March 27, 2022

Over the years I’ve confessed to you some of the ways I tormented my younger sisters.  The fact that they are five and nine years younger than I am made it pretty easy to fool them back in the day.  You might remember, for example, the time that we were out playing in the woods near the tree house, and I made a “cake” out of dirt.  I persuaded Carrie, the youngest, that it actually was cake, and she took a great big bite of it.

Every family story contains many stories.  My version of the dirt cake story would be that I’m not proud of what I did, but it seemed funny at the time, and even today (for different reasons) I wouldn’t recommend eating a cake that I have made.  Carrie’s version would be that I took advantage of her trust and innocence, and she ended up with a mouthful of dirt, which was pretty disgusting, and whatever punishment I received was probably not enough.  Our parents’ story would be that I was definitely old enough to know better, and I should be ashamed of myself for doing that to my sister.  The most important part of the story for all of us, the part of the story that we all shared, was that none of us stopped loving each other because of the dirt cake.

This morning we hear one of the best family stories in the entire Bible.  It’s one that you’ve probably heard many times before.  Let’s pause, though, and remember why Jesus is telling this story in the first place.  The religious leaders have come to Jesus complaining that he is spending too much time with sinners.  They are especially grumpy about the fact that he eats with sinners.  Jesus has the audacity to provide welcome and hospitality to the people everyone else would rather avoid and gossip about.

In response to their complaints, Jesus tells three stories. The first is about a lost sheep.  The second is about a lost coin.  And the third is about a lost son – a child who goes wandering off into the world, sure that he is ready to take it on, only to find that the world is not as welcoming a place as his home had been.

In reality this familiar story intertwines several stories.

There’s the story of the younger son, perhaps a little bratty, as we see when he demands his inheritance while his father is still very much alive.  The younger son might come across as entitled, but he also has a certain confidence and courage.  He’s willing to set out into the unknown without any idea what might await him.  He doesn’t do so well out there, partially because he embraces what the text euphemistically calls “dissolute living” (I’ll let your imagination run wild) and partially because of events beyond his control, like the famine.

There’s also the story of the older son.  He stays the course, does what’s expected of him.  He’s where he’s supposed to be – at home, in the field, obedient.  But the jealousy comes rushing in when he sees how his wild sibling is treated upon coming home.  What was the point of being obedient all those years, the older son wonders.  Where is his reward?

This is also a story of a father, a father who loves both of his sons but probably worries about one of them more than the other.  A father, you’ll notice, who is always seeking out his kids.  The moment the younger one appears on the horizon, his father runs out to greet him, hugging him and kissing him and calling for a robe to wrap around him.  The father also comes to find the older one, who is pouting and seething, and the father pleads with him.  “All that is mine is yours,” he says to his older boy.  “But we still celebrate that your brother has been found.”

Each of us brings our own lenses to the story – our lived experiences – and those experiences usually nudge us to identify with one character more than the others.  Where is your story found in this one?

Maybe your story is like the younger son’s.  You’ve made some decisions you’re not proud of, you’ve taken some leaps of faith that didn’t work out because of a combination of bad judgment and bad luck. You longed for home but didn’t know if you’d be welcome there.

Maybe your story is like the older son’s.  You’ve always done what’s expected of you.  You have been the epitome of duty and responsibility.  But you find yourself nurturing some resentments toward the people in your life who seem reckless or irresponsible – and often leave you to pick up the slack.

Maybe you see your story in the father’s story.  There’s someone in your life who has made some terrible choices, and you long for them to make some different ones.  But you can’t control them any more than you can control the wind.  Still, you keep watching and waiting, ready to help if and when they finally admit that they need help.

Your story might even be more like the servants.  You work hard every day but remain invisible to the people around you, who are so caught up in miscommunication and misunderstanding that you end up worn out, unappreciated.

Or maybe you are the mother of this family.  You feel missing from the story.  You wonder if anyone notices your absence.

No matter what our individual stories might be, no matter how much we exhaust ourselves playing out these family dramas, here’s the most important thing: All of our stories are part of God’s story.

In God’s story there is enough for everyone – enough love, enough food, enough joy, enough care.  Just because someone else receives God’s abundant mercy doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty for you too.  In God’s story no one is lost forever.

God’s story is about running down roads with arms open wide to enfold us.

God’s story is about wrapping us in a soft robe when we are trembling with shame.

God’s story is about pleading with us to set aside our resentments and join the celebration.

God’s story is about throwing parties and inviting us to feast around a table of abundance – even when we don’t deserve it, even when we’ve grown accustomed to eating with the pigs, even when we complain that God’s compassion is too vast, even when we think those “other people” shouldn’t have a seat at the table.

God’s story is about light shining out of an empty tomb.  It’s about dying and rising.  It’s about life over death, reconciliation over resentment, forgiveness over festering.  It’s about the freedom to love without keeping score.

We often treat God’s love and abundance like a limited resource, but there is more than enough for all of us – especially when we make it a practice to share what we have with others.

I was in the city for a play on Friday night, and I decided to walk the High Line in the afternoon while there was a window of sun.  I spent some time looking at a large mural visible from the path.  I learned later that it was by an artist named Jordan Casteel, who specializes in large, bold portraits of people of color, usually ordinary people who might not otherwise end up in art shows and museums.

This particular mural depicts a black woman named Fallou and her brother Baaye.  Fallou is shown selling hats as a street vendor outside a museum in Harlem where the artist spent some time.  In the mural Fallou is wearing a shirt that says this: “I’m not interested in competing with anyone – I hope we all make it.”

I’m not interested in competing with anyone.  I hope we all make it.  Think about how much it would transform the world if we lived like that.  No grabbing all we can for ourselves.  No squandering what doesn’t belong to us in the first place.  No feeling resentful because someone else gets a second chance.  No staying away from the party, and no keeping others out of the party either.

God’s love and forgiveness are more than enough for all of us.  With the power of God’s transforming love, we all can make it.  And we can be a part of helping others make it too.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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