Sunday, March 04, 2007

Grace Beyond the Rules

One of the songs we sang this morning goes, “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear…” I like that song, mainly because it reminds me that Jesus was a terrific storyteller. Most of his sermons were probably about 10 minutes long and consisted of one or more stories that held people’s attention but always – always drove home an important point from God.

But he did more than just tell stories; his life itself was a story – the story - filled with emotion, conviction, and hope. Recently I have conducted several funeral services and at each of those, we usually read some of the information found in the Obituary. That column in the newspaper that some of you look at each day just to see if your name is written there. You know it is going to be a good day, if you are not listed.

An obituary is an interesting bit of journalism. I am not sure who came up with the idea of writing a death notice in the newspaper but it has been going on for a long time. Regardless of its origin, obituaries always contain some of the same information. They contain the name, age, date of birth and date of death. They usually list the towns where a person lived and some information about their occupation and hobbies. The end is usually saved for mentioning the surviving family members.

The person’s home address is no longer mentioned in most newspapers because family members have been known to come home from the cemetery and find that their home had been burglarized.

But the obituary notice is amazingly short on real facts about a person’s life. It is sort of like looking at a gravestone with the name and dates of birth and death on them with no further information. They just don’t tell us everything about that person’s life.

What we do in the funeral service is to take a few moments to remember the activities and important events in someone’s life so that we can begin the healing process. In short, what we do is tell the stories of someone’s life rather than just the facts. And what makes those stories healing to us is that by tying them together, we get a better picture of who that person was and why that person should be remembered.

While I was in Tennessee, I was once asked by a local funeral home to come to the cemetery to conduct a graveside service for an elderly man in our community. His nearest relative was a nephew living in Florida. When I arrived at the cemetery, the only people present besides myself was the funeral director and the gravedigger. No relative had come to say good-bye to this man. And I only knew his name, age, and information from the obituary. From my experience that was the saddest funeral that I have ever attended, much less conducted. There was no story to tell about this man. No comfort, no help but from the Bible and a short prayer.

That is the problem with reality television. I never watch those things like Big Brother, because they at not stories about people’s lives, they are only a chronicle, an observation. They are a neutral, meaningless, summary of information about people without any sense or purpose.

Jesus makes meaningful sense of life’s experiences and as he does so, gives us hope for tomorrow. “Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear…”

The story we read this morning is one of those favorite stories. As the first lines were read, I am sure that most of us in the room immediately knew what was coming next – and yet, I never tire of hearing this story. Maybe you like it too.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the best-known stories in Christianity … and indeed in the history of literature. It is so easy for us to identify with any of the three main characters, and to identify with the eternal internal struggle of the family.

Our heart goes out to the prodigal younger son, because we have all been young, foolhardy, selfish, impatient, and made a total wreck of our lives. Our heart goes out to the father, because we have all failed to be the parent we want to be, watched helplessly as our children hurt themselves, yearned desperately for their return, and worked tirelessly for the well-being of the whole family. And our heart goes out to the older son, because we have all felt unappreciated for our dedication, deserving of more than that which we have received, and jealous of the success of others.

With whom do you identify right now? With whom will you identify several years from now? Prodigal children grow up to be older brothers … and older brothers grow up to be worried fathers … and even worried fathers are tempted to chuck it all, divorce their wives, and run off to Vegas where they will squander their living and eventually end up in a pig sty. And yes, the same thing can be said of younger prodigal sisters, older sisters who stay at home to take care of the family, and their mothers.

It would be nice if Jesus also finished this story about how to solve these family problems, but he doesn’t. The story ends with no resolution. We don’t know if the younger son ever really grew up or even if the older brother finally went into the party and forgave his brother and his father.

The resolution of the pain in this family is going to require more than therapy, or some coaching on basic ethical behavior, or three people learning to suck it up and behave like adults for a change. I am not even sure if Dr. Phil could intervene here for a long-term solution. In this love triangle, the resolution literally requires a miracle.

What makes this story so powerful in our lives is that it is also our story. Somebody in the story that Jesus tells is morally, ethically, even literally “dead” … and becomes morally, ethically, and even literally “alive” again. Somebody else is relationally, emotionally, and even literally dying … and becomes relationally, emotionally, and literally hopeful again. Somebody else is selfishly, angrily, resentfully about to die … and is rescued for compassion, forgiveness, and love just on the brink of losing it forever. So it’s no wonder that they kill the fatted calf and rejoice. (easum/

Of course, this is a parable about God and the two basic kinds of people who make up God’s family. Those who are strangers to grace and have either walked away from the community of faith or never been a part of it, and there are strangers to grace who have remained involved in the community of faith out of habit or duty or something else.

This is a story about family squabbles and about broken relationships but it is mostly a story about forgiveness. I think I have mentioned to you before that forgiveness is probably the hardest concept within our faith that we have to deal with. We want forgiveness for ourselves but we are not sure if we want to extend it to someone else unless they demonstrate they are “truly sorry for their sins.”

A teacher once told each of her students to bring a clear plastic bag and a sack of potatoes to school. For every person they refuse to forgive in their life's experience, they chose a potato, wrote on it the name and date, and put it in the plastic bag. Some of their bags were quite heavy.

They were then told to carry this bag with them everywhere for one week, putting it beside their bed at night, on the car seat when driving, next to their desk at work.

The hassle of lugging this around with them made it clear what a weight they were carrying spiritually, and how they had to pay attention to it all the time to not forget and keep leaving it in embarrassing places. Naturally, the condition of the potatoes deteriorated to a nasty smelly slime. This was a great metaphor for the price we pay for keeping our pain and heavy negativity! Too often we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, and it clearly is for ourselves! (author unknown)

But why is forgiveness so hard? After all, forgiveness is what separates us from the animals around us. The fact is that to preach forgiveness is easy but living forgiveness is what is hard. To forgive is to embrace humility.

Imagine that you are that son wasting away in a pigsty and wondering what in the world you have gotten yourself into. There you are in the midst of what you have done to yourself and knowing that you have hurt your family in so many ways. What do you do? How do you go on?

Of course, many people find themselves in this position and because they are so proud, would never admit that they had done anything wrong at all. So they just stay where they are and wallow in their pain – too proud to ask forgiveness and too proud to forgive themselves.

Then there is the older brother in this story. I can imagine him working every day alongside his Dad – doing whatever he could to make life easier for his father and every day seeing the pain in his father’s eyes. Year after year, hearing his father call out for the son that had left home – the anger and hatred for his brother growing day after day.

Then one day that brat of a little brother comes home and the old man throws a great party – fatted calf, jewelry and friends over for the celebration. And what does Dad ask the older brother to do? Come on in and join the party – let’s all forgive your brother – he was lost and is found – he was dead and is now alive again!

I imagine the amount of pride that the older brother would have to swallow in order to forgive that person who had caused Dad so much pain.

And of course, the main character in this story is the dignified father. The man who was a leading citizen – everyone knew what had happened. And every one expected the old man to punish this wayward son – but what happened? This dignified, well respected citizen of the community does the most unexpected thing of all – he opens up the kitchen door and runs – RUNS – down the road to meet his son and throws the biggest party ever on that ranch.

How hard is it for you to forgive someone this morning? Or maybe I should ask how hard is it for you to ask for forgiveness for something you have done?

Something is needed to bring this family together again – something tangible, touchable, a miracle. If only we could find a fatted calf to slay in whose body and blood we might all be reunited – one who could stand in absolute identity with God and with each of us as well. A miracle that could bring us all together again.

Of course, we have such a miracle. And it is pictured in the event we are about to do in a few moments. For in a few moments we are going to re-enact an event, which reminds us that God swallowed his pride- came and walked among us and then even died for us. But the event does not stop there – it also reminds us that there is hope for all who meet him here.

This morning I want to say to you that if you want to be a leader in the world, then do what the world does not expect – swallow your pride – get rid of it and come to the table. God has prepared for you – God has forgiven you – and God wants you to forgive too.

Our rules for living may say to us that we need justice – God says let’s break the rules and give grace and forgiveness even to those who don’t deserve it.


Sista Cala said...

The potato story is a great idea, I may want to use it in Sunday School sometime.

About the obits/tomb rocks: they have the born date and the death date. between the 2 dates is a dash. The dash is their life. It can't be told in an obituary or in a epitaph. It can only be told by the lives it impacted.

My prayer is that my story will be told in a positive light by those I have touched. With this in mind, I strive to live right, teach right, and be right.

NMayes said...

I like the observation about the two dates and the dash. How much more attention do the two dates get than the dash? While the dates are part of the definition of who we were, the dash defines who we are.