Sunday, March 6, 2016

Coming To…

Joshua 5:9-12, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 6, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL

Our first reading today is from the book of Joshua. This book marks a series of changes. It is among the books of “history” in the Hebrew scriptures, but it is also a transitional book – between the books of law and the books of the prophets. The story is that the people of Israel, freed from slavery in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness before going to the promised land. Moses has died, Aaron and Miriam are out of the picture, and leadership has now passed to Joshua. The Israelites have left the wilderness and crossed the Jordan River. At that point, they made a symbolic dam of stones, re-enacting the Exodus crossing of the Red Sea. They arranged the stones in a circle, or a wheel, to mark the place Gilgal, where past challenges and sins are rolled away from them. Now, they will no longer need the gift of manna, for the land will provide them with a feast of food. In the new situation, they mark the new beginning with the Passover, a reminder of who and whose they are, and of God's mercy. This is their new beginning.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Joshua 5: 9-12

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Our gospel reading is another story of journey and change, a story that follows a son into the wilderness, and then sees him return home. As it was with first reading, this story too ends in a feast. This is a beloved and familiar story, and it is hard to hear it again without attaching our own beloved and familiar meanings to it. Twenty centuries later, as this story has voyaged through time, it has gathered the moss and barnacles of thousands of words and interpretations. We do not – maybe we cannot – hear it the way it was first heard. But we can try. So I invite you today to listen with me from the perspective, perhaps, of someone who was there, that day, the day that Jesus was questioned – the day that he answered them not with a defense of his actions, but with a story.

If you like, you can follow along with the story in the scripture reading from Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. It is on page 78 in your pew Bible.

We had heard of this Jesus, of course. He had been traveling all over Judea, teaching and healing. We knew that he was a prophet from an out-of-the-way town. And some of us suspected that he might be trouble. Jesus didn’t seem to attract the right sort of people, and the people in authority over us, the people who had power over us, they were noticing him, and not in a good way.

But even though we were a little bit worried, we couldn’t help being drawn to him. He was interesting, but not overwhelming. This Jesus could make an argument without shouting, and he would perform amazing miracles without expecting anything in return.

If you were in need, he helped.
If you were alone, he’d welcome you.
If you invited him to come for dinner, he would come.
If you were hungry, he’d feed you.

That day, the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. They wanted to hear what he said, and they wanted to be in his presence. The bigwigs – the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So Jesus answered them with a story. Actually, he answered with three stories. The first one was about a fellow who had one hundred sheep, and one of them went missing. In the story, this fellow left the ninety-nine sheep and went after the one. Apparently his flock was not complete without that one sheep. When the fellow found that sheep, he threw a big party to celebrate. The second story Jesus told was about a woman who had ten coins, and one of them went missing. Apparently, she could not rest until she found that one lost coin. When she found her lost coin, she threw a big party to celebrate.

The third story was about a man who had two sons. And one of them, well…he didn’t exactly go missing. But the family wasn’t complete until that boy came home. And when he did, the father threw a big party to celebrate.

Are you seeing a theme here?

We did too, that day in that village on the road to Jerusalem.
But remember, we heard it then and there – the first time anybody had ever heard this story! And when Jesus started the story, we immediately recognized that he was using a familiar beginning for the story.

You know how those openings are – maybe for you the beginning is
“There once was a woman from …”
or “Once upon a time in a land far, far away…”
or even “Knock-knock!”
Once somebody says those words, it is a signal of what is coming next.

Jesus started, “There was a man who had two sons.” We knew a lot of stories about a man with two sons – Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. We knew what was coming next – the younger son is the clever one, the winner, the good guy.

But then Jesus surprised us. He said, “The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ Well, this was going to get interesting.

This must have been a spoiled brat of a kid, we thought. And the father’s response bore that out – he divided his property between the two sons. The older son got his inheritance too! The younger son wasted no time in gathering up his stuff and moving out. 

“He traveled to a distant country,” Jesus said, “and he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. ”

I’m sure different people hear that part differently in the 21st century, and they certainly did in my time, in the first century. Some might have said “Oh, poor guy – he’s broke, and there is a famine!” Others might have thought what a shame it was that no one – no one – helped him or gave him anything to eat. Others might have said “Well, he squandered all his money, so too bad for him. If he is hungry, it is his own fault.” In any case, the boy was hungry. We wondered what would happen to him.

You might think that the part about the pigs would have upset us. But we were used to being around Gentiles. He wasn’t EATING the pigs, after all – he was feeding them. But then the son - he came to!

Maybe being broke and hungry does that to a guy. He came to himself, and he came to a realization!
"How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."

I don’t know if this means he felt sorry. Jesus didn’t say that, didn’t say the young man was sorry, that he repented. Jesus just said that he was hungry, and he reckoned that if he went back to his Father he would get something to eat. So he set off and went to his father.

Jesus said that even while the son was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. That father ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Of course he did, I thought, when I heard that – the father loved that boy. The father must have been heartbroken when his son left, and don’t you suppose they heard rumors about him, about how he was wasting his money and wasting his life?

I wondered where the boy’s mother was in all this – if she was even still living. It seems like she might have been watching and waiting for him, too, praying that the boy would come home. Maybe the parents had talked, coming to the realization that they’d made some mistakes with their younger son. Maybe they came to their senses while he was gone. Maybe they had spoiled him and indulged him too much. Maybe he was wasteful and disrespectful. But he was their son. Nothing could change that.

The boy must have done some thinking himself, as he walked toward home. He had a speech all worked out. He sounded like he was quoting scripture when he started to speak,

"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son."

The father didn’t even let the boy give his well-prepared speech. He only cared that his son was home. The father called to the slaves: "Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!'

Jesus said this, and my heart swelled with joy. You don’t expect it, when a story starts out that way. Maybe you do – maybe you’ve heard this story so many times that it is hard to imagine how it sounded to us! But isn’t it always true, for all people, even with twenty centuries between them, how much we want a happy ending, how much we want to be welcomed, and loved? Clearly that father loved his son, no matter what he had done.

Jesus said “they began to celebrate.” Like it happened right then and there.
But you know it took some time to put THAT party together! They had to get the fatted calf ready – that takes quite a bit of effort. Then there was all the other food to prepare, because you can’t throw a party with just meat. You need music. You need bread. And wine. And guests. And the rest of the family. That’s where the story takes a turn. You know where this is going, but we didn’t!

Because the elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. What do you suppose that is all about? How could the older brother not have known that the younger brother was home? How could he not have known that his parents were throwing a party? Do you think he was out of town? Far away with the flocks?

The slave had to fill him in on the plans: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'

The older brother was angry. I’d have been angry too. Wouldn’t you? I don’t know if you have a brother or sister, and maybe you are a better person than me, but I know that siblings keep score, no matter what their parents do. The older brother was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.

But he answered his 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!'

It was so unfair. Anybody could see that. But the father wasn’t going to keep score that way. He was like that fellow with the sheep, whose flock wasn’t complete until he found the one that was lost, and that woman with the coin, who couldn’t rest until her tenth coin was recovered. This father’s family had been fractured, and the son that was missing had come home. That was all that counted for him.

Then the father said to his older son,
"Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.' "

As I was listening to Jesus, I realized he was telling God’s salvation story. Even back in the time of Moses, when the people were far from God, complaining even when they were set free from slavery, complaining even when God had provided manna for them, even then, God kept loving them. And when they came to the River Jordan, when they came to the Promised Land, when they came to the recognition that God had been loving them all along, they came to their home – their new home. And they celebrated with a feast.

It’s like this son, this ungrateful boy, this runaway who wasted his gifts –
when he came to himself, when he came to his father, and when he came to his home,
there was his father, waiting with open arms, to welcome him with a feast.

I’m sure you know very well what happened to Jesus, and now I know it, too, and the world knows it, how he died on the cross and how he and rose again. But I’m telling you that right then, when he told that story, we didn’t know. What we did know is that people were coming to him, and he was receiving them with open arms.

People were coming to the table with him, and he broke bread with them –
he ate with them like they were his long lost brothers and sisters,
like life just wouldn’t be complete without them at the table.

If you were in need, he helped.
If you were alone, he’d welcome you.
If you invited him to come for dinner, he would come.
If you were hungry, he’d feed you.
We didn’t know much else about Jesus that day,
but we did know what you know, what we all need to know:

"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."