Friday, March 29, 2019


In English, our parable does not convey 
         the force of life and death
                  at work in the original Greek.
Our English keeps going on about property.
The Son says Give me the share of the property 
            that will belong to me.
The Father divides his property.
The son squanders his property.

But in Greek, the son asks for the father’s being.
The father divides his life between his sons.
The younger son then squanders his being.

This isn’t about money or property.
The money is a symbol of life.
The son wants his life cut loose from his father’s life.
So, like King Lear, the old man hands over his own livelihood. 
The son takes the money and runs.
Having no more need of his impoverished father,
         the prodigal son abandons him.

The son’s selfishness sets this plot in motion.
But it is not guilt that makes the young man come home.
It’s what happens next.
He squanders his being.
We can get distracted by the part about dissolute living.
It doesn’t matter whether he spent his life 
         carousing in a casino or climbing the corporate ladder.
What matters is that he has squandered his life,
         his resources, his energy, and his time
                  on things that are not real and do not last.
Cut off by his own selfishness, he is now 
          spiritually and existentially dead.

When did he notice that his heart no longer beat?
When did he realize that he could no longer hear birds sing?
Not until the famine hit. 
Not until the useless things he had spent his life on ran out.
This is no spiritual awakening 
         – only a drunk noticing that the bottle is empty.

That’s when he contrived his next manipulative scheme.
He would go home to his father with crocodile tears,
         and say the kind of rubbish the old man liked to hear,
         Father I have sinned . . . .
         and at least the old fool would give him a decent job.

I am concerned that we may not be able to relate
         to the prodigal son because
                  we do not experience ourselves as sinners.
We have ways to fortify our consciences against guilt.
So let’s leave the prodigal son at this point
         and turn our attention to the whiskey priest 
                  in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.
Grahame Greene tears down those fortifications 
          of conscience.
He tells the story of the whiskey priest, a bad priest,
         a drunk who sells the sacraments, 
         fathers a child by one of his church members,
         is a coward, a liar, and thief.
It is 1920’s Mexico when the church was banned,
         so the priest is in hiding.
He gets arrested for possession of brandy,
         and spends the night in jail,   
         sure the police will recognize him
                  and execute him in the morning.
In the hot, crowded jail cell with a throng of criminals, 
           he notices:
          This place was very like the world: 
           overcrowded with lust
          and crime and unhappy love. 
          It stank to heaven. . . . but it was
          possible to find peace there. . . . He was 
          moved by an irrational affection for the inhabitants 
          of this prison.
         A phrase came to him. “God so loved the world.”

The next morning he sees the wanted poster 
         with the picture of himself as a young priest.
He no longer resembles the picture, and he thinks,
         It is not very like me now.
          What an unbearable creature he must have been
                  in those days – and yet in those days
                  he had been comparatively innocent . . . .
         Then in his innocence he had felt no love for anyone;

Later the whiskey priest recalls the innocent time 
         when his conscience was easy.
And he thinks,
         God might forgive cowardice and passion,
          but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety?

What does this have to do with us?
I fear many of us, myself included, 
         have cultivated the habit of piety.
It is not the same piety our grandparents practiced.
Their generation had fairly attainable moral standards.
Their code was limited to violence, theft, 
         and some forms of sexual indulgence.
We have dropped a few of their Thou shalt not’s
         and have added a few new Thou shalt nots.

Our moral code allows us to say words in public
         that would have made our grandparents blush.
But there are countless things they said unabashedly
         that would get us socially ostracized.
We are about as moralistic as our grandparents 
         – not much more, not much less.

We construct a neatly do-able moral code, 
         stick to it close enough, and feel at ease.
But, all the while, we seek our own will instead of God’s.
We come nowhere near loving God with all our hearts,
         nowhere near loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We anesthetize our consciences 
         with our politically correct habits of piety,
         while our souls wither from failure to love deeply
         and we squander our lives on things that do not endure.
Why do you spend your money on that which is not bread,
                  and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
                                    Isaiah Chapter 55

It was not guilt but poverty that sent the prodigal son home.
It was discovering that his life had been squandered.
It was like the Kris Kristofferson’s song lyrics,
         Lord help me Jesus. I’ve wasted it.
I’ve felt that. I’ve sensed the waste of my life
         despite my habits of piety.
Maybe you have too or maybe you will someday.

So the son went home with a confession
         written on his cuff sleeve.
It was a new habit of piety, this confession.
He was hoping to get a job.

But his plot was foiled by grace. Jesus says,
         (W)hile he was still far off his father saw him
                  and was filled with compassion.
         He ran out and put his arms around him 
          and kissed him.

The son did not need to confess to be forgiven.
He had been forgiven all along, loved all along.
The meaning and value of his life was there all along.
He just hadn’t been there to experience it.
He was so shocked by his welcome 
         that he began to stammer the confession, 
         without any ulterior motive from his heart,
         Father, I have sinned . . . I am no longer worthy
                  to be called your son.

But he never got the chance to ask for the job.
His Father interrupted him,
         and shouted to the servants,
         Quickly bring a robe – the best one – 
         and put it on him . . . 
         let us eat and celebrate,
         for this son of mine was dead and is alive again . . . .
         And they began to celebrate.

The Father didn’t need any confession.
Though the Father’s love did make the son need to confess.
The Father wasn’t thinking about the sin of selfish living,
         but the consequences of spiritual death.
His son had been dead. But now he was alive.
So, he could not do anything but celebrate.

If our consciences were sufficiently alive and sentient,
         we might feel contrition and repent.
That happens.
Eventually, enough selfishness, enough neglect,
         enough failed attempts at self-deception,
                  break through and we feel contrition.

But usually what we feel is the emptiness of a life
         lived too much for too small a version of ourselves.
Usually we recognize that the idol of our egos has clay feet,
         that we have polished our resumes too much
                  and loved life too little.
Usually we feel the emptiness.

If we are not too fatally sophisticated, we say something like,
         Lord help me Jesus, I’ve wasted it.
Then while we are still far off,
         our Father sees us and is filled with compassion.

We take a few faltering steps toward him
         and he comes running toward us,
                  enfolds us in the arms of grace
                  and infuses our hearts with life
         so deep, so wide, so rich, so strong,
                  the only word we have for it is “eternal.”
Then we and all creation celebrate.

Sunday, March 24, 2019


A Viet Nam vet, who said his heart was still torn apart,
            attended my teaching on Exodus a few years ago.
As he left, he handed me a note that said,
I don’t know if God exists, 
but if so, I want it to be the God you spoke of today. . . 
Let me tell you about that God. 
Biblical Scholars call today’s first lesson
            the foundational event for the entire Old Testament.
It is the biggest zinger of a surprise 
in all religious literature.
Everything turns on it. 

But in order for us to get why,
            we need to do a little trick with our minds.
We have to forget everything that happens in the Bible
            up to this moment. 
Those beautiful and deeply true stories
            would not be written until hundreds of years later.
The tales of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
            would be written later, 
then added back into this story.  
So, just for today, forget all that.
Let me tell you another story,
            anthropology’s story of religion            
            before Moses met God on Mt. Horeb. 

Stone Age hunter-gatherers had a few primitive rituals
            performed out in bear caves. 
But formal religion with temples, priests, and sacrifices
began with the agricultural revolution
around 10,000 BC.
At that point, small groups of people began to acquire 
            more and more land. 
To make that land produce, 
they needed farmworkers.

That’s when we got forced labor,
            kings with taskmasters to keep the slaves in line,
            and standing armies to protect royal land claims
                        from greedy neighbors.

Religion arose as the handmaid of agrarian tyranny.
Religion explained and defended oppression.
The gods and the kings were close friends, even relatives.
Some of the kings, like Pharaoh,
were deemed to be gods themselves.

For poor people, religion meant buying a blessing
            with a sacrifice, a tiny bit of which was burned on an altar,          
            but the rest was kept by the rich folks to sell.
The gods helped the kings keep the poor folk in line.
In all of ancient religion, there was no exception
-- not one – for 8,000 years! –
until that day on Mt. Horeb.

A god Moses did not worship, did not sacrifice to
-- a god he’d never even heard of –
out of nowhere that god spoke to him.

And God said the strangest thing.
God said, I have heard my people’s cry.
            I have seen how they suffer under their taskmasters.

Now those people didn’t worship this god either. 
They did not sacrifice to, pray to, or believe in this god.
So what made them God’s people?
Just this: they suffered.

All of the other gods of the ancient world 
were gods of the rich and powerful.
But this god on Mt. Horeb was the god of the oppressed.
And this God said,
            I have heard my people’s cry.
            So Moses, go tell Pharaoh, go tell that popinjay poser deity,
                        to let my people go. 
            My people. Let them go.
We will hear those words 10 times
in the next seven chapters.

This was a revolution in religion on two counts.
First, we now had a god on the other side of the power system.
Second, up to now, religion wasn’t about morality.
It was about sacrifices to buy blessings 
or to ward off misfortune.
Religion was a mix of cosmic graft and celestial protection money.
But here was a god who cared – and cared mightily –
about right and wrong – cared about morality -- 
and the first morality God cared about was social justice.
This god was moved to act, not by bribery, 
but by conscience and compassion. 

What had these people done to earn God’s blessing?
Nothing. They just needed God. So God showed up.
God didn’t say, 
            Moses, go tell the people I have 613 commandments 
            and if they’ll keep them strictly for three years,
            I’ll have a word with Pharaoh.
No, God just set them free.

After they were free,
            God gave them the law as a way 
to live into their freedom justly together.
The word for that law was halacha
– which literally means the way of life.
I set before you life and death,God said, choose life.

Some of the law was still ancient ritual stuff
            they probably got from their neighbors.
But the heart of God’s law was compassion,
            mercy for the down and out – the widow, the orphan, 
                        the laborer, the outcast – and most of all the alien.

Do not oppress an alien, God said, for remember that  
            you were once aliens in Egypt. Exodus 22: 21.
God was saying the way of life is not land acquisition
-- not exploiting the labor of the landless.
-- not marshalling powerful armies 
against your weaker neighbor. 

Real life is found in simple acts of mercy.
When you harvest your crop, leave some for the poor.
When you hire a worker, pay a fair wage. 
Loan to those in need, 
and if they cannot pay, forgive the debt.
We cannot imagine how utterly bizarre this religion was
in the Ancient World. 

1,300 years later, Jesus did not reverse Moses’s religion.
The kings of Israel had done that when they turned 
into the Jewish equivalent of pharaohs.
But Jesus reclaimed it. 
Jesus spoke with the same heart as that strange god on Mt. Horeb.

He led his people up a mountainside, a place like the one
            where Moses heard God’s voice.
There Jesus blessed the poor.
             He blessed the bereaved.
             He blessed the hungry. 
             And he blessed the merciful.

Friends, God has shown us the divine heart
            and invites our hearts to beat in sync.
That is our way to life and true happiness.

So, where do we stand this Lent? On Mt. Horeb.
Our God is the one who hears people cry.
Do we hear them?

The top 1 percent in Colorado earn an average $1,260,000 dollars per year.
But one out of eight of our children 
live below the poverty line
and one out of eleven do not have enough to eat.

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
We lock up far more of our people than countries
            we call totalitarian.
Latinos are three times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.
Blacks are six times as likely.
One out of every 10 black men in his thirties is in prison. 

This is not about the crime rate.
The crime rate went down,
            but the incarceration rate keeps going up.
Others are imprisoned in addiction or domestic abuse.

And we have the alien in our land and at our border
-- the Salvadoran alien, the Honduran alien,
 the Syrian and the Sudanese alien.

Brothers and sisters, our feet are on Mt. Horeb.
What do you hear God saying?
I do not hear,
            Give up Facebook for a few weeks
                        and lay off the lattes.

No, God is saying,
            I have heard my people cry.
             Do you not hear it?
            Go tell your American pharaohs
                        to let my people go.
            My people. Let them go.