Sisters and brothers in Christ, I’m going to liken every single one of us here today...to the older brother in our Gospel text.
Usually, I want you to put yourself into these stories. Who do you identify with? But today I’m going to tell you: You’re the older brother. Why? Because you’re here at church.
Now maybe there have certainly been times in your life when you’ve identified more with the reckless younger brother. I’m sure many of us can relate to the father as well. (Although, I’ve been reminded by theologians and preachers that none of us can be the merciful parent in this story. Ultimately -- and the point of the story is -- only God can be that…even if you’ve rejoiced at a child’s homecoming or struggled through the pain of a loved ones reckless behavior.)
No, today, you’re the older brother. Because you’re here. And because we can all relate to bitterness. Hard-heartedness. Hard, diligent work through the years. Doing the right thing. And wanting everything to be fair. Because there’s a word we all need to hear from our God again this day: mercy.
Quick recap of the famous story. Little brother, “brattily,” demands his share of the family inheritance. Goes out -- goes far from home -- and blows it. Until he arrives at this scene with the pigs. Couldn’t be any lower than that, especially, remember, for a Jewish audience: Swine are unclean, defiled creatures. He’s hit rock bottom.
But there in the pig pen, he comes up with a plan. “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worth to be called you son; treat me like one of you hired hands.‘ So he sets off…”
Note: there is no sign of or word for “repentance” here! The Greek word for repentance metanoia that we’ve seen before in Luke’s gospel -- nope. The closest we get is that it says, “When he came to himself…” Lots of great discussion on what that means. (from “sobered up” to “discovered who he was”)
I’m convinced, especially given the two parables that precede this one -- the lost sheep (stupid) and the lost coin (dead, inanimate) that that son is pretty much in that categories...plus he’s un-repentant and maybe even preparing to manipulate his father all over again. “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll say this to my father…” He rehearses his lines, like an addict, says what he needs to say to get his next hit. He’s a reckless, self-centered, stupid, lost, worthless son. That’s the image Jesus is so vividly painting in this story. (Love that painting in my office, but John August Swanson’s depiction of the prodigal son is way to beautiful.) This kid is lazy, dangerous trash.
And that’s intentional build-up for the rest of us who are far from lazy, dangerous trash. We haven’t gotten to us yet. Maybe you have been in the pig pen, but you’re here now. You’re the oldest son today.
So I don’t even have to tell you to “imagine” the father lavishing mercy on this deadbeat, mooching, manipulative, robbing younger brother. Yeah -- you know, one commentator reminded me that the fatted calf, the ring, the robe all the stuff the father gave that youngest son was actually the inherited property of the older son’s, right? The whole story starts with “Father, give me my share of the inheritance…” So, everything else belonged to the older brother.
I mean, there is so much here for that older brother to feel bitter about.
Think of all the bitterness that you carry, sisters and brothers in Christ. That’s the whole project this Lent here at the cross -- to acknowledge the bitterness, the hard-heartedness, we bear, and to bring it forward and leave it at the cross.
Ever been jealous when an act of compassion was directed at someone you didn’t think deserved it...AT ALL. “Why should they get that -- they haven’t done anything to deserve it!”
“Why should my deadbeat sister, my lazy brother, my mean neighbor, my late-coming co-worker, my corner-cutting employees, those other Lutherans, that other side of our community -- why should any of those robbing, cheating, lazy, ungrateful, spoiled other people (Samaritans) get the fatted calf slaughtered for them, get a party thrown in their honor…[slowly] when I haven’t even gotten so much as a small goat?!”
Lord, it is hard to be gracious. Like God is gracious.
I’m starting to think this is really a story about the lost older son. We know know where this is going with the youngest, by the time we get to the third story. First it’s the lost, dumb sheep. Then it’s the lost, dead, inanimate coin. So we know what’s going to happen to the prodigal son. He’s going to be found! They all get parties thrown for them! The real gift and twist of this story is the way the father treats the oldest.
And this what God says to us, People in Church:
“You are always with me. And all that is mine is yours.”
Let that soak in this week: God is always with us. God has always got us-always had us-always will. [Baptism of Emma!] Since you were in your mother’s womb, God has held you in love, grace, mercy and peace! And all that I have is yours.
God has entrusted this earth to us to do with it as we please, to manage it as we like, to care for it. The planet is our family farm. God’s trusted it to us. (This is stewardship, btw.)
“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of ours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”
[My friend Kevin Womack’s prayer] “Give us eyes to see what you want us to see today. Give us hearts that are soft and ready to receive what you reveal. And give us courage to apply what what we see and understand to the way that we live for you every day. I pray all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God invites us out of our hard-heartedness, Christ calls us to let go of our bitterness -- pay attention to when you’re feeling bitter this week -- and instead God calls us to celebrate and rejoice. Come join the party.
This grace is amazing which means it’s for everyone: it is for the healing of the nations, the breaking down of barriers that divide, the joining hands and joining hearts of sisters and brothers who are different. This grace is amazing which means it’s for everyone: it is for you and for me -- the lost and the lonely, the broken and the bitter, the angry and the afraid.
This grace is for all. Thanks be to God. AMEN.