Sunday, March 27, 2016

"Idle Talk or Gospel Truth?" A sermon preached Luke 24:1-12 on Easter Sunday at Littlefield Presbyterian Church

"Idle Talk or Gospel Truth?"

Luke 24:1-12

         Those of you who were here on Palm Sunday or Maundy Thursday heard the powerful story of how Jesus offered his life in the ultimate act of sacrificial love and was crucified on the cross.   The gospel story tells us how the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross and taken to a nearby tomb...  and sealed in with a big stone that was rolled against the opening.   
            There wasn’t time to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial before the Sabbath began,  so in the darkness just before sunrise on the day after the Sabbath, the women head back to the tomb, bringing the spices and ointments they need to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial.       
When they get to the tomb, they find that the stone has been rolled away, and the tomb is empty!  The women are standing there, not knowing what to make of what they see,  when suddenly two men in dazzling white clothes are standing  beside them.   They’re terrified!    They bow down in awe.   But the men say to them, “Why are you looking for the LIVING among the DEAD?  He is not here...  but has risen.  Remember how he told you--while he was still in Galilee-- that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?”       
            The women run back to tell the rest of the disciples.   But they don’t believe them.  The news seems to them an “idle tale.”   Actually, as David Lose points out, that’s a fairly generous translation of the Greek word leros.  The word is the root of our word “delirious.”  So it seems they thought what the women were saying was crazy—utter nonsense.[1]
            And, if we’re to be honest, who can blame them?  Resurrection isn’t about a claim that Jesus’ body was resuscitated.  It’s a claim that God created an entirely new reality.  But it flies in the face of common sense.  Dead men don’t just get up and walk out of their tombs. Resurrection breaks all the old, familiar rules that help us to understand how things work in the world.
            Then-- as now--  we often don’t know how to respond to the unexpected… things that don’t fall neatly into our preconceived ways of thinking.  So Peter gets up and runs to the tomb to check things out for himself.  He stoops down and looks in, and he sees the linen grave cloths lying there empty.  Then he heads for home, amazed at what had happened. 
            The first disciples were reeling with grief.  Their beloved friend, their leader-- the one person on whom they had staked everything, had just been tortured and killed.  Now his body had disappeared.   Everything that was happening that first Easter was new… unfamiliar…strange.   It was hard to take it all in.
            Each of the gospels makes it clear that the disciples didn’t come quickly to believe in the resurrection.  They respond with a mixture of emotions:  fear…great joy…amazement…and doubt.   It takes more than an empty tomb for the disciples to understand and to become believers.
            And yet the disciples do follow Jesus after the resurrection.  Some even follow him to their own deaths. 
            The tomb is empty, and Christ is risen.  Death does not have the final word.  Love and life are stronger than fear and death.   Everything is new.  Anything is possible with God. 
            This was a perplexing new reality.  But they follow in faith--without fully grasping the meaning of it all. 
            Isn’t that what a lot of us do?  You and I may not fully understand what happened on that first Easter Sunday long ago.  That’s why we call it a mystery!   But every now and then, if only for a fleeting moment, Jesus is especially alive and real to us.
            In the coming weeks we’ll hear some of the stories about how the Risen Christ appeared   to his disciples.  They recognize him as the Risen Christ. Then he vanishes from their sight. 
            It’s a pattern that’s common in the resurrection stories.  Jesus is there.  Then he’s gone.  Though they experience his presence, they can’t grab on to him and keep him there.  But they come to know the Risen Christ in powerful ways in their daily lives and work.
            It was not at the empty tomb that these people came to know the Risen Christ.  It was as they sought to follow him--as they experienced his power and love in their lives and among the community of faith-- that they knew his presence.  As they followed the Risen Christ, they were transformed into Easter people!
            In the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, the first disciples were huddled behind locked doors, trembling in fear.   But over time they were transformed and empowered to witness to the Gospel.
             In the early days of the church growing numbers of people came together for prayer and to study the scriptures   and became more and more generous and loving in their relationship with others.  People looked at Christians and exclaimed, “See how they love one another!  See how joyful they are!”  And they wanted to be a part of that movement.  Even though, in the earliest centuries of the church, following Christ could bring persecution, the church grew like wildfire and transformed the world.
            The Risen Christ is present in the lives and in the work of those who seek to follow him—those who, even if they don’t comprehend the meaning of the resurrection fully...  even if we can’t explain exactly what happened on that first Easter.  The Risen Christ is present among the living—among the faithful. 
            The Risen Christ has been present with the faithful throughout history.  We remember some of their names:   Francis of Assisi…and Hildegarde of Bingen… Dietrich Bonhoeffer….  Archbishop Romero…Margin Luther King… and Mother Theresa… and others known and unknown to us.  
            The Risen Christ is present among the living:  among ordinary people who work tirelessly and joyfully building Habitat houses for poor people… and cleaning up and rebuilding after disasters… developing job skills at Focus Hope.        
            The Risen Christ is with those who prepare meals and sort clothes to serve the homeless and desperately poor people who are the guests at Fort Street Open Door.
            The Risen Christ is with us when we assemble health and school kits and baby layettes for those in need…and when we share God’s love through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering.  
            The Risen Christ is with the faithful remnant of Palestinian Christians who witness to their faith in the Holy Land...and with those whose faith empowers them to work for God’s justice and peace.
            The Risen Christ is present when congregations become communities of welcome and hope and healing and empowerment, where broken and hurting people find support and encouragement and help and healing.
            The Risen Christ is present with a congregations that emerge from  sadness over the losses they’ve experienced   and their anxiety about survival...  and make a new beginning for a new time with courage and a sense of adventure   and openness to follow wherever Christ leads.

            At Easter, part of what we celebrate is Jesus’ victory over death   and our own hope of life beyond death through our faith in him.  That’s an important dimension of Easter.
            But there’s another dimension that sometimes we miss--  the present dimension.  We are called to participate in it now, because Christ is alive and present with us.   When we place our TRUST in the risen and living Christ, we can experience new freedom and strength and courage.  We can experience new life, as God’s Easter people.
            Most Sundays, as part of the act of confession, I declare to you in the declaration of forgiveness:  “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.  The old life has gone.  A new life has begun.”
            The good news of Easter invites us turn from the power of sin and evil … and to live a new life, as we follow the Risen Christ in the way of self-giving love and justice and peace. 
            In his “Parable of the Eagle,”  James Aggrey tells of a man who found a young eagle in the forest.  He took the orphaned eagle home and put it in his barnyard with his chickens, where it soon learned to eat chicken feed...  and to act like a chicken.
            One day a naturalist who was passing by asked why an eagle--  the king of all birds--  should be living in a barnyard with chickens.  The owner said,  “Since I’ve raised it to be a chicken, it never learned to fly.   It behaves as chickens behave, so it’s no longer an eagle.”
            “But it still has the heart of an eagle,”  said the naturalist.  “Surely it can be taught to fly.”
            After talking it over, the two men agreed to find out whether this was possible.  The naturalist picked the eagle up gently and said,  “You belong to the sky and not to the earth.  Stretch forth your wings and fly.”
            But the eagle was confused.  He didn’t know who he was.  He looked down at the chickens eating their food.  He jumped down to each chicken feed with them again.
            The next day the naturalist took the eagle up on the roof of the house   and tried the same thing with the same results. 
            The third day he took the eagle to a high mountain where there were some other eagles.  He held it up and said,  “You are an eagle.  You belong to the sky as well as to the earth.  Stretch forth your wings now and fly.”
            He lifted the great bird toward the sun.  The eagle began to tremble as he slowly stretched his wings.  Then, with a triumphant cry, he soared into the air.
            Like the naturalist in that story, the risen Christ invites you and me to live as Easter people.   Jesus invites each of us to put our trust in his power and love, and to follow him in the life of joy and peace and abundance he offers us.   We are called to live more and more fully into our God-given identity as beloved children of God, and to live into hope.      
            The first disciples went to the tomb that first Easter looking for a dead Messiah.  But what they found was an empty tomb.   They were confused and fearful.  But within a few days, the followers of Jesus were telling the world that Christ, the King of Love, was alive and making all things new.  

            We have come to the tomb and found it empty.  Like those first disciples, we have been given a mission and a message to tell the others.  We, too, need to look beyond the empty tomb...  and trust God to show us the risen and living Savior and the new life to which we are called.  
            Like those first disciples, we are witnesses of amazing things.
            So--  what do we do about that?  Tune in--  same time, same place--  next Sunday and the following Sundays, as we discover together more about what it means to be God's Easter people in this new time.
            Easter isn't over at the end of  today.  This is the beginning of Easter-tide, the season when we are led further into God's truth for God's Easter people…further into God’s new creation.
            In this broken and fearful world, “the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freeom, and peace.”[2]
            Every act of love, every deed done in the name of Christ, by the power of the Spirit… every work of true creativity—healing families, doing justice, making peace, seeking and winning true freedom—is an earthly event in a long history of things that carry the resurrection out into the world and anticipate the final new creation.
            The good news for us today is that when we gather in Christ's name, Christ will be with us, calling us into to hope and wholeness and freedom.

            Christ is risen!
            Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 27, 2016

[1] David Lose, in Working Preacher ……..
[2] Brief Statement of Faith, Presbyterian Church (USA), 1991.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"An Extravagant Love": A sermon on John 12:1-11 from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"An Extravagant Love"

John 12:1-11 

I’ve been reminded this week as I worked on the gospel lesson that this is a “fragrant text.”  And that angle of considering the story intrigued me, as I thought about how fragrances can affect how we experience things and remember them.
         Think about it--  about scents that evoke pleasant or painful memories.   Maybe it’s the smell of chlorine, that brings back memories of summers spent at the swimming pool when you were a kid. 
         Those of us who are gardeners look forward to the fragrance of lilac or lavender or hyacinths when they bloom.  Those of us who showed up at the Lenten study got to smell homemade soup and Keith’s amazing three-cheese mac-and-cheese.  Each of us has different comfort foods that evoke feelings of pleasure:  fresh baked apple pie or a favorite dish our mother made.
         Scientists say that while words go to the thinking part of the brain, smells go to the emotion part if the brain—the amygdala.  That’s why the smell of Grandma’s bread baking brings her back to us for a moment, and for some, why a bit of incense is “the smell of the divine.”[1]
         The fragrance of pure nard wouldn’t have evoked warm memories for Mary and Martha’s dinner guests.  It would have reminded them of loved ones’ deceased bodies, prepared for burial.  That would have been a very fresh memory, because they’d been through that very recently with their brother Lazarus. 
         In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, Lazarus was very ill, and his sisters Mary and Martha had sent a message to Jesus.  Though Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was, before he headed to Bethany.  When he got there, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days, and the mourners were there to console Mary and Martha. 
         Jesus went to the tomb and said, “Take away the stone.”  Martha—always a practical woman—said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  But they took away the stone that closed the tomb, and Jesus prayed and then called, “Lazarus, come out!” 
         Imagine the scene, as Lazarus came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of grave cloths, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus told the people, “Unbind him, and let him go.”[2]
         Now, some of the people who witnessed Lazarus coming out of the tomb went to the Pharisees,  and the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said,  “What are we to do?   This man is performing many signs.   If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 
         Caiaphus, the chief priest, prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation.  From that time on, the leaders of the religious establishment plotted to put Jesus to death.  So Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, but stayed with his disciples in a region near the wilderness. 
         The religious leaders kept looking for Jesus and were wondering, “What do you think?  Surely he won’t come to the Passover festival—will he? 

Six days before the Passover, Jesus comes to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus.  Once again the house is filled with family and friends, and the table is covered with food.  Martha is hard at work serving.  Lazarus is reclining with Jesus.        
         John doesn’t give us details about the fragrances at the dinner party.  But we can imagine that there may have been a mingling of death-related smells in the room.  Lazarus is at the dinner table with Jesus—Lazarus who was in the tomb four days before Jesus called him out—about whom his sister said, “But Lord, there’s a stench!”
         Mary slips away and comes back, holding a clay jar in her hands.  Without a word she kneels at Jesus' feet and breaks it open, and the sharp smell of nard fills the room.  She does a series of  remarkable things: 
         In a room full of men, Mary loosens her hair--  which a respectable woman never did in that culture.  She pours balm on Jesus' feet, which also is not done.   Then she touches him-- a single woman caressing the feet of a rabbi.   Also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the salve off again-- with her hair.  It is totally inexplicable-- the bizarre end to an all-around bizarre act.
         Judas is quick to point out how extravagant and excessive Mary’s action is.    "Why wasn't this ointment sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"  That's what Judas wants to know.  A day laborer and his family could live on that much money for a year, and here she has poured it all out on your feet!"
         But Jesus doesn’t see it that way.  "Leave her alone,"  Jesus says, brushing all objections aside.  "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
         Now that is about as odd a thing to say as anything Mary did.  Jesus, who was always concerned about the needs of the poor and marginalized and putting their needs ahead of his own, suddenly pulling rank.  Leave her alone.  You will have the poor to look after until the end of time.  Just this once, let her look after me, because my time is running out.

         Mary’s action is a free and exuberant expression of love and gratitude.  In contrast, Judas sounds practical and calculating, and John tells us that Judas had selfish and dishonest motives as well.
         While Mary’s behavior may have seemed strange to those who were gathered in the house that night, it was no stranger than that of the prophets who went before her.  Ezekiel, who ate the scroll of the Lord as a sign that he carried the word of God around inside of him.  Jeremiah, who smashed the clay jar to show God's judgment on Judah and Jerusalem.  Isaiah, who walked around Jerusalem naked and barefoot as an oracle against the nations.            
         Prophets do these things.  They act out the truth that no one else can see.  Those who stand around watching either write them off as crazy...  or fall silent before the disturbing news they bring from God.
         When Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure nard, it probably could have gone either way.  She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king.  But she didn't do that.  When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees and poured the salve on his feet, anointing him for his death. 
         This was the action of a faithful disciple:  washing Jesus’ feet.  Jesus received from Mary what he would soon offer to his disciples, wiping his feet with her hair, as Jesus will wipe his disciples’ feet with a towel. 
         Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year.   Mary’s act was an extravagant act of love, a model of faithful discipleship—in contrast to Judas’s unfaithful response.  Judas represents the voice of reason and practicality.
         I think this story invites us to identify not just with Mary or Judas. In the figure of Mary, Christian discipleship is an act of adoration and gratitude to the One who is holy.  In her silent, prophetic act, she draws our attention not to herself--but to Jesus.  In the figure of Judas, Christian discipleship is God’s making righteous, or “justification” of those who have rejected or betrayed Jesus. The good news is the grace of  Jesus Christ includes them both, both the faithful and the unfaithful.  Both are included within the bright, transforming light the cross casts in a dark world. [3]

         “And the fragrance filled the room.” 
         One of my colleagues wonders if Mary had the Song of Solomon in her heart. [4]   We don’t normally associate acts of witness with the sense of smell-- but why not?   The smell of freshly baked bread given to another,  a basement full of Peace Camp kids in the heat of summer, the aromas of a meal prepared to share with those in need.

          Steven Shoemaker tells how Anne Smith, who began Charlotte Food Rescue, was hauling a station wagon full of donuts to a food shelter.  She stopped off to make a pitch to executives of what is now Bank of America.  As she rode the elevator to the top floor, someone said, “You smell like donuts!”   She laughed and told why, and by the time the elevator door opened, she had recruited somebody.  “The fragrance of love’s actions is carried on the wind to places we never see.”[5]

         How do we respond to Jesus’ self-emptying, extravagant love?  With a calculating, practical, careful way of life, like Judas?  
         Or does Christ call us to live lives of extravagant love?    

         The heroes in the scriptures are at their best when they live out their faith abundantly, extravagantly.  Noah building an ark when there isn’t a cloud in the sky.   Abraham and Sarah packing up everything they  owned and heading for God only knows where.  Joseph marrying a woman who is pregnant with a child who is not his.  Peter and John announcing to those who imprisoned them, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”   As Paul said, “We are fools for Christ’s sake.”
         Over history there have been other fools for Christ:  Saint Francis, giving up his material wealth, living among the poor.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer returning to Germany and witnessing to his faith, eventually dying for it, rather than staying safely in New York.   Desmond Tutu, challenging the powers that be, when he knew it could cost him.   Fools for Christ do not live a careful, calculating life--  but an abundant, extravagantly loving life.
         Mary’s love was uncalculating.  She was too caught up in her love and gratitude for Jesus to be concerned with her own scandalous behavior and extravagance. 
         Jesus said, I came that they might have life—life abundant.  We are called to a life of extravagant faithfulness.
         Common sense tells us, “Love your friends, the ones who will love you back.”  Our faith calls us to love our enemies.
         Common sense says, “Be kind to those who can help you.”   Our Christian faith calls us to care for “the least”, for those who are most in need. 
         If we follow Christ, we will not calculate what is easiest or what will look best.  If we follow Christ, we will not be stingy or calculating.

         Mary showed us that she was  beginning to understand that we don't need to hold back, out of fear.  Whatever we need, there will be enough to go around, for there is nothing frugal about the love of God,    or about the lives of those who are devoted to him.
         Where God is concerned, there is always more-- more than we can either ask or imagine-- gifts from our extravagant, lavish Lord."[6]

         Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we begin our journey to the cross with Jesus.  I pray that we will find ourselves filled with the sharp, sweet fragrance of love.  May the sweet aroma of extravagant love be so powerful around and on us that what we want—more than anything else—is to fill the world with that same sweet smell of extravagant love.   To do so is to live as Christ would have us live.

[1] The Rev. Dr. Blair Monie, “A Lingering Fragrance.” A sermon posted March 13, 2016 at

[2] John 11:1-44
[3] I am grateful here to George W. Stroup’s insights, in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 2, Lent through Eastertide, location 5070 in the Kindle edition.
[4] Song of Solomon 1:12
[5] H. Stephen Shoemaker, in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, Lent 5c, Location 5187.
[6]Barbara Brown Taylor, "The Prophet Mary," in Bread of Angels (Cowley, 1997), p. 61.

Monday, March 7, 2016

"Two Lost Sons and Their Gracious Father." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 15, the "Parable of the Prodigal Son."

"Two Lost Sons and Their Gracious Father"

Luke 15

The story we know as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is one of three parables Jesus tells in response to how the Pharisees and scribes have been grumbling and criticizing him for welcoming sinners   and even eating with them. 
            Jesus doesn't argue with them.  He just tells them a series of stories, about a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves while he went out after one stray...  about a woman who turns her house upside down in order to find one lost coin...  and about a compassionate father who deals graciously with his two sons. 
            All three stories address the Pharisees' concern that Jesus is condoning sin by keeping company with people they find unacceptable.   All three parables reply that God is too busy rejoicing over found sheep, found coins, and lost children   to worry about what they did while they were lost. 
            Jesus declares:  “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance…. I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
            Although this is a beloved parable, there are some people who really struggle with it.   I think it has to do with which character we identify with.  here are many different interpretations, and a variety of titles.  Personally, I don’t think “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is the best title. I’d prefer something like, “The Two Lost Sons and the Gracious Father.”
            In my study this week, I was reminded of Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,”[1] and spent some time meditating on that image.  I also read Henri Nouwen’s book with the same title.[2]   
            Nouwen tells about his first encounter with the painting when he saw a poster in a friend’s office, and was deeply moved by it.  He said it made him want to cry and laugh at the same time. 
            Several years later, friends invited him to go with them on a trip to the Soviet Union, and they made arrangements him to spend a few hours at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg with the painting that been on his heart and mind for several years.
            The painting is hung in the natural light of a nearby window.  In the hours Nouwen studied it, the light kept changing, and at every change of the light he would see a different aspect revealed.  I think Nouwen’s discovery in this painting points us to the amazing gift this parable is to us.  No matter how often we hear it, there is always a new angle or perspective, a new revelation. 
            Luke the Evangelist tells the story so simply and so matter-of-factly that it’s difficult to comprehend that what happens is un-heard of.  Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey says that the way the son leaves amounts to wishing his father dead.  Bailey writes:
            “For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows:
            “Has anyone ever made such a request in your village? 
            Could anyone ever make such a request? 
            If anyone ever did, what would happen? 
            His father would beat him, of course! 
            The request means—he wants his father to die.”

            Scholars tell us that the younger of two brothers would have expected to inherit a third of the father’s property when he died.  Kenneth Bailey explains that the son asks not only for the division of the inheritance, but also for the right to dispose of his part.  Even after dividing the property and signing over his possessions to his son, normally the father still would have the right to live off the proceeds…as long as he is alive. But this son lets his father know that he can’t wait for him to die, and demanded his money, which would have meant his father would have needed to sell off a third of the family estate.[3]
            The son’s leaving is a rejection of his home and the values of his family and community.  He leaves everything to go to a “distant country.”  He squanders his property in self-indulgent, immoral living.  Then there was a severe famine, and he began to be in need.  He was so desperate that he—this Jewish boy—hired himself out to take care of pigs. 
            In time, the younger son hits bottom.  Out in the pigsty, he finally comes to his senses.  “Here I am starving,” he said to himself,   “when back at home my father’s hired hands have more than enough to eat.”
            As he trudges along the dusty road toward home, he rehearses what he'll say to his father:  "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  So treat me like one of your hired hands."

            Meanwhile, back at home, the father has scanning the horizon, longing to see his son and welcome him home.   When he sees his beloved lost son trudging home, the father is filled with compassion.   He does a very un-dignified thing.  He hikes up his robes and runs to meet him. 
            When he reaches his son, he throws his arms around him and kisses him, before the son has a chance to say anything.  The son starts to apologize:  "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
            Before he can say any more, the father says to his servants, "Hurry-- bring out a robe-- the best one-- and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet." 
            In doing this, he shows that he's welcoming his son back as a son, rather than as a servant.   The son must have been speechless with astonishment.
            But the father isn't through yet.  "Kill the fatted calf," he orders. "We're going to have a feast and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again.  He was lost-- and now he's found!" 
            The household bursts into activity, and soon a joyous feast is underway. 
            The younger son never dreamed that his father loved him so deeply.  There were no "I told you so's."  This son's life was far more precious to the father than being right, or putting his son in his place.  The younger son finally saw deep into his father's heart that day…  and what he saw was pure love.                       

            When the elder son gets back from work, he’s surprised to hear music and dancing.  "What's going on?"  he asks one of the servants. 
            The servant tells him, "Your brother has come home, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound."
            The elder brother refuses to go in to the party.  Luke doesn't tell us why, but my hunch is that he wasn't angry because his younger brother came back.  Maybe he wasn't even angry because his father forgave him.  But the party-- that was another matter.
            Let the sinners come home, by all means.  But what about facing the consequences of your actions?  What about reaping what you sow?    Where's the moral instruction in that kind of welcome? What kind of a world would this be, if we all made a practice of having a party for sinners, while the dutiful, obedient folk are still working in the fields?
            His father comes out and begins to plead with him.  "Your brother has come home, son.  He was lost and now he was found.  Come in to the party and celebrate with us!"
            Do you hear how he answers his father?   "Listen!"  he says.  "For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command!  I've done my duty and followed all your rules.  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!"
            God help him, the elder son.  God help all of us who understand his hurt and resentment that run so deep that we cut ourselves off from the very ones whose love and acceptance we so desperately need.
            "This son of yours,” the elder brother says, excluding himself from the family in those words.   This son of yours, who is no kin to me.  The older son believes his father has chosen the younger brother over him.
            The father knows that he has lost this son to a life of resentful self-righteousness that takes him so far away from his father that he might as well be away in a far country.
            The elder son wants his father to love him as he thinks he deserves to be loved-- because has stayed home and done the right thing, the dutiful thing.  He wants his father to love him for all of that.          
His father does love him, but not for any of that-- any more than he loves the younger brother for what he has done.  He doesn't love either of his sons according to what they deserve.  He just loves them-- more because of who he is than because of what they do.  But the dutiful  older brother can't comprehend a love that transcends right and wrong... a love that throws homecoming parties for sinners and expects the hard-working righteous people to rejoice.
            He can't stand it, and so he stands outside.  Outside his father's house and his father's love--  refusing his invitation to come inside.
                But his father turns out to be a prodigal, too-- at least as far as his love is concerned.  He never seems to tire of giving it away.  "Son," he says,  "you are always with me.  All that is mine is yours."
            "It was necessary that we celebrate and be glad," the loving father says to his older son,  "for this your brother"-- not just my son, but your brother--  "was dead, and is alive.  He was lost and is found."
            In other words, the father is saying, “I’m welcoming my son back because it makes me happy to do it.  I love him as I love you—not because of what either of you deserves…but because you are my children.  I’m thrilled and relieved to have him back home.  The only thing that could make me happier right now would be to have you with me too…to have the whole family at the table together.”
            I don’t think Jesus is telling us that we shouldn’t take sin seriously.  We are all sinners.  But I believe Jesus is showing us that we need to take GRACE seriously.
            It is by God’s grace that we are all beloved children of God.  It is by grace that each one of us receives not the love we deserve—but the love God wants to give us.  Whether we see ourselves more like the older brother or the younger brother, we can rejoice because God loves us all abundantly, out of God’s grace.

            The parable doesn't tell us how it all turned out.  The story ends with the elder brother standing outside the house in the yard with his father, listening to the party going on inside.
            Jesus leaves it that way, I think, because it's up to each one of us to finish the story.  It's up to you and to me to decide.  Will we stand outside the celebration of love and grace?  Or will our yearning for love win us over?
            We're invited to go inside and join the party.  Like the loving father in the story, God refuses to give us the love we deserve...  but persists in giving us the love we need… and rejoices over the return of every lost child.
            Thanks be to God for God’s amazing grace!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
March 6, 2016


[1] Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669.  “Return of the Prodigal Son,” and oil painting likely completed within two years of the artist’s death in 1669.  The original is in  the Hermitage, Museum in Saint Petersburg.
[2] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.  Doubleday, 1992.
[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, quoted in Nouwen, Location 449 in Kindle Edition.