The Extravagance of Reconciliation

SERMON 

Lent 4 

31 March 2019

Joshua 5:2-12 

Psalm 32 

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 

Luke 15:11-32 

©Sue Wilton 

The Extravagance of Reconciliation 

Context, as they say, is everything. The very famous parable of what is  popularly referred to as “The Prodigal Son” is the third of a series of  stories Jesus tells about something being lost; the lost sheep, the lost  coin, the lost son. These stories are told to a particular audience and for a  particular purpose. Jesus launches into these illustrations at a moment  when “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to  him” and we know the Pharisees and scribes were there listening as well  because they were the ones grumbling; “This fellow welcomes sinners  and eats with them.”  

In the minds of these religious folk, Jesus is welcoming and giving  approval by his actions of those whose behaviour puts them outside the  law. This is about who is in and who is out. What is clean and what is  unclean. Who has a place at the table, and who may be considered an  object of charity, but ultimately should be left outside when the party is  on. 

What today’s parable makes clear is that this is not the way Jesus views  the world. Jesus comes to seek out and gather the lost – whether they be  the lost younger son who has travelled away from the father, (paralleled  by the sinners and tax collectors) or the lost older son, who has remained  but is nevertheless separated from the father in his resentment and  hostility (represented in Jesus’ audience by the group of scribes and  Pharisees). Both can find the same cure: to let go of their miserly  assessment of the Father’s love for them and embrace the extravagant  generosity of the One who calls all creation around the one table and into a joyful reconciliation with God and one another. 

Labels which define others as different in some way can get in the way of  dinner party conversation. If you have ever sat around a table with  someone with whom you disagreed on politics or religion, or who comes  from a different cultural background or even gender or generation, you  may have a sense of the way labels can isolate us from one another and  make interactions forced and awkward. Even if you come to the table  with good will, the difference can create a powerful sense of division.  

I love the story the Celtic spiritual teacher John Philip Newell tells of a  time back in the 80s when he encounters a childhood friend, Jack, who  had recently come out as gay. John and his wife want to welcome and  

affirm his friend, but they, at least in part, still felt uncomfortable about  Jack’s sexuality. They decide to invite Jack and his partner around for  dinner. A few days before the dinner party, Jack calls and tells John and  his wife that they are vegetarians. At that time, John comments,  “vegetarianism was as strange to me as homosexuality.” But, seeking to  welcome his friends, they carefully prepared the meal. The dinner party  began well, with an atmosphere of friendly politeness, until John’s wife  brought in the main course. Smiling, she said as she placed the steaming  dish on the table, “It’s been a long time since I cooked a homosexual  meal.” There was a moment of stunned silence before the laughter  began. After that, the awkwardness vanished- the discomfort they were  feeling was out in the open and they were free to let go of division,  sharing in the joyful release of a ridiculous moment that took them past  the labels and their own anxieties to the essence of the humanity of one  another.1 

There is a reason why Jesus spends so much time eating and drinking  with people and using the metaphor of a banquet for the kingdom of  God. Around the table all are equal and we all share in the same  conversation, the same laughter and the nourishment of the same good  food. Both the younger son and the older son are invited to the party in  the story; invited to lay down their pride and their difference, their  resentment and their mistakes.  

We don’t ever find out if the elder son decides to join the party. We can  be sure there would have been lots of laughter regardless, and lots of  gentle moments of the younger son restoring relationships with those in  the community his departure had wounded.  

Part of the power of this story is that it enables us to reconcile the  younger and the elder son who both exist within us. At different times of  your life, if you have known this story for a long time, you may have  identified with either the elder or the younger son. The truth is that we  carry both within us.  

If you are like me, you will find the elder son particularly unattractive and  resist identifying with the judgement and resentment in the part he plays.  We may think that we would welcome a wayward younger brother and  sit down at the table, but are there other scenarios that might leave us  more resistant? How do we really feel, for example, we who have been  faithful all these years in the church, if younger people come and begin to  teach us new ways of seeing the gospel and a different approach to being  the church? Will we turn around and just join the party? Or how do we  feel if the voice of the Spirit seems to be finding the strongest voice in the  mouths of those whom society struggles to accept and affirm? Will we be  able to see past the labels that divide us and take our place at the table?  When we find this older son lurking in the complex of selves that we find  within us, could we have the courage to hear God’s blessing over us, “My  son, my daughter, you are always with me and all that I have is yours.” 

Perhaps in the Lenten season, you may gravitate more naturally to the  younger son. The youngest is often seen as the penitent one – restored to  relationship because of his repentance. Yet it is not the younger son’s  repentance which is on show here. If he was being accepted based on the  depth of his contrition, he would have never have made it back through  the door of his father’s house. After all, the main motivation for his return  seems to have its origin in his stomach; “How many of my father’s hired  hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” But whatever the original motivation, his identification with his failures is  strong. The younger son returns to the house intent on not being a son  but a servant. He does not think of himself as having made a few mistakes but as the one who no longer has an identity in the family. This kind of  identification with sin creates a resistance to grace that is hard to  overcome.  

If we take a moment to reflect we may find similar areas of resistance in  our own hearts; parts of ourselves we believe God cannot touch, cannot  heal. In a strange way we can cling to that within ourselves which we  deem unworthy- and in so doing resist the exuberant celebration of all  God would pour out upon us. This is what is at the heart of the prayer we  are using at the Eucharistic invitation during Lent. “Lord, I am not worthy  to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” This is not a  prayer meant to emphasise our unworthiness- rather it is a prayer that  courageously invites us to stop identifying with our failures and our  brokenness and to allow the Spirit of God to heal every part of us and  draw us into deeper communion. They are words of joyful surrender as  we discover that we do not even have to make it back to the house  before the motherly, fatherly God runs out to us in the street and dances  up the road with us so the party may begin.  

The character in the story we may not allow ourselves to identify with, of  course, is the father. We may believe that is the role of God alone, and  we can never aspire to playing that part in the story. Maybe we are still  attached to our past failures or diminished self-image. When we accept that God delights in our very being, we can then embrace our call to be the father…the mother…who offers forgiveness and blessing to others.  We have it in each of us to bring healing where there is division and grace  as we have been graced. When we finally can live into our identity as sons  and daughters of love, then we too can know the extravagant joy of  throwing wide the doors and welcoming our brothers and sisters to the  party.  

+Amen

1 From John Philip Newell, (2015) The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, Vermont.  p111

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