A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, Month 21, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 15:11-32 and Romans 8:31-39
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In 2003, the chorus I was singing with went on tour in New Zealand and Australia.  We really only got to see a little bit of Australia – Sydney and Melbourne – but I went to New Zealand early, did some traveling on my own, visited museums, and felt got to see much of the country.  I felt like I really began to understand its history and cultures.  Humans didn’t come to the islands we now call New Zealand until the late 1200s.  That’s not even a thousand years ago.  Europeans didn’t arrive until the 1600s.  The first settlers were eastern Polynesians, people who over the centuries had migrated across the ocean from Taiwan, island-hopping to the east and south.[1]

When I think about those Polynesian explorers, I’m stunned.  They stood on the water’s edge or maybe even on the highest point of the island they were on and looked out at the vast nothingness and decided to get into canoes and head out into the unknown, trusting that they would find a place to land.  No GPS to guide them.  No satellite images to assure them that out there in that direction there’s another island.  And still they stepped out (or rather paddled out) into the unknown, boldly going where no one had gone before, little canoes bobbing on the vast ocean of the unknown.

earthrise - NASA; public domainApollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft orbited the moon.  On December 24, 1968, mission commander Frank Borman and astronaut William Anders looked out the window and noticed the earth rising over the horizon of the moon.  Anders scrambled to get the camera with the color film and took this picture.[2]  “We came all this way to the moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet,” Bill Anders said.[3]

A year later, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind.”  Looking up at earth from Tranquility Base, the earth was so small that Armstrong noted that he could blot it out with his thumb.  He was asked later if this made him feel big.  “No,” he replied, “it made me feel really, really small.”[4]

I can’t help it, but when I contemplate these sorts of things I end up wondering where it’s all going and what it all means.  Are we human beings merely an infestation on one planet orbiting one average star of the one hundred billion of stars swirling in one galaxy among 225 billions of galaxies in the vast universe?

At some level, we are very small.  At some level, we are inconsequential.  And at some point, perhaps in eight billion years or so, our sun will turn into a red dwarf and this planet will be incinerated.[5]  The chances of human civilization existing at that point are pretty slim.  An asteroid or a comet crashing into the earth would end human civilization – and that certainly could happen in the next eight billion years.  We could end human civilization ourselves with nuclear weapons or biological warfare.  More likely, we will cripple human civilization to the point of collapse through climate change.  And there is, as activists like to remind us, no planet B.

At some point, our species will die out and there will be no one left to remember that any of this ever existed.  And, as Brian McLaren says, “If this prediction is the whole truth, our unremembered lives and their illusory meaning will be reduced to nothing, gone forever – utterly, absolutely, infinitely gone.”[6]

The good news – at least if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the prediction isn’t the whole truth.  The good news – if you believe that the Bible contains some spiritual truth – is that the end is not infinite nothingness.  There is God in the end.  Almost like a fairytale, where the princess and the prince marry and live happily ever after, the Bible keeps pointing to a great feast, to a wedding banquet when “humanity welcomes God into its heart.”[7]

Our gospel lesson is an example of how our scriptures point to this ending.  In the parable from Luke, “human history can be seen [in] the story …  The family experiences conflict.  The rebellious younger son runs away and for a while forgets his true identity.  The dutiful older son stays home but also forgets his true identity.  The younger son reaches a crisis and comes home.  He is welcomed by the father, which then creates a crisis for the older son.  Of course, the story isn’t only about the identity crises of the sons.  It also reveals the true identity of the father, whose heart goes out to both brothers, who graciously love them even when they don’t know it, and even when they don’t love each other.  The story ends with a celebration – a welcome-home party, a reunion.”[8]

But, did you notice that the story’s ending is not fully resolved?  We know what the father does in the end:  he throws a banquet fit for a wedding.  We know what the younger brother does:  he accepts his father’s welcome, forgiveness, and love.  But we don’t know what the older brother does.  Will he “remain outside, nursing his petty resentments?  Or will he come inside to join the Big Celebration and rediscover his true identity?”[9]

When I was younger, I found myself identifying most with the younger son.  I understood the desire to strike out on one’s own, to embrace that freedom, to seek adventure.  And I understood how easy it is to make bad choices, to ashame ones parents, to feel along and lost, to forget who and whose I really am.

Now, I find myself identifying much more with the older son.  I understand the call of duty and responsibility.  I’ve experienced that sense of working hard and feeling like I wasn’t getting the acknowledgement I deserve (or at least that I think I deserve).  I’ve even felt something like the older son’s – what? jealousy?

Most important, though, is the sense of God that this story presents:  that deep longing for all to come, for all to enjoy the feast, for all to discover or rediscover their true identity in God’s family.[10]

This points to the purpose of giving your pastors sabbaticals.  In addition to acknowledging our hard work, you are creating space for us to enjoy the feast and to rediscover and deepen our true identity in God’s family.  Why wait until we’re dead to enjoy the banquet?  Why not feast now?

So, tomorrow I’m going to disappear for three months.  Not only will I disappear from this building, but I’ll disappear from Facebook (I feel the need to rest from that medium, too).  I’ll spend time with family, and while I don’t expect my father to kill a fatted calf when we get together, I do expect him to eat some of his birthday cake.  I’ll spend some time in nature, allowing the beauty of creation fill me with awe – and I’ll bring back pictures.  I’ll read some books that have been on my reading list for months (or even years) and catch up on a four-inch high pile of journals that I haven’t kept up with.  I’ll spend some time in intentional community that is grounded in a rhythm of prayer.  And I’ll, as our special music suggested, just breathe.[11]

In my head, I believe that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  But sometimes I need to stop and let my heart fall into that truth.  Sometimes I need to stop and renew my soul.  And that’s really what I most want to accomplish on this sabbatical.

I hope to follow the flow of the parable of the Prodigal.  The parable of the Prodigal flows toward reconciliation.  God’s love is not found in right belief or doctrine.  God’s love is found in love.  “If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, [then] the great, big, beautiful, wonderful, holy, mysterious, reconciling heart of God waits to be discovered and experienced,”[12] again and again and again.

“Human speculation – whether religious or scientific – does the best it can, like a little boat that ventures out on the surface of a deep, deep ocean, under the dome of a fathomless sky.  Our eyes cannot see beyond the rim.  Our ears cannot hear the music beneath the silence.  Our hearts cannot imagine the meaning above us, below us, around us, within us.  But the Spirit blows like wind.  And so this mystery humbles us even as it dignifies us.  This mystery impresses us with our smallness even as it inspires us with our ultimate value.  This mystery dislodges us from lesser attachments so we sail on in hope.  This mystery dares us to believe that the big love of God is big enough to swallow all death and overflow with aliveness for us all.

“‘Do not fear,’ the Spirit whispers.  ‘All shall be well.’  That is why we walk this road, from the known into the unknown, deeper into mystery, deeper into light, deeper into love, deeper into joy.”[13]

As we move into our time for quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught you attention or imagination; or
… a moment in your life when everything came together and, for at least a moment, “all was well”; or
… the image of the end as a great homecoming celebration, or a great marriage banquet; or
… the image of being in a small boat, buoyed up by depths that you cannot fathom, feeling what it means to be upheld by mystery, letting God’s peace surround you.

[1] “Māori people,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Māori_people#History (accessed 18 August 2016).

[2] “Earthrise,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthrise (accessed 20 August 2016).

[3] Robert Poole, “For teh Apollo astronauts, a small world,” Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jul/19/opinion/oe-poole19 (posted 19 July 2009; accessed 20 August 2016).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 52, page 259. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 260.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Two in the congregation sang Jonny Diaz’s “Breathe.” You can listen to it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnjeMwxFuBA.

[12] Ibid, 261.

[13] Ibid, 262.

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