Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Jesus tells a parable about a son who ponders his father’s love only after he has spurned it. The grace he receives is beyond his hopes. That same grace is a crisis for an older brother who believes it is his obedience that has earned his place in the father’s home.
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”
There is much to celebrate and be joyful about right now. Even in the midst of dark times, as parts of our world are at war – as COVID still is a concern, as every congregation everywhere, at least in the US, grapples with low attendance and low giving. Perhaps joy is a matter of perspective and priority. Like the father in the parable, compared to the elder son, one focused on the joy of the homecoming, the other on the fairness of it all.
This congregation has so much to celebrate. You are situated in an amazing borough with leadership and vision and where people truly desire to take care of one another. And you have the privilege to feed people, to offer sustenance, physically and spiritually. And people come and eat. You can rejoice in that.
Rejoice in young people who show up and committed, older adults who love them. Rejoice in a music program and a director of music who truly cares about not just the notes on the page but what the music can do for you – and what the holy spirit works through words and melody.
Rejoice in a council of committed members who bring a variety of perspectives and positions who are dedicated to working together.
Rejoice in your email newsletter and website that are first rate, created and developed by people whose ministry is communicating and expressing faith through words and graphics.
Rejoice in a beautiful church building – spiritually uplifting and comforting and welcoming to everyone. With details and technology some churches only dream of.
Rejoice in the uncommon small congregational position of having money in investments, bequests, and funds. You have the joyful responsibility of getting to decide how to spend and save and share your money, as opposed to having no options.
Rejoice in the homecoming of members who haven’t been to worship in some time. Rejoice in the possibility of in person fellowship and fun after a season of no food, no fellowship, and no seeing the bottom half of peoples faces.
But like the elder son – There’s always something to be disgruntled about. Something lacking. Always something frustrating. As an eldest child myself, I could always see it from his perspective. Unappreciated. Left to do the work yourself. Responsible for everything with little reward. I know what it means to feel like your efforts aren’t responded to. To put yourself out there and have a program fall flap. To be busy busy busy, but with the same people, doing the same work, for years…. I have lived through seasons like that.
I know of very few people who easily identify with the younger brother. Perhaps because we are less likely to see ourselves as a selfish screw-up unless we’ve done something literally as dramatic as the younger brother did. But those who do – they are the ones who truly see the meaning of unmerited grace and forgiveness.
Now as a parent, I perhaps more easily see all the sides. Not only the joy of the parent, but the joy of the son who had been forgiven, welcomed, clothed, and celebrated. He wrecked the relationship with the family. He did some things that you should not do, and he spent the money he should not have spent. He made bad choices, thinking only of himself, and did a lot of soul searching in the pig pen.
But the father, the good and loving parent, was he sad about these things? Was he mad about these things? Did he have feelings about the way that his son treated the whole situation? I’ll bet he did – but I also know that the feeling of having someone back who you thought was lost forever probably is bigger and better.
His father and his brother could have easily run him off. His brother was ready to. But the father was wise enough and loving enough to understand that the relationship means more than all of that. And that the finding what was missing and lost is more important than the details about how the lostness happened. The grace and forgiveness is more important to your perspective than the fairness and the fatted calf.
Our gospel reading skips over two tiny parables Jesus shares – about rejoicing over lost things. These parables set up an introduction for the prodigal son. Jesus teaches – 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Which one of you would do this? None of you. That’s the answer. No one is going to risk the 99 for the 1. No one is going to throw a party for having found one coin – likely spending on snacks and refreshments more than that found coin was even worth. But that’s how extravagant God is with his desire and joy.
But the coin did not roll its way back to the owner begging to be allowed back in the change purse. The sheep did not come to the shepherd groveling and baaing asking to be considered part of the flock again. And yet, the coin and the sheep are treated as beloved – and to have them back is the best feeling in the world. God is actively seeking out those who are separated from him. Or at least those who act like or feel like they are separated from him.
Only then does Jesus switch to a parable about forgiveness and someone lost who returned repentant. God’s response is the Father’s response – rejoice with me. Celebrate with me. Look at this from my perspective. Look at the remarkable thing that has happened. Of course you are invited to it.
God invites us into that joy. Teaches us over and over how to change or at least broaden our perspective. To repent and turn to him – To celebrate with those who are celebrating. To forgive – or at least welcome and eat with those who have hurt us. This is the ministry of reconciliation that Paul tells the church in Corinth about. This grace. This forgiveness. This perspective. That we can be free to treat anyone and everyone as God would treat them – a beloved child. “18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
What a risky move God has made…. God invites you to the party. Invites you to share that perspective. Restores the relationship. Whether you’re the older brother or the younger, whether you are a lost sheep or a black sheep. Whether you’re a penny on the floor or you’re carrying sizable wallet. God invites you to the party – where there is enough food, clothes, grace and forgiveness to go around, and it is lavished upon us in abundance.
This story is always called the prodigal son, the son who is wastefully extravagant, spending resources freely. But it’s really about a prodigal God. About a God who loves and forgives so freely that it makes people uncomfortable and angry. Who is extravagant and nearly wasteful with grace – welcoming home sinners with great celebrations and over the top parties.