A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Lent 4

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The introduction of our gospel picks up on a favourite theme in Luke’s Gospel—Jesus, friend of sinners and outcasts, and here he is associating with “…all the tax collectors and sinners [who] were coming near to listen to him.” This whole chapter is devoted to parables of the lost and found. According to Luke, Jesus in this chapter is criticized by a group of Pharisees and scribes for offering hospitality to and eating with sinners. In the ancient Eastern world, hospitality and eating together were signs of friendship and love of neighbour. Today too, they have the potential of—and sometimes succeed in—breaking down categories of various kinds that serve to divide people.

Our parable, verses 11b-32, in my Bible is titled: “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.” Over the centuries the parable has been given a variety of names, and often the titles reveal what preachers focus on in the parable, for example: The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Parable of the Prodigal Father, The Parable of the Loving Father, The Parable of the Waiting Father, and so on. Indeed, in my preaching over the years I’ve employed such titles. However, as I read and reflect on the parable now, I would title it “The Parable of Prodigals,” since I believe that both sons and their father were prodigals in one way or another. Speaking of titles, recently I read an article by Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, who had an insight that I never thought of before. She believes the father is a negligent one in that he failed to consult with the elder brother concerning how to handle the younger son. The elder son was left out of the decision-making process regarding the party that was thrown to celebrate the younger son’s return home.

On occasion—likely because I’m the eldest son in my family—I’ve sermonized in an empathic way concerning the eldest son. For example, if we take seriously the detail of verse 12, that the father “…divided his property between them,” then I believe the case can be made for the eldest son’s complaint at the end of the parable about the party—after all, the property, the food, and perhaps even the musicians and dancers were paid for from what rightfully belonged to the eldest son, since the father inherited everything to the sons. I realise this reasoning isn’t concretely substantiated in the parable; and that traditionally the eldest son often received more of the inheritance than other siblings—yet, there is something about this parable that doesn’t sit quite right with yours truly. After all, we’re told that the eldest son has been responsible all along—in fact, puts forth this complaint, the foundation of which seems to be one of a fair playing field and justice: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” He has been a model son, working hard, accepting responsibilities, doing the right thing—albeit he seems to see it as slavery rather than being motivated by compassion. Hence, in this sense he too is prodigal, if his primary motivation is not based on love for his father. Prodigal too in that he seems to want to remain—reading between the lines—angry with and alienated from his younger brother, whom we note, he doesn’t call him by name, keeping his distance from him by saying: “this son of yours,” in verse 30. Indeed, after the eldest brother’s complaint, the parable leaves it open-ended as to whether or not the eldest brother listens to his father’s plea for compassion and forgiveness and joins in the celebration.

Coming back to the other two main characters, the youngest son and the father—I think we can identify with both of them as well. The youngest son has experienced “the university of hard knocks” so-to-speak in that he was humiliated in the far country by, out of desperation, having to accept a job of feeding the pigs; and if one can take him at his word, he was “dying of hunger.” If he was Jewish, having to accept a job feeding pigs would definitely not be kosher. “Dying of hunger” would certainly be no picnic either! So he hits bottom so-to-speak and plans his repentance speech and heads back home—hoping that his father will at least take him back as one of his slaves, since even they were better off than he was now. Notice however in his repentance speech that there is no mention of his elder brother. One question that we might ask is: Did the youngest son leave home in the first place because there had been a falling out with his elder brother? The parable doesn’t tell us, but perhaps that was a possibility. Another question we may ask is: Since the eldest brother is not mentioned in the repentance speech, is the silence an indication of a broken relationship between the brothers? Such questions, I realise are not answerable with any degree of certainty.

All those of us who are fathers or mothers I think can identify with the father in the parable. Sometimes children can “push the envelope” to the limits and then some. They can leave home and go off into “the far country.” Sometimes, tragically, children never come home again. There are countless stories of “waiting fathers and mothers,” and “loving fathers and mothers,” who agonize over broken relationships with their children. Sometimes those broken relationships fail to end with compassion and reconciliation, and that is truly tragic. Sometimes however parties are thrown and parents become prodigal in going all out with their celebrations—showing generosity and compassion beyond everyone’s expectations. That indeed is a fine picture of who our God is in his relationship with each one of us! For that, thanks be to God!

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A Lectionary Reflection on Isaiah 55:1-9, Lent 3

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I love the Book of Isaiah, it is so rich in communicating God’s chesedlovingkindness—and grace. Those who believe that the Hebrew Bible and the God described in the Hebrew Bible are filled with doom and gloom, judgement and condemnation need to read the Book of Isaiah. Yes, there are oracles of judgement in Isaiah, however it is also bursting at the seams with messages of lovingkindness and grace.

The Book of Isaiah is a complex one, yet, at the same time, it enunciates the beauty of simplicity. Many scholars divide it into three sections and most likely three different periods of history: Chapters 1-39; chapters 40-55; and chapters 56-66. They are referred to as First Isaiah, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah respectively. Scholars differ concerning their authorship—e.g., some believe the Book of Isaiah may have been compiled by a group of editors/prophets or ‘school of Isaiah’ so-to-speak, while others contend each of the sections were written by three different individuals, as well as other theories. Our pericope likely dates back to the time of the Babylonian exile (ca. 587-538 B.C.E.), perhaps near the end of it, as the content of this oracle is one of a hopeful future—indeed, the title of this oracle in my Bible is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.”

The oracle begins with a message of God’s grace. The picture is rather profound in that first of all everyone is given this grace-filled invitation without exception; and second, the economy of God’s grace is the exact reversal of all human economies based on a monetary system. The invitation makes it abundantly clear that God’s grace cannot be bought with money—it is free! Therefore the rich have no advantage over the poor, all are equal in God’s eyes. In God’s economy of grace no money is required—rather, God’s banquet feast of food and drink are free and accessible to everyone. What abundance, what generosity God offers here!

Verses two and three continue with this motif of God’s abundant grace, however there is a clarifying injunction, the exilic citizens of Judah and Jerusalem are commanded to “Listen carefully…,” “Incline your ear…,” “listen, so that you may live.” I believe it was Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who once said: “The first duty of love is to listen.” Listening makes all the difference in the world, it is, or at least has the potential of being, a matter of life or death. Those who listen are often more open to the blessings of what life has to offer them through the multidimensional workings of God’s grace. Failure to listen can, and often does lead to sinful thoughts, words and actions that lead to: self-inflicted suffering, alienated and broken relationships with God and other human beings, divisions, the devastation of creation, evil, injustice, war and destruction.

In the case of this pericope, listening while eating and drinking at God’s grace-filled banquet feast is connected with celebrating God’s “everlasting covenant” now expanding from David’s line to include all of God’s chosen people—verses four and five. God’s chosen people graced with an everlasting covenant shall “call nations that [they] you do not know,” and in response to this “call,” these nations “shall run to you.” They shall do this running because of God’s grace and initiative toward his chosen people.

Verses six and seven shift in their emphasis, inviting people, including “the wicked,” to repent of their sinful ways; which involves returning to the Holy One, the One who created and loved them from the beginning. This call to repentance, to return to the LORD has a profound consequence: “he may have mercy on them…,” and “he will abundantly pardon.” Mercy and abundance are the very attributes of God; they are also associated with God’s grace, lovingkindness/chesed, and God’s fidelity to the everlasting covenant.

The closing verses of this pericope are a reminder of God’s sovereignty, God’s transcendence, God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ and in the presence of God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ our humility—reminding us of our finitude and limitations, which are a message of grace too, since they reveal our need of God, our hunger and thirst for God, our constant state of returning to God in order to live the abundant life. We are graced to share God’s abundance even as we live in our various forms of exile.

Book Review: Leaving North Haven

leavingnorthhavenLeaving North Haven: The Further Adventures Of A Small-Town Pastor

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York & Berkeley: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

251 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2013-0, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In this sequel to Good News From North Haven, the Reverend Michael L. Lindvall continues to tell his heartwarming stories of many of the characters in his first novel.

The Reverend David Battles has now served Second Presbyterian Church for some ten years. He hadn’t expected to stay that long. He has learned much in those ten years. Yet, it is with a humble heart that he observes: “In these last ten years, I have come to know that I know less than I once did, but I do know this, just this: to see anything that matters, you must always bring two things to your looking—attention and love” (p. 23).

One character readers may remember is Minnie MacDowell, who had a fall and broke her elbow, was suffering from Parkinson’s and believed she was dying. On at least three occasions, she had gone through the ritual of having Reverend Battles ask her the question, “Are you prepared to die?” Then he was to read the twenty-third Psalm and pray the Lord’s Prayer. After this, she was to close her eyes turn her head to the window and pass away (p. 25). This ritual reminds me of a parishioner of mine who asked me every time I visited her: “Pastor, why am I still here? Why doesn’t the Lord take me home?”

The Reverend Battles, reflecting on if it was time to move on after ten years has this to say: “The town has come to be an unlikely home for us, but we can hardly stay forever. The hard truth is that in a year or two, maybe five on the outside, the church won’t be able to pay a minister a full-time salary.” (p. 38). This reality, of course, is an all-too-familiar one for many a mainline Protestant clergyperson serving in a rural and small-town parish.

In one of his adventures Reverend Battles thought he’d shot a ten-point buck deer. He had placed his gun triumphantly on the antlers, and one of the Wilcox brothers was about to take a picture when the buck suddenly came to life, got up, and ran away with the gun still in his antlers.

Then there is the young boy, James Corey, who is fascinated by a momma killdeer.

There is also the prophetic-like eccentric, Ivar Johanson, a bachelor, everyone is curious about his mysterious building project of Redi-Mix cement and chicken wire.

In the concluding chapter the Reverend Battles is celebrating All Saints’ Sunday, which was also his last Sunday at Second Presbyterian. Something surprises them and gets them laughing on that solemn day.

Those who love the culture and tales of small-towns and their churches will enjoy this novel. Clergy and laity alike will laugh, cry, and be edified by these tales of God’s loving grace.

Book Review: Good News from North Haven

goodnewfromnorthhavenGood News from North Haven: A Year In The Life Of A Small Town

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

189 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2012-2, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Reverend Michael L. Lindvall was born and grew up in small-town Minnesota. He developed a love for the stories told by folks living in such communities. Therefore, it is not surprising that the stories he tells in this novel are set in North Haven, Minnesota and, at the very least, are implicitly autobiographical. The storyteller in this novel is Reverend David Battles, the minister of Second Presbyterian Church—and Lindvall himself is a Presbyterian minister.

The novel begins with a brief history of First and Second Presbyterian congregations—the former lost their building to a fire, and most of the members subsequently joined Second Presbyterian. As the novel unfolds, Reverend Battles is keen to tell what he refers to as “tales of grace” revealed in the “things that happen” in daily dramas (p. 19).

In his compelling narrative style, Lindvall introduces us to a host of eclectic and eccentric characters—similar to the sinner-saints we clergy meet in our parishes. There are: the “intractable, intransigent, unmovable…iron butterfly” Alvina Johnson, who is skeptical about this year’s Christmas Pageant after directing it for four decades; the inactive Roman Catholic barber who confides in Reverend Battles about growing up with an abusive dad; Reverend Battles learning that the little things in life like reading a bedtime story to one’s kids and kissing them good night are important “…because the mark a man or woman makes on this world is most often a trail of faithful love, and quiet mercies, and unknown kisses” (p. 37); Carmen Krepke the rebellious young biker-woman who had a vision of Jesus; the wise patriarch of Second Presbyterian, Angus MacDowell; the single-minded boat-builder Lamont Wilcox, and many more.

The novel is also worthwhile for its humorous stories of Reverend Battles’ “short trip” on Easter Sunday while climbing the stairs to the communion table with the offering; Reverend Mitchell Simpson’s comments which he thought were spoken in private, but were heard by the congregation because his cordless microphone was turned on, when he thought he had turned it off; when soprano choir member, Emma Bowers’ spiked high-heeled shoe got tightly lodged into the heating grate, when choir member, Elsie Johnson was “raptured” during a recessional hymn, and more.

The final heart-warming story is the baptism of single mother, Tina Cory’s son, James; the whole congregation “stands with” James during the baptism as an act of love, acceptance and grace.

I highly recommend this delightful novel to the general reader, and especially to the clergy who serve in small-town and rural churches. The Reverend Lindvall shares a great deal of his folksy wisdom, insights and humour in these stories that instruct and inspire.

Remembering the Rev. Dr. William (Bill) Hordern

This past week, I learned of the death of my favourite seminary professor, the Rev. Dr. William (Bill) Hordern. He died on November 9, at the age of 94 years. A service to celebrate his life is today, November 15, 2014, at Zion Lutheran Church in Saskatoon. Unfortunately I am unable to attend the service, but my thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Hordern’s family.

Doc Hordern—sometimes he would say to folks, “call me Bill”—in addition to being a wise administrator functioning as the President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, he was also a very gifted teacher and preacher.

As a professor and scholar-theologian, Doc Hordern had the ability to present very deep and profound theological doctrines in a way that almost anyone could understand. I loved all of the courses that he taught me. One of the things he would often do is leave time at the end of his lectures for classroom questions, discussion, debate and dialogue—giving us students opportunity to process what we were learning.

As a preacher, he went into the pulpit with a manuscript, and relied on it, yet one had the sense that he was speaking directly to you in a pastoral way. His sermons were both down-to-earth and insightful, even prophetic, critiquing injustices in the community and larger world at that time, while at the same time, proclaiming the all-encompassing power of God’s grace at work in the church and the world. On a humorous note, on one occasion when he preached in the seminary chapel, he was having “a bad hair day.” Every time he looked down, his hair would fall into his eyes, and he had to keep pushing it back into place with his hand. It became a bit of a distraction for some of us—yet, it reminded me of his humanness, and that he was always accessible to us students.

My fondest memory of Dr. Hordern was on the day that I met with the colloquy committee. When the time came for Bill to ask me any questions, he replied something like this: “I have no questions. I think that after teaching Garth for three years at the seminary I know him and his theology well enough.” That spoke volumes to me, providing yet another example of how he truly not only taught and preached, but also lived by grace.

Speaking of grace, one of my favourite quotes comes from Dr. Hordern’s book, Living by Grace: “The practice of the church will always fall short of what it preaches, and therefore it will continue to live by forgiveness and not by its achievements or merits. The hope for the church remains always in God and not in the church’s membership. God is able to speak even through an imperfect church.” (pp. 199 & 200) For those readers who knew and/or studied under or worked with Dr. Hordern, I invite you to share your reflections by leaving a comment below. Rest eternal grant William Hordern, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon him.

October 30, 2011 is Reformation Sunday

This Sunday we Lutherans around the globe [and now that we are in full altar and pulpit communion with our Anglican brothers and sisters] will be celebrating Reformation Day.

Many of us Lutherans trace the beginning of the 16th century Reformation to Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg Church door; with the intention of them being debated publicly with other scholars, likely at the University of Wittenberg, where Luther himself was a professor. However, as Luther’s ideas of reforming the church spread like wildfire, especially in Germany, then later into Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, and Eastern Europe; it became clearer that Western Christendom would never be the same again. Historians have spilled plenty of ink over Luther and his place within the church catholic. In my humble opinion, if I were to single out his most significant contribution; it would be his discovery of the hermeneutic of grace. Luther had been tormented by God the Judge who left him in constant fear that he had not done enough to merit God’s acceptance and forgiveness. Then Luther “saw the light” so-to-speak, and read the Bible with a view that everything in it needed to be measured by the doctrine of all doctrines—justification by grace alone, through faith alone. According to Luther, and his reading of the Bible; there is nothing we can do to merit or earn or deserve our salvation; it is an unconditional gift from God. So, on this Reformation weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to share some primary source quotations from Martin Luther himself on justification. Shalom, Dim Lamp

In this epistle, therefore, Paul is concerned to instruct, comfort, and sustain us diligently in a perfect knowledge of this most excellent and Christian righteousness. For if the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost. And those in the world who do not teach it are either Jews or Turks or papists or sectarians. For between these two kinds of righteousness, the active righteousness of the Law and the passive righteousness of Christ, there is no middle ground. Therefore he who has strayed away from this Christian righteousness will necessarily relapse into the active righteousness; that is, when he has lost Christ, he must fall into a trust in his own works. (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works – Volume 26: Lectures On Galatians 1535, trans. Jaroslav Pelikan, p. 9.)

THE SECOND PART, Luther’s Smalcald Articles of 1537

Treats of the Articles which Refer to the Office and Work of Jesus Christ, or Our Redemption.

Part II, Article I: The first and chief article.

1] That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4:25. 2] And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1:29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53:6. 3] Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3:23f 4] Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3:28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3:26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ. 5] Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4:12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53:5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.

 Luther’s Works Volume 54: Table Talk (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), p. 456.    Recorded by Caspar Heydenreich, It Is Faith that Justifies, Not Works, Spring 1543.

   “That works don’t merit life, grace and salvation is clear from this, that works are not spiritual  birth but are fruits of this birth. We are not made sons [or daughters], heirs, righteous, saints, Christians by means of works, but we do good works once we have been made, born, created such. So it’s necessary to have life, salvation, and grace before works, just as a tree doesn’t deserve to become a tree on account of its fruit but a tree is by nature fitted to bear fruit. Because we’re born, created generated righteous by the Word of grace, we’re not fashioned, prepared, or put together as such by means of the law or works. Works merit something else than life, grace, or salvation—namely, praise, glory, favour, and certain extraordinary things—just as a tree deserves to be loved, cultivated, praised, and honoured by others on account of its fruit. Urge the birth and substance of the Christian and you will at the same time extinguish the merits of works insofar as grace and salvation from sin, death, and the devil are concerned.

   “Infants who have no works are saved by faith alone, and therefore faith alone justifies. If the power of God can do this in one person it can do it in all, because it’s not the power of the infant but the power of faith. Nor is it the weakness of the infant that does it, otherwise that weakness would in itself be a merit or be equivalent to one. We’d like to defy our Lord God with our works. We’d like to become righteous through them. But he won’t allow it. My conscience tells me that I’m not justified by works, but nobody believes it.