Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

Welcome to Bethel on this Father’s Day. Before we come to consider the Parable of the Two Lost Sons [Luke 15] that was read for us this morning, I’d like to share a journey with you. Last month, I had the great privilege of going on a two-and-a-half-week bus-tour of Turkey. This was something that my Mom had planned to do with my Dad, but after Dad’s sudden passing last fall, my Mom kindly asked me to come with her. Oh, and it just happened to coincide with the gift of some extra vacation from my employer…. Let me share some of the highlights…

Our tour started at the far end of the Orient Express: the ancient city of Constantinople, or modern Istanbul. From there, we were able to visit all manner of places mentioned in the Bible: we went to Iconium (modern Konya), Attalia (modern Antalya), Perga - places that Paul visited, and from there to Ephesus, Smyrna (modern Izmir) and Pergamum - three of the seven cities who received a special message in the book of Revelation. In those messages, we read again and again: "Listen to what the Spirit says to the churches." We don’t have time to read those messages this morning, but if you did, and took the time to study them, and if you wanted to summarize that message in one word, the word that you would choose would be "repent". Last week we were reminded that repentance is the message for the lost, but we often forget that repentance is a message for the church as well - an important habit of mind and heart for our spiritual health. And as I hope we'll discover later, this morning’s parable has something to teach us about repentance.

Here are a few more Biblical locations in the area - and a wee bit of history: all these places supported significant Christian populations until quite recently. In his wonderful book “The Lost History of Christianity” Philip Jenkins details the rise and fall of Christianity in the East. Did you know, for example, that in the late Middle Ages – the thirteenth century – more than one third of the world’s Christian population lived in Africa and Asia? What’s more, by studying these churches, Jenkins examines what it takes for a church to go the distance – what keeps a church healthy and alive – even when the going gets rough. In one sentence, he sums it up: “Too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much [adaptation means] assimilation.”

We have been given the Good News of the grace of God available in His Son Jesus Christ. But this is not just a message to keep to ourselves; it is a message to share with the world. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem to want to listen sometimes. So throughout history, the church has adapted the message so that the world will be able to understand it better – not to change the content of the message but to change its form. But we must be careful: some folks are worried about too much adaptation – that the message will be diluted to the point that it loses its power. These folk we can call conservative. And their worry is a legitimate one. But there are others who worry about too little adaptation – meaning that we end up speaking our own special language, incomprehensible to the rest of the world. You see, there needs to be a relationship between the conservative and the progressive elements in the church. Both are necessary for a healthy church.

In fact, we can well interpret our parable this morning to be addressing both of these elements in the church – the younger son represents a challenge to the traditional order while the older son is the law-and-order sort. And as we shall see, God’s plan is for these naturally-conflicting tendencies to come together in celebration with Him.

There is a famous quote that is sometimes put as follows: “Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brain.” While this is, of course, too much of a stereotype, it does represent what it sometimes called the “generation gap”. And this morning, on Father's Day, the meeting between the young and the old, between the conservative and the progressive, is God’s desire for us this morning. As the Bible says, God wants the hearts of the fathers to turn to their children, and the hearts of the children to turn to their fathers.

Now the reason that I asked you to join me on my journey is not just to get as far as Turkey, and not just to go back in time to the churches of Ephesus and Smyrna, but to go back even a little bit further, and to travel a even a little farther until we arrive in the land of Judea in the first century. You see, two thousand years, thousands of miles and a switch of languages separate Bethel Chapel in Pointe-Claire from the context in which Jesus first spoke the parable that we will look at this morning. Now it is true that some, perhaps even most of the story has made it this far, but some of it has been “lost in translation.” And to recover that lost part of the story, it helps to become a bit more familiar with the time and the language and the culture in which Jesus lived.

Of course, the closest that we can get to Jesus’ culture today is the culture of the Middle East. But unless we go for a visit the only exposure we get to that culture is through the news. We hear tidbits of strange practices from that corner of the world. For example, I expect that you’ve heard of this business of “honor killing” after a teenage girl was killed by her father in Toronto a year and a half ago. Well, in and around the Middle East, this practice claims the lives of perhaps thousands of girls a year. And it isn’t necessary to actually be guilty of anything, either. Just the perception of dishonor is sufficient.

But why am I telling you this? Simply that the importance of family honor, specifically the honor and reputation of the family patriarch helps us appreciate the parable of the two lost sons. When the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance and a division of the estate, this was a slap in the face to his father, and a shared insult to the entire community. You see, dividing an estate was unthinkable while one’s father was alive. A request to do such a thing would be treated by the community as if the younger son had publicly shouted at his father “I wish you were dead!” You know, they had a law against such things: Leviticus 20:9 in the Jewish Study Bible reads “If anyone insults his father or mother, he shall be put to death.” The word translated “insult” here, can also mean “brings dishonor”.

Jesus' hearers would have felt the father’s dishonor, just as his neighbors would. The Pharisees listening to Jesus might have been looking around for stones to pick up and execute the judgment of the law. First they would be furious by his son’s impudent request, and then… then they would be scandalized – by the fact that the father in the story simply does exactly what his son requests. The estate is divided, one portion is sold, and the proceeds are given to the younger son. Back then, these things were simply “not done”.

Of course, the younger son can’t stick around. The family and friends of the father would take up the insult personally – they would never do business with him. So off goes the younger son, and lives a life far away, without the limits of his upbringing. Unfortunately, the money runs out a lot quicker than he expected. So there in the field feeding pigs (not exactly the preferred career trajectory for a good Jewish boy), he’s in a bit of a pickle. He is slowly dying in the land of his choosing, but he could be lynched if he were to return home. Selling your land was dishonorable back then, but losing the proceeds to foreigners was terrible. His only possibility for recovery lies in the hands of his father.

In the culture of the day, he would think (and those listening to Jesus tell the story would also think) that the only way to receive his father’s welcome is to give his father the solemn promise that he will go to work and make enough money to pay his father back. He also remembers that his father’s hired hands were even able to maintain a savings account. So maybe his father would permit his failed son to apprentice as a skilled laborer? It would take a great deal of kindness on the father's part, but this plan just might work.

Jesus gives us three hints, however, that what the son is up to is not a real repentance. First, the words the son uses: “I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.” – well, Jesus’ audience would know that these are the same words that Pharaoh used toward Moses in Exodus chapter 10 – just after the plague of locusts. But four verses later when Moses prays and the locusts all vanish, Pharaoh isn’t exactly repentant. The second hint is that this is really only one of three parts of the parable, isn't it? There in Luke chapter 15, Jesus also tells of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In the first case, the shepherd goes looking for an entirely unrepentant sheep. In the second, the coin that the widow hunts down isn’t exactly repentant either. But the third hint is even stronger: in Hebrew, there is a word for repentance, and it is often translated “return”. But in our story, Jesus avoids ever saying that the younger “returns” to the father. Instead, he plans to “go” and then “goes” home. The servant tells his older brother that he has “come”, and the older brother uses the same word “come” when speaking to his father. Never “return” – so never “repent”.

You see, the younger son realizes that his last chance is to come to the father, but he wants to do it on his own terms. “Make me like a hired man” he wants to say. “Put me to work, and I’ll pay off my debt.” He doesn’t get it. He thinks that in order to be accepted by his father, he needs to earn his way. Many folks -- even many Christian folks -- make the same mistake today. But as we see, his father has something else in mind. Even while the son is a long while off – long before the father’s friends and neighbors can recognize him; long before they decide to take the law into their own hands – a long way off, the father rushes out and hugs and kisses his lost son. In the culture of the day, running is simply not honorable. A respected elder of the community does not run anywhere. I was reminded of this just this last week -- my dear daughter Meg had her grad dinner, and her parents were invited. I put on my suit and my new shoes and goodness! I just couldn't go as fast as I usually do! Running is not at all dignified. But once again, the father in our story considers his children to be more important than culture, to be more important than tradition, to be more important than honor, to be more important than “the rules” – he runs and embraces his son. The son starts into his spiel: “I have sinned against heaven … I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” but the father notably cuts him off before he can get to the part about paying off his debt. You see, the son thinks the same way that the culture does: it is all about honor; it is all about settling accounts. The father thinks differently. For the father it is all about relationship.

Relationships don’t work by the same rules that run accounts. Accounts are all nice and ordered and rational. Relationships are on another level altogether. When we think of repentance, we often think of “making things right”. That’s what the younger son was thinking. But the kind of repentance that God wants is the one where we simply see the amazing love that God has for us. Only when our eyes are finally opened to God’s great love and mercy available for us in Jesus – only then are we finally able to become his children. And that’s what the father wants. He doesn’t want another hired hand. He wants someone who loves him and accepts His unconditional love – he wants us to be his children.

As we read in Romans 8:15 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave …, but you received the Spirit of sonship.” Similarly, in 1 John 3:1 “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” And as a symbol of restored sonship, the father in our story orders his best robe to be fetched and wrapped around the rags that now cover his child. Wearing his father’s best robe, the community will no longer be looking to lynch this young man. Rather, they will respect him due to this symbol of his father’s acceptance. And this is exactly what we learned last Sunday: Galatians 3:26 “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

Repentance is not just feeling sorry. As any parent can tell you, there is nothing like being caught in the act to make a child feel sorry. Repentance is not just asking for forgiveness: children are quick to ask for forgiveness when there is any threat of punishment. Neither is repentance making a deal with God -- giving and getting. Real repentence is like changing your uniform: turning away from sin, and turning to God. Real repentance means accepting His extravagant love for you. God’s mercy is so great, in fact, that he was willing to accept us before we even understand his terms. “God shows his great love in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” And the younger son finally gets it: giving up on his plan to pay the father back, he is overcome by gratitude for his father's love.
And so the fattened calf is butchered, and aging wine is brought out. The neighbors are all invited, and the caterers are booked. Time to celebrate. But now we come to act two, and the older son takes center stage. He hears the musicians that the caterers have booked, and he wonders what is happening. And then someone tells him: your brother is home; your father is having a party – your brother has been accepted home in peace. And the older son is angry. And the Pharisees who are listening identify with this anger.

But as soon as that anger rises in the hearts of Jesus hearers, they feel caught. Because now it is the older son’s turn to insult his father. It is true! When man throws a party, and invites the entire village, it is his oldest son’s duty to share with the hosting responsibilities! Refusing to go in would be a slap in the face to the father. But once again, the father behaves in a way far beyond all cultural expectations. He once again bears the entire weight of the insult, considering his relationship with his son more important than honor. Leaving the party to proceed on its own, he goes outside to plead with his older son. But this is the important difference between the two sons. The younger son insulted his father and was accepted back with extravagant grace. But the older son insulted his father, and he is still outside. This is how the story ends in the Bible. Don't let this be how the story ends for you. For some people this morning, God is pleading with you to come inside and join his party. Don't let the faults of folks in the church destroy your relationship with God.

You see, the older son made two big mistakes. These are also the same mistakes are still being made by many folk today. First, the older brother says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.” God does not want slaves, he wants children. If we imagine that our service to God earns us anything, we are insulting God. We have become mercenary rather than celebrating a relationship. Paul writes: Gal 5:1 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” If we think that our service to God earns us health; if we think that our service to God earns us success; if we think that our service to God earns us status, we just aren’t getting it. None of these things have any value at all compared to “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord,” As Paul says: “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

Let me tell you a short Nathanael story: when Nathanael was quite young -- perhaps eight or nine, he came to me one day and asked me for a quarter. Now for whatever reason, I chose to say "no" to Nathanael, but I guess I hadn't ever said "no" to him enough, and, as a result, he wasn't at all happy. A few minutes later, I was talking with Nat's big sister Grace, and Nathanael walked by with a thunder cloud over his head. "What's the matter with him?" Grace asked. Now I'm not usually that smart, but that day I said: "Nathanael thinks that a quarter is more important than his relationship with his father." And dear Nathanael stopped in his tracks. He looked over his shoulder. The thunder cloud started to dissipate, and he smiled. Even Nathanael understood that there is nothing more important than relationships!

The first mistake that the older son made was to think that his service to his father earned him something. But his second mistake was to begrudge his younger brother his father’s favor. He focuses on his brother's faults – remembering the insult to his father, for example, and imagines that the party is for his brother, and the two things seem terribly unfair. But the Bible doesn't say that the party was for the brother at all. In the ancient Coptic manuscripts of Luke, the father says “For my son was dead, and I have brought him to life. He was lost and I found him.” You see, the feast is in celebration of the father’s success in finally getting through to his child. “Rejoice with me,” he says.

If we begrudge our brother’s talent, or wealth, or opportunities; if we begrudge our sister’s beauty, or intelligence, or fortune, focusing instead on their failures – then we are insulting their loving Father who gave these things to them in the first place. Rather, the surest indication that we have a right relationship with God is if we are in right relationship with our brothers and sisters and are able to celebrate with them – even and especially those we disagree with. Celebrating our relationship with God means joining with Him to celebrate the deliverance of the least of our brothers. We need to come to the place where our relationship with God is more important to us than the fact that our neighbour might seem to be getting lucky breaks.

For the conservative folk: if your love of tradition and order is greater than your love for your progressive brother, then you are not nearly as obedient to God as you imagine. And you progressive folk: if your love for relevance and progress is greater than your love for your conservative brother, then you are not nearly as close to the heart of God as you imagine.

Rather, the Spirit this morning is calling for repentance and unity. God The Father is asking us His children to come into a real relationship with Him. And when we do, the words of Psalm 85:10 with become our reality: “Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”