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How NOT to raise a family!

Lent 4 Common Lectionary Year C

Luke 15:11-32

©2013 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file

Sometimes a story this familiar doesn’t need to be preached, so much as experienced. When it’s Lent, the temptation is to encourage us all to delve into the hidden or forgotten recesses of our inner teenager, to remember our own prodigal moments,  and to realize that we are all “sinners against heaven and one another,”  in need of forgiveness, of reconciliation. You’ve probably heard that sermon, and been nourished by it. It’s a good one. You’ve probably also heard the sermon about the ‘older brother’ syndrome too, the one when we admit how often we relate most closely to that hard-working killjoy who measures out the portions of grace exactly, to the last millimetre.

But sometimes, we preachers get smacked in the eyes with the obvious we’ve missed over how many years of reading the too-familiar text. While your pew bible tells you with its helpful bold face heading that the story is about the prodigal child, Jesus says otherwise. He says it’s a story about “ a man who had two sons.” And he says, “ it’s a story.”

I’ll get to the meat of the story in a moment, but let’s stall for a second on the ‘story’ bit.

We need to try our best to put out of our heads the notion that Jesus was a moralizer; he was a story teller, and a fine one at that, innovative, edgy, and often hilarious, capable of spinning a yarn that will linger  and upend your head or heart  long after he’s left town.   We need to also try to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Jesus was more pious or holy, serene or mystical than your sainted grandmother. Remember how we find him this morning? A bunch of the religious elite, the theologians, clergy and women’s guild hierarchy are tutting on the  church porch because Jesus is on the wrong side of the tracks, hanging out with the pot-smoking bored teenagers in the Couche-Tard back alley, having a late wine with the mafia wannabes at Buona Notte. And the reason he tells this story – about a man with two sons – is because  of those who are tutting on the porch.   This story – as Jesus tells it – is the quintessence of ridiculous, edgy, over the top satire, about  God whose nature and whose name is Grace! If last week’s sermon was about grace beyond our knowing, this one is about Grace beyond belief!

Look at the “god-figure” in this story Jesus tells. Really look. He’s a wealthy landowner  – so far so good, kind of what you’d expect from the Bible about God. Now, before you’ve had chance to settle in your seats,  Jesus bumps you out of them; the God-father takes his farm, this world he has fashioned, and owned and tended,  and he gives it away, in the blink of an eye, to his offspring, his children, his loved ones  -  both of them (we miss that too often, don’t we?) He gave money to the youngster who asked, and he gave the farm to the older one who didn’t ask but got it anyway.

We don’t fully realize how dumb this was. To give away a livelihood in that culture is to is to give life itself away,  (a biblical theme if ever there was one) The father renders himself redundant, jobless, landless, moneyless, life-less. To give away the farm, the money, to let the kids do whatever they want with it…. will you do that for Ava when she’s 9, Andre? You might start off an RESP, but you’re not going to give her the farm are you? Too many of us here know what it’s like to have a prodigal child (or to have been one) to think it wise to trust a child with that sort of reckless generosity.

…..But, …. oh  right, this isn’t  a moral tale, teaching us how to be good, forgiving parents, or  how to be responsible, honorable children, it’s about God. And it’s a story.

But if it’s about God, why doesn’t this father go charging off on the next camel- train to the far off land to drag his lost son back home to safety? Why does that kid have to be reduced to eating pig dirt? Isn’t God supposed to take charge and rescue the fallen? And, while we’re at it… what?…

But Jesus’  story marches right past our questions. Over the far horizon, the ‘good as dead’ prodigal is sighted. Thin as a rake, hunch shouldered…

(but let’s not get distracted by her/him, Jesus’ story isn’t about her, it’s about the Dad.)

What would we porch dwellers, we morally upright folk, we, doing our best to be good parents , want to see this Dad do now? Maybe we want to be a bit like him, and find that space in our heart for the genuine relief and delight  and love we see in this God-parent when the prodigal  appears on the far horizon. We feel the itch in our own bones to rush up the hill to wrap our arms about the lost one found, the dead one raised.   But don’t we also expect of God, and of ourselves, some form of reckoning?  Some measured, dispassionate justice designed to educate and rebuild the broken trust?

But this is Jesus’ story, not ours. Yet again, the  “parable for parents” is replaced by the  utterly ridiculous. With rings and fine clothes, wine and the choicest meat, Jesus’ God-parent throws a party the likes of which this little world hasn’t seen since the little tyke was first born!

God is less like a parent than the wild aunt, the sassy gran, the outrageous uncle whom good parents dread with their reckless disregard for sober order. God, in Jesus’ story, has come to the crazy conclusion, watch us world-weary ones, that for grace to be grace, it must be a party. Where, with our Lenten habits, we expect God’s grace to be all about repentance, judgment, penance, and then forgiveness, Jesus tells us we’ve got it all back to front.

We have to rewind to catch the moment of grace, because we probably missed it.  “While he was still a long way off,  the father saw him, and had compassion, and ran to him and hugged and kissed him.”

No standing on the porch here to see if the sinner son or daughter is ready to repent. No warning fingers wagged in admonition or judgment. Just a wild, undignified, arms out wide running towards with a hug and a kiss for the lost-now-found one. So we now suspect that forgiveness, grace, happened long before the kid stopped eating acorns, and probably, if we can see back that far, long before God gave away the farm.

Grace, for God is knowing  fine well that we’re all prodigals, all lost, all as good as dead, but we’re all the ones God is waiting for, with a fatted-calf blow-out party of welcome and homecoming.

“This is my story” Jesus says to the ones on the porch, and here’s your invitation. Will you come in and  join  God’s party?

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