Livestreamed service

Luke 15:1-24

        I don’t know how Jesuit priest and Homeboy Industries founder Gregory Boyle came to have and hold his current notion of God—whether he has always perceived of God as the source of tender love, unconditional acceptance, and healing transformation, or whether he arrived at this life-giving understanding after years of struggle, doubt, study, encounter, and evolution.

        I don’t know how he got there, but I agree with him when he says that “nothing is more consequential in our lives than the notion of God we hold. Not God. The notion of God. … Our conceptions of may change and evolve, but when we ‘hold’ them, they direct our course.”

        “What matters,” he writes in his latest book, “is what kind of God we believe in.”

        He goes on to quote a modern paraphrase of the 14th-century monk and mystic Meister Eckhart: “It is a lie—any talk of God that does not comfort you.”

        Boyle doesn’t mention it, but that kind of talk led the medieval Catholic Church to condemn Eckhart’s teaching and suppress his work for hundreds of years.

        One’s notion of God can be a dangerous thing—not only if it threatens the orthodox views of the religious establishment but also  when it leaves us feeling guilty, ashamed, and unworthy, when it represses the Spirit of God within us and separates us from others.

        It has, apparently, always been this way: humans who are struggling to understand life and suffering and the ways of the world projecting all manner of motives and characteristics onto a divine being. It has, apparently, always been this way: humans having a hard time believing that they are inherently lovable and ever-beloved and, as a result, consciously or unconsciously spending their lives trying to prove that they are worthy of love and acceptance.
We see this in our faith’s own creation story, which has Adam and Eve feeling so ashamed for disobeying God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that they try to hide from God.

        Never mind that the story goes on to describe the heartbroken Creator of Heaven and Earth sewing clothes for Adam and Eve as they leave the garden of Eden. Most people don’t even know that part of the story because they haven’t gotten past the image of an angry, repressive, and punishing God. They haven’t been able to get past the teachings of original sin and ongoing unworthiness, the feelings of shame and the fear of never being able to measure up.

        Does any of that sound or feel familiar?

        We see much of the same in today’s gospel reading.

        The religious authorities are upset with Jesus for spending time with society’s outcasts and religion’s sinners. They condemn Jesus for his tender, compassionate, inclusive, and non-judgmental behavior, apparently because—and this is where, again, we can see how the notion of God we hold shapes everything—they believe God to be rigid, harsh, and judgmental. They, like so many of us, had created God in their own image, a phenomenon that manifests when, in the words of writer Anne Lamott, God hates all the same people we do.

        This morning I want to invite us to consider—and then to have and to hold—a very different notion of God. To let the God we believe in be the Holy One who delights in us and longs for our wholeness and well-being. To claim for ourselves the God who cherishes us, the tender Mother-Father-Shepherd God who rejoices when the lost are found and, then, instead of punishing them, throws them the  biggest party they have ever seen, the most extravagant celebration we can imagine.

        Beloveds, this is the good news!

        This is a notion of God worth holding onto. This is the truth of God that we’re invited to build our lives upon. This is a concept of the divine that, if we let it, will transform us and then, through us, love and heal and change the world.

        The problem, of course, is that there are so many other ways of thinking about God, so many other religious teachings, and so much human judgment, separation, and punishment.

        The problem is that many of us are not even aware of the religious baggage we carry, of the notions of God we have adopted without questioning them or giving them any thought.

        Until, perhaps, we have an experience or an encounter that opens our eyes and our hearts to the tenderness of God.

        I had such an experience not long ago.

        Scout (my dog) and I had spent the previous night in Logan, Utah, and I was preparing for a drive that would take us through some stunningly beautiful country and, ultimately, to Yellowstone National Park, where we would camp overnight.

        Before leaving town, I pulled into a gas station to fill up. With Scout in the car, I was doing all the things: using my credit card, pumping gas, cleaning the bug-splattered windshield, emptying the trash, separating the recyclables, and preparing to check the tires. I was so focused on doing all these things that I forgot to do a basic and very important thing.

        When I began to drive away, I heard what sounded like a huge crack. I jumped out of the car and discovered that the gasoline nozzle was still in my gas tank, and that the hose had pulled away from the pump. I was rattled, but it looked like nothing was broken—on my car or the gas pump. I didn’t know how to reattach the hose, and the convenience store that was part of the station looked very busy, so I just hung it up so that it was out of the way.

        Now I’m not at all proud of what I did next, and I share it with you knowing that you may think worse of me for it. What I did was irresponsible and wrong, but I can honestly say that I wasn’t trying to get away with anything; I thought it was no big deal and I was just really focused on what I needed to do. And so I pulled over to check my tire pressure.

        And that was when another customer started coming toward me, yelling loudly. “You BROKE the pump,” she yelled, “and you weren’t going to tell them?!?”

        She continued yelling at me as I pulled the car back over to the pump. I saw an employee and I rolled down the passenger-side window and, in what I’m sure was a shaky voice, I apologized. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize I had broken anything.”
And here is what happened next: This woman leaned in through the window, and in a very calm, even tender, voice said, “It’s okay. This has happened before, and my boss is going to take care of it. Don’t worry about it.”

        “Are you sure?” I asked.

        “Yes,” she said. “It’s okay.”

        And with that, I began to drive away, feeling both shaken and humbled. Meanwhile, the customer who had yelled at me was aiming her phone at my car and saying something about how she was going to turn me in, as if I was some kind of criminal.

        Which, to tell you the truth, is kind of how I felt.

        Well, one of the great things about long drives is that they provide lots of time to think and pray. As I drove through the breathtaking scenery of Logan Canyon, I was overcome with feelings of shame and humiliation. How could I have done such a thing? I begged for God’s forgiveness.

        And I kept driving and praying, feeling and reflecting, listening and thinking. And then, somewhere along the way, God’s tender mercy broke through a lifetime of my bad notions about God. Somewhere along the way my shame was transformed into tearful gratitude for the grace of a God who loves me.

        Because somewhere along the way I realized that the customer who had yelled at me, shamed me, and was threatening to turn me in was the embodiment of my childhood God—forever wagging a finger at me, shaking the divine head over how bad I was, and threatening to punish me.

        And the gas station employee who stuck her head through my window and in a voice so kind I still almost weep when I think about it? She was the embodiment of the God who is love, the God whose tenderness heals and transforms. Did I mention she was a person of color?

        I realized, too, that I did not want to be the first woman—judgmental and harsh, a self-appointed policer of other people’s behavior—and yet I also knew that I times I had been. I knew then, more clearly than ever before, that I wanted to be like our tender God, like Jesus, like the gas station employee: calm, kind, compassionate, understanding, and forgiving.

        From his decades of experience working with former gang members at Homeboy Industries, Father Gregory Boyle speaks of the importance of tenderness. “It’s not about pointing out [the homies’] bad choices,” he says, but rather creating a “culture of tenderness that fosters long-term, redemptive relationships.” That, he says, “will alter the larger culture and its structures.” And the key to forming redemptive relationships, he says, is vulnerability, which he calls “the Velcro of attachment.”

        Friends, we serve a vulnerable God—a God who so dearly loves us and the world that she became one of us to show us the way to life abundant.

        We serve a tender God—a God so compassionate, understanding, and non-judgmental that he promised the thief being crucified beside him that he would join him in paradise.

        Beloveds, we serve a long-suffering, celebrating God—a God who will search the fields all day and night to find that one lost sheep, a God who will not rest until she finds a missing coin, a heartbroken God who will throw open the door and go running down the road to embrace the ungrateful child he thought was gone forever.

        Let us hold onto this notion of God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And let us join the celebration and invite everyone we know.