This is a sermon I preached on March 19, 2017. If you prefer to listen to it, here's a link to the audio.
Lucy was a colicky baby.
She cried. And she cried. And she cried. Nonstop. For an entire year. It was a very long year.
After a couple of impossibly long months, balancing work, school, and a new baby, We were desperate for sleep, and she ended up sleeping in our bed. And she refused to sleep unless someone was laying with her.
We finally had gotten a routine down, after months and months without relief. I found a way to lay with her until she fell asleep, and then tiptoe out of the room.
I had just successfully made my way out of her room one night, one night that was particularly desperate for a little time without Lucy. And all of a sudden there was a loud explosion. It sounded like a bomb. Or gunshots. I couldn’t quite tell.
And then it went off again.
And then I realized it was July 1.
Fireworks were illegal in the city of Chicago, but there was an unspoken truce between the police and citizens as long as it didn't get out of hand. It sounded out of hand. Lucy was screaming again, and I went back in.
Jeff made his way out the backdoor to see just how close the action was, and he met our alley neighbor. There was music playing, cheering, laughter, and a garage filled with fireworks. $5,000 worth of fireworks. It was their family reunion. They look forward to it every year, their family all comes to town and they light off fireworks over the course of a few nights, grill delicious food and spend time together.
They were having a joyous celebration.
But to the Joneses with a baby that couldn't sleep through explosions, it was annoying.
It’s funny how one person’s celebration can be really annoying for someone else, especially if they don’t understand the reason for the party.
In Luke 15, Jesus was gathering tax collectors and sinners around him, they were gathering around to hear him talk, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus was making a habit of having celebrations with all of the wrong people. And in all three stories, Jesus was trying to explain the reason for celebration. He wanted everyone to know just how joyous the occasion was.
The biggest problem to the Pharisees and religious teachers was the people Jesus was eating with. Tax-collectors were essentially traitors, collecting money for Herod or the Romans and further impoverishing the Jewish people. Gentiles were unclean.
Why celebrate? Why throw a party?
Because, if a shepherd had 100 sheep and lost 1, he would gather his friends and neighbors and invite them to rejoice with him, that the one coin that was lost, had been found. Jesus says that the same thing happens in heaven over one sinner who repents. It’s cause for a celebration!
The same thing happens when a woman who has 10 silver coins, loses one of the coins. She lights a lamp, and sweeps the house until she finds it. Then she gather his friends and neighbors together, and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my coin!” This is what happens when a sinner repents, God and the angels are rejoicing.
God is like a shepherd, who goes out looking for one lost sheep.
God is like a woman, sweeping her house until she finds one lost coin.
And God is like a father.
A father whose son comes asking for his inheritance. The father sells half of the farm, in order to give his son his share. And then the son leaves his family, his land, and his country.
He spent everything, and a severe famine spreads throughout the whole country, so he went to work with pigs. Remember, pigs were considered dirty, disgraceful creatures. And this Jewish man was so desperate, he got a job feeding pigs. And he dreamed about eating the food that belonged to pigs. But no one gave him anything.
He realized he had hit rockbottom, he came to his senses, and he decided to go back home.
Back to the home where he had disgraced his family’s name. Asking for his inheritance would have been like wishing his father was dead. It would have been customary for a father to disown their child for being so disrespectful.
As the son approached his home, his father saw him coming, and he ran to him. It would have been undignified for an old person to run, especially in this humiliating situation of a returning child who had disgraced the family.
And yet, the father runs. He runs to greet his son. He throws caution to the wind and decides to throw a party for the whole village. We know this, because a fattened calf would have been way too much for just the family to eat.
When we read this story, I think it’s natural to see ourselves in the role of the younger son. We’re the ones that God is running to meet. We’re the ones who have squandered what we’ve been given, and are returning for a second chance.
Sometimes we can even relate to the father, who is overflowing with compassion and forgiveness when it comes to someone he loves.
But what about the older brother?
How often do you hear people comparing themselves to him?
Almost never, right?
But if we’re honest, don’t we see people act that way all the time?
And if we are really, really, honest, we can admit that we really do act like him, perhaps more often that we act like the father or the younger brother.
The older brother, had been there the whole time. He was working every day in the field. Doing the work that was expected of him, contributing to his family, and to his community.
One day he walks out of the field, and he there’s loud music, and people dancing. There was a partying going on. A party that he didn’t know about, a party that he learns was being thrown for his estranged brother. His brother who hadn’t done any of the work. His brother who put a strain on the family when they had to sell half of their property to give him his inheritance. A brother who had been dead to him.
The older brother became angry and refused to go in.
He was resentful.
Resentment is a powerful feeling, it’s the feeling that you’re being treated unfairly. That you haven’t gotten the due respect, appreciation, affection, help, apology, consideration, praise, or reward that you deserve.
I did a little research on resentment this week, and I found according to Psychology Today, “Resentment carries fantasies of retribution, which stimulate small doses of adrenalin and cortisol for temporary increase in energy and confidence.” It’s addicting.
And it’s never about one thing, but instead, each new incident of perceived unfairness automatically links onto previous ones, eventually forging a heavy chain.
Resentment becomes a habit, and before we we know it, we begin to look for things to resent. It creates a frequent sour mood and we start resenting even small things.
Another study explained that when you feel negatively toward someone, your body instinctively prepares to fight that person. These feelings that end up being felt as anger and hostility cause significant inflammation and chemical changes in our bodies.
Over time, if left unchecked a person who lives with resentment is more likely to have trouble sleeping, may start having panic attacks, and in severe cases, can develop hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. A thickening of heart muscles. This disease is the leading cause of heart related sudden death in people under 30. Resentment can literally harden your heart to the point that it kills you.
Henri Nouwen explains in The Return of the Prodigal Son that, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve.”
Resentment blocks us from seeing life as a gift.
Life is a gift.
It isn’t earned.
It isn’t deserved.
The oldest son is angry and he refuses to join the party.
And then do you know what the father does?
The father who ran out to embrace his reckless son, and gave him gifts of a robe, a ring and sandals? Gifts that show his welcome back into the family, do you know what he does when his older son refuses to come into the party?
The text tells us, “His father came out and pleaded with him.” He left the party, and went out to where his son was.
All the way back in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve ate fruit from the tree that God commanded them not to eat from. And they did it anyway. And then they hid from God.
Do you know what God did?
God went looking for them.
And made them clothes, because they were naked. Sin made them realize they were naked, sin meant that they needed clothes, so God made them clothes.
If there’s a sheep missing, God will go find it. If there’s a coin missing, God will sweep through the house to find it. If the lost son returns, God will run to the end of the drive way to welcome him home.
This is why Jesus is eating with tax collectors and Gentiles.
This is why Jesus is celebrating over a meal.
Because these people who were lost are now found. And it’s something to celebrate.
God is recklessly running to greet everyone who wants to return home.
While we see the ways we are like the older and the younger son, the goal is to become like the father.
By every standard of our world the father had the right to bitterness. Our world tells us that the father had the right to anger. The father had the right to seek vengeance and to shame his son. He had the right to turn him away
Instead, The father resisted resentment, giving up his claim to self righteousness and blame. He escaped the fruit of a hardened heart.
What we don’t know from the story is if the older son ever did. Would he become further engulfed in rage and bitterness, or would he begin to rejoice in the restoration of his family?
What about you and I? In all the areas of life where we feel that we have earned the right to blame, judge, ridicule, and resent, will we let them consume us, or will we chose to become more like the father?
And if we were to choose to walk away from our perceived right to resentment what is we would walk toward? What is the posture of the the heart that the father had, that we could have too, that would release our hearts, minds, and relationships from the strangle hold of resentment?
We must move from a posture of resentment to a posture of gratitude.
Gratitude is a discipline. It’s something we have to practice. It sounds like a strange thing to have to practice, but most of us have spent much more time engaged in bitterness than gratitude. The habits of resentfulness have to be replaced one by one with the habit of gratitude. It takes a willful and conscious change of mind.
Nouwen wrote, “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.” And he says, “I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly.”
We must choose gratitude. We must choose to see the world as belonging to God. God created this world as a gift for us, and even though we know how to make a mess of it, God created it good. And everything we have received is because God gave it to us. We may work hard, but God gives us the ability to do so. We have not earned nor do we deserve what we have.
Out of God’s abundance, we have received.
And we have received so that we can share this gift with the world. So that we can run out and find others who have not received it. We have received this gift so that we can find the lost, and bring them home. We have received this gift, so that we can bring them home and throw a party. So that we can rejoice and celebrate all that God is doing in our lives and our world.
In all three parables, God rejoices and invites other to rejoice with him. God does not want to keep the joy to himself. He wants everyone to share in it.