March 6, 2016
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s the first sentence of Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. Today’s Gospel lesson is also a classic story about a uniquely troubled family. If you ever feel like your relationships are too messy to be part of God’s family, then this story is for you. Jesus told this story over 2000 years ago, and it’s been told again and again—to and by Christians of every time and place—because it’s a story that never gets old. If it resonates for you, you fit right in, because church is composed entirely of saintly sinners and sinning saints.
So, onto the story of this unhappy family. It begins with the younger son saying, essentially, “Dad, I wish you were dead, so I could get my inheritance now!” We don’t know what led up to this scandalous rudeness—nor do we learn anything about how the older brother reacts to his sibling’s request—but we do know that the father goes along with it. So the younger son goes off with all his money “to find where demons dwell” as the hymn Borning Cry puts it.
For awhile the younger son has fun, but Jesus’ original listeners would have understood just how low he’s sunk when he ends up in a foreign land, feeding pigs. It can’t get much worse for a nice Jewish boy than to wait on religiously and culturally unclean animals. To add insult to injury, he only stays alive because the pigs are generous enough to share their food with him. That’s how unhappy this young man’s rebellion makes him.
Don’t you wonder why the father—who surely could have commanded his servants to go out after the boy and bring him back home—doesn’t do that? Maybe he guesses that if he brought the boy back forcefully, the child would resent him, and run off again as soon as he got a chance. Or maybe the boy’s father and mother actually go searching for him, night after night, under the bridges and in all the local bars and brothels. Perhaps they have even glimpsed him on occasion, but he wasn’t ready to return to them yet. Maybe, as our friends in AA describe it, he still needed to “hit bottom.” And his parents had to love him enough to let him find his own way home.
When he does finally “come to himself,” it’s because he realizes that even his father’s servants live better than he is living. He begins his journey home, rehearsing his apology along the way. Clearly the father has been waiting for the boy, because “while he was still a long way off,” the father sets off running toward him. It would have shocked the first hearers of this story to imagine a distinguished head of a household throwing away his dignity by running. But he runs, not caring what anyone thinks. And before his son can confess his sins and ask for pardon and a position as a slave in the household, his father is embracing him, calling for gifts to give the boy.
The father does not ask for an explanation or apology. He does not lay down rules for how the boy is to behave if he is to be re-integrated into the family. Instead he just heaps gifts on this wayward child. The presents he gives make a statement, and that statement is that the boy is not going to be received as a servant, but as a powerful free man. The cloak suggests the wearer is royalty, or at least a distinguished person. Then he is given sandals. In this country—and I imagine in others—slaves were often kept barefoot because it made their running away less likely. See what enormous confidence and trust the father confers on his boy who has, after all, run away before?
But the real surprise is the ring. Signet rings were worn by people with authority, and used to seal important documents. The dad would have worn a ring bearing the insignia of the master of the house. If he’s giving such a ring to his son, he’s also giving him the authority to command whatever he wishes in the father’s name. The father is entrusting his fortune and his credibility to this son who has shown himself to be anything but trustworthy.
Finally, the father calls for the fatted calf to be killed and a feast arranged. It looks like we are entering familiar territory now. We are comfortable with stories showing God hosting a heavenly banquet. But before we get to relax into our expectations, we have to notice that something is out of place. The father is not where he should be, at the head of the table, toasting the lost son who is now found, and encouraging everyone to partake of the fatted calf. No, the father is out on the back porch, begging his other son to come inside.
This dad could have sent a servant out there to command the older boy to come inside. He had that kind of power. But he doesn’t. He chooses to leave the party in order be beside his angry child, who is complaining that he’s being treated like a slave while his bratty little brother gets things he never earned or deserved.
I wonder if this brother, too, had a cloak and shoes and a ring? After all, he also received half of his father’s inheritance when the younger brother insisted on the scheme. “All that is mine is yours,” the father assures his son. The citizens of the kingdom of heaven have all its benefits at our fingertips all the time.
There are many things we still do not know when the story ends—does the elder brother ever go in to the party? Does he tell his father that he understands now, and will be kinder to his brother and more appreciative of what he has? Or does he go on pouting? What happens the next day? Does the younger boy go out into the fields with his older brother? Do they work hard side by side, striving to understand and respect each other, learning to live like grateful children of a generous father now? Does the family reconcile, becoming one of those happy families that Tolstoy finds so boring?
I bet those questions are left unanswered so that we will have to wrestle with our own answers. Every time I hear this story I get pulled into its questions again. Who am I in this story? Am I like the younger brother, turning my back on God and the community of love God has provided for me? Do I consider how my behavior affects others? Do I squander the gifts entrusted to me? And on those occasions when I do repent, do I disrespect God’s love by trying to be a dutiful servant instead of part of the family?
Or am I more like the older brother, resenting the attention and care God lavishes on outcasts and sinners instead of privileging those who genuinely try to be good? Do I ignore the benefits of being God’s beloved child, and instead see myself as captive to rigorous expectations? Do I let resentment fester instead of recognizing that I have been freed to live joyfully? Do I heed God’s correction when I angrily refer to someone else as “this child of yours,” and God reminds me we are talking about “this brother of yours”? Am I authentically invested in the welfare of my sisters and brothers, or do I reserve my compassion and care for those I think deserve it?
No matter which brother feels more like you today, no matter how well or ill behaved we are, no matter how respectful or disrespectful we are of our sisters and brothers (or of our God), we are all embraced by God. God draws us in as tenderly as a parent of a willful child. Even when we are frustrating, God calls us family. Our almighty God will not use that might against us, but instead listens to us, blesses us, and turns us toward reconciliation with each other and with God. There is a party going on, and all of us are invited! Through our baptisms, we are all given full citizenship in the kingdom of God forever. As citizens, all that God has is ours.
For that reason, we can take seriously what Paul says in his letter to the church in Corinth—that “if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation.” That’s us! We are new creations, no longer trapped in old ways of bitterness or self-destruction. In Christ, we can let go of whatever it is that prompts us to exclude our sisters and brothers, our parents/children/grandchildren, our neighbors, our enemies. We are all peers, gathered around one table. In the kingdom of God, everyone gets shoes and a cloak and a ring. We all have the authority to act as Christ’s ambassadors, no matter what winding way we took to arrive at the family feast.
As new creations in Jesus, called to be ambassadors of Christ, we are commissioned to model his way of reconciliation and oneness. It isn’t easy. It is, however, our job. It is why this congregation voted to become what is known as a Reconciling in Christ congregation back on Jan. 27, 2014. We wanted to explicitly claim that here, in this place, no one will be held at arm’s length because of their sexuality or gender identification or any other characteristic. We wanted to acknowledge that we are sisters and brothers, none of us is more or less deserving of God’s embrace than anyone else. We have chosen to make an overt statement to LGBTQ people, to their friends and families, and to the wider world, that in this corner of God’s world, everyone has a seat at the feast.
We humbly acknowledge that we are not reconciled, but still reconciling. We also admit that those who choose to remain outside the party pouting are also still God’s beloved children, still part of the family, even when they annoy us and are annoyed by us.
So let us renew our commitment to be reconciled to God and to each another. In a world that wants us to distrust anyone who thinks or acts differently than we do, that encourages us to say awful things to and about each other, let us rededicate ourselves to being a different kind of community. Let’s feast together, looking at one another with compassion, forgiving each other, learning from each other, and striving to connect—especially with those we don’t quite understand. We rededicate ourselves to meeting regularly around the generous table of our surprising God who keeps welcoming us home again and again.
Let’s not keep this a secret. Let’s be loud and proud about being a welcoming church! Our family—no matter how dysfunctional—is one that talks the talk and walks the walk of reconciliation, even when it’s messy. Especially when it’s messy.
This story is to be continued …
~Pastor Susan Schneider