A sermon preached on March 14th, 2010, the 4th Sunday in Lent, based upon 2Corinthians 5:16 – 21 and Luke 15:1 – 3, 11b – 32.
Six years ago or so, we hosted a “30 Hour Famine” at the church for the youth group, in which our teenagers would fast from Friday noon to Saturday dinner, staying at the church overnight. They received pledges for the hours they fasted, with the money going to World Vision to help the hungry of the world. The idea was to do some good while at the same time raising consciousness about the plight of the hungry of the world.
At the last minute we had several high school students from beyond our youth group sign on to be a part of the Famine. I was quite pleased with this until I caught wind of the fact that the newcomers saw the famine as an easy way to get credit for thirty hours of community service. The high school academy required a certain quota of community service hours, and the students figured that by participating in a sleepover with friends they could meet their quota. When I said there was no way I was going to sign off on 30 hours of community service, I had a parent calling me up to complain.
Here I thought the kids were motivated to help the hungry of the world, and I find out they were out to pad their resumes. I was kind of disillusioned. I shouldn’t have been though. We live in a resume-driven society. I remember going to back-to-school night when Kate was in High School and listening to her English teacher go on and on about how the focus of the class was to prepare the kids to do well on the achievement tests that were required with college applications. It was clear to me that the teacher assumed this was what we the parents wanted to hear – that our focus was on getting our kids in the best possible colleges. I was actually hoping to hear the teacher say something to the effect that her goal was to have the students catch hold of a passion for literature and the communication of great ideas. Instead I heard about the importance of scoring high on the language arts achievement tests.
As I thought about this, however, I realized that I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. I myself learned in school how to pad my Grade Point Average — how to read with an eye for what would show up on tests, skipping over the stuff that wasn’t likely to impact my grade. I avoided classes that had a reputation for being tough to pull an A in. It wasn’t so much learning I was after as a padded resume that could get me into a divinity school with which I could impress people.
There is this lie we embrace that says that it is image and appearance that matters – that if we can successfully manipulate how others perceive us, well, we’re successes. Once we embrace this lie, it’s easy to lose track of the difference between appearance and reality, and that’s terribly unfortunate. We can’t really be whole until we begin to reconcile the image we present to the world with the reality of who we are inside.
The gulf between the two affects every part of our lives. For instance, I am convinced that one of the reasons that marriages so often fail is that oftentimes — particularly when we are young and don’t know better — we look at marriage partners as another form of resume padding. We emphasize things like physical appearance, charm, wealth and power in a potential mate when we should be looking for someone we can truly love and be loved by, for richer and for poorer, for sickness and in health.
In the background of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is a conflict he’s experiencing from afar with so-called “superlative apostles,” who, interestingly enough, have “letters of recommendation” to boast their resume. Apparently they’ve been attacking Paul’s pedigree. This morning’s epistle lesson begins with Paul saying that as a result of their encounter with Christ, “From now on… we regard no one from a human point of view…”, which is to see people from the point of view of image and appearance in a resume-driven society. Paul acknowledges that once upon a time he viewed Jesus precisely this way. He had no title, to degrees, no ordination. He was — from the point of view of a resume-obsessed society — a nobody. But Paul came to know Jesus as the real deal.
The Gospel lesson this morning begins with the Pharisees murmuring about the fact that Jesus dines with “tax-collectors and sinners.” The Pharisees are very self-conscious about their pedigree, and it offends them that Jesus has no concern for the bashing his image is taking in their eyes as a result of the poor company he keeps.
In response Jesus tells three parables, the last of which is the story of the father with two sons. The elder son has done a bang-up job of building his resume. He’s got an impeccable reputation; probably graduated from Yale Law School suma cum laude.
In contrast, the younger son reaches a point where he concludes it’s useless to compete with his always outstanding brother. He figures he might as well go have some fun, and so he demands his share of the inheritance, breaking his father’s heart. He heads off for the far country where he undergoes a big time crash and burn, in the process pretty well shredding whatever was left of his image.
At this point he decides to head home, hoping for nothing more than the life of a hired servant – a roof over his head and three square meals a day. He is astonished to discover that his father has been longing for his return, greeting him with a bear hug and a big-time homecoming party.
The party doesn’t sit well with the older brother, however. He’s been working his butt off his whole life crafting his image and padding his resume and the smell of the fatted calf roasting over the charcoal implies that it’s all been misguided somehow. Inside his heart there is foul-smelling puss – bitterness and resentment and only God knows what else – all this stuff that doesn’t jive with the image of success he’s worked so hard to create.
So it’s strange. The younger son with the wretched past has a bright future because of the discovery of the depth of his Father’s love. Oddly, it took a crash and burn for him to come to this realization. In contrast, the elder brother with his impeccable past ponders a wretched future lived outside of the big party. To go into the party all he needs to do is let go of his golden calf of a resume, but his attachment to it is standing in the way.
“If anyone is in Christ,” sings Paul, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” In the kingdom of God, what we are becoming is more important than what we’ve been. This can be an unsettling discovery if we’ve devoted our life to building a resume out of our past.
But the irreconcilable gulf between our outer image and what we sense is inside our heart of hearts can only be overcome by the discovery of an unconditional love holding us, come what may.
I successfully manipulated my image until I was 31. In the public eye, I had done everything commendably. Then my marriage fell apart, and a divorce was added to my “pastor’s resume.” It was simultaneously the worst thing and the best thing. With the crumbling of my impeccable resume I discovered amazing grace and the freedom to be human. Knowing myself to be just another one of the sinners with whom Jesus chooses to dine, I was ready to begin the life work I share with all other Christians — being ambassadors on His behalf to other poor sinners just like ourselves.