There is an old story, maybe you’ve heard it, about an old woman who grew up in Methodist churches. When she was telling her preacher what she wanted at the end of her life, she asked to be buried with a fork. The preacher asked her about her unusual request. She said, “All these years at potlucks, we’ve told people when we picked up dishes to keep their forks because dessert was on the way. I want to remind my children that the best is yet to come.” This is the last sermon in a year-long series based on Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking and Brian McLaren has saved the best readings for the last. In the end, after all that we have read, what can we say for sure about God, about who God is, and about how God will deal with human beings?
Let’s start with the story that Jesus told to bunch of Pharisees who criticized him for eating with sinners. This is a parable for the church.
There was once a man who had two sons . . . .
One son did everything wrong for all the wrong reasons. He did not appreciate his father’s care and provision. He wanted to be free to make his own choices and his own way in the world. He was young and foolish and he wasted his whole inheritance until he had nothing and found himself feeding pigs, the lowest of the low, and so hungry, he would gladly have eaten pig slop. When he hit bottom and finally came to himself he made a plan to go home and ask his father if he could become one of his hired hands. But he never got to use his repentance speech. While he was still at a distance, his father saw him and sent his servants to get a robe and a ring and sandals to cover his destitution and return him to his status as child and heir and to prepare a feast to celebrate the one who was lost returning. And then the father ran with arms wide open to meet his son. There were no words of recrimination. There was no lecture. There was no penance to be done. The lost was found! A son was home at last!
But that’s not the end of the story. There was another son out in the field. This is the part that is for the church. This son did everything right for all the wrong reasons, and refused to go into his home to celebrate the return of his brother. He resented never having a party thrown in his honor in spite of his hard work. He worked hard to earn his father’s love and pleasure and resented not being rewarded for his efforts. The older son shouted at this 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” In his anger and self-righteousness he accused his brother of the worst sins he could think of.
Both sons were lost—one by his actions, and one by his self-righteousness.
Neither one was home. The younger brother came to himself and came home and was welcomed. There was nothing wrong with the older brother’s faithful obedience and hard work, until he wanted to shut the door in his brother’s face. His jealousy over his father’s extravagant welcome blinded him to the love he had received all his life. He thought he was earning his father’s love by his hard work. He didn’t know his father’s love had surrounded him since birth. He didn’t know he didn’t need to earn it and that he couldn’t lose it. At the end of the story we don’t know whether the older brother will come in and join the party or whether he will become alienated and storm off on his own.
In Jesus’ time, the temple had been taken over by older brothers. Even with this story in our Bibles, the church has gotten really good at telling the first part of this story as the model for repentance. There are plenty of songs we could have sung today about coming home that are written from the older brother’s viewpoint. They involve a lot of groveling and name calling. “Come home, come home . . . oh, sinner, come home.” But Jesus tells us that in the end, we are never outside of God’s love, whether we ignore God altogether, actively run away from God, or spend our lives trying to earn God’s favor. God loves us no matter what.
That doesn’t mean that God approves of everything we do. We can make horrible decisions and we can harm others and ourselves. I imagine that breaks God’s heart rather than stirring wrath and anger. As many of you know, Steve and I are advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse. We’ve been doing this work for about 15 years. We work with the victims in seeking just resolutions. We work toward keeping the Church faithful by holding offending pastors accountable for their actions. I’ve seen the damage done to victims and churches and it makes me furious and I have been very unforgiving. That changed when one of the best preachers I’ve heard, the Rev. Gordon Lathrop, a Lutheran theologian and seminary professor, was in Seattle to lecture at the Summer Institute for Liturgy and Worship. Gordon asked the board of the Institute to be sure that his long-time friend Jeff Smith would be at his lecture. You may know that Jeff was a defrocked minister who became a television chef. While he was famous as the frugal gourmet, he was notorious in the church. Gordon and Jeff had been friends since seminary. At that time, Jeff was very ill and it required great effort to get him to the lecture. Two days later, Jeff died. There is a prayer for memorial services in our book of worship that I seldom use. On the day that Jeff died, Gordon Lathrop prayed it for him in our worship service:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant Jeffrey Smith.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you,
a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock,
a sinner of your own redeeming.
None of us are outside the fold and all of us need redeeming.
Jesus tells us that God is like a father who will not, cannot stop loving us. One of my friends had a son that would not quit picking on his younger siblings when he was left in charge. My friend was furious and frustrated with his behavior, but she loved all of her children, and was determined to keep them all safe, even if it meant finding another place for the oldest son to live if he wouldn’t change his behavior. I learned a lot about God from that mother. We live with the consequences of our behavior, but that does not diminish God’s love for us. We live by and through and in God’s amazing grace. “Grace means that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and grace means that there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Those words are on the front of your bulletin so that you can take them home.
The apostle Paul put it this way:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God is always waiting to welcome us home—today and tomorrow and until the end of the age—with arms wide open.