220403 – War of the Worlds – Prodigals

Yr C ~ Lent 5 ~ Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

This is the fifth sermon in a Lenten series called War of the Worlds. We’ve been looking at the culture clash and conflict that happens when the ‘ways of the world’ – which are marked by self-indulgence, self-importance, and self-obsession – collide with the ‘way of the Kingdom of God’ – which is grounded in love of God and love of other. I’ve called it ‘me, me, me’ vs ‘us, us, us’. And we’ve looked at it from a number of angles.

Interestingly, or perhaps tragically, over the centuries as we’ve tried to articulate what this Kingdom of God is like in contrast to the ‘ways of the world’ Christians have tended to get it, well, wrong. A lot. Our problem, our challenge, is that as we begin to describe God we have to rely on our own language and experience, both of which fall terribly short of being able to really frame the staggering awesomeness of God well. How do you describe the indescribable?
So instead of words and definitions we turn to stories and parables that paint pictures. Stories have the power to help us imagine things better – and there’s probably no better known story in the bible than that of the prodigals. Notice I didn’t call it the prodigal son. Although, I might have called it the prodigal sons, plural. More about that in a few minutes.

I know I’ve preached on it here a couple of times, so some of you may have heard some of this before, but I’m hoping it’ll still surprise you, and maybe even offend you. And if it doesn’t then I’m not doing my job – because it is actually a profoundly shocking story. That’s what parables always are – if you’re reading them right! They’re thought bombs, and they’re designed to explode your brain!

It’s actually three stories – about two brothers and their parent – and they’re all pretty shocking! The younger turns away from the family, squanders the inheritance, makes bad choices, falls on hard times, becomes humble, and returns. The shocking parts are that the parent didn’t really have to give the inheritance but did, and that the kid ended up slopping pigs, which for a Jew was shameful, unclean, a tremendous indignity.
So the kid goes home fully expecting, and frankly deserving, to be treated as nothing more than a servant. At least there’d be food! The response was shocking.

“While he was still a long way off,” the parent came running out, wouldn’t even listen to the kid’s apology, and welcomed the kid home without hesitation. It’s almost like the parent had been waiting with open arms the whole time.

What does this say about the character or nature of “the parent?”

Instead of punishment, or a reduction in status, or even a period of getting back in the good books, the parent throws a lavish party for the wayward child – the prodigal. It’s shocking! I’m not sure that’s how I’d react if this was actually happening to me. How about you?

What does this say about the character or nature of “the parent?”

Enter the sulking older sibling – sees the party, learns it’s for the returned prodigal, and goes off in a huff. This is the dutiful child who stayed home and took care of things while the other one goofed off. Most of us probably relate to this older child. We’re the ones who follow the rules and do the right thing.

Are you ready for the shocking part? This child is a prodigal too!
Are you ready for another shocking part? The parent again comes running out and begs the older child to come in and share in the party.

What does this say about the character or nature of “the parent?”

Now, I’m sure we have some sympathy for the older sibling. Because we’re the dutiful ones we want to be rewarded and honoured for being good. On one level the older kid has a case. “I’ve produced like society says I’m supposed to. Where’s my reward?”

Is it any wonder we get theology wrong so often? On the surface the older sib looks like the one who’s hard done by. That’s our automatic reaction. But that’s also the way of the world. “Where’s my reward? I earned it.”

The parent though is on a whole other level.
The parent says, “But you’ve been with me all the time!”
And we go, “Huh?! That’s the reward?”
Yeah! It is!

What the parent didn’t say, and what the preacher gets to fill in is the longer, unpublished version of the parent’s speech…
“You’ve been with me all the time but you were too preoccupied with your own supposed goodness that you never really noticed I was gushing love on you the whole time. I’ve been ready to lavish love on you every minute of every day – you’ve been a prodigal – you’ve wasted the opportunity – you’ve ignored my Presence!”

What does this say about the character or nature of “the parent?”

At every stage the parent – God – utterly surprises us – mostly because the parent doesn’t react the way we probably would. The picture Jesus is painting of the love of God – which is obviously what the parent in the parable embodies – is a love that is unlike and far beyond any measure of love that we humans can seem to muster (at least on a sustained basis).

And perhaps the really shocking part of all this is that after grappling with this parable for 2000 years we still insist on limiting the love of God to our sense of what people deserve based on their actions – because it’s hard for us to be disentangled from the ‘ways of the world’.

The younger sibling “deserved” judgment – and got unconditional love and welcome.
The older sibling thought they “deserved” reward for good deeds – and got an eye-opening dose of unconditional love that revealed the silliness of thinking we’re able to earn something we already have in spades.
The overarching message is this: God doesn’t give us what we think we deserve – thank God! Instead, God just loves and loves and loves.
That’s shocking!
It’s shockingly wonderful!

So what can we learn from this? How can this help us?
Why does Jesus paint such a shocking picture of God’s indescribable, unfathomable, unconditional love?
I think it’s so we can hold it in our imaginations and embrace it as our touchstone.

No matter who you are or what you do – whether you think you’re a good person or a bad person – the love of God remains unchanged toward you. This has been called a ‘scandal of grace’. God works on a different paradigm than the way of the world. God’s economy is not based in reward and punishment – it’s based on love, love, love. And God’s love is not reserved just for the ‘good’ people. God loves all, without prejudice. This offends our sensibilities deeply. But it’s also our bright shining North Star! We are loved beyond imagining by the Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.

And we have to keep saying it, and keep preaching it, so that we never, ever forget it. Because the truth is, from time to time, we’re going to go prodigal. Whether it’s the younger version or the older version, we’re going to squander God’s love with extravagant stupidity from time to time. We’re human! That’s what we do. Thank God we have that bedrock assurance of God’s unfailing love to draw us back.

Think about the story of the younger child for a minute. At this prodigal’s lowest point “he came to himself” – which is kind of like saying you came to your senses. In other words, that touchstone, that North Star, that remembrance of God’s love penetrated the darkness and reminded the prodigal of a way home.

Now, here’s the hard part. The turning is vitally important, but it’s just the beginning. Dying to your old, prodigal way and being reborn, renewed into a new way is a critical point – but it’s just the start of the journey. It’s just the beginning of your transformation. The journey back into “the loving arms of the parent” takes time and effort – not on God’s part, on ours!

And the journey is usually not easy. It’s certainly not instant. There’s no finger snapping or clicking your heels together like Dorothy and finding yourself home and done. This is an especially hard lesson for us in today’s instant gratification society.

Some of us are like the younger prodigal – turning our back on God and living recklessly.
Some of us are like the older prodigal – taking God for granted and not appreciating God’s Presence.
Some of us create all kinds of different ways to squander God’s love.
No one is immune from this, no one is perfect. At some point, maybe many points, every single one of us will lose focus and be a prodigal. How wonderful to know that the parent is ready and waiting to come running to us when we’re ready!

Interesting that the older one gets a lecture and the younger one just gets a hug. Why? Because that’s what each one needed in that moment. The younger sibling had an awakening. He made the turn. He realized he was on a path that led away from resting in the love of his parent and changed his orientation. In churchy language that’s called repentance – not in his words but in his heart. And God came a’runnin.

But remember, the parent came running out to the older sibling too! Pleading! It’s emotional, heartfelt; the parent is in pain because this child who is so near is actually very far. The older one, even though he was standing right there with the parent the whole time, was actually still walking away or turning away from the love that was being offered to him. How sadly wasteful – squandering the love of God.

This is the challenging part for us. Many of us have been in church our whole lives – but attendance doesn’t guarantee that we ‘get it’. God is making this offer to us every single moment of our lives, and we need to be constantly accepting it – not just once, but day after day after day. God’s love, and acceptance, and forgiveness are absolute, total, and radical. God’s grace is mind-boggling. It is extended to absolutely anyone and everyone – but not everyone will turn and receive it. To receive it you have to open your hand. You have to let go of the ‘ways of the world’. You have to awaken to the Really Real that you’re actually immersed in. It’s got nothing to do with your duties or your actions – it has everything to do with your heart.

Whether you are more like the younger or more like the older you run the risk of being a prodigal – of taking something of great value (God’s loving presence) and treating it dismissively. We all do. It’s human nature. Too often we take the most important things for granted. Thankfully the Holy Mystery that we name God is not offended so easily, and is constantly running toward us with arms extended, yearning to embrace us and shower us with love, even while we’re still a long way off.

Such an offer, such a gift, such an incredible outpouring of grace, forgiveness, and love seems incomprehensible and offensive to prodigals like you and me. But it’s true. That is simply God’s character.
God loves and loves and loves.
God races out to meet me when I’ve wandered, and begs me to join the party when I take God’s Presence for granted.
Perhaps remembering stories like this will help us choose which kingdom will get more of our attention and intention? And then maybe we can come a’runnin!