Dear Gulf Coast Leaders,
March 14, 2010 – Lent 4C
Joshua 5:9-12 — After the Israelites cross the Jordan, the disgrace of Egypt is over, the manna stops and the people eat the bounty of the land.
Psalm 32 — I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 – We once saw Christ from a human standpoint, but no longer. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. God reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. So we are ambassadors for Christ. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Lost Sheep/Lost Sons
Suggestion: Prodigal God by Timothy Keller as a Lenten theme, sermon prep, or small group study.
Hymn: Our Father, We Have Wandered. ELW 606
· 4/16-18: SYNOD ASSEMBLY 2010. New Orleans!
· 6/27-7/21: DISCIPLE PROJECT at TLU! This year there will be two tracks for adults: Preaching as God-Speech and Children’s and Family Ministry. Pastors and lay rostered leaders: Come with youth and young adults of their congregation. Private rooms. Preaching track by Paul Wilson, author of The Four Pages of the Sermon. $325 inclusive if by Monday, April 19. Questions to email@example.com.
New Synod Office Address:
12941 I-45 North Freeway, Suite #210
Houston, TX 77060-1243
The phone number and email are the same.
The Prodigal Son, as most of us know it, is one of the most beloved stories in the Bible. Most readers and preachers interpret it as a parable about forgiveness. But what if there’s more? Most people are considering only Act 1 of a two-act play. There is not one lost son here. There are two. What if the story is ultimately about the self-righteous moral disease of the older brother?
Astute reader and Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church, The Woodlands member Jim Young recommended to me the book (pictured and linked left) The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller. BUY IT. Read it. Lead a study group on it. The publisher (Dutton) also offers a discussion guide (pictured and linked right), so this book could make an excellent small group study in Lent, or early Fall when the story surfaces in the lectionary.
There are a thousand sermons in this text. More even. My devotion this week consists of my reflections on this story, and on Keller’s insights into this profound parable.
Jesus is encountering and addressing two groups of people: tax collectors and sinners on the one hand, and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law on the other hand (Luke 15:1-2). The first group, outside the law, is represented in the story by the younger son, who squandered his father’s estate on dissolute living. The second group, who prayed daily and strictly kept Torah, is represented by the older son, who was obedient to a fault. Throughout his gospel, Luke shows us how each of these groups responds to Jesus. Jesus had tremendous popularity with the first group. His message attracted them. This bothered the latter group. Note their outrage: “This man welcomes sinners and even eats with them!"
A question, perhaps hypothetical: To which of these two groups do you think this parable is directed?
Consider the story form a family systems standpoint. In your family of origin, what role does the oldest child take on? The youngest? How prosaic is it? The older child is so often the parent-pleaser, responsible for everything, in charge when the parents are gone. That was me. I remember my dad saying to me, “Whatever happens while we’re gone, we hold you responsible.” Responsible. Ug. I still feel heavy when I think about it.
The younger child, however, is often the rebel: The last to receive privileges. The last asked to take responsibility. And sometimes the most neglected. My mother had me for six years before that other kid was born. And by the time my youngest was born I was over seven years old. By then she had a mob to care for. All three of us had a different experience of growing up in that house.
It incenses the oldest when the youngest gets away with murder. It incenses the youngest to see the position and privilege of the oldest. Jesus is tapping into an age-old phenomenon written into the DNA of family systems, and showing us how they play themselves out in the social, political, religious realm of adulthood.
By the way, which are you?
In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (Luke 7), or a religious person and a racial outcast (John 3-4), a religious person and a political outcast (Luke 19), it is the outcast who connects with Jesus. Jesus connects with outcasts. Jesus consistently attracts the irreligious, while offending the Bible- believing, moralistic, elder brother types. Matthew 21:31 – “Tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom before you.”
What bothers Keller (and me) is that American revival religion and its churches tend to attract moralistic, conservative, buttoned up people. The broken and marginalized tend to avoid church. Why is that? Keller: "If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we think.” Could it be that church, the way we’ve constituted it, attracts older brothers and repels the younger brothers of this world? What bothers me is the possibility that our ministries look less like Jesus’ ministry and more like the Pharisees’.
A Two-Act Play
Act 1, Scene 1: When a Father died, his sons would inherit the estate. The eldest son inherits twice as much as the younger sons. So, if one has two sons, the oldest gets twice what the youngest would get, or 2/3 of the estate. Act 1 of our story opens with what would be a shocking request in any culture, in any era: The youngest son wants his inheritance right now. It is as if he is saying, “I can’t wait for you to die. I don’t want you; I want your stuff. I want what you can give me. ‘Give me what is mine,’ he says disrespectfully. Now. Too often we approach God this way. We don’t really want God. We don’t want God rummaging around in our lives. What we want is what God can give us.
The father’s response is equally astonishing. He gives his son the estate. No Middle Eastern father would tolerate such insolence. In Roman society, a father could legally put his son to death for such an offense. But, just like that, the text says, “He divided his property between them.”
“Property” in this version. “Assets” in another. The Greek word is actually “bios” which means “life.” He divided his “life” between them. His livelihood. This is a parable, a story, but if this actually were ever to happen, in order to accomplish this, the father would have to sell off land and cattle. His wealth would have been tied up mostly in land. Such is the love of the father. To lose your land is to sell off part of your life. Imagine selling the family farm, only to have your child blow it on gambling and prostitutes. This son is asking his father to tear apart his life. And the father does.
Act 1, Scene 2: The son goes to a distant country and squanders his father’s living on reckless living. Broke and hungry he is about to eat pig slop when it says, “He came to himself.” It is a marvelous turn of phrase. Who of us has not had this experience at one time or another, that of “coming to ourselves,” or “coming to our senses?” “Even my father’s hirees make more than I’m making now. I’ll go apologize.”
Rabbis taught that after such a huge infraction, an apology was not enough. It’s just to easy to say, “Sorry,” and move on. One had to make restitution. In order to be restored to the family, the son would have to work hard and pay back every penny he had squandered. The son rehearses his speech in while still in the pig pen.
Act 1, Scene 3: The son nears the house. Before he can get close, the father sees him from a distance. It is almost as if he has been waiting on the porch, a wreck since the day his son left, constantly looking at the horizon in hope. The father runs to him. He runs! Middle Eastern patriarchs didn’t ever run. Children run. Young men run, but not the paterfamilias. This father lifts his robes, bares his aging legs and bolts off the front porch, running like a child, falling upon his lost son and smothering him with kisses. We have to thank God for Jesus’ profound storytelling abilities. And Luke for putting it all to pen. Without Luke’s gospel, we would not know this story.
“Quick!” says the father, "Fetch my best robe!" What?! The Father is going to cover the son’s filthy, nakedness, poverty, dishonor and rags with the robe of his own fatherly office and honor? This sends a ripple throughout the family. It conveys complete restoration to the family, before repentance and restitution has been made. This is just wrong. It’s not supposed to work this way.
Then: “Kill the fatted calf!” What?! Most meals didn’t include meat. It was far too expensive. Meat was for special occasions, and the fatted calf was the most expensive meat of all. It was saved for the most rare of occasions like wedding feasts. This was turning out to be a special occasions.
The message is clear: the love of the father transcends any sin or wrongdoing that could ever occur. Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. Act one closes as the feast begins.
Act 2 opens with the older brother hearing what has happened. The younger son is home and reinstated. A party is in progress. It is now his turn to disgrace the father. He refuses to go ino the party, forcing the father to come out. The older son is publically, visibly showing a no confidence vote for his father’s decision. The father comes out and pleads with his oldest son to come in.
Why is the older son so mad? Expense. “You’ve never given me even a goat, and you give him a calf?” Inheritance. “What does this mean for me, for us, for the family? Do I have to share my inheritance? Will there be less for me? How could you let this happen?”
As if in response to these questions, the father says, “All that I have is yours.” He models non-anxious, self-defined leadership: I’m clearly not going to disown my son, but neither will I disown you. So, swallow your pride and come on into the party.
Will the family be reunited in love? Will the brothers reconcile? Will the older brother soften up and get it? We never find out, because the story just ends.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
At the end of Act 2, Jesus does the unthinkable, he leaves the elder brother in his alienated state. This has got to be unbearable for his hearers. The lover of prostitutes is saved, enjoying the banquet/party scene. The lover of moral uprightness is lost. Outside the party. We can almost hear the Pharisee gasp as the story ends. It goes against everything he believes and has taught about the law.
Both sons resent the father’s authority. They just express it differently. One of Paul’s messages is also a central message of the Reformation: Obsessive obedience can be a way to rebel against God. We can use our obedience as a way to demand God give us what we want – a way to insure our own righteousness. We can use it to earn God’s love and attention. When we begin to depend on our own righteousness, we push God away.
Society defines sin as breaking the rules – committing a no-no. Jesus shows us that one can keep all the laws, and still be as spiritually lost. Sin is not committing a moral no-no, but a broken, separated relationship with God. In fact, keepers of the law are further from the kingdom of God in the gospels, than the sinners and tax collectors.
Luke 15 has three parables: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Lost Sons.
Keller: “Elder brother self-righteousness… creates an unforgiving judgmental spirit.” Elder brother anger separates us from God. Elder brother anger toward God is hidden deeply under layers of self-control and moralism. One begins to feel morally superior to everyone.
The older brother’s anger slips out, "All these years I’ve been SLAVING away for you!" He is compliant with the Father, but it is a slavish, joyless drudgery. Moralism does nothing to root out the fundamental cause of evil in the world: The radical self-centeredness of the human heart. Moralism leaves the heart’s fundamental self-centeredness intact.
At the very bottom of it all, the elder brother doesn’t feel loved by the father. He is angry with the father. There is no dancing or festiveness with the elder brother’s relationship with the father.
The younger brother knows he is alienated from the father. The problem is, the elder brother does not know he is alienated. Elder brothers don’t see anything wrong with their condition, and this blindness can be fatal. Jesus refers to the Pharisees as “blind guides.”
Why has worship attendance been declining in America? Consider a teenager brought up in a conservative family and church. He goes off to college and bumps into people he has been warned about: people with liberal views of sex, morality and politics. Despite what he has been told and led to believe, he finds these people kind, reasonable and open-hearted. He returns the next summer and tells his stories. He brings his friends home. He finds the folks back home react in hostile and bigoted ways. So, in time he rejects his former views along with his faith. He has discovered his faith to be wanting.
Younger brothers find church unsafe. They think elder brotherism and Christianity are the same thing. They return only when the church learns to distinguish faith from religious moralism. Elder brothers have an undercurrent of anger towards life’s circumstances, hold grudges long and bitterly, look down a people of other races, religions and lifestyles, experience life as a joyless, crushing drudgery, have little intimacy and joy in their prayer lives, have a deep insecurity that makes them overly insensitive to criticism and rejection, yet makes them fierce and merciless and in condemning others. In this Act II of this parable, often ignored, Jesus deconstructs the religiosity that is one of the main problems of the world, a condescending, condemning, anxious, insecure, joyless, angry attitude.
The elder brother’s problem is his self-righteousness, the way he uses his moral record to put God and others in his debt to control them and get them to do what he wants. (Morality as a club. Radical
Insecurity. Basing self-image on achievements.) To truly repent we must confess the Sin under our sins, and under our righteousness as well. We must confess what we are blind to: the hubris behind our good works.
In the first parable of Luke 15, a sheep gets lost. The shepherd searches until he finds the lost sheep. When he has found it he calls everyone around and says, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep." In the second parable of Luke 15, a woman loses a coin. She lights a lamp, sweeps the whole house and searches diligently for it. When she finds it she says, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin."
In these stories, Luke set us up. When we get to the next parable, we know what to expect: Losing, searching, finding, rejoicing. Right?
So who should do the searching? Who in this story do you think should be the one to go looking for the younger brother? Who’s job is it? Who is the younger brother’s keeper?
There is another story in the Bible about two brothers, one younger and one older. Every single one of Jesus’ listeners would have known this story backwards and forwards. Remember Cain and Abel? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, yes, as a matter of fact. You should have been.
No one goes out to look for this kid. Jesus meant it to be so. The elder brother should have gone searching, at his own expense. In fact, he’s the only one who could have, because the father had divided his estate (his life) between them. Everything is the older brother’s now, the ring, the robe, the fatted calf. Act 1 showed us how free the father’s love and forgiveness was. Act 2 showed how costly it is.
The younger son doesn’t get a brother who searches for him. But we do. We have a loving Father, and his Son, our Brother, who leaves the Father’s abode and comes searching for us. He comes not from some distant country, but from heaven to earth to tell us of the Father’s love.
VI. Redefining Hope
If we read this parable in light of Scripture’s whole sweeping narrative of exile and homecoming, we realize he has retold the story of the whole human race and the promised hope of the world.
The younger brother goes to a distant country. He yearns for home. Don’t we all? Home represents so much. It is a symbol of comfort and acceptance. It is a full stomach. It is the place where we are fully and completely loved – where everything is alright.
But home is illusive. We can’t ever really get there in this life. And if you go back home today, you’ll find it’s not what you thought it was. C. S. Lewis points out that our lifelong nostalgia, our longing for something in the universe from which we’ve been cut off… is no neurotic fantasy. It is the truest index of our real situation. Our homesickness is a fundamental, deep yearning for God. It is our exile from Eden, the tree of life. All the major stories of the Bible have exile as a major theme.
In Jesus we experience a glimpse of “home.” He himself experiences exile among his own people in Jerusalem, always stoning the prophets. The crucifixion is his exile. The resurrection is the age-old biblical story of the ultimate homecoming. The fatted calf is killed. The banquet feast is celebrated in the new Jerusalem, where a tree of life stands, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
When we eat the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we get a foretaste of the fulfillment of that deep longing that nothing else can satisfy. We taste homecoming. The Father’s party. All are invited. Some will choose to remain outside. Or will they?
שלומ سلام Peace,
Michael Rinehart, bishop
The Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
12707 I-45 North Frwy, Suite 580
Houston, TX 77060-1239
Lent – Year C
Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. – Joel 2
February 17 – Ash Wednesday: Dust. Ashes. Mortality. Repentance. Fasting. Don’t show off your piety.
February 21 – Lent 1C: First fruits for the Levite and alien. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
February 28 – Lent 2C: Abram’s call. Faith reckoned as righteousness. Jesus laments for Jerusalem.
March 7 – Lent 3C: Repent, for there is only so much time left for the fig tree to bear fruit.
March 14 – Lent 4C: Lost sheep. Lost sons.
March 21 – Lent 5C: I am about to do a new thing… Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.
March 28 – Palm/Passion Sunday: Jesus entry into Jerusalem as an anti-triumph.
The Prodigal God – A Lenten Series Suggestion
The story of the Prodigal Son comes up this year. It only appears in a Lukan year, and it only appears Lent 4C (March 14, 2010). Most readers and preachers assume this story is about forgiveness. Timothy Keller, in his book The Prodigal God, says the story is ultimately about the self-righteous moral disease of the older brother. At the very least, this easy read will enhance your preaching, reminding you of the cultural context most of us know, but sometimes forget. However, the publisher (Dutton) also offers a study guide, so this book could make an excellent small group study in Lent (or early Fall) when the story surfaces in the lectionary.
March 21, 2010 –Lent 5C
Isaiah 43:16-21 – Rivers in the desert: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Psalm 126 – When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. 4Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Psalm 119:9-16 – How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
Philippians 3:4b-14 – I more than any have reason to be confident in the flesh (my own works-righteousness) but I regard them all as rubbish in order to gain Christ, and know him as Lord, a righteousness based on faith, not works. And so I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
John 12:1-8 – Mary anoints Jesus feet with costly nard and wipes them with her hair. Judas objects. And the much maligned: You always have the poor with you, but not me.
March 28, 2010 – Passion/Palm Sunday
Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Luke 19:28-40 – Processional Gospel with Palms. The Triumpal Entry into Jerusalem. An anti-triumph, in contrast to the Roman triumphal marches after a conquering victory.
Isaiah 50:4-9a – Game face: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting… therefore I have set my face like flint…
Psalm 31:9-16 – In you, O Lord, I take refuge. Let me never be put to shame. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
Philippians 2:5-11 – Christ hymn: Have this mind, that was in Christ, who didn’t count on his equality with God, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and becoming obedient, even to death on a cross.
Luke 22:14 – 23:56 or Luke 23:1-49 – Passover dinner and arrest. Shortened version begins with Jesus before Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Longer version includes the burial by Joseph of Arimathea
The Three Days
April 1, 2010 – MAUNDY THURSDAY
Holy God, source of all love, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another as he loves us. Write this commandment in our hearts, and give us the will to serve others as he was the servant of all, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 – Passover. Yahweh to Moses and Aaron: This month shall be the beginning of months for you. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 – What shall I give the Lord for his benefit to me? I will lift the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 – Paul’s Eucharistic theology: I passed on to you what I received: The words of institution.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35 – Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. A new commandment I give you: Love one another.
April 2, 2010 – GOOD FRIDAY
Merciful God, your Son was lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself. Grant that we who have been born out of his wounded side may at all times find mercy in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 – Suffering servant: Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
Psalm 22 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
Hebrews 10:16-25 – Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins. By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. This is the covenant: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds. I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.
or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 – For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
John 18:1 – 19:42 – Jesus’ arrest, trail and crucifixion, all the way to his burial by Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus.
April 1, 2010 – EASTER VIGIL
Eternal giver of life and light, this holy night shines with the radiance of the risen Christ. Renew your church with the Spirit given us in baptism, that we may worship you in sincerity and truth and may shine as a light in the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Hebrew Bible Readings:
Romans 6:3-11 – We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
John 20:1-18 – Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to Mary Magdalene
April 4, 2010 – RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD
God of mercy, we no longer look for Jesus among the dead, for he is alive and has become the Lord of life. Increase in our minds and hearts the risen life we share with Christ, and help us to grow as your people toward the fullness of eternal life with you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon: We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…
or Isaiah 65:17-25 – I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 – God’s steadfast love endures forever.
I Corinthians 15:19-26 – Paul’s discourse on the resurrection. Death as the final enemy.
or Acts 10:34-43 – Peter’s sermon: We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…
John 20:1-18 – Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to Mary Magdalene
or Luke 24:1-12 – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women with them find the stone rolled away, encounter an angel, and run to tell the apostles.
April 11, 2010 – Easter 2C
Acts 5:27-32 – Peter to the high priest: The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’
or Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8 – The opening of John’s apocalypse: Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
John 20:19-31 – Doubting Thomas. Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Hymn: It would seem, given the second lesson, that we must sing Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.
April 18, 2010 – Easter 3C
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
John 21:1-19 – Breakfast with Jesus. Jesus forgives Peter. ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
Note: This weekend is Synod Assembly in New Orleans. Good day for a Lay Sunday. Some resources will be available.
Prayers: Synod Assembly