(Citations and references to Love Wins by Rob Bell are noted by page number)
11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father* said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”’
Unless you lived under a rock in the year 2007, you will remember Michael Vick, quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons at the time, being arrested for his role in a dog fighting ring that had operated for 5 years. When this was discovered, a search of his property resulted in the discovery of at least 70 dogs, mainly pit bull terriers. Many showed signs of injury, trauma, aggression, or fear of humans. As of October 2007, 49 dogs remained in animal shelters. Two had to be euthanized- one due to severe aggression, one due to health problems. Out of the 47 then, 22 were sent to an animal sanctuary, and 25 were placed in foster care. Out of those in foster care, many were then adopted out to be with their forever families. I’m guessing that many of us did not give much thought as to what happened to Michael Vick’s dogs because we were so focused on his side of the story and his role in it. Even as a dog lover, thinking back I did not give much thought to what would happen to those poor dogs- just that I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone treating animals that way. I guess I assumed that the dogs would be too aggressive or traumatized to live a normal life. I guess I assumed that most or all had been put down, which saddened me. I didn’t give any of this any recent thought until the other day when a friend posted a story about several of Michael Vick’s dogs and what their lives turned out to be, and my heart was strangely warmed as I read about each one, because each surviving dog had a story to tell (Please click HERE to view a few of the dogs and their stories) The people that taught these dogs to fight only saw them as things without fear or pain or any love in them whatsoever. The dogs were only used for their gain and entertainment- they were disposable. The big concern with these dogs after they were rescued from their hostile environment was how they would behave. These people who set out to adopt these dogs believed that there was more to the story and they wanted to tell it- a story of hope and redemption- a retelling of their dog’s life- a story of the fact that sometimes unconditional love, forgiveness, and understanding can go a long way- a story of a dog finding themselves worthy of love and acceptance, despite of what their past had been.
Rob Bell, in Love Wins, shares the story of a woman who would approach him after worship every Sunday to give him a small piece of paper with a number on it. Sometimes the number was big, like 174, sometimes it was smaller, like 2. The number was how many days it had been since she last cut herself. She struggled with this self-injury addiction for years, and was getting help through a support group, but she still struggled sometimes. She also told Rob that every man she had ever been with hit her. So when she hears about love, it’s not a concept she’s familiar with, especially when she’s been beaten, hit, abused, and then told that God loves her unconditionally, without her having to do anything to earn it. It would be hard to believe if the only things she has experienced and knows of the world have been cruel and unkind.
I tell you these stories to get into another story, one that most of us know well- the story of the Prodigal Son- a man has two sons- the younger son decides to take his inheritance and go out into the world on his own, while the older son stays and works with his father. The younger son returns home after squandering his inheritance, hoping to have a job and a place to live. His father unexpectedly welcomes him home, embraces him, and goes the extra mile to have a homecoming party, complete with a fattened calf. His older brother refuses to join in, claiming that the whole situation is unfair because he was the one who had stayed loyal to the family and had worked hard over the years, and never once had his father thrown him a party. His father’s response: “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The younger brother also tells a story- he heads home in shame, convinced that he is no longer worthy to be called his father’s son- that’s the story he believes and will tell his father. Although he has decided he is not worthy to be a son any longer, his father tells a story of reconciliation and forgiveness- one of welcoming and wholeness. The younger son must decide which version of the story he will trust- his or his father’s- will he chose that he is no longer worthy to be called a son or one where he is welcomed home and embraced as family again- one where he is no longer dead, but alive, no longer lost, but found.
The older brother’s version of the story describes a life where he has been slaving away for his father while his brother was off misbehaving and dishonoring the family. First of all, the father has never been described as a slave driver, and from what we know of him so far certainly does not sound like one. Second, he claims that his father has never done anything for him, claiming that he is being treated unfairly and is being shortchanged- all of this with the party going on in the background. And the father doesn’t get angry or rattled, but simply reminds that this is a time to celebrate and tells his son, “you are always with me and everything I have is yours.” He tells an entirely different story of the older brother with this one sentence: this son hasn’t been a slave, his father hasn’t been cheap with him, and the father redefines fairness. The younger son technically doesn’t deserve a party, but that’s the whole point of the story- to celebrate and be glad that what was lost had been found. The older brother then must decide what version of the story he will tell: his version, or his father’s? (169)
The difference between the two stories is, after all, the difference between heaven and hell. In this story, heaven and hell are intertwined, both being present at the same celebration, offering a choice between the two. Heaven is choosing to be fully engaged in the celebration, rejoicing in what was lost being found. Hell is being at the party but refusing to participate. Hell is deciding to stick with the version of the story that is not hopeful or life giving. Hell is refusing to trust God’s retelling of our story (170). We all have our own versions of who we are and things that define us. We have our own ideas about our worth and value, about our gifts, about our shortcomings. We all have secrets, sins, mistakes of the past. Some people struggle with their own burdens so much that their version of themselves leaves them feeling like nothing and that they are not worthy of love.
For others the problem is not their sins or mistakes, but their pride and ego that prevent them from seeking the mercy and grace of a merciful God. For some it is the lack of humility that leads them to believe that they are a version of themselves different than what God may have in mind. But “what the gospel does is confront our version of our story within God’s version of our story. It is a brutally honest, exuberantly liberating story, and it is good news” (172). This story begins with the certain truth that we are loved and hold value in God’s eyes. This story goes on to say that God has made peace with us, no matter what version of our story we might cling to- God is telling us a new story- that you are always with me and everything I have is yours.
There are times when we might need to let go of our versions of ourselves and open up to a new version. Again, we create our own hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story. When we fail to trust, when we fail to let go of the version of events we’ve held onto for so long, we might find that we hold a distorted view of God. The prodigal son story, then, has everything to do with our story. God so loved the world that he sent his son to save the world …but millions are taught that if they don’t believe or believe in the right way, God will have no choice but to punish them and send them to hell. So…a loving heavenly father who went through everything to love his children will all the sudden give up on them in a moment of death or doubt or disbelief? A loving heavenly father who so loved the world could become cruel and unloving and intolerant of us? Let’s think about this: “If there was an earthly father like that we would call the authorities or contact child protective services” (174). We would want to protect the children and get them as far away from that person as possible. If we see God this way, then this kind of God is not a God who can be trusted. And this is why so many people run from Christianity. And if they stay, many times it is out of fear because they have been presented with the version of God that is unloving, judgmental, and cruel. A God who is terrifying and unbearable.
Friends, we need to be telling a better, more accurate version of God- that the good news is better than that! I get frustrated when all I hear about God is used in context with words like “sin,” “condemnation,” and “judgment.” So often people have gotten God confused with these words and assign them as part of God’s character, when people tend to forget that the very essence of God is love, and love is a relationship that we are invited to be a part of through Jesus Christ in the ongoing goodness and creation of the world. If anything, the older brother in the prodigal son story reminds us that our beliefs matter, our stories matter, our version of ourselves matter, but we must trust that God is telling us a new story, and it’s usually a better version (176). We have a choice then: we can cling to our version, or we choose to trust God’s re-telling of the story. It’s a choice! We are free to accept or reject the invitation to new life. We can choose not to join the party at all, or we may find ourselves at the party but choose not to join in- we have the choice of our personal heaven or hell- both are there for the taking, but “to reject God’s grace, to turn from God’s love, to resist God’s telling, will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment all on its own” (177).
God’s version of the story is always an invitation into a life-giving, life- changing relationship that extends in the ways that we choose to live in the world. The good news of the gospel is that God is love and came so that we might know and share love. “When the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will get into heaven, that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer in the club- the good news is better than that” (178). Life has never been just about getting in- it’s about thriving in God’s good world. When we limit the gospel to an entrance fee, we miss the point of the entire story of what Jesus came to do. Neither son in our text understood that the father’s love was never about how good or bad or hard working or repentant or forgiving the son was. They needed to understand that the father’s love cannot be earned and it cannot be taken away- it just is- it’s a party, a celebration (187). God’s love is simply yours and we hear God whisper to us, “What is mine is yours.” The only thing left for us is to trust and to join the party, that we might accept God’s invitation to retell our story.
As we gather on this Palm Sunday, we tell another story of celebration as we wave our palm branches as Jesus rides into the city, yet all the while acknowledging that we know how the story continues and its next chapter is looming with suffering and death. But we still choose to join in, we trust in God’s unfolding story, because God is retelling that story right in front of our eyes during Holy Week. Which version will we trust? That of suffering and death, or the empty tomb of Easter morning?
You have heard it said that there are multiple sides to every story, and this is especially true when it comes to our faith in God and faith in ourselves. Whatever version of ourselves we choose to tell, we must trust that God is telling a better story. Whenever there is hopelessness, tragedy, or brokenness in the world we have to trust that God is telling a better version of the story. Whenever we find ourselves in the midst of broken relationships, discovering who we are, or trying to love ourselves, we have to trust that God is constantly re-shaping us into the version of ourselves that is cherished and perfected beyond anything we could imagine.
The Michael Vick dogs had their own version of themselves as abused, untrustworthy, broken, abandoned, and hopeless. But for the few that survived and were able to be adopted, their new families had new stories to tell- stories of love, patience, kindness and hope. A story where dogs with a troubled past were given a second chance at life and ended up giving life to their families as well. Which version of themselves do you think they believed and trusted?
What about the woman with the piece of paper each Sunday at church? Whose version of her story will she trust? The men who told her she was useless, abused, and nothing? Or the story that God tells her- that she is loved, valued, forgiven, beautiful? I hope you would tell her another story- a better one. We all have a bit of her in us, don’t we? If we were to hand God our piece of paper, we would listen while we’re told a better story, because the good news is better than that. The good news is that love wins (191).