This Sermon was delivered at St Mary the Virgin’s, Diss at the 10:30 am Eucharist on the 31st March 2019. Readings: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-end.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I would like to begin this morning by making a confession. It’s a topical confession as well because today is Mothering Sunday and, rightly or wrongly, we’ve come to associate this as a good day on which to celebrate mothers. Which is a good thing to do, although we have to acknowledge that it can be a bittersweet moment; particularly for those who have recently lost their mothers or who through circumstance find that hopes they may have had to be mothers haven’t resulted in motherhood for any of a variety of reasons. I have good friends who are affected by each of these and who are on my mind today.
But walking through town there’s no shortage of bright pink advertisements in shops or offers displayed outside restaurants and pubs for Mother’s day deals (often, it seems, for a free G&T!) and these have caused me to reflect.
And this is my confession. Not that I forgot the clocks sprung forward this morning (though we shall see shortly whether anyone did in fact forget!) but that while I generally would like to think of myself as being a pretty good son, I haven’t actually seen my Mum on Mothering Sunday since 2011!
Disgraceful, I know. It’s been a long time. In my defence, I’ve sent a card (or had my brother and sister add my name their card on my behalf) and I’ve phoned to check in and say that I appreciate her. But after Mothering Sunday in 2011 I found myself off and away at university in London. I was there for 5 years. I was off reading books, writing essays and having a lot of very interesting conversations about life, death, the universe and anything and everything under the sun.For the last two years I was there I was working as a pastoral support worker.
While I was there, living my life and only being a few hours away from my Mum I went through the process of exploring a calling to ordination in the Church of England. I was accepted for training and went off to Durham – which is even further away than London was.
When I finished my training in Durham, I moved… here! Which has been great for me because I get to spend my time with all of you, and it’s great for you because you’re all a part of shaping me and helping me to grow into the person and clergyman that God is calling me to be. Besides, an extra pair of hands can’t hurt. Seriously though, without getting too soppy, I’m very glad to be here in the Diss Team Ministry.
But the real, hitherto undisclosed advantage in my parents’ eyes is that rather than being at the other end of the country, I’m now just under an hour away. And so today will be the first time I’ve seen my mum on Mothering Sunday in about eight years! My Brother, on the hand, has been there each and every year.
It, therefore, seems particularly apt that our gospel reading should focus on the story of a man with two sons.
Why do I phrase it that way? Well, this story is one of a cluster of parables about the Kingdom of heaven which Jesus tells in Luke.
There’s the man who threw a banquet, a king who goes to war.
There’s a shepherd and is missing sheep, and a woman who loses a silver coin.
There’s the one about a shrewd manager, and the story of Lazarus and the rich man.
And Jesus introduces this story to the Pharisee by saying “There once was a man who had two sons”.
Two sons. We’re often inclined to think of this as the story of the ‘prodigal son’, as it’s often referred to, and sometimes we can get swept away by imagining the vivid details of the younger son’s being forced to feed pigs in a far off country, visualising the pilgrimage which ends in joyful reunion with his father as they rush towards each other in Hollywood style slow motion for a hug. Yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the reason Jesus is telling the story because the whole set up of the story is as a comparison between the two sons.
The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and complaining about the tax-collectors and sinners coming near to hear Jesus speak, saying that “this fellow welcomes them”. There’s a degree of disdain here which is actually quite unpleasant.
The purpose of this story is to illustrate to them not just the situation of grace which is extended to those who are sinners, but also the situation of ungraciousness which they risk placing themselves in.
The first half of the story is the part we know and love the most. The younger upstart son decides to tear his family apart by demanding his inheritance before his father had died. His father gives it to him, and once all the administration has been completed the son heads off into the big wide world with money to burn. While he’s squandering his wealth, a wonderful word – squandering. Here the image is literally of scattering his money into the wind carelessly. While he’s squandering his wealth, his brother is at home giving his mum some flowers and a card for mother’s day – I mean, is working hard on the farm.
Then comes the turning point.
Having spent all of his money, a severe famine takes place in that country. The younger son is destitute. And he remembers that even those who work for his father have plenty of food and a good life. He may have torn his family apart, but maybe they would let him work for them and he’d be better off than he was.
The phrase we hear is “he came to himself”, a moment of clarity and profound realisation.
He begins a pilgrimage home and is eagerly greeted by his Father who forgives him and reinstates him as his son, commanding the servants to fetch the good clothes and to kill the fatted calf to celebrate. There’s music and dancing and rejoicing.
This, Jesus is saying, is how it is when a sinner repents and believes in God. Those in his audience of sinners and Pharisee would have been able to look at the faces around them and see which kinds of people Jesus is talking about. That man over there with the mean looking dog. That woman leaning against the wall, in the slightly too revealing dress. Perhaps as we look at those faces we see a sense of realisation dawning? A recognition that Jesus is describing a God who would be joyful about people like themselves.
But as the thought crosses their mind, they glance to their side and see the stern and grumpy pharisee shaking his head. No, they’re not like these ‘righteous’ people.
Yett Jesus isn’t done. This isn’t the story of the Prodigal Son, but of the man who has two sons.
The man has rushed gone out to meet the younger son, he has met him where he was and welcomed him back into his home. Later upon realising the elder son hasn’t joined the party, the man goes out and meets him where he is, and invites him to join in the celebrations.
The elder son looks stern and grumpy. Shaking his head he complains, basically saying “But Dad, that’s not fair”.
The audience looks around at each other. The man with a mean looking dog realises who Jesus is talking about and smirks to himself. You can practically see the cogs turning and whirring in the Pharisee’s minds. Is Jesus saying that they are ungrateful? Ungracious? But? What? Hmph.
They were each in different situations, yet when the younger son was in difficulty he ‘comes to his senses’ and realises what he should do. The way that Jesus has told the story actually leaves the ending unresolved. The implied question is: will you come to your senses, and rejoice with me that sinners are returning to God?
It can be tempting to identify ourselves with the prodigal son, to join in the finished story. But the story isn’t really about the prodigal son, it’s about a man with two sons. A man who loves them both, and who goes to each of them and meets them where they are to invite them into the house and the celebrations.
In this story we encounter a God, for that is who the Father clearly is, who loves his children whether they are in his church or outside it; whether they are young Christians or have been believers for over 60 years; whether they have been on the PCC or if they’ve never signed up for the electoral role. A god who has sent his only son to die for us upon the cross so that by his death we might live eternally knowing God’s love for us and joyfully worshipping him.
What’s striking in the is not the difference between the sons and their feelings for their father. They do in fact both love their father. The difference comes in how they feel about each other. The father may have forgiven the younger son, God may have forgiven that person over there. But when the younger son claimed his inheritance early, he rejected the elder brother as well as his father. And the elder brother feels that he’s not ready to forgive him and more than that that he shouldn’t be asked to yet.
Jesus ends the story early, to challenge the Pharisee, indeed to challenge us as to how we will respond.Will we ‘come to our senses’ and stop being ungracious towards one another?
I began this morning with a tongue in cheek confession of a situation which is perfectly understandable. Life happens, I lived away and so today is the first time I’ll be seeing my mum on Mothering Sunday in eight years. However, I know it’ll mean a lot to my mum to see me today.
Following our Lenten theme of being a ‘school of love’, I wonder what situations have happened here for us with other people in St Mary’s, in this town of Diss or even in our own families which were perfectly understandable and excusable, but which actually we should try and rectify. It could be as simple as saying good morning to someone you find irritating.
I doubt that the two sons were about to become best friends again, but I hope that the elder son did, in fact, come to his senses, and go in with his father to be reconciled with his brother. And I hope that as we come to the Peace before communion, that we can do the same as we prepare to enter the presence of Christ and receive communion together.
If you’d like to read more about the story of the Prodigal Son check out the Lent Reflections Series I did a couple of years ago. There’s 30+ reflections there in the archive.