Wednesday, March 17, 2010

No Attaboys? - A Sermon

I learned a new word last week. It’s “Boastamonial.”

A Boastamonial is a the story that a speaker tells to an auditorium full of teenagers about how their life was so messed up that nobody could imagine. Sex, drugs, alcohol… They were on a one-way ticket to hell until – you guessed it – they found Jesus.

These stories used to be called testimonials, but my friend – a protestant pastor who’s been to quite a few of these – said that over time they all either sounded the same or sounded like they were trying to one-up each other. “Nobody was worse than me – No, I was the worse sinner, totally lost…” The farther down they went, the more excited the crowd gets, you see.

Boastamonials have been around for a long time. Remember the apostle Paul? “I am the chief among sinners.” They have power because you don’t know if a life can always be saved, so it’s good to hear that they can be.

Then my friend said something else. He said, “I’m really glad for these folks because they turned their lives around and seem happy, but then I look at my youth group kids and I think, I don’t want these kids to have to go through this stuff. I just want them to grow up with a strong faith and a quiet life. Even if it means never getting to stand up in front of an adoring audience.”

That’s the catch, isn’t it? The ones who live self-damaging lives get the attention, especially if they turn things around. And everyone else? We’re the audience.

It’s like that shepherd with his sheep: One sheep wanders off, gets itself lost, possibly injured, open game for the wolves – and the shepherd leaves everyone else alone to go search for it. Now the other sheep get to watch the shepherd rejoice when that dumb sheep is found. I’m not sure what emotions sheep feel, but I can’t imagine they’re all that excited by the slacker.

But if you go to the story of the son who left home – we call it the prodigal son – we see something going on that might strike close to home. We see the prodigal son – the younger son who is rude, he takes all his inheritance and wastes it on illicit living, then comes to his senses and comes home. It’s a boastamonial. He gets to tell his adoring father how bad he was, then the father gets to rejoice over his being saved.

So, why is the older son so ticked off? Why isn’t he part of that adoring crowd?

Perhaps because he’s asking that very legitimate question: Why does someone who does everything wrong get all the attention, and those of us who always do everything right don’t even get an “attaboy.” You know what attaboys are, don’t you. That pat on the back people get at the office for coming up with a new idea or a cost-saving plan. When you do something good.

What the older son is asking is, “Why doesn’t good behavior get rewarded?”

Why indeed?

Of course, you might also ask, why does it matter? Why do we live a “good” life? Why do most of us labor away in the fields like the older brother? Is it for attention? Is it for the reward of the party and adoration? Is it so everyone around us will say, “Oh, he’s so great!”?

Maybe a little. And to be fair, it’s nice to receive a little acknowledgement of doing a good job once in awhile. But if you want the angels to stand up and rejoice, well, living a quietly faithful life isn’t the way to do it.

When the father goes to the older son and implores him to join the party, he says, “Listen, your reward is that you’ve been with me all along.

“Attaboys” aren’t necessary because you know I love you. You’ve always known it. This younger brother of yours – he didn’t. He went through much of his life not knowing what it was like to be loved – not because the love wasn’t there but because he couldn’t see it. Now he can. And for this little moment in time, we’ll rejoice.

Celebration means marking a change in life – usually to something better. We don’t celebrate when it remains the same. We just live. And to be honest, just living is plenty.

Most of us may at most get the occasional “Attaboy,” but we’re not going to get adoring crowds praising how we brought ourselves back from the brink. How we were “saved.” That’s okay. Because to live quietly in the house of God knowing God’s love for us is joy and peace all by itself. All we have to do is open our eyes and see what we’ve got. Amen.