Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Welcome! Welcome to the party! The invitations have been sent…the guests have arrived…the table is set…it is time to begin. And…the gossip about Jesus has spread just about everywhere. Mons Tieg, professor emeritus from Luther Seminary writes: “The religious authorities of that day were appalled that Jesus would enter conversation with notorious tax collectors and sinners. Grumbling and gossiping, they criticized Jesus in this way: “This fellow welcomes sinners and even eats with them!” Tieg then concludes: “Thankfully…Jesus still welcomes sinners and eats with us…every time we gather to eat and drink at the Lord’s Table. That gossip about Jesus… is the gospel (the good news). That gossip about Jesus is what allows us to be in his company.”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: So if I were putting together a sinners table at the Huddle House, it might include an abortion doctor…a child molester…an arms dealer…a garbage collector…a young man with AIDS…a Laotian chicken plucker… a teenage crack addict…and an unmarried woman on welfare with five children by three different fathers. Did I miss anyone? Don’t forget to put Jesus at the head of the table, asking the young man to hand him a roll, please, and offering the doctor a second cup of coffee before she goes back to work.
If that offends you even a little…then you are almost ready for what happens next. Because what happens next…is that the local ministerial association comes into the restaurant and sits down at a large table across from the sinners. The religious authorities all have good teeth and there is no dirt under their fingernails. When their food comes, they hold hands to pray. They are all perfectly nice people, but they can hardly eat their hamburger steaks for staring at the strange crowd in the far booth.
The chicken plucker is still wearing her white hair net, and the garbage collector smells like spoiled meat. The addict cannot seem to find his mouth with his spoon. But none of those is…the heartbreaker. The heartbreaker…is Jesus, sitting there as if everything were just fine. Doesn’t he know what kind of message he is sending? Who is going to believe he speaks for God if he does not keep better company than that? I saw them eating and I knew who they were.
This brings us to the story…the story of the Prodigal Son…that Jesus tells in our gospel lesson today. Jesus talks about…what happens when there is a breakup in the family…when they no longer recognize each other as family…when people in the family no longer speak to each other. Jesus knew how easily…things we do or don’t do…things we say or don’t say…how old grievances and grudges…the dredging up of past wrongs or unsettled scores…can tear us apart. Either in our families, among friends, at the work place…or even in the church. In our story…really both sons end up in “a far off country”…away from each other and apart from the father. The younger son goes away…spiting his family and taking his father’s inheritance…only to come back home when “all was lost.” The older son…upon his brother’s return and the father’s throwing him a party…stays away and won’t go in. Both…broke the father’s heart. Both…needed the father’s love.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus is talking about a whole different type of country. A place where forgiveness…brings us into a different way of life. Dr. David Lose describes it this way: What I’m thinking of really is another country, another land, one that feels…smells…even tastes different. You know right when you’ve stumbled into it…even if you didn’t notice the boundary lines.
What makes this country different is that nobody counts things here. Do you know what I mean? No tracking billable hours…no counting the days until school lets out…no ringing up debits on the balance sheet…no cries from the backseat of “are we there yet?” Best yet, no counting old grievances and grudges….no dredging up past wrongs or unsettled scores. For some reason…people in this country have lost track of all that; in fact, they can’t remember why you’d keep count in the first place. Jesus paints a picture of this world in his story of a foolish son and even more foolish father. It is a world of unmerited grace. Counters won’t understand.
But to those of us who have been down and out, to those who have been lost, to those who have been dead…. Well, even if it’s not the real world, it’s the only one that really matters.
And so…here we are. The invitations have been sent…you (the guests) have arrived…the bread is broken and the wine is poured…and you are being ushered into this whole different country. A country…where all are welcome…where counting is not necessary…where wrongs and sins are forgiven. And you…you are accepted and blessed and celebrated simply as the child of God that you are. And you find…that by being here…you have been changed…your life has been changed…how you live in relationship with others is changed. Imagine coming home to your house and seeing these words on the stairs inside the front door…In this house…we are real…we make mistakes…we say I’m sorry…we give second chances…we have fun…we give hugs…we forgive…we do really loud…we are family…we love. Imagine that…forgiveness really is a whole new way of life. Let the party begin. AMEN.