Summit Presbyterian Church
March 14, 2009
Luke 15: 1-32
I'll be reading a bit more than the lesson printed in the bulletin, which is the parable know as the Parable Son. I'll be reading all of chapter 15 and invite you to think about it as one long parable with three examples: I'll call it the parable of three parties. . . . .
Three parties, all celebrating the finding and return of something that's been lost: a disoriented sheep brought back to the comfort of the flock. A much needed coin that fell between the cushions, found. A prodigal son, homesick and hungry, is back. Friends and neighbors, family and slaves, are called together to rejoice, just like the angels in heaven. When the son returned, there was even music, dancing and a fatted calf. But there was also someone who declined the invitation. The older brother was angry: he was the good son, he stayed at home, he worked hard and obeyed his father, but he was never even given a young goat to celebrate with his friends, or so he said. How come his disobedient, lazy brother got a party? Was this a reward for bad behavior or did his father just love the younger brother more? The brother that had lost half the property and was now coming back. Oh, no, the older son wasn't going to celebrate the return of that irresponsible sibling who had a hold on his father's heartstrings and maybe still his pocketbook. So the older son refused to go in.
In the other two parties we don't hear about anyone declining their invitation, but I'll bet some folks did. (I'm playing now . . ) Like the woman's neighbor who only had five coins. She'd find something better to do than rejoice with that woman who had more coins than she did. Or the woman's sister in law who always kept her house neat and clean; she didn't have to spend time searching for lost coins, they were always in their place. Why encourage the bad behavior of her messy and disorganized -in-law by going to the party? Or the man with 50 sheep who hoped the lost sheep of his neighbor would wander into his pasture -- he didn't want to celebrate it's return. Or the neighbor who had 150 sheep who never got lost because he did his job and kept his eye on them. That careless neighbor first lost one and then left the 99 to fend for themselves -- it's a wonder they didn't all take off. A perfect example of declining standards in animal husbandry. Go to his party? No thank you. He would go mend his fence.
In Caroline Knapp's memoir of her struggle with alcohol called Drinking: a Love Story, she talks about being at her sister's wedding when she was still drinking heavily. "I hated weddings," she says. "I hated birth announcements, and I hated reading chipper little entries about my peers in the "class notes" section of my college alumni bulletin, and I quietly loathed people who got job promotions or bought new houses or relocated to swell new cities. Events like that were irrefutable pieces of evidence to me, indications, that all around me people were getting on with their lives, while I seemed to stand still, immobile. My sister's wedding, of course, was a particularly striking indication. . . . . Traditionally, there were two routes to approval in my family: you went to medical school . . . or you got married. In the course of a week my sister - my twin - had done both and I felt like she was sailing across the finish line before I'd even made it out of the gate." Caroline Knapp couldn't refuse the invitation to her sister's wedding, but she wasn't going to rejoice.
Refusing an invitation -- most of us have done it at some point or another and not just because we're shy, or tired. We've all stayed home from a party, angry that there even was one, grumpy if we had to go. We don't always want to rejoice in the blessings, or achievements, or the homecoming, of others. If we're like the older brother (and as a first born who became a pastor you know who I identify with), we may feel that rejoicing in the return of a reckless sibling mocks our obedience, our efforts to do the right thing, to be always responsible. If we're struggling financially, or if we sacrifice to live within our means, we may feel that the restored fortune of a neighbor is unfair, that we're the deserving ones, not them. Or, when we're the prodigal, like Caroline Knapp, we may resent celebrating the blessings and joys of the "good" sister or the obedient brother. There are many understandable reasons to be a party refusenik. Those scribes and pharisees speak for most of us, at some time or another, when they ask why Jesus has dinner parties for tax collectors and sinners.
And underneath party refusal is often a fear: a fear that the return of a long-lost brother means less love for us. A fear that more money or more sheep or more health insurance for a neighbor -- even when they don't have much - will mean less money or less sheep or less healthcare or less security for us. A fear that life is a race, with a start and a finish, and that if someone else gets ahead it means we'll lose. How can we rejoice in someone being found, if it means that we'll suffer loss?
When the older brother refused to come in, the father went out - like he went out to the younger brother - and pleaded with him. After hearing his older son's complaint, he offered this reassurance: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." My love for you is so deep, the father is saying, that everything I have also belongs to you. There will always be enough: enough food, enough money, enough love. "You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."
Those are words for us, too. And if we can believe that, if we can trust that in God there is no yours or mine, that God does not withhold, that there's truly enough, we'll have more joy in our lives. We'll be able to rejoice when a wayward brother or sister returns, because we won't be worried about being consigned to the basement. We'll be able to rejoice in more for others, because we won't assume that means less for us. Now, trusting in God's abundance doesn't mean we can burn all the coal or drill all the oil we want. It doesn't mean there are no limits to this earth and we can continue to throw-away stuff and pollute without thinking: after all, the son's dissolute living came to an end. The woman kept track of her coins, the man cared for each of his sheep. It doesn't mean we have to rejoice in the granting of Wall Street bonuses, because trusting in God's abundance means that many - including us - have to stop grasping for more than we need. It means opening our hearts and our hearts.
But if we can trust in God's abundance, our life will be filled with rejoicing. Not just for blessings that come our way, but for the blessings that come to others: not just for new life that we know, but for new life and hope for others. "But," says the father, "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." Let's except the invitation to that party, and to the many others that God offers us.