Sunday, March 29, 2020

How Do You Find Peace and Serenity in the Midst of a Strange, Even Scary Time? Here's How.

We’ve all had to adjust to a lot of things in these days with Covid-19, but do you know one of the things I personally struggle with the most?   I’ve got nowhere to go.   I don’t mean the social isolation and distancing that our leaders are asking us to practice, which is why you’re watching me on a screen today.   No, I mean that if this disaster was a hurricane hitting us, we could go somewhere, right?  You could travel somewhere else to avoid the storm.   But wherever you go, literally in the world, this storm is there too.  So, I’ve been yearning to escape not to a where but to a when.

For years, I’ve subscribed to a weekly magazine that has way too many articles for me to finish in a week.   So, that means, I’m usually a month or so behind.  So this past week, I was reading the issue from late February, and it felt well….eerie.   It felt like I was looking at a time capsule from not weeks in the past but years, an era long ago when people actually went to theaters, dined in restaurants, shook hands even (instead of washing them a zillion times a day) when the news wasn’t 24-7 virus.  And reading about it, I was thinking. Boy, I’ve love to go back there and stay.   Who wouldn’t?  Who wouldn’t want to return to those days when Corona virus was something happening over there, not something wrecking your life here, heck, wrecking everyone’s lives everywhere?

These days you can feel like you’re living like an exile from home. You’ve been kicked out into a world that looks the same but sure doesn’t feel it.  Instead it feels strange, alien, and yes, scary. But even in these days of Covid-19, home is still a place you can find or rather it’s a place that can find you.   How?  In these words, Jesus shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

How do you find a sense of home, a sense of peace and security, even in this strange, uncertain, even scary world of Covid 19.   In these words, Jesus tells you.  In these words, Jesus reminds you that your true home has never ever been a place or a time, it has always been a relationship.  And only when you experience that relationship, when you open yourself to that relationship, do you find home.  

But why isn’t home a place or time?  In this story of the two sons, Jesus shows you why.  Neither of these sons experience their home as a home.  You see, with each of these two sons, the home they have they don’t experience as a home.   One son wants to leave it as fast as he can, even if that means telling his father basically.  “I wish you were dead, but since you’re not give me your money anyway.”   Now, the other son stays, but even for him, it doesn’t feel like home.  He talks about he feels like a slave to his father.   Wow.  Does that sound like home to you?   If that’s home, it’s not a home I want to live in. 

But is it any different for any of us?  If you’re really honest, has any home you’ve had, really been home in the deepest sense of what you yearn that word to mean?  Have you ever carried fond memories of some place in your past, thinking that there in that place, you really felt at home?  But then you went back there, and let’s just say your memories didn’t live up to the reality.  

Heck, even if I could travel back a month ago to the days before Covid, that time still wouldn’t feel like home.  Sure, I could go to the grocery store without feeling like I was entering the danger zone or not think how many feet separated me from another human being.  But those days had their own problems, their own struggles. They weren’t necessarily easier, just different. Granted, they might have felt easier to deal with than the ones we face now, but those days weren’t perfect either. 

Yet both sons, even though they didn’t find home, they sure were looking for it.   One son thought he would find it out there in the world, making his own way, breaking all the rules that had gone before.   And the other son thought he would find it by obeying the rules, by drawing a life that stayed within the lines.   But that didn’t work either.  In fact, it so didn’t work that at the end of the story, he finds himself more on the outside than ever.
But in the story, Jesus does seem to say that the younger son does, in the end, find home.  He returns home looking for a job.  But instead he finds the home he was searching for all along.  And how does he find it?  He finds it in his father’s embrace.   No, that’s not right.  The younger son doesn’t find anything.  He doesn’t find home.  Home finds him.  Because home isn’t a place you find.  Home is a relationship that finds you. 

And that’s why I started the scripture reading with that story of the lost sheep.  You see.  Jesus tells three stories about lostness.  But in the first two stories, someone seeks out what is lost.  The shepherd seeks the lost sheep. The woman searches for the lost coin.  But in this story, no one seeks what is lost.  No one seeks the lost son. 

When I was growing up, one day my older brother was babysitting me.  I don’t know what happened, but for some reason I got upset.  I decided to run away from home.   I made it about a half mile.  That’s about how far I could make it before my brother and his buddy were able to track me down in his buddy’s Camaro.  I still remember his exasperation as he told me to get in the car.   At first, I resisted.   But my brother and I both knew how it was going to end.  I crawled in, scrounged up in the backseat, and we made our way home.   I knew my brother would come after me.  That’s what older brothers do.   But as I think back, I wonder how it would have felt if he hadn’t, if he hadn’t cared enough to come find me. 

During the Vietnam War, Daniel Dawson’s reconnaissanceplane went down over the Vietcong jungle.   When his brother Donald heard the news, he sold everything he had.  He left his wife with twenty bucks and bought a ticket to Vietnam.   And for nine months, he wandered through the jungle, looking for his brother. He carried leaflets picturing the plane and sharing in Vietnamese news of a $5,000.00 reward for anyone who had word on his brother.   He became known simply as Anh toi phi-cong, the brother of the pilot.  For eight months he searched. Finally as a Vietcong prisoner, he learned that his brother had died. His captors passed on a Navy yellow vest, saying it was all that had survived the crash, and then they let him go. 

Talk about a brother’s love.   But in this story, the older brother doesn’t do a thing.  He sees his father’s heartbreak over his lost brother. But he never lifts a finger to find him.  And when the brother comes home, he’s not happy.  He’s angry.   And he never sees it.  He never sees that the same embrace that welcomed his younger brother, that that embrace had been waiting for him all along.  
And for too many folks who have encountered religion, that’s who they have encountered, those false elder brothers, full of anger and judgment, who are far from home and don’t even know it.

But if the elder brother in the story isn’t the real deal, who is? Who is the true elder brother?  It’s the one telling the story.  

Why can’t human beings find home, find that sense of rest and security for which everyone yearns?  It’s because people don’t trust the love.  They don’t trust that God truly and deeply and completely loves them. So, they look for home in all the wrong places.   That’s the whole story of the Bible from beginning to end, our fear and distrust and how it separates us from our true home, the God who loves us more than we could ever imagine.  

So, what does God do?  In Jesus, God comes to us.  God becomes the elder brother. Why? So, he could search for you.  So, he could find you.  So, he could bring you home, bring you home to your father’s embrace.  And God let nothing stop him in his search, not even death.  Why?  He loves you that much.    God loves you that much.   And the more you realize that, the more you let the wonderful reality of God’s love for you sink in, the closer to home you become.   And even in the scariest days of Covid 19, you can find that home living within you, holding you, comforting you, giving you peace.    And it’s not because you found it.  It’s because that home has found you.      

Sunday, March 22, 2020

How Do You Not Get Ensnared by Fear in the Days of Covid-19? Here's How

It all started out so normal that Saturday. I woke up late like most teenagers do.   I wandered into the kitchen, but nobody was there.   I looked in my sisters’ rooms. No one there either.   I went everywhere. I could find no one.  I feared that the unthinkable had happened.  I had been left behind.

Do you know that term?  Years ago, a guy named Tim LaHaye wrote a bunch of best-selling novels based on those two scary words, left behind.    

And I grew up in a church that believed in those words too.  Here’s the idea.   A time will come when things will get really, really bad, the time of tribulation (dum de dum dum!)  But if you’re a Christian, don’t worry.  Jesus is going to beam you up to heaven before all the bad stuff happens.   But the bad people, they’ll all get left behind. 

And that morning, I wondered.  Maybe I had been left behind.  Maybe Jesus had not deemed me worthy of the beam up. I thought to myself.   What lustful thought, what unkind deed, what disrespectful word has led to this?   But then deliverance came!  I heard the garage door opening.  I heard my family coming up the stairs.   The only thing I had been left behind for was a trip to the grocery store!   Hallelujah!

Now why do I tell you that story?  I tell it because it shows you just how clueless I was about what this whole Jesus thing even meant.  Instead of getting captured by the love, I was captured by the fear.   And fear has nothing to do with the good news of Jesus.  In fact, the more you experience the love that Jesus brings, the more it frees your life from fear. 

And in days like now just turning on the news can fill you with fear and anxiety.  How do you find freedom from fear in the days of Covid-19, when so much feels uncertain, even scary?   How can you get captured by the love instead of being ensnared by the fear?  In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How in the world does this story of an angry older brother help you to overcome your own fears in the face of an uncertain, even scary world?   It helps you see how subtly and powerfully fear can capture you without you even knowing it.    In this part of this famous story on the two lost sons, Jesus is showing you.   You can be lost in fear, especially in your relationship with God and not even know it.   Heck, you can be lost in fear in that same way, and not even believe in God at all.   But not only does Jesus show you the fear.   Jesus shows you the way out, how instead of getting ensnared by the fear you can get captured by the love.

But let’s first look at how this older brother has gotten ensnared by the fear.   As we take up the story, the father is experiencing a tremendous joy.  His lost son has returned home, alive and well.   Elated, he throws a huge, extravagant party.   But then his older son finds out.  He gets so angry that he refuses to join in the feast.   Even when his father pleads with him, he refuses to go in.  And that’s way the story ends with this older son left outside.   

Typically, when you hear this story, people focus on the first part, on the story of this son who disrespects the father and leaves home, and then is welcomed back.   But Jesus spends as much time talking about the older son as he does the younger one.   And Jesus tells us that the younger one gets reconnected to the Father.    But with the older one, we don’t know.  Why?

Jesus is showing you how easily fear can capture you, can leave you on the outside of life, without you even realizing it.   This older brother doesn’t even realize it.  But he has a relationship with his father that is rooted in fear.   Look at how he describes his life on the family farm.   He says.  For all these years, I have been working like a slave for you.   Wow!  What a way to describe your relationship with your dad.   He’s the master, and you’re the slave. 

Or look at this part of the conversation with the dad.   The older son says: “I have never disobeyed your command, yet you have never given me even a young goat so I can celebrate with my friends.”    And then how does the father reply?  He says to him.  “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”   All that is mine is yours.

Do you see what’s going on?  The father and this son have radically differing perceptions on what their relationship is all about.  The father is basically saying.  Don’t you get it?  Sure, I appreciated your work, but you’re not my slave, you’re my son.   And if you wanted to throw a party, throw a party.   Everything I have is yours.    So why didn’t the older son do that?

He was living out of fear.  And when you live out of fear, you don’t so much live your life as much as you try to control it.    Let me do a good job for the master so that I can get what I want from him.   So, he does a good job for his dad but not because he loves him.  He does it so he can get things from him.  But here’s the irony!  What he wanted to get, he already had.   And let’s be clear. He didn’t just want a goat.  He wanted what that goat represented, his father’s approval, his father’s love, his father’s joy in him.   But what he didn’t realize is that he already had that!  

Now if he had realized that, he likely would have lived his life in the same way, worked faithfully and well but now out of a completely different mindset.  He would have done it simply because it gave him joy to help his father out, to be able to join his dad in this life and work that they shared together. 
And in this older brother, Jesus is pointing you to two ways you can live your life, one ensnared by fear versus one captured by love.   And you can know how much your life is ensnared by fear by how much it is dominated by the desire to control it, to control yourself, to control others, to even control God.

Sometimes, when I meet someone, and they find out I’m a preacher, I catch some serious anger.  It usually goes something like this.  Preacher, I used to go to church.  I was even a leader, taught Sunday School, the whole deal.  Then I got fired or my child got sick or my wife left me, and that was it.   And so, you can take all your religious junk and stick it…well, you get the idea.
 I guess the person figures if they can’t yell at God, they can at least yell at one of the lower level employees.   I’m like a customer service person with a highly dissatisfied customer.  And when those conversations happen, I don’t really say much of anything, but I’m sorry.   I can see underneath the anger, the bitterness, that they hurt, and they hurt deeply. 

I also recognize what is going on.  Somewhere along the way, they got the idea, likely because someone taught them, that they had a deal with God.  I obey the rules and I get the good.   But then God broke the deal.   But what they didn’t realize is that God never wanted a deal.  God wanted a relationship. 

And relationships, well, relationships you can’t control.  In fact, the certain way to be wrong is to think you can.   And we live in a world of relationships not simply with God but with one another, and with the world around us.   And if anything, Covid 19 has taught us is how much all those relationships are not in our control.  We certainly couldn’t control whatever mysterious leap from whatever animal occurred that popped Covid-19 into our world. 

And now that’s it’s here, we realize how much we can’t control around us.   Yes, we need to follow the guidelines carefully and well.   But even then, we can’t wipe down everything we could possibly touch at every place we could possibly go.  We have to trust that as much as we can, most folks are doing their best to not only watch out for themselves, but in some way to watch out for us, that we’re all doing our best to watch out for each other.

The great writer Annie Dillard put it well.  “We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all.”    And that older brother was deeply asleep.  He couldn’t control his father’s love or favor.  He couldn’t control how his father welcomed his wayward brother home though in his anger he certainly tried.    But here’s the tragedy.   If he had let go of the delusion that he could control the relationship, he would have realized the truth.  He already had what he deeply desired, a father who loved him without question, without condition, that loved him on his best days and his worse.    

And in this story, Jesus isn’t simply talking about a Father and his children.  Jesus is trying to tell you about God and us.   Jesus is saying.  You don’t need to live in fear, trying to control this God or even your life, as if that is even possible.  But you can let go and trust that even in a time as scary and uncertain as these days, you can trust in a God who loves you.   In fact, in Jesus, this God loved you so profoundly, he gave up control, even over his own life for you.  He gave it up to show you once and for all, he doesn’t want a deal with you.  No, God wants a relationship. 

Not only that, God offers a relationship of unbreakable, unshakable love, one that even as you killed him did not stop loving you, one that not even death could defeat.   And as you let go and let that love capture you, it frees you from fear.  It liberates you from the obsessive need to control what is out of your control.   And you realize, that in this uncertain, scary world, you can trust that love.  In this journey with God, you never really know where you are being led.  But you know this, you love the One who is leading, and you know that this One loves you, no matter what.   

And as you let yourself be captured by that love.  You will realize that none of us can control what God does, but we can open our eyes and see what God is doing.  We can see God in the doctors and nurses and care workers standing on the frontlines, in the researchers around the world working to defeat the virus, in restaurant owners giving away food when they have to close.  And if we but look, we can see that God in one another, in the people we love and that love us.   So, in these coming days, don’t let the fear ensnare you.  But let the love capture you.  For the more you let that love capture you, the more free you will become.  Let us pray.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

What Does True Freedom Really Look Like? It May Not Be What You Think.

I know it’s not true, but I still get caught up in it anyway.    I see it, and I find it so hard to resist.  I think to myself.   But it’s free.     But here’s the painful truth.  It’s not free.   It’s not free at all.

Do you ever get caught up in a BOGO, you know one of those “buy one, get one free” deals at the grocery stores?   But you do realize, it’s not really free.   It’s just half price.   But if it was just half price, would you likely buy two?  But if it’s “buy one, get one free”, well you just gotta get the other one right?  You can’t let that free one just sit on the shelf.    After all, it’s free!  Boy those grocery store folks are clever!

But those BOGOs make a powerful point.  What looks free often deceives.  What people think looks like freedom usually doesn’t bring real freedom at all.   Instead, it often brings the opposite.   Yet our world offers those false promises of freedom all the time.    And those false promises lead to heartbreak, to brokenness, even death.   How can you make sure you don’t get caught up in the false freedoms, but open yourself to experience the real thing?  In this famous story, Jesus shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.

What looks like freedom often doesn’t bring freedom at all.   In fact, it can even bring the exact opposite.     So how do you avoid getting caught up in a false promise of freedom?   In this story, Jesus tells you.   How do you find the key to real freedom?   You find it by trusting in the love.
But before you can unpack what trusting in the love looks like, you need to see first what is it that makes a false freedom false.   And in this younger brother we see someone caught up in a false idea of freedom.   But he’s not the only one that has it.   A lot of folks in the world base their lives on that same false idea.  And what is that idea?   Freedom means no constraints, no limits.   And that idea of freedom can sound awesome.  In fact, even as I wrote those words, I could sense them attracting me. 

So, you can see, why they attracted the younger brother.   After all, that’s why he wants the money.  He doesn’t want the money to invest or to manage.  He wants the money to buy him the freedom.  With that money, he can go out on his own.  He can make his own way in the world.  He doesn’t need to be confined by his family’s expectations or even his culture’s.   In fact, he knew. By demanding this inheritance, he was shattering those very expectations.   He was breaking the rules, and not just little rules, but big ones.   But hey, if that’s what it took to get freedom, that’s what it took.  “Sorry dad.  I know it hurts to know that I wish you were dead.  But hey, I gotta be free.”
But is that idea of freedom: no constraints; no limits, is that even really freedom?

Years ago, the Episcopal priest Nicky Gumbel shared a somewhat embarrassing story on himself.   He had taken his son to play in a local soccer game.   But when they got there, it turned out that the referee hadn’t shown up. But both the teams had.   So, Nicky thought.   I know a bit about soccer.   I can ref the game.  So, he volunteered to help.   But a few minutes into the game, one of the players fell on the field.  He claimed that the other player had fouled him.  But Nicky wasn’t so sure.  So, he said.  Play on.   Then a few moments later, it looked like the ball might have gone out of bounds, but Nicky wasn’t sure, so he said, play on.    And it wasn’t too long before player casualties were everywhere, and both teams were almost at each other’s throats.  Thankfully, at that point, the ref arrived, and quickly put everything back in order.  And Nicky Gumbel’s brief and disastrous career as a ref mercifully ended.

Do you get it?  Nicky’s way of refereeing offered just that way of freedom, no constraints, no limits.   But how did that work?   It didn’t.  It didn’t bring freedom.  It brought the opposite.  No one could enjoy or even play the game at all.  In fact, you can’t play any game without some constraints, some limits. 

Heck, what would traffic be like, if we didn’t have red lights or stop signs or speed limits?  Could any one even drive at all?   And even if you could drive, who would want to?  Talk about chaos. 

Heck, as a nation, all of sudden we are all facing all sorts of constraints and limits.   We can’t shake hands.   We have to wash our hands all the time.  We can’t even go to Disney World.   Yet, without all those constraints, people could die.   And let me tell you, death, that pretty much ends your freedom, at least this side of heaven.  While I look forward to going to heaven one day.  I’m not ready to go yet.  And I sure don’t want to be responsible for sending anyone else there.   So, if I need to wash my hands a bit more and wave at you across the sanctuary or even stop worshipping in person for a few weeks, those are limits I’m more than willing to take. 

But this younger brother is going for the no limits, no constraints idea of freedom.  So, he gets Dad’s money, but what ends up happening?   He just trades one set of limits for another.   He ends up spending it all.  But think about that.  How does that happen?  He had to know he was blowing through the money.  So why couldn’t he stop?   Why couldn’t he stop before it was too late?

When I was in my mid-twenties, I went through a double whopper with cheese phase.   My local Burger King had a late-night drive thru.   And about ten pm, I’d feel the craving come on.  So, I’d hop in my car and order one of those 1000 calorie burgers along with fries and a drink of course too.  I gotta tell you.  Biting into that burger felt like sheer bliss.   But it only took a few days before I began to feel, well, not all that good.   I thought to myself.  I better hold off for a while on this double-whopper drive thru thing.  But then 10 pm came around.  And I felt like my body was screaming at me.  “Get me my double whopper now!”   It took all the willpower I had not to go.  I even think that one night I went so far as to get in the car and drive there.  Thankfully, the drive thru had a really long line.  So, I thought it best just to head back home.   But if that line had been shorter, I don’t think I could have resisted.

And I’ve avoided ordering double whoppers for years.  It’s not because I don’t like them.  It’s because I like them way too much.  

People are always getting caught up like that.   You look for something that promises you freedom, satisfaction, fulfillment.    And at first, it seems to deliver.    But all it delivers is a hook. And once that hook grabs you, it doesn’t want to let you go.   It doesn’t bring you freedom.  It brings you the opposite.   And it can happen with anything a drug or a double whopper, a relationship or even an idea of success.  Someone described addiction this way.  It’s anything that you need more and more of to make you less and less happy.   And that can happen well, with pretty much anything. 

So, if freedom doesn’t come in those ways, how does it come?  When this younger brother wakes up and decides to head home, Jesus shows you.

He goes home prepared to give up his freedom, to essentially become a slave to his father, until he is able to pay off the debt.   But that doesn’t happen at all.   His father rushes to him and embraces him.  He invites him in and welcomes him with his best robe and a lavish feast.    And in doing those things, Jesus is showing you the way to true freedom.  True freedom comes when you trust the love. 
In our house, our son has to deal with a lot of constraints.  He has to brush his teeth.  He has to clean the table.  He can’t always play with legos or watch youtube kids when he wants.  And boy, does he get frustrated.

But what if we didn’t do that.   What if we said to him?  Patrick, we don’t care what you do.  For a while it might feel awesome.  But after a while, I wonder if it would keep feeling so awesome.  Or instead, he would begin to think.  Do these people really care about me at all?   He might end up doubting the love.

As it stands, he puts up pretty well with the constraints.  In fact, he often seems to get a sense of satisfaction about them in the end.   And that happens, I like to think because, even when he disagrees with the constraints,  he trust that we are doing them because we love him; that we want the best for him; that we are for him.

And in those moments, when that younger brother feels his father’s embrace, he realizes that too.   He realizes.  His father loves him more than he ever imagined.  He realizes.  His dad is for him.  His dad is really for him.  And in that embrace, Jesus is telling you, you only enter into the true path to freedom when you trust the love, when you trust God loves you like that. 

Have you ever wondered why God put that bad tree in the Garden in the first place?  Wouldn’t it make sense to not have any bad tree there at all?  But God wanted people to be free, to be free even to make the wrong choice.  And as I have shared here before, the point of the tree wasn’t even the tree.  It was the trust.    God was saying to Adam and Eve.  Trust me about this tree.   Trust that I love you, that I want the best for you.

And in the story, that’s exactly what the snake attacks.  He first asks.  Did God say you couldn’t eat 
from any tree in the garden?   Now Eve corrects him.  She says to the serpent.  No, God only said we couldn’t eat from this tree.  But do you see the seed the serpent plants?   This God wants to constrain your freedom, wants to hold you back.  God is the everlasting killjoy.   You can’t trust the love of this God.   And so Adam and Eve believe that lie and eat.  But the fall doesn’t come from biting the fruit.  It comes from not trusting in the love.  And when Adam and Eve can’t trust the love of God, distrust enters the world.  They find it hard to even trust each other, to even trust themselves.   They don’t find freedom. They find separation, disconnection.  They find a world that isn’t free at all.

And ever since then, God has been on a rescue mission to free you in the only way true freedom comes, by trusting in the love.   Don’t you see? That’s why God came and become one of you.  That’s why God in Jesus even gave up his life for you.  He lost his freedom so he might win yours.  He took on the chains of imprisonment so he might break the chains that bind you.  He lost even his own life so you might find yours.   In all those things, God was showing you in the most breathtakingly, powerful way possible.  I love you.   You can trust in my love.   I will not betray you.  It will not walk away from you even when you try to kill me.  Nothing will take away my love for you, not even death.  

And when you realize that, when you open yourself to trust in the love, you become more and more free.  Constraints become expressions of care.   Limits become acts of love.   And a freedom finds you that is so deep, so true that you realize.  You will never find the end of it.  You discover a freedom that not even death can defeat.   And all you need to do is find the freedom is to trust the love, to feel, like that son, God’s embrace, to know this profound, beautiful truth.  God loves you, truly and completely.  You can trust it. You can trust that this God loves you no matter what.    

Sunday, March 8, 2020

How Can You Be Really Good, Even Super Religious and Still Be Far from God? Here's How.

He died in prison eight years ago.   The awful things he did happened now almost thirty years ago.   But still to this day, what he did still stuns me, even sends shudders through me. 

Maybe it’s because it happened just twenty-five minutes from where I lived, in a church that I had already come to know.  But to this day, I can’t get what Dr. Robert Reza did out of my head.

Dr. Reza, an accomplished physician, taught on the faculty at the medical school at Stony Brook University.  He had two beautiful teenage daughters; a marriage that looked well pretty close to perfect.  Each Sunday the family went to church literally morning and night.  His wife sang in the choir.   He served as an elder on the church’s board. 

Then one morning, two weeks before Christmas, while Dr. Reza was attending a medical conference in D.C., someone brutally murdered his wife, Marilyn.    When he returned and discovered the body, distraught and in tears, he called the police.   But that tragic story soon unraveled, and the real story came out. 

Dr. Reza had been attending that conference yes, but in the middle of it, he flew back home and killed his wife.   First. he shot her as she lay sleeping.  When that didn’t do the job, he literally choked the life out of her.   And then he hopped back on a plane back to the medical conference.   Why did he do it?   He was having an affair with the church choir director and wanted to start a new life with her.    
Now this guy had never done anything wrong.  He was an outstanding doctor, a loving dad, and for the twenty plus years before had been, by all accounts, a loving and faithful husband.  But on one morning, two weeks before Christmas of all times, he blew all that up in a way so brutal and cold, I still remember the story to this day.

How can that happen?  How can someone be, one year such a seemingly virtuous man and then the next, avicious killer?   In this famous story, Jesus is addressing just that question.  You may think this story only tells about one lost son.  But it doesn’t.  It tells of two lost sons.   And in that second lost son, Jesus points the way to a truth, a shocking reality that everyone needs to hear.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

How does a seemingly good person, even a righteous one, like Robert Reza appeared to be, do something so horrible?   In this story, Jesus points the way to answering that question. But Jesus does more than that.  Jesus is showing you how a person can be truly good in any number of ways, and yet still be tragically lost, can still be tragically disconnected from God.   How does that happen?   It happens when instead of loving God for God.  You love God for the things.

You see. In life, folks generally end up going in one of two different directions.  They either move towards the freedom or they move towards the rules.   And in this story, Jesus illustrates these two directions.   In one brother, you see someone who wants radical freedom.  He wants to live his life on his terms, and he’ll do anything to get it, even if it means humiliating his father and ripping apart his family.   Now, folks may not want to go as far as this guy went, but they still lean towards the freedom side.  They don’t want to live by some sort of predefined rules.  They want to live life on their own terms.  And while this way of living life looks appealing, here’s the problem.  It doesn’t really lead to freedom at all.   And next week, we’ll dig more into why that is. 

But that’s not the bigger problem.  And what is that?  It’s that too often folks, especially religious folks miss the whole point of the story.   Yes, what the younger brother did, did lead him into a very lost place.   But too often, folks think that the older brother must then be the good guy.  After all, he’s the one who stayed, who did the right things.  He obeyed the rules.  You may even feel sympathy when he gets angry at his dad for welcoming his younger brother back with no strings attached.  

But do you get what Jesus is saying? Neither of these two directions, moving toward the rules or moving towards the freedom gives you life.  They both get you lost.   Neither of these brothers, the younger or the older, are right.  Both are wrong.   How is that?  

Th older brother may be keeping the rules.  But he’s making the exact same mistake his younger brother did.  Neither are loving Dad for Dad.  They’re only loving Dad for Dad’s stuff.   That’s easier to see with his younger sibling.   When the younger son asks for his inheritance, he is basically telling his dad.  I wish you were dead.  But since you’re not, can I at least have what is mine when you do eventually kick the bucket?   He makes it brutally clear to his dad.  I don’t love you for you.  I love you only for what you can give me.

But the elder son feels the same way.  He just figures he has a better method.  If I keep my nose clean, do the right things, then eventually all the stuff my dad has will be mine.  And we know he feels this way because of how he reacts to his younger brother’s return.   He knows. His younger brother’s loss wrecked his dad.  His father yearned daily for that son to return.   But when the younger brother does return, does he rejoice?  Does he feel happy for this answer to his father’s prayers.  No, he gets angry, really angry.   Why?  He’s thinking. Shouldn’t I be getting the party?  I did all the right things, not my bozo of a brother.  And this money Dad’s spending on this party, that’s my money. That’s my inheritance he’s spending.   So, in his anger, he refuses to go and also humiliates his father.  Why?  Because deep within, he wasn’t so much obeying his father for his father’s sake.  He was obeying his father for the things it would get him. 

And too many people obey God for that same reason.  They think.  If I obey God, go to church, give generously, keep my nose clean, then God will give me a good life.  But don’t you get it?  You’re not loving God for God.  You’re loving God for the stuff.   You’re not looking to God for a relationship.  You’re looking to God for a deal.  

And Jesus is saying, if you’re doing that, you’re lost too.  In fact, Jesus is telling this story because the religious people criticized him for hanging out with the younger brothers of the world, people who definitely were not obeying all the religious rules.  He is telling the story to tell them a shocking truth.  Yes, these younger brothers are lost, you’re right.  But you are lost too, maybe even more than them.   After all, at the end of the story, who gets found?  The younger brother.  Who stays lost?  The older one.     

You see, the question everyone has to ask is this one?  Are you loving God for God?  Or are you loving God for the stuff?    And how do you know the answer to those questions?   You answer this one. When your life doesn’t go well, when something bad happens, how do you react?  Do you get angry? Do you think this shouldn’t be happening to me?  Or maybe you get scared. You think.  Did I screw up?  Is God mad at me, getting back at me in some way?     

If those answers feel familiar, then you’re not loving God for God.  You’re loving God for the stuff, the things loving God gets you.   And who wants to be loved like that?

Today in our church, a couple, Lenny and Pilar brought their daughter, Gianna for baptism.  But why did they have Gianna in the first place?   Was Gianna along with his brother and sister, part of Lenny and Pilar’s retirement plan? 

Okay, listen kids, here’s the deal.  We’re going to feed you, house you, take care of you, but in return, when we get old you gotta take care of us. That’s the deal.   Ok?  Sure, you hope, if you need them, your kids will be there.  But hopefully that’s not the reason you have them. That’s certainly not the reason Lenny and Pilar had Gianna.  They brought Gianna into the world out of love.  She doesn’t have to do anything.   Her very existence brings them joy.  

That’s the way it is with parents who love their kids.   The kids don’t have to do anything to get their parents’ love.  They have it.  Heck, if they did have to do something to get the love, would that even be love?  I don’t think so.

And if you come to God, just to work out a deal, how can that be love?  More painfully, if you come to God looking for a deal, how can you really think God loves you?   I don’t know what happened with Dr. Reza to move him to do such a horrendous thing.  But I wonder.  Maybe he thought of his good life as a deal, and when the deal wasn’t working, when his wife wasn’t all she once was to him, well then it was time to break the deal.   He never got the point.  That it was never about a deal.  It was all about the love. 

And that’s what Jesus is trying to tell us.  It is all about the love.  And love means, yes, when you’re doing right, God loves you.   But even when you break God’s heart, like the younger brother did, God loves you just as much then.  God may not like you that much. But God never stops loving you.    
That’s why Jesus talks about God as a parent, because God loves you like that.  In fact, God loves you even more than that.   And when you realize that, that’s what brings the change.   That’s what saves you.  Trusting in that love.   

And when you do that changes everything.   So, yes, you strive to do what God wants as best you can.  But you don’t do it because of a deal or because you’re scared, but because you trust.  You trust that God wants the best for you.  Even when obeying God doesn’t seem to make sense, you still trust that love.   And you trust that love, because you know. That very love lives within you.  That very love is saving you from yourself, from your own fears and insecurities, your own dark places, and we all have them.  

And how do you know that love?   You look to the cross, to this God who in Jesus not only became one of you, but gave up everything, even life for you.  And the more you open yourself to that love, the less lost you become.   And you find a life richer, deeper, more wonderful then you could have dreamed, not because it’s always perfect.  It’s not, often far from it.  But because you realize, you haven’t so much found God as God has found you.   And you realize he even went to death and beyond to do it.   Do you know God loves you like that?   Have you opened yourself to that love, really opened yourself to it?  If not, make today the day you do.