Not long ago, I was standing outside the Goose Community Grocery in Bayview, waiting for Amy to pay for some new plants that she knew yearned to go home with us. It was a sunny morning and I was enjoying leaning against a post in the beautiful light.
As I stood there, two women came out of the entryway, followed by two children. One of the children, the boy, kept saying over and over something that sounded to me like “ginger a.” “Ginger a, ginger a, ginger a, ginger a…” Then sister said, “Mom, can you make Timmy stop, please.” And she did and off they went.
I was reminded of a time in my own life when I too experienced something like this, but, in this case, I was the nuisance. It must have been somewhere around 1950. I was sitting in the back seat of our family Chevrolet Fleetwood, 1947 model, with my brothers, both younger. We had just eaten supper at a local eatery called Nahm’s Nook, a hamburger stand that sold really good milk shakes. Betty Nahm, a daughter of the owner, was a classmate of mine in grade school.
Anyway, out of the back window of our car I could see the neon lights flashing over the door of the restaurant, advertizing burgers and shakes. For reasons that I can not possibly recall, I became captivated by what the neon was flashing and, silly me, I began to recite out loud what the neon was saying, “French fries burgers milk shakes, French fries burgers milk shakes, French fries burgers milk shakes.” I was so enraptured that I began to modulate my voice, up and down, high and low. Quite delightful!
My brothers were quite energized by the whole thing. My parents, on the other hand, particularly my father, were not enthralled. I was invited, rather sternly, to stop that foolish business right then! Scolded, I tried to become very small and disappear in the ackseat of that ’47 Chevrolet.
All this is to say that repetition has a particular fascination for children, or so it seems. But apparently, there is some age at which such repetition is no longer entertaining, for which the whole world is doubtless grateful. At the same time, I’m hopeful that you still hold some measure of fascination for things you’ve heard before. After all, we have in our Gospel this morning one of the most familiar, oft repeated and most beautiful stories in all of Holy Scripture. It is best called, The Prodigal. It is quite fascinating!
Luke, the writer of the Gospel, tells us that this story Jesus told in the midst of social undesirables, “tax collectors and sinners,” people whom society found unworthy, people to be avoided and by some, people to be despised. That’s the crowd who heard the story, along perhaps with some of the elite who looked down of these others.
The father in the story divided his inheritance between his two sons, at the request of the younger one, soon to prove to be the weak link in the genetic chain. The boy “squandered his property in dissolute living.” Or to put it another way, “What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas.”
Destitute and dissolute, the boy hires himself out in the most deplorable way--a nice young Jewish boy tending pigs! Lord, have mercy! And the pigs were eating better than our young man.
It is in this light that our hero awakened and speaks to himself. “I will get up and go to my father.” In the older translation of this story, the boy is heard to say to himself and to God, “I will arise and go to my father.” This line has always had a certain pungency for me, as I suspect it has for anyone else whose relationship with their father was strained or tarnished. “I will arise and go to my father.”
And so he did, he set off, convinced as he says, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” And here is the central word, the central idea in this story. Worthiness. “…I am no longer worthy…” Remember it. It will appear again.
If worthiness and its opposite are central to our story, what happens next is the most central action. The boy “set off and went to his father,” and “while [the boy] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; [the father] ran and put his arms around [the boy] and kissed him.” The father saw the boy at a distance and he, the father, ran to the boy. Here is grace without measure, grace without qualification, grace as lavish as tears.
Please note that the boy’s confession, “Father, I have sinned…” and so forth comes AFTER the Father welcomes him, AFTER the father runs to the boy, embraces him and gives him a loving kiss of welcome. Yes, the boy confesses but it is in response to the grace of his father. Yes, the boy had awakened to his sin and announced it to himself, but not yet to his father. The father’s welcome brought on the boy’s confession.
It is here, right at this spot, that we know absolutely that the story really is about a prodigal father more than a prodigal son. The extravagance of the welcoming father far exceeds the extravagance of the dissolute son. The best robe, a ring for the boy’s finger, sandals for his feet, a fatted calf. “…this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” The Prodigal Father, without reservation, without limit, without condition or hesitation.
So now we take a breath in our story and ask, what have we learned. It’s a beautiful story and Jesus intends for his hearers, among whom we should count ourselves, Jesus intends for us to learn something about how our weakness, or worthiness or otherwise, relates to God’s generosity, God’s radical welcome, a welcome for us to recognize, to enjoy and to emulate. Radical welcome. There it is on full display. So, take a breath and know that.
But that is not the last word in the story. There’s that older brother. The one who lived right who did the things expected, was not a bounder like his younger sibling. Steady on, dutiful, responsible, respected. Reminds me of myself!
Older brother is not pleased with the prodigality of his father. Older brother says accusingly, “…you killed the fatted calf for him!” The father’s prodigality has yet to appear in the older brother’s genetic structure or his personality. But the father sticks to his story, “…this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” And so the story ends. But our experience of the story is not quite over.
If we were to ask ourselves who we are in the story, I suspect some of us could identify with the younger son and even more of us, like me, identify with the older brother. But the next question is the hard one, How many of us see ourselves as the prodigal father? OK, now you see, here’s the hitch and the invitation.
We have told the world, we have told Oak Harbor, and we have told our new Rector that radical welcome is a characteristic of us. We have perhaps even prided ourselves on that claim. If that is to be true over time and something we intend to identify us, then the prodigality of the father will need to be seen here, without reservation, without limit, without hesitation, without condition. It is an extravagant aspiration but we have claimed it.
It seems to me that Jesus tells us this story again at just the right time.
It is indisputably so. Any place, any town will have plenty of younger sons and plenty of older brothers, but what any community really needs is more prodigal fathers… mothers. Extravagant, welcoming, prodigal. So, Dear Ones, we see what we need to do and whom we need to be. Jesus gives us the Prodigal Father as our guide and template. The profligate son need not intrigue us further. Instead it is the prodigal father who sets the mark for us to aim at.
Perhaps, then, repeating this familiar story has some new value, after all. Pray, sisters and brothers, for the gift of prodigality, and welcome the world.
Blessed be the Name of God