Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
This morning, we are delving deeper into one of my favorite texts in the Bible, the parable of the prodigal son, or as some translations read, the “occasions for celebration.” Because this text is so beloved and familiar, sometimes it is important to come at it from a different angle to attempt to find something new. That’s one of the amazing things about scripture– no matter how familiar we can be with a text, the spirit can lead us to look at text in new ways each time. If you are a visual person, and would like to engage the scripture lesson actively during the sermon, please feel free to color the front of your bulletin using the crayons on tables as you listen as sometimes that can help us experience scripture in a different way. Listen to how raw and filled with emotion the text is. Today, I invite us to think about who this parable for? Which character do I find myself relating to most?
Perhaps the text is so emotional because we have all felt intense joy, experienced failure, grieved for something that was lost, felt jealousy or misery, and have longed for home. In his poem, “Portrait in Nightshade and Delayed Translation,” C. Dale Young, writes about a day at the art gallery which continues to haunt him. Though he describes himself as a stoic, he was moved to unexplained tears in front of Rembrandt’s, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” The portrait depicts the prodigal being embraced by his forgiving father, whose hands reach to embrace him. Young writes, “What nerve agent did Rembrandt hide within the dark shades of paint that he used? What inside me had malfunctioned, had left me kneeling and sobbing in a museum?” As he wept a museum guard placed a hand on his shoulder saying, “Just cry, just cry, and free yourself.” The poet confessed he had no idea what brought on such rare emotion. The poet and perhaps all of us, still hasn’t figured out wherever or not he was the lost son or the found. Perhaps the text evokes so much emotion for us because so much is left open ended. What did the lost son do after the party? Did the lost son still scandalously disrespect his loving father? Did the older son actually go into the party? Did the two brothers ever reconcile? What would the older brother say to the brother who was lost if and when they finally spoke? Perhaps through clenched fists unable to receive or give grace, the brother said something like……..
Brother, if I’m honest, I may never understand you. Don’t you realize how scandalous it was when you asked our father for your share of the inheritance? You basically were telling him, I wish you were dead so I can go ahead and take my share? He should have disowned you then. Brother, why was our family not good enough for you? Do you have any idea how many tears our Father cried for you? I thought the workers were joking when they told me you had come home. As you came home, dad ran to meet you. By running he brought shame upon himself because as you well know, those with authority do not run in our culture. He fell on your neck as if you are superior to him. Brother, I think it should have been the other way around. By falling at your neck, Dad automatically placed himself at LOWER status than you! As if all this welcoming wasn’t enough, Dad gave you our signet ring! You had already squandered away everything and he was going to give you more? He gave you his shoes and made you master of the house? I can’t believe the nerve you have to even show up back home again after what you did! Are you really sorry or just hungry and needing a place to crash? And what was with your canned, planned confession? Don’t you know that is exactly what Pharaoh said when he wanted Moses to ask God to stop the plagues? Are you even sorry, brother?
Yet after all the shame you brought to our family, Dad still came out told me he killed the fatted calf tonight and to stick around for the party? A fatted calf? Enough to fed one hundred guests? If you ask me, our father wasted grace and a perfectly good fatted calf! Maybe I’m jealous, I never got a party. I deserved one because I’ve been here day after day working in the fields taking care of our land and taking care of our father, religiously living a good life, while you were miles away squandering your inheritance. Brother, I may never understand you.
Perhaps we can relate. We can feel angry like the older brother or jealous. But in standing outside, the older brother was keeping himself from the party, he was separating himself from his family and his father’s grace. The picture on the front of bulletin shows the older brother standing in the distance. All the extravagant gifts, the ring, shoes, fatted calf, best drinks, could all have been his, too, any time he asked for them except that he never thought to ask for anything because he was too busy trying cheerlessly to show his worth and religiously to earn the gifts and grace that his father would have given him freely. He got caught up in his own self-righteousness.
In her article, “Enough about the Older Brother” Emily Heath observes:
“The reality is that both brothers live inside of us, the responsible one and the prodigal one. It is an uneasy coexistence made worse by the reality that neither is perfect, and that both make real mistakes. The dutiful brother’s lack of compassion and grace when his brother returns is indeed worth our attention. But he’s not the only one. Of all the places in our life, church should be the one place where we can all admit that we are sometimes the other brother, too. Even when others admire the highlight reels of our lives, each of us knows that there is a lot sitting back there on the cutting room floor. We need a place where we can say that, and hear it from others too. In Lent we get to be real with God and one another. We get to be honest about the fact that we sometimes disappoint God. The good news is that we also get to hear the truth: God is waiting to come running down the road and welcome us back. Dutiful son, prodigal son, or a little bit of both…God knows us already, and God can’t wait for us to come home.”
To put it another way, God is not content with a party that has empty seats and both sons have a place at God’s table. Jesus doesn’t just eat with sinners, he runs down the road to meet, hugs them fiercely, redeems them, and throws a party. Even while there are some who may refuse to come in and be among sinners and tax collectors, the grace of God remains all-encompassing and reaches out hoping to reconcile all back to right relationship with God. God’s dancing feet keep wandering past the fence posts out into the fields to meet us there. Friends, God runs to meet us where we are. Turns out, God’s grace is a “portable party” that doesn’t like to be constrained to the boundaries we create—- and friends, the grace of God is exactly what we all need, exactly what saves us, and there is plenty to go around!
So, on a personal level, let’s ask ourselves a few questions. What is keeping you from joining the party? What do you need God’s spirit to help you cultivate? You should have some sticky notes on your table. I’d invite us to consider for ourselves the question: what do you need God’s help to let go of, and write our answers on sticky notes.
What do you need to let go of in order to join the party? What do you need to leave at the cross in order to reconcile your relationship with God and your relationships with your neighbors? Like the brothers in parable, do you need to let go of selfishness? Of hoarding grace? Of keeping score or jealousy? The fear of not having enough love from God to go around? Of competitiveness or anger? Or is something else entirely keeping you from fully trusting in God’s grace? For me, I let my excessive worrying get in the way. I fear not being good enough or I fear and worry about the future. I need to let go of the need to be perfect. If you are like me, you may need multiple sticky notes, so I encourage you to use what is needed. If deeply personal, you can write, “God knows.”
A little later in the service we will sing, “Change my Heart, Oh God,” during the song, I’d encourage a representative from each table take your table’s sticky notes and leave them on cross. I invite you now to spend a few moments pondering. What are we carrying that prevents us from fully celebrating God’s grace? Friends, what do you need to let go of? Amen.