Our Inner Third Grader

The text for this sermon is Luke 15:11-32.

There is an inner third grader in all of us that shouts not fair, when it feels like we have been wronged.  Waiting patiently on I270 for my chance to turn onto I70 and someone cuts in at the last minute in front of me. Hey, not fair! Starving myself to lose weight, lunching with a friend, and watching as they eat a greasy burger with fries, while talking with their mouth full telling me how they wish they could gain weight. Hey, not fair! Running with one of my closest friends who always runs a just few feet ahead of me, letting me know with every step that he is holding back because I am so much slower than him, and looking forward to the run that particular morning because he had just had a heart incident and hadn’t run in a while, and thinking today I am going to run a few feet ahead of him, only to have him still run a few feet ahead of me, even out of shape and with a bad heart. Hey, not fair! You can see, I think about this stuff a lot.

Why? Why does stuff like that bug me? Why does stuff like that bug us? Sometimes, it is righteous anger. That guy sliding in front of me on I270 is the reason there is a back up there in the first place. He causes me to jam my brakes, which causes the next guy, and the next guy. Yet, on the other hand what has been my real harm? A few extra minutes, tops? Is that worth me getting angry, especially since my anger doesn’t change the attitude  of the guy cutting everyone off.

Sometimes, my sense of fairness is sinfully inward focused. I have another friend who is very thin, who has shared some of the rude things that people have said to her about her weight. I knew a parishioner who couldn’t seem to get pregnant and her thinness might have been one of the issues. Being thin is a real thing. My friend after facing his own mortality at 48 needed that victory over me that day. Sometimes, empathy for others can and should quiet my inner third grader shouting not fair.  

And sometimes, we all need simply to praise God that life’s not fair and that neither you nor me receive what we deserve. If we are honest, everyone here can be thankful that they have not had to face the consequences for all their actions. Blind luck has kept me from getting into some serious trouble for dumb decisions I have made. Whereas the police didn’t know about that thing me and my friends did to innocent mailboxes when I was 17, God did. And yet we are assured God has chosen to forgive us just because that’s what God does. God’s promise of grace is God’s decision to not hold us accountable for our bad decisions that have hurt us and our world.

Jesus told this story of two sons for the good, religious people that surrounded him that day to hear. They were having trouble accepting the gifts of grace, for undeserving people in their mind, that Jesus was offering. It is instructive that subsequent religious people in the church have called this story, the Prodigal Son. This title puts the focus on the son who causes all of the problems, wishes his father were dead, wastes the family fortune, shamelessly comes crawling back, only to be greeted with a party rather than the stern, tough love lecture he deserved, “You made your bed now sleep in it.” He is an undeserving recipient of grace if there ever was one.

The father’s response to the other son, the one who looks like a good, religious person, seems to be the focus of Jesus’ story, though. The father tells him, “You have always had my love and will always have my love., but this son, whom I love too, was lost and now he is found. I can’t tell you how exciting that is for me. My love for him does not deplete my love for you.” The point of Jesus’ story seems to be that God’s love is not scarce but abundant. If God chooses to be forgiving to undeserving people, it will not harm in any way God’s love for others who have convinced themselves they are deserving. This is a story meant to quiet the inner third grader of the good religious people of Jesus’ day and our day, too.   

The inner third grader within our churches believes that God is just and that means everyone pays for their sins. That only seems fair. We read the story that a convicted rapist and murderer professes a jailhouse conversion and we grunt in disapproval. We think to ourselves, you can believe what you want but God will give you what you deserve after what you did. Yet, a God who gives any of us what we deserve isn’t the God we worship on Sunday morning. Our inner third grader is wrong. God is just, but God’s justice is joyfully full of pardons rather than convictions.

The inner third grader within us makes lists of sins, ranking them them in order of harm to the world, from the grisly to the petty. We even have debates among ourselves over which is sin is worse in the eyes of God. It is almost as if we believe each of us is running a tab here on earth that will have to be settled by our God the accountant before we enter heaven. The reality is that God finds pain in each of our sins, because each does harm to what God loves, ourselves, our neighbor or our world. Yet, if God is an accountant, he is the worst sort, because he promises to clear all of the debts our sins have caused. Bringing unfairly to zero balance both the most sinful and the least sinful among us.   

God’s love is not fair, but it is generous and abundant. So when our brother or sister receives the good gift of God’s forgiveness, let us rejoice in their good fortune confident that God’s generous love will make us whole, too. God is not an accountant, or a third grade teacher. God is simply our creator, who loves each of us passionately, now and forever. Amen

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