is God so we don’t have to be. And God has already forgiven us everything. That is the message of this parable. Forgiveness isn’t something we need to do, not once, not seven times, not seventy-seven times, because God has already forgiven everything, once and for all.

God’s act of forgiveness is already a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present in our lives and in our relationships. Forgiveness is s a constant. It’s not optional. It’s not a choice. We act like it is — and that’s at the heart of Peter’s question. What do I have to do?

Our goal instead is to not be the unforgiving servant.

We cannot expect to be an infinitely forgiving God, but we can strive not to be like the servant who doesn’t acknowledge the king’s forgiveness and, when asked to himself forgive a reasonable debt, instead seeks vengeance.

By recognizing that the heavy lifting of forgiveness has already been accomplished by God, releasing our hold on some wrong perpetrated by or against us might just be attainable, not easy, but attainable.

This might mean taking responsibility for our own pain rather than affixing responsibility for our feelings upon another’s forgiveness. And when we do this we might find we are able to empathize with the pain of those who continue to judge us. Both these, responsibility and empathy, can help us remove ourselves from the unhelpful, outcome-driven forgiveness equation.

As is true for so much of life in the realm of God, there is a certain paradox in this approach to forgiveness. By not making the restoration of our own happiness the goal of forgiveness, but instead working to let go of our desire for others to feel or act in a certain way toward us, we will likely feel better.

Rather than urging you to just forgive, or forgive more, I think I will follow David Lose’ invitation to simply announce the king’s forgiveness, the unbelievable, nearly inconceivable, amazing and unpredictable and possibility-creating forgiveness of God which each of us has been granted, and invite you to recognize, acknowledge and let go into that gift, remembering that we are all a work in progress.

 

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