30 March, 2014

Soul of a Man

Prior to the sermon today, we heard the song Soul of a Man by Blind Willie Johnson.

Blind Willie Johnson


A sermon based on Luke 15:11-32, the story commonly called The Prodigal Son.

That song we just heard was written by Blind Willie Johnson, a gospel blues singer and guitarist from Texas. When he was five, he told his father he wanted to be a preacher and then made himself a cigar box guitar. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried soon after her death. Johnson was not born blind, and, there’s a story that when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. According to this account, the stepmother then blinded young Willie by throwing lye in his face.

Johnson remained poor until the end of his life, preaching and singing in the streets of several Texas cities. A city directory shows that in 1945, a Rev. W.J. Johnson, undoubtedly Blind Willie, operated the House of Prayer in Beaumont, Texas, at the same address listed on Johnson’s death certificate. In 1945, his home burned to the ground. With nowhere else to go, Johnson lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a wet bed in the August/September Texas heat. He lived like this until he contracted malarial fever and died on September 18, 1945. He was 48 years old. (from Wikipedia)

He makes us ask this morning, “What is the soul of a man?”

Jesus answers us with a parable about two sons. 

Our younger son, Made (pronounced Ma-day, this is the Balinese name for a second son), was itching to get out from under his father and his brother, so he asked his father for his inheritance, essentially saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” So the father gave Made his inheritance, one third of his riches, and Made left town.

He apparently went to Kuta (a town in Bali known for its bars and sex workers), and squandered his money on sex workers and arak (Balinese moonshine). Then the money was gone, and Made needed a job. He found a job working on a local farm, not making enough money to eat, and found himself wishing he was fed as well as the birds are fed from the offerings, or the cats and dogs eat from the trash.

Meanwhile, Wayan (the Balinese name for the first son) stayed home, working with his father, helping with the family business, supervising the staff, and doing everything he was supposed to do. The truth is that Wayan never had much fun, and somewhere, in the back of his mind, he wished he could up and leave his father, he wished he could have some fun, he wished he could extravagently spend some of the money. He stayed home and built up resentment.

Made followed his heart, seeking good times and short lived pleasure. Wayan followed his moral code, seeking his father’s approval and financial gain.

And neither one of them was particularly happy.

Made figured out that his father’s servants were making a better living than he was. So he returned home with a speech prepared. Not only did Made’s father see him coming towards the house, he ran out to meet him. Made’s daddy threw a big party for the community to welcome his son home, with the finest meats and sweets. He dressed Made in the finest songket (a Balinese wedding outfit) and celebrated Made’s homecoming.

But Wayan was none-to-happy to see him. Call it jealousy. Call it judgment. Call it whatever you like, but Wayan is actually angered at his father’s response. And in a culture where hospitality is the most important thing, Wayan sits outside the house, refusing to participate in giving the party.

If Wayan was a member of church, this is what he would be thinking:

Made should have to prove that he really wants to be different.

Made has some nerve showing up here after all that whoring around.

Made shouldn’t be allowed to talk to our father until he’s confessed all his sins and repented from every one.

You see it there? Wayan thinks he’s better than Made. Made and Wayan may have made different choices about their lives (one choosing fun and the other choosing responsibility) but both of them are at about the same spot. They both need the unconditional love and forgiveness of the father. And, in fact, Made at least has made an effort to repent. Wayan is so stuck in his own sin, he doesn’t even mind causing his father to humiliate himself at the party by coming out to see him.

But the father… Oh, the father. 

Do you see what he does? He doesn’t just love those boys. He cherishes them. When Made is gone to Kuta, the father is watching the road every day for his return. And when Made returns, his father runs out to meet him. This is is just not done in Jewish culture. The father is making a fool of himself.

And he’s willing to make a fool of himself. He doesn’t care who is watching. He doesn’t care what the neighbors think. He’s just glad that Made has returned home. And he’s not thinking about what Made did on his adventures. He’s just making him feel welcome.

And there’s Made giving his speech—saying “I’ve sinned against you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” And just about to ask for a job in his father’s fields, when his father interrupts, and says, “Let’s get this party started! This son of mine was lost but now he’s found.”

But the father loves Wayan just as much. Wayan refuses to enter the party, a terrible sin in a hospitable culture. So the father leaves his guests to talk to Wayan, which makes the father the subject to his neighbors’ talk once again. And the father reminds the son, again, of how much love he has for him, “All I have is yours.”

David Brooks, an editor of the New York Times says, “The father’s critics say he was unjust. People who play by the rules should see the rewards. Those who abandon the community, live according to their own reckless desires should not get to come back and automatically reap the bounty of others’ hard work. If you reward the younger brother, you signal that self-indulgence pays, while hard work gets slighted (NYT, 02/17/2014).”

But Jesus knows better than that. Jesus knows that the the elder brother is a sinner, too. He is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. He wasn’t working to honor his father, he was working for material reward out of a fear based moralism. Jesus also understands that the younger brother will not be reformed by lectures or finger-pointing.

Jesus gets to the soul of a man, seeing that we’re all so consumed by our own needs and our own desires, that there’s a shadow inside us. But Jesus and the father don’t stop at the shadow. They see the good in us, too. Those things that make a father’s heart go pitter patter. God sees that the soul of a man is conflicted, but doesn’t need judgment, doesn’t need exclusion.

What the father does is what each child needs: deep acceptance. He says to them, “I accept you. I accept you.” Right where they are. And the father invites them into the feast, just as God invites us to the feast, “I accept you. I accept you. Just where you are.”

May it ever be.

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