Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Community

Today's reading from Hebrews contains some of my favorite words in Scripture. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God." I have always been drawn to these words even though my faith has often been lived out in the most private and individual ways. Despite my typical, American individualism, I long for this sense of community, a community that is bigger than those I know, one that reaches back in history linking me with all the faithful of the past.

At a recent men's prayer breakfast, a church member led us in a discussion about loneliness, focusing on how men seem to have more problems with this. I certainly have experienced this myself. My own introversion combines with a drive to be competent and successful in ways that often minimize relationship. Yet over and over the Bible talks of our faith in terms of community and relationship. Hebrews even speaks of our actions benefiting faithful people of the past, saying in the verse that precedes today's reading, "... so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect."

Despite my own personal, individualistic tendencies, I feel strangely warmed and drawn to this notion of true community, a communion of saints that transcends all boundaries. And what better time than Holy Week, as Christians throughout the world focus once again on the events in Jerusalem all those years ago, to remember that we all are made one in Jesus, and we're all in this together.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Contrition

Zion stretches out her hands,
but there is no one to comfort her;

the LORD has commanded against Jacob
that his neighbors should become his foes;
Jerusalem has become a filthy thing among them.

The LORD is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word;

So go today's opening verses from Lamentations. Lament is a fairly common form in the Bible. People cry out to God in distress. Sometimes they even rail against God. But not here. Here the writer looks at suffering and says, "This is my doing. I brought this on myself."

I want to tread carefully here because some will hear me say that it is fine to blame the victim. I do not want to say that at all, but I do think that our culture finds it increasingly difficult to say, "Look at the terrible mess I've made. I am getting just what I deserve."

We have little trouble pointing out others' failings and assigning blame, but we are disinclined to take much upon ourselves. All the world's troubles are their fault.

I think I've mentioned before something Martin Luther is supposed to have said. It goes something along the lines of, "When you find yourself before the judgment seat of Christ, plead your faults, not your merits." Luther is speaking of opening ourselves to God's limitless grace and mercy. But if we follow Luther's advice, some of us won't have anything to say.

I like to think myself deserving of all the good I experience and horrible undeserving of and wronged by the setbacks and tragedies of life. I wonder how often I close myself off from God's grace in the process.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Bearing Fruit

Today's reading from Mark has always bothered me just a bit. Jesus goes up to a fig tree, hoping to find something to eat. But finding nothing, he curses it. Yet the gospel clearly states that "it was not the season for figs." Why curse a tree for failing to bear fruit out of season?

Today's reading got pointed out to us in seminary as an example of one story sitting in the middle of another so that they interpret one another. Here Jesus curses the fig tree, then we see him cleanse the Temple, and then we happen by the fig tree again and see that it has withered. While the fig tree episode has its own lesson on prayer, it also seems to provide a commentary for the Temple cleansing. Is the Temple apparatus here condemned for failing to bear the fruit it is meant to bear? Does in season or out of season have anything to do with the failure of the religious institution of that day?

If you do a little research on the money changers and sellers at the Temple, you'll discover that they were not doing anything all that terrible. Churches that operate Christian bookstores or offer credit card giving are doing similar things. But then we local congregations are often better at being religious institutions than at being houses of prayer.

If Jesus sauntered by our church one day, looking for fruit, what would he find? Would the season matter? Things to ponder.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm or Passion? Lectionary thoughts on a non preaching Sunday

I'm not preaching today, which is a relief in some ways. I like preaching, but I'm never sure what to do on Palm Sunday. The lectionary has an incredible amount of scripture for today. One set of readings is focused on Jesus' procession into Jerusalem, and the other covers the Passion. (If one read them all, there would be no need for a sermon.) In fact, my lectionary labels today Palm/Passion Sunday.

I don't know if this was always the case, or if it developed because of
the tendency for modern Christians, especially Protestant ones, not to attend church services on days other than Sunday. And so without some Passion today, many move directly from "Hosanna!" to "Christ is risen!" We know the cross happens somewhere in between, but why dwell on that?

Every year I must decide how much the Passion gets to rain on the Palm Sunday parade, and I've learned from experience not to neglect the Palm part too much. It makes me wonder what the members of Paul's churches thought of his focus on the cross. In his first letter to the Corinthian congregation he says, "But we proclaim Christ crucified..." and just a few verses later, "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."

Curious how Paul saw the crucified Christ as good news, but we often view it as "a downer." I once leaned a wooden cross against the manger during Advent. You'd have thought I'd set the communion table on fire. We wear crosses round our necks and we hang them on the walls of our sanctuaries, but for some reason we don't like to pause for long at the cross.

The cross makes no sense without the Resurrection, but the Resurrection becomes triumphant bluster without the cross. Easter is God's affirmation of the cross. It is God's yes to the self giving, self emptying life Jesus leads and calls us to live. Wave the palms. Shout Hosanna! But don't forget why Jesus enters Jerusalem, and don't forget to wonder what it means to follow this sort of king.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Wealth and Worry

In today's gospel Jesus says, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" Curious, Jesus seems to see wealth as an impediment to the true life God created us to live, but most of us worry regularly about maintaining and/or acquiring wealth. Even my denomination worries about how the market is doing. After all, a lot of pastors' retirements are invested there.

This has been said so many times that it sounds like a broken record (for those who remember records). But Jesus spoke about the faith problems associated with money and greed more than any other issue. Interesting how most Christians have decided the focus is better placed elsewhere.

I'm reasonably sure that Jesus doesn't demand everyone take a vow of poverty. But I am also absolutely certain that Jesus considers money to be the biggest single obstacle to a life of genuine faith. Money itself isn't inherently evil. (The Bible does not say "Money is the root of all evil" but rather, "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.") But our desire for it and our worries about it often stand directly between us and God.

In the Lord's prayer, Jesus tells us to ask for enough bread for the day. And in another teaching he tells his followers not to worry about what they will eat or wear or drink. Instead we should work for God's kingdom and trust God to provide what we need.

Like a lot of people, I sometimes lament that God so often seems hidden, that God rarely speaks loudly and clearly to me or to the Church. People in the Bible heard God speak, and some of them got to hear God speak through the person of Jesus. But now we seem to be dealing with echos, with the written reports of long ago conversations. Why doesn't God speak more clearly now?

The thought sometimes occurs to me that if God is speaking, I might be to busy striving and worrying to hear it. But can I trust God enough to stop, to be still, to quit worrying and listen?

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Dependence

Today's gospel includes the famous episode where the disciples try to stop people from bringing their children for Jesus to bless. But Jesus glares at his disciples and says, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."

It's a beautiful picture; Jesus welcoming and placing his hands on these children. But what does it mean to receive the kingdom "as a little child?" We can rule out notions of childhood sweetness and innocence. Children were not perceived this way in Jesus' time. But that still doesn't answer the question.

I won't claim to know the answer, but I'm partial to the idea that as children they can only receive it. They cannot do anything to get it. Children in 1st century Palestine didn't have disposable income and weren't considered to be full persons. No part of the economy was focused on them; no advertising aimed at them. They were totally dependent.

I don't know about you, but that is the last thing I want to be. I want to be competent and to accomplish things. I want to be independent, not dependent. I want to earn, not receive.

I suppose it is humorous in a rather tragic way that I would prefer a mess of my own making to the gift of God.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - God?

When Moses first goes to Pharaoh and speaks to him on behalf of the LORD. (The capitalized LORD is used to avoid saying God's personal name, Yahweh, which is what is actually written in the Hebrew text.) But Pharaoh says, "Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go."

The events that follow - competitions between Moses and the Egyptian priests, the plagues, and finally the Passover, are all related to these opening words from Pharaoh. Will Pharaoh recognize the LORD? Will Pharaoh ever acknowledge that the LORD is God and heed God's command?

In some ways, this is THE question. Will we recognize and acknowledge that the LORD is God? I generally give lip service to this, but like Pharaoh, when push comes to shove I often act in other ways. I live as though this were not true. I live as though I was Lord of my own life. I follow Jesus when it suits me or when it is convenient, but not if it will cause me difficulty or make me look silly or cause people to laugh at me.

"Who is the LORD, that I should heed him?" Not just a question for old Pharaoh.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "A Tale of Two Disciples"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Call

In today's reading from Exodus, we hear a portion of Moses' "call story." Moses has encountered God at the burning bush where God announces plans to free Israel from slavery, with Moses as the point guy and God's spokesperson. Moses tries to wrangle out of the job. "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."

Moses' objections to being called by God are typical. Most people in the Old Testament who are called for some task at first object, although Moses takes this to extremes rarely seen. This "Surely you don't mean me" sort of objection is quite similar to that often heard in the church when people are asked to serve as leaders, teachers, or volunteers of any sort. "O surely you don't want me. I'm not very good at ________."

Determining if a call is really from God can be difficult, but if my experience is any guide, our objections often betray a fear that we are on our own. We think our work succeeds or fails purely on our skills and talents. Thriving churches have more talented and effective leaders and volunteers. Struggling churches less so. And God seems not to be part of the equation at all. I wonder, just what is the church if it's nothing more than the people assembled there?

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "A Tale of Two Disciples"

There's no audio of the sermon today. Video will be available tomorrow. In the meantime, here's the text of the sermon.

John 12:1-8

A Tale of Two Disciples

James Sledge March 21, 2010

What is the most extravagant thing you ever did? Think about that for a moment. Try to recall a time when you lost all restraint, all worry about budgets or paying bills and engaged in wild extravagance. Most of us have occasionally splurged on a car or a vacation or a gift. But I’m talking beyond that. I’m talking about forgetting all prudence, all worry about tomorrow, about uninhibited extravagance.

Truth is, I can’t really recall ever engaging in that sort of extravagance. I’m too careful, too frugal, too practical. Oh, I’ve sometimes been more extravagant than usual. I’ve given a gift I couldn’t afford or bought something costly I didn’t need. But that’s not what I mean by extravagance. It’s not the sort of thing we see from Mary in our reading this morning.

Extravagance of this sort unnerves us just a bit. Our extravagances are rarely so uninhibited and they often have ulterior motives. I think of most of the really big gifts I’ve seen made to churches over the years, and more often than not, they have strings attached.

We’re not always sure how to respond to genuine, extravagant generosity. If a person of modest means gives $100,000 to her church, asks for anonymity, and doesn’t care what happens with the money, the discussion in the church governing board will be very interesting. There will be a lot of suspicion. There will be a hunt for ulterior motives. And then there will be a lot of fighting over what to do with the money.

In a commentary on today’s gospel, I read an interesting story about extravagance. It happened at a stewardship conference attended by a group of pastors. A conference leader spoke of making an offering directly to God, eliciting little excitement among the attendees. But then he pulled a $100 bill out of his wallet and set it on fire. Now he had everyone’s attention, and everyone seemed a bit nervous. Someone commented on the legality of burning US currency, and someone else joked that if he was throwing away money that perhaps he had a few more hundreds.

But the speaker responded, “Do you not understand? I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.”[1]

My giving tends to be more utilitarian. I would prefer my donations fund missions and help to the poor rather than buy toilet paper or vacuum cleaner bags. And I will keep a record for my taxes, and I will carefully consider whether or not I can afford such a donation in the first place.

But in our reading today, Mary throws such caution to the wind. She pours out an incredible amount of extremely costly perfume onto Jesus’ feet. It cost 300 denarii which is something on the order of 30, 40, maybe even $50,000 by today’s standards.

Surely everyone in the house that evening was stunned. In the similar stories in Matthew and Mark, the utilitarian objection comes from all the disciples, but in John, Judas alone speaks. Why was this perfume not sold… and the money given to the poor?” But the narrator lets us know that Judas in not motivated so much by concern for the poor. He’s the treasurer, and he’s not above taking some for himself.

Bad Judas! But then again, if someone showed up at the church and dropped off a $75,000 piece of religious art that looked stunning in our new chapel, I know that I might be inclined to wish she had sold it and given us the money instead. Think of all the good we could do with $75,000, including paying my salary.

I’ve heard this story of Mary and her costly perfume many times. I preached from it on a number of occasions. But I don’t think I had ever noticed before how Mary and Judas, despite how differently they come off in this episode, are both depicted as disciples, and besides Jesus, as the primary actors in the story.

Our reading occurs shortly after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. That event has drawn so may cause the Romans to crack down. And so they devise a plan to have Jesus arrested and killed. This causes Jesus to withdrawn from public view, but Passover is approaching. Will Jesus come into the open for the festival? Now, only six days out, five days before the Passover lambs are slain, Jesus comes to Lazarus’ home for a dinner.

Mary is there. She isn’t listed as one of Jesus’ official disciples, but she seems to understand what the others do not. Before Jesus ever teaches his disciples to wash one another’s feet, she washes Jesus’ feet. And though the twelve have not yet grasped that Jesus will soon die, Mary anoints him for burial.

Her act is extravagant beyond measure. We are not told how it was she had this expensive perfume. How many years had she saved to buy it? And what had she originally planned to do with it? Was it an investment of some sort? Or was it something she was saving for some unknown special event, like a hundred year old bottle of French wine awaiting a moment that justified uncorking it.

Whatever her original plans, the perfume is now used up in one fell swoop. Out of gratitude to this one who raised her brother, out of an overwhelming sense of love for this man, as the only way she can think of to appropriately say what may be her last goodbye, she willingly expends it all in one great act of extravagant love. Mary never speaks in the passage, but her actions bespeak a discipleship deeper than that of any of the others.

And then there is Judas. Yes, he is the bad guy. He is even announced by the narrator as the one who was about to betray him. And yet he is also called, one of his disciples. Perhaps this is so obvious that I’d never noticed it before. But despite what Judas will do, he remains one of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus rebukes him, but he has rebuked Peter and others in similar fashion. The gospel of John speaks of Satan entering Judas when he goes to betray Jesus. Judas will move away from the light and be caught up in darkness, and yet he is presented to us here, despite that darkness, as one of Jesus’ disciples.

The fact is, there are only two disciples depicted in our reading for this morning. One is Judas, this tragic failure of a disciple, and one is Mary, who though not a member of the twelve, comes across as the ideal disciple, totally committed to Jesus, understanding what is about to happen, yet still giving her all to Jesus.

All of us here today are disciples, or at least considering becoming one. In some way we’ve felt a pull toward Jesus. In some way we’ve heard him calling us to follow. Given that, I suppose we are all seated at the table between Mary and Judas. I like to think that I am a bit closer to Mary. But my life with Jesus is not nearly so extravagant, and I can’t help wondering what it is that separates these two disciples. What is it that accounts for their very different behavior?

There’s all sorts of speculation about why Judas betrays Jesus. Perhaps it was simply the money. Others assume Judas was forcing Jesus’ hand, hoping that when he was arrested he would employ his power to overthrow the Romans. In either case, Judas would seem to view Jesus as a means to an end… which would make him like a lot of modern Christians who hope Jesus will give them “their best life now,” or will get them into heaven.

Mary, on the other hand, simply seems to be in love with Jesus. She gives herself to him with an extravagance that can only be motivated by love. Perhaps her love springs from Jesus’ bringing her brother Lazarus back from the dead, but whatever the reason, she has moved far beyond any calculations about what she can get from Jesus. In gratitude and in love, she gives extravagantly.

For a lot of people, Christianity is about belief, about morality, about being good, about helping others. Nothing wrong with any of those things, but you’ll never fall in love with morality. I’m not sure you can fall in love with any concept. But if we actually encounter God’s love in the person of Jesus, perhaps we could fall in love with him, and give ourselves to him with an extravagance that can be born only of love.

[1] William Carter in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) p. 142

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Fear

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?

The LORD is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?

The Psalms are filled with such assurances. In 1 John, in the section that tells us "God is love," we hear that "perfect love casts out fear." Or as Paul writes to the church at Rome, "If God is for us, who is against us?" Over and over the Bible assures us of God's care, God's love, God's provision. So why do we know so much fear?

I see lots of fear in the Church. Congregations are afraid because of shrinking numbers, an increasingly secular culture, and shrinking budgets. The same issues keep me awake some nights, and can motivate my actions. In recent years, my Presbyterian denomination has gotten more and more interested in evangelism, but all too often this interest seems to be motivated by fear. "If we don't learn to do evangelism, we will die."

For me, fear is largely a product of not having very much trust in God. My congregation's successes or failures are all about how well I lead them, how well we run our programs, how inspiring we make our worship, how well we connect with our community. And rarely as we discuss such issues do we ask ourselves, "What is God calling us to do? What does faithfulness look like?"

I don't often ask such questions because I am so focused on the human element, on what I do, on what other staff and leaders do. Our discussions and arguments about what we should do are usually focused on pretty trivial matters. What time should worship start? Should we do peppier sounding hymns? What color should the carpet be? And if a stranger were to wander into one of these discussions, I wonder if she might ask, "Where is God?"

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Gifted

In today's reading from First Corinthians, Paul speaks about spiritual gifts. In recent years there has been a lot of interest in spirituality and spiritual gifts in many congregations. And there are spiritual gift inventories designed to help people realize their particular gifts.

Some of these inventories, however, seem mostly to identify talents and gifts that people were born with. Now certainly such gifts can be of great use in the church. Singing in the choir is a great example of using one's gifts to worship and honor God. But is that musical talent a spiritual gift?

We were having a discussion the other day in a class about what marks or distinctive characteristics give someone a Christian identity. And aside from belief in Jesus, the class had some difficulty naming anything specific. The things they did name such as being good or helping others are things Christians should do, but lots of non Christians do such things as well. How is it that being Christian makes someone different than if he or she were not a Christian?

I think that the difficulty many of us have answering this question is of a piece with the difficulty we have naming our spiritual gifts -- at least when defined as gifts we have by virtue of being a Christian. If a musician renounces his Christian faith, he will still be musically talented. If the CPA who is church treasurer renounces her faith, she will still be good with numbers.

How are you gifted because of the Spirit at work in you. To borrow from Paul, how is the Spirit equipping you to play your part in so that
the Church can be a living manifestation of Christ in the world? And if most of us cannot answer this question, then it seems that we need to start working together to figure this out.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - The Body

Paul is none too happy with the Christians in Corinth when he writes to them. He is concerned about the development of divisions and contingents in that congregation. And he has heard that this lack of concern for one another intrudes into the Lord's Supper itself.

The Supper was more like a covered-dish supper than what most of us know as communion. People would bring food from their homes to share. But at Corinth it seems that the those who were well off and could get there earlier were finishing off all the food and wine before the poorer members could get there from work. The poor arrived to find no food left but some of their fellow Christians well fed and even drunk.

It is probably just as well that this happened. Otherwise Paul might never have mentioned the Lord's Supper in any of his letters, and we wouldn't have the familiar "words of institution" used in many churches for communion. But there is a line in Paul's instructions that I believe is commonly misunderstood. Paul writes, "Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. "

Many people think Paul is talking about discerning Christ's presence in the bread, but nothing else in Paul's instructions speaks of mystical presence in the elements. Paul's issue in the failure of the Corinthians to act for the good of each other, and in the following chapter of his letter he speaks of how each member brings particular gifts so that together we become "one body."

In our very individualistic American culture, hearing Paul demand that we discern the body of Christ in those members gathered with us is difficult, counter-cultural thing. I wonder what communion might feel like if we all discerned the mystical presence of Christ in those gathered around us prior to breaking bread or sharing the cup.

(I also can't help wondering about the picture accompanying this post and its, perhaps, constricted discerning of the body. It is so small you may not have noticed, but all the faces filling in Christ's body are white.)

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Scandalous Grace"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Presence

I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.

Every day I will bless you,

and praise your name forever and ever.
Psalm 145:1-2

Each day the lectionary opens with morning psalms and concludes with evening psalms. But I must confess that I often skim over these. Some of the same psalms appear regularly so I've often seen them very recently, but I don't think that accounts for my tendency to ignore them. And I think my tendency is more pronounced with psalms like today's.

I don't know if it is the result of being Presbyterian, but I often read scripture with an eye to being informed. I want to find out more about God and faith and what it means for me to live a life of faith. There is much to be gained from reading the Bible in this manner, but it does tend to reduce faith to having enough information and the correct understanding of that information. But words like those above are simply about praise. They don't give information about God so much as they are a faithful poet's response to God.

I once heard a church consultant (Roy Oswald, I believe) speaking about mainline churches. And he said something along the lines of, "People come to us seeking an experience of God, and we give them information about God." Maybe I would do well to spend a bit less time trying to figure God out and a bit more time being open to God's presence. Maybe then I would find it easier to join the psalmist in praising God.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Scandalous Grace"

The parable of the prodigal son is a favorite of many, but if we identify with the older brother, God's love can seem offensive. How far does God's love go? Answered with a little help from the novel, The Shack.

March 14 sermon.mp3

Luke 15:11-32

Scandalous Grace

James Sledge -- March 14, 2010

The parable of the prodigal son seems to be a favorite of many. There certainly is something warm and comforting about it. God’s love for us is tender and kindhearted, willing to embrace us despite our failings. Who wouldn’t like such a parable?

Well, the older brother for one, and perhaps some of the people to whom Jesus first spoke the parable. And maybe even us if we aren’t so quick to identify with the younger brother.

Many of us are quick to recognize and claim the generous grace found in this parable, but for some reason we often miss the offense, the scandal that accompanies that grace. The older brother tries to point it out to us. He stands outside the big party refusing to go in, refusing even to acknowledge that this person who has burned through the family inheritance with prostitutes and partying is his brother. But we just shake our heads at the older brother, hoping that he will somehow come around.

But what if we pressed the imagery of the parable a bit so that we might feel some of what the older brother feels. What if the younger brother is Bernie Madoff and we have lost our retirement in his scams? Should the father still welcome him back with open arms? What if the younger brother has committed terrible crimes, has murdered someone? Should the father still welcome him back? And what if we press this image to the limits of the imagination? What if the younger brother is Adolf Hitler, and as Berlin burns all around him he “came to himself” and says, “What have I done; what have I done!? Father I have sinned against humanity and you.” Should the father welcome him back?

Recently my wife and I took a short getaway to Florida to escape winter. When I go on vacations, I often pack a bunch of books I think I ought to read. Then I usually manage to leave every one of them unopened. And so this time I tried a more modest approach. I took a single book that I’ve been meaning to read for some time. Some of you may have read it. It’s called The Shack.

If you’re not familiar with it, the central character is a fellow around my age named Mackenzie. Mack, as his friends call him, has received a curious invitation to come spend a weekend at the shack where a still-at-large kidnapper murdered his youngest daughter a couple of years earlier. At first he thinks the invitation some sort of cruel hoax, but he gradually becomes convinced that the note in his mailbox is from God.

And so Mack heads to the shack for his weekend with God. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you’ve never read it so I’ll try not to reveal too much. (I highly recommend the book, by the way.) But I do want to share one of Mack’s experiences that particularly moved me. During his strange weekend at the shack, Mack has an encounter with a mysterious, beautiful woman in a long, flowing robe, like that of a judge.

As they speak, the conversation turns to Mack’s hurt and anger over his daughter’s murder, and his questions about how a good God could possibly allow such a thing to happen. As Mack’s anger builds, the woman tells him why he is with her, for judgment. At first Mack thinks he has died, but assured he is alive, he wonders what he is to be judged for, what he needs to repent of, but the woman explains that he will be the one doing the judging.

The idea seems preposterous to Mack, but the woman points out that he has a great deal of experience. He regularly judges the people around him. Mack has to admit to himself that he does indeed judge people all the time. But who is he to judge? “God… and the human race,” the woman replied the woman nonchalantly.

As Mack objects that he does not want to judge anyone, the woman prods him. “What about the greedy who feed off the poor of the world?... And what about the man who preys on innocent little girls? What about him, Mackenzie? Is that man guilty? Should he be judged?”

“Yes!” screams Mack.

The woman presses on, asking about the father of the man who had “twisted his son into a terror. How far do we go back, Mackenzie? This legacy of brokenness goes all the way back to Adam, what about him? But why stop there? God started the whole thing. Is God to blame?” The woman continues to bore in on Mack until in anger he bursts out, “Yes, God is to blame!”

“If you are able to judge God so easily, then certainly you can judge the world,” the woman continues. “You must choose two of your children to spend eternity in God’s new heavens and new earth, but only two.”

Mack objects but the woman continues, “And you must choose three of your children to spend eternity in hell.” As Mack begins to panic the woman calmly says, “Mackenzie, I am only asking you to do something that you believe God does.” The woman goes on to explain that God knows every person ever born much more deeply than Mack will ever know his children. And God loves every one of them out of that deep knowledge.

The woman continues to press in on Mack. If he thinks that God so easily judges God’s own children, surely Mack can judge his. One of them had been very troublesome of late. And what if one were to commit some heinous act? Mack continues to object but the woman will not relent. Finally Mack screams out, “I can’t. I can’t. I won’t!” The woman just looks at him. He looks at her, his own eyes pleading as he asks, “Could I go instead?” He falls at the woman’s feet pleading, “Please let me go for my children, please, I would be happy to… Please, I am begging you. Please…Please…”

And then it is over. The woman smiles at Mack and says, “Now you sound like Jesus. You have judged well, Mackenzie. I am so proud of you!”

“But I haven’t judged anything,” offeres a confused Mack.

“Oh, but you have. You have judged them worthy of love, even if it cost you everything. That is how Jesus loves.” And she explains that Mack now knows God’s heart.

Sometimes we use “child of God” like it’s a biological, innate thing. Biblically it is about God choosing us, adopting us in Christ. But God’s love isn’t just for folks like us. For God so loved the world… Every person is a child God longs to hold and love.

There’s a sign at a nearby church that reads, “Where everyone is a beloved child of God.” Sounds wonderful, but of course that makes us brothers and sisters with some unsavory sorts, criminals, dictators, scam artists, even Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein. Hearts recoil at the thought. It is offensive. It is scandalous. Who would want such folk in their family? Who could love such folks? Who besides God?

In his teachings, Jesus frequently uses the image of a great banquet to describe God’s coming kingdom. It is just the sort of party we find in today’s parable with the best food and drink, with music and dancing and celebrating. But in our parable, one person, the older brother, refuses to attend. He will not celebrate with that no-good, scheming, thieving excuse for a human being that his father wants to claim as a beloved son.

None of our hearts is as big as God’s. And so it makes perfect sense that we are offended by God’s grace, that we would prefer God to judge rather than love the most unsavory of our fellow human beings. Surely love must have its limits.

But then again, would I really prefer that God’s heart, God’s love, become more like mine, more constricted, more limited, more conditional? Or might becoming a child of God be about my heart and your heart becoming more and more Christ-like, more and more like God’s so that we can share God’s astounding, amazing, even scandalous love and grace with all who need it, so we can offer that love to those who cannot imagine that it is for them, too.

All praise and glory to the God whose love is offered freely to all, even to me and you.