Sermon: “The Foolishness of God’s Love”

“The Foolishness of God’s Love”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
March 31, 2019

Joshua 5:9-12
The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’ And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

While the Israelites were encamped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable:

‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 2for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 3But 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 want to start with a story this morning. In the spirit of the prodigal son, it’s a story of a parent driven to despair by her child’s wayward ways. And yes, I have the wayward child’s permission to tell this story.

Last weekend, my daughter Davie had a friend over to play. Davie is almost 5 – 4-and-three-quarters, as she will tell you – and growing more responsible every day. But like most preschoolers, she still has plenty of mischief in her. On this particular day, her friend’s mom and I were sitting in the kitchen, enjoying our tea and catching up, when we realized that the girls had been quiet just a little too long. You know that moment, right? Terrifying. So I went upstairs to check on them, and heard stifled little girl giggles coming from behind our bedroom door. Chris and I usually lock this door during playdates to ward off temptation, but I realized with mounting dismay that we had forgotten this time, and I was about to find out what our carelessness had wrought.

First, though, I had to get the door open, which I discovered was nearly impossible because the girls had taken every stitch of fabric in our bedroom – clean clothes, dirty clothes, bed sheets, towels, blankets, and even our shoes for good measure – and barricaded the door with them. My efforts were greeted with more peals of laughter as the girls watched me struggle. When I finally edged my way through the mountain of stuff, I shepherded the girls out of the room and made sure to lock the door behind me. I decided I didn’t want to spend my precious adult conversational time refereeing cleanup, although I did remind the girls that dumping all of our stuff out was not an appropriate choice.

So imagine my despair when, having said goodbye to our friends an hour later, I went upstairs to discover that the girls had also dumped every single toy in Davie’s room into a giant pile on the floor. There must be a kind of visceral, perverse joy in a dump like that – a wild abandon in thumbing your nose at the rules in such a flagrant way. I imagine the prodigal son knew a little something about that feeling of rebellious freedom.

Of course, that two minutes’ worth of wanton destruction took two hours to clean up, with Chris and I – working in shifts because it took so long – painstakingly encouraging Davie to put her toys back where they belonged. When we got to our bedroom, I started folding and putting things away, letting her know that I expected her to help me and that if she chose not to, she would lose some privileges. By this time, she was, not surprisingly, overwhelmed at the task in front of her, so she chose to play while I worked. And as I worked by myself, I fumed – about all the time wasted on cleaning up, about a completely unnecessary mess, and about the indignity of my child so flagrantly breaking the rules while I tried to enjoy just a little precious adult time with a friend. And as I fumed, I got madder and madder. After all, it’s hard enough keeping things neat when there’s a baby living in your bedroom without a preschooler adding to the chaos, and here I was, trying to sort clean laundry from dirty by the thoroughly unpleasant sniff test. I was going to be SO firm with her.

So when I had almost finished, and Davie, having processed her feelings and gathered some more willpower, came over and said, so apologetically, “Can I help now?” I just about boiled over. “Jesus,” I silently grumbled, “I know it’s Lent and we’re supposed to be working on virtues like patience…but really?” This was not shaping up to be one of my finer parenting moments.

But then something happened that I can’t explain. I opened my mouth with a lecture on my lips about how she had had her chance and now it was too late – but instead the words that came out were “Sure, you can help.” And as I watched her little face light up and her body language shift from the shame of misbehavior to the cheerfulness of purpose, something shifted in me, too – and suddenly I was more than ready to trade all of my righteous indignation for the return of my happy, helpful child. She did have to stay out of our bedroom the rest of the weekend, though.

Thinking back over this episode, it seems to me that I somehow contracted a touch of whatever the father of the prodigal son had. In an act that seems illogical to any parent committed to helping their child learn to face the consequences of their actions, the father in this morning’s Gospel passage waives all thought of punishment in favor of a joyful embrace of his child – a child who had just squandered all his father had given him. What makes the father’s forgiveness even more remarkable is that in those days, as now, children normally had to wait for a parent to die to inherit their wealth. Yet the prodigal son shamelessly asks for his half while his father is still alive, essentially wishing his father dead.

What a slap in the face – and yet, the father chooses mercy over punishment and belonging over estrangement.

It might sound nice in a story, but my own experience – and the experience of the brother, who is none too happy that his wayward sibling is being welcomed home with a feast and fancy clothes while his own diligent, responsible work goes unrewarded – remind us that responding out of frustration, anger, or wounded pride comes far more naturally to us. Oure Indeed, welcoming back with open arms someone who dismissed and defied us seems utterly foolish – how will we recover the respect we deserve, how will we make sure the offender understands the gravity of their actions, how will we ensure they don’t drag us through that again? How, for the love of Pete, do we make sure all the toys stay in their baskets and the clothes in the hamper??

The truth is, we worship a God who is far more concerned with relationship that with righteous indignation. This story isn’t a free pass to overlook wrongs or let others walk all over us – but it is an invitation to examine where we would rather hold on to being right than open ourselves to being in relationship. It’s also a reminder that we have our own prodigal moments – and yet God welcomes us back, time and time again – not begrudgingly, but with a celebration!

You see, friends, I have a suspicion that the two are connected. If we believe that whatever we’ve done is beyond the pale – that God couldn’t possibly forgive us, let alone celebrate our return, and that the best we can expect is to be treated like a guilty, shameful slave, a motherless child – then of course we’ll have trouble living out of joyful mercy toward others.

But if we know, deep in our bones, that God is preparing a feast for us the moment we’re spotted on the horizon – then it’s only natural that we’ll share that same abundant, merciful love with those around us.

For my Lenten practice, I’ve been praying the Rosary each day with an online community. Don Calloway, one of the guests they’ve had on to pray with them, tells the story of when his family moved to Japan for his dad’s military career, he became a drug runner for the yukuza, the Japanese mafia. Eventually he was arrested and banned from the country. “They literally kicked me out of the country with two military police officers handcuffed at my feet and my hands, and I was released into the custody of my father,” he said.

At 16 he found himself back in the US swinging between drug highs and depressive lows. He’d disappear for days at a time, only staying with his parents when he couldn’t find a friend’s or stranger’s place to crash at. But one night, trying to distract himself from suicidal thoughts, he picked a book off of his parents’ bookshelf about Mary, Jesus’ mother, and how she embodied God’s love for even the most lost. Intrigued, but convinced that God and Jesus must hate him the way he in his disdain for religion had hated them, he stayed up all night reading. Desperate for the hope this book offered him, early the next morning he snuck into the chapel on base. To his surprise, there were already people there – five Filipina women praying the rosary. One turned to him, this scruffy, sleepless white kid, and asked him if he’d like to join them. He had no idea what they were saying, and he didn’t know any of the prayers. But their warm welcome drew him in, and every day after that, they would meet with him to pray, a tangible anchor of God’s love as he clawed his way back up from the depths.

Now a priest, Father Calloway says “I often tell people that I’m Exhibit A of Divine Mercy…I’ve done so many bad things and hurt so many people, and yet there’s mercy for someone like me. And if that’s true, and it is, then…there’s an ocean of mercy waiting for us.” Father Calloway has spent his adult life sharing this message with others because he knows for himself how deeply real it is: “God is madly in love with you, [God]’s longing for your friendship.”

Yes, you. Yes your friendship. No matter how foolish it seems that we, with all our foibles, faults, regrets, and mistakes, would merit God throwing a party for us – it’s true. And the more we can dare to believe that it’s true – the more we can relax into the reality that we are God’s beloved children – the more easily we’ll find God’s love leaping off of our lips and the more easily we’ll pass on God’s peace to those around us – even to the wayward children in our own lives.

Let’s close with a prayer:

Eternal Lover of our wayward race,
you open your arms to accept us
even before we turn to meet your welcome;
you invite us to forgiveness
even before our hearts are softened to repentance.
Hold before us the image of our humanity made new,
so that we may live in Jesus Christ as your new creation.