Date: September 13, 2015
Title: “Unfair Grace”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
I once heard that if you dig deeply enough into the etymology of the word “holy”, you will encounter the word “weird.” That makes sense to me. When you think about moments of divine encounter – well, that’s just weird. When you consider the mystery, and the indefinable qualities of the divine presence…it’s all a little bit weird, isn’t it?
So perhaps it makes sense, then, that we should be celebrating this holy day – this “Rally Day” when we return to the church after a long, hot summer – with a little bit of weirdness of our own. Taking our cue from television’s Portlandia series, and longing to not only keep Portland weird, but to keep First Church itself “weird”, in the best sense of the word. We want to be weird, as in set apart, or weird as in unique. We hope to be weird, as in connected to God, or weird, as in holy. Today we even want to be weird as in therapy alpacas and church history quizzes and ministry fairs… and of course, stories from Jesus himself.
The famous preacher, Fred Craddock once was invited to a student’s church as a guest preacher. He had arrived early and was spontaneously asked to teach an adult Sunday School class. The lesson they were studying was the one Paul read for us today, Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. Since he had been spontaneously recruited for this task, Craddock decided to be equally spontaneous in his approach to this overly familiar Bible story. He invited the class to imagine that the story ended differently.
In this version, Craddock said, the prodigal son “comes to himself” and decides to go home and throw himself on his father’s mercy. So far, so good. As he gets close to the house, however, he hears the sound of music and dancing. The prodigal asks one of the servants what is going on and the servant says, “Your father has killed the fatted calf and is holding a great feast for your older brother, because he has served him faithfully for so many years!”
Suddenly, everyone heard a loud bang as a woman in the class brought her first forcefully down on the table. After an awkward moment of silence, the woman looked around at everyone and then said, “It should have happened that way!”
By all rights the story ought to end with the younger son breaking his back out in the fields, living with the slaves and serving the needs of his father and older brother…right? If we are honest, most of us will acknowledge an appreciation for that anonymous Sunday School student. We too have longed for this kind of re-alignment, for this kind of justice. But in this story Jesus once again asks us to throw out our longing, to say goodbye to our expectations and to go along for the ride – the ride of “Unfair Grace”.
It does feel unfair to us, as unfair as it felt to those who originally heard Jesus tell this story, the ones who were fretting and fussing about Jesus himself. “He welcomes sinners,” they whispered. “What’s more, he even eats with them!” they tsked in hushed and scandalized tones. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests:
Jesus offended a lot of people with his table manners. He ignored the finger bowl by his plate. He ate whatever was put in front of him. He thought nothing of sitting down to eat with filthy people whose lives declared their contempt for religion. People say Jesus eating and they knew who he was: someone who had lost all sense of what was right, who condoned sin by eating with sinners nad who might as well have spit in the faces of the good people who raised him.
This story, which is so familiar to so many of us, is a disconcerting and disarming story. Like all parables, it is meant to shake us up at least a little. It is intended to have layers of meaning and to give us more than a little reason to pause. Like all parables, this one is designed to make us think. Here, Jesus is asking us to think about hanging out with the wrong people. He is asking us to think about throwing parties for those we normally would try our best to avoid. Here, Jesus is asking us to think about loving God by loving one another, and knowing that sometimes, being “right” is much less important than being in relationship.
In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Capital of the World”, he writes about a Spanish father who wants to reconcile with his son who has run away to Madrid. Steve Goodier points to this story as a parable similar to the one Jesus tells us today:
In order to find the boy, this father takes out an ad in the local newspaper which says, ‘Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven. Love, Papa.’ Now Paco is a common name in Spain, and when the father goes to the hotel he finds 800 young men named Paco milling about the square, searching, waiting, longing, hoping to find their own faithers.
Hemingway understood the power of grace – that unearned acceptance, that freely given chance to start over again. Hemingway understood the extravagance of Jesus’ prodigal father, who spends all his love wildly and recklessly, without regard for the result. You remember the father’s advertisement does not say “Paco, all will be forgiven IF you do this or that.” He does not write “All will be forgiven WHEN you do such and such”, but simply “All IS forgiven…” Period.
That sounds great to our prodigal ears and our wandering hearts. But what about to our righteous ears, and our faithful hearts? Listen again to Barbara Brown Taylor:
Jesus told this story to the ministerial association that was complaining about his dinner parties. He told them he could not hear them all the way across the restaurant, and that they should come over and pull up some chairs. He called to them because he saw them eating and he knew who they were – so clean, so right, so angry – and he wanted to help them, too. So he said, “Come, meet my friends. Dessert is on me!” As far as I know, Jesus is still waiting to see how the story ends.
Will it end with all of us sitting at the banquet table together, dancing with one another in celebration and joy? Will it end with some of us stubbornly refusing to get over this “Unfair Grace”, and deciding that being right is more important than being in relationship?
Bishop Will Willimon tells this story from his days as a campus minister:
I went with several students on a retreat called “Exploring Christianity.” There were several who went along claiming to have no belief in God whatsoever, and others who had grown up in church but who had fallen away as young adults. At the end of the retreat, one young man came forward asking to be baptized. After some time of instruction, I agreed to baptize him on the weekend of graduation, and the rest of the retreat group said they would gather to witness the baptism.
The day arrived, and one of the members of the retreat group called to say “Dr. Willimon, just to put your mind at ease, I want you to know that I have already gotten a keg of beer for the post-baptismal party.” I replied, “A keg of beer? It never occurred to me to get beer for a baptism.”
“So why are you always calling us irresponsible?” asked the student. “See? You didn’t even think about the beer!”
Amy Jill Levine, in her book Short Stories by Jesus suggests that we ought not to rush into reading only repenting and forgiving into this parable of the prodigal son, because the party is central to the story as well. She says:
If we hold in abeyance, at least for the moment, this message of repentance and forgiveness, then the parable does something more profound than repeat well-known messages. It provokes us with these simple exhortations.
First, the parable tells us to recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. (For that matter, the one we have lost may even be right in our own skin.) We need to do whatever it takes to find the lost and then to celebrate with others, sharing our joy. The parable clearly teaches us – don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Likewise, don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. And don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.
Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.
This my son was dead and now is alive. Finally, Levine says, the parable teaches us to take advantage of resurrection – it is unlikely to happen twice.