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Sermon for Sunday 6 March 2016

FIRST READING Isaiah 12:1-6

1You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. 2“Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” 3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4And you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. 5“Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. 6Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”


PSALM Psalm 32

1 Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! 2 Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile! 3 While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. 4 For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer. 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. 6 I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin. 7 Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them. 8 You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. 9 “I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with my eye. 10 Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.” 11 Great are the tribulations of the wicked; but mercy embraces those who trust in the LORD. 12 Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the LORD; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

SECOND READING 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

GOSPEL Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear {Jesus}. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:
11“There was a man who had two sons. 12And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in 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 into his fields to feed pigs. 16And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 17“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”’ 20And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21And 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 servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”



A young father tells the story of putting his 4-year-old daughter to bed one evening. As was customary, he would read at least one story and on this evening it just so happened to be the story of the Prodigal Son. They discussed how the younger son had taken his inheritance and left home, living it up until he had nothing left. Finally, when he couldn’t even eat as well as the pigs, he went home to his father, who welcomed him. When they finished the story, the Dad asked his daughter what she had learned. After thinking a moment, she quipped, “Never leave home without your credit card!” I guess that’s one way of looking at this story, but I doubt that’s what Jesus had in mind.
For many kids today, the idea that they are owed something by their parents, such as endless money, an inheritance, cars, spring vacations and the like, is more common place than we’d like to admit. In our selfie-stick, narcissistic, self-centered, entitlement minded society, the idea that we are owed what everyone else has is seen as a matter of being fair.
Additionally, we live in a world where the concept of fairness is nearly elevated to a level of worship. If you live or work with children, or even young adults, on a regular basis then you’ll recognize that most squabbles erupt from this very old emotion of feeling somehow slighted or mistreated. For example, he got a new iphone 6 and I’m still using my old Samsung Galaxy S5. I deserve and iphone 6 too! Why does she get to stay up a half-hour later than I do? That’s not fair! She got to sit in the front seat last time. It’s not fair that I always have to sit in the back. Sally’s curfew is 1:30: Why do I have to be home at midnight? And of course the list of what’s unfair goes on. Maybe it’d be good if we enlisted the help of Michael and Marcus to teach us the basics of the legal system in order to help us be better parents.
It seems that today’s parents and child care providers need the wisdom of a judge and the memory of an elephant. We need wisdom to hand down rulings on a moment’s notice and a memory to recall past court cases so that at least a semblance of fairness might be projected to all parties involved. But then again this is nothing new; our obsession with fairness goes back to almost the beginning of creation.
The opinion of fairness is as old as Eden and so deeply imbedded in our collective marrow that most people take it to the grave. We’ve all seen otherwise rational adults argue over their place in line at Wal-Mart. I’ve seen loving family members get in a tiff, after a funeral, over who gets what in the will. All over issues of fairness. Oh we might say to ourselves, “Oh, I would never do something like that.” And then there’s driving on my favorite interstate, I-85. I was coming back from Krystle’s not long ago, waiting patiently as traffic funneled down to two lanes, over near Salisbury, and here come three or four cars blowing past those of us in line, looking for a place to sneak in. What was my reaction? They can wait like the rest of us so I pulled up as close as I can to the car in front of me. They weren’t getting in front of me. It’s not fair.
According to the dictionary, the word “prodigal” is an adjective that means “recklessly wasteful.” “Prodigal” is derived from the Latin word prodigere, which is translated as the verb “to squander.” Therefore, a prodigal son is literally a wasteful son, one who throws away opportunities recklessly and wastefully.
The younger son in this famous parable is a waster. As a matter of fact, he’s probably one of the most famous rogues in the entire Bible. In our soap opera imaginations, we can read between the lines and pencil in all kinds of sordid ways he must have wasted his inheritance. He had a good case of the “gimmee’s.” “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” He then takes the money and blows it on “dissolute living.” The story doesn’t actually go into detail about what such dissolute living entails, but a vast panorama of options stands before a wasteful young man with a pocketful of change.
In 1636, Rembrandt painted a suggestive portrait of a jaunty, saucy, debonair Prodigal with a pencil-thin moustache. He wears a hat with enough plumage to take flight while hoisting a large flute of ale, itself over a foot tall. There’s a young lady on his lap enjoying the fun while (in the original painting) another lass, sans clothing, plays a mandolin in the background. A peacock pie on the table suggests the arrogance of the scene. In Rembrandt and the Bible, a note says that the great painter used himself as a model for this particular canvas, which might tell us more than we’d like to know about how parables are supposed to work.
We all know this story well. We know all about this Prodigal, this waster. And what we don’t know, our imaginations are more than happy to provide. And we know all about the father, too, who takes back his rogue of a son even before the confession gets completely confessed. The father runs across the field and smothers his son with kisses, a robe, a ring, and a huge party. Come to think of it, many would call him a “waster” too. For who would spend so much so foolishly? Especially on somebody who doesn’t deserve it? I don’t know what you’d call it, but I call it a huge waste.
But even though you may have sown a few wild oats in your past, grateful to be taken back and forgiven, my guess is that you probably identify most with the older brother in this old story. Jesus definitely wants His listeners to see the folly in the older brother’s behavior as well, but, if we’re truthful and slip into his shoes for just a second, we’d have to admit that we sympathize with him.
What has the older son been doing as the sun is setting in this story? In short, he’s been working his tail off all day. Make that all month, because he’s been doing his own work plus that of his brother for weeks now. He’s exhausted, his boots smell of animal manure, and he could certainly use a shower. And then he hears it — music and dancing. The Greek word here for “music” is interesting. The older brother hears the symphonia. Not just a fiddle and a banjo player. He hears a “symphony” of instruments, a veritable orchestra of merriment. I guess you could say that befuddled isn’t the right word to describe the older brother’s reaction.
He knows his old man doesn’t throw parties on weekdays. And as he nears the house, someone finally breaks the news. It’s too much to bear. A robe, a ring, and the fatted calf — an unbelievably excessive trinity of welcome for someone’s who’s been a royal jerk. “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me,” said the younger son before he left. I don’t know whether you noticed, but he was asking his dad to execute the will before the old man stopped breathing. In effect, the younger son was saying, “Drop dead, Dad.” It’s enough to make any responsible sibling mad!
So let’s be truthful. Had any of us been in the older brother’s shoes, working double shifts while your younger brother lived it up, would we have gone in to the party? A tongue-lashing, yes. Some clearly-defined way to make up for all the heartache, yes. A definite period of visible remorse, yes. But a party? Let’s be honest. There’s something primitive and basic afoot here that tweaks our sense of moral outrage. We all know why we wouldn’t have gone in: it simply wasn’t fair.
There are many theological nuggets to mine in this old story. But this is perhaps the most basic: God isn’t fair. Sorry. God doesn’t play by our rules, see life the way we see it, or keep score the way we keep it. God isn’t fair. And if we’re honest, we won’t be tickled pink by that. Why? Because it’s precisely a sense of fairness that floats most of our ethical boats.
God isn’t fair. And not only that: God has an ongoing love affair with sinners. He throws a party of rich food and drink to get their attention. He invites the undeserving. Dances with ne’er-do-wells. Slips a ring on their finger. Curious word: “ring.” It appears only here and one other instance in the entire New Testament. Perhaps the implication is that Jesus is eternally “wedded” to sinners. And that’s exactly what older brother is complaining about.
Back outside with the older brother, with his arms folded across his chest, still in need of a shower, all the while taking the moral high road. “But when this son of yours came back … you killed the fatted calf for him.” He cannot even bring himself to acknowledge his brother with a name — “this son of yours.” A sense of unfairness, as you know, can turn venomous rather quickly. The question for us to be asking ourselves is where are we at parable’s end?
Are we inside the party celebrating? Or are we standing outside with our arms folded, refusing to come in? Jesus refuses to tell us how this story ends. The father passionately invites the older son inside, “pleads with him” to join in the welcome. Curiously, however, we’re never told what the older brother decides to do. The story ends but it doesn’t end. You can almost hear the voice of Walter Cronkite saying, “YOU ARE THERE.” Will we RSVP to a party thrown by an unfair God? Or will we stubbornly remain outside? In a world where God does not play fair, this parable forces us to make a choice.
Who is the real “prodigal” here? Who is the real “waster”? From the beginning Jesus says that this is a story about two brothers. Which one is the authentic prodigal? Which one has yet to come home to the Father’s extravagant love? We can waste our lives keeping score and complaining about unfairness. We can harbor grudges to the grave. We can completely misunderstand what Jesus is all about even as we worship every Sunday. We can waste life waiting for apologies, waiting for people to act decently and fairly, waiting for others to earn our forgiveness and acceptance. Jesus waited on none of those things. As I recall, His words as they nailed His hands and feet, His words as they rammed the crown of thorns over His brow until the blood trickled were not: “You’ll get yours, sucker.” Remember? It was “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He too has a gracious dad who welcomes sinners.
Every Sunday, God throws a party for sinners. Some of us have recently been in a “far country” and we are making our way back home. Others are, perhaps, working hard in the fields of the Lord for years, have slipped into a Christianity that is more about controlling God’s love than celebrating it. An orchestra of voices, a symphonia, a communion of saints, calls one and all to the table. The judge of the world presides. But we must face the facts; God is not fair. God will not play favorites and He clearly likes to throw a party. So who is the real prodigal?
It’s not the one with a shady past. It’s the one who stays outside. The one who could not bring himself to forgive. “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” The one we usually call “prodigal” is alive. Found. That means the dead one, the lost one, is the one who stubbornly chooses to remain outside the Father’s party. And that my friends, is a true waste.

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