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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Lent 4, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
March 10, 2013

Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

Do you really know God?

Yesterday afternoon Maidie and Heather sat down to revise and update the parish roll – an important task of responsible record-keeping and a prerequisite for effective pastoral care. Who are the people seeking nourishment, support, shelter, relationship in this community of Christ? Who are we? What are our particular needs and concerns? In the light of Luke’s “parables of the lost”, what losses are lamented here? What are the hopes for recovery, for rediscovery, for reconciliation? In some sense, Maidie and Heather attended to the “lost names” of the parish – put positively, they ensured that no names would be lost. Names, birth and baptism dates, phone numbers and email addresses were meticulously recovered, the data re-entered. And there was more than a little excitement in the anticipation of pastoral letters to be sent, invitations posted to lunches and film nights, picnics and special children’s services. The activity could be described as participation in a divine recovery operation – the joy of re-membership. God be with you

On the table, with various and colourful electronic devices, were colourful plates of rye bread, strawberries and grapes, salad bowls, glasses of cold water, cups of hot tea – our version of the celebrations in Luke 15. These celebrations, the Gospel implies, are proper contexts for faith formation. From the perspective of the table, the feast, the party, it ceases to matter whether one is an older or newer member of the group, a longer- or shorter-term believer. It matters not so much whether members are “baptised”, “confirmed” or “in association” so much as that members are respected and loved, are shown hospitality; that spiritual gifts are affirmed, that people are invited to freely partake and freely connect. Resentments are dissolved in tears of joy.

This is the promise of the parable sometimes called “The Prodigal Son” or “The Lost Son” or “The Lost Sons” or “The Lost Son and Brother”. The elder son is invited to join the celebration of the younger son’s return and reinstatement as beloved member of the family. Can he? Will he? How might that be possible?

Resentments are dissolved in tears of joy, we might say, in tears of thanksgiving or eucharist. Perhaps there’s no other way.

Beyond the altar-table lies a world of cunning calculations, exploitations, missed opportunities, regret, guilt, despairing anger, moral outrage, rivalries and anxieties. The table is a place for compassion, for equality, forgiveness, second chances, enjoyment, rejoicing.

There’s a reason we need to gather each Sunday for the Eucharist – for without it, we so easily lose touch with the grace of the parable – the foolish generosity of the father who gives freely of his resources, who looks out for his lost son’s return, who runs – in undignified fashion – to welcome the son regarded a disgrace, whose happiness in the wake of that son’s return is expressed in gifts of honour, in music and dancing … who, “embarrassingly”, pleads with his elder son: “Do not think of me as an employer, or a banker, as somebody with whom you have made a contract, but as somebody who loves you, who wants to share life with you … Do not think of your brother as an embarrassment, as a rival for my affections or as a threat to your identity as the faithful one, but as somebody who was lost and now is found – as your brother, your own flesh and blood …”

Jesus directs the parable, in the first instance at least, against the “Pharisees and religious scholars”, the religious leaders unwilling and unable to celebrate the spiritual reconciliation of those regarded lost and last. The parable poses a question: Can you cope with a God imaged by such a father? Do you find in yourself some stirrings of the (understandable) resistance of the older brother? Can you be part of a family whose hospitality is so extravagant, so uncalculating, so indulgent of human failing as this?

One commentator considers the different patterns of sinfulness shown by the two brothers: the overt sinning of the younger, the resentment and resistance of the older – and ponders which of the two patterns is the more difficult for God to deal with. He concludes, however, that sinfulness is not the main point. Fundamentally, the parable asks: “Do you really know God?” (Brendan Byrne).

There is a silver coin on the table today – a symbol of the “lost” one, the one whose recovery is worth celebrating. You’re invited to help complete the homily by reflecting on an experience of a new capacity for joy – perhaps there was a time you found yourself, surprisingly or suddenly, free to celebrate with others, free to enjoy a party, free to enjoy the company of another person, free to entertain the possibility of life in all its glory.

But just before we do that, a critical word. As we move a little deeper into the season of Lent, it’s apt that we ask more probing questions, more difficult questions. From a feminist point of view, the parable poses questions as to the patriarchal legal and inheritance system – fathers passing property to sons. What do you make of the absence of a mother or mothers in this story? Are there sisters? What do you make of the image of the householder in the previous parable – a woman confined to domestic duties, to the service of men? What is to be said about the elder son’s derogatory reference to “prostitutes”? Does the parable offer readers other than male (fathers and sons) a means of engaging with the radical hospitality it commends? (See Susan Durber, “The female reader of the parables of the lost”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 45 (1992), pp. 59-78).

After a short silence, let’s complete the homily together. Perhaps there was a time you found yourself, surprisingly or suddenly, free to celebrate with others, free to enjoy a party, free to enjoy the company of another person, free to entertain the possibility of life in all its glory … Amen.