Sermon of the Week
The Wrong Answer: Norms Over Relationships
Keywords: Phoenix and Resurrection, Prodigal, Unmerited Grace, Reconciliation
A couple of weeks ago, I came by here on a Saturday morning
to grab a book from my office
and I ran into our pastor emeritus, Clay Cook
who was setting up for a Sunday morning Adult class he was going to lead
and Clay, as is typical, was dressed beautifully
in a matching baseball cap and jacket.
It had a symbol on it that I didn’t recognize,
so I asked him about it,
and he told me that it was from Milburn Country Club
which is up in Overland Park.
Milburn has suffered not one, but two devastating clubhouse fires:
one in 1947 and, more recently, in 2010.
After some consternation, from what I hear
they all regrouped and decided to rebuild
and that led to their new community logo,
that symbol on Clay’s jacket and hat:
it is of a phoenix, rising from the flames
recalling the ancient Greek mythology
of that ancient story.
It is a symbol of persistence, and determination,
and, as it has been recast in Christian theology at times,
a symbol of resurrection.
It has helped me think a little bit about today’s reading–
The story of the Prodigal son.
If last week’s reading was a little weird and inaccessible,
the tower of Siloam and the wrath of Herod…
THIS reading, by contrast, is one of the most well known of Jesus’ stories.
It is a story about redemption, and hope
and picking up the pieces after your life has been torn asunder and burnt down.
I invite you to listen today’s reading from The Gospel according to Luke:
15Now all the tax-collectors and sinners
were coming near to listen to him.
2And the Pharisees and the scribes
‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 So Jesus told them this parable:
11There was a man who had two sons.
12The 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.
13A few days later the younger son
gathered all he had
and travelled to a distant country,
and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
14When he had spent everything,
a severe famine took place throughout that country,
and he began to be in need.
15So he went and hired himself out
to one of the citizens of that country,
who sent him to his fields
to feed the pigs.
16He would gladly have filled himself
with the pods that the pigs were eating;
and no one gave him anything.
17But when he came to himself
“How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough
and to spare,
but here I am dying of hunger!
18I will get up and go to my father,
and I will say to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
19I am no longer worthy to be called your son;
treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ”
20So 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.
21Then the son said to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
22But 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.
23And get the fatted calf and kill it,
and let us eat and celebrate;
24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again;
he was lost and is found!”
And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field;
and when he came and approached the house,
he heard music and dancing.
26He called one of the slaves
and asked what was going on.
“Your brother has come,
and your father has killed the fatted calf,
because he has got him back safe and sound.”
28Then he became angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and began to plead with him.
29But 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.
30But when this son of yours came back,
who has devoured your property with prostitutes,
you killed the fatted calf for him!”
31Then the father said to him,
“Son, you are always with me,
and all that is mine is yours.
32But 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.” ’
May God bless to us our reading,
And our understanding
And our applying of this word, to the way we live our lives. Amen.
Robert Dunham, the former pastor of University Presbyterian Church
in Chapel Hill, North Carolina,
once noted that this story from Luke
has logged more pulpit time from preachers near and far
than any other.
He might be right.
This story is a beloved, beautifully complex story:
a storehouse of sin and redemption,
of grace and the refusal of grace.
And we can read it from several different perspectives—
the father, the wayward son, the older brother, maybe the servants
who had to watch and endure all the drama too.
Dunham noted how, over the years,
preachers have tried all sorts of approaches to unpack its riches.
He says he knew of a pastor
who once gave a sixteen-week sermon series on the Prodigal Son.
After the sixteenth sermon,
a woman greeted the pastor at the door of the church and said,
“I’m so sorry that poor boy ever ran away from home.”[i]
I love this story. It is one of my favorites; one of our favorites.
And maybe that’s why we keep turning to it.
As long as there are parents and children,
there will be family strain and stress,
and this story, like no other, hits home for so many people.
But this story can also become too familiar, and not just after
a pastor subjects you to a sixteen week treatment of it.
Tom Long, for example,
suggests that this story
“presents a picture of divine acceptance
so radical[,] and [so] sweeping[,] that it has sometimes
generated astonishment and provoked sputtering outrage.”
But in many churches today, Long argues,
we have heard the story so often that we miss its shock value.
“There was a man who had two sons,”
[the story begins]
and we know where this one is going…
The awful, relationship-shattering words,
“Give me my share of the inheritance,”
leave us unruffled
because we can already hear the musicians tuning up
for the joyful dance jig at the end.
We are untroubled by the son’s anguished lament,
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son,”
because the aroma of the fatted calf roasting on the spit
wafts over the narrative,
and covers up the fetid stench of the pigsty.
Fear not, the boy is coming home. He always does….
But the [problem with] the prodigal son story
is not just the result of over-familiarity [Long says].
Countless repetitions have transformed what was once a parable
with trap doors
and mysterious and unexpected depths,
into an Aesop’s fable,
an anecdote with a prosaic moral tag…
[which] coos a little cultural wisdom in our ears:
“Hey, no matter how badly you have messed up life, pick yourself up.
A ready supply of forgiveness is waiting,
and you can start over where you left off.”[ii]
The problem with such a take on the story,
is that this surprising,
even shocking story
becomes, instead, “a predictable bit of self-help advice.”
It assumes that once the young prodigal has pulled himself together
and headed home,
the father is then obliged to throw a party for him upon his return.
The celebration is “his due” for his turnaround, his repentance.
Read that way,
what we get is a comforting and reassuring tale with absolute predictability.
Tom Long may be right,
but I suspect that this story
still packs the power to shock and offend,
because it speaks of grace,
and grace not only has the power to offend us today,
but it does offend us today, when we see it in action.
What many people still want, I think–today as much as ever—
is some assurance that their right behavior and right belief count for something.
The notion of unmerited grace still bothers many of us a great deal.
Several years back I heard a sermon on this text,
one that spoke of the embrace of sinners,
whether the sin was wasteful and wonton living, on the one hand
or the folly of prideful self-righteousness, on the other.
At the door several people said all the talk about grace
made them uncomfortable,
that grace could be made cheap when not linked to repentance.
One man said, candidly, that he was ready for the preacher
to stop talking about grace
and to start preaching about repentance.
After all, he said, repentance is always the precursor of grace.
What the preacher said back was rather bold:
“There is not a single instance in the Gospels,” he said,
“when Jesus requires repentance
before he extends grace or healing or hospitality.
Repentance is a response to God’s grace,
not a prerequisite for it.
Grace always comes first.”
Since that day I have spent some time researching the matter;
and though I wouldn’t be so bold in saying it myself,
I also can’t find an instance that works in the other direction.
I also believe that grace precedes repentance. That God’s grace comes first.
Sure, according to Luke,
the younger son, tired of his pig-sty diet,
comes to himself and begins rehearsing his confession of sin…
and he receives grace and forgiveness and welcome
when he returns to speak that confession.
But the movement of the story makes it clear
that the grace of the father is pre-emptive…
that it comes first.
And this is true, not just for the younger son,
But for the older son as well…
Here’s where another preacher,
Peter Gomes, might be helpful.
Here’s what Gomes said:
“The prodigal is willful, foolish… self-centered… and indulgent.
He comes home only when he has nowhere else to go.
The [older] brother is petty, spiteful, jealous, self-righteous,
and rather lacking in imagination.
I think we should pity the poor father, [says Gomes]
who has to live with this conspicuous vice
and the even more conspicuous virtue:
perhaps [the father] should have run away
and left the place for the two of them to fight it out.
He didn’t, though, because the story is about him,
and we know he won’t run away….
We know of his character,
because of what his sons say and do.
The prodigal tells us the character of his father
when he says at his lowest point…
“I will arise and go to my father.”
He didn’t expect the fatted calf,
but he knew enough to know that his father,
by his very nature,
by his very character,
would not, could not, disavow him…
[and that] his father would be there to receive him.
He knew… that his father’s nature was love;
and his knowledge was rewarded and returned….
So, too, did the older brother know this,
and it is on the basis of the father’s love and justice that he complains—
for you complain only to someone
in whose justice you have confidence.
Both sons presume upon what they know to be there
and what they know to be theirs:
the unconditional love of the father for his own.
This is the heart of the gospel
and of Jesus’ message:
no one is too far gone,
too bad to be removed from the unconditional love of [God] …
and no one is too good,
too full of rectitude,
for that love.
It is the nature of the Father to love those to whom he has given life….
[Some] will notice that the prodigal son acknowledges his sins,
but it is not the confession that triggers the love
but the father’s love that triggers the confession.”[iii]
So, yes, repentance is important,
and we see that in this parable Jesus tells,
where both sons need to repent in order to enjoy life in their father’s house.
For the younger, repentance means learning to say “father” again,
And for the older, it means learning to say “brother” again.
For both of them, the heart of the story is about restoring relationships
About bringing people who love each other back together
About putting that first.
Grace, it seems, is God’s way of doing that
of sometimes being the adult in the room when everyone else is acting like children
and of deciding that those relationships matter more than pride,
more than some thin sense of fairness.
Repentance is crucial in this story.
It comes from multiple directions and is tied in with guilt and grief and hurt.
But it isn’t the foundation of grace. It happens because of grace,
Because grace comes first.
But wait a second, you might be saying.
That bratty kid hurt his father, and his brother,
And he just gets off scot free? Where’s the fairness in that?
And doesn’t the older brother have a point,
Shouldn’t we expect people to follow the rules,
To treat one another well
To not break trust and cause so much heartache.
That’s the norm. That’s the expectation.
All that grace: it doesn’t seem fair.
Ok, but why does God do this?
Well, maybe now is a good time
To consider the other reading from today
These words from the Apostle Paul.
“All this is from God,
who reconciled us to himself through Christ,
and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
From time to time, we’re reminded of the importance of reconciliation.
We often talk about love here, from the pulpit.
Sometimes we talk about justice.
Those are two of the three pillars of Christian theology.
The third is reconciliation.
Love: the power that binds us together and urges us to care passionately for the welfare of others.
Justice: that love enacted towards the common good, particularly for those on the margins.
And Reconciliation: the affirmation that, in the end, relationships matter,
And we are called to bring people together in healing, for the sake of peace and friendship.
You can’t just choose one or two of these.
We need all three.
There is no love without work for justice and efforts at reconciliation.
There is no justice without a heart of love and an openness to heal.
There is no reconciliation without a purpose and without heart.
Whenever we fail to hold these together, we get the answer wrong.
And God is constantly showing us a different way,
A sometimes more challenging way
Where grace seeks out all three:
Love, and justice, and reconciliation.
A couple of years ago
I heard a story on NPR that reinforced such a belief for me.,
A story about Julio Diaz,
who is a social worker in New York City.[iv]
Every day, on his way home from work, Diaz followed the same routine,
ending his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx
one stop early, just so he could eat at his favorite diner.
But one night, as Diaz stepped off the Number 6 train
and onto a nearly empty platform,
his evening took an unexpected turn.
He was walking toward the stairs
when a teenage boy appeared, and pulled out a knife
and demanded his money.
So Diaz gave the boy his wallet.
As the assailant began to walk away, Diaz said,
“Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something.
If you’re going to be robbing people all night,
you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The young man looked at his victim like he was crazy, and he asked,
“Why are you doing this?”
Diaz replied, “Well, if you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars,
then I guess you must really need the money.
I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner…
and if you want to join me…hey, you’re more than welcome.”
“I just felt maybe he really [needed] help,” Diaz told NPR.
Remarkably, the boy agreed, and the unlikely pair
walked to the diner and sat in a booth.
Shortly the manager came by,
the dishwasher came by,
the waitress came by to greet him.
Diaz remembered, “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here.
Do you own this place?’”
“No,” Diaz answered, “I just eat here a lot.”
The boy responded, “But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.”
“Well, haven’t you been taught that
you should be nice to everybody?” Diaz asked him.
“Yeah, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,”
the boy said.
And so the social worker saw an opening.
He asked the boy what he wanted out of life.
“He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz said.
He couldn’t answer—or he didn’t want to.
When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen,
“Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill
‘cause you have my money and I can’t pay for it.
But if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
The teen “didn’t even think about it” and handed over the walled, Diaz said.
“So I gave him $20..I figured maybe it would help him…”
But Diaz asked for something in return,
and the boy gave it to him. it was his knife.
Sometimes grace so astonishes us that all we can do is change course.
All we can do is repent… turn around.
There are times, I know, when the repentance seems to come first.
But look closely,
and more often we will find that it works the other way around.
You might see that God got there, first,
Setting the conditions for repentance,
Opening the door to reconciliation
Planting ideas of justice in our minds…
Sometimes, it just takes one act of crazy, unmerited, unconditional love
To heal something that seemed unhealable, just a few moments before.
May we keep our eyes open for that sort of grace
And, as we go about our days,
May we remember the importance of reconciliation
As a cornerstone of what it means to be Christians
so that what was once torn apart, burnt asunder
might one day rise again, healed, renewed
a phoenix out from the ashes
given the possibility of new life
just because someone had the audacity to choose grace, to choose healing.
May it be so.
[i] This sermon is indebted and borrows heavily from the work of Dr. Robert Dunham and his sermon “Which Comes First: Grace or Repentance?” This quote is told by Peter Gomes, “It’s About the Father: The Prodigal Son,” in Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, San Francisco, Harper San Francisco, 2003, 236.
[ii] Thomas G. Long, “Surprise Party,” Christian Century, March 14, 2001, 10.
[iii] Gomes, 237-238
Image: Richard Burde, Return of the Prodigal. From: https://history.lds.org/media/the-return-of-the-prodigal-son-richard-burde?lang=eng#1