What is a radical life? I think our culture defines it one way and our churches another way, and I think they both have it wrong,” said the Rev. Skye Jethani at the 9:15 a.m. Friday morning worship service on Aug. 3 in the Amphitheater.
His sermon title was “God Does Not Need You,” and the Scripture text was Luke 15:11-32, the story of the Prodigal Son.
Jethani said that a woman came to see him after reading the book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt. Platt’s argument is that the church is a captive of American consumer culture.
“Pastor,” she said, “I agree with his critique, but how radically do I have to live? I am a middle-aged mom with a house, a minivan and three kids in private school.”
There are two sons in the story of the Prodigal Son.
“The younger son is what we call a chachball (superficial),” Jethani said.
The son told his father to drop dead. He did not care about him and just wanted his father’s money.
“He was not interested in a relationship with his father,” Jethani said. “He just wanted his father to bankroll his desires. In our culture, someone who is in relentless pursuit of their own desires and won’t let anything get in the way is considered radical.”
Most Christians are taught that this is a story of repentance, Jethani said. However, Jethani is “not convinced.”
“Why did the younger son go home? Did he want to be reconciled to his father?” Jethani said. “He may have been humbled, but he was looking for a handout — a job and a place to live.”
When the father saw his son, he was filled with compassion.
“He ran out to meet him, which was scandalous for a first-century Jewish father,” Jethani said.
The father embraced his son and brushed off his apology.
“But the son did not actually want his father, much the way many of us don’t actually want God,” Jethani said. “We want God to fix things, but we are not interested in the Heavenly Father.”
When the older brother came in from the fields and heard about the party for his brother, he threw himself a pity party. As his father came out to talk to him, the older brother lashed out at the father.
It was a “big deal” to throw a party like this one, Jethani said. Everyone in the region was invited, and it was a public acknowledgement of the value of the person.
The older brother wanted to know when he was going to be publicly acknowledged for his work.
“He was not interested in his father, either,” Jethani said. “He wanted the acclaim for the hard work he had done. It was a more acceptable way to get public praise, but he was still out for what he could get.”
The current definition of a radical life in some Christian communities is “What can I do for God to achieve his purpose in the world?” Jethani said.
“If I pour my life out and do enough and stop being self-centered, then I will win acclaim,” he said.
Jethani told the congregation that people should be seeking justice and “doing good.”
He referenced Tim Keller, a pastor who said, “An idol is a good thing that we make into an ultimate thing.”
The work of God is not the ultimate thing.
“God can accomplish his work through anyone or anything at any time,” Jethani said. “Think of Balaam’s ass.”
If our choice is activism versus consumerism, then we have missed Jesus’ message he said.
Jethani meets with a group of Wheaton College students on Sunday nights. One Sunday, they wanted to talk about “habitual sin.”
“In the midst of sin, how does God view you?” he asked the students.
The first woman was raised by missionary parents overseas, and she gushed about all the wonderful and amazing things they were accomplishing.
“Now that I am a student here, I wonder how God is going to use me the way God has used my parents,” she said.
The second student, a young man, quoted Scripture that to whom much is given, much is expected.
“I don’t want God to be disappointed in me because I have been given much,” he said.
Everyone in the group shared that they thought God was disappointed in them for not accomplishing enough. They had all grown up in Christian homes and in churches that taught the Scriptures and the Gospel.
“I thought it was remarkable that after 18, 20 or 22 years in Christian communities, they had no internal reality that ‘in the midst of sin, God loves me,’ ” Jethani said.
The students viewed their value in direct proportion to how much they had changed the world, how much God had used them.
Consumerism and activism both miss the point. When the father in Luke’s story speaks to the older son, he tells him what mattered most was not the acknowledgement of his obedience.
“You have been with me always, that is what matters most,” the father said. “And what matters most is that my son is back, and he is with me.”
“This story is a glimpse into God’s heart; what matters to God is your presence,” Jethani said. “He sent Jesus to reconcile us so we can be called children of God. Not ‘from God’ or ‘for God,’ but ‘with God.’”
God does not need you — God wants you, he said. When we internalize this, it changes everything.
“A radical life is truly rooted in deep, unending communication with God, even for a middle-aged mom,” Jethani said. “We are not called to some place or some thing. We are called to someone.”
The congregation stood and applauded.
The Rev. Carmen Perry presided. The Rev. Carolyn Stow, pastor of Kidder Memorial United Methodist Church in Jamestown, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir sang “If Ye Love Me” by Frank Ferko under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music. The Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Geraldine M. and Frank E McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund provided support for this week’s services.