[Manuscript for the sermon I preached at International Christian Fellowship, Managua, Sunday, June 9, 2019.]
Good morning. It’s so good to be back with you again. This feels like home to me. Thanks to everyone who expressed excitement to have me back up here. My dad loved to say, “There’s no accounting for taste,” meaning people like what they like and you can’t really explain or make sense of it. I’m gonna say that goes both ways here. We probably deserve each other.
There are too many things I want to say this morning, having only one shot at it, seniors getting ready to head out into the wide world, many of you heading off in different directions very soon. It was harder than usual to set aside my own thoughts to try to hear what God has for you. Always for me the very first step in the process is to come before Jesus, ask him to help me set aside my own agenda and ego, and to help me want to say only what God wants me to say. When I try to fix my ego on my own, it’s a lot like getting super glue on your hands and then trying to get it off…with your hands. You just get more stuck and make more of a mess. Similar, I can get to “help me to say what you want” and end up like when the child is required to apologize. I’m sure we’ve all seen that. “I’m sorry.” Yeah, technically those words did come out of your mouth, but that’s not actually how being sorry works. Every time for me it’s a process of setting aside my own agenda for what you need to hear and praying that I will desire to say only what God wants me to say. It’s not a one-and-done thing, but when I start in that direction, it’s much easier to keep going.
Rhonda is the middle sister. You never hear about her. She’s adopted. She had a horrible, really a horrific life before she was adopted. She was abused. She had been passed around and sold. People did horrible things to her and she believed that made her horrible, dirty, flawed. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how God sees it. When some hard-hearted men dragged a woman caught in adultery in front of Jesus—which they did not to effect justice for her but to trap Jesus, meaning they used her shame to try to hurt him, and by the way, doesn’t adultery require two people?—Jesus made it clear to her and to everyone present that he was not condemning her. She was caught sinning and Jesus, the only one who had a right to condemn her, did not condemn her. Did she apologize? Ask forgiveness? Not that we read. Check this out—Jesus told her he did not condemn her without her begging for forgiveness. What? That’s crazy. That would be like Jesus telling a condemned criminal that he would enter paradise just for asking, “Jesus, remember me? ” Oh, wait. That happens, too.
So if Jesus doesn’t condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery and forgives a man clearly condemned for his crimes, why would God see a girl as dirty or shameful for what someone else did to her? So it is with Rhonda. She knows she is loved.She knows, beyond certainty, that she was rescued from vile darkness and brought home. Why? Because her father loves her. When her father looks at her, he doesn’t see a girl who had bad things done to her. He sees his daughter, beloved and clean and whole. Living the real life intended for her.
Rhonda’s brothers have issues. One of them rejected the family entirely and ran away. The other is this self-righteous so-and-so who always talks about how hard he works and how little he’s appreciated. He likes to compare himself with his little brother. But for all his boastful “godliness,” he’s unkind. He talks disrespectfully to their dad and pays no attention to Rhonda. But her father took her aside and explained that we all have hard places in our hearts, and that her brother’s attitude toward her is a reflection of his heart, not a reflection of Rhonda.
Rhonda can’t understand how her brothers can respond this way. Maybe it’s because they’ve always had a home and therefore can take it for granted. She’s spent the last years first trying to forget and block out what happened to her and then starting to let herself remember and grieve it. She’s spent more hours than she can count crying and screaming and getting angry. She has nightmares. But she’s safe now, she knows that, and the pain is less than it used to be. She doesn’t want to kill herself anymore. She doesn’t wish every day that she was someone else. Her father has said, “I love you, Daughter,” so many times that she’s not only believing it but starting to say to herself, “I love you, Rhonda.” If he can love her, knowing everything that happened, maybe she can love herself, too. That seemed impossible at one point, but this house is the kind of a place where impossible things happen.
Speaking of that, the impossible happened. Her younger brother, whom she hadn’t seen for years, just came home. He was wrecked, absolutely wrecked. He looked so skinny she was afraid he was dying of cancer. But he just hadn’t eaten. He was in another city, starving to death. She cried and cried when she saw him, and she hugged him so hard she was afraid she would break him, frail and weak as he was. Then she cried some more.
And it was sostrange for her. Her heart was broken for him, but he was okay now, safe, back home. Was she crying for sadness or joy? Both. Even stranger, she was crying her hardest, but for once not for her own pain, not for her herself. And that felt strangely good, like her heart had grown big enough to bear others’ pain, not merely survive her own.
She and her younger brother could talk now, in a way that they never could before.She was fond of him before, but she knew he didn’t really care much about anything other than himself and whatever entertained him at the moment. But being gone, and all he went through, had changed him. He talked so quietly now. He used to be so loud and rude. Now he almost whispered. But when she first heard his loud laugh come back, that was the day she knew he would be okay. He doesn’t talk much about what happened to him. He simply refers to it as “when I was lost.” Once he even said, “When I was dead.”
She said, “I know exactly what you mean.”
But the absolute strangest part was how her big brother reacted. She never really understood until the day her little brother came home. Her father threw the biggest party she’d ever seen, this crazy huge celebration, even bigger than the one he threw on the day her adoption became official. Her father had taken her aside and told her, “It’s because you knewyou were home. He doesn’t know yet. Not really. But he will.” Her father offered a toast and said, “We have to celebrate. This is resurrection. This may be the best day of our lives.”
Rhonda thought about how her older brother would have reacted to hearing that, but of course he didn’t hear it, because he wasn’t there. He’d refused to come to the party at all.
That’s when she finally got it. She’d had so much trouble her first years in the family feeling at home in their house, believing that she belonged there, that she could deserve such a life, the she could ever deserve to be loved. How many times had her father said, “I love you and this is all yours. You don’t have to earn it. You can’t, Silly. I’ve given it to you.” Now here was her older brother, activelytryingto make her younger brother feel he didn’t deserve to be home.Of course, she thought, hedidn’t know how hard it is to believe you’re loved after you’ve been lost. He couldn’t recognize that he was doing something spiteful and evil…because…because…oh, my gosh, he was lost, too. That went beyond strange. That was crazy. Did it really work that way? He grew up in this house. His father told him, “I love you” every single day. His father showedhim love every single day. But somehow love hadn’t gotten through, it hadn’t entered his heart. That made no sense
But when she looked in his eyes, she could see it was true. Rhonda could see only anger there. Maybe even hatred. And, to her surprise, that helped her not to feel angry at her older brother anymore, because in that instant she realized, “I could be you, angry at what happened to me, full of hate and rage. I always thought we were so different but now I see we’re just the same. Or we could have been, if I’d let that hatred have me. You didn’t get abused, but you have convinced yourself that you did. You talk about working here, for our father, like that’s an abuse, like you were neglected. Or exploited. But it’s your herds, your crops,your home. But you aren’t at home here. You see yourself as a slave.”
That was fiction, of course. Jesus’ story in Luke 15 was fiction, too, but it’s, y’know, Jesus, so we understand that Jesus is telling truth through his fiction. With all my heart I believe that the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is theliving God Almighty, whom Jesus knew as Abba, to whom we can cry, by whom we are loved, and with whom we are home, wherever we happen to live in this world.
Before I go on, just to be clear, Jesus never mentioned Rhonda the middle daughter because she wasn’t causing problems. All parents know—and certainly all middle children know–that children who raise a ruckus are the ones who get the most attention. And the default is to notice the middle child less. Right?
Seriously, Rhonda came to me last Sunday while listening to Phillip’s sermon, and when I tried to set her aside and write a different sermon, I ran into a dead end. I’ve preached long enough to know that when I tell God, “No, I need different inspiration,” it always goes just like that. Thus, I mentioned the preparation process at the beginning. I don’t often get the full idea for a sermon in a flash, and as many who have worked with me will attest, almost never a whole weekahead of time. But I didn’t want to offend people by adding to the Prodigal Son story, so I kind of balked. However, I know for sure someone here needed to hear this and it was important enough to God that I was not allowed an out, other than outright disobedience. So to be clear, I know this is not part of Scripture and I’m using creative interpretation here, both about God’s love for the orphan and the abused and about God’s love for his two sons, which maybe we can see even a little clearer from a different angle. I always pray that God alone will offend us and we will let that begin to change our hearts. If I’ve still offended you, don’t worry, I won’t do it next week.
What do Rhonda and her brothers show us about God?
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.Nothing. If we’ve been abused, God doesn’t see us as unclean. If we’ve made horrible choices and put ourselves outside of God’s family, we’re still never outside of God’s reach. Ever. It’s impossible. If we have hardened our hearts against the God who relentlessly loves us, if we’ve decided we got a crappy, sorry, skubuladeal and if God’s grace for others offends us, God comes out to us, humbles himself and actually pleadswith us to come home, to feel the compassion he gives us for those lost sheep, those bedraggled and starving little brothers, those asylum-seekers who pray for a home.
Rhonda’s family reminds us that our failures and faults and sins don’t disqualify us. Ever. Because we didn’t “qualify” in the first place. We werelovedin the first place and that has always, only given us a part in God’s Kingdom. If this has been a crummy year and you’re no longer sure you’re qualified to be a missionary, or even a Christian, guess what? You never did qualify.We don’t “qualify.” We are loved. We are adopted. We aregivena place. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoptionas children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
The older brother is wrong; he couldn’t be more wrong. “All these years I’ve been working like a slave for you…” No, Son. You are home. The younger brother is wrong. “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” The younger brother wasn’t worthy because he behaved well. He’s worthy because the father’s love made him worthy and he can’tlose that because the father refuses to take it back. Do you hear this? Yes, the younger son sinned against the father—yes, you may have sinned and screwed up and even full-on failed, but that isn’t the argument. The father won’t even let his child finish his apology or explanation or whatever. The father shows the son, by his actions, that he is stillworthy, that he is stillloved.
But the father—listen to this– 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
One more thing that the Rhonda story teaches us, and this is where adding Rhonda really does bring something to light: this is the family of God. These are the people we are called to love and work with and beGod’s Kingdom with. So if you listen to this story and think, “Nope, I’m not any of them,” I can guarantee that you have these people in your life. God has sent you to welcome them home.
Rhonda looks around and sees, “Wow, I’m pretty messed up, but so are these brothers of mine.” She knows that she was given a place in the family and a home through grace, and therefore she has grace to offer them. “Those who have been forgiven much, love much. Those who have been forgiven little, love little.” As we know we are loved, we become able tolove. It’s a process, rarely a straight line, and it involves God getting at the hard parts of our heart where we still hold out that we are unlovable.
When we experience Jesus loving us not because we qualify, not because we are worthy, but in spite of our feelings that we never will qualify or be worthy, we carry that grace with us for others.
You remember to whom Jesus was telling this story, right? The Pharisees. He told this story to them, about them, because they did not want to love “sinners” and they did not want himto love “sinners,” either. They believed, trulybelieved, that God was glorified by their rejection of the unclean and sinful. The elder brother believed he was in the right making his younger brother feel unwelcome in hishome. But the way Jesus tells the story, by rejecting hisyounger brother, who was dead and is alive again, the elder brother also insulted and rejected his father. Can you see how that makes this not optional? If we reject the people Jesus welcomes, we’ve rejected him at the same time.He’s begging us to come in, but Rhonda is right—if we refuse to welcome our younger brother home, we’ve told the father “Now you listen to me!” In other words, “You shut up, because I know and you don’t.”
I met with a young man last week, I’m going to call him Matteo. Matteo lives not with his parents but with his extended family, and they have told him he is an idiot all his life. They use that word, in Spanish, over and over. He is not Christian enough for them, he does not meet their standards of how a person should behave and follow Jesus, and their way of correcting him is to grill him, browbeat him, and call him “idiot.” You might guess I have issues with this. Matteo and I have met for years, but of course this is the first time I’d seen him in a long time. Here’s the beautiful thing: Matteo is doing great!
Matteo is actually highly intelligent, I mean downright brilliant. Smarter than I am by a lot. He’s in university now. He’s working at a job making a lotof money, which is pretty incredible in itself for a young man in Nicaragua. Ever since we first started meeting and I learned of Matteo’s home situation, I have been telling him, “You are loved. You are smart. God is crazy about you.” And not to oversimplify, but in a nutshell the entire work of mentoring this young Nicaraguan was simply to help him understand and truly believe that what God says about him is different than what his family says about him. That God loves him somuch, as he is right now, and that the mistakes he makes are not disqualifiers for being a child in God’s home, but a normal part of growing and learning and walking with Jesus.
Do you know who Matteo is in my story? He’s Rhonda.
Because all three of these roles in the story, younger and elder brother and middle sister, can be any of us. Sometimes we are one of them for a period of time and then a different one for another time.
Matteo needed to know that he is welcome in his Father’s house, that he isworthy to be called a son because God makes him worthy and Matteo is loved with an eternal and infinite love.
Just. Like. You.