The past two weeks I have went behind the pulpit with a typed manuscript but preached a more than slightly different sermon. (That never happens).
This morning was different. It was an ideal Sunday. Woke up, went for a walk, stopped by Bucci's for an egg, cheese and bacon on a crossiant with a side of homefries. Came home got ready and went to the church.
Here is the sermon I preached:
But Now Am Found
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
text: “But when he came to himself…” (Luke 15:17)
God is described in the Bible sometimes as near or immanent (such as the time when God walked in the garden with Adam and Eve) sometimes God is described as far away or transcendent (such as the time when Jesus was on the cross and screamed My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?) I am sure that the majority if not all of us experience the latter instead of the former. Curiously the biblical narrative does not reveal a forward approaching God but a retreating God. Odd then that God continues to search us out.
Despite God’s hidden nature God in all of God’s great Godness is trying to find you and me right now and at all points in our lives. You and I are precious creatures in the eyes of God, so precious that God spends the majority of the day rummaging around for us. How God searches for us is a mystery. We imagine it is quiet, unnoticed, disguised and covert ways. We may not know how God searches for us, but rest assured we all know what it feels like when God finds us.
Howard Thurman, a 20th century Baptist who wrote on spiritual practices, once described God as a shy God. God almost seems shy about throwing God’s Godness around. God, instead, stands behind a tree and peeks out. But when God peeks out and God’s eyes meet our eyes – life is never the same.
Whomever the writer(s) of the 3rd Gospel were, we’ll never know. We do know that he/she/they were fantastic at the craft of writing. The gospel of Luke blurs the line between poetry and prose. Only in Luke do we find the song of Mary (known as the Magnificat), the song of Zechariah (known as the Benedictus) both sources of scripture the church has used for morning and evening prayer. Only in Luke do we find perhaps the two best-known gospel stories: the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son. The author of Luke knew how to retell the stories of Jesus in an original and memorable way; so that even today most folk in the western world could repeat the main thrust of these stories.
A younger son asks his Father for his share of the inheritance, it was an odd request for that time but not unheard of. It was assumed that the son would go off and invest his share, later on returning with a greater portion. Our character apparently didn’t receive that memo, he did the exact opposite – he lived the high life until the bill collectors came calling; when he came a-knocking he hired on as a pig feeder.
But one day he came to himself…
Only after he had lost his identity as his father’s son “I am no longer worthy to be called your son;” after he lost his identity as an ethnic Jew for he hired on as a pig feeder rather than sought out help from the roughly 4.5 millions Diaspora Jews living in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world; and only after he lost his identity as a religious Jew for he chose to work in the muck and mire of the pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft footed, it does not chew cud; it is unclean to you. Only after his familial, ethnic and religious identities were gone did he come to his senses, did he come to himself.
In July 1945 a group of conspirators in Germany sought to assassinate Hitler. One member of the group was none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian and pastor. He had started his career as one who stressed the importance of Christian practices and Christian discipleship, what many have called radical discipleship. So the question many ask is how did a student and practitioner of nonviolence become associated with a plot to kill the Führer? James McClendon, a Baptist thinker, looked at Bonhoeffer’s life and proposed that his family, country and church failed him. All three had been destructively woven into Hitler’s crazed plan for world domination. When Bonhoeffer was stripped of his religious, ethnic and familial identity he didn’t find his true self but his false self. Only in prison, as he awaited his execution did he “find himself” and produced perhaps one of the greatest church documents of the 20th century, Letters and Papers from Prison. In his letters to his best friend and finance we read about a man who was found by God. In the concentration camps he was shuffled around in God peeked around the corner, God’s eyes met his and life was never the same.
Last week in the New York Times a story ran with the headline: Life Changes, With a Latte to Go. It was a story about Michael Gates Gill a 67-year-old former advertising agent. He lived a privileged aristocratic New York life up until he was 63. That year he was diagnosed with brain tumor. He was unemployed, divorced and the woman whom he had an affair with left him and he was without insurance. He lost everything.
One day he was sitting in a Starbucks when the manager asked him if he wanted a job. He agreed and he loves working there. The story reads, “To his astonishment he realized he was happier than he had ever been. He loves the comradrie of his fellow workers and folk who patronize the store. He lives in a small apartment furnished with plastic patio furniture, serves hot caffeinated drinks and he is the happiest he has ever been.
Sometimes it takes extreme experiences for us to come to ourselves. Sometimes it takes years of tenderizing our hardened hearts before God peeks out from behind a tree, but when it happens everything changes.
So the younger son, the one who found himself, set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father filled with compassion, he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
The son was found by his father, and everything changed. I love it when our current president goes to Texas and delivers a press conference. He walks up to the podium with his chest out and arms to his side as if he is ready to draw out two six shooters and save the day. But think how odd it would be if we saw President Bush run, not in a sporting manner. But what if we saw him run, we would think there is some danger. There is a level of machismo present today that was present in Jesus’ day, men do not run, they do not wear shorts, they do not drive cars, they are not vegetarians, they do not have manicures and they do not allow for public displays of emotions. But the father in our story dismissed all social conventions and ran to his son, gave him a robe, a ring and sandals. The father elevated him to a higher place then when he left. When we are found, everything changes…
The Christian life, the Christian journey, is not a one-stop trek. We are not found only once, but we are constantly found, and found again, over and over and over. It is a process of deeper and deeper conversions, healings and findings. Yet each time we are found by God we are changed and healed and our lives are never the same.
God maybe shy, but God wants to throw a party for you. We do not have to hit rock bottom and have all of our certainties stripped away. In fact by being a part of a church we are doing just the opposite, we are forming a new family, a new identity based on God’s love, grace and kingdom. You just have to look and say Yes – yes things do need to change, I need to be found by God.