4 Lent: Choices

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The armchair preachers were wondering
what the word for this week would be.
On Lent One it was “fear,”
Lent Two “loss,”
Lent Three “thirst.”
If there is one word for this week
maybe you can figure it out.

For any of us who grew up in a Christian Church
the story we heard today
has been misnamed “The Prodigal Son.”
The emphasis is on “prodigal”
and that is because Christianity loves sin —
or loves to hate sin and talk about it.

So sin-loving theologians
and guilt-stroking preachers
seem to think the focus is on the youngest son
who is, of course, a major league sinner.

But the story, even as Luke tells it,
is about a parent with two children…a parent with two children.
You could call it a father with two sons,
but the gender of everyone of the main characters
could be switched out
to be a mother and two daughters.
It would be the same story.

So in this sense, because it is Jesus telling it,
the story is about God much more than the sons.

And when the focus shifts to the sons,
it is a story as much about
the choice of the oldest sibling
as it is about the choices of the youngest one.

I am pretty sure that there is more than
one person in this congregation
who might have been
a prodigal son or daughter.
And most adults I know
who were wayward
at one or more points in their life,
and then journeyed back to a more typical level of
human imperfection,
like this story a lot.
And one of the things we like about it,
especially if you happened to be the youngest child
(which I am), is that the finger-wagging oldest child
is left holding the bag with a sneer on his face.

I have also discovered that oldest children,
and even some middle children,
often do not feel warm and fuzzy about this story
in the same way prodigal or youngest children do.
Instead, their response is something like,
“Now isn’t that just like the youngest,
messing up and getting away with it?”

But either way, like all of Jesus’ stories,
it has a barbed hook in it.

The Story of a “Parent with Two Children”
is poignant
and challenging
no matter which character you identify with.

The two sons make starkly different choices
and yet the father neither affirms nor critiques
either son’s choice.
That right there should blow our minds.

The events of the story,
like life itself,
demonstrate that we live with the consequences
of our choices.

But the action and punch line of the story
hinge like a door on the Dad.

The Dad’s exuberant joy
upon the youngest son’s return
is like a shiny object that catches our attention.
We get caught up with the Dad’s abundant generosity,
either with appreciation for it
or discomfort that the youngest son
is getting away with something.

But the story is not over.

While the Dad welcomes the youngest son back,
he welcomes the oldest son in.
The Dad reaches across the angry,
bitter resentment of hurt and indignation
and invites the oldest son to stay connected.

Basically, the Dad says to the oldest son,
“What’s mine is yours…”
The extravagant love of the father
is extended to both his sons
with unbelievable excessiveness.
His love is not predicated
on any particular choice
either son makes.
Be they good, bad, or ugly choices
the love remains.
Now who loves like that?

Love not connected to the choices we make?
Love not tied to a string
at the other end of a condition?
Love centered in something utterly differentiated
from the actions of the person being loved?
Who loves like that?

Those of us who have been raised
on the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
of popular Christianity,
get smug about the Prodigal Son story
as if such extravagant love
is a unique characteristic of our religion.
It is like that awful camp song:

“They will know we are Christians by our love”
as if we love better
or differently than any other religion.

But centuries before Jesus was a gleam
in Joseph’s and Mary’s eyes,
God took the hand of a people
who had been used as mules
and brought them through the scorching desert,
and set them around a dinner table
on the Plains of Jericho
and fed them.

Here is where the two biblical stories we heard today
come together.

All the way along Israel’s ordeal –
escaping from the slave masters,
surviving wilderness,
living through anxiety and fear,
rebellion and chaos and isolation,
God fed them with a mysterious
and apparently natural y-formed substance
to keep them alive.
Manna, the sweet-bread of wilderness survival.

We heard today in Joshua,
that having crossed the Jordan River,
which throughout the Bible is always the boundary
between Wilderness and Promise,
God gives them a Passover Meal.

After that Passover Meal, manna disappears forever.

It cannot be a coincidence
that there is no Manna in the Promise Land.
That’s the punch line of that story:
There is no Manna in the Promise Land.
Manna is what sustains us
when we don’t have choices —
when we are powerless.

In those unusual times
when we find ourselves on a bobsled chute
going down a fast course
that God
or fate
or serendipity
or randomness
seems to have shoved us into,
the Exodus/Joshua story
says that God takes some responsibility
to sustain us with manna.

In such hazardous or traumatic times
manna may turn out to be actual bread
or emotional nurture
or a community of people who hold us up
or a power greater than ourselves
we don’t perceive or know about until later…

In such times,
and I know we have all had them,
we almost never realize
we are being sustained with manna
until afterwards.
It is when we look back
and suddenly realize
we could have never made on our own.

But the Exodus/Joshua story says out loud,
that when we get to the Promise Land –
or as in the story of the Parent with Two Children,
when we “come to our senses” –
it is then that we must start living again
by our own choices
and it is then that the manna ceases.

Now a lot of Christians say things like,
“put God in the drivers seat”
even though God doesn’t have a driver’s license.
If we expect God to run our lives
we are in for a horrible crash.

And a lot of people, Christian or not,
will say things like,
“It’s all good”
or “It was meant to be,”
as if we have no agency
and the choices we make
don’t matter.

But according to the Biblical vision of reality,
the Promise Land is the place
where we get to make our own choices
and where we get to live
with the consequence of those choices.

This biblical point of view is that of former slaves.
The Promise Land
is a place where we have freedom of choice
unfettered by powers greater than ourselves
making decisions for us –
whether Pharaoh or God.

The Promise Land is the place of choice
where we do not need to be sustained by manna
because we are making choices
that not only sustain us
but contribute to the sustenance
of the whole community.

There is no manna in the Promise Land
and we need to stop looking for it!

The Prodigal Son
does not expect to return and be rich.
His recovery
is based upon his accepting the consequences
of the choices he made.

His recovery
is based on the realization
that if he is going to be a laborer
instead of a prince,
he knows that being a laborer
in the service of his father
is better than being a laborer
in the service of someone
who does not care about him.

There is no proposal,
from either the youngest son or the father,
that the he gets to return as a prince.

The Dad welcomes him back
with excessive love
but there is no hint
that it means he is saved
from the consequences of his choices.
He gets a feast not another inheritance.
He gets work and wages, not privilege.

Likewise, the Dad offers the oldest son
a bridge back into the household,
but he is perfectly willing to let the oldest son suffer
the consequence of his resentment
if that is his son’s choice.

The Promise Land
is the one in which we have freedom to make choices;
in which we have the accountability
to live with the consequences of our choices;
and in which our only hope
is a kind of communalism
that creates a supreme interdependence
in which we sink and swim together.

Manna is only for those
who are on their way into or out,
even if they don’t know it yet,
a pig sty of one kind or another.

I truly do believe
there are precious times when
we are sustained with manna.
We only have it briefly,
just long enough to get to the Jordan River
and cross back into the Land of Choices.
But those are rare
and unpredictable moments
and we should never seek them
or count on them.
The times of manna are utter gifts.

So the Prodigal Son story –
which is really about the Dad –
is just another version
of an ancient covenant
that God made with those mule-people
twelve-hundred years before Jesus was born.

It is a relationship of promise
and the promise is this:
God loves us
so extravagantly
that regardless of the choices we make,
we will be greeted on the road of return
with a warm coat
and an even warmer embrace. BUT…
and this is part of the promise too,
that radically extravagant love
does not save us from our choices.

In fact, God promises
that we will be given the freedom
to live with the consequences of our choices.
That is the Promise Land and we live in it.

I sometimes get to the end of a sermon
like this one,
and say to myself, “What the heck did I say
that has value to anyone?”
But you know, we need to be reminded
that we are living in the Promise Land,
and it is a place
where our choices matter —
even the little ones.
That magical manna that saved us once
when we were powerless and in trouble
isn’t available to us here in the Promise Land.
It is our choices that matters.

You and I
are the sons and daughters
in that story — we are not the father or mother.

So I guess it just comes down to that:
thinking about our choices,
coming to our senses,
accepting God’s extravagant love
and then getting back to work
after the party is over.