Delivered at Ames UCC on March 19, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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RING OF TRUTH
I have a friend who, when her kids were young, convinced them that she could tell if they were lying or telling the truth because of the “ring of truth.” They sincerely believed that grown-ups could hear a little bell ding when people spoke truth and a silent void at lies.
When I was a young child hearing the story of the starving son come home, I did not hear a ring of truth. I felt bored and I felt annoyed. Yeah, yeah, yeah: The guy realized what a mess he’d made of his life, apologized, and asked his dad for a job. And that older brother, who had done all of the work all along, shouldn’t have been angry with him because Big Daddy God is generous and loves us stinkers and do-gooders alike. And so we should try to be the same.
It felt so obvious. A sledge-hammer of a message without any subtlety. So any ring of truth, for me as a young person, was drowned out by my intellectual snobbery, defensiveness, and snoring.
Which is why I am so glad we read it here along with the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin.
I’m also glad we are reading these during Lent. These forty days are a nod to the forty days of Noah’s time on the ocean, the Egyptian slaves’ forty years wandering in the desert, and Jesus’ post-baptism forty days of faith formation in the wilderness. The idea of this season, which was instituted by our imperial Roman forbears in the early 300s, is to really prepare for Holy Week and Easter.
Because if there is any one story whose truth is suspect, it is resurrection.
We don’t need any academic footnoting or archaeological research to believe in Judas’ betrayal or Jesus’ execution. Those are ordinary stories. Right now, the state of Arkansas is trying to rush the execution of eight men because the drug that state uses to put people down is about to expire. We might think that has nothing to do with Jesus’ death, but he was deemed just as guilty in his time as juries and judges have deemed these eight men. And enough false convictions have been overturned, even in death penalty cases, to make Judas a neighbor of any one of us. So the state death machine moves on. Again, Good Friday is ordinary.
But resurrection Sunday? That tests us. That tests our understanding of bodies and physics. It tests our understanding of divine love and what it can possibly have to do with murder. So let’s see how these three parables—sheep, coin, son—might help us hear the true bells of God above and beyond the ruckus of everyday human interpersonal and institutional meanness.
Unlike so many of his stories, Jesus interprets all three of these for us. He says they are all three about the forgiveness of sins in response to repentance. How is that possible? Neither the sheep nor the coin are capable of taking such action in response to their shepherd/owner/God.
The sheep gets lost. Or maybe it just held still while the shepherd moved the rest on. Then it is found. It did not run, baa-ing and begging, back to the shepherd seeking reconciliation with him and with the flock.
The coin gets lost. How does a coin get lost? Not by walking off or having the money purse walk off and leave it behind. Coins get lost when our pockets have holes or when we get distracted or forgetful. And they certainly don’t shine themselves up with the hope of making an apology more palatable.
Yet Jesus says of the sheep,
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
And of the coin,
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
The groundwork for the story of actual, deliberate repentance—that of the starving spendthrift son—is divine joy. A joy divine that is sparked even on reunion with the most dull-witted or inanimate of objects. Objects that do not even know they are lost or could not get lost on their own. Again, in the first two stories God is overjoyed at being back in relationship with parts of creation that may not or could not have gone off on their own.
So the extravagant rejoicing of the prodigal son’s father takes on a different tone.
If God can be so happy to be back together with clueless livestock and inanimate metal, perhaps an element of the father’s elation is recognition of his own part in that son’s leave-taking and subsequent failures. Perhaps up until that moment, the father had berated himself for ever giving his youngest child the tools of his own destruction, for not keeping him at home until he had matured enough to make better choices. His extravagance may be more than pure love: The father may have been feeling some degree of remorse.
Last week Jesus cried out to shelter us. Today, God desperately seeks to bring us home, even showing signs of taking responsibility for our being lost. For Jesus to express and project such emotions on God is revealing of God’s character. We are not God’s equals, but it seems there is a mutuality to our relationship that only a jealous and stingy older sibling would deny.
I’m not going to tie that mutuality back into Holy Week now. We have a little more time in this wilderness and a few more stories to prepare us before we arrive there.
Instead, I will go back to those executions in Arkansas—and add in the proposed end of federal funding for international diplomacy and Meals on Wheels, which amounts to another means for state-sponsored death.
If we can be compared to dumb sheep and grubby pennies, and even in those forms be so cherished by God, then we have in our laws and practices gone even further into the pig trough and away from God than the prodigal son ever did.
But God will not let us go too far. In ways we can’t see or know, God is still tending to God’s creation. God pursues us into the farthest field and the darkest corners.
God stands ready to receive us when we realize we are starving ourselves and each other and weeps for joy like a parent who realizes that she really did equip her children for life, after all.
Because, after all, everything we need is at this table. All we need do is what that jealous older brother forgot: feast on the daily bread of faith and drink deeply of the pitcher of God’s presence.
Then we will be able to not only hear the ring of God’s truth for ourselves but live it out so loudly that we will silence the lies humanity tells in order to avoid our sacred, mutual love.