Lent 4 – John Conway – 31/03/19

2Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

According to the Gospels (well, Mark, Luke and Matthew anyway), Jesus didn’t go in for sermons. It’s a fact that always puts a bit of a question mark next to this part of the service! Jesus did, however, tell stories. And we heard one of the most famous of them today.

So I could preach a sermon focusing on the prodigal son: the son who demands now, his share of the inheritance that belongs to him. He’s not prepared to wait, but then squanders that inheritance, is reduced to hiring himself out, a wreck of person, before coming to his senses, and traveling back home, expecting to beg for a servant’s lot, and then surprised by the welcome and forgiveness from his father. There are plenty of sermons that encourage us to identify with that journey – the journey to find ourselves back home, and not just home but greeted by the surprising welcome of our father – a feast thrown to welcome our return.

Or I could preach a sermon not so much focusing on the prodigal – for like the first hearers, isn’t the point that we aren’t always those who’ve wandered off and squandered everything. We perhaps more often identify with older son – looking askance at the behaviour of his brother, and the behaviour of his Father. That sermon might ask if the older son doesn’t have a point – articulating the truth that most parents know that spoiling a child is a potential path to ruin. It’s a sermon that might tease out the tension between justice (what is right and fair) and mercy, the act of gratuitous, unmerited forgiveness. That’s a real tension, and the story is open-ended, the reconciliation between the brothers (as well as the older son and the father) is incomplete – we’re left wondering how the older brother will react to the Father’s invitation to join the feast, and how we might react.

But perhaps the sermon would help us think more deeply about God (the Father). For surely the story implies that this is what God is like. God, the one whose mercy breaks down the walls of both our foolishness and our self-righteousness. The God whose overwhelming desire is to reconcile, to bring into the feast both the older and younger child, the foolhardy and the responsible. This is Jesus’ most sustained vision of what God is like.

And therefore the point is maybe that we are called to bethe father figure, enacting that reconciliation, which as Paul says is our epistle, is the ministry of us all. We need to find the strength to be vulnerable, like the Father who runs down the road to greet the younger son, and sweeps aside his apologies; find the strength to show the joy and mercy which breaks hearts and changes the patterns of our life together.

There so many ways to take this story. That’s without exploring how Jesus’ first hearers might have reacted to the parable, or the reading of this story by that great 20thcentury theologian, Karl Barth, for whom the Prodigal Son was Christ himself – making his journey into the far country; the journey of God into incarnated human living, in all its squalor and sinfulness; so that, as Christ becomes like us, so we may journey with him back into the arms of the welcoming Father: or as Paul puts: For our sake he made him sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The point is not only that we are all like the Prodigal, but that God chooses to make that journey too.

So many readings of one story. And perhaps that today is the point worth drawing out. That humans are story tellers; we are a species formed and shaped by our story telling. It’s the reason we still gather to hear this familiar story, in all its multi-faceted depth; just as we will shortly enact other stories: as Alannah is baptised, brought through the waters of Christ’s death that she may live his resurrection life; and as bread and wine is taken and shared, and the re-telling, in our presence, enables it to become the presence of Christ among us and in us. Our gospel story continues to challenge us to think about why forgiveness and reconciliation and justice matter; in a world of estrangement and squalor, and dubious choices; just as our communion will remind us in a world of brokenness, of the possibility of transformation and wholeness and community. And so the stories form us, as we are invited to see the world and God as they suggest – to see the possibility for forgiveness and reconciliation and feasting, where we thought there was none.

For if it is not this story, this account of the world and the One who holds all things in life, then some other story, some other account of the way things are and might be, will be forming and shaping us. That’s true on a personal level – as Christians our baptism describes and enacts that fundamental shape of dying to self, dying to a life lived simply for ourselves, so that we may rise into Christ’s resurrection life, into his Body, a community of people living not for themselves, but to bring life for all, And it’s true on a corporate level. Hearing, once again, this most powerful of Jesus’ parables, should make us ask: what are the foundational stories that animate and shape our public debate? Do those stories invite us to cherish every human life, as Alannah is cherished and valued today? And do they re-open our eyes to others so that reconciliation in our divided society is imagined and invited? Too many of our ways of looking at the world, the stories which shape us, simply reinforce what we already think, our prejudices and fears, so that the challenge to be more human that the best stories pose and enable, is lost. For by our stories, how they shape us and what they provoke us to, shall we be known. Amen.

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