Proper 19 (Sept. 11-17)
Texts: Luke 15:1-10;
Ex. 32:7-14; 1 Tim. 1:12-17
INVITATION TO CONVERSION
I begin with a story from Christian author Diana Butler Bass about the terrible events we remember from 15 years ago tomorrow/today.
On September 12, 2001, I drove my daughter to preschool. It was like any early autumn day in Washington, D.C., warm, sunny with brilliant blue skies. Except that it was not normal. It was the day after 9/11. Officials told us to go on. Go to work or school. Get up and go on.
As we drove north on the George Washington Parkway along the banks of the Potomac River, a song came on the radio:
I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them bloom, for me and you,
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.
With Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice singing “What a Wonderful World,” I pulled into a parking lot … and sobbed. It was as if the universe had ripped in two, revealing a vast emptiness at its core. The world was fractured, broken, covered in the dust of pain, oppression, violence, and death. Was the world ever really wonderful? Wasn’t it always sinful? Didn’t 9/11 just confirm the story of the fall, of this brutal place where brother has always turned against brother and neighbor killed neighbor? A wonderful world? Really? I turned the radio off and drove on in silence.
Where was God in the midst of all this? On that day, I had no idea. But I knew that nothing would ever be the same. . . . (Grounded, pp. 267-68)
It turns out that one of the crucial things that was never the same for Diana Butler Bass is her faith. She speaks of undergoing a conversion in the years following 9/11.
Last week, we spoke of two types of spirituality: one where God is on our side, a God who rewards and punishes, blesses and curses. And the other spirituality is of a God who represents oneness and doesn’t take sides at all, a God who is seeking the blessing of all the families of the earth. Most often, a conversion from one spirituality to the other happens at a time of crisis and loss — the kind of life event that challenges the notion of God taking sides. We heard the story of Paula and Susan last week, who tragically lost family members to car crashes involving drunk drivers. When horrific loss hits like that, we try to make sense out of the standard spirituality of our cultures, where God is on our side. We ask, “If God blesses and curses on the basis of my deserving, then what did I do to deserve this?” It is a devastating question to add to the devastation.
Or one begins to experience the incredible grace of a God who doesn’t take sides, a God who gives life as a pure gift and who holds our times of grief and loss in oneness together with the times of joy. This is admittedly a very different God, a God who is not so much orchestrating things from above but instead being present with us below. Isaiah prophesied the coming of Immanuel, which means God-with-us. And the Gospel of Matthew presents that prophecy as fulfilled in Jesus.
Our Gospel Reading today gives us another example of the basic difference in gods, not that God changes but that our human experience of who God is might change. The scribes and Pharisees remain locked into the standard God of our cultures who plays sides. They divide the world between sinners and righteous, and so they don’t understand why Jesus hangs around with and even eats with sinners. Jesus tells them a series of parables that show us a God who doesn’t play favorites but is always working to bring everything and everyone into the fold, going after those who are lost — like a shepherd seeking a lost sheep, or a woman seeking a lost coin. And the parable that comes next is the magisterial Parable of the Lost or Prodigal Son. He is a father who does not remain distant but comes out to his sons, meeting the younger one before he reaches home, and coming out to his elder son when he won’t come to the party. The elder son lives by the standard logic of getting rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad behavior. And what is the father’s response to his elder son’s logic? “‘Son,’ he says, ‘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.’” Jesus is helping us to meet anew a God like this father, who is not about rewarding and punishing but about restoring that which is lost and raising that which is dead. This father is not about orchestrating everything from his position of authority but about being present and in relationship. “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Like we talked last week, life as pure gift.
In our Second Reading today, St. Paul speaks of a similar conversion. He had been one of those Pharisees who still believed in the standard God who rewards and punishes. And so he had been one who saw himself as righteously bringing God’s punishment to evil-doers. It took an experience of being confronted by the risen Jesus to bring his conversion to the God of forgiveness, the God of healing and new life. The God who picks us up when we fall, who seeks us when we are lost, who comforts us when we suffer loss, and who rejoices with us when we experience the fulness of life.
Now, because this God is a God of grace and invitation, one can always prefer to stay with the traditional God who is on our side. At the end of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we don’t know what the elder son chooses. Does he go in and celebrate, or stick to his guns of resenting the celebration for his lost-and-found brother? And what about the Pharisees present for the parables in today’s reading? We know that many of them stuck to their guns and were part of the plot to punish Jesus according to their experience of a God who rewards and punishes. But we also know that some other Pharisees responded to the crises of their time by converting to a God of gracious presence and oneness. St. Paul was one of those Pharisees.
On this fifteenth anniversary of the horrific terrorist attack, how have we responded to this crisis? How many have stuck to their guns of a God who punishes, a God who is on our side against our enemies? And how many have experienced what Diana Butler Bass testifies in her book Grounded, which we are studying this Fall in the Sunday morning adult class? Diana articulates the kind of conversion we have been talking about today, from a God who orchestrates things from above to a God who is present with us in the world, bringing healing and comfort and new life — and a God who is seeking oneness for the whole human family through forgiveness and grace.
As we begin another school year here at Faith, we are nine months hence from a congregational meeting that brought hurt and division [voting down the call of an openly gay pastor]. I bring this up for a couple reasons. One is the opportunity to say that this isn’t about punishing anyone, on either side of the division. Rather, it’s the opposite. I bring it up in the context of proclaiming a God beyond punishing and rewarding, who seeks our healing and restoration to oneness. It is the ongoing invitation to experience a conversion to the God of grace and peace, because it is so easy for us to keeping falling back to that God on our side, who prompts us to take sides.
I also bring it up today at a time of a new start, a new start of the school year. Our Call Committee and Council have been working through the summer to complete the paperwork and preparation to renew the interviewing of pastoral candidates. It is a good time for a fresh start, beginning with the Faith Funfest as a way of reaching out to all God’s children. Let us first celebrate by coming to our Lord’s Table, a table of forgiveness and reconciliation, a table of invitation to conversion — conversion to the God who dares to welcome and eat with sinners. We have to celebrate, you see, because we were dead in our sins and have come to life; we were lost and have been found. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, September 10-11, 2016