How would Jesus drive?

A woman was in her car going to work. She was running late, so her level of patience with the other drivers was pretty low. She had to swerve around old man who wasn’t even going the speed limit. If she hadn’t honked at the car in front of her, they may never have realized the light changed.

Suddenly, she heard sirens behind her. “One more thing to slow me down,” she thought. Then she realized that it was her the officer was pulling over. She couldn’t think why she was being stopped. Sure, she’d been driving aggressively, but she hadn’t broken any laws. She asked him what she had done. “I saw the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ sticker on your car,” the officer responded, “and assumed you’d stolen it.”

A self-professing Christian acting in a decidedly un-Christian way. It makes for a good punchline, but all too often it is the reality we see around us. The reality we live in our own lives.

At our women’s retreat in February, we discussed what the word “evangelical” means. It’s a part of our denomination’s name, a part of our own church’s name. And yet, we avoid saying it if we have to. Because evangelical has strayed far from its etymological roots—it technically means good news. It is associated with Lutherans, who became known as the Evangelicals in Germany as opposed to the Catholics. Lutherans in Germany today are still called the Evangelical Church.

But in the United States, it has come to mean such different things. It means knocking on doors and passing out tracts about being damned to hell. It means Jerry Fallwell and the Moral Majority. It means the Westboro Baptist Church preaching hate for everyone not a straight white Protestant. In short, it is a lot of judging and condemning, and very little of the love and care for neighbor that Jesus taught and lived.

These are large scale examples, of which you and I have very little control. But every time I see a “Christian” on the news spreading hate, homophobia, and misogyny, I cringe. It makes me ashamed of carrying the same name. And I know for some people, this is the only experience of Christians they have. The organizations that I am a part of, and the people I regularly interact with, spend their time empowering the poor and disenfranchised, advocating for justice and equality, and doing their best to care for all of God’s people and creation. It’s not as newsworthy.

But it functions on the small scale, too. When people wonder why millennials aren’t involved in church, answers typically fall along the lines of lack of belief, lack of commitment, too many activity options. But others have pinpointed what I think lies at the heart of it for a lot of us: hypocrisy.

Christians who spend worship and Bible study talking about love and helping others, then spend committee meetings being passive aggressive and pushing their own agenda at all costs. Christians who offer a hand of peace during worship, then spend coffee hour gossiping and judging. People see it, and like the police officer in the story, can’t mesh the profession of faith with the behavior that is being displayed.

We all fall into it from time to time. The fact of the matter is, no matter how often we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do,” we’re never going to be Jesus. Thankfully, we’re not expected to be. Because of Jesus, because we know of God’s redemptive love and grace, we know we never, ever, have to be perfect in order to earn God’s love. We’ve already got it. Just like the father in the story of the prodigal son, God loves us even before we’re able to say we’re sorry. Thank God.

Even if we’re not expected to be Jesus, we are expected to be Christians. People who know the great and enormous gift of God’s love, and who have a calling to share that love with others. To speak out for those who have no voice. To seek justice and love. We try. And we’re not going to be perfect at it. I know that I’m not. Maybe a good touchstone to start is whether or not we’d get pulled over for driving a car with a cross on it.

Sermon on the Prodigal Son

Below is my sermon from yesterday on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). I’ve always been fascinated by this parable, because there are just so many things that can be drawn from it. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Dickens referred to it as “the greatest story ever told.”

In many ways, the parable speaks for itself. Parables are not fables, which have clear moral teachings, but rather they are complex stories which invite us to reconsider things we take for granted. They invite us in; they invite us to experience.

How have you experienced this parable? Do you identify with one of the characters? Have you been in a similar situation? And, for good measure–what would you name this parable if it were up to you?

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’m betting a lot of you probably know the answer to this question, but just for curiosity’s sake, what is the name of the story I just read? (Answer: Prodigal Son.) Names, titles, they’re important. They’re also tricky. When I was writing papers in school, I found titles to be the hardest thing to come up with. What worked for me was to write the whole paper, sometimes up to 20 pages long, then go back and give it a title.

If I tried to assign a title at the beginning of my writing, I found it restrictive. Better to write the paper, then use the title to accurately describe it. I also had to get over trying to come up with fancy titles—by my last year in school, my papers were titled things like: “Julian of Norwich’s Suppressed Revelations: Theological Growth Between the Short and Long Texts.”

Titles, even if they’re boring, give us a basic understanding of what we’re getting into. So when you hear the title, The Prodigal Son, you know what the main focus is of the upcoming story. It’s that pesky younger brother and his prodigality. I looked that one up, that’s actually the noun form of prodigal. And so we’re automatically clued in to focus on this younger brother.

Would it surprise you to know that parables don’t actually come with titles? The different editors and publishers of various Bibles put the titles in to help us readers. There’s a lot of commonalities, but different Bibles sometimes call parables by different names. This parable can also be known as The Parable of the Loving Father, The Parable of the Lost Son, The Parable of Two Lost Sons, The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.

I personally like the last two, because they’re the only titles that acknowledge the older son, right there in the title. After all, the parable starts out by saying, there was a man who had two sons. How does our understanding, how does our focus shift, if we call this the parable of the Two Lost Sons? Do we hear the story differently?

Because I think it is a story about two sons. Two sons who, each in his own way, misunderstand how grace works. How mercy and forgiveness work.  The younger son thinks he needs to bargain and manipulate in order to receive mercy and grace. The older son can’t let go of his own sense of what is just and right in order to participate in the gift of grace.

Both have a very transactional understanding of love. Of acceptance. Of grace. They want to count and keep track of things. The younger son has come up short in his accounting of the situation, and so doesn’t want to ask for more than he deserves. He’ll just work as a slave for his father. The older son has added up all that he believes he’s owed, and finds his father’s gratitude lacking.

But the father in this story doesn’t count things. He just doesn’t seem interested in keeping track. Can you imagine living in a world where we didn’t have to count or keep track? No tracking billable hours, no counting the days until school lets out, no ringing up debits on the balance sheet, no yells of “Are we there yet?” Best yet, no counting old grievances and grudges, no dredging up past wrongs or unsettled scores. Imagine living in a world where people don’t count or keep track. Where they don’t even remember why you need to count in the first place.

At its core, it’s unrealistic. It’s not the way the world works—we need to keep count. If we don’t, we will wind up in some serious trouble. How we will know how much to value something if we don’t measure it, assess it, evaluate it? So counters, please don’t pay attention when I say we don’t need to count!

But sometimes, we are so caught up in the counting and evaluating, that we miss the true value in things. The other day, I forgot to put on my FitBit. It measures all of my steps and lets me know how close I get to my goal, and how many miles I’ve gone. Well, I forgot it, and when it came time to take a break at lunch and go for a walk around South Ardmore Park, part of me shrugged and said, “What’s the point anyway, I won’t get credit?” As an intensely competitive person, it is really hard for me to not keep score. I keep score of everything—and it can sometimes prevent me from enjoying things, rather than winning them.

I had a friend in school, who never counted when he ran. Me, when I run, I know exactly how far I’ve gone and what my pace was. Because for me, running is for exercise. But Ben, he could run for a couple of hours, and I’d ask how far he went, and he wouldn’t know. Oh, sure, he could figure it out probably based on what his usual pace is, but when he runs he just forgets to keep track. Running for him has value in and of itself, without needing to assign a mile or pace value to it.

We’re obsessed with counting and assigning value. Children become test scores. Home buyers become credit scores. Clients become billable hours. Colleges and universities themselves become rankings. We could go on and on.

But that’s not the world that the father in the story is living in. He’s not living in a world of counting and keeping track. He’s living in this crazy world where things are simply valued. Where people matter, just because. He’s living in a world of unmerited grace and foolish forgiveness. Of extravagant parties and over the top celebrations.

Neither son expects it. By both of their calculations, the younger son is not worthy of what he receives. But both are welcomed home, welcomed in. This world sounds nice, of course, but it’s really hard. It’s hard because it offends our notions of right and wrong. Of justice. Of what is earned and unearned. It’s impossible for us to live up to the standard set by the Father. We won’t. But we could try and ease up on our counting and assessing just a little bit, and value things just because.

But it is also hard for us to be the sons—to allow ourselves to be valued and cared for and loved, without having deserved it. We never see the younger son’s reaction—but I imagine he was astounded by his father running out to him. Happy, yes, but maybe just a little bit sick to his stomach, knowing how much he screwed up and how much he didn’t deserve the mercy and grace offered to him. Letting ourselves feel grace and mercy, especially in a world that loves to count, isn’t always easy either.

I started by asking the name of the parable: The Prodigal Son. By definition, prodigal means, “rashly or wastefully extravagant” and “giving in abundance, lavish and profuse.” Perhaps an accurate name for the parable might be: The Prodigal Father. Rashly extravagant. Lavish in mercy, giving in abundance, profuse in grace. Amen.