The Welcoming God

Published: Tuesday, 08 March 2016

Return of the Prodigal SonThis sermon was preached by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 6 March 2016. It is the fourth in the Lenten Series on the theme of ‘Welcome’. More about this study series can be found at this link. Specific questions for personal and group study for this second study can be found at this link. You can listen to the podcast for this sermon at this link.

Reading: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

When I discovered that today’s Scripture reading was the well known parable of the Prodigal Son I said to my wife: “How ever do you preach on a passage that’s so familiar without people feeling that they’ve heard it all before?”

Constructive as she is, Lyn said, “Why don’t you take it from a different angle?”
I said, “What do you mean?”
She said, “Why don’t you take it from the perspective of the fatted calf?”

Now that would be different! That might beef it up a bit! Yet the only thing I could think of was the question asked by a Sunday School teacher:
“Who was sorry when the prodigal son returned?”
A little girl answered—“The fatted calf!”

Mark Twain called this parable the greatest story ever told. 

Artists like Rembrandt have brought it to life so masterfully on canvas and in colours so it’s fascinating to see what prompted its telling.
Listen to the prelude:

15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Thank God the religious were grumbling. Otherwise we may never have received this fantastic story!

We’ve already noted in our Lenten readings the twin themes of grumbling and rejoicing. Here in our Welcome series today we see people grumbling at the breadth of Jesus’ welcome and the rejoicing of guests at his dinner table.

"This fellow welcomes sinners.”

‘Sinners’ was the label they slapped on the undesirables and it makes us ask:
“What are the labels that we stick on people?”
“What are the labels you’ve had stuck on you?”

Shorty, divorcee, fatty, solo parent, four eyes, unemployed, poofter, handicapped, greenie, black, liberal, abo, Baptist, priest, asylum seeker, Muslim.

Labels can be so dangerous and damaging because they constrict us, they confine us, they compartmentalize us.
Labels push people away, they keep them on the edge and they alienate.
How good it is to see movements against name calling and bullying.

On my first visit to Kolkata some friends took me around their neighbourhood. It was 8 o’clock at night when we wound around the streets of Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red light district.

The lanes were quite narrow and here we were, K on one side, A on the other and my brother, S and I in the middle. As we walked there were literally hundreds of prostitutes lined upon each side of the lane hoping to get some work. These lines went on forever.

Even though this is such a small area it is concentrated and with an estimated 12,000 women it is the biggest red light district in Asia.

Here they were—prostitutes, harlots, whores hookers, call girls, fallen women, these ladies of the night dressed in saris. Then we saw men coming from the opposite direction, laughing and on the prowl, like packs of dogs.

But as we walked K and A talked with many of them in Bengali. They knew many of them by name. They asked about one who was sick due to infection.

We went down a narrow lane and were greeted by a sex worker that they knew. She invited us in to her one room home which was half the size of our church office. She introduced us to her husband and their baby.

We sat down on the bed where sometimes they all slept and where other times it was her work bench. She gave us a cup of sweet tea and a biscuit and I started to realize that this was more about poverty than about sex.

My mind was whirring that night and in the morning at 10 we went down to K and A basement where about 130 women were gathering. There was news about the community and then they all went to different floors of the building, where they cut jute and used sewing machines to make conference bags for conferences all over the world.

In another building different teams made T-shirts of different colours. You could see their joy! You could hear their laughter. What a different atmosphere from the night before. They had smiles on their faces.

These women were no longer prostitutes, they were business women! Instead of getting a few rupees for their work on the streets they were making good, steady salaries. They were getting health care. They were on their way to freedom.

K and A’s children were coming back for the Christmas holidays and they asked my brother and I to manage the business while they visited Delhi and the Taj Mahal.

What a privilege to hear in that time painful stories of being trafficked but also wonderful stories of transformation.

Jesus is taking us today on a journey from dismissive labeling to witnessing transformation by welcoming people and making friends over many meals.

My Dad rang up this week from NZ and he said, “I’m thinking of getting a bee hive or two. What do you reckon?”
I said, “That’s great to have new interests at the age of 94.”

He’s concerned about the decimated bee population around the world. He’s keen to improve the pollination of his garden and fruit trees and Mum is looking forward to the honey.

The only problem he said was that he and Mum live in this retirement village where there’s a rule about not keeping pets. So we discussed the challenge of how to persuade the village management that it’s all right for Dad to keep 60,000 pets on the property!

I used to keep bees. It’s fun. It’s fascinating. It really gives you a buzz. Sometimes the queen of a hive dies and you have to introduce a new one. If you get a queen from another beekeeper and you simply drop it into your hive the worker bees will see this newcomer as an enemy. A threat. An alien. They will attack and kill her. They will drag her body out of the entrance to the hive.

I used to order a queen bee and it would be delivered by the postman in our letter box. It arrived in a plastic box. On one side of the box with a pocketknife you had to nick away the small door and underneath was a block of candy so the queen couldn’t get out.

When you insert the caged queen into a hive the worker bees try and murder the intruder. But they can’t get to her and kill her. But over the next day or so as they gnaw away at the candy from the outside and the queen eats away from the inside, their smell becomes her smell and by the time they have eaten away the candy door she has become one of them. They welcome her. Before she was an enemy, now they are ecstatic. Before she was a royal prisoner. Now they are her obedient servants. They are a humming, buzzing community.

That person that we label, keep at a distance or even attack might just become someone that we value gradually over many meals.

Instead of justifying his entertainment policy Jesus shares three stories.

The first about a person with a hundred sheep who leaves the 99 to find the one that is lost. When he finds it he brings it home and says to his neighbours:
“Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Jesus finishes with the chorus:
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Then he tells about a woman with 10 silver coins but she loses one and searches high and low until she finds it. When she’s found it she calls together her friends and neighbours saying:

“Rejoice with me for I have found the coin that was lost.” Jesus continues with the chorus:

“Just so I tell you there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Such beautiful themes about the value of each single person—one sheep! One coin!

The reality is we get lost, estranged.
Sometimes we get lost because of our own stupidity like the sheep.
Sometimes we get lost like the coin because of the stupidity of others.

I love the repetition of the word ‘until’.
The shepherd goes after the one that is lost until he finds it.” (Luke 15:4)
The woman searches carefully for the lost coin until she finds it. (Luke 15:8)
There’s no time limit. The one searching never gives up.

To the grumblers Jesus is saying:
“Can’t you hear the rejoicing, the music? The dancing?”

Then the final story that’s not just about the prodigal son but the two sons that are lost. One that knows that he’s lost and the other that doesn’t.

This story has more twists and turns than a Jeffrey Archer novel. How would your father or mother respond if you went and asked them now for your share of the inheritance? It’s like saying, “I wish you would drop dead!”

The Jewish son who squanders the inheritance and gets so poor that he takes a job on a pig farm and he’s so desperate that he eats pods with the pigs at the trough.

The elder brother who is self-righteous, so full of anger and resentment that he doesn’t come to the party. You can hear it in his grumbling: “This son of yours…”

Jesus in this stories is simply impersonating God.

God is pictured as the searching God who never gives up on us.

Did you read in The Age this week the yarn about the journalist, the football commissioner and the archbishop who all walked into a café?

Several years ago Colin and Angie Carter were in South Africa representing the AFL on a tour of a young indigenous footy team. The writer, Martin Flanagan was there and he tells the story of how they attended a black church in Cape Town.

Afterwards they were having lunch in the café when Archbishop Desmond Tutu walked in.

Flanagan said to Colin,
“There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask this Nobel Peace Prize winner.” He said that despite all the horror he has seen over many years, Tutu has kept his amazing laugh.

Flanagan said, “He’s like an exotic old bright-eyed bird with an outrageous cackle.” He said, “I want to ask Tutu, ‘Does God laugh?’” Colin said, “Go and ask him.” So he did.

Stopping Tutu by the door of the café as he was leaving the writer asked his question. At first Tutu looked tired and then he grabbed Flanagan’s arms with both hands and he said, “God laughs and God cries.”

Here in this story of Jesus we see the crying and laughing God. Look at the weeping God:

“While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

Jewish men never run but this Father is running out where all the whispering neighbours could see him. This compassionate One welcomes, embraces and kisses. There’s no time for the son to make his confessional, homecoming speech.

Yes this is the laughing God, the one who throws a party, the celebrating God, the who turns on the music and encourages everyone to dance.

So does the younger son repent?
Does the older brother relent?

We don’t know because the answers are not in the story but they’re in these pews and in this congregation.

Will we search or will we sulk?
Will we grumble or will we rejoice?

It’s for each of us to give the answer but the one thing we are sure of is the grace of the Father who searches and waits and weeps and runs and embraces and brings out the robe, the ring and the sandals and then celebrates.

Thanks be to God!

Loving God
We’ve been learning so many things about you in recent weeks.
You are the God who welcomes citizens and strangers alike.
You are the mother hen who gathers her chicks in such protective, sacrificial love.
You are the gardening God with manure and secateurs who longs for us to flourish and be fruitful.
Today we see you as the weeping God, the running God who embraces with some and negotiates with others—the God of homecoming parties who celebrates reconciliation with laughter, music and dance.

So may we look at people not as classes and categories but as people one by one and may we welcome them as you have taught us, expressing our joy with gusto and celebrating freedom.

We pray this prayer in the name of the one who was labeled, ‘friend of sinners’.