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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

2007-03-18 Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

"Where Is God When Life's Too Good?"

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, TN

During the season of Lent, the season when we get ready for Easter, which this year is all of March – I’m doing a sermon series called, “Where Is God?” Today is Part 3. Part 1 was, "Where is God When You're Worried?" Last Sunday was "Where Is God When Tragedy Strikes?" This Sunday, the scriptures of Lent take a totally different turn. You might have felt it when we sang our opening hymn, "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see!" Instead of worrying about what might happen, instead of grieving over what has, today we're gonna shout, "Halleluia!" (Halleluia!) Why say "Halleluia!"? Because life is good. God created the heavens and the earth and declared life, "good." Jesus Christ came, taught, died, and was raised so our lives could be declared "good" despite our sin. Life is good. Halleluia! (Halleluia!)

But is life ever too good? Too good to be true? Should we feel guilty when our ship comes in and there are so many boat people adrift in the seas? Is it OK to feel jealous when someone else's boat comes in and they don't invite us to the Vol Navy tailgate party? We've talked about where God is when life's messed up -- Where is God when life's good? I mean, really, really good - for us or for someone else?

The scripture today is one of the best-known, best loved stories in all the Bible. The Prodigal Son. It's the biggest, most developed parable Jesus ever told - that we know of. It's such a rich, delicious story. Preachers love this story, it's so ripe for picking. And picking apart. For at least twenty minutes on any given Sunday. I hate it when preachers do that. The last thing I would ever want to do (well, there are other things I'd more rather not do; but this is up there) - a kind of near to last thing I would want to do is over-analyze this parable. You just read it, and it stands on its own. You don't need a preacher to explain what it means. Anyone who's had an older sibling, or a younger, prodigal sibling, or anyone who's felt lost but then is found, or anyone who's welcomed home a wayward child - you understand this parable. As I said last Sunday, dissecting a parable is like dissecting a frog - you end up with a bunch of frog parts that don't work anymore. So. Instead of trying to figure out the meaning of the story by taking it apart, I'd rather try to figure out OUR meaning, and let the story itself put US back together. "Where is God when life's too good?"

First, the title of this sermon bothers me. I mean, is it even possible for life to be too good? How would a life that's just too good to be true look? You win the lottery - OK, the money's taken care of. Simon Cowell says enough with the voting, YOU'RE the American Idol from here on out - OK, there's fame. Dr. McDreamy waltzes in and sweeps you off your feet - or - Katie Holmes calls and says she's sick of Tom and Scientology and wants you to take her back (McDream on, dudes) - OK, there's love, or something like it. And Emeril Legasse wants you to move into his mansion so he can test his gourmet cooking on you. There's food, drink, shelter and a guy yelling, "Bam!" Money, fame, love (or something like it) food, shelter - yup. It's not a bad life. As if -- any of that's gonna happen. Most of us consider it a good day when we wake up rested (not arrested), get a good parking space, and we cross off at least one thing from the perpetual To-Do list. (By the way, this isn't in the Bible, but in heaven, there are no To-Do lists. Those are in the other place.) Most of us consider it a good day when it's not a bad day. We have no objective criteria for a good day, other than all the bad things that could happen didn't. So far, so good. Could be worse. Life is good when it isn't bad.

Somehow, I think the book of Genesis would read really differently if, after creating the sun, moon and stars, after creating the earth and all the creatures, after breathing life into man and woman, God stepped back and said, "Well, it could be worse." "Maybe next week will be better." No!!! God said, "It is good." God saw man and woman and said, "Y'all are VERY good. Now, go forth and start multiplying."

In the story of the Prodigal Son, I love the Older Brother. He's so good. He doesn't spend his dad's money on what Emily's second-grade teacher calls, "Play-pretties." When you're in second grade a play-pretty is a stuffed animal you hid in your backpack. When you're eighteen and squandering your inheritance in Vegas, a play-pretty is something else. ("Play-pretty" - it's a great word for church. You know exactly what I'm talking about without using the other "P" word.) The older brother judges his own goodness by all the badness he HASN'T done. He didn't know you could be bad and still get a party and a fatted calf. He's gotta be kicking himself, almost as hard as he'd like to kick his little brother, The Twerp. "Father, all this time, I worked for you, and you never gave me a fatted calf. I never squandered money on play-pretties, I never called in sick. I never skipped church. I never, I never, I never. YOU never. Never, never, never. The older brother has a view of goodness as, "not-badness." All his life, the Older Brother has thought he knew where God was when he (the Older Brother) wasn't too bad. Now, he's seeing where God appears to be when life is too good. And it chaps him raw.

Most of us, I think, approach life from the Older brother's standpoint. You work hard, you do good deeds, you stay out of trouble and off the front page, and life may not be too good, but it certainly isn't too bad. You're good enough that God doesn't smite you. But then life turns great for someone who hasn't worked hard, hasn't played by the rules, hasn't done nearly as many good deeds as we have and it feels like God's smacking us for being too good. We want to believe that God isn't unfair. We know God isn't in our jealousy. The first suppertime prayer most of us learned starts out how? God is great and God is -- good. What gets us rankled isn't that God is too great or God is too good TO US; what gets us twisted is when God is too good to SOMEONE ELSE. It's the Revenge of the Older Brother. But we WANT to believe that God is good, despite evidence to the contrary. So, Lord, what's up? Maybe it isn't that our opinion of God is wrong. Maybe it's our Older Brother definition of goodness that's lacking. Maybe there's more to goodness - more to a good God, more to a good life - than the absence of badness.

Goodness is more than the absence of badness. I don't know about you, but I'm so trained to think like the Older Brother I have a really hard time letting that idea soak in. I mean, think about how the world is. The Older Brothers rule. (And if you grew up a Younger Brother or Younger Sister, you're thinking, "Duh, Einstein. This is news?" I grew up an only child so I'm like those shows on the Discovery Channel: "I Am My Own Older Brother." And younger brother. You have no idea how noisy it is in my head.

But look at how the world operates. In school, which answers get marked? The wrong ones. What do you remember from your Annual Performance Review? The "Opportunities For Improvement." In today's scripture, what prompts the parable? The good people notice that Jesus is hanging out with bad people. In their own way, they're trying to help Jesus be good, by keeping him away from bad. In society, from our earliest years, goodness is the big, empty space that isn't badness. So when we say God is great and God is good, what are we saying? God is this big, infinite, empty space that isn't badness. Ew. We want to believe in a kind and loving God, but until we change our understanding of greatness and goodness, we're stuck. Jesus had a word for getting unstuck. He called it: repenting.

To repent. Now there's a good churchy word you don't hear much on TV. Unless you watch TV preachers; then you hear it a lot. Right before they ask you for money. Repent - It sounds old-fashioned, or Fundamentalist, but I think Jesus and his words are timeless and not-so-easily labeled. Most of the time, when you think of someone repenting, you think of someone who's decided to stop doing what? Bad stuff. Sins. Literally, to repent means to turn your back to something. To repent, we turn our backs on - the bad. Which is good. Don't do bad stuff. Do good stuff. It's a no-brainer. Dr. Phil tells you to stop doing bad stuff. Your mom tells you (or told you) to stop doing bad stuff. Listen to your mother. Listen to Phil. Listen to whomever helps you stop doing bad stuff. But I think Jesus has more to say. More than even Dr. Phil. More than even your mom.

The Younger Brother, the Prodigal Son, repents. And it's more than laying his hand on the Bible and promising never to be bad again. But notice in the story when he truly repents. The Younger Son doesn't repent when he goes to his father and confesses his sin and begs him to take him back. He repents before that. The Younger Brother repents when he's sitting waist deep in the pig sty, spitting the pig slop out of his mouth. The Younger Brother repents, not when he promises not to be bad anymore; the Younger Brother repents when he changes his definition of what's good. Guided by this scripture, I think that's how it works. I think the Bible in this story is telling us we repent - truly repent - when all of a sudden, we get it. We realize that all the stuff, all the life we thought would be so good, so really good, all the play-pretties... aren't so pretty at all. We repent when we really get what we learned at the supper table - GOD is good. Period. God is great. End of sentence. GOD is so good. And nothing and nobody even comes close. No lifestyle, no earthly satisfaction, no creature comfort, no amount of fun. Only God. God is good. And everything else isn't even in the same league. THAT'S repenting. That's not promising never to be bad, although that may be the follow up. That's not going to the people we've hurt and confessing and asking forgiveness. That's more follow-up. Repenting is when we look at where our life has gotten us, where we might be able to get ourselves - we look at all of it and suddenly we get it: God is good. Goodness is infinitely more than not-being-badness. God is good. Not you, not me, not the play-pretties. It's not that the other stuff is so bad, it's just that it's not God. God is good. God is good. When you get it, it's like a thousand lightbulbs going off in your head and the only thing you can do is say, "Halleluia!" The only thing you can do is tell someone about it. And the place to start telling the good news is to the people for whom you've been bad news. Which is just what the Younger Brother did. And there was dancing, and barbequed ribs, and a dad, a dad singing, "Halleluia!"

So, back to the original question, "Where Is God When Life's Too Good?" Or, for that matter, where is God when life's too good for somebody else and the Little Twerp gets your promotion? Jesus didn't explain the parable, he just told it. He left the explanation to us. So what do we say in response to Jesus and the story of the Prodigal Son, his Older Brother, and his Loving Father? What does this story make us ask of ourselves? I think - especially as we get ready for Easter - when we hear this parable, we have to ask ourselves, What do we think - what do you think - is really, honestly, overwhelmingly good? Is goodness something you can earn, like the Older Brother? Is goodness something you can squander, like the Younger Brother did? Or, is goodness something else? Something so loving, so forgiving, so surprising that we could never even see it coming? The goodness of God is yearning for us to come home. The God who is great, the God who is good is waiting, hoping, even praying for the day when we really, truly do, "Get it." The God of infinite goodness is ready for us to spit out the pig slop, put down the play-pretties, even to set aside our dutiful not-badness, and say, "Halleluia!"

"Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"

And Jesus said, "Of course I do. Pull up a chair. Join the party."