Where is Your Heart? Fourth Sunday in Lent / March 6, 2016 Christ Lutheran Church
Fourth Sunday in Lent / March 6th 2016 Christ Lutheran Church
Joshua 5:9-12 Psalm 32 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Where is your Heart?
The story about the prodigal, wasteful, and extravagant son really speaks for itself – but what we often do not realize is that the Father, who is the Father-God of our Lord Jesus Christ, is also prodigal, filled with extravagant mercy and grace, who will stop at nothing to win us over to life and hope and love and becoming human beings with hearts filled by kindness, integrity, and compassion.
Imagine the son coming to the Father and saying, “I know you’re not dead yet, but make believe you already are, and give me my inheritance.” Wouldn’t you and I have already drawn the line right there? What a nerve this kid has! What an insult! What chutzpah! But without as much as a reproach, this Father gives it to him and predictably, the son goes off and just wastes it all. Wouldn’t we be ready to say, “I told you so!”
Don’t you love Jesus’ depiction of the way he bottoms out? This kosher Jewish boy has become reduced to feeding pigs and has become so hungry he almost yearns to eat the dirty pods and slop that he was feeding the pigs! Now he has to go down more than a notch or two. No more privilege and entitlements for him. “I have sinned before heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, just make me one of your hired hands.” He has to now face the music and become more humble than the dust.
And does the Father bear a grudge and reject him, lecture him, put him on probation? No way! He sees him afar off, and as old as he is, he runs to him with tears in his eyes and is overjoyed at his return! He even throws a party! Do you understand and appreciate the wonderful God, whom we serve, the One Jesus introduced to us as his Father?
So of course in many ways we are like the elder son, but we cannot afford to be like him. We too have to celebrate every sinner’s return, everyone who makes a come-back. It’s like in Les Misérables, the musical. Jean Valjean is a convict and incognito, he starts a factory, creates many jobs, and becomes the mayor of a city. (He started out with the gold candlesticks he had stolen from the archbishop, who covered for him and forgave him.) Now that come-back would be hard for a felon today, who has to check that box in a job application and then because of it, never gets hired. I also remember a movie where a notorious bandit comes back into a city, and because he is not recognized and is trying to make up for his past, becomes the sheriff, and in the course of his duty, heroically saves a many people from a building that’s on fire. Coming out of the thick smoke, he slips his black bandana over his nose, and suddenly everybody recognizes him. He is the notorious bandit, who has made a come-back and they forgive him.
So we dare not be like that elder son. We have to celebrate a come-back. Celebrating with the Father’s mercy and compassion means that we understand we are also not saved because of our merit, but because of God’s mercy. We have lost our hearts, when we are offended by the grace and mercy that God shows to others, who like us are undeserving. When the elder son became offended, it shows that his heart was not in the right place. Only if we celebrate God’s mercy to others will we experience mercy ourselves.
Let’s not identify with the good guys all the time, but rather with the lost, and even with that heartless older brother and come before God and say, “We are not worthy to be called your children. Dear Father, just use us. Use our heads, our hearts, and our hands to do your work.”
When we continually identify with the righteous, feel like we are the good guys, we are the respectable citizens, that we at least go to church, etc. then suddenly we can begin to think that we are no longer in need of God’s grace. But God’s grace is what keeps us growing. God’s grace is what brings about that change of heart which makes us human. In that way we can respect the dignity of another person no matter if they are homeless or poor are of another race, LGBT, or even if they are rich, what have you. Everyone deserves our treating them with dignity and respect.
We are sinners and saints at one and the same time. We all have a shadow or dark side and a sun-shiny light side and we love to identify with our good side and dwell on the faults of others. Then prejudice can even let us project our shadow side on others. When we become more aware of our own flaws and accept ourselves anyway, the way this Father accepted his child, then we can get our hearts in the right place and realize how we are all on this mysterious journey in life together.
James Doty, a neuro-surgeon professor that Michael Krasny interviewed on NPR does research in how the brain is wired for compassion. It turns out that there is a large nerve, called the Vagus nerve and to oversimplify, it connects the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems, and in it there are an immense amount of nerves running from the brain stem to the heart and back to the brain. The signals run both ways. It is not a one way street. Signals of compassion, empathy, and kindness run from the heart to the brain and so the heart turns out to really be the source, the seat of compassion. It is our stress, anxiety, and fear that succeed in cutting away those natural feelings that come from the heart and also cutting away our human connection with other human beings. The rat-race and stress of our everyday lives can alienate us from our hearts, even though God created our hearts to inform our empathy, compassion, and mindfulness of the needs and feelings of others.
We are reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Book and she does not tire of making us aware that we are all sinners and saints. Her church in Denver Colorado is called a House of God for All Sinners and Saints. Jesus upset and offended the Pharisee, the self-righteous by eating at the table with tax collectors and sinners. They wanted to remain untainted by the world and life can get messy when you begin relating with the wrong people. I dated the American commandant’s daughter while in Berlin and she wanted to cross check-point Charlie and go over into the communist side of Germany. So I took her over. She lost her secret clearance and got into trouble with her father. Soldiers and officials were forbidden to visit over there.
But what sense does it make if a doctor says that he or she will only treat you if you are healthy? And what would our church be like, this hospital for souls, if we only welcomed the so-called saved, the righteous, the saints? No, you are welcome if you are lost, are full of doubt, are struggling with an addiction, and caught in sin, because when we are completely honest, we are also lost and our country is as well. Just witness our presidential race. We have the best candidates money can buy; more precisely, the worst, because they try to purchase the office with money. When we honestly confess how lost we are, then God has the chance to find us and we have the chance to make a come-back, which will make the angels celebrate in heaven. The Father will throw a party in the middle of Lent.
Pastor Nadia tells of an inveterate con-artist and liar who claimed he was an Iraq War veteran, a wounded hero with a purple heart for valor and he shocked the nation, because he was a complete fraud. He got off the hook, because of the freedom of speech. Then he came into Denver claiming he was a Jew, an Israeli soldier, born in Tel Aviv, also none of which was true. Once again, he was just a liar and a bi-polar con-artist who wanted attention. He came to Nadia’s church. Would she allow him into the congregation? She leveled with him and told him she knew who he was and said that he needed therapy for his bi-polar condition. In the acceptance of the congregation he became himself under his own name, became a hard-working faithful member, for example, helping them deliver all their turkey sandwiches for Thanksgiving. At their church he became the first one to show up for work and the last one to leave. Then he presided over a huge food distribution. To Pastor Nadia on the phone, he was explaining excitedly that in the food distribution, people experienced God’s grace. And the only place he had experienced that kind of grace before was in Holy Communion and acceptance of the congregation. His transformation made Pastor Nadia cry. The mercy and acceptance he had received at the table of the Lord turned this notorious liar and con-artist into a genuine person.
This heart full of compassion that Jesus had overflows to those who have bottomed out and even provides a heart to heart talk with a self-righteous person like that elder son, reconciling us all with our true humanity and conforming us to that other Son of that Father, Jesus Christ our Lord. So our choice is not between the two false alternatives of the prodigal and elder son. In the real Son, Jesus Christ, we receive that true humanity in all its sorrow and dignity, all its suffering and victory. That loving, compassionate, merciful, and gracious heart of Jesus Christ for all of those who are lost now even starts beating and throbbing in our own breast. Amen.