God Will Remove Our Disgrace
This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, March 10, 2013.
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear, that together we might learn and be inspired to live your Word in the world starting today. Amen.
Hanging out with the wrong crowd can get you into trouble. In a study disseminated by The University of Minnesota called “Protecting Teens: Beyond Race, Income and Family Structure,” researchers found that “teens who spend a lot of time ‘just hanging out’ with friends, especially friends involved in a specific risk behavior, are more likely to be involved themselves.” In fact, peer involvement was the leading factor in determining “risky behavior.” More so than family structure, economic status, and religious affiliation (or lack thereof)—those things are important—but hanging out with friends most determines an adolescent’s behavior. It’s funny to me that the federal government along with the Robert Johnson Wood Foundation spent nearly $25.2 million dollars to verifying what my mother and Scriptures already saying: hanging out with the wrong crowd can get you into trouble.
In Proverbs 1, Solomon instructs us, “Pay close attention, friend, to what your father tells you; never forget what you learned at your mother’s knee. Dear friend, if bad companions tempt you, don’t go along with them.” Conventional wisdom suggests that when you associate with people who make bad, destructive decisions that you yourself will eventually make the same mistakes. Its to this end that the prophet Amos asks, “Will two walk together unless they have agreed?” To this end, conventional wisdom suggests that we should withdraw from those “bad” influences in order to protect ourselves from the bad choices of others: let those “evil-doers” wallow in their mistakes so that we might remain pure. But, conventional wisdom seems to escape Jesus.
Jesus was always hanging around with the wrong crowd. In our gospel lesson for we learn that “all the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus” (Luke 15:1, New Revised Standard Version). Note: that it’s not just a few tax collectors and sinners. It’s not 10 tax collectors and sinners. It’s all of them. And, the Pharisees and legal experts were concerned. They grumbled.
Doesn’t Jesus know that hanging out with the wrong crowd will only lead to trouble? “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” By associating with them he’s opening himself to their filth. He’s just making himself dirty. Doesn’t he know that hanging out with “those people” is going to run off all his biggest supporters—good, righteous folk who are supporting his ministry? “Stop wasting your time on such a worthless cause,” the Pharisees and legal experts must have thought, “start spending your time with people who can really start making your ministry something big.”
Jesus heard them grumbling; and, he said to them, “Let me tell you a story.” There once was a successful landowner who had two sons. The eldest is a hard worker. He puts in long hours of work to help build on his father’s success. The younger son can’t wait for his “old man” to “kick the bucket” so that he can have what his father has worked so hard for. The younger son is so bold that one day he simply asks for what he thought was his…and, the father obliged. He gave the younger son his share of the family’s land. Upon which the younger son immediately sells it and
runs off to some first-century Las Vegas, squanders it all, and ends up eating beans and mush alongside the hogs he is reduced to feeding. Then he decides that he might return home—even if his father will not take him back as a son and treats him like a hired hand, it will be better than this.
So home he goes. He is braced for humiliation. However as he comes over the hill in sight of his hometown, his father runs to greet him with open arms. The prodigal cannot even launch into the groveling speech about how he deserves nothing more than hired-hand status—the one he has rehearsed over many weeks and many miles—before the old man is wrapping him in the household’s finest robe and putting a ring on his finger. It is the royal treatment, literally. Before he can blink the tears out of his eyes, a fatted calf has been killed and most of the town has been invited into a spectacular party. It is a shindig of, well, biblical proportions.”
While all this was happening the eldest son was just finishing up his work in the back-forty. It had been a long day—everything seemed to go wrong, everything took twice as long as it should have taken—but he was faithful to his work. He got it all done, even if he had to put in three hours of unpaid overtime. As he crested the hill he noticed that there was loud music coming from the homestead. As he got closer, he could make out the song, it was Kool & the Gang singing “Celebration.” He could even see people dancing. As he neared the house, he asked someone what was going on, “Haven’t you heard, your youngest brother has returned. You’re father’s throwing the party of the century!” The older brother was furious. He was about to turn the other way, when his father came running toward him, pleading for him to join the party.
The older brother, in a bout of fury, let loose, “Join the party! I’ve been working God only knows how many hours doing everything you’ve ever asked of me, yet you’ve never done anything like this for me! And now, when this son of yours comes home having squandered what you gave him on prostitutes, you’re going to reward him? Do you have a screw loose? How messed up is that?!?”
To which the father replied, “Son, this is my party. It’s not about what you’ve done. It’s not about what your brother has done. It’s about a family reunited! A part of us was lost—we both thought he was dead—and now you’re brother has been found. He’s back!”
We’re never told if the older brother ever went to the party. We’re not told if he went to the party out of curiosity to see if his brother had changed. We’re not told if the brother stayed jealous and refused to accept his younger brother. It’s never said whether or not the older brother stays, continuing to work with his gracious father and his younger brother. We’re simply not told. Jesus abruptly ends the story. Why? Because, perhaps, he doesn’t know how it’s going to end.
Will the Pharisees accept the fact that Jesus has come to “seek and save the lost”? Will they come to realize that “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. [Jesus] didn’t come to call righteous people but sinner to change their hearts and lives.”
Jesus defies conventional wisdom, hanging out with wrong crowd, because that’s where God’s love is most needed. You see, it’s in the broken places of the world…it’s in the broken places of the human heart that God’s love is needed most. And, God is more than willing to give it. God is more than willing to look past our mistakes—to remove our disgrace—and help us rebuild our lives if only we’d turn back to God. We are more than our mistakes. We are more than the problems we’ve created. In fact, when we were at our lowest—when we thought we had run the farthest from God—God chose to hang out with the wrong crowd in order to show us how much God loves the world.
The older brother missed that point. It didn’t matter what the younger brother had done, the father’s love was so great that it looked past the son’s mistakes. The Pharisees missed the point. All they noticed was that Jesus was hanging out with the wrong crowd—people who made a living making destructive choices. And, it’s my prayer that we won’t miss the point too.
16 So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
Friends, God so loved the world that God came and associated with the wrong crowd in order that all people might come to know God’s love. God will forgive even your most atrocious mistakes. In fact, God will, like the father in the story, rejoice—in spite of your mistakes—when you turn back to God.
My friends, hear the Good News: God’s grace is big enough to remove all our disgrace. There’s no mistake we can make that God won’t forgive. We need to remember that for ourselves and share it with others…and, then, we need to prepare for the party: the celebration God will throw when all of Creation turns back to God. I can’t wait. Can you?
 Referenced from “The Findings” in “Researchers Analyze Major Adolescent Health Study and Find That School and Family Ties Protect Teens From Risky Behaviors,” Robert Wood Johnson Foundation <http://pweb1.rwjf.org/reports/grr/034782.htm> Accessed March 8, 2013.
 Proverbs 1:8&10, The Message.
 Amos 3:3, Common English Bible.
 Here is a classic argument for withdraw, given by Edmund Brown, “Hanging Out With the Wrong Crowd” <http://www.gospelwarriors.org/html/new_page_19.htm> Accessed March 8, 2013,
 Luke 15:2b, Common English Bible.
 “Pastoral Perspective: Luke 15:1-3,11b-32” by Rodney Clapp in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 116-118.
 See Luke 19:10.
 Luke 5:31-32, Common English Bible.
 2 Corinthians 5:16-19, Common English Bible.