Each time I preach on the parable of the Prodigal Son, I try to imagine who I might be in the story. Most of the time I turn out to be the aggrieved older brother. I mean who wants to be known as the family ne'er do well? Most people when asked who are they in the story, state they too are the older brother But this past week, as I once again prepared for Sunday reflecting on this parable this is not about brothers or fathers it is about how we are each of the characters in the story.
Let me elaborate. The younger brother tells his father, "Dad I wish you were dead but not really. Can I have my inheritance now?" He goes off and has a blast. Life is one giant party every night. He has friends galore and women well women hang all over him as he buys the drinks and the meals. They go off for a spin in his new sports car ending up at the latest and greatest nightclub. Dancing the night away, the brother thinks this is living. Until it isn't. As we know all good things must come to an end and so with the brother. He sits on the curb trash strewn around his feet. The once immaculate dinner suit is filthy and torn. He is hungry, starving in fact and he starts thinking about maybe having to get a job! What can he do? He has no skills. Combing the want ads he finds something he can do. Cleaning cages at the kennel is all he qualified for, so he applies and gets the job.
After awhile, he reminisces about home. His dad, what a grand a glorious fellow. His brother oh how he misses him. A tear trickles down his face. Suddenly his face brightens, he decides to go home and beg his father's forgiveness. After all he thinks, why would dad turn me away. I was always his favorite, He stands, brushes himself off and whistles a happy tune as he heads for home. Scheming all the way he rehearses what he will say, getting the inflection of his voice just right. He even practices crying and pleading.
His father does what he does every day. Standing in the fields he scours the horizon for his son. He thinks to himself today will be the day he returns. I know he really loves me, it was just a phase he was going through. Sighing he shakes his head and walks past his older son, not even noticing he is there. It's been like this since the younger son left, the older son is forgotten. He might as well be a piece of the furniture. Meals are eaten in silence. There is no friendly conversation in the evening no laughter in the morning. A deadly silence hangs over the house. It is like a tomb. They as well be dead for the lifeless existence present.
The older brother sees and feels all of this. He is hurt, angry and perplexed. He keeps asking himself the question, why is my father treating me like this? What have I done? I am dutiful, working my fingers to the bone every day for him. I don't ask for anything. I don't have friends over. My clothes are old and out of date. My car has 200,000 miles on it from running all his errands and keeping the business going. The house is a mess, dusty and dreary. Who would want to visit? The older son glares at his father, his eyes narrowed to slits as he thinks about the younger brother off having the time of his life. He becomes more and more resentful of the pair of them. His brother for being so selfish and his father for being blind to the one in front of him.
When the brother finally returns to the family, the father leaps with joy. He hasn't moved this fast in ages. Snapping his fingers to the servants, he commands them to bring the best of everything out for his son. The younger son is taken back by all of this, he can't even get the words he has practiced so well out of his mouth. His voice is muffled in his father's shoulder. Relaxing he allows his father to hug and kiss him. The party begins and since the brother is good at parties, he straightens himself up and welcomes the attention.
The older brother pulls into the driveway in his old, worn out car. As he gets out, exhausted from the day, he hears music and laughter coming from the house. He grabs one of the servants by the arm and asks what is going on. The servant tells him the news: his younger brother has returned. The color drains from the older brother's face as he clenches his hands to his sides. He starts to get back into the car when his father comes running out of the house. The father is laughing, holding a glass of wine with a cigar between this teeth. The older brother stares at him and wonders, is this the same man I left this morning? And isn't that the finest red wine and where have those cigars been all these months? His father tells him the good news about his brother to which the older brother explodes. Years of anger and resentment spill out as he tells of what it has been like working for his father. How ungrateful the old man has been and how thoughtless. You celebrate the one who wanted you dead?!
The father is dumbstruck. His face registers shock. He can't believe what he is hearing. When the older son pauses for breath, the father tells him all that he has was his as well. Aren't you glad your brother has returned?
Well as they say, welcome to one man's family. This has to be the most dysfunctional family we will ever have the pleasure of reading about. We could dissect each person and their role in this mess but I don't think this is what the story is about. I have come to believe the story is about our humanity. Sometimes we are the younger brother selfish and myopic about our own needs and wants. Thinking of our own self interest. How many of us can claim to be the older brother dutiful but with a closed fist rather than an open hand. Basically asking people to read our minds about what we want and need and not having the courage to say how we feel. Finally the father does he resonate? Blinded to what is in front of us because we are so busy thinking about what we lost, we can't appreciate what we have.
Most interpreters of this parable want to name us as the sons and the father as God. I beg to differ, because if we believe God is all-knowing and all-loving why we he be so blind to the pain of the older brother? Would he not have treated all of his children fairly like we believe God does. By treated fairly I am not saying believing in God makes our problems go away, but it means he sees us and loves us as we are. This story is about our fallibilities and frailties as human beings. None of us is perfect especially those of us in the human family and we will at some point in our lives be one of these characters. The question is what do we do about it? The best answer is to acknowledge it and work to understand one another and to love one another when we are unlovable. We are called to be honest and loving in all of our relationships no matter how painful they can be and finally we are to remember as humans we are all doing the very best we can given our circumstances and situations.
The Prodigal Son in my mind is not a story with a happy ending, but then life rarely has happy endings, but how do we patch our lives together to ensure all feel understood, needed and loved?
Johnny Carson the host of the Tonight Show interviewed a little boy about two friends he had saved in a coal mine in rural West Virginia. As the conversation went on, Carson ascertained the little boy was a Christian. So Carson asked him if he attended Sunday School. The little boy eagerly said that he did. Johnny asked him what he learned last Sunday to which the boy replied “Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine.” The audience began laughing and Carson tried to hide his smile. But asked the little boy what he learned from the story. The boy squirming in his seat finally looked at Carson and said, "Well if you’re going to have a wedding, make sure you invite Jesus."
This is the first of Jesus' Signs in the Gospel of John. The others are the feeding of the five thousand, healing an official's son, walking on water, the raising of Lazarus and healing of the blind man. This first miracle is more than just insuring a good party, it is a story of redemption, grace and abundance. If the wine or food had run out at the party, the family would lose face. No longer would they be known as Henrietta and Hal but forever branded as the couple where the wine ran out. It would have been a lifetime of shame for them. Jesus' act of changing the water into wine was for this couple assurance their standing in the village was secure.
It is also an act of grace. God's grace extended to the family through this miracle. You see God's grace overflows just like those clay jars filled with water. The clue to overflowing is the jars were "filled to the brim" which means as we know any movement would cause the water to slosh all over the flagstones, the helpers, their clothing and shoes. God's grace is overflowing just like the water in those jars.
Finally it was an example of God's abundance. The filled jars and the never-ending flow of wine those days is how God's wants us all to live which is in a mindset of abundance. There is not just enough, there is more than enough for everyone. God's sense of abundance is deeper and broader than ours, we are reminded of how much is there when we read this story.
Mary asked Jesus to help the guests, we continue to ask for his help and many of us pray to Mary as our mediator, there is not one way to speak to God, we have many avenues. Mary's intercession on behalf of the guests, shows her compassion for us as well as Jesus'. After their little mother son kerfuffle, I can imagine Jesus giving her a quick wink as he rejoined the party, rejoicing all God has given us and thankful to be part of our lives.
Christmas Eve Sermon
Tonight we all come together to once again ponder the mystery of God coming to earth in the form of a helpless baby. The story is one we now so well and each year we all feel the pull to come to church to make sense of this wondrous event as well as understanding our part to play in the arc of human history.
He comes not to Herod or Quirinius or Annas or Caiaphas. We don’t find Jesus in the temple for a few weeks when Mary and Joseph will bring him for the presentation. He is not born in the middle of an extended family but in a crude stable at the back of an overcrowded inn. Born amongst barn animals and laid in a feeding stall.
The news of the Savior’s birth is not heralded to the powerful but rather as we know to the shepherds huddling around a fire taking turns wandering through the herds of sheep. Warding off predators while pausing to look up at the sky. Will it remain clear? Are those clouds on the horizon? What was that noise? Did I see a shadow?
And then the one question we all ask ourselves-do I matter? The vastness of the open sky makes one feel small and insignificant.
Shepherds were the lowest on the social rung standing alongside tax collectors and prostitutes in the disgust society has for them. Shepherds were stereotyped as liars and thieves. Not be trusted and what better way than to send them to the outside of town. Shepherds were not permitted to give evidence in court and there were ordinances to keep them from the city limits. As shepherds worked on the Sabbath, they were declared ritually unclean and not allowed into the temple.
Living in the fields, each night they gaze upon the lights in town knowing in their hearts they are not wanted. They are not invited to sit around a courtyard fire with family and friends. They are not included in the joy of a wedding or the mourning at a funeral. Sighing they turn away back towards their own miserable existence. Yearning to be seen and recognized.
If they were able to sneak into town, they would spat upon, and shouted at. Soon the words become embedded in their DNA and they begin to give up on themselves. Believe what they have the words hurled at them across the town square or the sidelong looks and glares.
For them life is one long slog. Everyday is gray and the same. But on that night long ago, a blast of light filled the night sky and earth shook. The clouds part and there what sounds like a thousand wings flapping feverishly overhead. We know what happens next angels appear and tell them a savior has been born, they decide to chance being caught by the Roman soldiers on patrol in the town and find the child. They rush and find the young couple.
Men who have given up on society, given up on the temple, given up on justice and ultimately given up on themselves. The good news in the story is not just God, came as a vulnerable baby but God came to vulnerable humans. People like you and me. People who may have given up on friends, family, society even themselves. People young and old who feel misunderstood or unwanted, dispensable.
What does Jesus birth mean for us? Some say it’s a nice story. Others say it didn’t happen. While still others feel so removed from God they say nothing. But it is not only about the birth of Jesus, it is about God telling each and every one of us tonight, tomorrow, and all the days to come he has not given up on us. Perhaps you know someone who has given up on the Church. Or even at times maybe you have given up on the God. Those are the moments to remember God does not give up on you or me or anyone inside or outside the Church.
Tonight is more than about a birth of our savior. It is about no matter how lost, or bitter or vulnerable someone is, God knows and God cares. As trite as this may sound to some, it is the lifeline which has kept many of us going through the hard slog of life, like the shepherds did.
The angels appearing to the shepherds is more than the heralding of Jesus’ birth, it is the loud proclamation to all of us God is willing to do anything to get our attention. God proclaims through the birth of Jesus that he has not given up on us. He has entrusted us to care for our creation, one another and to care for ourselves.
There was a story in the paper yesterday about Nativity scenes being vandalized around the country. Churches and town halls have taken to installing trail cameras and going so far as to install GPS tracking devices to the baby Jesus. Understandably distressing. It is though a larger metaphor for what happened all those years ago which is
The birth of Jesus is a physical moment in time and it is a spiritual moment still happening today. Tonight we remember Jesus is being born where people need him most. Jesus is being born for us who believe but also for everyone who feels left out, scared and lonely. Angels still continue to give us tidings of comfort and joy tonight and every night.
Jesus continues to be born tonight and every night in the places and with the people that need him the most. Nothing can keep him in the manger, the feeding trough. He is out here among us. Feeding us with hope, love and his presence. Jesus is in the world tonight going to the places and people who need him the most. Jesus is born tonight here with you and with me. Let these words ring out to the world-let every heart prepare him room going to the places where he is needed most. Bringing peace to all.