Sermon of the Week:
Status? What Status?.
Week three of a four part sermon series:
Good Vibes: Finding Joy
Keywords: Frequent Flier. Prodigal Son. Status. Philippians. Realm of God #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
In my experience, one of the hardest things to practice
about reading the Bible with eyes of faith
is remembering that where you place yourself in the story matters.
Take, for instance, one of the most beloved stories in the Bible
the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
If you know the story, you know it goes something like this:
a man had two sons, and one day he had sort of a falling out with the younger one
who told him he was leaving town,
and demanded of his father
his half of his inheritance right then and there.
Yes, while his father was still alive,
and yes, that’s sorta like telling your dad to drop dead.
Buy me out. Give me my cut, and I’m on my way.
The father complies, and the younger son scoots out of town, to a far-off country
where he promptly loses all the money on what our standard translation calls “dissolute living,”
and then there’s a famine, of course,
and not only does he not have any savings
but he’s hungry, and everyone’s hungry
and he resorts to eating animal feed to survive.
(To make matters worse: its pig slop,
which sounds awful,
but worse when you remember that kosher dietary requirements meant you didn’t eat pigs
so that’s sort of salt on the wound, insult to injury, a nice little extra cherry on top of that story)
Things aren’t going very well for him.
It feels like he’s almost hit rock bottom.
And he says, you know, maybe….
just maybe I can go back home
back to the guy I used to call daddy
the one whom I basically wished was dead,
who gave me half his wealth that I squandered
he’s a good enough man
that he would hire me.
I can clean his stables.
I can wash his floors.
I can take out the chamber pots.
Anything. Because I have nowhere else to go.
Meanwhile, back home, things seem to be fine.
The father is doing his thing.
The older son doing his thing,
a little ticked off that his brother pulled off this little stunt
but since then things have been quiet, there’s been no more drama
he can put his nose to the grindstone and help his father’s estate grow
and be the honorable son that such a good man like his daddy deserves.
And the younger son appears in the distance,
and the father, who hadn’t stopped thinking about that boy, sees him,
and he weeps with joy…this one that was lost…is found!
And he tells his servants: go, go, get him, clean him up, put a good robe on him, kill the fatted calf
get the champagne out of the fridge, lets party!
My boy is alive! He is going to be ok.
And, as you might remember, the older boy sees all this
and is, well, insulted, and incredulous, that his father is so daft
and that his contributions are not given the due credit he thinks they deserve.
The father comes to console him
and tells him that he is so grateful for all that he does, and who he is, that he loves him,
and that everything that he has, in the end, will be his,
but that these are not his decisions to make
and for him, what matters is this lost son is back again.
The parable of the prodigal son,
or maybe it is the parable of prodigal father…
the word prodigal meaning generous, wastefully extravagant.
These parables of Jesus are meant to share with us a glimpse into how the realm of God works.
There’s a lot that we can say about this particular parable,
but it is clear that, if this story is true,
then God’s values are somewhat different than what we might expect.
Those who are lost, might always have a way to come back home.
Things of material value are maybe not as important as people.
God has a different sense of what fair means than we do.
God will bend over backward to welcome the one who is outcast
whether they are exiled by the expectations and judgment of conventional wisdom
or whether they are self-banished, sure that they are not lovable, not worthy, not welcome.
I remember working on this story in a class I took somewhere along the line
college maybe, or seminary,
and having the professor run a little experiment.
She had us jot down on a piece of paper an answer to this question:
“who do most you identify with in this passage?”
We took a few moments, and then she had us fold the paper in half and she collected them
and then tallied the results.
Most people in the class (and, we should be clear, this was a group of fairly self-sufficient,
rarely-gone-without-a-meal-in-our life sort of students)
saw themselves in the younger son…the one who was on the rocks with a parent
(and maybe for some of them, that was truthfully the closest, most spot on place
to see themselves in the story…)
Some others answered, well, how about the father?
sure, they were, that the sort of generosity and gentleness and counter-culturalism they see in him
was exactly how they had committed to living their lives.
No one said “I am more like the older son
seeking to do everything right
wanting to be seen as the dutiful one, and be rewarded for it,
expecting that by walking the narrow path,
these “sacrifices” I make will one day pay off.
Certainly, no one said “I am more like the servants,
the ones that almost always go unmentioned here,
the people who clean the floors and kill the fatted calf and do the hard, physical labor.”
And as we spent some time reflecting about that as a class
we realized how often it was that each of us really are more like that older son,
you know, placing so much on the status of propriety, that, sometimes,
it blinds us to the human dimension,
much like, if I can offer a personal example,
I can see a protest on the country club plaza, say,
and hone in on the fact that a few aggressive instigators damage windows and paint graffiti
and that allows me to take my focus off
the throngs of peaceful others who are inconsolable because of
George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks and so many more.
You don’t need to have a single answer here.
Sometime we carry bits of multiple characters with us.
But where you place yourself in the story, matters,
certainly for how you understand it,
and for how it works within you.
Seeing yourself as the broken and battered younger son,
welcomed by a generous, Graceful Father
might well be what you need, if you are broken and battered, yearning for change,
or it might be a powerful motivation for you to gloss over how, well, that’s not exactly you,
and God loves you, certainly, but let’s not uncritically lump ourselves in with those suffering injustice.
Seeing yourself as the father, as trying to be more Godly, and adopting a spirit of welcome
might well be just what you need, what I need, affirming the values of God’s world…
so long as I don’t let that blind me to where I need to grow,
and how, if I’m honest, I find it so hard to turn the other cheek like that.
I know people that I hold grudges with for saying something petty, years ago,
and I think that I’m like the father here, the one the son told to drop dead,
who THEN ran to welcome him home, no questions asked?
And perhaps you can see my point.
The parables of Jesus are so powerful, in part,
because they convict us of how deeply imbued we are in the values of this world,
and how much translation we need
to begin to understand how transformative
is the world that God is here to build
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I mention all of that, because I’ve been thinking about airline miles.
Ever since I told that story, a few weeks ago,
about my putting my daughters to bed one night
back when they were four years old
knowing that I was going to leave the next morning for a trip to Guatemala
and how excited they were that I was going to get on a real airplane…
I’ve been thinking about flying.
I love to fly. I always have.
In some ways, I’ve always resonated with the sort of excitement my daughters had that night
knowing that I’d be on a plane flying somewhere new and different and therefore exhilarating.
Ask my mother, and she’ll tell you that, as a kid, I dreamt of becoming a pilot.
Well, maybe she’ll admit that. I can’t remember if I shared that secret with her or not
but it is true.
And over my life, I’ve flown a fair amount
more than some, less than others.
On vacations with my parents and brothers.
A honeymoon to Europe.
Later, as I started working, trips for conferences or the occasional meeting.
Flying became much less glamorous, the older I got,
particularly when we had kids and started a family and it was hard to be away,
but even so, to this day, I enjoy it.
I marvel at how God-given human ingenuity and science led the wright brothers
to propel something heavier than air off the ground…
and how that means I can sit
in a seat at 30,000 feet
drinking a ginger ale and watching cloud formations gently breeze by.
So I love that part of it, and I always will.
And it might be months before I ever fly again, if I ever do, these pandemic days,
but what had me pondering all this, as I was reading this part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians
was how often I used to think about those airline miles.
I don’t want to suggest that I used to fly A LOT, in the grand scheme of things.
Both my brothers, for instance, do the sorts of work where they are away from home
much more than I ever was,
but I’m still amazed that, one year, I attained GOLD STATUS on a major US airline.
What that meant was that I flew 60 flight segments in a single year,
which is how the airline measured such things.
GOLD STATUS is amazing.
It means you get your luggage on the plane first, and off before everyone else.
You get to choose a better seat on the plane, often one with more legroom.
You get a chance at those elusive first-class seats up in front
with a LOT more legroom and sometimes fresh cookies…
little things that seem to humanize air travel these last few years
when airlines have been putting more and more people in those cramped cheap seats.
There are other perks too,
from renting cars to getting better hotel rooms.
It is not, of course, worth being gone from home though.
You can’t trade the time watching your kids get bigger with a better seat in economy plus
but if you have to travel that much, it helps.
I only achieved GOLD STATUS once, when I was appointed a board member
for the mission agency of our national denomination
and had more meetings to go to than I really wanted,
and most of the time I just had SILVER STATUS,
which is like GOLD, just…not quite as great.
And, if you actually flew a lot a lot, you were likely to attain something even better: Platinum Status.
If Gold is that cool, can you imagine what happens when you reach Platinum?
Well…in truth, its not all that much, to be honest.
Again, none of it is all that big a deal. Priority boarding. A separate part of the plane to fly in.
If you fly a lot, these can make the monotony and the less ideal parts of airline travel more bearable.
But also, maybe more to the point,
I also found that airline status is one powerful example of our insatiable desire
to be seen as higher up the food chain
as somehow better than everyone else.
It is a status symbol. A way to convey meaning,
kind of like the car you drive or the phone in your pocket or the name brand on your jeans
or the credentials you can put after your name if you’ve graduated from a college or university.
Look, all those things have a good role to play in modern life:
a car to help get you where you need to be
a phone to call home when you are away
(those phones still do more than just access facebook, right?)
the education you receive helps you think and right and value and live….
But each of these can also be a way that we are seen as having accomplished something,
that we’ve made it.
At least in the eyes of our neighbors, or our peers, or our parents,
or whomever it is we are judging ourselves against.
And with that, maybe you begin to hear a faint echo of what Paul talks about
in that third chapter of Philippians:
If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:
and then he lists off ways in which he has attained the platinum status of his day…
circumcised on the eighth day….which, if you didn’t know, is the day to do it
born a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin
a Hebrew born of Hebrews…
these things matter…they are his bona fides,
they are his clout.
Paul is part of the in crowd.
But then he goes on:
he was a pharisee, that is, a respected interpreter of the law.
he was a zealous defender of orthodoxy, as he understood it,
and so persecuted the fledgling church because of it.
Keep in mind, early members of the church were also every bit as much followers of Judaism.
They also were circumcised, kept kosher, followed the law.
But Paul…he worked hard to be at the head of the class, each time.
And he was good at it.
So Good, he argues, that he was blameless under the law.
I had it all, he is saying.
And it’s true: in Paul’s time,
where there was a powerful honor and shame culture,
he was not a nobody.
Unlike many of those who Jesus called to walk with him and to become his apostles—
fishermen, laborers, everyday nobodies—
Paul had cachè.
He had status. He was elite.
And not just among the Jewish community.
Apparently, according to Acts, he was a Roman Citizen too,
which meant that he could evoke the protection–and the consequence—of imperial law,
walking in that world as smoothly as he did among the Hebrews.
What do you make of all of that?
Where do you see yourself in this story
in this discussion about the Apostle Paul, and what he is setting up
as he is working through this very personal testimony to his friends at Philippi?
For me, I’m reminded of how silly it was that I kept an eye on how many segments I flew
wondering if I would make Silver Status again the next year.
There was some real pragmatic benefit to that, and if I had to fly, it would make it less painful,
but on this side of the coronavirus pandemic,
and the way that it has clarified what’s important, and what isn’t,
none of that really mattered, not at all.
It is somewhat foolish for me to be spending all this time talking about airplane status, even today.
But, on the other hand,
it is true that these things serve a symbolic function.
We measure ourselves against strangers, our neighbors, our friends.
So, as I think about my life, what about the other things that convey some status in the world?
I went to recognized graduate schools. I have a master of divinity degree.
I’m not just a pastor, but a Presbyterian Pastor, which, from the peers I get to call my colleagues
and the complex history of our denomination…including some really great things
that means something.
I even can claim an honorific title, if it fits the occasion: the Reverend Chad Herring.
Has a nice ring to it.
On the one hand, each of these things is good in themselves.
But they also can position me compared to you.
That is…well, not the point, even if we do it all the time.
What about you, my dear listener?
What are the ways that you’ve sought, or attained, or were just given, status in this world of ours?
I think the tricky thing is in seeking after these things for their own merits,
for their own good
rather than for the status they provide.
My college degrees are a point of pride for me. They are for many people.
Sometimes I meet someone who was the first in their family to go to college,
and you can see how their face beams as they talk about it,
knowing what it took to get there,
the sacrifice of others, maybe, that made it possible,
or the hard work of an individual who had no help, from anyone.
And….i’ve also seen people drop the fact that they went to Harvard…or KU…or Grinnell
depending on the context
and yes, Mizzou, for some of you, my friends,
as if to say…that makes me pretty amazing, don’t you think?
Don’t mishear me. Love of your school is fine and great.
Some of you are probably wearing yellow and black pjs right now,
sorry blue and red, and that’s fine.
I’m not getting into the middle of the MU/KU rivalry.
This isn’t about sports or friendly competition.
But I think you and I can both know, all too personally, that we human beings
can get wrapped up in how we are seen in the eyes of others
because we’ve done the right things or went to the right schools
or own the right stuff or speak with the right diction
or just aren’t poor or marginalized or what have you.
The larger point is the jockeying for position that we are often so wrapped up in
and that jockeying can be dizzying, and so exhausting.
And, sometimes, says Paul, it can blind you to the human relationships
that can be harmed in that quest for status, in the struggle to stand out,
to be seen as different from, and better than, our neighbor.
Paul wanted to make things crystal clear that something has changed in him.
Something was different:
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
No, more than that…for Christ’s sake…I regard them as rubbish
in order that I might GAIN Christ…be found IN him…
I want to know Christ and the Power of his Resurrection.
[So] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God
in Christ Jesus.
How did Paul do that?
Well, for him, it was a huge conversion experience,
he got knocked off a horse
couldn’t see for days
and then at the end of the whole ordeal
he could see again…see Christ, see life, see love, see….everything new.
Is that what we need?
Something that powerful, that dramatic?
Sometimes that does happen, right?
The father killing the fatted calf, making us lose it in an entitled rage?
Being forced to stay home for months, so far, and maybe months to come
helps you see that your kids, your partner, your closest friends, your neighbors
matter so much more than anything else?
The world turned upside down….
And sometimes, it is more like the Psalm,
where you go walking, and there’s something beautiful there
in the ordinary, the normal, the quiet:
the heavens tell the Glory of God
the Firmament tells God’s handiwork
the laws and decrees and ordinances of a tradition
help us see
something loving and caring underneath them, the loving acts of a loving God.
May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord,
my rock, and my redeemer….
We ponder these stories week after week
so that they can give meaning to our lives
whether we’re in stressful times, like these days
or more ordinary days.
And whether God comes to us with a jolt that knocks us off our horse
or with a still small voice that helps us look up at a sunset in grateful praise
Jesus offers us a distinctly different way to walk through the world,
as one who values everyone as a sibling in Christ
one who doesn’t seek to be first, but seeks first the realm of God
one who runs to shower the prodigal son with love.
If you listen carefully, Paul knows that this is something that we might struggle with.
We’re human, after all.
It feels good to have others look up to you, to place you on a pedestal.
But if we let the power of Christ’s resurrection be our prize,
we’ll find a different way of being, more and more each day, a goal for our journey of faith.
How freeing, and renewing, how joyful that would be!
And that’s Paul’s point. There’s new life there. There’s freedom there.
There’s hope for a better world, for you, and for your neighbor too.
And so may we, my friends,
take to heart this call to focus not on the status symbols of our world
but on Christ, and his love,
and taking that to heart,
may we find new joy in living a different kind of life,
a life of service rather than status
a life of compassion rather than competition
in short: a life of love.
May it be so.
Image Credit: From Donald Harper at https://www.flickr.com/photos/duckunix/47319732331/ under creative commons license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)