Every time I preach on one of the passages of Scripture that are animated in a production of Godspell (like the one Patterson and Ridgeview did in 1995, in which I was a member of the cast)—I recognize that I have to see beyond the antics and horseplay that is so deeply ingrained in my memory of those parables. So yes, I remember, the father’s heart beating “lub-dub, lub-dub” and the conga line of the servants out in the fields and all the rest. And I have to set it aside.
This morning I have also set aside my many years of musings on how we are like the son who left, or how we are like the son who stayed. Today I intended to focus on the father, and how his acts of grace are really a lesson not only about how we are to individually live, but how we as a church are to act in the midst of a society that expects us to follow the rules, even if they are not good rules at all. Seasons of the Spirit even suggests that this story should not be called the Prodigal Son, but actually the Prodigal Father—because the father does not do what is expected. Instead, he acts with grace.
From the beginning to the end this story of the lost son can be seen as a call, a pleading, a command, for us to act with grace. From the very first scene when the father agrees to give half the inheritance to the younger son (which would normally only occur after the father was dead—so essentially the younger son was wishing his father dead ALREADY); to the moving image that the father sees the wayward one coming back from far off (doesn’t this suggest that he had been on the look-out all that time?); to the fact that he doesn’t even give the prodigal time to show up and offer an explanation, but runs to meet him, hugs him, shushes his prepared speech about not being worthy; to the surprise that instead of saying “I told you so” the father puts on his son the best robe, and gives him a ring, and kills a fatted calf and throws a party; to the final lines that when the son who stayed complains (acting much more in concert with what society deems correct) the father doesn’t get mad at him either, and continues to extend grace to the older son for as long as it will take to have him come inside as well.
I wanted to talk about how we as a church cannot allow society to dictate what kind of grace we are to show to the world. We as a church cannot get so rigid in our rules and our thinking, that we miss the joy and the party that is intended to be had for each one who has been lost and is now found, who was dead and is now alive. We as a church cannot lose our way and stand out on the porch of heaven, mad that God/Jesus/Spirit has once again allowed the least of these, the worst of these, the ones who lie to your face and don’t seem to care a whit for anyone and do unspeakable things, God/Jesus/Spirit has not only allowed THEM on the property but is throwing a big party, when it should really be US that get celebrated. We as a church need to stop seeing ourselves as the son who went, stop behaving like the son who stayed, and begin acting like the father who did NOTHING the world would have said was appropriate, but did EVERYTHING that God intends in a world where heaven has come close to earth—where God’s kingdom has come, where God’s will has been done.
That’s the bare bones of the sermon I had intended to preach. But sometimes God places something in your way and you realize that that something is what you need to share. And so, I offer this abbreviated version of the chapter “The Slaughter of the Innocents of Sandy Hook Elementary” in a book by Nadia Bolz-Weber called Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong People.
At Nadia’s church the Sunday after Christmas they have a Lessons and Carols Service. But the Sunday after Christmas in 2012, when Christmas was just 11 days after Adam Lanza had gunned down 20 young children and 6 adults, it seemed hard to imagine telling the Christmas story as they always did. Here is what Nadia wrote…
“So, on the Saturday before we gathered to hear the nine lessons traditionally read for the Service of Lessons and Carols, I told Alex, my new intern, ‘We’re adding a reading tonight: the Slaughter of the Innocents.’ If someone had told me before Alex arrived at House for All that a young gay man with ‘the spiritual gift of joy’ would be interning under me, I’d have quickly asked for a replacement. But Alex has an amazing ability to make me laugh when I get too rant-y and intense, and I love him for it. He also really, actually believes in Jesus—a big plus in my book.
‘During the prayers of the people’ I told him, ‘let’s read the names of the twenty-six teachers and children who died, and maybe their ages too. We’ll ring a bell after each.’ I had just come up with the plan and wanted to know what he thought.
‘You mean twenty-seven?’ he replied.
‘I’m sorry, what’s that?’ I asked.
‘Adam Lanza. The shooter. He died too.’
‘No way,’ I said before even thinking about it.
Alex didn’t have to say anything else. I knew he was right.
[An] aspect of the story of Jesus’ birth is that, as John’s gospel says, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. God chose to enter a time as violent and faithless as our own, yes. But the other thing we must confess is that the light of Christ cannot, will not, shall not ever be overcome by that darkness. Not by Herod, and not by Adam Lanza. The light of Christ is so bright that it shines even for me and even for them. (Still, Alex was a little bit [mean] for making me face the truth of myself and the truth of God’s love rather than just making me laugh, which I really would have preferred, thank you very much.)
I finally relented, ‘Fine,’ I said, ‘but I am registering my opposition to God’s grace.’
‘I’m sure God is super hurt about it,’ Alex replied. (That’s better.)
Two days later, when we stood in front of the congregation, Alex solemnly struck a bell for each of the names of dead teachers and children. Names illuminated, as those of the saints… had been, by the light of our imperfect paschal candle.
“Charlotte Bacon, six.” A bell rang.
“Daniel Barden, seven.” Another bell.
“Olivia Engel, six.” The vibration from each bell felt as though it were shaking my insides so hard that images of every six-year-old I’d ever known filled my mind and with each bell strike I saw them lying on a classroom floor.
I couldn’t read the final name right away because it took me a minute to reach deep enough into my theological convictions in order to find the mercy to do so. I had been so intensely focused on telling the truth about the kind of world God entered and how it was as violent and faithless as our own that I had forgotten in my sermon to actually mention why God entered it.
If I couldn’t also speak the truth that God came to save us, all of us, that God created us in God’s image and that lives we’d rather extinguish are still precious to their maker and that the North Star that so brightly lit the way for the Magi to find the Christ child shone for them and Herod and me and Charlotte Bacon and Adam Lanza, then I really had no business being a preacher that day. So I dug deep to speak the truth of God. [And I said]
“And in obedience to your command to love the enemy and pray for those who persecute us”—my voice cracked as if the courage were draining out of it—“Adam Lanza, twenty.”
The final bell rang.” (pp. 77-79)
Grace is an impossibly hard,
incredibly important part of being a child of God, made in God’s image, called to follow in God’s way.
May each of us, may all of us as this church, be gifted with grace upon grace, with amazing grace to share.
May it be so, Amen and amen.