Apr 3rd: We Believe We are the Problem, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski.
Apr 3rd: We Believe We are the Problem, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski.
Robert Fulgem tells the story when he was working in his study at home. The neighborhood kids were playing hide and seek outside, and one kid found the perfect hiding spot in the bushes just underneath Earth Fulgham’s office window. The game went on all afternoon and no one was able to find this kid. It was obvious the others moved on to play another game, and this kid was still hiding in the bushes. Folgum couldn’t take it any longer, and he opened the window and shouted, For God’s sake, let yourself be found.
What if this journey of faith is less about seeking God and more about becoming conscious of the ways we hide and allowing ourselves to be found? What if the journey of faith isn’t trying to prove that we are good enough to earn God’s approval but learning to accept we already are good enough? I believe one of the most life changing shifts is when we move from a transactional faith to a transformational faith. Before I explain what that means, I want to remind us of a story Jesus told in Luke 15 about a father who had two sons. And before I read the story, let me give you some background.
Jesus had a reputation for hanging around and eating with sinners. Now, meals in the first century were a social, spiritual and political act. There was a religious establishment that decided who was welcome at the table and who should be excluded, who is considered clean and unclean, who was in, who was out, who was acceptable and who was unacceptable, who was righteous and who was unrighteous. And here we are in 2022, and we’re still putting people in categories deciding who’s acceptable and who’s not. Right now, there are currently over 160 pieces of legislation being considered across the country right now specifically targeted at restricting the human rights of our LGBTQ siblings.
The 223 assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 2018 affirmed that God loves all people. God created all people in God’s own image and fully embraces all of us, no matter what our orientation or gender expression is. We at First Presbyterian emphatically affirm there is a place for everyone at God’s table, and it’s our responsibility to speak out when God’s beloved children are being excluded, when they’re being told they don’t have a place at the table.
In the first century, who you shared a meal with was called table fellowship. If you welcome someone to sit with you at your table to share a meal, you are essentially saying they were clean and acceptable, and those labeled unclean and unacceptable were actually excluded from table fellowship and they were called sinners. Being a sinner in the first century simply meant the religious establishment declared you unclean, unacceptable, unwelcome. There’s lots of stories in the Gospels of Jesus making a radical, dangerous statement, intentionally welcoming, breaking bread, and sitting with sinners he welcomed at his table anyone and everyone the religious establishment excluded from the table. And Luke 15 begins with a group of religious leaders offended, complaining Jesus welcomes sinners and God forbid, shares a meal with them.
Doesn’t he know the rules?
Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t argue with them. He tells a story, a parable. Now, the word parable literally means alongside. Now imagine a ball thrown not right to you, but alongside. So you have to move to catch it.
If we are to catch the truth in a parable, we have to be willing to move, perhaps be willing to let go of thinking we already know what it means and move to catch a new perspective. So as I read the story, what might be a familiar story to you? I invite you to put yourself in the shoes of one of those religious leaders who is offended. Jesus eats with sinners and welcomes the unclean to his table. So this is Luke 15, verses one to three, and then eleven to 32.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. The religious leaders grumbled, saying, this man welcomes sinners and eats with them. So Jesus told them this parable. There was a man who had two sons. The younger son said to his father, Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.
So the father divided his property between his sons. A few days later, the younger son gathered all he had traveled to a distant country and squandered his wealth in wildlife. When he had spent everything, there was a severe famine and he began to be in need. He went to work in the fields, feeding pigs. He would have been happy to eat what the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he realized his father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but he was starving to Earth. So he decided he would go back to his father and say, Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am not worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands. He began the journey, returning home while he was still a long way off.
His father saw him, was overcome with compassion. He ran. He ran to his son. He threw his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said, Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you.
I’m not worthy to be called your son. The father said to his servants, Quickly bring out a robe, the best one. Put it on him, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted calf. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.
For the son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found. They began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field when he came near the house. He heard music and dancing and asked, what’s going on?
And he was told, Your brother has come home. And your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him back safe and sound. The older brother became angry, refused to go in. His father came out, pleaded with him. He said to his father, in all these years I’ve been working like a slave for you and never disobeyed your orders.
Yet you’ve never given me even a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him.
My son, the father said, you are always with me. Everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life. He was lost and is found.
Okay, so this father has two sons. The younger one wants his share of the estate, like right now. And in the patriarchal first century, this son could not have said anything more offensive, essentially wishing his father was dead. And in that culture, respect for your elders was everything. It was a core value.
So this would have offended the religious leaders who were listening right off the bat, and the father actually granting his request would have shocked them.
The story says the younger son squanders it all, returns with his tail between his legs. Now I can imagine him on the road rehearsing his apology as he walks, feeling just an enormous amount of shame. Notice in his rehearsed apology he actually repeated twice he said, I am not worthy. You can feel the shame. He’s hoping, at the very least, for a conditional return where he might be allowed to live as one of his father’s servants.
I mean, there was no expectation of restoration, and the father sees him in the distance. Now if he sees him in the distance, the father’s been waiting, watching, hoping for this day when his son returns home and the image, the imagery, he races down the road, it says, to greet him, and before the sun could even open his mouth to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Before the confession, the father throws his arms around him, kisses him and says, welcome home. Now the father doesn’t say, I told you so. He doesn’t say approve to me you’re sorry.
Tell me why I should forgive you. Convince me you’ve changed. Convince me that you’ve learned your lessons and that you’re worthy of my forgiveness and love. No. The father embraces his son and says, let’s party.
My son was dead and has now come alive. He was lost and is found.
Now the older brother is ticked off. He’s not about to join the party, complaining his father has never thrown a party like that for him.
And here’s what we often miss in this story and his key to moving from a transactional faith to a transformational faith.
Both sons are separated from their father. The younger son feels separated because of his bad choices. The older brother feels separated from his father because of his good deeds. Now the younger son leaves home and he assumes that his selfish behavior has separated him from his father’s love. The older brother stays home and thinks his good deeds should earn his father’s favor.
Both sons have a picture of their father as harsh, judging, keeping score, keeping track, and either you have points deducted or points added.
Both sons assume the father’s love. The father’s welcome. The father’s acceptance is determined by their actions, good or bad.
Jesus turns this idea completely upside down. The father in the story welcomes the younger son before he confesses, essentially saying, welcome home, but know that in my heart you never left. My love for you is unconditional. You are never separate from my love. Now this younger son expected shame and he expected that shame to live with him as he lived as one of the servants.
And the father immediately puts the robe and the ring on him, saying, you are my son. You’ve always been my son. You will always be my son and nothing can change that.
The older brother the older brother doesn’t understand and is resentful that his brother’s extravagant failure is met with such extravagant love and Grace. And he grumbles, I do all the right things and you never give me a party. And the father says, you have been, you are, you will always be with me. Everything I have is yours.
There it is, my favorite verse in the Bible. You are always with me. Everything I have is yours.
At the heart of the story that Jesus is telling us is the unbelievable good news that both sons already belong. What they were both desperately seeking in their own ways has been and is already there. Now. A transactional Earth says, don’t we have to do something? Don’t we have to sign a statement of faith to make sure we’re believing the right things?
Don’t we have to say a prayer or something to be saved? Don’t we have to have a resume of good deeds proven our worth?
A Transformational faith says Even in our lostness and brokenness, even in our fear and shame, even in our disappointments and feeling like we’re not good enough? God is saying, You’ve been my daughter. The whole time you’ve been my son, the whole time you’ve been good enough. The whole time you belonged at my table the whole time.
Let yourself be found in the love that is already yours.
A transactional faith that assumes you are never quite good enough to earn God’s approval will always project that same judgment onto others. Feeling the need to be the judge of whether others are worthy of love or deserve a seed at the table.
A transformational faith that understands we already live in the love we are seeking finds joy in giving that love away without stopping to evaluate whether someone is deserving of love finds purpose in making room at the table for everyone because everyone already belongs?
Slow down let these words seep and settle deep into your soul this week you are always with me everything I have friends for God’s sake let yourself be found in the love that is already yours may it be so.