Sermon 3/14/2010

March 14, 2010
Michael Coffey

Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Why do you think it is so hard for God to love?
Why do you think it is so hard for God to love you?
Why do you think it is so hard for God to love those you don’t love?

Much of our Christian interpretation of God and sin and human life
has assumed that it is very difficult for God to love.
We have assumed that it is very difficult for God to love us.
We have assumed it is very difficult for God to love those we don’t love.
We have taken very seriously the problem of human sin
and the struggle against evil, and rightly so.
But we have often ended up with a God
and a system of divine jurisprudence
that makes loving human beings exceedingly problematic.
We have ended up with a confounding view of Jesus on the cross
that somehow makes the impossible loving of us possible.

Jesus is listening to some folks who don’t seem to like his love of the unloved
and his dining with the crude
and his acceptance of the unaccepted.
So, like always,
instead of coming up with a theological construct
or a metaphysical reflection on divine righteousness,
he tells a little story.
And story has the power to seep into our unconscious
and change us against our better judgment.

There was a father who had two sons.
One son was a loser.
The other was an insecure do-gooder.
Neither one assumed their father loved them easily.
One went off and rebelled. He was the wild, fun one.
The other stayed home and tried too hard to be the good one.
After things fell apart for the wild son,
the loser, rebellious, fun son,
he decided that his father certainly couldn’t still love him,
but he might just let his son come back as a servant.
The hard-working, self-righteous boring guy
assumed he could never do enough to earn his father’s love,
no matter how hard he tried to get it right.

Rather than see these two as different kinds of people
and try to figure out which one we are,
and which one the person sitting near you who drives you crazy is,
the story invites us to see all sides in ourselves.
We can assume both things to be true about us:
We have squandered our divine sonship or daughterhood,
and we have done everything we can to please God
because we assume it is never enough.
Either way, we picture a God and a self and a human condition
for which love does not come easily,
and the problem is so great it cannot be resolved.

Why do you think it is so hard for God to love?
Why do you think it is so hard for God to love you?
Why do you think it is so hard for God to love those you don’t love?
If Jesus teaches and shows us anything about God and us
in this perhaps greatest of his surprising stories
it is this surprise:
Like an embarrassing father running out to hug and kiss us
when we finally come back home,
it is not so hard for God to love us.
In spite of all of our complicated and convoluted
theological dogmas and notions about sin and righteousness,
it is not so hard for God to love us.
It is, however, and Jesus surely saturated his story with this,
it is extremely hard for us to be loved,
to call ourselves beloved,
and to allow those we don’t love to be loved, too.

In his 1981 novel Godric,
Frederick Buechner writes about a would-be saint
who is all too aware of his own humanity, his own flaws,
his own wayward journey and lost soul
to ever accept easily a designation like saint.
Yet, by the time he gets to the end of his own story
and comes to terms with his own life as a man,
he summarizes everything there is to say about us and God
as Jesus would have us hear it:
All is lost. All is found.
To hear the parable of the father with two sons,
to hear Godric’s realization about life as a son or daughter of God,
is to hear something that quashes all our resistance:
It is not too hard for God to love us,
in our lostness, or in our presumed foundness.
It is just hard for us to be loved,
to call ourselves beloved, saint, son, daughter,
and to let those we don’t love
know the same generous love of God.
All is lost. All is found.
And in all the losing and all the finding,
God’s love is generous.

Today we sang a hymn that I didn’t select.
I don’t mean to pick on Donald here, who did choose it.
Forgive me, Donald!
But I have never liked the hymn
“Chief of Sinners Though I Be.”
Well, mostly I just don’t like the title and first line.
Chief of sinners though I be?
My first reaction to it is:
Really? You? I can think of three or four others
who are far more qualified as chief of sinners,
or even as strong second place candidates.
Now I have no problem in admitting the reality of sin,
the problem of sin,
and the need to address sin in our lives.
But there’s some kind of a sick narcissism
that thinks that my sin and my failure
is so great and so chief
that I am the one God is most concerned about
and has the biggest problem with
so that nothing can overcome my unbelovedness
than Jesus dying on the cross
and finally making God love me.
Strangely enough,
this approach to myself and God
that feels so faithful and self-deprecating
actually makes me the center of attention of the whole universe.
When in fact, it just isn’t that hard for God to love me,
sinner though I be, chief or second place, or last.

This is the same kind of narcissism
that thinks we are so special and so good
that God must love us because we try so hard.
Anyone cursed with perfectionism knows this way of living.
If we just do it all right,
if we please everyone all the time
and produce something worthy of being loved,
we might just be loved.
Chief of sinners or perfect child,
either way, we miss the whole thing with God.

It is extremely hard for us be loved and call ourselves beloved.
Not our narcissistic, self important way of wanting to be loved.
That’s all based on insecurity about being loved.
But being loved for just who we are, for our selves,
the way we came into the world,
the way we struggle through our days,
and the way we are going out at the end:
just as a son, a daughter,
a humble human man or woman,
with great strengths and obvious weaknesses,
with high hopes and shattered dreams,
with many abilities and fragile vulnerability.

A friend recently told me
that when he drops off his kids at school
he says: I love you.
And they hate it
because they don’t want to be embarrassed by their father’s love.
But if they don’t say I love you back
he says it even louder: I love you!
and embarrasses them even more
until the extravagant love of their father
creates in them a response:
I love you, dad.
What feels like extravagant, unnecessary, embarrassing love
becomes a much needed and sustaining bond.
The reason it is so embarrassing to have such excessive loved yelled at you
in front of everyone else
is because it is so scarcely believable.
So God yells it to us as often and as much as God can
until we can believe it, accept it, live it, and even yell it back.
Even when we don’t know it or can’t admit it,
we long to be loved so freely that it is simply a given in our lives.
The longing to be called son, daughter, brother, sister
is all about a deep need for abiding relationship
a spiritual connection that roots life in love, grace, community, and God.
And either it is so hard for God to love us this way
that it is an impossibility that is somehow overcome
by some complicated transaction in the cross of Jesus.
Or, it is so easy for God to love us
and so hard for us to accept it
that God reaches out to us in Jesus
like some father running down the road
thrilled to see us
and hugging and kissing us until we finally get it:
We are home, and we always have a home with God.

The challenge for us in the church
especially as we head into Holy Week is this:
it is terribly easy for God to love us
and it is terribly hard for us to be loved.
And the cross is not about some difficulty God has in loving us
but the difficulty we have in being loved.
The problem is not with God
but with us.
Everything about our life with God and each other
requires our transformation from rejecting belovedness
to accepting it so deeply in ourselves
that we can accept it in our brothers and sisters, too.
Then, true family, true community,
true relationships flourish.
And God is known rightly as a joyful father,
a smiling mother,
a warm embrace,
a comforting kiss,
and we are restored to life again.
Can the journey through the wilderness
to the cross and the resurrection be that for us?

It is not easy for us.
If we have unresolved issues and wounds to heal
then it comes very hard for us.
It may be because home was not this welcoming as God is,
and we never knew ourselves celebrated and beloved,
and father was limited in expressing his strong love for us,
and mother was imperfect in her care and nurture.
It may be that we were taught
that our sin is so great that we can’t possibly be loved.
But somehow, after we caused Jesus horrible suffering death,
and we don’t have to be punished and abused like we deserve,
we could feel better about ourselves.
It may be that we are still stuck in our own self-importance
and need either to be the worst kid who blew it,
or the perfect one who earned it.

These are all the more reason
to let go of the God who finds it hard to love us
and let go of the self that can’t let go and be loved
and maybe for once, or maybe again after a desert of dryness,
simply be in the embrace,
and simply know the kiss.

All is lost. All is found
So get over yourself!
You’re not that horrible.
And you’re not that perfect.
If Jesus embodies God’s love for the world
even without counting the cost
then what is the real message of the cross:
That it is terribly hard for God to love you? NO.
It is terribly hard for God
to contain God’s love for you and the world.

God loves us enough to let us wander away.
God loves us enough to welcome us back
Both are love, both are needed.
Let yourself be loved in your real, honest self,
not some false self you keep searching for
either in your rebellion or your perfection.
And let everyone you don’t love be loved in the same divine excessiveness.
God in Jesus must think this is what changes us
and changes the world.


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