Monday, May 06, 2013

Jesus' Lost and Found: Coming Alive Again In Community...Sermon given at the 58th Anniversary Celebration of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental



Jesus’ Lost and Found: Coming Alive Again through Community

Rev. Ron Robinson, Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship

To The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Philippines on the Occasion of the 58th Anniversary of the Church.
Text: Luke 15: 11-32

Then Jesus* said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.12The 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.13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.16He would gladly have filled himself with* the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But 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!18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ”20So 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.21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”*22But 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.23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;24for 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.26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.29But 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.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”31Then the father* said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.32But 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.” ’


Thank you for inviting me back to be with you, and to help you celebrate this anniversary. The story of your 58 years together is one that has inspired me, and my ministry and people.  Your story of relating and embodying God to the people of your communities is about being in right relationship with those around you. 

In Jesus’ time and place, in the ancient world and Roman Empire, there was very little question about how to be in right relationships with others. According to how the world worked, everyone had their fixed place in the Great Chain of Being, their fixed responsibility to others, and preserving that status quo was a divine purpose. The purpose of life, according to the world of the Empire, was to gain honor from others by helping more powerful others to gain honor in the world. Honor to them was about having power over people. Avoiding being shamed and not bringing shame to others was the way you kept in right relationship. First, according to the world, the primary one of honor was the family Father, and then the Village Head, then the Governor, then the Emperor who was treated as God. When the fathers or leaders received shame and not honor, they regained honor, they regained what was considered their right relationship, through fear and punishment, often severely.

That is because of how they thought God acted and should be viewed too.  But then into this world, into this worldview, came Jesus. His stories, like his actions, changed the world by re-imagining and re-defining God and pointing people to a different understanding of what it means to be in right relationships.

The parables that Jesus told, and the way he lived them out, show us how very different his view of right relationships was from that commonly practiced in the culture of his time, and still practiced too often by all cultures in our world today. He saw relationships, and God, not as being about controlling others, but about cooperation and commitment to one another even when we are abandoned and when we abandon others, when we are disappointed and when we disappoint others.  

Jesus said God’s community, God’s family, is like when a father has two sons. Now they are most probably adult sons, and yet the father is still considered their master. The father had almost complete power over the sons. Right away though we find out that this father, this family, these relationships are going to be different from the ones the ruling Empire and culture sought to enforce. The story starts when the younger son goes to the father and demands that he get his inheritance now so he can go out on his own, away from land, away from family, which were the two most important things in life and the way someone achieved immortality. When the younger son did this it was the same as telling his father to Drop Dead.

To those first hearing the story, at this point they would have expected the father to banish or kill his son, with little thought or regret, in order to retain or regain his honor. Instead, when he gives the money to his son, when he actually divides his life, they would have thought him foolish and even more shamed and dishonorable. They wouldn’t have been surprised by what happened; the younger son goes and wastes it all and ends up living with pigs, which were considered an unholy animal; he was even eating what the pigs ate. No one could be more shameful to them. At that point he decides to return to his family but to return to them as one of their slaves not as he was before. As he returns home he practices how he will beg his father to treat him as a slave.

Next, in Jesus’ story, we see the father again. Instead of ruling his estate from inside his house, we see he is out by the road, looking with longing eyes off to the horizon, hoping his son will return. The hearers of the parable expect the father to make the son grovel and beg, and for the world to then be once again in right relationship after the son disrupted it with his behavior and attitude. They got something very different. When the father saw the son approaching on the road, he lifts his long robe and runs out to meet his son, and there he embraces him and kisses him deeply.  The listeners might have expected that from the mother but not the father. Then The son begins to beg his father, but the father stops even that. He tells his slaves to prepare for a party, to kill the prize cow for a feast. He says that his son was lost and is now found, was dead but is now alive. It is clear though that he always thought of his son as part of him, part of the family, no matter what he had done.  It is clear also that In the world’s eyes the father has now lost all honor and respect and sense of himself. The father has disrupted the world’s view of right relationships even more than has the younger son.

To many people this is where the story ends; many church stained glass windows depict this parable and show the father forgiving and embracing the younger son, the way God will forgive and embrace us. But that is only part of the story.

There is another son, the elder brother. We almost forgot about him. He is out working in the field while all this has been going on, the way he has been throughout his life, serving his father, silently doing the thing expected of him, keeping in right relationship. He sees the activity at the house and asks a slave what is going on. He is told that his brother is back and his father is throwing a party. This upsets the elder brother and he stays outside working, feeling betrayed, bothered by his father’s shameful actions and attitudes, just the way those who are hearing the story imagine they would feel. When he doesn’t go into the house, into the place of family intimacy and relationships,his father then goes out to him, too. Another act of shame, not making the son come to him. He keeps going out to others, to listen to them, to let them know they are not alone. The elder son affronts him as never before, tells him of his anger, his jealousy, feeling abandonment by the father who never threw him a party even though he had done everything right for so long. The father says to him that he has always been there with him, that he always will be, that that is what counts, and he goes on to say that all that he has will still be given to the elder son. The younger son will be a part of the family, but perhaps not quite in the same way as originally, but that is not really important, who gets what, who gives what,  not really the ultimate reward of being in right relationship; it is the relationship itself and all its possibilities of a future unfolding that we can’t imagine. When we are in mutual relationships with one another, and with the God of forgiveness, that love is worth more than anything, and in that world anything is possible.

And there is where the parable ends.

 That is when we get to the point of the story about what kind of God God is, what kind of right relationships we should practice. Jesus’ story about what God is like ends with the elder brother standing outside in the field, thinking about what to do next. He, like us, has a choice. He can stay there, away from his family, just another kind of prodigal, cutting himself off from others, alone in his rightness, strong in his sense of righteousness and honor, waiting for others to come to him, pay homage to him, the way an Emperor does, the way God was depicted. Or…Or, he can lay all that aside and answer the call, the invitation to join the party, to be a part of the family, to welcome his brother as a brother, to grow the relationship through participation and cooperation, not through fear and control and conquering. He can go inside and focus his world on the future and what love and justice it might hold, or he can stay outside the party and focus on the past and let it control his future. To Jesus, God is found in the newer and stronger relationship especially because it has been seeded by what the world views as mistakes, bad judgements, selfishness, vulnerability, loneliness, shame.  Jesus walks a very different path of  right relationships than that created by Emperors.

What that means for us today is that real strength in community comes through our covenants, our bonds and right relationships with one another and with our world beyond ourselves and with God, bonds that are like those of a certain father with two sons.

In the United States, our Unitarian Universalist Association was founded by some of the oldest churches in the country, some that are more than 400 years old, and while they were strongly Christian they were still founded ultimately not so much on the creeds they professed but on the covenants that had created them in the first place.  One of our church historians, Conrad Wright, has written that there are several major covenants or relationships that need to be nurtured for a church to be a whole church. [See “The Doctrine of Church for Liberals” in the book, Walking Together]

These are the relationships between a person and church; between church and its elected leaders, including ministers. Also between churches themselves; and between ministers themselves.  These four covenants are our mostly internally-focused covenants of our association helping to establish right relationships and our Identity. They are like the materials of a ship that hold it together and give it, the church, its own particular shape.  But there are two other more externally focused relationships, ones shared by all churches:  one of those is between a church and its world around it, and the other is between church and God. If the first four sets of relationships are what, like a ship, give the church its unique shape, these two broader relationships are like the Sea and the Wind; they are what give the ship of church its purpose, its reason for having its particular shape, and are what sets it on its journey. As they say, a ship may be wonderfully built, but if it stays in its harbor it is not being what a ship should be.

The four internally focused covenants are often the relationships we spend most of our time dealing with; they are the ones that present us with urgent matters; they are the ones we often have conflicts over and the ones we most often celebrate on occasions like this and in ordinations. But if  a church is not grasped by the other two relationships, with the world around it and with God, the church will not be complete, not be church; instead it will become, as Conrad Wright also said, merely a collection of religiously-oriented individuals.

Just like in the parable of the father and sons, the right relationships are all inter-connected.  When we have breaks in any one of the relationships it affects the bonds of the other relationships by putting extra stress on them. But the good news is that when we focus on any of these relationships, like we are doing this week, and make them stronger, especially when we grow in right relationship with the world and with God in the way of Jesus it will also in turn affect each of the others, growing the kind of trust and loving justice that can change the world, the way Jesus did 2000 years ago and the way Toribio Quimada did 58 years ago here, and the way we all can do today and in the years to come.

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