A PRODIGAL CHURCH
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
Sunday, March 31, 2019 – Lent 4
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The 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. A 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So 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. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.’”
I have a friend who hates this story. He hates it because he was always a good son. He was the one who stayed close to his parents and did what they needed as they aged. Meanwhile, his brother was off cavorting and partying and spending time in prison and generally breaking his parents’ hearts. My friend saw, up close and personal, the pain that his brother caused. And so, when he reads this story, what he sees is the unfairness of it all. And it pushes his buttons. And he hates it.
I was a little taken aback when he first told me this. But the more I think about it, the more I think that his reaction to this story is more appropriate than most. This parable of Jesus is not supposed to be sweet. It’s meant to provoke us – like it provokes my friend.
This story is introduced with these words: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to (Jesus). And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." And that introduction tells us exactly who Jesus is trying to provoke with this tale: the religious establishment; in our day the church.
Once upon a time, Jesus said, there was a man who had two sons. The younger son, more than a little spoiled, wanted his share of the inheritance before his father died. This was a shocking request. Since money was never distributed before a death, it was like walking right up to his father, staring him in the eye, and saying: “Drop dead, old man.”
So that was painful, but so was this: the young man also had no regard for the larger community that would have been adversely affected by the parceling and sale of the land. You see large farms were the basis of ancient economies. To divide them was to weaken them and thus weaken the economy.
Additionally, “the sale (of the land) itself was a shameful thing”from a religious point of view, because the land was seen as God’s gift to a family. And that land was to be preserved from one generation to the next because God had given it to them. To sell it was to turn your nose up at the gift of God; to turn back on the covenant.
But even if none of that was true, it’s still hard to like the younger son. His misfortune was his own fault. He took his money and ran to a distant country, where he spent it on drugs and booze and parties and sex. And then, when it was all gone, all wasted, a severe famine caused the collapse of the economy. The only job he could get was slopping the hogs – about as low as a good Jewish boy could go. But it got worse. He was so hungry that the pig slop started to look pretty good. And so there he was, a once rich young man, down in the trough with the swine. And then, and only then, was he sorry for all the pain he had caused.
Desperation makes all of us inventive. And so, the young man began to think of home and all the comforts he’d left behind. He knew that his father’s servants lived way better than this. And so, he swallowed his pride and put his tail between his legs and set out on his journey home, determined to live as a hired hand on the estate he once helped to rule.
While he was still far away, his father saw him coming, which makes me wonder if the old man didn’t sit in a tower all day scanning the horizon, hoping against hope that his son would come home.
And then Jesus said a very strange thing. Jesus said that the father ran out to meet the son. And at that, the crowd gasped because now Jesus was messing with gender roles. The social norms of the day would have required the father to maintain his dignity, no matter what. The father would never leave the house to meet any child, let alone a wayward one. Instead, the father would stay put and force the son to humble himself by coming in to see the father. Scholars suggest that running out to meet the son was actually something a mother would do – but never a father.
When the father reached his son, he embraced and kissed him, despite the god-awful smell and the ritual uncleanness of having been with pigs. The son started to apologize, but it was as if the father couldn’t or didn’t want to hear him. Instead, talking over him, he ordered the servants: “Bring out the best robe we have and put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And kill the fatted calf and let’s have a party. For my son, who was as good as dead to me, has come back to life.”
Not that’s a lovely ending, except, of course, that it’s not the end. The older brother came in from yet another hard day of work, after a lifetime of hard days of work, saw the party and was immediately filled with a sense of having been wronged. He had never left home. He had always worked hard. He had never broken his father’s heart. And his no-good brother waltzes back into the family’s life as if nothing had ever happened. “It’s not fair”, the older son complained bitterly. And he’s right. It’s not. But it is compassionate. And it is mercifulAnd when we are choosing for ourselves, which would we rather have when we’ve made a mess of things?
Some people have suggested that this parable should actually be called “The Prodigal Father” because, if you think about it, the father was just as extravagant and wasteful as his son. He poured out his love as if there is no end to it. And if the father is supposed to represent God, which is the traditional interpretation, then there is a lot of comfort in the notion of a God who is extravagant with mercy, love and compassion – precisely when we don’t deserve it.
But while we say the father figure is supposed to represent God, Jesus never said that. Jesus’s parables are purposefully ambiguous so that we can draw our own conclusions. Theologian Margaret Aymer writes that the father figure could also be interpreted as the church. She says that because remember that Jesus told this story in reaction to the religious authorities who wanted to keep a tight control on how Jesus did his ministry. And if the father in this story is a representation of the church, then notice where this extravagant love is actually poured out upon the wayward son. It’s not in the house of the father, where he was in control. It’s in the street. Which makes me wonder, why we imagine that the most important things we do happen inside the fortress of this building? What would it look like if we ran to meet the world instead of waiting for the world to come into our house?
Consider this: On Ash Wednesday this year, more than 270 people drove through Church Drive to receive the mark of their mortality and a prayer of blessing. More than 270. Some of them wept. Many of them thanked us profusely. -- That evening, about 50 of us gathered in this sanctuary for worship. 270 outside the building, 50 inside the building. What does that say? And if we can take ashes out of the church and literally into the street; if we can, like the father in the parable, run out to meet people where they actually are – then what else can we do out there?
Well, here’s some of what we’re thinking: on Palm Sunday there will be a donkey named Star out on the Green. And there will be a big media push to let the children of Cheshire know that. Our Palm Sunday liturgy will not start in here, but out there, on Route 10, with a donkey and a robed choir and vested ministers and palm branches and music and proclamation and children and all of you. We will take our liturgy out on the street.
Or consider this: we’re working on an event called “The Blessing of the Backpacks,” an interfaith gathering on the Green to bless all of the children of this town as they go back to school next fall. At the same time, we’ll be collecting new backpacks for school kids in next-door Waterbury. That too is church on the streets. But why should we stop there? Would it be too much, too risky, too improper to offer people communion on the streets or in their cars? Or prayers for healing? Or a blessing for people’s pets? Or outdoor summer worship? Or a town-wide picnic?
I don’t say any of this naturally because I’m a church nerd and I love what we do in this room. But what I love more is meeting people where they actually are. More than a proper church, I want a Prodigal Church, running into the world with wasteful gifts of love and mercy and understanding and justice.
http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds_embracing_love_2019, accessed on March 25, 2019