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?

The Truth in Love

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on February 3, 2019.

Jeremiah 1:4-10, 1 Corinthians 13:1-8

Upon first reading them, there couldn’t be two more different Bible passages, and it’s interesting that they appear together in this morning’s recommended readings.

In the first, God appoints Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations. When the people of Israel stray from God’s law, God sends prophets to condemn the wrongs being committed, and speak the truth as a critique and correction. Speaking the truth is hard and even dangerous, which is why Jeremiah feels anxious and inadequate, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

Then, in the other passage, we hear some of the most beloved words in the entire Bible, beautiful words about Love.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Think about that, Love does not insist on its own way.

Taken together, this morning’s readings speak of truth and love. In fact, in another of his letters, this one to the church in Ephesus, Paul brings these two together. By “speaking the truth in love,” he writes, “we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

Speak the truth in love. This verse is often quoted to mean, tell the truth even when it is difficult or hurtful, but say it nicely. I am a little wary of this command to speak the truth in love. It sounds good in theory, but often seems to go awry in practice, becoming little more than a passive aggressive way to make a criticism.

As too often practiced, we begin, ever so nicely, with, I love you, but… then share what we are convinced is the truth about the other. I love you, but… you are kind of a slob. I love you, but… you always take the easy way out. I love you, but… You are a cheapskate. I love you, but…I love you, but…

On the receiving end, we don’t feel the love, but only the criticism.

Can we be both lovers and truth tellers?

As a preacher, I identify with Jeremiah and the apprehension he feels at being asked by God to tell difficult truths to God’s people in Israel. There are times when I have felt compelled to speak a difficult truth to you, sending some in the church away feeling judged and unloved.

And as a pastor, I seek to embody that unconditional love Paul describes, to be patient and kind, and not insist on my own way. Though I worry that there are times that love with no critique and correction can enable bad behavior.

As preacher and pastor I find it very challenging to speak the truth in love.

But these issues are not unique to being a preacher and pastor. We all confront this challenge, with spouses, children, parents and friends.

When and how do we speak what we believe to be true while still loving each other? Maybe it isn’t just about being nice to the other, but maybe it is about changing ourselves.

Public theologian Christena Cleveland writes:

In 2019, I want to practice justice with a deeper wisdom and sustainability…Very few injustices escape my attention – and I’m not shy about speaking out…but sometimes my words have the impact of a clanging cymbal (note the First Corinthians reference) – they are neither loving nor effective. In 2019, I hope to practice a wiser justice by carefully choosing when I speak up and when I stay silent. I want to intentionally practice what one of my beloved spiritual teachers has taught me. Before I speak out about an injustice, I want to ask myself these 3 questions.

See if Cleveland’s three questions don’t suggest a way for us to tell the truth in love.

IS IT TRUE? There is more to this question than just being factually correct.

We sometimes think the simple fact that we are right justifies saying that thing. But we might cultivate a bit of humility; just because we believe something to be true, does not mean we hold the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Let me use an example as a hockey dad to my daughter Abby who has been playing ice hockey for almost twelve years. Abby has always been one of the best players on the ice while I, on the other hand, have never played ice hockey. Oddly, this has never stopped me from critiquing Abby after a game.

For years, I would tell Abby, ever so nicely, that she should chase the puck more aggressively like some of her teammates. I was so clear that I was right in this critique, until I was told by her coach how well Abby holds her position on the ice instead of just chasing the puck around.

Even when we are absolutely convinced about the rightness of our cause, we should take time to consider the possibility that we are not entirely correct.

Cleveland also asks, when assessing the truth we hold, does that perspective we want to share take into account and affirm the entire truth of the other person’s humanity, not just the particular critique we hope to communicate?

When I offer Abby a critique of her hockey, am I affirming the truth of her whole complex and wonderful being, or am I reducing her to one lost battle for the puck?

Cleveland asks that we open our understanding of truth to include the whole person before us.

The second question Cleveland asks is:

DOES IT NEED TO BE SAID BY ME? Am I afraid that if I don’t say this thing, it won’t get said? Am I afraid that the Divine will not be able to reach them if I don’t intervene? Am I “playing God”?

Think about that. Sometimes we convince ourselves that if we don’t share this important observation, this person will never hear it and correct their behavior.

As a parent, I have a habit of offering the same “wisdom -” note the word wisdom is sometimes merely a passive-aggressive word for criticism – I offer the same criticism over and over again, ever so nicely, or course. Do I really believe that if I don’t tell Abby for the umpteenth time that she should not pass the puck away so quickly, that she will never hear this essential bit of information? Does she not already know this? And perhaps most importantly, is she already hearing this from her coach? As years have passed, I recognize that Abby listens to her coach much better than she listens to me. In fact, she does not need to hear that she should hold onto the puck from me at all. The more I can let go, and let the coach be the coach, the better.

Might we let go, and trust God to be God.

And the last question Cleveland asks is:

DOES IT NEED TO BE SAID BY ME RIGHT NOW? Sometimes, issues need to be addressed immediately. But often my sense of urgency is fueled by self-righteousness or my need to rid myself of my own discomfort. It’s helpful for me to remember that I can usually circle back to the issue when I am able to engage the issue and person from a place of spaciousness, hope and love. (another First Corinthians reference).

I have learned this as a hockey dad. Right after the game, when I am consumed with the need to tell Abby that she turned the puck over several times, is in fact the worst possible time to offer any critique no matter how true it might be. Even if I am absolutely correct in my observation, right after a game Abby is completely unable to hear this from me. Instead of blurting out this thing that is burning within me, ever so nicely, of course, it is so much better if I wait. She will often bring up hockey in the days that follow a game, sometimes naming the very thing I was so sure I needed to say to her. Indeed, it was simply my own self-righteousness or discomfort that was driving me, not a desire to make her a better hockey player, or more importantly a better person.

Cleveland concludes: When I ask these questions, I often find myself keeping my mouth closed and leaning into a trust that God will guide the person in God’s time. And when I do feel led to speak up, my words and approach are so much more effective because I am not running on fear.

So maybe speaking the truth in love is less about criticizing someone in a pleasant tone of voice, and is more about challenging ourselves to ask, Is it true? Does it need to be said by me? And, Does it need to be said by me right now?

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way.

Amen.

 

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