Sunday, October 12, 2014

According To Luke: Which One Are You?

Luke 15:11-32  (NRSV)
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 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. 21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”

We all know this parable --- it is one that has been taught over and over.

But I think it is a powerful parable about the church and our society today.

It is so familiar that I think that we need to look at the story closely because we often overlook some of the subtle clues that Luke leaves us.

This parable is the third of three parables found in Luke Chapter 15 about being LOST.
·         the lost sheep
·         the lost coin
·         the lost son

The parable begins with Jesus saying that: "a man has two sons"

That's an interesting identification --- don't you think --- when we look at the whole story.

Jesus introduces the siblings as "sons" and not "brothers" because the story focuses on the relationship to the father --- and it leaves for our minds to figure out just what kind of relationship these two "sons" have with each other.

And it seems --- at least to me --- that it is a strained relationship

The mother, and any sisters of the boys, do not seem to play any role in this story.

When we think about siblings --- we recall that the bible is filled with stories of relationships between siblings that were strained
          Cain and Able
          Ishmael and Isaac
          Jacob and Esau
          Joseph and his brothers

What is interesting in all these stories is God favored the YOUNGER BROTHER, and often seemed to turn against the elder siblings.

Our story begins with the younger son going to his father and saying to him:  “Give me what is mine!”

The laws regarding such a request are not entirely clear --- but they are clear enough that it is obvious that what this younger son has requested is not only irregular but also highly disrespectful
The interesting thing, of course, is that nothing was his --- at least not until his father dies
So what he was basically saying to his dad is --- I wish you were dead --- or maybe even --- I am going to treat you like you are dead

To me --- one of the most fascinating parts of this story is lost in translation because what the father says in the Greek literally is:
          "So, he divided his life between them."

We tend to read it as ---- "he divided his property between them"

The father, however is gracious and gives his son what he wants --- his portion of the estate

According to Mosaic Law --- the eldest child would receive a double portion of the estate --- so our younger son in the story gets 1/3 of the fathers wealth

He takes the money and he heads off to Las Vegas (or at least the boats)

Blows the money on Wine, Women and Gambling

Again, what a careful examination of the story tells us is that the younger son begins a progressive estrangement from his family.

First, he collects his goods and travels to a "distant land" ---- this of course would be a non-Jewish --- GENTILE land

Second, he quickly seems to squander his inheritance on loose and fast living.

And at this point in the story we are told that a famine took place --- implying that charity became hard to get.

Finally, he totally renounces his family and attaches himself to a Gentile, as a servant or slave, who orders him to feed his pigs!

          Pigs were an abomination to the Jews.

We are told in Leviticus that they are unclean.

Leviticus 11:7   (NRSV)
The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.

And then the author of Deuteronomy even makes it more clear that Jews were to stay away from pigs.

Deuteronomy 14:8   (NRSV)
And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses.

So complete is the younger son's fall --- so desperate is his need that he was willing to eat the slop that was being fed to the pigs.

His collapse is complete --- he really can't fall any farther.

In the midst of the pig pen, we are told that --- the younger son "came to himself".

Luke is telling us that this destitute man, who had given up family and tribe, began the process of reclaiming his identity.

He swallows his pride and resolves that he will do as Jacob had done long before --- return to his country and his kindred.

But he returns with very low expectations

He seems to have realized that he has no claims on his father's goods.     
Morally he recognizes that he doesn't even have the right to be considered a son

But he hopes --- that maybe his father will have mercy on him and welcome him back as a servant in the household.

The way the story is told --- as the younger son is on his way home he is rehearsing his speech that he will give to his father.

This speech has four parts
·         an address --- "father"
·         a confession --- "I have sinned"
·         a contrition ---- "I am no longer worthy"
·         a petition --- "treat me like one of your hired hands"

This monolog by the younger son lets us see into the very heart of his soul

This is a classic story of REPENTANCE
          Which literally means "turning around"

The son --- who had headed off AWAY from his family has now TURNED BACK toward them --- uncertain of what the outcome will be --- yet willing to go anyway

Up to now the story has focused on the point of view of the younger son --- now it shifts to the father

No other image has come closer to describing the character of God than the waiting father.
·         peering down the road
·         longing for his son's return
·         waiting
·         springing to his feet and RUNNING down the road to meet him

That image is so powerful to me

In ancient Israel it was considered unbecoming --- you could say a loss of dignity --- for a grown man to run.
          It just didn't happen

YET, that is exactly what the father does

His compassion --- his longing for his son --- his joy at seeing him returning  --- was enough for him to set aside all concern for propriety and to RUN and see his son.

But this has happened before in our Biblical text.

When Jacob returns home Esau runs to him
Genesis 33:4   (NRSV)
But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

And as his father embraces him, the younger son begins his rehearsed speech.
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But before he can even beg to be allowed to return as a servant the father exclaimed:
 ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

The father is telling the whole community through his actions that this son of his has returned and is to be treated as a son again.

The father's words sum up the whole first part of the story
"this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!"

He was dead because he has broken his relationship with family
dishonored his father
left his home
left his land and lived among Gentiles

But the father welcomes him home --- and restores him to life

And if the story ended there --- it would be a great and powerful story about God's love for each of us.
We are never so far lost that God stops looking and waiting for us

But we have a second part to this story which is maybe even more important for us

Finally in verse 25 we meet the older son for the very first time.

The story tells us that as he is coming in from a day of working he hears some type of celebration --- music --- dancing

He calls one of the servants and asks what is going on
          "Your brother has come"

Those words were enough to set off the elder son
          He has no brother --- he is dead
          He refuses to come into the house

The father leaves the house (once again) and goes out to meet one of his sons

The conversation that takes place between the elder son and the father really is the climax of the whole parable

And the conversation begins with the elder son venting his anger

Notice how the tone is very different from the conversation between the younger son and the 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!'

While the younger son address him as "father" the elder just says "LISTEN"

And he goes on to berate both his father and his brother.

But the father's response has only one goal --- To restore the family relationships!

Even though the elder son did not address him as "father", the father's first word is "Son"

"Son, 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.”

For the father --- it is all about relationships

Legally --- since the younger son had already received his inheritance --- everything that was left was the elder sons --- and the father reminds his son of that.

He explains to his son why the celebration was so important --- for his son who was lost --- who was dead ---- was found.

It is a great story --- but it begs the question ---- WHO DO YOU IDENTIFY WITH?

Many of us have been the younger son --- we have headed out in ways that were destructive to ourselves and our relationships --- we have turned our backs on family and God

We are here today because we saw that  the way we were heading was leading toward death and destruction and we made a decision to REPENT ---- to turn around and go back home

But for many that isn't the case.

You have stayed faithful to the family --- faithful to God --- the whole time --- our whole lives

So, I think if we are honest with ourselves --- Many of us really identify with the elder brother.

We don't really believe that God loves unconditionally
          And so when somebody falls --- we pile on

I have witnessed first hand where a person who had fallen away from the Christian community and then when they find their way back home one of the hardest things for us to do in the community is to truly welcome them back
          We don't trust
          We assume that they are working some angle
          We look for them to fail again

In other words, we act like the elder brother and feel almost as if certain people have lost the right to be a part of the family.
We want them excommunicated
Or at least we give them the silent treatment and hope that they go on their own

But this parable is an invitation
It is an invitation to us to be like the FATHER.

To be watching and waiting for their return and then to welcome them with open arms and a party

Monday, October 06, 2014

What do I believe? Day 1

That is the question that was given to my CnC (Confirm not Conform) Adult class last night.  The issue isn't what have others told me I SHOULD believe --- the question is what do I believe.  The other assignment was to find some type of spiritual practice and do it every day for the next week.  So I have decided to put them together.  My practice will be to write (journal) every day.  We will see how well I am able to do it.  My goal is to do it first thing in the morning --- but time will tell . . .

Have you ever really thought about what you believe?  To sit down and write out what one really believes is a scary task.  It forces me to look with honesty at what is in the depths of my soul --- not just the politically correct statements that come out of my mouth.  As some of you read this (fortunately not many do) I will probably share heresies according to the "church."  I am alright with that --- I hope that you are too, but regardless --- this is about me trying to mine the depths of my soul and put words to the most perplexing (an ultimately impossible to understand) concepts of all time.

My intention is to take each day this week and lift up one concept.  Today I will look at God; followed by Jesus, the Spirit, the Bible, the Church and then who knows what.  I just hope I don't chicken out.  By then I might not be employed any longer, and looking for new opportunities!

One other comment, this is not about seeking a debate.  We all approach these concepts with different eyes and different world views --- I will respect yours --- please respect mine.


Who is God to me?  I believe God is creator.  Did it happen with a big bang, or Adam and Eve? --- I don't know (and don't really care).  My hunch is science has a better handle on it than the biblical texts but regardless, I believe in a God who is behind it all.

I love how Paul Tillich describes God.  Tillich called God being itself --- God is not a being among other beings.  The phrase that is often associated with Tillich and one that I have latched on to is "God is the ground of all being."  It goes beyond the scope of this today to dig into what that means -- but in as nutshell for me it means two things 1) God is.  Nothing really else needs to be, or can be, said about that.  2) God is not a theistic being living up in heaven.  That is probably the more troubling concept to many, because the church has continually taught that God is "up" there, sitting on a throne or judgment seat.  For me God is not "up" there but God is here.

That leads to another area that needs exploring.  I do not believe God is an interventionist God.  I don't believe Tom Brady played better football last night because his priest publicly prayed to God about it.  If God does intervene, God seems awfully shallow and capricious, and that is not the God I believe in.  I have written about this many times over the years.

So what does God do?  God gives us a moral direction and code that is constantly being revised and challenged in light of culture.  The challenge is to keep at the center what is at the center of God.  And to me, that is LOVE.  Scot McKnight and I would disagree on many things, but one thing we agree on is that the center of the Christian Biblical message is found it what he dubbed "the Jesus Creed".  The Jesus Creed really isn't anything more than the central conviction of the Hebrew Bible (the Shema) along with a passage from Leviticus 19:18.  In all three synoptic Gospels, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is. 
“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”  Mark 12

God came to teach us about LOVE!  If you don't learn anything else, but learn to love (truly love) the world would be a better place and more like the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.  I will discuss that when I get to Jesus.

This certainly isn't a systematic approach to what I believe.  But it is an attempt on my part to state where I stand.  But at the end of the day I have to admit --- I really don't know.  God is beyond my capacity to really understand.  All I have is my experiences and the teachings that have been shared with me.  I am in no way a real scholar --- but
I seek to learn each and every day. 

I challenge you to honestly write down what is in your heart.  What do you believe about God (not what have others told you that you must believe).

Sunday, October 05, 2014

According To Luke: Are You Invited?

According To Luke: Are You Invited?

Luke 14:15-24   (NRSV)
One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

This morning our parable that Jesus shares with us has a multitude of possible lessons to be found in it.

It is, as is typical of Luke's Gospel, a parable about what the kingdom of God will be like. 
Keep that in mind as we explore this parable because it is important for us to understand that.

I am going to explore two possible lessons from this parable --- but there are many others we could sit and discuss for hours.

The first possible lesson is the one that you will find most often discussed in the commentaries on this story. 

I think most commentators like to focus on it because it is the most obvious lesson, but also because it is relatively safe. 
Of course it has its bite --- as all of Jesus parables do, but it is more of a nudge rather than a push.

The parable goes something like this:

Someone of importance gives a huge dinner party and all the invited guests have received a RSVP and have responded in the positive.  And as was tradition for an event like this --- at the appointed time for the dinner party to actually begin --- he sends his servant out to get the guests. 

And one by one, each of the guests comes up with an excuse as to why they no longer can come.

Did you pay attention to the excuses that they gave?

The first guest says that he can't come because he just bought a piece of land and needs to go inspect it.
Who buys property without first inspecting it?

The second guest says that he wants to go try out the oxen that he just bought.
So how many of you have bought a car --- a used car for that matter --- without test driving it first.

The excuses that they give are pretty lame!

And then finally the last guy says he just got married so he can't come --- and this may be the best excuse of the lot --- since the banquet was probably just for men and his new wife would not be invited or welcome.

However, he knew of the conflict when he initially said yes to the invitation.

In other words, none of the excuses are very good.

But before I become too self-righteous --- all three sound a lot like me.

I need to confess something right here:

I have been known to say YES, simply because it is easier than saying NO

I dream of having a more regular quiet time with God
          I time where I can meditate and grow my relationship with God.

I have been known to pray:
God, I am so busy.
Help me to say NO --- help me to simplify my schedule
Help me to put you first

Anybody else ever pray anything like that?

Unfortunately --- God has spoken to me --- when I have prayed that prayer.

God has seemed to say:
Wait a minute Conger --- When is the last time you missed a meal?
You get enough sleep most of the time. 
You make Duke Basketball a priority and almost never miss a game.
You find time for the things that are important to you.
I guess I must not be that important to you!
And then God seemed to say ----
I can handle that.
Can you?


Wow --- that cut me to the core.

God seemed to be asking me?
Do I believe that God's love is big enough to handle my lack of love for God?

This parable seems to be saying to us (to me) that the Kingdom of God is a banquet and some of us have found it so boring that we come up with all kinds of excuses.
We would rather spend our time on business details, property concerns or even family matters.

Do we have the courage to tell God that we think that serving God can be boring?

Because that is what we seem to be doing when we come up with excuses!

Martin Luther was known to say that sin does not hurt us as much as our own righteousness.

Excuses really are an attempt to be righteous and innocent before God.

God wants us in our broken wholeness.

We don't need to hide behind excuses --- God's love is enough.

But then there is a second possible lesson in this passage.

I believe that this is a much more difficult way to look at this story and one that most of us would rather ignore.

It is the question of WHO IS INVITED?

According to the Guinness book of World Records: what is the largest church in the world?

Nope --- it isn't St Peter's Basilica in Rome

It is actually in West Africa in the country of the Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire)

It is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro

It is almost 323,000 sq feet big and 518 feet high

It can accommodate about 18,000 worshippers

The annual per capita income for the Ivory Coast is $650  --- in other words, the Ivory Coast is pretty improvised.

The Basilica cost $300 million to build

And while we all gasp at those numbers that is not even the worst part

Only about 350 people call this basilica home
          It is virtually empty

It was built --- but nobody comes!

This big empty church isn't really the same as the situation in our story this morning.
But it reminds us of it.

In the story --- a rich man is holding a huge party.  It is the monster of all parties.

And no one wants to come --- it looks like the banquet hall will be empty

Let's examine the INVITER, the INVITATION and who is INVITED

First --- God is the great inviter --- God is an inviting God!

God is always inviting us to come
come to the waters
come home
come to the banquet
come to abundant life
come to kingdom (eternal) life
come to worship
come to the table on this World Communion Sunday
come to God!

In our story, God is excited about this banquet.
The calf has been fattened and slaughtered,
the wine has aged,
the tables are set,
the DJ and band have been hired.

God is really jazzed about the feast.

God can't wait to get the invitations out.

God is just that way.

This is the God we love, worship and serve -- a God who invites us to the dance, invites us to be a part of what God is doing.
          How great is that?!

God has made preparations for the feast, God wants everyone to be present --- God is not willing for any to miss this event.

God is always inviting.
          Every day is an invitation.
                   Every interruption is an invitation.

But what exactly is it that God is inviting us to?

Certainly throughout the Gospel God invites us to:

·         Abundant Life
John 10:10  The Message
I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.

·         Service
Matthew 28  The Message
“God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”

·         Peace
John 14:27 NRSV
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

John 14:27 The Message
I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.

·         Worship
Psalm 100 NRSV
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.
·         Turn to God in times of need
Jeremiah 33:3
“This is God’s Message, the God who made earth, made it livable and lasting, known everywhere as God: ‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’

·         THE KINGDOM

Everything we have been learning in Luke's Gospel points to God's kingdom and it's reality in our lives.

The kingdom of God is NOW and that is the invitation we have all been given!

Finally, who is it that God is inviting to this party?

Initially it seems that MANY were invited to the party
But those that were invited to this great party don't seem too impressed

As we have already talked about --- they had all kinds of excuses

Traditionally, most commentaries have argued that these people represent Israel and their failure to be impressed --- their failure to grasp the significance of Jesus and God's kingdom that he proclaimed.

What is surprising is that people reject this invitation.

So what does God do?

Luke tells us:
‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’
Luke goes on and says when the Master sees that there is still room at the party:
‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

In other words, those that were invited but didn't have time are excluded from the party.

So who is invited?

My hunch is that the parable isn't about Israel and their rejection of Jesus ---- We are the people who are too busy to notice that we are invited to a great banquet in the Kingdom.

So, what gets in the way of our coming to God's party?
          The Bears
          our hobby's
          the list can go on and on

We fill our time and it leaves us no time for the Kingdom

And God says fine . . . that's not a problem . . . I will invite others

And what is so disturbing to us --- at least the way that Luke tells the story is that those others who are going to be invited are not the upstanding, righteous followers (like us) --- but the ones who are on the margins of society
·         the poor
·         the crippled
·         the blind
·         the lame

I think you can use your imagination and fill in who you think that might be

But God's invitation stands

God wants us to come to the banquet
          A banquet that is there to change the world

Are you ready to go?

Or do you already have your excuse in place?