Sunday, August 4, 2013
We Believe in God the Father (Luke 15:11-24)
A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the inheritance.” Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his field to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” So he got up and went to his father.
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
You know that conversation you have with a complete stranger on an airplane or waiting for your car’s oil to be changed? That conversation that is little more than polite small talk – both of you passing the time more than anything else – you familiar with this conversation?
There comes that point in this conversation where your new friend turns to you and says, “So, what do you do?” When I tell them I’m a United Methodist pastor, one of three things happens – conversation shuts down completely and they make some excuse to get away from me, they start gushing their life story and confessing and apologizing for not going to church more often, or they say, “What do you people believe, anyway?”
Today we are starting a four-week series of messages called, “What do we believe, anyway?” For us, as United Methodist Christians, that can be a tricky question to nail down. We are a diverse faith family, a patchwork tapestry of many people with many opinions about a great number of things.
John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, wrote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” So, what is essential? The easiest and most direct way to answer the question is to affirm the statements that are made in the Apostles’ Creed, which we affirm as a clear and accurate statement of our faith. It tells us who God is, who we are, and what God is up to in our world. It’s a statement of belief, the word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, literally meaning, “I believe.”
Many churches use the Apostles’ Creed every week in worship, others have never heard of it, and then there are churches like us who use it sometimes. One argument I’ve heard against using the Apostles’ Creed weekly is that people recite it without giving a whole lot of thought to what they’re saying and the words lose their meaning.
I think of it a little differently.Ashley and I are just an old married couple at this point – we’ve been married almost two years by now, and she knows I love her, so I don’t need to keep telling her I love her, do I? You know, if I say it too much, it just won’t mean as much, she certainly doesn’t need to hear it from me every day – ladies, am I right?
To be sure, I can mumble the words “I love you” without any thought or feeling, but the better thing – both for our relationship and my physical well-being – is to really mean it every time I say it. Likewise, we can mumble through our words in worship – our prayers, our creeds, our liturgies, our songs, but the better thing is to really ingest and be transformed by every word we hear and say in worship.
The Apostles’ Creed begins with one sentence: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” That’s an essential thing we believe! But, what are we really saying? It’s only one sentence, but when you start to break it down, it’s a mouthful. What does it mean, to say that we believe in God the Father?
Well, first, let’s talk about what it means to believe something. When I was on staff at Boone United Methodist, our senior pastor stopped at Hardees to pick up a sausage biscuit on his way in. He was wearing his Boone United Methodist Church polo shirt, and the guy in front of him looked at and said, “United Methodist, huh? Do y’all believe in the King James Bible over there?”, to which my friend, John, replied, “Believe in it?! Shoot, I’ve even seen one!”
But there’s more to believing in something than simply thinking that it exists. Believing is more than a mental exercise, it is more than an idea in our head, it is more than what we think and feel about something. In the life of faith, believing is a matter of trusting so much that we place our weight on it, we lean fully into it, we stake our very self and our whole identity on it. And so, when we say, “We believe in God the Father,” it’s more than a mental exercise. We are proclaiming that we trust and are leaning fully with every fiber of our being into the heart of God our Father.
God our Father
God is the Father whose heart beats with love for all of God’s children, and this image comes through clearly in the Scripture we’ve read today from the 15th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel. It is the parable of the prodigal son – a story Jesus told about a man who had two sons. The younger son, in an act of selfish disrespect toward his father, demanded his share of the inheritance. I always expect the father to respond as my dad would have when I was a teenager and say, “If you want some money, GO GET A JOB!” Not in the story Jesus told, however. The first clue that this story is more about the character of the father than the son is that the father responds completely unexpectedly: he says, “OK, here is your share.” No sooner is the check deposited and the son packs up his new car and heads off to some distant place where there’ll be fun, fun, fun and no one to take it away.
In no time at all he has made the sort of friends one makes when one has more money than sense. You wouldn’t believe the stuff he bought, either, most of it was just a waste. In fact, the word, “prodigal” means “one who wastes money,” which is why Jesus called this the story of the prodigal son. It’s not hard to see how his money eventually ran out, and when it did, so did all of his new so-called friends. He is left with nothing, and since the economy crashed about the same time as he blew through his money, he ended up feeding some guy’s pigs, and was so hungry he often found himself fighting with the pigs for whatever scraps were in the slop bucket.
His life was low. In the basement, rock-bottom low. As he wrestles a half-wilted pod away from one of the pigs, he thinks, “What am I doing? Has my life really come to this? Even the servants in my father’s house have food to eat. I will go and beg my father’s forgiveness – I’ve squandered my right to be called his son, but maybe, just maybe, he will let me work for him as the lowest of his servants.”
I sort of imagine the son rehearsing his apology speech all the way home. He isn’t looking forward to this conversation with his father. He is so ashamed, so embarrassed. How will his father react? Will he be angry? Hurt? Wrathful?
Here’s where the Father does something else unexpected, and this, again, should tell us a lot about this father. As Jesus tells it: While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
It says the Father saw him when he was still far off. That means the Father was looking for him! Every day since the son left home, I have this picture of the father standing on the porch, looking off into the distance, walking out to the front gate and scanning the horizon – just hoping and praying that this will be the day his son returns. Not because he’s angry, not because he wants to give him a piece of his mind, not because he wants to punish him, but because he still loves him. Though he is disobedient, though he is selfish, though he has wasted and squandered everything ever given to him, though he has done all of that – the father continues to act out of love for his son, grieving for the lost relationship, and longing for the day when it will be restored.
Friends, we believe in God the Father, who sees us when we are still far off, who is running to meet us even when we don’t know who we are or where we belong. We believe in God who is much more of a loving parent than a strict judge; we believe in God who is for us, and not out to get us. Never forget that. We believe in God the Father, whose arms of mercy and grace are already open to receive us, and whose love and compassion for us are greater than any bad thing we may have done. God loves us unconditionally not because God has to, but because that’s simply who God is.
I like the way this little song from Wendy Francisco puts it: (Play “God and Dog” video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H17edn_RZoY)
We believe in God the Father – whose love is as deep as the ocean and as high as the mountain, as innumerable as the stars in the heaven, and as sure as a parent’s embrace, thanks be to God!