Holy Wisdom Community, Madison, WI: March 31, 2019 Luke 15: 1-3. 11-32
A Wonderful Story (Except for the Party)
I’m grateful to you for the invitation to preach in this beautiful space. Since you follow the lectionary cycle as we do in the Lutheran church, people in congregations across the country will hear this overly familiar story of the prodigal son. My seminary preaching professor said this text has been preached from every angle – except, perhaps, “The Abandoned Swine!” To be more relevant I tried to find some connection between this text and the release of the Mueller report, but nothing seemed to work. So we’re left with Jesus’ parable itself.
It would be a wonderful story, except for the party.
The party ruins everything, at least, for some of us. We’re still standing outside with the older brother. His resentment becomes our own. What was the good of staying home, working hard, tending the flocks or crops or whatever it was he tended all those years — or whatever it is we have tended while others went merrily on their way? Jesus, you can tell a wonderful story, but you should have stopped sooner.
We would have loved the story, except for the party.
We’re not callous people. We’re moved to see the father running out to meet his younger son. “While he was yet far off,” the father ran to meet his son. He didn’t wait for the boy to come groveling back. He didn’t remind his son how disrespectful it was to ask for his share of the inheritance BEFORE his father died. We don’t know if the son was honestly repenting – or if he was just desperate. While he was still far off, the father went running to meet him. He didn’t even let the boy finish his confession—though the young man had rehearsed his lines over and over on the pigs. His father stops him just after the word “son”—before he has a chance to tell his father to treat him like one of the servants. We were genuinely happy at the moment of that embrace.
What do you bring to that scene? Maybe the night you took the car without asking and slammed into a pickup truck while you were lighting a cigarette that you said you never smoked. Nearly totaled the car. The police called your house at two in the morning and you rehearsed what you were going to say a hundred times but when your dad and mom came running into the station and saw you, they wrapped you in their arms and let you cry like you did when you were four. And you forgot your lines.
Some of you brought other memories to that moment…because your father wasn’t there. You longed for him to come running to meet you but he never did. Not even to this day. Or maybe it was your mother who wasn’t there for you. Will God run out to meet you just as you are without waiting for explanations? For this is a more than a story about how to raise your children or how to deal with the misuse of inheritance money. This story points beyond the road, beyond the human characters to give us a picture of God’s welcome for us. If your own father or mother failed to run out to you on the road, Jesus says that God is running out to meet you now before you’ve rehearsed your lines.
But what if we haven’t been lost? My friend Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor in Denver. She has the seasons of the church year tattooed on one arm, Mary Magdane on the other. Nadia is audaciously honest about being lost. Estranged from her conservative religious parents, she left the church behind and went to a far country, lost for years in the deadly grip of drugs and alcohol, lost in harming herself. She paints the story graphically with a few swear words thrown in. Then, by the grace of God, she was found – found by a Lutheran church in Oakland, California and a pastor who accepted her just as she was. One day at a time she has put her life back together. After seminary she founded a church in Denver called House for All Sinners and Saints. Now she’s a sought-after speaker and author. Her latest book is Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. She reaches people who have never been inside a church.
I want a story like that. I don’t mean I want to be addicted or estranged from my family. But how can I know I’ve been found if I haven’t been lost? I don’t mean that I’ve never had doubts or that I’ve never been angry at the church of my birth. But I’ve never run away to a far country. “Amazing Grace” isn’t my song. “I once was lost but now I’m found” sticks in my throat. How can I believe God is running out to meet me on the road if I haven’t been to the far country?
That’s why Jesus didn’t stop after the younger son returned home. Jesus’ parable isn’t only for runaways. The parable began this way: “There was a man who had two sons.” Not only that, but Jesus framed this whole chapter with these words:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus.
And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives
sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable…
Actually he told three parables: a shepherd searching for one lost sheep out of a hundred; a woman frantic to find one lost coin out of ten. Both are about seeking the lost. It’s as though Jesus is working up to this final parable and he couldn’t start with this one.
Jesus wants everyone who is there to listen — tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, scribes, those of us who feel too sinful to ever come home and those of us who don’t have a dramatic story about being lost. Without the older brother, this would be a parable about God’s love for the tax collectors and sinners. But passionate as he is about those outsiders, Jesus also loves the Pharisees and scribes. He spends a lot of time with them. He eats in their homes.
So in the midst of the party with the dancers swirling, with food on the table and everyone having a great time, the father stops dancing. I wonder if the mother – so absent in this story – asks him, ”Where’s our other son?” Once more, the father goes out of the house. He had to find his older son, the one who was there day after day, the one who never left for a far country, the one who wasn’t lost. The son’s words are poignant: “I’ve never disobeyed you in all those years; yet you never even gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back…” This son of yours – I’m not even related to him! Who can blame him for feeling the way he does? It’s not fair! I agree with him – it’s not fair. The father has more to say. “All that is mine is yours.” Can the older brother hear his father? “All that is mine is yours.” That’s true. But there is more. “We had to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life…” This brother of yours — I will not let you forget: you have a brother.
Did Jesus miss you entirely – neither lost nor found, but somewhere in between? Then write yourself into the story. Just be sure to remember this:
God’s grace offends fairness.
There could be no party without the older brother.
No party without you.
Barbara K. Lundblad