Monday, September 25, 2017

Sermon: "The Runaway Bunny and God's Grace", Psalm 139:1-12/Luke 15:1-7, 11-19 (September 24, 2017)



We read about Jesus’ teaching in parables all over the gospels. He does it so frequently that they’re some of the most beloved and well-known stories in the Bible. Unlike other parts of scripture, we aren’t expected to believe that these events actually happened, but this lack of historicity doesn’t take away from their value as scripture. In fact, a lot of their value lies in their being universally understandable and relatable to anyone who hears them. They depend on their audience being able to mentally put themselves into the story.

Children’s books sometimes work the same way. Not all, of course, but plenty. Although they might include fantastic and imaginative elements (like, say, an anthropomorphized bunny and his mother), their effectiveness as literature relies on the reader having personal buy-in to the characters and situations that they find themselves in. Through their relatability, they’re a vehicle for learning through entertainment.

Personally, I think The Runaway Bunny does this brilliantly. Interestingly, it’s relatable on a couple of different levels, which makes it extra fun to read as an adult. On the one hand, many of us have had the childhood experience of being so fed up with parental tyranny that we just wanted to get away from it all, right? Do you remember those days? When the oppression of your chores or the requirement of eating your vegetables was just too much to bear, so you packed up your most prized possessions (which, depending on when you grew up, might have been your favorite stuffed animal, a snack of questionable nutritional value, or a video game) and defiantly marched out the front door? Whether your destination was your best friend’s house, a playhouse in the backyard, or the McDonalds down the street, the motivation was the same: your parents just didn’t get it and it wasn’t fair.

We’ve all been there, to some extent. Even if you never actually got to the “running away” part, we’ve all experienced the frustration of an adult—or anyone else, really—thwarting our desire to live our life the way we want to live it. We get it, baby bunny! All you wanted to do was be the boss of your own destiny! Even though the book doesn’t say WHY he wanted to run away, we can extrapolate based on our own experiences, our own desires and impulses when we were in his shoes, that from his perspective, there probably didn’t seem to be any other choice for him. Poor little guy.

But at the same time that we can relate to the little bunny, as adults we’re also able to understand the motivations of the mama bunny. It’s kind of like when you watch your favorite movie from when you were a teenager and suddenly find yourself rooting for the beleaguered parent struggling to enforce a reasonable curfew. Somewhere along the line, you realized that parents aren’t a deliberately oppressive force bent on keeping their children miserable. Most parents are just trying to keep their children safe and happy, using the knowledge that they’ve gleaned from their years of life experience. With age comes, if not wisdom, then at least perspective. And most often, they do it not out of spite, but out of love.

The way I see it, the key to learning from this story most fully is to consider BOTH perspectives. If we can’t recognize the motivations and reasoning of the mama bunny, then we can’t understand why the actions of the little bunny are problematic. But if we don’t remember what it’s like to be the little bunny, then we can’t understand why his choices are a result of his nature as a child, and why he’s at the mercy of his own bad impulses. We need both of these insights to begin to see why the mama bunny forgives and pursues him anyway.

I think this is why Jesus spoke in parables so often: it freed his audience to imagine another side of the equation that they might otherwise struggle to see. The scribes and the Pharisees definitely seemed to have trouble with this kind of “big picture” thinking. I mean, if anyone knew about sin, they did—they devoted their lives to studying the scripture and enforcing its laws, so they knew what sort of treatment sinners deserve, and it certainly wasn’t an invitation to dinner! But they were forgetting (or perhaps less generously, ignoring) the fact that God is a god of relationship and connectedness, not cold, unfeeling punishment. God’s motivations are different than they expected. Those laws that they clung to so unforgivingly were given by God out of love for humanity: to guide us, to teach us, and to protect us. God doesn’t demand obedience because of a divine power trip, but for our own sake. And that reality holds true even when we childishly choose to turn away from God.

So, according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees not one, not two, but three parables to try and help them understand. The first one, we read today in full: the parable of the lost sheep. “Who among you,” asks Jesus, forcing the naysayers to place themselves in the equation, “wouldn’t leave ninety-nine sheep to go after one that is lost?”…Surely, the sheep deserves to be eaten by a predator for its disobedience. Surely, the shepherd ought to let it go so that it can learn its lesson. Serves that sheep right. But no—that’s not how it works. Shepherds don’t cut their losses and blame it on the sheep. They pursue the lost sheep until it’s found, and then they celebrate its return. The sheep may not deserve it, but that’s the nature of the relationship between a sheep and its shepherd.

Later on, Jesus tells the familiar story of the Prodigal Son. In this parable, we get a glimpse of the other side of the equation. We’re all familiar with the story: the younger son asks for his inheritance early, then runs away and squanders the money on extravagant living. It’s easy for us to disparage this prodigal, wasteful son, to see him as the scribes and Pharisees would have seen him: a sinner who deserves whatever he gets. But he just wants to live his life on his own terms, right? He wants the chance to make his own choices, just like the little bunny. If we’re not careful, we forget that WE’VE been the son before, too. Odds are decent that neither you nor I have squandered an entire inheritance, but this isn’t a direct parallel; it’s a metaphor for our relationship with God. And we’re all guilty of the running away part.

Remember, sin isn’t “being a terrible person”. Sin is turning away from God: what God wants for us, what God dreams for us, what God plans for us. And the beautiful, incredible, terrifying thing is that God doesn’t stop us from running away. Shepherd God doesn’t lock the sheep up so they can’t wander. Father God doesn’t refuse his son his inheritance. Mama bunny God doesn’t ground her son to keep him at home. God lets us wander. God lets us make our own choices, even though God knows that they’re terrible choices. But whenever we finally decide to repent and return to God, God welcomes us with open arms.

That’s Grace.

In last Spring’s confirmation class, I mentioned several times how Grace is one of the weirdest and most confusing concepts in Christianity. Grace is the free and unmerited favor and mercy of God. Free and unmerited. It’s not based on how well we follow the rules or how strong our faith is. It has nothing to do with being well-behaved and obedient. It’s mercy and forgiveness and love and kindness, all given without question to those who have done absolutely nothing to earn it. Completely and utterly nonsensical. Unless…you understand the nature of the relationship between the giver and the recipient. Unless you understand where you and God fit in to the picture.

And what happens when we reject this gift? When we turn away from it, scorning the one who gives it? Does the offer expire? Does it wither and die without a grateful recipient?

Of course not. One of the defining characteristics of Grace is that it pursues us relentlessly. You won’t find this definition in the dictionary, but it’s a part of its very nature. Grace knows us intimately, as a parent knows a child. And a part of us recognizes this fact. “Where can I go from your spirit?” asks the psalmist, “or where can I flee from your presence? If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me…” Put another way: “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me, I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are,” says mama bunny God. No matter how far or long we run, God is there, offering the gift of Grace and giving us the opportunity to turn back. If you don’t buy it based on Psalm 139, consider a god who takes on flesh simply to be with us. Or who submits to the pain and humiliation of the cross to follow us even unto death. God’s pursuit is intense, powerful, and real.

But Grace is greater still than even that. God will pursue us relentlessly; it’s true. But once God catches up to us, then the true work of reconciliation begins. God doesn’t leave us where God finds us, but draws us home again. When the little bunny tries to become a sailboat, the mama becomes the wind to blow him where she wants him to go—home. Jesus’ shepherd lovingly lays the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries him home. God leads the psalmist out of Sheol with God’s own hand. Yes, returning to God is our choice and our decision—and it must be—but God makes the path as clear and simple as it could possibly be and walks every step of the way with us. Even before we take the first step, even before we’ve thought of turning back, God is already guiding us home.

But of course, none of this makes any difference unless we do make that choice. Remember that runaway bunny? His mother gave him every opportunity and encouragement and reason to come home to her, but in the end, it was his decision. God’s forgiveness and Grace is there for us at every turn, but we must choose to accept it. God makes it easy, but we make it happen.

So if God wants nothing more than to celebrate our homecoming, why do we make it hard for God? We’ve seen the perspective of the mama bunny, the shepherd, the father. We know that, despite our desire for spiritual autonomy, the best thing for us is to trust the one who has our best interests at heart and understands more than we ever could. We know that hiding is futile and, frankly, immature. So why don’t we just stop? There’s no shame waiting for us. Only mercy, love, and forgiveness. Only Grace. Only home.

We don’t need to make the whole journey in one day. Once we make the decision to turn back, we may find that we’ve wandered further that we realized. God’s not asking for us to sprint home. Just that we take the first step. Just that we stop running and stop hiding. Just that we trust in the Grace that we know is there, has been there the whole time.

Here I am, God. Here WE are. We’re tired and we don’t want to run anymore. We want to come home. We’re ready. Lead on. Amen.

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