Sunday, March 17, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Two Sons"

Luke 15:25-32

25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’” (CEB)

“Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables,” Week Five

As the Christian writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans tells this story in her recent book A Year of Biblical Womanhood:

There is an old Jewish folktale about a man who went out into the world in search of true justice…(and) at last e came upon a small cottage.  Through the windows, he spied the warm glow of candles.  “Perhaps I will find justice here,” he thought to himself.

The moment he entered the cottage, the man realized that it was enchanted, for it expanded in size to become much bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside.  His eyes widened as he realized the cavernous expanse was filled with hundreds of shelves, holding thousands upon thousands of oil candles.  Some of the candles sat in fine holders of marble and gold, while others sat in holders of clay or tin.  Some were filled with oil so that the flames burned as brightly as the stars, while others had little oil left, and were beginning to grow dim.  The man felt a hand on his shoulder.  He turned to find an old man with a long, white beard and wearing a white robe standing beside him.

“I have traveled the world searching for justice,” he said, “but I have never encountered a place like this.  Tell me, what are all these candles for?”

The old man replied, “Each of these candles is a person’s soul.  As long as a person’s candle burns, they remain alive.  When their candle burns out, the soul is taken away from this world.”

“Can you show me the candle of my soul?” the traveler asked.

“Follow me,” the old man replied, leading his guest through a labyrinth of rooms and shelves, passing row after row of candles.  After what seemed like a long time, they reached a small shelf that held a candle in a holder of clay.

“That is the candle of your soul,” the old man said.

Immediately, a wave of fear rushed over the traveler, for the wick of the candle was short and the oil nearly dry.  Was his life almost over?  Did he have but moments to live?  He then noticed that the candle next to his had a long wick and a holder filled with oil.  The flame burned brightly, like it could go on forever.

“Whose candle is that?” the traveler asked.  But the old man had disappeared.

The traveler stood there trembling, terrified that his life might be cut short before he found justice.  The old man was nowhere to be seen, so the traveler picked up the brightly burning candle and lifted it above his own in order to pour the oil from one holder to another.  Suddenly, he felt a strong grip on his arm.

“Is this the kind of justice you are seeking?” the old man asked.  The traveler had searched for justice in the great wide world, but never within himself.

It is the same question we should be asking the elder son in this parable: is this the kind of justice you are seeking?  Yet we cannot, because if we are honest with ourselves, we are the elder son.

With Lent as a new season in the church’s worship calendar, you may notice a few things different—we hang purple, we draw the curtains on our baptistry’s portrait of Jesus, and, naturally, we begin another sermon series.  This sermon series takes us through the 40 days of Lent to Holy Week—the week of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday that is the most important time in the Christian calendar (yes, I dare say, more important than Christmas!).  And Lent traditionally is meant to be a time of reflection and repentance as we do some even more intensive-than-usual soul-searching in preparation for what will eventually be the empty tomb.  And so we’ll be using this year’s Lenten season to walk verse-by-verse through the three parables that make up the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  These stories all have a common theme of being “lost and found,” so to speak, but there is a much larger dimension at work here—Jesus is telling these parables to the scribes and Pharisees—as Luke writes, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.””  And what Jesus is responding with, in so many words is, “Yes, because it isn’t just about you!”

This final scene in both Luke 15 and in the parable of the prodigal son reads somewhat like an epilogue.  The way the immediate previous verse, v. 24, ends is with these words: “and they began to celebrate.”  It harkens back to the two previous parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin: both of those stories end with celebration and rejoicing in what was lost and is now found.

But this story cannot be as those, because of the elder son.  He is left hanging there.  Resolution may have come between father and son, but not between father and THIS son, this son who has towed the line and done everything right and played his cards perfectly and now sees everybody going kookyboots because his daft, insolent, selfish, loser of a little brother came crawling back.

And that’s us.  That’s us to a tee.  Don’t we look around and say to ourselves, “Hey, I’m sure glad I’m not that jerk over there who’s doing this or doing that.  I still have a chance, but I KNOW he’s going to hell?”  Isn’t it the easy for us to empathize with the eldest son in this story?

And so the father asks his elder son, and so doing also asks us, “Is this the kind of justice you are seeking?”  Is retribution what you want for your brother, your kin, your flesh and your blood?

The rich, terrible irony of this question is that this question condemns the elder son vis-à-vis his father just as much as it does vis-à-vis his younger brother.  For, just before their argument, the text reads in verse 28, “He didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him.”

Now, remember last week’s message: the father in this story clearly represents God.  And the elder son is making his father beg him to include his prodigal brother in the family again.  It is like us making God beg to us to include the “other,” all those sinners we’d just as soon avoid.

To compound the profound wrong of what we are doing by excluding the others, we are also doing wrong by God by expecting that He beg us to do the right thing, when God doesn’t beg.

That takes both an incredible and a very human amount of hubris.

And so by forcing the reversal of roles—or at least the putting of a father into a role he should never, ever, have to embody—the elder son is, like his prodigal brother was in demanding his inheritance, being brutally disrespectful towards his father.

And the father is saying, in so many words, to his son, “Don’t you get it?  Your brother lives!”

In other words—your brother is here, with me.  Just like you.  You two are alike just this once!

And the nagging truth is that these two sons are, in fact, not so different—they are here with their father, but they have also disrespected their father.

It would gall the elder brother, I am sure, to be told that he is behaving like his younger brother.

And you know what…it galls us when we are ever told that we are acting like the people we otherwise would look down upon or disapprove of.  Especially when it happens to be true.

Two sons…one representing the way of the tax collector and the sinner, and one representing the way of the Pharisee and the scribe.

And both are sources of compassion and hope from the father.  He still appreciates both sons.

It is one of the most terrible paradoxes of our faith—we are called to be unceasingly pure and faithful, but it is not, will not, and cannot ever be enough to deserve more love than another.

Grace does not work like that.  Which means neither too, in all likelihood, does God.

Yet we still arrogantly and misguidedly expect Him to comport to all our expectations of who He is…which, more often than not, are that He would be an idealized version of ourselves.

But in our heart of hearts, we must know that this is not so.  God is what God is…that is what He says to Moses: I am what I am.  I will be what I will be.

The elder son had to learn this lesson the hard way.  We are fortunate.  We have a Messiah who teaches us these lessons if only we were to truly lend an ear and listen for His voice.

By God’s grace, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 17, 2013

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