Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Luke 15
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Birth order is a disputed area of psychology. The fact that my older brother is “serious, conscientious, directive, goal-oriented, aggressive, rule-conscious, exacting, conservative, organized, responsible, jealous, high achieving, competitive, and sometimes anxious” (Wikipedia) is purely a coincidence, having read only a little about birth order. I did cast a quick glance at the characteristics of the younger child, most often described as an “endearing, and delightful friend.” I was blushing, so I stopped reading.

Pop psychology is fun, of course, and not to be taken completely seriously. There are too many variables to make such sweeping generalizations about personality, not the least of which is the modern configuration of families. When my first is your second and my next in your first you can be assured that some future genealogist just got a migraine.

Nonetheless, like a good horoscope that fully supports your hope for the day, birth order goes a long way to explain what’s happening in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. When I imagine myself in the story, I’m always the younger son (minus the dissolute living, of course) and you can likely guess who gets to play the part of the older brother. I imagine receiving all that grace and noticing from the corner of my eye a heated argument about dislocation and indignity. It’s not much of a Lenten exercise, but it feels good.

Through the centuries there has been much discussion about what it all means. Why did Jesus tell this story, and who did he imagine fit the cast of characters? Some suggest that the younger son represents new believers, and the older son is the Jewish leadership who chose law over grace. Some argue that we are all older brothers, and it takes the radical forgiveness of the father (Father) to shake us from our self-righteousness and anger. Still others say that we spend our lives alternating through all the characters: wastrels, repentant sinners, forgiving parents, indignant “faith-keepers.”


One of my favourite baptismal illustrations is to set out twenty-five years of faithful service to the church, five years of ministry preparation and seventeen years of accountable ministry and contrast this with the babe-in-arms that has been baptized for all of five minutes. Is it fair that we are equal in God’s eyes? I find all that grace compelling to be sure, but I also feel a little unrewarded. In my mind I’ve got the churchy equivalent of a platinum card and this pudgy upstart has the same credit rating. Forgive me, I has having an older brother moment.


I think Jesus told this story because he knew we were renovating. Let me explain.

It’s hard not to imagine that we have been stuck here in church all these years, working hard, trying to keep things going. We’ve been struggling, reconfiguring, amalgamating, dreaming, planning, building, organizing and all the while a neighbourhood full of prodigals wait. They wait for the little voice that prompts them to call and check the service time. They wait for the precocious child who says “what’s that place – can we go?” Or they wait for the mid-life reassessment that suggests that there is something more out there than the Sunday Star and a little shopping later.

They wait and we wait. We create nametags and welcome stations, greeters and guestbooks. We refine the service for accessibility and openness. We unlearn most of our jargon and file the uneasy edges off our theology. We model shared leadership. We engage national programs and brew coffee, and we wait. We wait for the mass of visitors and they rarely come. We begin to formulate theories, maybe point a finger or two and continue waiting. We spend more money than some will earn in a lifetime and still they don’t come. Who am I? Older brother or younger brother?

I go to presbytery and I speak with my colleagues and I begin to suspect that we are a couple of dozen older brothers serving 1900 older brothers surrounded by half a million prodigals waiting to come home. It is easy to feel rejected and misunderstood when visitors won’t visit and churches won’t grow. The true test is remaining hopeful or perhaps the true test is something else altogether.

Maybe the true test will come on that day when people do wake up and get the urge to pray, remember the church on the corner and make their way to our door. Beyond the state-of-the-art welcome, how will we receive them? Beyond our best intentions, how will we perceive them? Will we be gracious fathers or older brothers? Will we imagine we are one and act like the other?

‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave, and have never disobeyed God’s command; yet I have never received even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’


I think the word “member” is one of the most qualified words we use here or in any church. We have “good” members, “charter” members, “full” members, “faithful” members, and “long-standing” members. Below them we find members, people who don’t qualify for any of the above designations. “She’s a member” is the kind of phrase we might use for someone we haven’t seen in a couple of months. From here we have adherents, non-members who like to hang around, followed by visitors, staff, higher mammals, domesticated animals and the occasional squirrel.

God doesn’t see any of this. All God seems is a bunch of children. God sees children who find themselves inside the shiny new church and children who are outside the shiny new church. It doesn't belong to either. It’s God’s church, and have been designated stewards. There is no status that brings us here or keeps us here or indicates that we belong here excepting that we are children of God. But we are not alone.

Welcoming – that troublesome word that would suggest that it’s ours to welcome people to – is in the heart and not the head. Welcoming is an orientation rather than a skill, because it speaks to where our heart is, and where we find ourselves in relation to all of our brothers and sisters. Welcoming is something you can begin to learn, but mostly it needs to be practiced. Welcoming means running while they are still far off, surrendering our best coat and killing the fatted calf. Welcoming means a loving embrace, and thanking God that they are all right. Welcoming means loving all children, those loyal and those prodigal, and having compassion for both. May it be so, with God’s help. Amen


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