Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
From the age of five, to the age of twenty-five, I was in school. Twenty straight years of school. Grade school, middle school, high school, college, seminary. Along with that I read scores of books, I tremble at the thought of how many standardized tests I took. And you know, I thought I had a pretty good vocabulary; until this year, when I heard that word that we all heard – sequester. Or its more proper form – sequestration. And, well, at least sequester sounds less scary than its older brother, “the fiscal cliff.”
Of course, budget battles and economic woes are not new issues. Human civilizations have been worrying about economics since we were trading wampum and beads.
But all of this anxiety points to a deeper issue; an issue of which we need to be keenly aware. This is the mindset of scarcity. It’s that we, as humans, are always concerned with what we don’t have, rather than what we do have. We fret, agonize, and brood over the money that isn’t in our bank accounts, rather than giving thanks for the money that is in our bank accounts. And it’s not just money: love, hospitality, friendships. The deeper issue is that we tell ourselves there isn’t enough to go around for everybody.
Like I said, this is nothing new. I’m not exposing some hidden, not revealed before, human secret. Because Jesus talks about it. This parable that he gives us this morning, the famous parable of the prodigal son, is about this mindset of scarcity. The parable of the prodigal son is about a budget battle.
The younger son approaches his father and says, “Dad. I wish you were dead. So give me now what I’ll get when you die.” Amazingly, his father divides his property, and gives his younger, impetuous son, what was coming to him. Then, of course, the younger son gets what’s coming to him. He lives like a wastrel and squanders all that he has on booze and prostitutes.
Hungry, penitent, and defeated, the younger son returns to his father. I can see him now – unshaven, sunken cheeks, ravaged by his wild living. We know how the story goes, his father, in a great turn of events, throws a party for him, welcomes him home, and celebrates.
And then comes the older brother. The dutiful, somber older brother. And the budget battle kicks into high gear. “Dad! What are you doing? First you gave him half of all your money to live like a lecher! Now you’re spending even more money on his return! Do you want to go over the fiscal cliff?!”
In a sense, the older brother is also wishing that his father was dead. Because the older brother isn’t concerned about his father’s well-being. All the older brother is concerned about is receiving his inheritance too. He’s concerned that his dad is blowing through the family fortune before he gets any of it. Really, when it boils down to it, both these brothers wish their father was dead so that they could have their cut of the family treasure. At least the younger son eventually learns about generosity; a lesson the older brother never learns. The older brother remains in the mindset of scarcity.
Now, I want to focus on the father. Notice the words that the father never utters. The father never says “no.” His younger son comes to him and says, “Dad, give me half of everything.” And dad says, “yes.” The father isn’t afraid of scarcity. He lives with abundance. When his younger son comes back, the father gives him the best of everything. The best robe, the best ring, the best sandals. He even kills the fattened calf. The father doesn’t care about what his son has done. The father just accepts him home with radical generosity.
And when the older brother approaches and reproaches his father about this prodigious expenditure, the father again acts with generosity. The father says to the older son, “All that is mine is yours.” The father is not worried about going over a fiscal cliff. The father is too joyful to be afraid. The father does not say, “We should celebrate because your brother came home.” The father says, “we had to celebrate, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Whatever situation arises, the father’s first impulse is to give. His knee jerk reaction is generosity. Even when half of his fortune goes down the drain, the father still doesn’t know what it means to save. He can only give.
This story has been known as the parable of the prodigal son. I want to change that moniker. We will now call this the parable of the prodigal father. Technically speaking, “prodigal” means spending money or resources freely and extravagantly. I did learn that word while preparing for the SAT. So let’s be clear – it’s the father who is extravagantly loving and generous and lavish. The younger son is a wastrel. The older brother is a curmudgeon. The father is a prodigal.
And the father is who we should be. For too long Christians have been living with the mindset of scarcity. We have been the older brother. We have been afraid of tomorrow. We have used the language of “fiscal cliff” and “sequester” right here in our churches. How often have we heard churches and Christians say, “we can’t do that” or “we don’t have enough for that.”
We need a new vocabulary. We need to learn the vocabulary of the father, the Father who always says, “yes, there is a way.” When the Israelites were trapped at the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was bearing down on them, God said, yes, and found a way to part the waters. When Jesus died on a cross and the disciples were scattered, God found a way and said, yes, raising Jesus from the grave. I tell you, there is always a way forward, there is always enough. Because God is generous. God pours out his love on us extravagantly and freely and recklessly. God does not hoard love in a savings account. Because the only thing God knows how to do is give. God, the Father, is a prodigal God.
I believe we are called to be prodigal fathers. Instead of saying, “there isn’t enough,” we can find a way to make it happen. Instead of saying, “we can’t do that,” we will spurn the mindset of scarcity and live with radical generosity. We will say yes, and find a way to take on our challenges. It will take sacrifice. We have to give of our wealth. We have to be prodigious in what we give to this church so that this church can give back to the community. What the father says to his older son we must say to the this church, and the church must say to the world, “All that is mine is yours.” Because God the Father may as well say to us, “All that is yours is mine.”
And you, yes you, right now you may feel more like the wastrel son than the prodigal father. You might feel that coming here to this church is intimidating. You may think that we have it all together, that we’re perfect. You may think that if you told us the truth about yourself, we wouldn’t accept you home. Reject all such thoughts. You may come home. There is nothing about who you are, or what you are, or what somebody has done to you that can make us love you less. We, as a community, are prodigious in giving our love. We, as a church, will be a prodigal father to many. And, eventually, wastrel sons will become more prodigal fathers. And when you come into this home, we won’t say, “I guess we should celebrate.” We will say, “We have to celebrate, because you were dead and now live. You were lost and now are found.”
Sequestrations and fiscal cliffs will come and go, but God will remain. God the Father loves you, so love like God the Father. Love more extravagantly. Give more freely. Live more prodigiously.