Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"An unexpected welcome"

Message preached March 18, 2007
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Luke 15:11-32

Order of Worship

            The Parable of the Prodigal Son is, perhaps, the most familiar of all the stories Jesus told. Over the years, more has been said or written about this tale than almost any other. Is this really the story of a prodigal (which means "recklessly extravagant") son? Or is it the tale of an older, more responsible brother? Perhaps, more accurately, could it be called the parable of a waiting father? There are so many angles to this narrative. That's why so much has been said of it over the years. In it, Jesus raised a dwelling with a thousand doors. The entrance I'd like to open this morning is the one marked "servanthood." That's how I want us to view this story, from the vantage point of being "servants of the Lord."

            We've been exploring what it means to be a Servant of Christ. The key words here are "to be." When we think of service, we often move quickly to the "doing" aspect of servanthood, which is an important thing to do. However, for the past few weeks I've been trying to help us focus upon the "being" part of servanthood: "who we are," "whose we are," and "in what direction we are heading." For better or worse, I have allowed certain concepts to flavor our journey: Identity, Accountability, and Obedience.

            Servanthood is an orientation, I have said. Christ Jesus is our magnetic north, thus the means by which we know who we are - our identity. I’ve also said that as servants, we are all accountable to God. To be answerable to God is not to fill out a tax return. From an earthly perspective, such accountability is getting by with as much as you can without being penalized. From the perspective of God's Realm, though, it is becoming like the One to whom we are accountable. Last week, our focus was upon obedience, a difficult word to speak in this present age. To be obedient is to listen for and to heed God's voice. Obedience is a direction in which we turn with both our ears and our feet. It's not where we end up, it's the course we follow to get there.

            Our focus today is upon the "how" of servanthood - "how" do we do what we do as servants of the Lord. I propose that this story of the Prodigal son (or whatever we choose to call it) provides some signposts along the way toward answering this question.

            In this parable Jesus told, a son chooses to go his own way. He demands his share of the family inheritance, and he journeys to a far country. If the truth be told, I've known prodigal children whose far country is right next door. How about you? Distance doesn't have to be in miles. However it happens, there is separation. A chasm opens up which seems too wide to cross, and the distance grows with time. I think most of us can associate with this picture, no matter which side of the chasm we stand.

            This father's son, this brother's brother steps out, seemingly burning his bridges behind him. Far from home, he wastes his inheritance - it slips through his fingers and is gone. It's interesting that this story, as it's recorded in Luke’s gospel (15:11-32), does not go into detail about how the son lost it all. Like a farmer, he sows his "seed," but his tossing is indiscriminate, without rhyme or reason. In the text, it's vague, on purpose. What's odd is that the elder brother later seems to know more of the details than anything we have heard. How? Who knows whether his accusations are informed or imaginary. Sometimes the fantasies of those who stay behind are as much a far country as the real thing.

            Lest we go overboard, ourselves, in describing the sins of the prodigal, there is within tradition a line of interpretation that associates Jesus with this son. After all, God's only Son himself journeyed to a far country - our turf. He scattered the seed of his inheritance rather indiscrimately. In another of his own parables, he spoke of this seed landing in various places, where it dries out, chokes up, or grows and flourishes. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it is written that Jesus emptied himself of his inheritance - he released it and took on the form of ... "a servant." In this far country, his scattering brought him to a cross, where he was executed for God's prodigality. "God was so recklessly extravagant with his love that he sent his only son..." I bet you never heard that translation.

            I'm not sure, however, if I'd push this interpretation of this parable that far. It does move us, though, in the direction we need to travel. Getting back to the parable as we have received it, once the prodigal son's inheritance is gone, he is without the basics he needs to live. So, he hires himself out. There it is, folks, the first image of servanthood in this story. Apparently this is barely one step above involuntary servitude. He is still hungry. As he slops the pigs, his mouth waters at their food. A pitiful picture. "No one gave him anything." What kind of servanthood is this? Unfortunately, many of us within the church see servanthood in that way. How, then, can a servant of Christ do God's work? It's hard to be a servant when your stomach is empty ... or your heart and soul.

            At this point in the story, this wayfaring son "comes to himself." He begins putting two and two together, realizing the bridges he has burned along the way to this pigsty, but also comparing it to life back on the farm. Note, this isn't nostalgia. He knows you can't return to the way things once were. He doesn't imagine life as a son. He resolves to return home as a hired hand. There's the second image of servanthood in this story. Seen from afar, the hired hands in the Father's house are better treated. It is one step up the ladder of servitude.

            Many disciples within the church reach this rung when they burn-out from service. A person can be a prodigal and still be within the church, you know. For some it comes from seeing servanthood as doing, instead of being. We work our tails off for the Lord. Then we come to ourselves and realize that we are starving. "Is this what being a servant is all about?," we then wonder, and rightfully so. Some folks exit the church or the faith at this point. Others take time off, hopefully to pay attention to their spiritual need. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," Jesus said, "for they will be filled." (Matthew 5:6)

            This is the pivotal point in the story - the parable Jesus told, or the story of our lives. The prodigal son returns home with an image of servanthood in his head. This is what he will be. He plans out his confession, not for the purpose of getting things back to the way they used to be. He knows that is not possible. He has no right to claim his position as son. He has no right, whatsoever. This is sheer honesty, folks. When it comes down to it, none of us has any "rights" in coming home. If our relationship with God and each other were based on rights, we'd be lost. Insisting on getting what's rightfully ours is what gets us in trouble in the first place. Too often what we grab as ours by right, spills out between our fingers. We know this, hopefully. The prodigal son knew this.

            Here's the clincher, the part of the story that catches us each time we hear it. The father has kept an eye out his window all along. With sacrificial love, he had earlier let his son go. Can anyone really understand such love, even those who have acted it out in their own relationships? The father did not claim his right to have that son invest his inheritance in the business that generated the wealth in the first place. He let him go. Now, at a later point in time, these very hands which opened up and let go, are the ones which reach out and welcome home.

            It comes all so unexpectedly to the prodigal son. He has rehearsed his confession over and over, and the father doesn't pay any attention. What he imagined was a bed of hay in the barn and three square meals a day, in exchange for an honest week's work. What he received was a celebration: a robe, a ring, sandals, a fatted calf. But more important than all of that was a restored relationship with his Dad. What was dead has come alive! Unimagined, even un-hoped for, the bond is restored.

            Of course, nothing (again) is said of the details. Did this son now receive half of what was left of the family pie? That's what the older son feared, but the elder's story is a tale for another day. Suffice it to say that the prodigal son's brother is as lost, in many ways, as his younger sibling. He is little better than an indentured servant waiting for his time in the sun. The father tries to pull back the clouds and help him realize that his time is now. "All that is mine is yours," the father says. Not "will be" yours, but "is" now. Inheritance, you see, is not a pie divided in only so many ways. Remember, the One who told this story was the One who multiplied the loaves and fishes.

            What does this story of Jesus tell us about servanthood? Well, to be a servant of Christ is to be in a relationship. This relationship is not based in what we do. In fact, if God is like this waiting father, which seems to be what Jesus implies, our actions - even the confessional act of repentance - are not what make this relationship. In the story, the father is miles ahead of his son, and doesn't really pay attention to his son's words of contrition. It is the radical, unconditional love of the father that re-creates this relationship.

            Servanthood is based in such love. This unconditional love of the father is how we do what we do as servants of the Lord. Only with God's love, can we truly serve. Otherwise, we do damage to ourselves or to others. Jesus is our model and our way. He emptied himself of his rights as God's son and dissipated his gospel of the extravagant love of God to any and everyone. The seeds he scattered in our far country continue to sprout and grow, even after all else dies.

            This love grows in us, and we become a new creation. As his servants, we are not indebted until we pay off what we owe, we are not even the next step up the ladder from a slave to a free person. Instead, God tosses that silly ladder away, and welcomes us home as sons and daughters through Jesus, the One who breached the chasm for us. You see, Jesus was and continues to be a bridge-builder, and that's what we're called to be as his servants. We are no longer slaves. Instead, we are ambassadors for Christ, entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said, "for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9) Servanthood is a relationship, my friends. It is not merely a task, a job, a bit of drudgery we do because - well - because we gotta do it. No, servanthood is a relationship which is grounded in God's radical, unconditional Love.

[Invitation to arise and come to Jesus.]

(para traducir a español, presione la bandera de España)


©2007 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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