A sermon by Dr. John E. (Jay) Phelan at St. John’s the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN.
Sunday, March 27: Lent III
Any first century Jew who heard a story that began, “A man had two sons…” would think, Uh oh. Any story starting this way will only lead to trouble. The Torah is simply full of sibling rivalry. Consider the case of the first siblings—Cain and his younger brother Abel. Here we find not only the first murder, but the first worship war. Cain is infuriated that for some reason his way of worship is deemed inferior to that of Abel and kills him, When God confronts him, he responds with a line that is with us to this day: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The human family does not get off to a very good start. But it continues.
Abraham’s wife Sarah recommends Abraham impregnate her servant Hagar when it is clear that no child is coming to Sarah herself. But when Isaac, Sarah’s son, is born, Sarah forces Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael away. Jacob, Isaac’s son, and the younger twin of Esau famously steals his birthright and then deceives his old, blind father to steal Esau’s final blessing. Understandably Jacob then has to head for the hills before the wrath of Esau. And then there is Joseph, the eleventh and beloved Son of Jacob. He preens before his brothers in his “coat of many colors” and, perhaps unwisely, shares his dreams of supremacy. He appears to be as arrogant as Jacob was deceitful. The brothers, of course, get rid of him by selling him into slavery. The then there is David—another youngest son. He too is an irritant to his older brothers. When the Israelites are at war with the Philistines and David finds his brothers and the entire Israelite army cowering before Goliath he asks, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the Lord.” Irritated, his older brother Eliab responds, “Why have you come here? And who did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness with? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down to watch the battle!” David responds with a perennial example of teenage petulance: “What have I done? Can’t I even talk?” No, more than one son, and for that matter, one daughter—remember Leah and Rachel—meant trouble! Some of you parents have perhaps discovered this.
In this passage, Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem. This middle portion of Luke is a long journey during which Jesus teaches and heals and engages in conflict with his opponents. One nagging question seems to trouble Jesus’ opponents: who is worthy, really, to become part of God’s kingdom? Who is worthy of an invitation to God’s great feast? They were, of course, confident they would have a place—perhaps at the head table. But Jesus irritatingly kept suggesting that the least, the lost, and the losers of Israelite society may also have a place. Jesus told them a story about a man who invited prominent people to a great banquet and when it was ready, they all made excuses. So, he scoured the town for the poverty stricken and marginalized, for the drunks and ne’er do wells, all to make sure his seats were full. Jesus repeatedly tried to make it clear that God had a thing for the marginalized and mistreated, for the tax collectors and sinners.
But clearly Jesus’ opponents didn’t get it. For right after Jesus explains it all we find them once again complaining to anyone that would listen that Jesus
“welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And Jesus responds with another story, “A man had two sons . . ..” At the center of this story is the father. Through his story telling, it seems to me, Jesus has been desperately trying to tell them, and us, what God is like. God is like a patient land owner who gives the unproductive fig tree another chance; God is like a farmer who breaks the rules of Torah to care for his livestock on the Sabbath; God is like a host who invites his humble guests to a better place at the table; God is like a shepherd who tracks down a stupid sheep who has wandered away from the flock; God is like a woman who celebrates finding a lost coin; and God is like a Father who offers love and grace to his- lost sons—because the elder brother is, in his way, as lost as the younger.
The younger son in this story is a lot like the younger sons we have seen in the Torah: slippery, arrogant, profligate. The older son, of course, is dutiful, hardworking, and faithful. The younger son has evidently had it with life on the farm. He is itching to get to the big city. He in effect tells his dad to drop dead. He simply can’t wait around for the old man to die. He has to have his inheritance now. And scandalously, his father gives it to him. And he heads off to the far country, as the KJV graphically puts it, to “waste his substance in riotous living.” Broke and starving, Jesus tells us, “He came to his senses.” He plans a nice little speech for his father and heads home. But he can hardly get it out of his mouth before his father throws his arms around his neck and calls for a party. His brother, of course, is outraged—like Cain, like Esau, like Joseph’s brothers, like Eliab. He can’t bear that fact that his brother has been living the high life in the city while he has been working his tail off. He is furious that when that wastrel slinks back his father throws him a hoolie! Its unbearable. So, he sulks and refuses to go in. His father does not rebuke him, He rather quietly reminds him that he is always with him, and all he has is his. All he needs to do is come to the party. And there the story ends. We aren’t told how the older brother responds—but I wouldn’t bet on his tracking down his dancing shoes.
What are we to make of this oft told story? What are we to make, while we are at it, of Lent? The scandal of this story, I would suggest, is the scandal of grace. The older brother clearly thought the father’s actions were unfair. And he was not wrong! His brother did not deserve a welcome or a party! In another story Jesus told, God is compared to an outrageous landowner who pays the same amount to the men who had worked for twelve hours as he does to those who worked for 20 minutes. It hardly seems just. I once had a labor relations lawyer tell me he wouldn’t want to defend that guy! So far is Jesus is concerned, when it comes to the lost that need to be found, the sick that need to be healed, the broken that need to be repaired, fairness has nothing to do with it. In the gospel economy, Jesus said, the first would be last and the last would be first. Grace was all. But it is no easier for us to understand that it was for the Elder Brother. I recall my late administrative assistant, of blessed memory, Jackson Blanchard. She struggled with the concept of grace. When someone annoyed her, which to be honest was fairly often, she would come into my office and demand, “Explain this grace thing to me!” Here favorite statement was, “Grace for me. Justice for everyone else.”
Years ago, Episcopal priest and writer Robert Farrar Capon insisted that the church and many Christians, like Jackson, have long had a problem with grace. Rather than God being the Father of the prodigal, the patient landowner, the generous host, we have turned God into what he calls “an infernal bookkeeper”, and that, he insists, is exactly what God is not. The human race, Capon argues, has struggled for millennia to repair the relationship with God from its own side.
Capon writes, “whether those efforts involve creedal correctness, cultic performance, or ethical achievements . . . we are at some deep level committed
to them.” This Capon argues is religion. Far too often we have imagined that God can be conned into being favorable to us by our performance—rather like the elder brother in the field; rather like Jesus’ opponents; rather liked the purse- lipped moralists of our own day. Capon concludes that such moral bootstrap pulling is precisely not the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Gospel tells us Capon insists, that “God has called off the game—that he has taken all the disasters religion was trying to remedy and, without any recourse to religion at all set them to rights by himself. How sad,” he concludes, “then, when the church acts as if it is in the religion business rather than in the gospel proclaiming business.” The gospel declares that the breach has already been repaired; as Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”
During Lent, then, we are not trying to persuade God to forgive us by giving up chocolate or, God help us, coffee. Rather Lent encourages us, like the Prodigal to “come to our senses.” To remember that we are already God’s beloved child. To remember what we already live in the father’s house. We are already forgiven. We don’t need to persuade God to be gracious. Every week we declare in the Creed, “We acknowledge one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” We don’t need to persuade God love us, to forgive us, to accept us. We have already, as Paul tells us, died, and been raised with Christ. We don’t have to wangle an invitation. We just need to come to the feast.
But we have a problem. We also need to let others in on the feast as well. We need to help others realize that they are beloved children of God. Unfortunately, the same wastrels and ne’er do wells that irritated Jesus’ opponents are still around, still irritating, and still invited to the party. And this may be hard for us to take. I fear that we Americans are now part of a punishing, shame-based culture, forbiddingly incapable of forgiving, of offering grace. We love to scorn the wrongdoers and humiliate the inadequate. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have often become tools of moralistic humiliation. Of course, there are some we forgive with ease. But each of us has a list of “unforgivable”, well, deplorables that we wouldn’t welcome to the feast if our lives depended on it—and perhaps they do. And yet, we find Jesus and his father annoyingly willing to receive anyone and everyone, to invite the least, lost and losers to the party, however the elder brother within us grumbles. Forgiving our trespasses is all well and good. Forgiving those who trespass against us perhaps another matter entirely! For grace is as scandalous, as outrageous as it is necessary. And like Jackson, sometimes we prefer justice—just not for ourselves.
Lent is winding down. The dancing days of resurrection are head for us—the days of light and life and love. The band is tuning up; the ham is in the oven; the tofu lamb is properly seasoned; the wine is decanted—and it is the good stuff. It is Friday, as the preachers says, but Sunday is coming. I wonder, can you still find your dancing shoes?