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God is willing to spend until there is nothing left, says Kannwischer

The Rev. Richard Kannwischer delivers his sermon “What I Got Wrong About Faith” Sunday in the Amphitheater.
Dave Munch / photo editor
The Rev. Richard Kannwischer delivers his sermon “What I Got Wrong About Faith” Sunday in the Amphitheater.

“I used to think that faith was the intellectual assent to certain propositions, but faith is about trust, about trust in something and in someone,” said the Rev. Richard Kannwischer at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater.

The title of his sermon was “What I Got Wrong About God,” and the topic was “because I believe in the Father Almighty, I will receive my adoption and inheritance.” The scripture reading was Luke 15:11-32. 

Kannwischer is using the Apostle’s Creed as a framework for the things he got wrong. About the creed, he asked the congregation, “If we say things together in worship, do we really believe what we say? We are not talking about just the idea of God, but: Do we really trust God the Father?”

In making a case for using the word “father” to talk about God, Kannwischer noted that Jesus used the word “abba,” meaning father or papa, over 100 times. “If we tried to remove all those references, we would have really lost something,” he said. 

When he was a pastor in Newport Beach, California, Kannwischer would often run on the boardwalk and onto the pier at the beach. There were messages written on the steps as he went up from the boardwalk to the pier.

The messages said No Skating, No Jumping, No Dogs, No Smoking, No Bicycles, No Vehicles Over 3 Tons. 

“I thought about bringing my three-ton, cigar-smoking dog,” said Kannwischer. “All I could see was no, no, no, don’t, don’t don’t, stop, stop, stop.”

He continued, “Is this how people feel when they come to church, when they think about God? No, don’t, stop?” 

A comedian once said that all religions are “guilt with different holidays.” Kannwischer noted that in contrast one of his mentors said, “God is the happiest being in the universe. Do you think of God as happy?”

In the text from Luke, usually called the story of the prodigal son, Kannwischer said that the story has no real end. Does the older brother go into the party?

“In this story, we have an irresponsible younger brother and a resentful older brother. We have a self-righteous older brother and an irreverent younger brother,” Kannwischer said. “But they both got it wrong; they both feel like slaves.”

The older brother asked his father why he was not worthy of a goat to enjoy with his friends. The younger brother felt he was not worthy of the father’s blessing after he wasted his father’s resources. They both felt like slaves living in the abundance of their father.

Kenneth Bailey, Presbyterian Biblical scholar who lived for many years in the Middle East, would go out to Bedouin communities and read stories from the Bible to them. 

“Bailey would note where they laughed or where they found mistakes,” Kannwischer said. “Bailey noted that the father splitting his property was a mistake, because he was splitting his life; he was offering his life to his sons.”

The phrase “you are dead to me” came from a ritual whereby the person who lost property to a Gentile was considered dead to the community, Kannwischer said. The one who lost the property could be killed or stoned.

“No wonder the father said ‘Get a robe — quickly, and get a party ready,’ ” Kannwischer continued. “If the father did not do this, the son would be killed. This act is a means of salvation.” The father runs to his son — something a man in his position would never do.

Presbyterian minister Tim Keller wrote that God is prodigal not because God has gone away, but because God is “recklessly spendthrift. It means to spend until you have nothing left.” 

“That is who God is; God empties himself for us,” Kannwischer said. 

Kannwischer’s best friend, Drew, asked him to preside at his wedding, the first time Kannwischer would have done so for a friend. About three months before the wedding, Drew called to say he had to uninvite Kannwischer. Drew’s fiance, Laura, belonged to a denomination that did not allow guests to officiate.

Kannwischer said he could just do a prayer and offered to call the minister of the congregation. Drew said no, because the pastor could not be assured of Kannwischer’s orthodoxy.

“If you want to get me mad, tell me what I can’t do,” Kannwischer said. “I had these brilliant conversations in my head where I devastated the man with my arguments. When I arrived I was not my best self, very condescending.”

He was asked to say the prayer before the meal but as he stood, the other pastor stood and beat Kannwischer to the microphone. The other pastor said, “Lord, I am a simple man. You love us and your love spills over in this place and this couple. All this food is from you. It is such a gift; I am grateful.”

Kannwischer went into the hallway, ashamed. “I was at my best friend’s wedding and I was missing it because of my ego and my pride. There was a party going on — was I going to go in?”

He continued, “One of the most common metaphors for heaven Jesus used was that heaven is like a feast. I was missing the Kingdom of God party. Are you missing it?”

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, told a story about a couple from the United States who adopted an orphan girl named Addie from Haiti. When the family returned to the States, there was a party at the house with more food than Addie had ever seen,

When the mother noticed that Addie was looking scared, she took the little girl to the kitchen pantry and opened the door to show Addie the abundance. The mother said, “You will never be hungry again. You are our daughter and all we have is yours. Let’s celebrate.” And they went back to the party.

Kannwischer said, “I got it wrong. It is not no, don’t, and stop. At the heart is a heavenly Father, by whose adoption and inheritance provides a great party that can’t be stopped. Are you joining in?”

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided. The Rev. Mary Lee Talbot, Ph.D., read the scripture. Owen Reyda, 2024 organ scholar, played the prelude, “Andante tranquillo” from Sonata No. 3, by Felix Mendelssohn, on the Massey Memorial Organ. The Motet Choir sang “The King of love my Shepherd is,” music by Edward C. Bairstow and text from Psalm 23, paraphrase by Henry Williams Baker. The choir was under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and Reyda provided accompaniment on the Massey Organ. The postlude was “Allegro assai vivace,” from Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 1, played by Stafford on the Massey Organ. Support for this week’s services and chaplaincy are provided by The Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy and the Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy.

Tags : Georgiamorning worshipPeachtree Presbyterian ChurchreligionRichard KannwischerWhat I Got Wrong About God
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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.

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