Friday, March 19, 2010

How can I know if He really loves me?

I have been gone for so long; how do I know He will still forgive me? I’ve done horrible things; how can I ever expect Him to accept me? There’s no way I can atone for all my sins; why would He ever take me? – Over the course of the past few weeks, mostly as a result of some of the seeds that Norm had sown, I had a number of conversations with those dying and the loved ones of those dying. Over and over, the questions of worthiness came up. As people struggled with their own impending deaths, or as their loved ones struggled with their impending deaths, I was asked various questions like the above. Fortunately for me, even those who do not count themselves as believers are familiar with this week’s Gospel reading from Luke.

The parable is known as the parable of the Prodigal Son; though I must admit different names suit this parable at different times in our relationship with God. God is always the forgiving father in this story. Sometimes, we are begrudging brothers when we see the conversions of others. And sometimes, we are simply the audience to whom this parable is told and who, like the Pharisees and scribes, like to grumble about Jesus and His teaching.

The shocking part of the parable to Jesus’ listeners would have been the fact that the father ran to greet son. Sons would sometimes request their inheritance before their father’s deaths. Given the propensity of youth not to listen to the experience of elders, we can easily imagine that the audience knew families where this story had occurred. Is it so different from those who go off to college and party their way right out that first semester or first year? Is it so different from our youth who, upon their first decent job, waste their hard-earned money on alcohol, drugs, or other useless goods?

Naturally, the son understands he has screwed up. But he is willing to work to feed himself. Granted, the job that he found was an insult both to him and his culture, but we in the midwest might be tempted to applaud him for not turning to a life of begging or crime. Eventually, as Luke tells us, he comes to himself. The son realizes that the slaves at his father’s home eat better than he is currently eating, and he determines to repent and ask his father to treat him as a slave. Certainly, from our perspective and maybe even the audience hearing the parable, the punishment seems reasonable. The son squandered everything; he deserves to be treated like a slave.

But when the father sees him “while he is still far off,” the father violates custom and social convention. Rather than waiting on the son to arrive and pay his respects, as the father is owed in that society, the father runs to the son and embraces him. And when the son repents, the father interrupts the son before the punishment section is repeated, and orders the slaves to bring the “best robe,” a family ring, and to prepare for a huge celebration. A son who was lost is found! A son who was dead is alive!

How can we know that God, like the forgiving father in this parable, is always willing to forgive us, to welcome us back into the family, and to celebrate? The cross of Jesus. Such was God’s love for us, such was His mercy towards us, that He sent His Son to die for us, not when we were righteous, but when we were His enemies and His prodigal sons and daughters. God knew and understood, far better than we ever will, that we cannot atone for our sins. We might try to make restitution at times, but our efforts will always fall short. Only Jesus could make atonement for our sins.

Part of our impetus to invite others to share in His eternal feast should be the discovery of that joy experienced by the Prodigal Son and ourselves. Like the son, we deserve nothing. On our own, we could ask him to make us His slave, but we would do so knowing that He could not accept sinful slaves. But before we can make that offer, before we can suggest appropriate punishment, He interrupts us with the cross of His Son. When we acknowledge that we have sinned against Him, the Father runs to us and embraces us in His loving relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit, and, against all expectations, makes us His sons and daughters by adoption, His ambassadors, and His royal priesthood! We deserve nothing of the kind, but our Father’s mercy is as limitless as His power and His love!

How can you know that He loves you? How can you know He will accept you if you only repent? The cross. Salvation history, God tells us, pointed to that amazing Good Friday event. God’s love for us is encapsulated in that horrible and blessed day. That He can accomplish what He has promised to you for repenting is testified by the empty tomb! Not even your death or mine can keep Him from keeping His promises to us! And the image with which He describes Himself to us is of a father, forgetting all propriety and all our faults, running to embrace us in His arms of love.



Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Rainbow amid stormy skies . . .

I found myself last night in a bit of a tempest. It was our night for Community Meal, the night when we feed the homeless and hobos (admittedly there are not many of those here in the winter) here in Davenport. Going into the night, I had expected God to show up. Norm had passed Tuesday, and his wife Thelma had been one of the movers and shakers that got the ministry going nearly 40 years ago and kept it going when it was assaulted by politicians or others during that time. Norm had passed, but his wife’s ministry continued.
To my unpleasant surprise, another church was there when I arrived. I had been running late. Wednesdays during Lent are tough. Nathan and Amanda have play practice at school, then it is Soup Supper at the parish, followed by Eucharist and Bible Study. Community Meal was just one more activity in an otherwise full day. Unfortunately, because I was late, the church had a fifteen minute head start on me. They were telling the homeless to come to church with them rather than eat. “Your eternal souls are far more important than any meal.” “If you stay and eat, you are rejecting God and telling Him there are far more important things in your life than Him.”—such was the pronouncement from these interlopers. Some in my parish had started laughing as I arrived. They know me now. They knew how these conversations that were about to start were going to end. A few just wanted to see how far God pulled when He dished out the upcoming spiritual wedgies.

And so it began. . . With Steve, the gentleman in charge of the site for the Salvation Army, I encouraged them either to serve or to leave. When pressed, I asked them when their Lord had ever neglected the physical need of the sheep before He taught them? During our conversations, I learned that they had been whisking people off for a week or ten days. Some homeless had gone with them in the past week expecting that no church would ever take food from them without serving them something later, especially if they came for worship. But the kindness of this church knew no bounds. They brought the homeless back to the shelter when worship was over. As one homeless guy remarked, “You’d think they could at least have dropped me off at my bridge since there was no food here by then.” What had they accomplished? From my perspective, they had driven a lot of people from God. Some felt tricked, some felt abandoned, some even wondered aloud who can be trusted if God could not be. Within 10 minutes of my arrival, all the proselytizers were gone, but the damage had been done. And my ire was up. It was then that the rainbow shined forth in the storm.

A bit of a scuffle started among a couple of the homeless. It was weak, so I stepped in between. I told the men “no fighting. We are here to eat.” The men both grumbled that it was the other’s fault, but they separated. As I was pouring juice near one of them, he was still grumbling how the other had kept hitting and bumping and jostling him intentionally. I was about to speak when the homeless guy next to him spoke first. “you need to give it to God, brother.” The fighter turned to him and asked what in the world he was talking about. “You need to give the insult, the injury, the pain, the humiliation to God, brother. That’s what I do.” The fighter grumbled about what a worthless thing that would be. And in clear, sincere tones, the evangelist responded “You know, God promises us all that if we accept Jesus, we become His children by adoption. And any attack on us is an attack on Him. Any attempt to humiliate us is an attempt to humiliate Him. Any attempt to do us wrong is an attempt to do Him wrong. That’s what He thinks of us when we accept His Son.” The fighter responded “so what.” And my evangelist continued “So what? It makes all the difference in the world. You and I cannot possibly repay all the wrong done to us. Think of the store owners or cops that hastle us. The gangs that beat us up and steal from us. The guys that rape the girls. The people that look down their noses at us like we’re animals. How can we ever repay all that? But He can, and better still, He has promised that He will.” The would be fighter grumbled that he did not know whether he believed in God and all that stuff. And gently, but firmly, the evangelist responded, “Brother, you should. He came to set slaves free. He came to bring justice and strength to the weak. Brother, he came for you, for me, and for all those in here whom society has forgotten, neglected, or simply tried to drive out.”

I often tell my congregation that nothing in our lives goes to waste. God is amazing at giving us opportunities to use our past experiences to His glory. Right before this conversation began, I found myself ready to explode. I was mad at a church for its terrible witness. I was furious at the harm they had caused and the wounds which they had inflicted. I “knew” there would be a lot of work necessary to overcome the wrongs which had been wrought this night and others before it. And into the midst of that storm, the Lord tossed out a rainbow. Nothing goes to waste in His economy, not even the life-experiences of a homeless man who calls Him Lord. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done. Yes, a lot of injuries have been done in His name. But He has already righted all the wrongs. Better still, He has called people from all walks of life to share His Gospel. My words would have been empty to this would be fighter. I had showered, shaved, brushed my teeth, eaten, been well hydrated, and taken for granted so much of what he and all those others there do without. And God called forth a man who had lost everything, a man who has seen things human being were not meant to watch, a man who was powerless to right so many of the wrongs he had witnessed, and given him the words of comfort and made him part of that nation of priests, that light to the dark world, one of the workers in the field.

I found myself after the Community Meal hustling back to church for soup, Eucharist and Bible Study. The song on the radio was “I smile” by Russell Lee (I think) and I had to laugh. God had, indeed, shown up. In the visage of an unshaven, stinky, destitute, unkempt homeless man He had shown up to minister to others caught in the same trap of life. And He had given Him words that fed way better than our ham, meatballs, and other dishes. Words that comforted the afflicted, set the prisoners free, and even left a priest thunderstruck and reminded that the “best is yet to come.” Thanks be to God!