Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | April 3, 2022
When you are a young child and you put a seashell to your ear, and someone tells you that the sound you hear is the roar of the ocean you think how amazing that is. You wonder at the mystery of how this thing from the sea can retain the essence of the vast ocean from which it comes.
Later on you realize that the sound you hear is not actually the sound of the ocean. It is the sound of you, your pulse and breathing projected back to you when you place the small echo chamber of a seashell to your ear. As one writer said, “When I was a child, I thought like a child…when I became an adult, I gave up childish ways.”
There are different ways to understand. On one level we understand the science of hearing. One another level, the roar of the ocean in a seashell is a story. Whether a story is true or not is often beside the point. The question is not whether a story is true but whether a story is truth.
People criticized Jesus by saying, “He lies. He associates with people whom God despises – sinners and lowlifes.”
Jesus told them they were missing the story. When Jesus came along, he didn’t try to explain God; he revealed God. He showed what God is like. He told stories, called parables in which he said, “It’s like this,” or “The realm of God can be compared to…” So if you get your mind around the story, you may experience God through your own story.
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.” There was a man. This man is who the story is really about. A father – a parent. In the parable, this loving parent serves as the symbol of or representation for the grace of God.
There were two sons, and the younger son came to his father and said, “Father, give me my inheritance.” Oh, the prodigal son. We think, “Selfish lad, wasn’t he?” We’re supposed to think that. Jesus set the story up so that we would get the punchline.
So here was this son, the younger one who didn’t deserve anything saying to his father, in effect, “I can’t wait until you die, give me what I have coming, and you’ll be dead to me and I’ll be dead to you. Also, in doing this, I reject everything you’ve taught me, my family, community, religion and culture.”
If it were fact instead of parable, the lad would be lucky to get out of town alive. But the father gave him what he wanted and let him go. What this says about God is clear: God says, “you are my child, but if you choose to live as if I don’t exist, then that is your choice and I will honor it.”
So the lad took his money and went off to a foreign country, another bad move. He spent all his money on stupid things and soon found himself broke and alone. He went to work slopping hogs, and he was so hungry that even the trash that the unclean pigs ate started to look appetizing. This boy had lost all sense of himself. To his listeners Jesus was describing someone who had lost all hope and who ruined every chance. The boy was a loser and a goner.
Jesus said, “He came to himself.” In other words, he saw himself for what he was, and he realized the error of his ways. But he compounded his loathsomeness by thinking that he could get back into his father’s good graces. “Maybe if I go back and apologize, beg even, he’ll take me in as a servant. I’ll say, ‘I know I’m not worthy to be your son, just let me be a servant in your household.” He was undeserving of even that. The only reason he wanted to go back was because he was broke and hungry.
The story Jesus told should end this way: “The younger son went back and begged his father for mercy. His father said, “So now you think you can come crawling back? I don’t know you; my son is dead.” And the older brother and all the people of the village drove him out into the wilderness where he lived amongst the thorns and ate locusts. The end.
At this point, though, Jesus told his listeners something unexpected. He said while the younger son was a still a long way off, the father saw him coming. The father, who had been sorely wronged, who let his son go, had all along been watching the horizon the in hope that his child would return.
God’s grace crosses over the horizon of our human failings. Wherever we go in going our own way, the grace of God follows us so that we always have a pathway to “finding ourselves.”
When the father saw the son, rather than to wait sternly until the boy reached him, he let go of all dignity and ran to greet him. He threw his arms around him, gave him all kinds of hugs and kisses, and walked him through the village. When they arrived at home, he dressed him in fine clothes, gave him a nice ring engraved with the family crescent and threw a big party to celebrate his return.
But that hardly seems fair. There was still another child at home, the older brother. The good boy. The faithful son. He represents all those faithful children of God who have been there all along; the ones who do all the work to keep the place going; the ones who never had to be lost in order to be found. The ones who perhaps assume some sense of ownership for God’s realm, and who maybe don’t want just anybody waltzing in like they own the place.
The older son, the rightful heir heard all the noise of celebration and he wondered what was happening. He asked one of the servants, “What’s with all the gaiety?” “Your brother has returned, and your father is throwing a feast.”
“My brother? I thought my brother was dead. This has to be the most ridiculous thing my father has ever done. You there, go in there and tell my father I wish to speak to him.” Sometimes that’s the way it is with “older siblings” in the realm of God. The ones who have been there for so long that they say, “God is at my beck and call.”
We can understand his ire, but there’s something wrong with this picture. The child does not summon parent. Unless of course, the child is under the impression that he runs the household. Apparently, this older brother saw not his father, but rather himself as the center of life.
Ever gracious, the father went out to where his older son was standing at the gate. The father invited the son into the celebration. “Your brother was dead, now he is alive. He was lost, now he is found. Please come in and celebrate.”
But the older lad was thinking only of himself. “You never gave me a fatted calf. I never got a party with my friends. Yet this son of yours, who wasted your money on parties and prostitutes, comes dragging in and you put on a banquet. I just can’t abide by that. What did he ever do for you?”
“My son,” the father said, “Everything I have is yours. If you wanted a fatted calf, all you had to do was take it. You don’t need my permission. It’s all yours. We’ve been together your whole life and still you don’t understand. The most important thing is not who gets what, but that I am your father and you are my son. That in itself should be cause for joy and celebration. If you choose not to, then I will abide by it. But this son of mine, who is your brother, was dead, now he is alive. Don’t you see? My son has returned.”
The story ends there, with the older brother standing outside the gate. Did he go in, or did he stay outside? Jesus left it up to his listeners to decide; because it was a question, they would have to decide for themselves. Would they remain standing outside the gate of God’s household, or would they go in and join the celebration?
Jesus implies that there is room in God’s household for all God’s children. You are God’s children. Maybe you can relate to the prodigal child. You know how the prodigal feels, to find your way to God, thinking that you are completely undeserving, and how utterly humbled you felt, how filled with joy you were, when you were overwhelmed by God’s gracious welcome.
Maybe you can relate to the older brother. You’ve always been loyal, you’ve always been faithful, you have support God’s household through thick and thin. You are somewhat perturbed by all this easy acceptance of the prodigal children. You may not be as bad as the prodigal, but you are no less deserving of grace. Everything God has to offer is yours for the taking.
This story like so many that Jesus told people reveals God behaving in unexpected ways. Ways that we might have a hard time understanding; ways we might have a hard time accepting.
“In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” said Jesus. Room for the deserving as well as for the undeserving. But there is only one entrance into God’s realm, and it is through the gateway of grace. Amazing grace. Will we stand outside, or will we go in and join the celebration? Amen.