A sermon preached on March 10th, 2013 based upon Luke 15:1-3; 11 – 32.
An account has stayed with me that I read many years ago that was written by an anthropologist living among what we would call a “primitive” people somewhere in Africa. A man transgressed against the taboos by which the community maintained order. In response, the resident “medicine man” very publicly performed a curse upon the man. From that moment forward, the rest of the community had no dealings whatsoever with the offending man. It was as if he’d become invisible to them.
The man stopped eating and in short order became quite sick. In a matter of weeks, the man had died.
What brought on his death? Did the curse set loose evil spirits upon the man? Perhaps. But it is not necessary to posit evil spirits to recognize the devastating impact it had on the man to have the human connections he had taken for granted suddenly severed. Left alone, invisible to his community, he lost the will to live. When that happened, the immune system collapsed, infections invaded his body, and before long his life was extinguished.
We are designed for human connection.
If I were to ask you what the parable Jesus told of the prodigal son and the elder brother is about, you would probably say that no matter how we might sin – no matter how big a mess we could make of our lives – God will always welcome us back in love. We turn to God in prayer, and there God is with open arms to embrace us.
And that is certainly in the parable.
As Americans living in a culture that puts such a premium upon the individual and personal freedom, we can overlook the fact that before this story is about the relationship between an individual human being and God, it is a story about human relationships: the relationships between a father and his two sons, and the relationship between those two brothers.
And it is a story about communities. There is the community of decadence the prodigal son finds in the far country. There is also the community of which the father is a part – the community he gathers together to celebrate his son’s return. And it was to the Pharisaical community that Jesus addressed this parable.
The Pharisees could not help but be impressed by the impact Jesus was having. The crowds were flocking to hear him teach, and in contrast to the “medicine man” in the story of the anthropologist, Jesus’ words were bringing healing and life to countless people.
And yet the thing that troubled the Pharisees was that he welcomed the people who had broken the taboos of their community – “the sinners and tax collectors.” In their minds, Jesus’ willingness to create community – to share meals with such people diminished his reputation significantly in their estimation.
In the community of the Pharisees, there wasn’t “always room in the circle.” You had to earn the right to be in the circle by righteous living – by keeping the Law.
In the reading I did this week about this parable, I came to a new appreciation for the communal aspect of this story Jesus told.
The younger of two sons tells his father that he wants his inheritance now. He doesn’t give his father the respect a father deserved; he doesn’t have the decency to wait for the father’s life to run its natural course. He tells the father in so many words he would prefer he be dead.
We imagine there being money for the father to hand over. There wouldn’t have been money; the inheritance consisted of land — land farmed by his family for generations, passed down through the years.
The younger son promptly sells off his parcel of land. It’s been in the family for generations, but because the young man wants to indulge his desires, this precious land, so essential to the family’s identity, is suddenly lost forever.
There is no way the community misses this. The father loses some respect for allowing his son to get away with this, but still, the father is a part of their community. The one who is now dead to them is this son who has treated his father in a manner no son should ever do. He has offended their sensibilities. The only way he would be welcomed back would be to bring back ten times as much money as he left with, buy back the land, and shower his family and the community with presents.
The community has a ritual described in the Misnah for dealing with sons who lose their family’s inheritance to Gentiles. Should the young man ever dare to show his face in those parts, they will perform a getsatah ceremony in which they bring an earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn and break it in front of the prodigal. They would shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people.
But the young man does come back, and for no other reason than that he is hungry. He comes back empty handed, because he has lost his family’s inheritance to Gentiles through his recklessness.
So when the father hears that his son though still a far way off is on his way home, he sets off running. Again, he is humiliating himself in the eyes of the community. In their culture, fathers don’t run to greet their children; they are too dignified. Mothers might, but not fathers.
But this father runs because he wants to get to his son before the community does – before they can enact the ritual that casts him out forever. And so when the father throws the great party with the fatted calf and invites all his neighbors, part of what is happening there is that he is pulling out all the stops in an attempt to restore his lost son to the community.
And when his elder son won’t come into the party, once more the father goes out – again, humiliating himself by his willingness to plead for his son to be reconciled with his brother.
Sometimes we experience God’s grace one on one with God in the solitude of prayer. But more often than not we “need somebody with skin on” to mediate the grace of God. We experience God through communities of grace and belonging.
So yes, the message of this parable is that we have a God who always welcomes us home, but the message is also of a God who recognizes the importance of human connection. A God who goes to great lengths – Jesus willing to humiliate himself in the eyes of the community to welcome the sinners and tax collectors back into the fold – to restore relationships that have been broken.
We are designed by God for human relationships – for community.
But not all communities are the same. There is the community the son found in the “far country” into which the son was welcomed as long as he bankrolled the quenching of their lust. But as soon as his money ran out, he became invisible to them.
There is the community of the Pharisees, where the righteous and upright are welcomed. But it is a community sustained by fear of the possibility of being cast out for failing to walk the tightly prescribed line. It is a community where there is no permission to find one’s own way – it’s their way or the highway.
And then there is Christian community. All too often communities that are supposed to be Christian actually have more in common with the community of the Pharisees. It is mostly Law, and not much grace.
The parable gives us some clues about what Christian community looks like.
First of all, it is a community where all are welcomed. No one is turned away, because the one whose body we are together never turned any one away.
It is a community where no one is invisible, and permission is given to be the unique person God made you to be. A place where there is no pressure to be clones of one another.
It is a community of caring – a community you can count on being there for you through thick and thin.
And it is a community of joy. It’s fun, like a party with singing and dancing and good food and drink. It echoes the joy of the angels in heaven.
That’s what we’re trying to be about here.
Earlier when I referred to the “primitive” community witnessed by the anthropologist, it might have been easy for us to feel superior. But our society is in many ways worse. We live in a time where so many people wither away, rich perhaps in things but starving for human connection. They think they prefer it this way. But it is a death walk their choosing.
Our evangelism committee has been thinking about these things. Evangelism is understood to be “bringing people to Christ.” The primary way people experience Christ is by being a part of Christ’s body – a community of people who are seeking to live in the grace of God. The lonely, disconnected people of this society desperately need what our Jesus community has to offer.
I want to finish with what might be the best preacher story ever told. It comes from Tony Campollo, a sociologist at Eastern College in Philadelphia, and part time preacher and evangelist. He describes having a speaking engagement in Honolulu, which meant his first night there his internal clock woke him up at 3 a.m. ready to start his day. Tony went out on the city streets looking for breakfast, but the only place he could find that was open was a little greasy spoon joint on a side street. There were no booths, only a counter where Tony took a seat. The menu was covered with grease so he didn’t want to open it. When the big guy behind the counter asked him what he wanted, he simply asked for black coffee and a doughnut. He watched the guy wipe his hand off on his apron, pick up the doughnut and place it on his plate. Not exactly what you might call a classy dining establishment.
As Tony was sipping his coffee in came eight or nine prostitutes having just finished their night’s work. They sat down on either side of him. Tony felt distinctly out of place, but he listened as the woman sitting to his left told her friend that tomorrow was her 39th birthday. Her friend responded sarcastically, “What you want me to do for you? Bake you a cake?”
“I never had a cake in my life!” she replied. “I don’t expect one now.”
When Tony heard that he hatched a plan. He waited till the ladies left, and then he asked the big guy, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Every night,” he replied. “Exactly at 3:30.”
“How about the one who was sitting right next to me here?”
“Oh Agnes? Sure she always come too.”
“I got an idea,” said Tony. “What say we throw Agnes a birthday party?”
“That’s a great idea!” said the big guy.
“I’ll get decorations and come early tomorrow, and I’ll get a cake –“
“No!” the big guy cut him off. “The cake’s mine. I’ll bake the cake!”
So Tony went to Kmart and got crape paper and balloons and a big sign that said, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” He arrived at 2:30 the next night and had the place looking real nice. Word had gotten out — by 3:15 every prostitute in the whole city had arrived. It was wall to wall prostitutes.
Right at 3:30 the door swung open and there stood Agnes and a friend. Everybody yelled, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AGNES!” Agnes was stunned. Her legs got wobbly. Her friend helped her to the counter. The big guy brought out the cake with candles lit, and everybody sang happy birthday. “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Blow out the candles!” She tried, but she couldn’t, so the big guy blew them out for her. Handing her a knife, the big guy said, “Cut the cake, Agnes! Cut the cake.” She just stared at the cake. Then she turned to Tony and said, “Mister, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to take the cake to show it to my mother.”
“Well sure, if that’s what you want to do,” said Tony. “But do you have to do it right now?”
“We only live two buildings away. It won’t take long.”
So Agnes got up and carried the cake as though it were the holy grail. Someone opened the door, and suddenly she was gone, and there was this stunned silence.
“What do you say we pray?” asked Tony. No one said anything, so he proceeded to pray. He prayed that God would heal Agnes’ heart from the wounds that men had afflicted upon her through the years, dating all the way back to when she was a child, which was when the kind of wound Agnes carried with her usually begin. He asked God to deliver her from the bondage she suffered under from the powers of darkness, and that Jesus would make her a new creation.
When he was done, the big guy said with some hostility in his voice, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher!! What kind of church do you belong to?”
And Tony said it was one of those moments when just the right words come out: “I belong to the church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 at night!”
“No you don’t!” said the big guy. “There’s no such church as that!! If there was, I’d join that church!!”
Tony finished by saying, wouldn’t we all. That’s Jesus’ kind of church.