Invited to the Celebration

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March 31, 2019. Pastor Stephanie preaches on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and how the story fits into our Lenten journey.


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Well, as we’ve been saying all along in Lent, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. So begins roughly the last half of the Gospel of Luke — that little statement. So, you’ve been hearing that phrase regularly since we began our Lenten journey about 25 days ago. And every week since this journey has begun we’ve been saying that the journey continues, with some special emphasis or another. Any journey, though, that begins with ashes on your forehead and has an altar that looks like a stricken wasteland (when we usually have color and liveliness and vibrancy and beauty) sounds like something that’s not going to make a travel folder that Joan O’Brien’s going to promote. Like, who wants to come on this journey with me? Really, who wants to go on a journey that looks and sounds so dreary? And to top it all off, we can’t even sing the word “hallelujah,” because we’re not supposed to be too happy or celebratory until we get to Easter.


So really it’s understandable that Lent can have a rather grim reputation. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand the reason for that and I affirm it, and I think all the themes that we’ve spent time on together in these past few weeks have been important for our spiritual well-being. Discovering who and whose we are, lamenting our sorrows, encountering God in the wilderness, turning to repentance — those are all things worth dealing with, because we are people who need to be sobered up enough to deal with the reality of our desperate need for God. So those are valuable signposts on the journey, without a doubt.


But in the midst of our serious encounter with God on this journey we are given a story in Lent that starts out seriously enough, yet it ends in a no-holds-barred rejoicing and celebrating, with plenty of hallelujah-like pronouncements filling the air, at a party to end all parties. How exactly, then, does this story fit into Lent, we may wonder? It’s a story that’s got to be in the top 20, for sure, of Bible stories that might be recognized — even in a culture that recognizes fewer and fewer of the classics in biblical literature. A son who dishonors his father by asking for an inheritance, that essentially says, “Dad, I can’t wait any longer for you to die. So please give me my inheritance now” — and then continues to break his heart by going off without even a backwards glance or an occasional letter now and then, letting him know where he is and how he’s doing.


Then there is the other son. This one stays at home and carries out his responsibilities there, but there isn’t much of a relationship with Dad here either that would make a good Hallmark movie. He might be polite enough at the dinner table, but there’s obviously some serious resentment simmering underneath the surface about how he isn’t really treated well enough. The narrative that runs through his head is that he is doing far more for Dad than he is ever getting in return. Good thing he’s so responsible and hardworking or this place would fall apart, if you would hear him tell the story. Everything, though, comes to a head when the runaway makes his way back, now broke and broken, hoping to quietly slip in the back door and stay under the radar where he knows he at least has a chance for survival, but knowing he deserves nothing more than that. That doesn’t happen, because the father will have none of that. But in the meantime, we also get to see the character of the responsible son showing his true colors. He sulks, he rants, he complains bitterly about how unfair life is, and refuses to welcome his brother home. Well, we can see that these sons are polar opposites. They are each on one end of the spectrum of behaviors and attitudes, styles and personality types — if the spectrum includes ungrateful and unresponsive people to God. I suppose each of us can find ourselves leaning toward one more than the other, and maybe seeing a bit of ourselves in each one.


But the real story is about the father who hijacks all of the drama in the story. Jesus doesn’t tell this story so we can decide which brother was worse than the other or less deserving of the father’s love. He doesn’t even tell us that we should figure out which son we resemble most closely, although that is often what we do and it’s understandable. I suspect that each one of us innately knows to which one we most closely relate. Jesus does not condemn either one, nor praise either one as being more virtuous or honest or sincere than the other. They just seem to exist as characters that depict human nature in its raw form — not especially lovable when all pretense is stripped away. But here’s the kicker: they aren’t the main characters in this story. Because this is a story about a father whose love knows no bounds. It’s about a father who has been wronged, yet runs to meet the bedraggled son and throw a grand party to welcome him back, even though the son knows he doesn’t deserve even a shred of attention and care at this point. It’s about a father whose steady presence with the other son has provided for him, has been available to him all along the way. Even now, without receiving the least acknowledgement of his kindness, the father holds no grudges, but warmly reminds this son that he desires to draw him in to celebrate life, love, laughter, and feasting. It’s about a father who rejoices, whose joy knows no bounds in breaking down barriers and assuring each child that he is cherished.


God is like that father, Jesus says. God’s love is so immense that we cannot even imagine its intensity. God rejoices as we respond and let that love wash over us. There’s a party going on, given by God, to which we are all invited. Now, we may not approve of the guest list that shows up at the party, but that really doesn’t matter. It’s the Father’s party. When we get caught up in the magnitude of the extravagant grace that has been poured out upon us, to even bring us to this party — well, we wonder why we were invited in the face of such great graciousness. That’s when we can be captivated by the music, the feasting, the merriment of belonging to this Father of boundless love and joy.


Several years back (since I’m going down memory lane today) there was a band called Kool and the Gang, and they had a song that went something like this: “There’s a party going on right here.” (Feel free to sing along if you want.) “A celebration to last throughout the years / So bring your good times, and your laughter too.” (I knew Phil would know it because I hear him sing it a lot.) “We’re gonna celebrate your party with you.” That’s right. Come on. That’s it. Katie’s got it. “We’re gonna celebrate and have a good time.” I think God wrote those words through that band, or at least they wittingly or unwittingly tapped into the kind of merriment and outright celebration that God invites us into, with his love at the center, energizing and embracing us all.


So back to an earlier question. How does this story fit into Lent? If Lent is a journey, as we settle along then let’s remember that a journey has a purpose. It’s going somewhere. It’s driven to see and to experience something. Jesus presents us this image of God on our journey, with open arms wanting to enfold us, to dance with us, to dine with us, to enjoy the music and the celebration of being in relationship with us — all to show us who it is who is walking alongside us, and who beckons us onward. We can do this journey, even when it is difficult, because of God’s love. When we stumble on the journey, God’s arms restore us. When we are discouraged, God’s love fills us. The journey is about continually moving toward the embrace of this magnetic love. If the journey doesn’t end up in the Father’s embrace, then it was a good walk spoiled (to name a book title that pokes fun at the game of golf, but I digress). It truly is a journey that is directed toward a patiently loving Father, whose embrace and welcomed are always there for us. Even when the journey takes us through difficult places — and it does and it will — we can celebrate along the way. For God’s abundance love is unfailing, and God’s arms hold us securely.


Well, the journey toward Holy Week continues. Let’s celebrate God’s extravagant grace as we trek onward together. Thanks be to God for God’s grace toward us. Amen.


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2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Parable of the Prodigal Son