January 25, 2017
Ever since I received the letter from Father Dolan and all of you at St. Margaret Mary about tonight’s service, I’ve been looking forward to this gathering. So much so, in fact, that when Christine, the Office Administrator over at Wapping church, relayed a message to me asking me what I wanted to do in this service, I replied that I would be willing to do anything.
Of course if I’ve learned anything about how things work in a church over my years in ministry, I know better how dangerous an answer like that is. Under the general heading of no good deed goes unpunished, sometimes the price of being flexible means you wind up in the pulpit preaching the sermon…
The more I thought about this sermon over the last couple of weeks, however, the more thankful I’ve been for the invitation and the more engaged I’ve became by the topic. It’s no coincidence, I think, that tonight’s service in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is so timely. Unity is a commodity that is both precious and in rare supply these days. No matter how you view it…global unity, national unity, racial unity, class unity, interfaith unity, or Christian unity…the need to break down the barriers that divide us and bring people together in common purpose is as pressing now as it has been at any juncture in my lifetime. Particularly knowing that when human beings can’t find ways to unite, people’s well-being and ultimately people’s lives are at risk…
In preparation for this sermon and this worship service, I read over the draft of the bulletin carefully. And as soon as I saw the Gospel lesson for tonight, my initial thought was that writing this sermon would be fairly easy. I’d venture to guess I’ve preached on the Parable of the Prodigal Son more than any other Scripture passage in the Bible.
Soon after my initial thought passed, though, two problems occurred to me. First, despite all the sermons I’ve preached on the Prodigal Son over the years, none of those sermons have addressed the theme of Christian unity. And second, the fact that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is familiar to so many Christians makes it hard to think of anything new to say about it. I once read about a pastor who gave a sixteen week sermon series on the Prodigal Son. After the sixteenth sermon a woman greeted the pastor at the door of the church and said, “I’m so sorry that poor boy ever ran away from home…”
The Prodigal Son paints a picture of divine acceptance so radical that it has triggered astonishment and provoked outrage for generations. The question is whether you and I have heard the story often enough that it’s managed to lose most of its shock value.
“There was a man who had two sons.” The moment we hear the first sentence, we know where this story is going. Then one verse later when the younger son utters his devastating, relationship fracturing demand, “Father, give me my share of the inheritance,” we barely raise an eyebrow. Because we can already hear the musicians tuning their instruments for the joyful reunion celebration still to come.
Eventually the younger son returns home, humbled by his own selfishness and beaten down by the unrelenting temptations of the world beyond his father’s farm, and there is anguished lament in his confession. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But instead of hearing the raw emotion in the younger son’s voice, we get distracted by the aroma of the fatted calf roasting on the spit and the unrestrained eagerness of the father who can’t wait to embrace his wayward child.
When what we know too well gets reduced to something tame and trite, the Parable of the Prodigal becomes cliché. Instead of being surprised by its unexpected depth and mystery, the parable offers nothing more than self-help advice. “No matter how badly you messed up, pick yourself up, receive the forgiveness you rightfully deserve, and start over where you left off.”
A message like that might sound reassuring and comforting. If nothing else, it’s predictable. On the other hand, it’s not the parable Jesus actually told. A story as much about grace as the Prodigal Son not only offended the original audience. It also has the power to offend us in the year 2017. After all, certain life lessons are timeless. Like if we behave the right way and say the right things it counts for something. And when we hear a story about someone who does everything wrong and still receives amazing grace, it rubs us the wrong way no matter how many times we hear it.
Embracing sinners and sinfulness. Excusing loose living and prideful self-righteousness. When it comes to preaching about the Prodigal Son, a little grace is okay. But what about repentance? Shouldn’t repentance always be the precursor of grace?
This parable would be easier to stomach if there was more balance. The way it stands, there’s too much grace and not enough repentance. Come to think of it, there’s not enough repentance in the world in 2017 either. Think about some of the conversations you and I are having. Face to face conversations with friends and neighbors. Conversations on Facebook and other social media. Conversations around the dinner table with our own family members.
People are talking loudly and adamantly. People are talking over each other. People are interrupting each other. We are polarized to the point that there’s almost no dialogue. Unless you happen to be on my side, whatever side that may be, communication is a problem.
When a group of people is convinced they are right, what they typically say to anyone outside their group is “repent.” Apologize and come to your senses and get yourself together and change your ways. Repent from all the ways you have it wrong and then, perhaps, I’ll choose to be in community with you.
Repent when it comes to your political beliefs. Repent when it comes to your morals and values. Repent when it comes to your faith doctrines and the way in which you practice the Christian faith. If only those people would repent, we convince ourselves, then there would be more unity in the world…
When you hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son does repent. Tired of wasting his life away, he finally comes to himself and rehearses his confession of sin. Then when the younger son is spotted on the horizon, he speaks aloud his confession and receives grace and forgiveness from his father.
Yet note how the story unfolds in a particular order. While he’s still some distance away from the house, before he has a chance to open his mouth, the father runs to meet his younger son on the road. Before the younger son can offer any kind of confession, the father throws his arms around him. Before the son ever admits any fault or betrayal or remorse, the father kisses him. The father’s unconditional love and unmerited grace is what triggers the younger son’s repentance. Not the other way around.
Truthfully, I can’t think of a single instance in the Gospels where Jesus requires someone to repent before he extends grace or forgiveness or healing or hospitality. Grace always comes first. Meanwhile, repentance is a response to God’s grace and not a precursor to God’s grace…
Back in 2008, there was a story on NPR about a social worker in New York City named Julio Diaz. Julio Diaz followed a similar routine every evening at the end of his work day. After commuting for an hour, he would get off the subway one stop early in the Bronx so he could eat at his favorite diner. But one night, Diaz stepped off the Number 6 train onto a nearly empty platform and his evening took an unexpected turn.
As Julio Diaz walked toward the stairs, a teenage boy approached him, pulled out a knife and asked for his money. So Diaz gave the boy his wallet. As his assailant began to quickly walk away, however, Diaz called out. “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people all night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The young man turned around, looked at Diaz like he was crazy and asked, “Why are you doing this?”
Diaz replied, “Well, if you are willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean all I wanted to do was get dinner…and if you want to join me…hey, you’re more than welcome.” Remarkably, the teenager agreed and the unlikely pair walked into the diner and sat in a booth.
It didn’t take long before the manager and the dishwasher and the waiters in turn came over to greet Julio Diaz. All of which piqued the young man’s curiosity. “You know everybody here. Do you own this place?”
“No,” Diaz replied. “I just eat here a lot.”
“But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.”
“Well, haven’t you been taught that you should be nice to everybody?” Diaz asked him.
“Yeah, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way...”
Eventually the two of them finished eating and the bill arrived. Diaz looked over at the teen and cut straight to the point. “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay this bill ‘cause you have my money and I can’t pay for it. But if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
Without hesitating, the teen handed the wallet back to Diaz. And after he paid the bill, Diaz gave the teenager twenty dollars. But when he did, Diaz asked for something in return. And the teenager agreed. It was his knife…
Sometimes grace is so amazing that all we can do is repent, change course, turn around. Those are the occasions when it appears as though repentance should come first. But take a closer look and more often it works the other way. When it’s demonstrated and experienced, grace is what breaks down walls and brings people together. God’s grace changes everything about us. Amen.