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Executive Minister of Grace

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

May 18, 2019

Message at the Installation of Rev. David Gregg as the new Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of Chicago

It’s quite an honor to be introduced as someone from San Francisco suggesting that I represent the Bay Area of over 7 million people. And it’s very audacious of us to be here today to install the new Executive Minister of ABC of Chicago, the third largest city in the US. You may not like to think about this, David but you are now forever associated as one of the auspicious leaders of the great city of Chicago along with your new city mayor!

On your new business card and stationary, you are connected to this fine city of Chicago: bigger than life, standing taller than others, having moral and ethical integrity among your colleagues. Today, perhaps more than ever, we need leaders who have a moral compass, the ability to charge toward a direction that leads toward justice, reconciliation and inclusion.

Prodigal Son’s Father

When most preachers preach on Luke 15 about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we often dwell on the waywardness of the younger son and emphasize how while we may have also sinned, God will forgive us and welcome us back. It’s a perspective that we like to hear because we all can identify with “I have sinned against heaven and before you.”

Sometimes we preach this parable from the point of view of the older brother and focus on the times when we have been orderly and obedient but still need to be welcoming of those who have sinned. When we come across as holier than thou, we can also seek forgiveness from the father.

But I think that preaching this story from the perspectives of the two sons is too familiar and maybe not courageous enough. Today I would like to preach this passage from the perspective of the father.

The parable is as much about the father’s grace as it is about his two sons. Grace lies at the heart of this parable—scandalous grace, grace that defies all earthly rules and conventions. Identifying too closely with the younger son, we risk neglecting the central point of the story: the extraordinary love of the father, who runs out to greet his child. Like the shepherd searching for the lost sheep or the woman rummaging for her misplaced coin, the father doesn’t wait but runs out toward his son. He is taking action to show grace.

I have been researching and organizing our family history as one who bridges ancestors from China and our grandchildren, descendants who are now the third generation born in the US. My grandfather was like the prodigal son who had to leave China in order to earn a living to survive. Being the last of four sons of the second wife, all the land property of my Great Grandfather was distributed to his two older sons of his first wife. Like the Prodigal, I learned that my grandfather failed miserably and came home with only a small restaurant knife as a token of working in the US. But his father still graciously welcomed him home.

Fortunately for my sake, my father was more successful only because of the First Baptist Church of Boston. After my father returned home serving in the US Army in WWII, First Baptist started a Chinese Sunday School that taught my father English by reading the Bible. The church helped my father sponsor my mother and older brother to emigrate from China to the US in 1947. If it weren’t for First Baptist, I literally would not be born!

It was the gracious welcome of First Baptist, Boston that established Boston as our new home. The pastors and Sunday school teachers welcome us and we became Americans. The proper Bostonian people at First Baptist went out of their way to settle and welcome foreigners from a strange land so that I now root for the Red Sox and the Patriots.

Reconciliation

All of us have experienced brokenness and many here may still be dealing with situations that are in search for reconciliation. We often find it difficult to forgive and to move on with life.

The shameful actions of the younger son toward his father fractured family solidarity when he demanded his inheritance before his father’s death, which is an insult to the father. Squandering his wealth, humiliating himself by working for Gentiles as a swineherd, and eating food given to unclean animals, the younger son brought shame to his father and family.

Usually a father who had been shamed by actions of his son would have disowned that son. But this did not happen. The father was waiting for his son’s return. When he caught sight of his son, he ran out to meet him—something a Palestinian Jewish father would never have done. The father gave his son a kiss, the gifts of a robe and ring, the banquet—all these things were out of character for someone who has been publicly shamed by a son.

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While the banquet was going on, the elder son comes into the story. He was consumed by jealousy and resentment. Just as the father reached out to his younger brother who was lost, so too did the father reach out to the elder son, who was in danger of becoming just as lost as his brother was lost. The father abandoned his guests, which is a breach of etiquette, in order to persuade his older son to rejoice at his brother’s return. At this point the parable ends. We do not know if the elder son came to accept his father’s response to his younger brother’s return.

But what we do know is that it was the father who brought reconciliation in his family. The reconciliation between the father and the younger son did not occur because of what the son did, but because of what the father did. The father’s behavior—his dealing with the shame of having been treated so disrespectfully by his son—made it possible for reconciliation to occur.

The only person who stood outside the circle of reconciliation was the elder son. The elder son’s behavior was another humiliation for the father. Sons owed their fathers loyalty and obedience. The father chose to take on the shame heaped on him by the elder brother, just as he did for the younger brother. The father willingly took the stance of pleading with his elder son—a major humiliation for a father in this patriarchal society.

The elder son thinking to himself that since he was the obedient one, he should have more privileges than his prodigal brother. But the father said to the elder son, “I am the father of not just one son but to both of my sons.”

Serving with Grace

As the Regional Executive Minister of ABC Chicago, David, you function as the Executive Minister of Grace.

Probably as a rebellious youth in your adolescence, you most likely identified with the prodigal son. When you faithfully pastored churches and taught at seminaries, you were reliable and discipline like the elder son and accomplish all of the tasks and work expected of you. But today you are now in the role of the father in this parable. Would you serve as the Executive Minister of Grace for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago?

For the people who may have questioned and challenged you about your new position, when you catch sight of them, would you run out to them and meet them to re-establish trust and communication?

For the churches that may not be interested in your vision and plans, would you recognize them nevertheless by affirming them like how the father placed a robe and put a ring on his younger son?

For all those churches that have been historic and long-time members of the ABC of Chicago, would you challenge them to become more welcoming and more innovative to new ways like how the father pleaded to his elder son to expand his horizon?

Jesus was telling this parable to the Pharisees and scribes and indicating that the lost son represents all sinners and those who have yet known God to go out and reach them. As the Executive Minister of Grace, would you not discriminate from those who are high heeled and those who are bare-footed to all come to the banquet?

As the Executive Minister of Grace, would you welcome, associate and eat with those who are sinners?

Six days ago was my birthday. In the Chinese tradition, it’s the person having the birthday is the one who plans a banquet to invite family and friends to come and celebrate. And then at the banquet, the person whose birthday it is gives out red envelopes called, “lisee” with money in them to all of the guests and especially to the children.

Imagine us doing this together. Instead of just celebrating one birthday a year, I may guess that if all of us listed our birthdays, we may easily cover all 365 days in the year. We would be celebrating a birthday everyday. We would be having a banquet feast everyday. Imagine what it would be like if we welcome more and more people into this fellowship! When we focus out toward others rather than toward ourselves only, we could create a more inclusive, righteous and loving world.

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The Realm of God is like a birthday party everyday. You and I, he and she, we and they, all come back to God, and God celebrates a return of all of us.

The father in this parable who should be mad at his young son, out of his grace and love, reconciles with him and throws him a party. When the father in this parable who should be disappointed in his older son being resentful and jealous of his brother, out of his grace and love, he does not berate his older son or defends the younger brother but shifts attention away from both of his sons. The father turns attention to his own love and abundance. There is plenty to go around, he says in so many words. No one will run short—“all that is mine is yours.”

The father says this is not your younger brother’s party so much as it is my party, the party that I throw for many. The father is inviting those who are near and far. The father is working for them and ready to celebrate with them before they even think of responding to him and giving anything back.

David, as the Executive Minister of Grace, we invite you to keep on throwing parties, banquets, and gatherings like today because it is God and God’s life-giving love and mercy that have now been bestowed upon you. God is challenging you to act as God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love to find everyone and to call them all back home.

It doesn’t mean less there is for the rest of us, it means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. More people in the great metropolitan City of Chicago will come together to party.

Loving Grace

In 1 Corinthians 13, the familiar chapter that is often read at weddings because it speaks of love, we often skip over verse 12. In this verse, it reads, “For now we see a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Things happening in the churches are confusing and there are no easy answers to church decline. The City of Chicago is trying its best to stop violence and corruption and you feel powerless to bring about reforms. Your job is really impossible to do but everyone knows that someone has to do it. We only see our situation dimly. We only see a part of the reality. But in 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul is telling us that inasmuch as God fully knows us already, we will eventually also know fully.

It is when we love as the father loved his two sons is when we will fully know what we are called to do.

For those churches and pastors who have lost the sheep, are you ready to love them and help them find the new sheep who have moved into their neighborhoods and are seeking for a shepherd?

For those people who have lost their coin spent on materialism and wastefulness in our consumer-driven society, are you ready to love them and teach them that the true meaning of life is not found in the things of this world but in Christ Jesus?

For those who have lost their sons and daughters from violence, poverty, hate and racism and pessimism, are you ready to love them and give them a word of hope and that God created everyone of us in God’s own image making us special in God’s own eyes?

As the new Executive Minister of Grace, we pray that your parties and banquets and gatherings will get bigger and more inclusive and more fun because on God’s behalf in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, you are now the Executive Minister of Grace!

Let us pray.

God of grace and God of glory, we are blessed to be in the presence of your faithful people and to witness your humble and gifted servant, David Gregg to serve as the new Regional Executive Minister of Metro Chicago. Bless David with a heart for caring, sight for seeing miracles, ears to hear the cries of the people, and the will to hope for the things that will bring growth and joy in ministry. Lead him to be the Executive Minister of Grace in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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