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A gospel that surprises – Part Three of Lent

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Third Sunday of Lent – March 19, 2017

Luke 15:1-32 and Psalm 119:167-176

“Joyful foolishness”

Have you ever thought about it? “What does the word ‘prodigal’ mean again?” When I looked it up I was astonished. How does that word mean “recklessly extravagant…one who spends or gives lavishly or foolishly?” How did I not know that yet? Because I’m quite sure that that’s more or less how I’m going to talk about God in this sermon – as illustrated by that shepherd and that coin-finding woman throwing big (lavish? foolish?) parties to rejoice at what is found. And also illustrated by that father and his slain fatted calf feast. How did I not know this before?

Every once in a while you get a glimpse into another country, the country or realm of God. Yes I know, sometimes it’s called “kingdom,” but that seems so archaic, maybe even so biblical, that it’s hard for most of us to imagine.

What I’m thinking of really is another country, another land, one that feels, smells, even tastes different. You know right when you’ve stumbled into it, even if you didn’t notice the boundary lines.

What makes this country different is that nobody counts things here. Do you know what I mean? There is no such notion as tracking billable hours, no counting the days until school lets out, no ringing up debits on the balance sheet, no cries from the backseat of “are we there yet?” Best of all, there isn’t any counting of old grievances and grudges, no dredging up past wrongs or unsettled scores. For some reason, people in this country have lost track of all that; in fact, they can’t remember why you’d keep count in the first place.

Yes indeed: the world – the real world – doesn’t work that way. We need to keep count. If we don’t, we’ll lose track of what we owe each other. How will we know the value of anything if we don’t weigh it, measure it, assess and evaluate it? But here, in this other country, God’s new reality, a thing just has value. It matters, in and of itself. It just does.

I’m not saying this other world is better. Honest. I know that day in and day out in this fallen world of ours we do need to track and count and measure and remember. That’s the way most things work. But not relationships. Not really. You start counting the right and wrong, the good and the bad, and you’ll never get over it. Before long, you’ll be so unhappy you’ll actually have convinced yourself that if you could just count more, know more; maybe get another bite from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then you’ll finally be happy.

There is this other world, though. If it’s not better, it’s at least more lasting. At least we hope for the sake of heaven it is. In this world, you forget counting like a boy forgets to track his laps when he’s swimming. The dad might not be a swimmer. When the dad jumps into the pool it’s to get exercise, nothing more, nothing less, and he makes sure he counts every length. But the boy just swims. His dad will ask him “How many laps did you swim today,” after he’s been in the pool an hour or more.

“No idea,” he would smile back, as content as he is weary.

Jesus paints a picture of this world in his story of a foolish son and even more foolish father. It is a world of unmerited grace. Counters won’t understand. Pulled down by the weight of their own claims, they can only sputter something like, “All these years….” “You never….” “This son of yours…”.

But to those of us who have been down and out, to those who have been lost, to those who have been dead…. Well, even if it’s not the real world, it’s the one that really matters.

I’m going to conclude with a powerful story…

Bill Moyers’ documentary film on the song “Amazing Grace” includes a scene filmed in Wembley Stadium in London. Various musical groups, mostly rock bands, had gathered together in celebration of the changes in South Africa, and for some reason the promoters scheduled an opera singer, Jessye Norman, as the closing act.

The film cuts back and forth between scenes of the unruly crowd in the stadium and Jessye Norman being interviewed. For twelve hours groups like Guns ‘n Roses have blasted the crowd through columns of speakers, riling up fans already high on booze and dope. The crowd yells for more curtain calls, and the rock groups oblige. Meanwhile, Jessye Norman sits in her dressing room discussing “Amazing Grace” with Moyers.

Finally, the time comes for her to sing. A single circle of light follows Jessye, a majestic African-American woman wearing a flowing African dashiki, as she strolls on stage. No backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye. The crowd stirs, restless. Few recognize the opera diva. A voice yells for more Guns ‘n Roses. Others take up the cry. The scene is getting ugly.

Alone, a cappella, Jessye Norman begins to sing, very slowly:

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.”

 

A remarkable thing happens in Wembley Stadium that night. 70,000 raucous fans

fall silent before her solo of grace. By the time Jessye reaches the second verse,

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved …,”

the soprano has the crowd in her hands.

 

By the time she reaches the third verse, “Tis grace has brought me safe this far, And grace will lead me home,” several thousand fans are singing along, digging far back in nearly lost memories for words they heard long ago.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we first begun.”

Jessye Norman later confessed she had no idea what power descended on Wembley Stadium that night. I think I know. The world thirsts for grace. When grace descends, the world falls silent before it. (This is an excerpt from Phillip Yancey’s book: “What’s So Amazing about Grace?”)

The world thirsts for grace. When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.

Let’s leave here today and give the world some grace. Let’s have a vision of the new realm of God where there is no counting anymore.

 

Copyright 2017 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church

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