Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Prodigal update

A week ago, we asked you to pray for the young fella who broke our window at the Cafe -- that he'd own up to what he'd done and accept our forgiveness and invitation to get ice cream (see "The True Prodigal Son" entry below for more details).

Wanted to report back on the Lord's wonderful answer to your prayers. On Saturday, Hannah and I had a great talk with the young man in question. He owned up to what he'd done, we reconciled, and we shook hands.

On Sunday, we went out for pizza and ice cream with him and another one of his friends. We had a good chat -- just got to know one another better. The boys talked about typical stuff a lot of the time ... sports matches they've won or lost, gross-out injury stories, video games they've played, what girls are nice and/or cute.

And, they talked about shootings. One of the boys saw the body of a cousin immediately after he'd been shot to death over a rap video war on youtube. The other boy's father survived being shot nine times and killed his attackers in self-defense.

This violence is part of the fabric of our peoples' lives. In many ways, these kids understand the uncertainty and danger faced by people in much of the world better than I do -- including the uncertainty and danger that the people of God faced in Biblical times, throughout church history, and now. May the gospel of Christ speak into their lives as blazingly and hopefully today as it always has.

"O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The True Prodigal Son

This is a version of a sermon that I preached on Sunday. It draws heavily on something that happened at Oaks the previous week.

For those of you who don't know, I'm a missionary priest in Troy. We work in the inner city, mostly with children, in a pretty rough neighborhood. A lot of the ministry is done out of a diner that we reopened as a cafe and ministry center.

Last Friday, a group of boys got rowdy and very profane. They were throwing around racist and vulgar language, and a few of them began fighting in the street outside. My colleague, Mother Hannah, told the kids they weren't allowed in for the rest of the day.

To retaliate, they began throwing big chunks of ice at our windows, and one of them cracked. This is the same window we'd shelled out maybe $100 to fix very recently (it had a bullet hole in it previously, leftover from before we'd taken over the building).

Well, I was angry. I put on my big black coat and marched to the boys' parents' house, having two goals in mind. First, I was going to tell the exactly what their kids had done. Second, I was hoping to talk them into paying for part of the window replacement. Their mom wasn't home, so I left a note for her to call me.

So, here's the question: was there a problem with what I did? Wasn't I within my rights? Didn't I need to teach those boys that there are consequences for their actions? Don't I have a responsibility to be a good steward of the money entrusted to this ministry? Can I just let them walk all over me?

That night and the next day, I prayed about what to do. And I heard the Lord say this, "Christina, do you care about that window and your hurt pride, or do you care more about those boys?"

Because the boys live in the world of reaping what you sow. But, our Father doesn't play by those rules. His rules aren't fair. They're Kingdom rules -- overflowing with grace and mercy.

So the Lord told me, "Child, find a way to seek after those boys, not your own desire for payback." And Mother Hannah and I talked, and we figured out a way to approach the situation. We'll tell the boys next time we see them, "Whichever one of you who broke the window has to admit that you did it." (Because denial of wrongdoing -- absolute, unwavering denial despite the evidence -- is the norm in our community). "Until you admit what you did, you will not be allowed in the Cafe. And the moment you admit what you did, you'll be allowed back inside and completely forgiven -- not reparations or recriminations. In other words, your punishment lasts as long as you say it does. There's one condition of your being allowed back in -- you have to come out for ice cream with Mother Hannah and I so we can get to know you better."

So first, I'd ask that you pray for those kids and for that conversation, that they'd taste grace.

Secondly, why have I told all of you this story? It may be obvious that I was meditating on the gospel reading of the Prodigal Son as I was figuring out how to handle that pastorally. This gospel story is one of the most beloved in Scripture -- a moving account of the younger son falling away and his restoration by his gracious, loving father. I've heard a lot of commentators in recent years say this should be called the parable of the Gracious Father because it's all about him, and that's certainly true.

But here's the thing -- we all want to be the younger son in this story. And we are, in truth. We have all fallen away, and we need to feel our Father's embrace.

But despite what we want, I think we are more often the older son. That's us. Because who's the true prodigal by the end of this story? The older son -- standing in the dark, angry, refusing to enter into the celebration of his brother's new life.

And this is the good kid. The church kid. The kid who never did anything wrong. Who played by the rules.

That's who I was on Friday. I was just looking for what was due to me. But, that's not how the Father works.

And this begs the question: how often do good church people miss a chance -- as they're looking for something good and right that's due them -- to stop and say, "Father, what would you have me do? Can I set aside the broken window or whatever is fixating me and see a chance to pour your kingdom grace into a broken life?"

How many tax collectors and sinners to we put in second place behind our own agendas?

I've compiled a list of people I've heard Christians criticize over the years. This list is not exhaustive: black people, Roman Catholics, gay rights parade marchers, Tea Party members, environmentalists, atheists, Mormons, Jews, the media, Muslims, welfare moms, gun owners, drug addicts, politicians, conservatives, Mexicans and sex offenders.

Which of these people would Jesus refuse to sit and eat with? Which of these does the Father not look down the road for, long for, day after day?

The world should look at Christians and say, "Those Christians? They're crazy. They'll love anyone. They'll speak to anyone. They'll pray for anyone." We should be known for brave, reckless, extravagant love.

Do they say these things about us? They do not. And I'm not suggesting we compromise holiness or the truth revealed in Scripture. But, why do they not know we're Christians by our love?

I think we've failed. But this is Lent, a season of repentance, of turning toward new life.

And what will God do to us for our failure? He'll look into our eyes, with infinite love, and say, "Child, come inside. Rejoice with us."

St. Francis of Assisi tells a story that was important in his walk with the Lord. He used to hate lepers. Hated how they smelled. Hated how they looked. And God began to work on his heart and work on his heart. And, one day, he embraced and kissed a leper -- just as the Father embraced the younger son. And Francis found it was Jesus who he embraced.

What shall we do? Let us embrace the lepers in our lives, whoever they are.

And, when we come in from the fields doing what we hope is the Father's will, let us stop. Because the Father isn't in the house. He's outside, on the edge of the fields, gazing down the road. Let's stop, and stand by his side, and try to look where he's looking. Let's ask him, "Father, give me more of your heart to love and better eyes to see."

And let's watch with him and pray until every one of our brothers and sisters comes home.

In the name of God: the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.