Write Your Own Ending

(sermon 3/31/19)

two brothers

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: “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.’” 

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It almost never seems to fail that if there are two children in a family, they’ll end up being polar opposites. One will be outgoing, the life of the party, while the other one will be shy and introverted. One will be the athlete, and the other will be the academic. One will be technically oriented, while the other will be the artist. One will follow all the rules to a T, and the other will constantly be coming home late after curfew with their underwear in their back pocket. Some of that is probably innate, but I think a lot of it arises out of every child’s need to stake out their own territory as they develop their own sense of self, independent of the people around them. This is true now, and it was just as true in Jesus’ time, and you can see it in play in this parable.

The younger son can’t wait to get away from home – from the family, the farm, the boring town he grew up in. He wants the city, the excitement, the culture, the restaurants. He wants to live the fast life. Meanwhile, his brother was the one who always knew he wanted to stay right where he’d grown up, where he had roots. He was the straight arrow, the quiet, dependable one who never gave his parents any problems and who probably opened a good universal life insurance policy and a 401k on his eighteenth birthday.

Of course, we know what happens. The younger son realizes that living in that faraway place wasn’t quite as glamorous as he’d pictured. It was a tougher, harder place that could chew up and spit out even a more disciplined and cautious person, let alone someone like him, who spent money like it was going out of style. And when he’s at rock bottom, he decides to go home to the judgment and ridicule that undoubtedly faced him there, but it would still be better than his current situation.

But instead of judgment, he discovers the fact that to most parents, a child can’t do anything so bad that the parent could ever reject them or stop loving them. This is something that seems to be so inherent to us as a species. I know that it happens in some instances, but for the life of me, I can’t understand how. Apparently, that’s what the father in this parable thought, too.

In this section of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is being criticized by religious leaders for keeping the wrong kind of company. For hanging out with the wrong crowd. For associating with the kinds of people who their religious rules condemned. People who were supposed to be shunned, not loved and accepted. According to these religious leaders, it was important to take a moral stand against those kinds of people, and here was Jesus doing just the opposite. Jesus’ answer to that criticism was to tell them a couple of parables, this being one of them, in which he teaches them that God doesn’t really give two flips about their rules that would set up people to be rejected. So first he tells a parable about leaving 99 sheep to go find the one lost one. Interestingly, the way he tells that story, Jesus essentially says to them, “Surely, you’d risk leaving the 99 sheep alone, by themselves, to go find the one lost one, wouldn’t you?” while, to be honest, I’m pretty certain that many of his listeners were probably thinking “Actually, no, I wouldn’t risk the 99 to go look for the lost one that doesn’t exactly fit my risk management plan; I’d just write off the lost one as the cost of doing business.”

And then he tells this parable, showing how the father in the story shows love and acceptance for even this son, who by their rules and standards should have been rejected when he returned. That was what the kingdom of God was like, Jesus was telling them. Your legalistic rules designed to create outcasts simply didn’t hold water in God’s eyes.

While there are other ways to understand the parable, the most common way of relating to it is that the father represents God. Through the father’s unconditional love and acceptance of the younger son, we’re told about the gracious way that God loves us – not according to any human rules, even human rules that might seem logical to us, but according to God’s rules. That no matter who we are, or what we’ve done, or what society’s rules have to say about us, God is working based on a different set of rules – and the most important of those rules is that there is nothing – nothing – that can separate us from God’s love and acceptance.

But if that was all Jesus wanted to teach the Pharisees, he could have told this parable with just the father and the younger son; he wouldn’t have needed an older son at all. So why is he in this story? Honestly, I think he’s every bit as important as the younger son in the story. Through him, we see Jesus’ words of assurance, and warning, to the Pharisees. First, the assurance: Don’t fall into this false sense of threat. Just because God loves these other people that you want to reject, God doesn’t love you any less. Love is not a zero-sum game. It’s the message that every parent has to tell their firstborn child when their baby sibling comes along – don’t worry, you don’t have to resent it when I show love to them; there’s enough love for everyone. That, as the father in the parable tells the older son, he was always with him.

But then comes the warning: Be careful when in your self-righteousness, you set up other people to be unworthy of associating with, or loving, or accepting. This is absolutely not God’s way. When you do that, you become the object of God’s disappointment, not them. Don’t allow your understanding of God, and of what you think God would consider right and wrong, to be guided by narrow-minded legalism, but rather, let it always be guided by the rule of love.

That was the lesson that Jesus taught to the Pharisees through the character of the older brother. And it’s the same lesson that some modern-day Pharisees need to hear, too – Modern-day Pharisees who would:

Use their narrow religious beliefs to justify throwing their LGBTQ child out of the house, and into the streets.

Or who, using the same excuse, would fire a beloved, long-term high school guidance counselor because she fell in love and married another woman.

Or who would refuse to help desperate migrants fleeing for their lives just because they crossed our border illegally.

Or anyone, for that matter, who would support any immoral or unjust situation simply on the grounds that it was legal.

That, to me is why Jesus includes both the younger and older brother are in this parable. Through them, they give us glimpses of eternal truth – glimpses of grace, of assurance, and of warning.

At the end of this parable, the father tells the older son not to remain in his state of judgmentalism and anger, but rather, to let go of it, and to come in and join the grand party. But we aren’t ever told if he did or not. It’s the great unanswered question of the parable, and we get to write our own ending to it. So did the older son take the father’s assurance and warning to heart?

And when we find ourselves in the older son’s shoes, will we? We get to write our own ending to our story, too.

Thanks be to God.

Cat’s in the Cradle (sermon 9/11/16)

 cats-in-the-cradle

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.” So he told them this parable: “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.’”  – Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (NRSV)

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That was it – he’d finally had enough. For years, he’d put up with his son’s nonsense, hoping he’d eventually straighten up and come around, but it hadn’t happened – if anything, he’d actually gotten worse. Irresponsible. Lazy. Spending money like a drunken sailor. Out all night, sleep all day, never buckling down and helping with the family business. Why couldn’t he be at least a little bit more like his older, more responsible brother? And now, in the latest of countless arguments, his younger son said, “Why don’t you just give me my share of things here, and I’ll get out of your hair – I’ll leave here and never look back!” And in the heat of the moment, he yelled “If that’s what you want, fine!” So he made arrangements to do just that. He gave the boy the money, turned his back, and walked away. He’d done everything he could; he couldn’t have expected to reasonably do anything more. That was that. As far as he was concerned, he’d washed his hands of the situation. The boy was on his own. As far as he was concerned, the boy was as dead to him as he was to the boy. And that was just fine with him.

But as the years wore on, he realized that it really wasn’t that simple. In spite of himself, his heart ached for his son. With the perception that only time brings, he’d realized that there was plenty enough blame on both sides of their dispute, and even though they were very different people, he recognized that the stubbornness that he saw in the boy that was so frustrating was really just a mirror image of his own. As time wore on, he realized that when the boy left, a piece of himself had died. He’d been diminished by it. The man never felt complete again after the son had left. He’d have done anything to have his son back, and to make amends, to heal the rift between them. But since he didn’t know where the boy was, or if he was even alive at that point, he didn’t see how that would ever happen. So he spent day after day living this painful partial life, wishing that things could be different.

And then that fateful day happened – from out of nowhere, he saw his son walking down the road, headed for the house. He was so excited to see him that he ran out to meet him, yelling out to him, looking like a wild man in all his undignified glory, welcoming him back with open arms, forgiving him for whatever he’d done in the past, and even apologizing for his part in the split. And later on, when his older son criticized him for making such a fool of himself by welcoming this troublemaker back, the old man said that it was like the son had been dead, but had come back to life – and in his heart, he knew that the same thing was just as true about himself.

Today’s gospel text is one of Jesus’ most well-known parables. And from the earliest times that we’re taught about it, we’re told that the father in the story represents God. And we then assume that if the father is God, then in the story the father is totally good, and blameless, and his actions are totally honorable – after all, how else could God be? We’re told that the son represents us, and that in Jesus’ time, it would have been a shocking, unthinkable insult for the son to have asked for his inheritance up front, and that that represents how offensive our sin and shortcomings are to God. And we’re told that the wild, undignified, unjustifiable way the father ran out to greet the younger son, and all the things that the father lavishes on the son, represent the full, extravagant, illogical forgiveness and grace that God extends to us. And finally, we’re told that the older son who stands up against the father, and who says that the forgiveness and welcome extended to the older son is inappropriate and uncalled for, represents those of us who get too wound up in moralism and legalism, and who don’t fully appreciate the nature of God’s grace, and who would withhold it from others. That’s the way the parable is usually understood.

But that’s the funny thing about parables – they can often be read and understood in any number of different ways, they’re deliberately ambiguous, and that allows them to speak to any number of different situations, and in different ways. In this case, Jesus doesn’t give us any definitive explanation of some single way that the parable is supposed to be understood. And while the traditional way of understanding the parable is a good one, it does require us to fill some missing blanks in the story, and to make certain assumptions about the characters, in order to get that message. But what if we look at the same parable a different way? What if we fill in the missing details in a slightly different way, and assign different identities to the characters in the story?

What if the father doesn’t represent God, but rather, us – either “us” individually, or collectively, as the church? If the father isn’t God, it’s easier to accept the idea that the father might have been just as much to blame for the friction between him and the younger son, as the son was himself. That makes it easier for us to hear this parable as maybe a message of reconciliation, but not reconciliation between God and us, but rather, between us and us. It makes it easier for us to see that reconciling with one another, and healing old wounds, and apologizing for our own complicity in those situations, even at the cost of our dignity and sense of being completely in the right, is extremely important in God’s eyes.

Is that an equally acceptable way to think about this parable, compared to the way we typically look at it? I think so. I know that the idea of reconciliation was so important to Jesus that at another place in the gospels, in Matthew, he tells his followers that even if they’re in the Temple, standing at the altar and ready to give their offering, and they remember that there’s a rift between them and their brother or sister, that they should stop what they’re doing immediately, leaving their offering right there, and go reconcile with the other person first, before even making the offering – maybe even suggesting that that’s the more pleasing offering to God.. That would certainly make people stare. It would be pretty undignified. And yet, it’s what Jesus recommends. Reconciliation is just that important to God.

I suspect that there isn’t a person here this morning who doesn’t have some kind of rift between themselves and some other family member or friend. Maybe you’re convinced you’re right and they’re wrong. Maybe you recognize that in an argument no one is purely right and no one is purely wrong. Maybe the rift has gone on for so long, you can’t even remember how it all started. Whatever the case, allowing ourselves to hear this parable in this alternative way can lead us to ask some questions of ourselves: How might God be speaking into the issue, into our hearts, to try to make peace, to achieve reconciliation between us and people we’re estranged from? How can we allow our hearts and minds to be open, and to keep our pride in check, to be willing to not just forgive the wrongs of the other person, but also to humbly apologize for the hurt and harm that we’ve caused in the situation?

And how do we do the same thing as the church? There are all sorts of people and groups that the church has hurt over the course of its history. In our last General Assembly, we heard apologies made to Native Americans, who we hurt, and whose cultures we tried to wipe out in the midst of our evangelistic efforts in the past. We heard an apology to those who have suffered sexual abuse perpetrated by Presbyterian church leaders in the past.  And we heard a “statement of regret” offered by the denomination to its LGBT members who have been deeply hurt by denominational theological positions in the past – and while not a full-fledged apology, it was at least a good half-step in the right direction that I hope will become a full apology sometime in the near future.

There are still any number of situations, either as individuals or the church, where we need to follow the lead of the father in the parable, at least the way I painted him earlier. There are rifts that are personal. Familial. Racial. Ethnic. Sexual. Theological. Ideological; even political – how many Facebook friends have you lost during the current presidential campaign?

So where do we start? I suppose first, by being honest with ourselves and admitting that the rift actually exists; sometimes we haven’t even admitted that. Next, by recognizing that we’ve got culpability ourselves, it isn’t all the other person’s fault, and in some cases, it isn’t their fault at all. We need to be willing to apologize for our part in the situation, and to work in concrete ways to fix the harm. Mostly, I think, by recognizing that no matter how hard real reconciliation might seem – and it *is* hard – no matter how unlikely it seems that we’ll be able to pull it off, that it’s what God wants us to do – and that God is willing to help us, transforming us and strengthening us in the ways that can make it possible. After all, if the traditional understanding of this parable is valid, and the father in the story represents God, then we can see that God is more than willing to engage in reconciliation, even when it costs some dignity or the ability to be seen as always right – and if it’s good enough for God to act that way, isn’t it good enough for us?

Thanks be to God.