This parable of Jesus that we have just heard is one of the most familiar and beloved passages in all of scripture. It touches us on so many different levels, and is like a bottomless well from which we can draw an endless supply of living water to slake our spiritual thirst. Every time I come to it, I find something new. This time around, my attention was arrested by a detail that is casually passed over as Jesus tells the story in Luke’s gospel. The younger of two sons asks his father for a premature distribution of his share of the father’s estate; in other words, he wants his inheritance while Dad is still 98.6 and vertical, rather than room temperature and pushing up daisies. This is really an outlandish and incredibly selfish request. Not only is it offensive on a mere personal level—talk about breaking a parent’s heart—but it was also a considerable financial imposition. Imagine what it would take for you to come up with half of your net worth in cash. He probably had to sell some livestock and some precious metals and some real estate on terms that were not particularly advantageous.
I bring this up because, later on, when the “prodigal son” returns home penniless and disgraced, we are in awe of the father’s love that welcomes him back without any recriminations or awkward questions. For the son, that homecoming was a wonderful experience of forgiveness and grace. But for the father, it came at a cost. It cost him on both ends of the transaction—first when he liquidated his assets in an untimely manner, and then again when he threw a welcome-home party for his younger son that jeopardized his relationship with his faithful older son.
And, of course, since the obvious point of the parable is that we should transfer our regard for how the loving father treats his flaky son to how our loving God treats us flaky children, it’s also easy for us to overlook the cost factor. It’s easy for us to conclude that our salvation—our redemption, our reconciliation, both “vertically” with God and “horizontally” with our fellow human beings—it’s easy for us to conclude that our salvation doesn’t really cost God anything, that it’s just a matter of God shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Oh, well, people will be people. You gotta love ‘em, though, so I’ll just overlook their screw-ups and wink at their infidelities.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was martyred by the Nazi regime toward the end of World War II, coined the phrase “cheap grace.” Cheap grace doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s often alive and well in our imaginations. We see passages of scripture like “Return to the Lord, for he is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” and the image that pops into our mind is not so much God the Father as God the Grandfather, who thinks we’re cute even when we’re naughty, and who pats us on the head and tells us to try a little harder to be nice as he slips us a piece of candy on the sly.
We continue to have a healthy appetite for “cheap grace,” I think, because we have a generally distorted conception of love. We confuse who we are with what we do, so we think that if someone loves us, they are obligated to approve of everything about us, to overlook our faults, and never confront or challenge our opinions or our behavior. No embarrassing questions about just how we managed to squander our inheritance in, as the King James Version puts it, “riotous living.” No parental advice on how to avoid repeating the disaster that we have brought on ourselves. No judgment, no consequences; just support, encouragement, and acceptance. That’s what love is, right?
Our taste for cheap grace is also nourished by a distorted notion of forgiveness. “It’s OK, think nothing of it.” “Not a problem—no big deal.” …as if the most serious thing we ever have to forgive is somebody accidentally stepping on our toe. Reinhold Niebuhr, an eminent Protestant theologian from the last century, described the theology of cheap grace as presenting us with "a God without wrath [who] brought [people] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” No wonder the cross has turned into a talisman, a fashion accessory. You’ve probably heard the story about the shopper who inquired at a department store jewelry counter, “Do you have any crosses?” The sales clerk responded with enthusiasm, “Oh, yes, we have several. Some are earrings, some are pins, and some come on necklaces. Most of them are plain, but some of them have a little man on them.” A little man. Indeed.
Let’s take an honest look at the sacred scriptures, particularly those appointed for this Fourth Sunday in Lent. What do we see? We see the second of St Paul’s two letters to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth. Paul reminds the Corinthians, and reminds us, that “for our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin…”. Now this is certainly a strange phrase. It refers, of course, to Jesus, who “knew no sin”—in other words, he was himself sinless; his being and his doing were at all times completely oriented toward the will of his Father. God took his own sinless son and “made him to be sin.” What does this mean? It means that Jesus was a sort of black hole for all of human sin, indeed for universal evil itself. Jesus absorbed into himself every act of genocide and mass murder, every act of tyranny and torture, every hate crime, every act of enslavement and human trafficking, every act of sexual predation, the sum total of social injustice and exploitation of the poor and marginalized, every misuse of our God-given desires and appetites, every act of infidelity and betrayal, every evasion of lawful and just taxation, every white lie, every disregarded traffic signal and every plagiarized term paper. Jesus took all of this into himself, and carried it to the cross. For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin.
This quality of proactive generosity in God’s love is evident in the Prodigal Son parable: Notice how, when the son returns home to see if his father will take him on as a hired hand, he doesn’t have to pound on the door and beg the butler to fetch his father. No, the father sees him from a distance, and runs out to meet him with open arms. The father hasn’t forgotten; he’s been watching and waiting the whole time. My brothers and sisters, God’s grace and forgiveness doesn’t cost us a dime, but it is far from free. Jesus has paid the price, God has paid the price, for our salvation, for our redemption, for our reconciliation.
We’re all familiar with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death. The details are etched into our imaginations. We are—most of us— acutely aware of the details of the agony that Jesus endured on our behalf. The verbal humiliation, the brutal scourging, the cynical crowning with thorns, all before carrying a heavy cross several hundred yards and up a hill while a crowd continues to taunt him, and then being nailed to the cross and lifted up to die. And die he did. There’s nothing cheap about grace. It is enormously costly. We’re way too impoverished to pay the price, so Jesus pays it for us.
To those of us who have experienced the costly grace of God, the cross can never be a mere talisman or fashion accessory. It is a symbol that we venerate and embrace and love, because it stands before us as the sign of the length to which God was willing to go…to save me, to save you, to save anyone who comes to him in faith. The astounding truth of God’s love is that, if you were the only person in the entire world, Jesus would still have died for you. The one who knew no sin became sin for our sake, “…so that in him we might become,” not sin, but “the righteousness of God.” We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, our life, and resurrection. Amen.
If you missed services on March 31, here is a writeup with more information about Emmanuel's outreach initiative that was announced that day. Bishop Martins' sermon appears in a separate post.
Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church in Champaign has purchased $4 million in past due local medical debt with one purpose: to forgive it. This week, 3617 financially strapped households in counties throughout Central and Southern Illinois received letters informing them that their medical debts have been paid off by the church.
The Rev. Beth Maynard, Emmanuel’s Rector, announced the debt forgiveness initiative at Sunday services on March 31, when the Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield, which covers the area affected, was visiting the church for Confirmation.
Emmanuel raised funds for property repairs and upgrades during their building’s centennial year in 2017-18, but the church committed that after essential work was done, all remaining money would go to serve those outside its own walls. “Often people assume a church is going to ask for something from them,” said the Rev. Maynard. “We wanted to do the opposite and give to people in a way that makes a real difference.”
To find local households who were struggling with unpayable bills, Emmanuel worked with RIP Medical Debt, a New York-based charity founded by two former collection agency executives. Using a list of Episcopal Diocese of Springfield counties provided by the church, the charity searched bundled debt portfolios to locate Central and Southern Illinois accounts held by households in financial difficulty, and then negotiated bulk purchases at pennies on the dollar. Emmanuel’s donation of $15,000 offset debt of $4 million – over a 26000% return on investment.
"I applaud Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church for their dedication in realizing this important campaign," said RIP co-founder, Jerry Ashton. "We feel incredibly privileged to work with any faith-based organization committed to relieving the burden of un-payable medical debt in its community."
After learning of the number of households in the Diocese of Springfield benefiting from this forgiveness initiative, the Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins wrote, “I am overjoyed with the news of Emmanuel’s exemplary stewardship of the resources entrusted to them. The knowledge of the concrete impact this will have on families in central and southern Illinois is a sign of the abundant goodness of the God whom we worship.”
Emmanuel also made donations benefiting two Champaign nonprofits as part of their centennial campaign: empty tomb, which deploys church volunteers to assist local families with a diverse range of needs, and the grassroots homelessness ministry C-U at Home.
43 million Americans now owe about $75 billion in past-due medical debt, and medical debt is a major contributor to bankruptcies. After learning about the issue, Emmanuel’s Mission Leadership Team voted in January to approach RIP Medical Debt about helping the church intervene in this crisis on behalf of households in the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield. The organization accepts larger gifts like Emmanuel’s, but individuals can make donations as well.
Credit agencies are notified that these debts have been cleared for the 3617 families affected, which should immediately help their credit ratings. The Rev. Maynard commented, “In the Episcopal Church this is the season of Lent, when we focus on God forgiving our debts through the work of Christ on the Cross. I can’t think of a better time or a more practical way to spread the message of forgiveness.”
About RIP Medical Debt
RIP Medical Debt is a nonprofit organization that allows generous donors and organizations to erase the debt of Americans whose lives have been ruined by destructive medical debt. Founded in 2014 by two former collections industry executives, Craig Antico & Jerry Ashton, RIP rose to national prominence on an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that has been viewed almost 10 million times, where RIP facilitated the erasure of $15 million in medical debt that only cost $60,000. To learn more and get involved, visit www.ripmedicaldebt.org.
About Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church
Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church, located in downtown Champaign IL, is a congregation whose mission is to know Jesus Christ and to make him known. One of 33 congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield, Emmanuel offers ancient roots, warm community, and meaningful service. Among the church’s approximately 200 households are life-long Episcopalians, people who grew up in different faith traditions, and those who had no prior religious background. To learn more and get involved, visit www.emmanuelmemorialepiscopal.org.
This week all over the Episcopal Church many of us clergy said to ourselves, “Sunday would be a great day to skip the Gospel lesson and preach on the Old Testament.” This Gospel text today is pretty strong stuff, I must admit, but Lent is for strong stuff. When the Church gives us things like this to deal with, I am often reminded of a famous line from St. Augustine: “if you believe what you like in the Gospels and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospels you believe but yourself.” So what might it do for us if we tried out believing this Gospel today?
At the beginning of this difficult text, some people – we don’t know who or how many – interrupt Jesus with a shocking story. It’s a shocking story that we who have followed recent news can relate to directly. The group comes to Jesus, who has just been teaching about the urgency of responding to God, and they tell him that in the Temple in Jerusalem, as worship was going on, someone came in and killed a group of Galileans in the middle of the sacrifices. Right there in a house of worship – a horrible thing to think of, and something we know all too well because we’ve seen it. Of course the mosques in New Zealand last week. Back in October, Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In 2015, Mother Emanuel church in Charleston South Carolina. Not to mention incidents that tend not to get reported here. There’ve been many attacks on Christians praying in Nigeria, for example, and many attacks on Muslims praying in Afghanistan.
It's terrible. It's shocking. So: Have you heard, this group of questioners press Jesus. Have you heard about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices, right there in the Temple. (I assume they mean that Pilate, the governor of Judea, had ordered this killing, not that he literally came and did it himself.) At any rate, this was not an isolated act by a rogue person or an extremist group. It was not someone motivated by an abhorrent ideology like anti-Semitism or like white supremacy; but it was a state-sponsored execution, designed as a public reminder of Roman power, much like Jesus’ state-sponsored execution on Good Friday will be.
It being spring break, I would guess that some of our parishioners may be waiting in line at Walt Disney World right now. And if you’ve ever been there in high season, you know that if you didn’t plan well and use your Fastpass+, you can you find yourself in some interminable line, standing next to a sign that says, "Waiting time from this point: 30 minutes." Well, it's the 2nd Sunday in Lent ...waiting time from this point: 30 days.
We are, after all, on our way somewhere. In the early years of the church, Lent served two purposes: first, it was the culmination of three years of formation for people who wanted to become Christians. Second, it was a time when people who had fallen away from Christ could go through a process to be restored to the community. Both those groups would have known they were on a journey, looking forward to the Great Vigil when they would at last be baptized, or when they could at last receive Communion again.
Now that Lent has also become, as we heard on Ash Wednesday, a time for all of us to renew our repentance and faith, we can sometimes lose track of the group pilgrimage aspect. All over social media you see people saying things they’ve privately decided to do for Lent, things that often don’t really connect with what Lent is and from a Christian point of view are pretty much guaranteed not to work or even, frankly, to backfire. As Fr. Caleb warned us last Sunday, Lent isn’t a time to go on a diet or try to behave better. It’s about joining the whole Church’s journey to resurrection. A key way we do that is by deliberately encountering parts of us that are resisting resurrection, and submitting them to Christ.
He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, on this First Sunday of Lent, I want to consider the significance of Christ’s hunger in the wilderness as he resists the temptations of the devil. St. Luke informs us plainly that after eating nothing for forty days, Jesus was famished. You might wonder why being famished at the end of forty days without food would be worthy of note -- seems like pretty self-evident consequence -- but still, the text draws our attention to Jesus’ hunger nevertheless. It makes us consider the fact that he persisted alone in the desert for forty days with nothing but the Spirit who had filled him. This was all he had to arm himself with against the devil’s assaults. It is a point that we are not to miss. And seeing that we are now in the Season of Lent, a time of fasting and penitence, the hunger of Christ takes on immediate relevance to us. What does Christ’s hunger and temptations reveal about his preparation for his Passion ? And in turn, how might this reading frame the entirety of our Lenten practice for the coming weeks?
A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson was invited to deliver the Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral. Not everyone knew before that morning that he was an Episcopalian, but in the pulpit he revealed something else that almost nobody had known. Only 2 weeks before his preaching date, he had been hospitalized for depression. Gerson told the congregation, and since his sermon has gone viral, has now told millions of others, that like an estimated 10 million Americans, he lives with chronic clinical depression.
He described eloquently – he’s a writer, after all – how with depression your brain takes a chemical imbalance and winds a narrative around it, convincing you of things that simply aren’t true: that nobody cares about you, that you are accomplishing nothing, that it’s never going to get better. Gerson believed he was coping normally, but people who loved him knew different and helped him get into the hospital for treatment.