In this Issue:
Concerns & Celebrations, Volunteer Opportunities & More, A Response to Violence, From the Nominating Committee, Calling All Singers, Time to Register for VCS, Wesminster Lenten Devotional, Lenten Bible Study & Dinners, Westminster School For Children, Sing! Sing! Sing!, Spring Women’s Retreat, Vessels and the Tree, Youth Ministry, Men’s Basketball Championship, Pancake Supper Photo Album, Community Opportunities, Preaching Schedule, Congregational Responsibilities
Monthly Archives: February, 2013
It starts with disappointment. When I was 16 and a new driver I went out for milk one night, took the long way back, and ended up exceeding the speed limit by a good 25 miles per hour on one tempting stretch. The cop, or should I say cops that pulled me, 2 different cars, gave me a stern talking to until one of them, a Montreat officer covering a shift in Black Mountain, said he knew my dad. Instead of taking my license, which he had every right to do, he let me go. Somehow I was able to get home and walk past my parents and downstairs to my room without them noticing how much I was shaking. After that, the moment never presented itself, so I never told them. Until one morning, about 7am in July, my dad walks and wakes me up. "I was at a dinner last night and Jackie (the aforementioned officer) told me he spent some time with you last month. I don’t like him knowing more than I do about where you’ve been. I am embarrassed and disappointed. I’ll be taking your keys now." He picked them up and left.
I wonder about the last time you’ve disappointed someone. A parent or a friend, a spouse or coworker. Maybe the person you disappointed was yourself. We spend so much of our time haunted by the difference between who we want to be, and who we know we have been.
Everything in this parable turns on a moment of insight the younger son has in a pigsty. Jesus had been disappointing to the Pharisees and scribes, bearers of the law that they were. This fellow welcomes sinners – he’s not supposed to do this. He eats with them. In response to the grumbling Jesus tells 3 stories – of a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind to go find the lost one, a woman who scours the house to find a single coin. Then, as Luke builds the drama, we meet a man with two sons. The younger one asks for his share of his father’s inheritance. The essence of the inheritance at that time was land, and the only way it could be received was on the father’s death. Thus his request, Alyce McKenzie writes, was essentially, "Father, I wish you would drop dead."2 This is more than a teenager yelling, I hate you, through the bedroom door. This is an adult looking his father in the eye and saying, You are dead to me.
Without comment, Luke reports the response: the father divided his property between them. That is amazing enough in itself, though the son’s actions – Luke has set us up to guess correctly – are predictable. As quickly as he got the money, he took off and – this language is magnificent – ‘squandered his property in dissolute living.’ Luke sets up a progression of decisions that drive distance between the youngest son and his home: he asks for the inheritance early, relocates to the land of the Gentiles, lives fast and loose, and, then, he stoops to the level of working with pigs, an act Leviticus specifically forbids.3 By any way you measure it, he is outside the community.
And then something happens. Knee-deep in pig slop he realizes these animals’ food looks appealing. And it causes a bit of a revelation. "He came to himself…" Luke writes, decides to confess his tragic mistake and ask to be treated as a hired hand. He begins to glimpse how disappointing he has been. I imagine he got nervous, gut tightening up as he walked the dusty road, imagining all of the levels of anger he is going to have to deal with. I wonder how much he regrets asking this of his father in the first place, of the sadness he saw on his dad’s face when he asked, as he sold some of the land, as he handed him a bag of silver. He was ready for it all, he said, the yelling, perhaps a punch to the face, the way the community would talk and point, the shame.
He turns the final curve, sees the house from afar, begins the rocky path through his father’s fields. It’s in good shape; the grain is high and full. He clenches his fist. Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you… Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…he looks down, watching his feet…and the tears come. It is then he hears the shouts from the house, he looks up, straining in the sunlight, and sees his father running. When he was far off, Luke writes, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. This word in Greek literally means ‘to have the bowels yearning’ – every ounce of him was drawn to his son. And then he ran, which is another thing, because Middle Eastern patriarchs do not run. He runs, robes flying, looking pretty silly, and embraces his son, practically tackles him. He holds him, like he had never held him before, kissing him, hugging, kissing again. The son tries to get his lines out, and halfway succeeds… Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…and his father responds as if he hasn’t even heard him. He calls for slaves to come – quick, get a robe, not that one, the best one, get a ring, prepare the feast, get the fatted calf, the best one we’ve been saving, set up the hall, call in the musicians. We will celebrate! My son was lost and is now found, he cries as the band begins to play. Grace. Grace. Grace.
It would be absolutely perfect if the story ended there. I would prefer it. Then it’s a story about the power of grace and forgiveness. We can rest comfortably, knowing that no matter how irresponsible we are: greed and prostitutes, our egos and drive and misplaced priorities, our narrow, narrow vision, God will forgive us. We can go on today confident in that amazing grace. No matter what we do, how ridiculous we were and are, God loves us. Hooray! But. With Jesus there’s always a ‘but.’ He tells us about the elder son, working out in the field, who all of the sudden hears the music, sees the dancing. Hey, he calls a servant over, what’s the deal? At the words ‘YOUR BROTHER,’ his heart sinks, and he can barely hear about the fatted calf as the fury builds. Just like I boldly assumed last Sunday that a lot of you are likely to want to be in control – and you confirmed this for me after worship – I also imagine a lot of you are, like me, oldest children. We are responsible. We get things done; we solve problems, often problems someone else has created, and we’re only a little self-righteous about it. Why? Because that’s what oldest children do. We handle things.
He refuses to go in, and dad comes out, pleading. Come in, please. Look, dad, I have been here all of these years. I have respected you, I have respected our family, I have worked so hard. And what have I gotten? Not even a piddly ‘ole goat to eat with my friends, yet HE, this son of YOURS, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, and you killed the fatted calf for him. I see where I rate, dad. I see. And dad is near weeping, You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. "But we HAD to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
I was struck this week, for the first time, really, by how poorly the story ends. It ends with the youngest son inside at the party, probably drinking too much, but also, I imagine, ashamed. His inheritance is gone and we don’t know whether he learned anything or whether he is laughing at what a sucker his father is. The older son stands outside, furious at his dad, resenting his brother. The father has embarrassed himself – breaking the customs of the day by giving away the inheritance early, behaving effeminately by running to welcome his youngest son and kissing him publicly. His older son is outside, the younger inside. The story ends with a family estranged from one another; distant; unsure about the future.4
Barb Schmidt mentioned to me a scene from the 1977 TV mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth. I’ll have a link to the clip when the sermon is posted on the website. Throughout the early part Matthew and Peter are in conflict – anger and jealously abound. Jesus walks into Matthew’s home and begins to tell this story. He sits by firelight and talks of the younger son, the father, then the eldest, telling the story straight from the text. And Peter, who is outside, comes in and listens. As the story ends he approaches Jesus, tears welling in his eyes, sorry for what a bum he had been, pleading. After what feels like an eternity Jesus places a reassuring hand on his shoulder, but, instead of simply hugging him and telling him he is forgiven, Jesus turns and pushes him towards Matthew. He beckons to Matthew, and the scene ends with Jesus, hand on each of their shoulders, pushing them to towards one another.5
Because grace cannot stop with forgiveness. This grace, freely given and received, propels us out, so that we might be reconciled with one another – on days we are so broken and days we feel strong and entitled. We are moved towards each other, and through that to do ridiculous things like sleep overnight with a bunch of youth, take someone a meal, write another check, advocate for the poor, take time to listen to someone in the line at the grocery store. Seek reconciliation in a world so filled with violence and anger. Grace drives us out, beyond ourselves, seeking community. And so the story leaves us with a decision…will we remain stuck in the same patterns, patterns that limit even our most important relationships. Or will we risk that God has new possibilities for us – that God stands outside the party, calling, pleading, for us to come inside?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. I will again offer gratitude to my friends, Rebekah Abel Lamar and Pen Peery. Their project for a D.Min. class at Columbia Seminary forms the foundation for this series. Rebekah is the Director of Christian Education at Decatur Presbyterian in Decatur, Georgia, and Pen is the Pastor of First Presbyterian in Charlotte, NC.
2. Alyce McKenzie, The Parables for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007), page 95.
3. From the Rev. Pen Peery’s paper on this at the 2009 gathering of The Well, in Austin. Also Leviticus 11:7-8.
4. I am grateful to Rebekah and Pen for this specific insight.
5. "Parable of the prodigal son from the film Jesus of Nazareth" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14epxvU8XIA&feature=youtu.be
Today’s text reminded me of a book I read a couple of years ago by Frank Luntz. Luntz is a Fox News personality who was the pollster for Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral campaigns, and also is responsible for the 1994 "Contract with America," which ushered Newt Gingrich and the republicans back into power in the house for first time in 40 years. Luntz is responsible for the ‘estate tax’ now being called the ‘death tax,’ ‘drilling for oil,’ became ‘energy exploration.’ He did some consulting with the city of Las Vegas, who now calls ‘gambling,’ ‘gaming.’ His book called "Words That Work" is filled with examples from business and politics in the way a few key concepts were communicated changed things. He writes:
It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear. You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, or preexisting beliefs. It’s not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant. The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener’s shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their mind and heart. It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.
Today’s text signals a shift in tactics. There are five big teaching sections in Matthew’s gospel, and chapter 13 is the third. Much of Jesus’ style up to this point has been straightforward, like in the Sermon on the Mount: "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:44). It’s not easy, but we know what he means. But by the end of chapter 12 the crowds grow, so he hops in a boat, they push off; folks fill the shoreline to listen. But as Jesus settles in at the front of the class, his tone has shifted. He stuffs himself into his listener’s shoes and begins to teach in parables, this new form that he hadn’t used before.
LISTEN, he begins. He tells them about a guy who went out to sow seed. I am not a farmer, but it seems like he’s careless. He tosses the seed, and it falls all sorts of places -a path, rocky ground, among thorns, and on some good soil. We don’t get much description, only a result:
- On the path, the birds come eat the seeds.
- On the rocky ground the roots cannot grow deeply, and the small plants are scorched.
- Among the thorns, other thorns grew and choked them.
- On the good soil grain grows, in significant but inconsistent amounts.
And then, from the boat, the crowd’s toes lining the water, Jesus says, "Let anyone with ears listen!" And then he’s finished. I must admit I can’t fault the disciples for not having any idea what Jesus was talking about. They come up to him – it feels like a more intimate scene later, and ask: why do you speak in parables? The greek here has multiple meanings – proverb, allegory, lesson, riddle. Jesus, what are you doing? And his answer is kind of a mess. Most of this section originates in Mark, the earliest gospel, of which both Matthew and Luke used big chunks as they were putting their story together. In Mark 4 Jesus tells the disciples that he uses parables so that folks beyond the circle of disciples won’t understand. He is intentionally trying to confuse which, though strange, fits with Mark’s emphasis on this gradual unfolding of the mysteries of God, things that cannot be fully understood until the resurrection. Matthew says to the disciples that they have seen something – that they, through Christ’s ministry, are glimpsing the kingdom. The rest, the crowds, don’t understand, yet. He quotes Isaiah -hearts have grown dull, ears are hard of hearing, people shut their eyes.
But also, it seems to me, Jesus is saying the goal isn’t for us to understand. Like any good story, meaning isn’t immediately clear. And that’s hard for folks like us, relatively privileged, astoundingly well-educated. Many of us make a good living solving problems, figuring things out. But these parables seek to answer one question: "What is the reign of God like?" What is our God like, and what can we see of this God, here? This is a kingdom that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in a world of state of the unions and cabinet confirmation hearings. This kingdom is seen is small and odd and simple things, seed and some dirt, and in the coming weeks in fathers and sons, in tax collectors and Samaritans, in sheep and in goats. AND, Jesus says, you don’t see it by observing clearly with your five senses. It is God who gives true sight. It is God who gives us the faith to try.
That’s the nugget that convicted me this week. I was stuck for awhile, thinking about what a bad sower this guy was. Come on, I thought, couldn’t he just plan a little better, take more time, avoid some of the thorns – how hard is it to not sow seed where there are a bunch of thorns? But this parable isn’t about those things. This parable is about the nature of God. It doesn’t matter who the sower is – he’s a stock figure. The places the seed land aren’t even that important. I think this parable is about what kind of work is ours to do, and what is God’s. It is our job to be faithful, to be as prayerful as we can be, and to act. What happens as a result, that is for God to determine.
The church, Tom Long writes, knows the truth of this parable. It takes the gospel into the world, hardly knowing where to cast the seed. A new idea for youth ministry falls flat on its face. A proposal for a needed neighborhood day care center is choked by bureaucratic regulations. A door to door evangelism program encounters locked doors and generates no new church members. There were a couple of wonderful older gentlemen in my previous congregation who, a couple of times a year would just walk around the neighborhood, telling them about things we were doing, inviting them to church. No one ever came. Nothing ever happened. Hard soil. Scorching sun. Sharp thorns.
But the church can also hear the promise of this parable. Keep on keepin’ on. Remain persistent. We are called to keep doing what we feel called to do. Worship and spend time with the text, dig in to the life of faith as best you can. That’s what we can do. Ultimately, even deeper, I think this parable gets at our notions of control. I think most of us who are used to having some element of control assume that the sowing of the seed, the proclamation of the gospel, the bearing of witness in the world, is ours to manage. Being in control, Alyce McKenzie writes, is a crucial value in our society. Margarine with cholesterol lowering benefits is called, ‘Take Control.’ A large part of our fear of aging, she writes, is the fear of being out of control, of our bodies, our resources, of where and how we shall live. We manage and over manage and micro-manage our families – we do this like crazy with our kids – our schedules, our spiritual lives. Worship – check. Do another thing or two – check, maybe even on a committee – extra credit, check. If we’ve done that, we must be fine, right? Our spiritual life is just another thing well-managed.
I have been particularly guilty of this over functioning during Lent. I have given up things, I have taken on things. In college I tried to avoid all gossip, all talk about other people, so I didn’t talk very much. Some of us another year tried to give up bad words, even doing pushups when we failed. Even in Lent, as we walk together towards the cross and these most holy of days, I was guilty of trying to manage my own spiritual program. And I didn’t need to. I needed to let it go just a little bit. Those of us in charge, or with control issues, need to do that sometimes.
So, I think the parable of the bad sower is maybe better named, the parable of the gracious harvest. We are reminded of our sovereign God, who in God’s own strange and mysterious ways, tends to God’s work of creation. Maybe, this Lent, we can step back from trying to manage the sowing. Don’t even worry too much about where the seed falls. Practice trusting that God will be God. Release Your grip just a bit, and see what happens…
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. I must begin with gratitude to my friends, Rebekah Abel Lamar and Pen Peery. Their project for a D.Min. class at Columbia Seminary forms the foundation for this series. Rebekah is the Director of Christian Education at Decatur Presbyterian in Decatur, Georgia, and Pen is the Pastor of First Presbyterian in Charlotte, NC.
2. Frank Luntz, Words that Work, (New York: Hyperion, 2007), p xiii, xxii.
3. Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 147.
4. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 298.
5. See Mark 4, as well as Long, 148-149.
6. Long, 147.
7. Alyce McKenzie, The Parables for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007), page 43.
We challenge all of Westminster to be involved in the fight against hunger by participating in the CROP Walk on Sunday, March 17, at 2:30pm. Sign-ups for walkers will be available after Sunday services beginning February 17. You can also sign up, sponsor a walker, and make your sponsorship payment online at www.durhamcropwalk.org.
If you do not sign up online, bring only the top copy of your envelope on the day of the walk (do not bring money). If ou are under 18, you will need the signature of a parent or guardian to participate. We will meet on the stairs of Duke Chapel at 2pm to register, and the walk will start at 2:30pm.
Please mark your calendars and join us, whether as a walker or sponsor. Together – with your family, group, or congregation – we can change the world, one step at a time!
Learn more about CROP Walk in the February 13 newsletter.