28 April 2019

"The Worst Thing is not the Last Thing" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
April 28, 2019 (Holy Humour Sunday)
Scripture:  John 20:19-31

I want to invite you to imagine yourself back to the time of the first Easter – the day when the empty tomb was discovered.  The first disciples had moved through grief, confusion, fear, and wonder when they discovered that the grave where Jesus’ body had been laid was empty.

They have been numbed by grief, and stunned by the unexpected turn of events.  And now they are hiding themselves away.  All of the factors that were present in Ancient Jerusalem before Jesus was crucified are still present have been magnified.  There is still the threat of the Roman intolerance of dissent hanging over them.  There are still mutterings of rebellion blowing around them.  But now all of this is complicated by grief.  All of this is complicated by the fear of being discovered to be disciples of Jesus.  Remember that Peter was so afraid of being found to be a follower of Jesus that he denied knowing Jesus the night that he was arrested.

And so with this fear and threat hanging over them, and the unbelievable – literally beyond belief – surprise of the empty tomb, it’s no wonder that the disciples had hidden themselves away with fear.  They have locked themselves away for fear of being found, for fear of being discovered to be followers of Jesus, for fear of what might happen to them next.  They have locked themselves away, not quite sure what their next step is to be.

Last Sunday I mentioned that our story was a story of the empty tomb, not a story of the resurrected Jesus.  Well, this week the resurrected Jesus finally makes an appearance.  Those disciples are hiding away behind locked doors, when all of a sudden Jesus is standing among them.  He says, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them the wounds in his hands and in his side.  And it is only now that the disciples are able to shift to rejoicing.  Where there had been uncertainty and fear, now there is only joy.  Not only is the tomb empty, but Jesus is alive, and Jesus is standing among us.

As I was thinking about Easter, and the resurrection, and this scripture passage, I came across the same quote several times this week on FaceBook.  You know, where someone takes an inspirational quotation and puts in with either a beautiful or a dramatic picture behind it.  Anyways, this quote read:  “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing,” and it is attributed to theologian and novelist Frederick Buechner.  “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.”

That seemed to fit well with our scripture passage this week – after all, those disciples were likely going through the very worst days of their lives, days filled with grief and fear.  But because of the resurrection, the worst thing was not the last thing – there was still the resurrection to come.

But I must be a sceptic at heart; and I definitely never take anything I read on FaceBook at face value (pun intended).  Especially when I see nice quotes attributed to famous people.  So I started digging.  Is it a real quote; and if it is, was it written or said by Buechner?

Well, I discovered that it is more of a paraphrase than a quote, and the actual quote from Buechner, from his novel The Final Beast, reads:
“The worst thing isn’t the last thing about the world.  It’s the next to last thing.  The last thing is the best.  It’s the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring.  Can you believe it?  The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even.  Yes.  You are terribly loved and forgiven.  Yes.  You are healed.  All is well.”

This actual message goes far beyond the nice, inspirational, FaceBook-worthy quote.  It says that not only is the worst thing not the last thing, but that the best thing follows the worst thing, and that the seeds of the best thing have already been planted.  It says that joy, and even laughter are already welling up and springing up even in the middle of tragedy and suffering and despair.  It says that healing and love and forgiveness will follow, no matter how unlikely that may seem.

And that is what turns our scripture reading about resurrection into a very appropriate reading for today – Holy Humour Sunday.  This is the day when the disciples’ fear and bewilderment turns to joy and laughter.  This is a day when we can sing and rejoice because the risen Christ stands among us.  This is a day when we can laugh because death and suffering no longer get to have the final word.  The resurrection is God’s great cosmic joke on the expected order of things.

This has been a challenging week in many ways for our community and for our province.  The river waters continued to rise through much of the week, roads became flooded, water poured into basements for the second year in a row, and an air of anxiety and uncertainty hung over things, with the River Watch forecast changing from day to day.  For many people, this week might have felt like the worst thing.

And yet even in the middle of the stress and anxieties of this week, those seeds of hope and joy were planted and were welling up.  Volunteers from the community rallied and filled and delivered sandbags, often to people that they didn’t know.  The military showed up and worked side-by-side with schoolchildren in the sandpits across the province.  Individuals delivered sandwiches and baking to the volunteers, and churches hosted meals to feed anyone who needed it.  Love has been and continues to be shared with neighbours wherever you turn.

And that fits with our scripture story too, because Jesus doesn’t leave the disciples where he finds them, hiding away behind locked doors.  He repeats to them, again, and again, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus doesn’t want them to be afraid – Jesus wants them to have peace in their hearts.  And Jesus breathes on them, and gives them the Holy Spirit, and sends them out into the world with the Holy Spirit, God’s power of love, working in them and leading them.  And even when one of the disciples, Thomas, laments that he was not present when Jesus appeared the first time, Jesus re-appears so that all of them would be able to have faith.

Jesus is alive, and Jesus is among us.  The seeds of joy that were dormant in those times of stress and fear have sprouted to life, and the laughter has swallowed up all of the shadows.

Peace be with you.
Receive the Holy Spirit.
Now let us go into the world, led by love and by laughter, so that God’s joy might reach to every corner.
May it be so.

24 April 2019

"Hope, Even as the River is Rising" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday April 21, 2019 (Easter Sunday)
Scripture:  Luke 24:1-12

I have to confess that I’ve been struggling over the past several days, wondering how to preach the resurrection in a corner of the world that is anticipating flooding in the very near future.  Here in the church, we are celebrating Easter with joy and fanfare, yet outside of these walls, people are filling and stacking sandbags and moving furniture and belongings to higher ground.  The contrast has weighed heavily with me as I figured out what to say this morning.

But when I turned to our scripture reading, I noticed that it isn’t filled with unrestrained joy.  When the women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James approached the tomb, they were mourning the death of Jesus.  Two days earlier, they had placed the body of one whom they loved in the tomb, and they were returning with spices to finish the preparation for permanent burial.  Their hearts were likely heavy with grief, their feet dragging in anticipation of the job that they had to do.

When they got to the tomb and they saw that the great heavy stone that had blocked the entrance had been rolled to the side, and they saw that the body that they were looking for wasn’t there, they weren’t excited – they were perplexed, they were confused.

And when two men in dazzling clothes appeared and stood beside them, they weren’t jubilant – they were terrified.

It is only when they were reminded of Jesus’ words to them, telling them that he was to die and rise again on the third day, that a realization of what has happened dawns on the women.  They realize that Jesus’ body hasn’t been dragged away by wild animals; they realize that Jesus’ body hasn’t been moved by the Roman soldiers; they realize that Jesus must have risen from the dead.

It is only then that this small group of women can return to the rest of the disciples and tell them what they have seen.

And even then, most of the disciples don’t believe them.  It is only Peter who goes to the tomb and sees only the linen cloths sitting there.  No Jesus, no body.  And Peter returned home in amazement, in wonder.

Do you notice who is missing in today’s reading?  There is no Jesus in our reading today.  No body, no resurrected one.  There is only the empty tomb, and a missing Jesus.

And the other thing that is missing from this reading is joy.  The characters move from confusion to terror to wonder.  They haven’t reached the point of being able to rejoice yet.

Today’s reading is not a story of the resurrected Jesus – it’s a story of the empty tomb; and with the empty tomb, it’s as if the rug has been pulled out from under the disciples’ feet.  As the old saying go, there is nothing certain in life except death and taxes, and now we can’t even trust death.

The empty tomb shakes things up.  The empty tomb changes the world as they knew it.  The empty tomb means that nothing can ever be the same again.

The resurrected Jesus will appear to the disciples later on.  The joy of encountering their risen Lord will come, if we continue to read the story.  But today, we are given the story of the empty tomb and a missing body.

The empty tomb is the fulfillment of all of the teaching that Jesus has given to his disciples – all of his teaching about turning the world upside down, all of his teaching about the last being first and the first being last, all of his teaching about the topsy-turvy kingdom of God.  With the empty tomb, even death and its permanence have been overturned.  The empty tomb means that something has fundamentally changed in the world, and the world can never be the same again.

And so the empty tomb issues a challenge to all of us who gather this morning, peering in to see that there is no body.  The world has been radically changed, shifted on its axis.  The question we need to ask ourselves is how do our lives reflect this change?  How have our lives been transformed by our encounter with this new way of being?  How do we live our lives in the shadow of the empty tomb?

It has been a challenging journey that we have been on this week.  Last Sunday we followed Jesus into Jerusalem in a parade whose joy carried overtones of fear.  We have shared a final meal with Jesus where he spoke of his upcoming death and instructed us to serve and love one another.  We have stayed with Jesus as he was arrested, as he was put on trial, as he was crucified, as he died, and as his body was laid in a tomb.

But now we are back at that tomb again, and the tomb is empty.  The resurrection is real, and the resurrection is here, and the resurrection is now.

Easter and the resurrection is the source of our hope.  We know that all of us pass through Good Friday periods in our lives.  Times of sickness, times of grief, times of fear, times of pain, times of anxiety, times with the river waters rise and the land floods.  And yet because of the empty tomb and the resurrection, we know that Good Friday can’t last forever – we know that Easter is coming.

Easter is coming!  Easter is here!  The tomb is empty!  Christ is not here, for Christ has risen!  Hallelujah!

Easter Sunrise Service, as we gathered on the shore
of the Wolastoq (St. John) River
Photo Credit:  Josie Pike

14 April 2019

"Whom are we Following?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
April 14, 2019 (Palm Sunday)
Scripture:  Luke 19:28-44

It’s Ancient Jerusalem at the time of the Passover.  This city that normally has 40,000 residents is hosting 200,000 visitors – pilgrims from all over the known world, all making their way to the temple to remember the deliverance of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt.  The streets are crowded, noisy, chaotic.  Everywhere you turn, there are people – people on foot, people with animals, people selling things, people buying things.  A cacophony of languages fills the air.

It is a time of celebration – after all, Passover is the feast that remembers back to the time of the Exodus, back to the time when the angel of death passed over the homes of the Israelite people who were slaves in Egypt, passed over their homes sparing the firstborn sons of Israel, scaring the Pharaoh into setting the people free from slavery, not even giving them time for the bread to rise, sending them out with un-risen, unleavened bread for the journey.

It is a time for celebration, remembering this deliverance, re-membering the story, as pilgrims and families gather and re-enact the story of their deliverance.  But there are also tensions in the air this Passover.

For the Israelite people are once again living under oppression.  The Roman Empire is now in charge of the Promised Land.  People are still nominally free – free to go about their lives, free to practice their religion, free to come and go.  But hanging over them is the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – a peace that is enforced by violence – a peace that will make you think that you are free… until you do something that makes the Romans feel threatened.

And into this city rides Jesus.  One more pilgrim amidst hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, coming to celebrate the feast of the Passover in the temple.  And yet there is something that sets Jesus apart from the rest of the pilgrims.  Something that causes the crowds to spread their cloaks on the road, honouring his passage.  Something that causes the crowds to shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Today, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week.  Over the next week, we are going to be traveling with Jesus through his final week in Jerusalem.  What begins today with a parade and shouts and cheers and acclamations will continue with discussions and arguments with the leaders in Jerusalem.  It will continue with a final meal shared by Jesus and his disciples.  It will continue with Jesus’ arrest and torture and trial and death sentence.  It will continue with Jesus being nailed to a cross and left to die.  And then when the whole world is silent with grief, this holiest of weeks will end with the surprise and joy of the resurrection.

But as we begin this journey of Holy Week, now might be a good opportunity to pause and ask, “Who is this Jesus?”  What does Jesus mean to you in your life, as he enters Jerusalem accompanied by a cheering crowd?  What is it about Jesus that makes us want to stay with him and follow him through the week ahead?

Let’s begin with our scripture from last week, where Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointed Jesus with expensive perfumed oil.  The word “Christ” or “Messiah” means the Anointed One; and so by anointing Jesus, Mary has turned him in to a Messiah, into an anointed one.  Is Jesus our Messiah?

And what do we mean by Messiah?  The ancient Israelite people were expecting a Messiah, a great military leader who would save them from Roman oppression.  And so is Jesus our Messiah in the sense of a warrior, or is there some other way in which he “saves” us?

Whether we understand that we are saved because Jesus paid the price for our lives; or whether we understand that we are saved because Jesus taught a different way of being; or whether we understand that we are saved because God became human so that humanity could be made holy; or whether we understand that we are saved because Jesus defeated all of the evil in the world – there are so many different ways of understanding salvation.  We don’t know how, but what we can proclaim is that God saves us through Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah.  And so as we head in to Holy Week, are you following Jesus the Messiah, the one who saves us?

The crowds who are following him hail Jesus as a king.  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Is Jesus a king?  He is riding in to the city accompanied by a parade in the same way that a king is, even though he is riding a donkey rather than a warhorse.  He is soon going to be crowned, even though he will be crowned with thorns rather than with gold.  He is soon going to be raised up, though he will be enthroned on a cross rather than a throne.

But what do we mean when we call Jesus a king?  In New Brunswick in 2019, we don’t have much of a reference point for kings!  But when we call Jesus our King or our Lord, I think that what we’re saying is that Jesus has the ultimate authority over our lives; and if Jesus has the ultimate authority over our lives, than nothing else can.  If Jesus is king, then Caesar can’t be.  If Jesus is king, then money can’t be.  If Jesus is king, then hockey can’t be.  If Jesus is king, then fame and the quest for popularity can’t be.  And so as we head in to Holy Week, are you following Jesus, the king?

Jesus also acts as a prophet in today’s reading.  Is Jesus a prophet?

Jesus looks at the city before him, and he weeps.  He sees a city that has turned away from God, and he weeps for the loss.  He sees a time when the city will be destroyed by outside forces, and he weeps for the loss.

Prophets see the world through God’s eyes, prophets notice where the world turns away from God’s plan for the world, and prophets point people back to God.  And so as we head in to Holy Week, are you following Jesus, a prophet of God?

I wonder too, if Jesus might also be an innocent bystander caught up in affairs out of his control.  He is one person, living in an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire; and while he did irritate the political authorities, his primary focus seems to have been deepening people’s relationship with God.  There was tension on a global scale – maybe if Jesus had lived in a different time, in a different place, then he might have slipped under the radar.

If we look around the world today, there are so many innocent bystanders caught up and killed in things much bigger than themselves.  A cyclone kills over 1000 people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.  Young men are shot by police for “Driving While Black.”  Climate Refugees are forced to flee due to rising sea levels, droughts, or wildfires.  Our LGBTQ+ Siblings around the world are being persecuted and killed because of their gender or because of who they love.  If all of the innocent bystanders lived in a different time or a different place, would they be able to survive and thrive?  And so as we head in to Holy Week, are you following Jesus, an innocent bystander who is caught up in forces that he can’t control?

Or is Jesus God Incarnate, God’s Word-Made-Flesh, the second person of the Holy Trinity, a God who chooses to die?  In Jesus, God becomes human, and so our humanity, our flesh, our human experiences are brought into contact with God.  Because of Jesus, the whole range of human experiences have been brought into contact with God and made holy – from love to suffering to joy to sorrow to pain to separation to fear.  And because Jesus died, even death itself has been brought into contact with God and been made holy.  If God dies, then death can never again have the final word.  If God dies, then death is defeated by contact with God.  And so as we head in to Holy Week, are you following Jesus who is God?

We have a long and emotional journey ahead of us this week.  Sometimes it might feel like a challenge to put one foot in front of the other to keep going.  Sometimes it might feel tempting to put our head in the sand and stay locked in our houses rather than acknowledging the path that Jesus is on.  But if we are committed to following Jesus all the way to the cross, and then beyond to the resurrection, I invite us all to take some time to consider who it is that we are following, and why we choose to follow him.  Is Jesus a Messiah?  Is Jesus a king?  Is Jesus a prophet?  Is Jesus an innocent bystander?  Is Jesus God Incarnate, the Word Made Flesh?  Is he all of these things?  Is he something else?  Who are you following into Jerusalem today?

"Entry of Christ into Jerusalem" - Wilhelm Morgner 
Public Domain

7 April 2019

"Embodiment" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
April 7, 2019
Scripture:  John 12:1-8 (with brief references to Isaiah 43:16-21)

Jesus has gathered for a meal with his friends.  His disciples are with him, and they are eating at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  Not too long ago, Jesus has wept at the death of Lazarus, then, at the pleading of his sisters, raised him to life again.

It is a cozy scene.  We can imagine oil lamps lit around the room.  We can imagine the intimacy that this small group might have shared.

Yet outside the walls of the house, the air must have crackled with the tension.  Raising Lazarus from the dead had made the powers that be very uncomfortable with Jesus.  After all, if he can raise people from the dead, what’s to stop him from overthrowing the political and religious structures?  Plots were being hatched in the places of power to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.

But our story today keeps us inside that house in Bethany.  Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, enters the room and falls at Jesus’ feet.  This isn’t the first time she has fallen at his feet.  The last time that they met, Mary fell at Jesus’ feet weeping and berating him, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”  But this time, she falls at his feet in gratitude and hospitality.  She takes out a bottle of perfume that would have cost a full year’s salary and she pours it over Jesus’ feet, then rubs it in, and wipes away the excess with her long hair.  And the smell of that beautiful, expensive gift wafts through the air of the whole house.

It is a beautiful story, but one that can make us uncomfortable.  Maybe we are uncomfortable with how sensuous it is – Jesus’ bare feet, Mary’s long hair, the extravagant gift of anointing.  Or maybe we are uncomfortable because we find ourselves agreeing just a little bit too much with Judas, the betrayer, thinking that the money spent on that perfume might have been better spent purchasing food and blankets for the poor; even though the narrator helpfully tells us that Judas really wanted to embezzle the money instead.  But still.

This story marks the start of the Passion narrative.  As soon as Jesus and his disciples leave this home, they are going to travel a little under two miles to the gates of Jerusalem, and there they will enter in the parade that we are going to read about next Sunday.  And a few days after that, Jesus is going to have his final gathering with his disciples, he is going to be arrested, and he is going to be nailed to a cross.  This final sequence of events in Jesus’ life begins with our story today.

In the days ahead, in the final days of Jesus’ life, Jesus is going to be very human, living in his human body.  Today his feet have been anointed in an act of extravagant generosity and intimacy.

Nard, the perfumed oil that Mary uses, was one of the components in the incense used in the temple, to carry prayers from humans to God.  As the oil was poured over Jesus’ feet, it would have evoked memories of prayers offered in the temple for the others who were present.  It might have also reminded them of the oil poured over the kings head at the time of coronation.  It might even have reminded them of the fragrant incense that is buried with bodies.  And if anyone present was familiar with the stories of Jesus’ birth, they might even have been reminded of the gifts brought to him by the magi, gifts that included the other fragrant incenses of myrrh and frankincense.

This is a moment in time that looks backward, and also looks forward to what is ahead; but it is also a moment in time that keeps us very grounded in the present moment, as Jesus’ feet are anointed and wiped dry.

I wonder if it is Jesus’ feet that make us uncomfortable.  Feet can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable.  We keep them hidden in socks and shoes.  When our shoes and socks are off, we feel vulnerable.  Some of us paint our toenails in an attempt to make them more presentable.  When people are asked to take their shoes off in a doctor’s or physiotherapist’s office, they often react with embarrassment.

And here is Jesus, with bare feet, having his feet anointed by a woman.  Here is Jesus in all of his vulnerable humanity.

We proclaim that the God who created the heavens and the earth became human in the person of Jesus; the Word of God that spoke creation into being has become human flesh.  And here, the Word-Made-Flesh is having his flesh, his feet, anointed.  It is a story that can fill us with awe if we pause to consider what is happening here.

And yet it is.  God is.  The great and holy “I AM” of ancient scriptures is here reclining before us, feet exposed, allowing them to be ministered to.

So often, the world tries to make us ashamed of our physical bodies.  So often, the world tries to make us conform to unrealistic standards, tries to dictate how we should present ourselves.  Yet here is Jesus, embracing the flesh that he has become.

And because God became human in Jesus, our humanity, our flesh and blood, has been brought into contact with God.  And so instead of being ashamed of, instead of rejecting our physical bodies, maybe we are called to embrace them in the way that Jesus did.  Our fleshy-ness has been made holy because of Jesus.

This morning, we baptized Eldon and welcomed him into our church family – into the family of Christ that encircles the whole world.  But we didn’t baptize him with words only.  We baptized him in his physical body with water.  We celebrate every aspect of him – his Eldon-ness, his body and his spirit.

Jesus allowed Mary to minister to his physical body.  He didn’t reject his physical body in favour of spirit.  I wonder if maybe we can do the same?  If we can learn to not only accept, but to love our physical selves – to enjoy our physical senses, and to respect our bodies as the home of God, as the temple of the Holy Spirit as the apostle Paul writes.

God is always doing a new thing.  A new thing began in Eldon’s life this morning.  A new thing begins in each of our lives when we wake up each morning and get out of bed.  Let us celebrate our bodies; let us celebrate our lives; let us celebrate each gift from God that every day brings to us!

May it be so.  Amen.

JESUS MAFA. "Jesus speaks about forgiveness," from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48384 [retrieved April 7, 2019]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr

1 April 2019

"Prodigal Love" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
March 31, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 15:11-32

The story we just heard, the parable of the Prodigal Son, is probably one of the best-known passages of scripture.  We could probably lump it together with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the 23rd Psalm, the 10 Commandments, and maybe the Beatitudes, and package them up as “Bible:  Greatest Hits.”  Many people are familiar with the outline of the story, even if they have never read it.  The story of a son who leaves his family, wastes his inheritance, and is welcomed back by his father with open arms.

Books have been written about this parable, paintings have been painted, poems have been composed.  Many years ago, a bible study group that I was a part of read and discussed Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son.  Over the course of a month and a half, we read Nouwen’s reflections about the famous painting by Rembrandt depicting the moment when the younger son returns and is embraced by his father.
Rembrandt van Rijn - "The Return of the Prodigal Son"
(Public Domain)
Nouwen dives deeply into the experience of all three characters – the younger son, the father, and the elder son – such a deep dive that at the end of the bible study we jokingly said, “If you ever run into Nouwen at a party, whatever you do, don’t ask him about the painting or you’ll be there all night!”

So it is a well-known story, and I’m guessing that if I were to ask you, most of you would relate with one or the other of the sons.

Maybe you relate more with the younger son who demands his share of his inheritance, then goes off and spends it all on “riotous living” or “extravagant living” or “undisciplined and dissipated ways” depending on the translation that you are using.  And when the money was gone and you had nowhere to live and nothing left to eat and you had hit rock-bottom, you have come back to your father, hoping for a job that would put a roof over your head and food on your plate; and instead you have been welcomed with open arms and a completely unearned, undeserved lavish feast.  Grace at its best.

Or maybe you relate more with the elder brother.  You have seen your younger brother demand his share of the inheritance, basically telling your father that he wished that he were dead.  And after that, you only heard rumours about what might have been happening – rumours of a high-flying lifestyle followed by the inevitable crash.  And then you have watched your younger brother come crawling back, and while you don’t want your father to turn him away, you also don’t understand how your father can welcome him so.  After all, you have been working for all these years for your father.  You have never wished your father dead.  And your father has never offered to throw a party for you and your friends.

I’m guessing that most of you can relate to one brother more than the other, but don’t worry – I’m not going to take a poll to see where everyone stands!

I have two sisters, so believe me when I say that I get sibling relationships.  When we were growing up, the most consistent refrain that you would have heard in our house was, “That’s not fair!”  Nobody gets fairness like an outraged sibling.  To our cries of unfairness, our father would usually reply, “Well, life’s not fair.”  But despite Dad’s matter-of-fact statement, we did our best to ensure fairness.  Treats had to be divided up equally; experiences had to be had equally; playtime, bedtimes, allowances – believe me when I say that we kept track of all of these!  And yet there was always something going on that caused us to complain, “That’s not fair!”

I think that our two brothers in today’s reading would relate with our complaint of unfairness.  The elder brother sees his brother receiving an extra-special treatment after behaving extra badly, and cries foul.  The younger brother comes home expecting to be treated the way that he deserves, and instead receives a welcome greater than he could ever imagine, let alone ask for.  Nothing about this story is fair.

In my mid-week e-mail this week, I asked the question – is there anything new to say about this story that is so well known.  For me, I realized this week as I read this story of the Prodigal Son, that I had no idea what the word “prodigal” meant.  My only association of the word was with this story.  Even when I have encountered the word “prodigal” in conversation or books, it was always related to this parable.  Based on how it was used, I always assumed that the word “prodigal” meant something like “repentant” or “penitent” – coming back, knowing that you had done something wrong.

But this week, I actually looked up the word “prodigal” to see what it means, and turns out that I was way off in my guess.  The word “prodigal” actually means “recklessly extravagant” or “lavish” or “luxurious.”  (Most of you probably knew this already, but it was new to me!)  So when we talk about the “Prodigal Son,” we are talking about the period of time just after he left his family, not about the time when he came home again.

With my newly acquired understanding of the word “prodigal” I started to wonder then if it is really the son who is prodigal in this story, or is it the father?

After all, when his younger son returns in disgrace, the father casts off dignity and runs out to welcome his son and can’t stop hugging and kissing him.  He then gives this wayward son authority over the household, presenting him with the robe, ring, and sandals of the head of the household.  And then he prepares an extravagant feast.

Isn’t it the father who is being recklessly extravagant, lavish, and luxuriant in the story?

And even with respect to his elder son, I see the father as the prodigal here.  His son is being petulant, refusing to join into the welcome-home party, refusing the joyful celebration of the party; and instead of leaving his elder son outside to stew in his own juices, the father goes out to plead with him and beg him to come inside.  A prodigal love, a love that is extravagant doesn’t want anyone to be excluded from the celebration.

And so instead being the story of the prodigal son, I see this parable as the story of the prodigal father – the story of a father who loves with abandon, who loves extravagantly, who loves beyond any reasonable expectations.

One of my favourite theologians, Jürgen Moltmann, writes about “the infinite grief of love.”[1]  A love that is so strong that any separation leads to grief.  A love between parent and child that is ripped apart yet paradoxically reaches its fulfillment when the child was crucified on Good Friday.  A love that carries in it the possibility and force of new life.  After all, the grief that we feel when we lose a loved one is really all of the love that we carry within us that no longer has a place to go.

And I see this “infinite grief of love” in our story today.  A parent’s love results in profound grief when rejected by a child; followed by extravagant, prodigal love when that child returns.  A parent’s love that results in profound grief when a child refuses to come inside; refuses to join in and share the joy.

The thing about this parable of prodigal love, of extravagant love, is that the ending is open-ended.  We know that the younger son has returned home and has been welcomed with open arms, but we don’t know if he stays home.  We don’t know if the restlessness that drove him away the first time is gone.  We don’t know if he will be able to settle down to a quiet life on the family farm.

In the same way, we don’t know how the elder brother responded to his father’s pleading.  We don’t know if he stayed outside, wallowing in resentment, or if he was able to come inside, welcome his brother home, and enter the joy of the celebration that his father is throwing.

We don’t know what happens to either of these brothers.  But what we do know is that their father’s love is constant, extravagant, and limitless.  We can be assured that whether we relate more to the restless younger brother or the resentful elder brother, that we are loved.  You are loved.  God, like a loving parent, is seeking you out, is running out to meet you where you are.  You are loved.  We are all loved.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 2015), 251.