4th Sunday in Lent
Family is Family, a sermon by Pastor Fred
Because the Gospel of the “Prodigal Son” is so well known, we sometimes take it for granted, and box ourselves in, in interpreting it. But it’s actually one of the most complex and multivalent stories of the gospels, having many, and various interpretations.
And, I think the one thing that sticks out for me today in hearing it again, is the contrast between the two sons. And here, I’m thinking of my own younger brother, Bill. Some of you met him a couple weeks ago when he was here visiting from Madison, Wisconsin. He’s eight years younger than me, and was one of those “surprises” that happens to families. My sister and other brother and I, used to tease him that he was always mom and dad’s favorite. He got all the breaks, while we had to toe the line. At least it seemed like it to us. Later, of course, we realized that it’s pretty standard for parents to be stricter with the first kids, and lighten up a bit with a child of their later years. But, we’ll always have a little jealousy over the stuff Bill got away with that we never did!
Anyway, the biggest surprise came later over Bill’s decision about going into Physical Therapy, post-college. Now, getting into a school that has a PT program is difficult, not just because you have to have good grades, but because the field is highly restricted to a set number of candidates each year. So, as the story goes, my dad supposedly pulled some strings with his sister’s husband, his brother-in-law, who taught in the School of Dentistry, at my dad’s alma mater at the U. of Iowa, who supposedly knew somebody in the PT Department. I don’t know that that made a difference or not, but that’s how the story goes. After filling out all the paper work and doing the tough interviews, and so forth, Bill gets in. He makes the cut, wink, wink. And so, there is rejoicing in the family. This is what Bill really wants, and my dad couldn’t be happier that of four kids, his youngest, last but not least, is going to his alma mater.
But hold on, just before he’s due to enter school, Bill now decides he really wants to go into the Peace Core instead! He applied there too, because he wasn’t sure he would get into PT school. But, if he goes into the Peace Core, there’s no guarantee he’ll get back into the PT program at U of I when he returns. At best, they’ll start the process over again.
An “elder son,” would have known what to choose. You do the right thing, and stay the course – go to PT school. Not Bill! He went into the Peace Core, to Malawi on the east coast of Africa, and loved it so much, after his first year, he begs to stay a second year.
My dad was crestfallen. His favorite son had tricked him? and thrown his gift away?!
But it wasn’t all bad. I mean, you could say Bill squandered his PT opportunity, but not to turn it into dissolute living. He was doing “good” by joining the Peace Core, using his pre-med degree to help others in Malawi who had little access to affordable health care.
Long story short, before Bill even returned home, my dad and mom can’t wait to see their son, and plan a trip and go see him in Africa. They run to him a continent away, and all is forgiven! They were reconciled, and had a great visit.
I think Bill, like a lot of us, has a little of both sons in him – the younger and the elder son. The younger son in the parable is definitely reckless, impulsive, and, well – young! He wants to see the world, do something. And in his youth, he does some stupid stuff, and then on top of it, runs into some bad luck. When his money is gone, there is a famine, and even the job he gets isn’t enough to sustain him. Hunger itself, is enough to drive him home. Whether or not he’s sorry for what he did and truly repentant, is not totally clear. We know he has to initiate Plan B, crawl back to daddy, hang his head and ask for servant’s wages, because he knows even that is a lot better than what he’s getting feeding the pigs! Is he just “playing” his dad, or really reformed? It’s open to interpretation.
The point is, the Father is amazingly welcoming. Probably more than he should be, right. At least according to the way the world works as we know it. But, this is his youngest son! He thought he may never return, that maybe he had died, out there in the famine. So what does it matter what he did. Family is family – what was lost is found – and he runs out to meet him and in his loving exuberance he gives him the signs and symbols of full son-ship again: robe, ring and sandals, not just servant.
And, the Father declares a party with all the best foods to celebrate. And everything is good again.
Except that, well, family is family! We all have dysfunction in our families. And in this one, no one thought to invite, or make sure the elder son was informed of, the music and dancing and food. And so, in his resentment upon discovering the celebration, the elder son became angry! Or, for those of us who are elder brothers or sisters, I should add, he became understandably angry. “Listen,” he tells his father, who had run out to plead with him to come in, “for all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command;” yet you didn’t throw me a celebration, even half as good as this “with my friends.” Pout, pout!
But the elder brother has a point. And, we all need elder brothers in our families and in our congregations. Elder brothers are hard workers, they tirelessly toil to make things right, and lose sleep that maybe they’ve forgotten something. They often have guilty consciences, even though their sins and mistakes barely get noticed. Sins of elder brothers are, well, boring. Their confessions go something like this, ‘Pastor, I’m sorry, but I have agreed to coach my daughter's soccer team, because there’s no one else who will do it, and also, we will be moving my aging mother-in-law into our spare room to take care of her soon, so would it be OK if I didn't chair the stewardship committee next year?’ Yah, that's an elder brother, or sister! So, elders usually never even approach dissolute-living kinds of sins! It’s much harder to repent of being good, especially when you’ve Aced every test, and stayed home to take care of the farm, all alone.
So for elders to find out that, in the end, the realm and kingdom of God is a pass/fail test, and the only way to pass is to “receive” the grace of God, they are crestfallen. What do you mean, it's not about what you achieve, but what you receive? Or, as one elder child put it to me long ago, “I only feel like I can be forgiven, if I’ve managed to never do anything wrong!”
A younger brother or sister tends to look for how to game the system, while the elder can’t help him or herself from trying to hold the whole world together. And they both sin, you could say, in never quite being able to trust, the love of the parent, there is some distance, a fissure, or separation from the parents’ amazing grace, which is the very definition of sin, actually – separation from God.
Paul knew this in describing the power of reconciliation, in the 2nd Reading. God shows us this reconciliation, he says, in the amazing gift of his Son, dying and rising for the world!
Whoever we are, elder or younger, or some combination of the two, we all are surprised, by the “scandalous grace” of God’s love and forgiveness. The hardest part is admitting we have done wrong, and returning home. But if we do that, God’s amazing grace is embarrassingly and overflowingly available. Because, that is what God does – reconcile us, in total – the only gift there is, that can reconcile us, one to another!