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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
March 27 2022
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Grace to you and peace from God, our creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Stories are told in every culture around the world. Sometimes they’re used to teach the history about a place or group of people. Sometimes they’re used to teach us how to navigate challenges and difficult situations. Sometimes they’re used to call us into accountability and into relationship. And sometimes they’re used to comfort us.
But however they’re used, stories shape who we become because they shape how we understand the world and our place in it.
The story in today’s gospel reading is the third in a series of three about things that are lost. And when you have time, I invite you to read the series in its entirety. Jesus had been eating with tax collectors and sinners – people who we know were usually ignored or excluded from mainstream society.
And not surprisingly, the Pharisees and scribes weren’t happy about it. So, as a way to make a point about how the realm of God works, rather than argue, Jesus tells a few stories. And by the time he gets to this third one, he has the complete attention of his critics.
The story we read today is most commonly known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” and the definition of “prodigal” is wasteful or reckless. So, the emphasis is usually placed on the choices and actions of the younger son – asking for his inheritance and then squandering it.
But when we look at the father’s actions, we see that his love is so extravagant that it, too, can be considered prodigal.
And, in a way, he was more prodigal – meaning reckless – with his love than the younger son was with his inheritance. The father waited for both of his sons to figure themselves out, and he held both arms open with love and forgiveness no matter how long it took, so that both sons would be together in that love.
There are almost as many different ways to interpret this parable as there are people writing about it. But two of them stood out to me as I prepared for today, and both of them have to do with how we reconcile God’s love and grace in our lives.
First – Jesus is the prodigal father – the one who is wasteful and overly-generous with his love. The younger son is people like the tax collectors and sinners who are coming home to receive the father’s love. The older son is the Pharisees and the people who resent that that love has been so freely given to them because they haven’t followed the rules and there don’t seem to be any consequences for their actions.
That’s one way to think about it. Another way is –
God is the prodigal father – the one who is wasteful and overly-generous with their love. The younger son is Jesus – the one who went to hang out with people like tax collectors and sinners, and then came home to be in the presence of the father’s love. The older son is the Pharisees and the people who reject the younger one because he’d been out with people they’d never consider worthy enough to even try to earn that love.
Again, these are just two of the possible interpretations for this parable. But within these two possibilities, as individuals and as a church, we are always the younger son – we are the one who receives the prodigal love of God. We are always that.
And we are also the older son – the Pharisees – probably more than we like to think. Because we get caught up in the “value” that the world places on following the rules and earning your place, and we forget that God’s realm is different. That a person’s place in it is simply given because of who God is.
When Jesus tells this parable, he leaves the ending open. We don’t know if the older son joined the celebration or not. We don’t know if he was able to let go of whatever it was that he was feeling so that he could enjoy the return of his younger brother and the love of their father.
So, the question we’re left with is, how would we respond? As individuals and as a church, if we were in that situation how would we respond to the invitation to join the celebration?
Sometimes we can answer that question right away, and sometimes it takes a minute.
We’re in a season right now that asks us to examine our relationship with God, to dedicate time to it for the purpose of making it better, deepening it. And part of that is recognizing that God’s reckless, extravagant love is one of the things we have to reconcile – because we have each received it as a gift because that’s who God is.
Whether we think we deserve it or not, whether we think anyone else deserves it or not, we have all received God’s love as a gift.
And because it’s a gift, we have to ask ourselves what we did with it, how we responded to it – and, more to the point, what are we doing with it and how are we responding to it. Are we sharing it and inviting others in, or are we hoarding it?
The risk in recognizing that we’ve received God’s love is that we can get so caught up in it that we become blind to the people around us who’ve been told, actually told, that they don’t deserve it and they don’t feel like they can’t ever have it.
We know who they are. They are the people that are excluded for whatever reason: their skin color, immigration status, sexual orientation or gender identity, their political affiliation, whether they have a place to live, the country they were born in. You name it.
But when we recognize that we and they have all received God’s love, it’s life-changing. It opens us up to understanding that we don’t lose anything when we rejoice that others have also received God’s love. In fact, it deepens our experience of it.
Pastor Rachael Keefe reminds us that this deepening opens our hearts to the people who carry shame and guilt, and who need to be reminded of their true worth. It helps us realize who hides in a silence that needs to be broken open by love. And to recognize the people who not only need to be invited to a party in their honor, it helps us throw the party itself.
God’s love is always given to us – it’s ours to receive. We don’t have to earn it – in fact, we can’t. And we don’t have to be afraid that it will ever be taken away from us, or that someone else will earn more of it, or take our place in God’s realm. It can’t be taken away and there isn’t any to be earned because God simply always gives it.
And as we live into the love God freely gives to us, the story of it continues to shape how we understand the world, our place in it, and who we become. Thanks be to God! Amen.