Trading Corn Husks for Prime Rib

* This is the sermon I was to deliver today as part of our series entitled “Meal Times: Going Deeper with God and Others”. However, the weather decided to bless us with one last hurrah of snow and prevented us from gathering together physically. But snow cannot stop the gathering of the hearts and spirits of the Church. May you lift your palms this Palm Sunday in adoration of the One who loves us with an extravagant love.

Based on Luke 15:11-32.

prodigal-son (1)I’ve really not understood terror until I became an aunt. There are a lot of ways you could take that statement so let me explain. We often go out in public with the kids. That’s still not the terror part. The terror part comes when we are in the masses and all of the sudden I can’t find my niece or nephew.  A second ago, they were strangling my right leg. Now – they’ve vanished into a sea of tall, multiplying adults who suddenly look crazy and suspect. My heart begins to race, my stomach drops to the floor and every possible and impossible, horrible scenario runs through my mind. I start walking like I own a mall and panic starts to rise up in me as a scour the crowd for the little needle in the haystack that is my love.

And then, I see them. I see them mesmerized by some colorful toy or scene that drew them away from me. And all that I think and feel is relief. They are found.

I simply can’t imagine what kind of anguish one must experience when a child is really gone. But in these experiences where I lose them temporarily, I experience a small taste of it and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to bring them back to the safety of my presence.

I’ve always thought one of the most vulnerable, bravest things you can do is be a parent. An adoring aunt comes pretty close but it still isn’t the same. It is incredibly vulnerable to have a child. It is a weird feeling to see your heart walking around outside your body but that is what happens as a parent. And when you are a child, you think your parents are the strongest people in the world but parents know that the strongest love is also the most fragile, vulnerable love.

Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber posed this question recently on her blog. “There is so much talk out there about the strength of God and the mightiness of God and the awesomeness of God. But what of the vulnerability of God?”

Our God is strong and mighty and awesome. Our God is a Creator and a Parent. God has the strongest love possible for His children. Perhaps then, God also knows something about vulnerability. And I agree with Weber that it seems that the parable of the lost son is Jesus’s attempt at helping us understand the vulnerable love of God. 

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Love-Crazy Father

Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son"

Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”

This Sunday I’m preaching on the story of the Prodigal Son (or as I prefer to call it – The Story of the Love-Crazy Father). It was the assigned text for this Sunday and also happens to be my favorite parable told by Jesus.

For most of my life, I focused predominately on the prodigal son. Because I get him. I am him. Most of my faith journey with God has consisted of me sneaking back to the pig pen to stay the night because I feel like that is where I deserve to sleep and exist. I felt so unworthy of the outrageous love of my Father and the lavished banquet He wants to throw for me. I thought that my big brother was right to be mad that I didn’t get justice but rather mercy. But now I know that the love crazy Father is the heart of the story.

It is really only recently that God has convinced me that I actually hurt Him by my refusal to receive His love. God weeps over us when shame and self-hatred immobilize us. God is the father who ran to His lost son when he came limping home. God is the one who interrupts our lame apology speeches in order to get the celebration started.

Oddly, it is because I love Him so much and can’t stand to hurt Him that I was willing to try receiving His love without pity or pride. To learn to enjoy Him and His extravagant love.

Like the confused and self-hating son, I’ve thought my restoration will come in my repentance. But restoration is only found in love – sincere acceptance of God’s overwhelming, foolish, unexplainable, unmeasurable love. Running into the embrace of our merciful Father who has been pacing on the road waiting for us to come home is the ultimate finish line. Believing that the minute the Father saw us limping home, His joy at our return erases every pain from our earlier departure is the beginning of our new life with Him.

God has never asked or wanted me to earn His love. It is laughable to even think it is possible. But beyond laughable, it is hurtful to Him whose only desire is to love us with a crazy, over-the-top love. If my niece or nephew held my love at bay because they didn’t think they deserved it, it would crush me.  If a friend didn’t let me love on him or her with small, unexpected surprises, it steals from me. God’s lavish love has nothing to do with my worth but everything to do with His love. His only desire is for us to receive His love and live out of that great love. Our restoration and the restoration of others will follow.

Repentance is an expression of gratitude rather than an effort to earn forgiveness. Thus the sequence of forgiveness and then repentance, rather than repentance and then forgiveness, is crucial for understanding the gospel of grace. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 75.)

A Youth Pastor’s Hurt

I wrote this a year ago after some time with some former youth. I’m currently working on a sermon that brought it to mind and decided to share it again.

I’m starting my thirteenth year as a youth pastor at the same church. That is a really long time in youth ministry and a really long time as a youth pastor in the same church. I remember my current youth when they were mere babies and the first youth I had in my ministry are now having babies.

Over the thirteen years, I’ve shared countless moments with hundreds of teenagers. I honestly don’t have a number for you but I do have names. Names and faces;  joys and sorrows.

It is important to remember the joys from the years. Those memories are life-giving and often help spur continued years of ministry. I recently experienced reunions with a couple of youth that had taken the Prodigal Son route and when they were ready to return home, I’m so grateful that I could help demonstrate God’s grace and love to them.  I can’t capture in words how much joy that brought to my life to see them let go of baggage and grab hold of God again. It is worth it all to see them come Home, to see them shed the guilt, pain and burdens.

But I still remember the time when they “left”. When our relationship was broken or  distant. And there lies some of the darkest moments for a youth pastor (and pastors and parents and pretty much any human that loves another human).

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