A Good Man in the Worst Sense
4th Sunday of Lent
March 6, 2016
In the name of our God, most generous Lover, most generous Giver, the All-Merciful. Amen.
Living in Redding it’s inexcusable that the sermons preached from this pulpit almost never derive inspiration from Mark Twain. So I’m happy to set the stage today with something from Mark Twain, come through the hand of Garrison Keillor, who seems to me to be something of a modern-day Samuel Clemens. Here’s what Keillor wrote:
“Mark Twain told jokes, but they somehow stayed funny for a hundred years; they're still funny today. When Mark Twain said, 'He was a good man in the worst sense of the word,' we know exactly what he's talking about. When he said 'Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds,' it still is funny. Mark Twain was really a miracle.” [thinkexist.com, quoting Garrison Keillor, quoting Mark Twain]
Well, all our Germanic opera aficionados can rest comfortably today—we’re not going to follow up on that Wagner comment. Instead we’re going to dwell for a while on the first witticism—“He was a good man in the worst sense of the word.” And we’re going to apply it to one of the brothers in today’s highly beloved parable of the Prodigal Son. So take a minute to think over your answer to this question: Which character in our parable do you think was a good man in the worst sense of the word?
Yes! The older brother. And why? Because he followed all the rules for how to be “good.” He never acted out or hit bottom. He stayed with his father and played the part of the good, consistent, hard-working son.
And he kept track of the entire list of his good deeds…and turned nasty when it looked like his horribly spoiled younger brother got more approval from Daddy than he did. He was, indeed, a good man in the worst sense of the word. And if we’re honest with ourselves we’re likely to see that we too, sometimes, are good people in the worst sense of the word.
The character of the elder son here serves a really important function in the story. He helps us deepen and appreciate more fully our grasp of the foolishness of the Father. I say foolishness because that’s what his generosity and mercy look like to people who are good in the worst sense of the word.
To appreciate God’s mercy and loving-kindness that never fail, we need new hearts and new minds, willing to vault over our usual ways of measuring and keeping track. We need hearts forged in suffering, appreciative of love, mercy, and rescue. We need to have lived like the younger son at least for a little while ourselves. We need to have been brought out into a better place in the light, where we can look back on where we’ve been and say, “Thank you, God, for allowing me to be here now. Help me to be your hands to help other people come out of their own pits, too.”
Developing this thankfulness and willingness to help comes from accepting the fact that usually we pray for mercy for ourselves and hard-hearted justice for other people. Think about that for a minute!
But the great conundrum is that God’s character, revealed to us in the pages of Holy Scripture, is such that God’s mercy is always just and God’s justice is always merciful. And this is because God is always desiring to be in relationship with us, and God is always desiring us to be in relationship with him. God’s love never ends. God never stops trying to woo us.
The book of Lamentations in the OT was written probably when Jerusalem was under siege from the Babylonians. And yet, in conditions of dire suffering and deprivation the poet wrote,
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
therefore I will hope in him.” [Lamentations 3:22-24]
And yet this is so hard for us to accept. We want all the tallies added up accurately, the debts paid back, the reparations made. Especially when it’s other people who are the wrong ones. And that’s pretty universal for human beings.
Last week I said in our sermon that God gives justice and mercy and forgiveness to us all—even before we ask God for it. God doesn’t keep score. God doesn’t have a great big accounting ledger in the sky. And no, we’ll never be good enough to be in God’s presence. But apparently God doesn’t care. Isn’t that wonderful good news?
The next time we may get stuck feeling terribly unworthy, I urge us all to remember the Father in this parable. He is a picture of Jesus’ Father—Our Father. This is the Father who loves unconditionally, no matter what we’ve done or thought. No matter the addictions, the fights with family, the abortion, the affairs, the cheating on our taxes, the gossiping, the lying we’ve done in our lives. No matter the past decisions that may haunt us still in the wee hours of the night. No matter any of it. We are all like the younger brother, come back to the Father for at least some sustenance, and finding the Father has already wiped our slate clean. And we are the older brother as well, stingy with our understanding of this love that has there for the taking all along.
I read last week an excerpt from a letter written by Richard Rohr in our adult ed program. Let me share it now—it gives us a very modern metaphor, using the 9/11 memorial fountains in lower Manhattan. Have any of you been there? As you can see from our bulletin cover the fountains feature water coming down from walls that trace the original foundations of the Twin Towers. And in the center of each fountain is a deep and seemingly bottomless pit, into which the water flows and disappears. Listen now to Rohr:
“This memorial became for me an architectural metaphor for God’s infinite mercy—always generously pouring into our past of mistakes, failure, oppression, abuse, injustice, and mutual crucifixions that have characterized all recorded human history. Somehow it gave me a strange and wonderful comfort and hope, even in the face of death and suffering.” [Richard Rohr, fundraising letter from Center for Action and Contemplation, February, 2016]
As we said last week, all this peremptory loving renders the idea of substitutionary atonement absurd. God doesn’t need to be placated. God loves us, sins, failings, warts and all. And we are encouraged to turn and live well, to honor and to share in that love, and to take it out to others. Here’s Rohr again: “God does not love you if and when you change. God loves you so that you can change. That is the true story line of the Gospel.” [Rohr, ibid.]
And isn’t that a mouthful to chew on this Lent?
Let’s end now with the last verse from one of the most universally beloved Psalms in Scripture, the 23rd:
“Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” [Psalm 23:6]