2 Cor. 5:16-20Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
About four years ago, I began searching for a church home. The intentional community and house church I had been a part of for almost 20 years had lost critical mass, so I needed a new place to worship. On top of that, I felt quite clearly that God was calling me to ordained ministry in the institutional church—I just didn’t know which one.
Well, after shopping around a bit, I began leaning toward the United Church of Christ. About that time, the UCC kicked off an advertising campaign called “God is Still Speaking,” which included a 30-second television commercial known as the “Bouncer” ad. As the commercial begins, bells are ringing and scores of people are filing into a large church building. The camera then focuses on the front steps, where two big, burly guys are standing behind a rope line and determining who gets in. When two white men approach—appearing to be a gay couple—one of the “bouncers” says in a stern voice: “No. Step aside, please.” The bouncers proceed to let in many other people—all of them white—while turning away a Latino man and an African-American girl, among others. “No way,” they say. “Not you.”
Well, the Pharisees and scribes were the “bouncers” of 1st-century Judaism. They fancied themselves as the keepers of the rope line, and they did not like all the riff-raff and ne’er-do-wells Jesus was inviting to what they believed was their party. It was bad enough that Jesus didn’t join the scribes and Pharisees in openly condemning the tax collectors and sinners, but that he actually welcomed them and ate with them, . . . That was a scandal that violated the common views of good and bad, and offended the Pharisees’ sense of who was deserving of divine attention.
In case you’re having a hard time relating to the Pharisees’ position, let me put it this way: Imagine if Jesus—the rock star, miracle worker and social justice poster child—were to show up today and, instead of checking out his local UCC congregation he decided to hang out with the IRS officials who announced last week they were investigating the United Church of Christ (which, between the lines, means they are threatening the church’s tax-exempt status) for having UCC member Barack Obama speak at last summer’s General Synod.
Things feeling a little clearer for you now? Understand why maybe the Pharisees were feeling put out? Okay.
Jesus understands their feelings too, but—more important than that—he knows the God who follows a completely different set of rules. He knows the God whose love has no limits—no time limits, no three-strikes-and-you’re-out clause, no minimum education or income requirements, no political correctness test, no gender, race, physical ability or sexual orientation restrictions. Jesus knows the compassionate Father-Mother God who—no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done—is always longing to greet us, to take us into His loving arms; to pour out upon us Her radical, restorative forgiveness; to welcome us home; and to celebrate our return with the biggest party we’ve ever seen.
So, Jesus’ responds to the Pharisees’ grumbling with with three parables that feature a common, lost-and-found theme. The first two—the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin—are pretty straightforward. Yes, God delights in welcoming home the lost, but there’s more to it than that. And so Jesus turns his attention to the uneasy relationship between the lost and the so-called saved, the self-righteous and the sinner. “There was a man who had two sons,” Jesus begins.
First, the story goes, there’s a younger son demanding his inheritance—that is, treating his father as if he were already dead. That’s bad enough, but then the son then sets out for a foreign land, where he blows all his money on sinful living and ends up worse off than the pigs he has been hired to feed.
Finally, after much suffering, the younger son “comes to himself.” He is too ashamed of himself to think he might reclaim his place as the son of a wealthy man, but he hopes this connection will at least save his life. And so he turns toward home.
And you know the rest of the story:
How the spurned father, seeing his wayward son from afar, is “filled with compassion.” Throwing off what little dignity he has left, he runs down the road to embrace his beloved child, who now is little more than skin and bones and smells like . . . swine, to put it politely. The son begins to blurt out his rehearsed repentance speech, but the father interrupts him. “Hurry,” he tells his servants. “Bring out the best for him; pull out all the stops to celebrate the fact that my child who was dead is alive again; he was lost but now he is found.”
Suddenly the scene shifts, and we remember: Oh, yeah, doesn’t this guy have two sons? And, sure enough, there’s the first-born: the dutiful, responsible son who has always followed the rules, respected the traditions and colored between the lines, knowing that his good behavior would be rewarded. But when he finds out that his father has killed the fatted calf for that no-good, spoiled-rotten, never-worked-a-day-in-his-life kid brother of his, he is filled with anger and resentment.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not that any of us has ever harbored such feelings, of course, but we know people who have. Out of fairness to the older son and these other people, it’s worth noting that his concerns were not only for himself. His brother had disgraced the family and rejected the culture and, well, the way his father was treating him just wasn’t fair. The older son was a member of his temple’s social justice board—excuse me, the social justice ministry team—and, well, didn’t someone need to stand up for what was right?
Or, think about the black people of South Africa. They suffered genocide, dehumanization, forced removal, impoverishment, dehumanization, the break-up of families, oppression, torture, deprivation, murder, imprisonment and a thousand daily indignities for more than 300 years. When they finally won their right to vote, when a black man (a former political prisoner) was elected president of their country, didn’t they have the right to take back what had been stolen from them? Do you think they wanted God to throw a party for the architects of apartheid?
Or how about the black South African women who, as part of the new government’s truth and reconciliation process, met face-to-face with the security police and government officials who had tortured and murdered their husbands and sons. Didn’t they deserve to see the perpetrators brought to justice?
Back in our parable, the older son is concerned only with rules and rewards, justice and punishment. He focuses only on deeds—the evil his brother has committed compared to the good he has done. He does not even acknowledge his connection to the prodigal or to his father, practically spitting out the words “this son of yours.”
But the father speaks only in terms of relationship. The parent’s concern is not for one child over the other but for what is best for the entire family. “Son,” he says lovingly, “this brother of yours, this child of mine,was dead and has come to life.” The fatted calf has been killed to celebrate not only the prodigal’s return but also the restoration of the family; the robe and the ring are for the prodigal, but everyone is invited to the party.
In the new South Africa, opportunities for justice and revenge have played out this way:
When the black majority won control of the government in 1994, it began working with all people—black, white, brown and mixed—to create a nation for all people. Among other things, the new government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that sought to expose the truth of the nation’s past—not to guarantee restitution to victims or offer blanket amnesty to perpetrators, but to make possible a different future. The commission focused on what would be best for everyone, on how to promote healing and thus enable reconciliation.
Sadly, we don’t get a satisfying resolution to the story of the lost sons; the parable ends with the older son still outside. We don’t know if he continues to sulk or eventually joins the party.
In a similar way, I left you in the middle of the UCC “Bouncer” commercial. Well, after the bouncers have locked some people out of the church and let others in, the screen fades to black, and the following words appear: “Jesus didn’t turn people away.” Then, on another screen: “Neither do we.” Finally, as the camera pans a diverse crowd, a voiceover says, “The United Church of Christ: No matter where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”
Well, you know what they say: God moves in mysterious ways. I so strongly believe that God is still speaking, and I was so excited about the inclusiveness portrayed in the “Bouncer” ad, that a television commercial was the tipping point that brought me—a person whose television stays unplugged 95 percent of the time—into the UCC.
That’s funny, but here’s the “mysterious” part: Now that I am blessed to be part of this denomination that prides itself on openness and inclusiveness, I realize that openness and inclusiveness are not enough.
We as a church and as individuals may think we’ve got our “inner bouncer” under control; we may even pat ourselves on the back for the welcome we extend to all people. Here at First Church, we take pride in our long history of inclusiveness.
But when it comes to what some others have done to people like us, or what they believe about the Bible, or what they think about the war, or what kind of car they drive, which political party they’re in, or where they live or how they smell . . . We want justice, we want fairness, we want correctness and sameness.
How easy it is, like the older son and the Pharisees and scribes, to let our concern for doing what is right and just become smug, judgmental self-righteousness. How easy it is, as we celebrate our inclusivity and open doors, to forget that loving as God loves requires more than opening the door when someone knocks. Loving as our merciful, forgiving and reconciling God loves means opening the door wide and then going out into the streets to invite all people in.
The subversive message of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the radical word of the new South Africa, the good news of the Gospel is that yes, justice is vital. But relationship trumps justice. Connectedness is more important than agreement. The moral of the Prodigal Son is that our common humanity—which includes doing wrong, and being wronged, and recognizing that every person sits in his or her own pool of tears1–our common humanity overrides our differences, our victimization, our marginalization, our isolation, and even our tendency to keep our faith to ourselves—out of respect for others, of course.
While we often clamor for retributive justice and conditional acceptance, uniformity and reward, God offers mercy, forgiveness and a seat at the table—equality, diversity, and identity in relationship. In South Africa it’s called ubuntu: The spiritual connection we all share as children of God means that our destiny is tied up together. We become ourselves only through relatedness, through community, by caring for one another. We honor one another even as we acknowledge the pain we cause each other.
“If repentance for the younger son [in the parable] means learning to say “Father” again, writes Henri Nouwen, “then for the elder son it means learning to say “brother” again. . . . In the world of the parable, one cannot be a son [or daughter] without also being a brother [or sister].”2
This parent, the one who is always watching for the prodigal’s return, the one who runs down the road to embrace the ungrateful, disrespectful, always-in-trouble child, this is the God we worship, the Creator we serve, the Love who knows no limits. We are ambassadors for this Christ, the second Corinthians reading tells us; God is counting on us to reconcile with and love people the way God does, it says.
In other words: We are called to be door-openers in God’s kingdom, not gatekeepers.
I’ll leave you with this image from South Africa: High on a hill above Pretoria, there is a place called Freedom Park. Still under construction, it is part monument to a horrible past, part living testament to all the cultures, colors, languages, histories and traditions that have made South Africa what it is, and part hope—hope that by acknowledging, grieving and celebrating all aspects of South Africa’s past, all the people of South Africa can work together to build a new future. Freedom Park symbolizes the power of forgiveness, the possibility of reconciliation, and the liberating embrace of human connectedness that allows a black South Africa woman to say, as she recalls her encounter with the apartheid official who ordered the murder of her husband:
“I hope that when he sees our tears, he knows that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him as well . . . I would like to hold him by the hand, and show him that there is a future, and that he can still change.”3
God wants to hold us by the hand this morning; God wants to show us there is a future; and God wants us to offer the same hand and the same future to one another and our world.