Sermon 31st March 2019



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“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. “So he told them this parable.”  Luke 15:1, 2


Mothering Sunday – traditionally, originally a time when people returned to the church,

in which they were baptised or where they worshipped in their youth –

homecoming and welcome.


Of the many groups that meet in this building throughout the week,

one group member related recently –

returning after enforced absence, due to illness –

“I was so excited to return to the group that I was trembling as I walked in.”

A beautiful acknowledgement/example of living friendship and community.


Many years ago, attending a church service in New York,

when it came to the moment of sharing the peace,

the whole congregation spontaneously lifted from their seats

and embarked on lengthy and loud greetings.

I stood holding out a tepid hand for a handshake;

only to be enveloped, by the full-on embrace of a parishioner:

“Honey” she said, “round here, we, a hugging church!”


Mothering Sunday, today’s gospel – homecoming and hugging – for some.

Today’s gospel – for some perhaps, the most beautiful story ever told –

the wayward son, welcomed by the lovesick father

the gospel within the gospel – the divine portrait –

yet a story that never fails to enrage,

with its cavalier failure to meet the basic standards of fairness.


Fred Craddock, a well-known American preacher

once tinkered today’s parable to reverse the outcome:

The elder brother was gifted the Father’s ring;

the fattened calf was slaughtered to reward years of faithful service and loyal obedience.

A woman at the back of the congregation stood up and yelled:

“That’s how the story should have been written.”


It is an abrasive truth that this most beloved of all tales,

the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is a story aimed at the enemies of Jesus.

The son who finds his way home and the Father running to meet him,

is actually a challenge to the religiously respectable, with their mutterings:

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”


Jesus brought it on himself.

In a culture where dietary rules held divine significance,

flouting those regulations was asking for trouble.

Not only was Jesus unfussy about what was placed before him;

he was unfussy about who shared the feast;

table fellowship with some whose lives shouted religious failure.

Did he not know who these people were?

Does he condone their messed-up lives?

The elder brothers saw and were appalled.


Hence the parable: The brother who ran and the brother who stayed;

One lost in a far country; the other, lost at home.


In quick time, the youngest son turns his back on family,

forsakes the familiarity of his homeland

and loses sight of his religious heritage.

Despite the insult, the father gives what the son demands.

Though painful, perhaps the father knows

you can’t return home, without leaving first;

you can’t understand resurrection, unless you have experienced death.

The parental love is proved in the letting go.


In honesty, we tend to resonate with the elder son; his resentments mirror our own.

Elder brother has been responsible, behaved well,

prudently kept his inheritance secure.

Meanwhile little brother has been profligate,

enjoyed it and is “punished” with the party of the year!

Isn’t elder brother entitled to nurse his resentment?


The poignancy of the story – somewhere along the way,

despite his proximity to the Father,

the dutiful, loyal, elder son has become lost –

just as lost as his tearaway sibling.

He has reduced the green pastures of home to scorched earth –

a barren land of score-keeping, bereft of laughter or forgiveness or gratitude.

In differing ways, both sons squander their inheritance –

one recklessly spending, the other joylessly withholding.


The father’s response? He does not berate the elder son –

instead he shifts attention away from both sons.

Turns attention to his own love and bounty.

It is not youngest son’s party, it is his party.

There is plenty to go round.

Some lessons can only be learnt as you sing and dance.

Some hearts can only be healed with a feast.

Every time God calls one of those lost back home,

it does not mean there is less for the rest of us; it means there is more.

More wine, feasting, music. Means a bigger party.


This year I am aware of a family playing out an incredibly beautiful but painful family story. It involves a young, unmarried pregnancy many years ago,

in a time and place where cultural and family pressure

left no alternative but for the mother to give up the child after one day.

Now, decades on, through twists and turns,

the child has found its way to the birth mother.

Unsurprisingly, there are many ripples to this tale,

many people involved, all with differing claims on family connection –

plenty of potential for unease or even jealousy.

Yet, as far as I can observe, this Mothering Sunday,

there is a homecoming taking place and welcome that can barely be imagined.


Homecoming and hugging – the pearl in the parable,

but the grit to the oyster remains the portrait of the elder brother.

The elder brother is the warning to the tut-tutters, who limit God’s mercy;

those undermined by Jesus’ uninhibited generosity.


The elder brother is the warning to all of us

when we presume to constrict our vision of who God is interested in;

when we presume – it is us who decides who gets to come home.

No – time to be sent homeward, to think again.