Parable of the Prodigal Son or Prodigal Father?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

The definition of the word prodigal is: a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way. Or someone who is wastefully extravagant.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I could use some wasteful extravagance in my life. For two long years we have been living small, keeping to ourselves, pairing down. Nothing these days happens with reckless abandon. Everything is cautious and circumscribed. If that prodigal son was feeling even a bit like we do, it is no wonder he was looking for signs of life elsewhere. 

This story of the prodigal son is a familiar story that most of us could probably retell the if we were we put on the spot. In fact, the term “prodigal son” can be applied to a person or situation, and most people will know the meaning. Even if most Christian images and symbols are being forgotten in culture, the prodigal son and his story endures. There must be something about this story that bears familiarity to our own experience and lives. 

But the problem with familiarity is that meaning can be reduced and simplified. The power of the parable can be lost. And the prodigal son, like all good parables that Jesus tells, is not meant to be a simplistic, straight across comparison where the Father equals God, and the son equals humanity. Instead, good parables demand that we put ourselves in the shoes of all the characters, that we put God in the shoes of all the characters, and even consider that we or God might not be any of the characters. 

A few years ago, a good friend who is also a pastor, shared about his experience teaching his confirmation class the parable of the prodigal son. To help the class embody the parable, he had the students act out the story. They found it easy to play the prodigal party boy son and the dutiful older brother. But when it came time to be the father who ran out to welcome home his lost son, the students would stand and wait with hands on hips, a frown on their face. Or they would scold the returning son for making his father worry. Some even grounded the son when he returned. They just couldn’t imagine a parent who welcomed a delinquent child home without some kind of reprimand.

This well-known parable maybe has something much deeper and radical to say to us that we usually remember. It is easy to assume that the parable of the Prodigal Son is a moralism about doing the right thing. Older son good, younger son bad. Don’t be a younger son, we think is the moral of this tale. But that judgement is not one the text actually makes and to really hear what the parable is saying, we have to step away from the morals and lessons that we assume from the get go.

As with all the parables of Jesus, we need to consider the audience. There are two very different groups that Jesus is speaking to. The first is tax collectors and sinners. Those who owed debts and those who collected, but both of whom were believed to be excluded from God’s forgiveness and mercy. Contrast them with the second group, the Pharisees and scribes, the virtuous religious authorities and leaders who controlled access to God forgiveness and mercy. An audience who represented two very different experiences of God’s love. 

With these two groups in mind, Jesus tells three parables about lost things, the third being about a man with two sons. The younger son asks for his share of his inheritance to strike out on his own in the world. But before we can set to the task of judging this son for his dissolute living, it is important to understand Jewish inheritance practice. In Jesus’ day, it was the norm that the elder son would inherit a double portion of his father’s wealth. The older son in this story would get two thirds of the inheritance, while his younger brother just one third. But not all things were divided this way. As land belonged to families or tribes, the older son would become the one in charge of all the land of his father. He would control not only two thirds of his father’s wealth, but all of his father’s land, his father’s tenants, workers and slaves. And this would include his younger brother. So while we assume that the younger brother is some party animal or that he can’t wait for his father to die to get his hands on his money, it might actually be the case that the younger brother just doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life working under his self-righteous jerk of an older brother. 

And while it might be easy to assume, like his older brother did, that the younger son went and lost his inheritance by immoral living, we don’t really know. It could have been a combination of circumstances, such as poor choices, famine, or being alone in a foreign land. 

Yet, to put the weight of the parable’s meaning on the younger son’s repentance and return home is to miss a key feature of good Hebrew story telling. The last part of the story is often the point. 

And the last part of the story is all about the older son. 

The older son’s refusal to celebrate his brother’s return is more than a mere attitude problem. This older son has fundamentally missed the point. As his father invites him to the banquet, the older son stands in judgement of both his brother and his father. He is indignant. He believes that he is the righteous one. He believes that he has earned his rightful place in his father’s house. He thinks his hard work and obedience entitles him to his father’s wealth and lands, to his father’s position and power. He complains that his father hasn’t recognized his virtue, not even with a modest young goat to enjoy with his friends. Yet, his father has killed the fatted calf for his delinquent brother. The injustice! Never mind that every goat and calf, every robe and ring, every slave and servant (including the younger brother) will one day belong to him. 

It is easy to see the parable of the Prodigal Son about one good son and one bad, yet when we set our assumptions aside and unpack the depths of the story, we can see that it is both sons who are equally lost. And we can see it is isn’t about trying to be more like one son over the other. Instead, we see that there are times in our lives where we have felt self-righteous and indignant, like we have earned our place in the world and more. And there might be other times where we have felt unworthy and unloveable, like we couldn’t possibly be shown mercy and compassion. 

Still, even with a perspective shift in how we see the sons, we are just as unable as those confirmation students to see the radical love of a parent, who loves without reprimand or condition. Yet, the newly understood lostness of both sons helps to sharpen for us just how loving this father is. 

The name western Christians have given this son says much about how we understand this parable: The Prodigal or Wasteful with Money Son. But the Eastern Orthodox church calls this parable the Loving Father. 

Whether it is the son who thinks he is unworthy and undeserving of his Father’s love or it is the son who is indignant and believes that he has earned more than he has received, the father seeks out his sons. Both sons. The well-to-do land-owner father runs down the road in a very undignified fashion welcome his lost younger son home. The generous and compassionate father still goes out to plead with his ungrateful and resentful older son, despite his son’s rejection. This father does not judge, this father does not reprimand, this father does not set condition on his generosity. 

Even when younger takes advantage of his father and loses all that he has been given. Even when older cannot see that he has not actually earned anything, but that his father has freely given all that he has to his son. Both sons are given love and mercy and grace by their father. If anyone is prodigal, if anyone is wastefully extravagant it is the father who is lavish with his love. 

What a radical image of God’s love and forgiveness for Jesus’ audience? A reminder to the Pharisees, Scribes and those of us who think we have earned it, that God’s love cannot be earned because it is already given freely. A reminder to the tax collectors, sinners and those of us who feel unworthy or undeserving, that God’s love is given freely and does not need to be earned. 

This Lenten season we have been confronted again and again with the relationship of love and power. Today, we are shown an image of God’s love that is more generous than we can imagine. 

Today, our Prodigally loving God shows us just how far God will go to find us.  

Recency Bias and Future Planning – Pastor Thoughts

Human beings have this habit of thinking that the things that just happened will keep happening forever. The official name for it is called recency bias.  (Forgive me if I have talked about this before.) 

Your favourite sports team wins the first game of the season and you feel like they will go 82-0 the rest of the season. 

Gas, housing prices, inflation etc… goes up and we think they will go up forever. 

Peace breaks out in substantial parts of western world, and we think it will endure forever. 

Then the sports team loses, the stock market crashes, prices change and fall, war breaks out and our recency bias is disproven – often causing consternation.

We know the best strategy is to buy low and sell high, yet we keep selling low and buying high. 

And so too it is the case in the church. For close to 50 years churches followed a steady trajectory of growth. The population boom of the 1950s and 60s turned into a frenzy of church planting and building, into growing staffs and budgets through to the early 2000s. But then things start to level out, some congregations even started to shrink a little. 

And it seemed impossible. After seemingly endless growing, of adding more and more staff members, calling additional pastors, renovating church spaces to hold more people and allow for more programs, adding worship services to accommodate growing crowds, churches who were planning for more of the same were not prepared for something to contradict their recency bias. 

If you went back in time to 1962 to a church and told the folks then that within their lifetime churches would age and shrink and begin to seriously struggle, they would have laughed at you!

But here is the thing. If you took a 1962 person back to a church in 1912 and described the church of 1962 to that 1912 person, they would laugh too! In 1912, you would likely find a hastily constructed barn serving as a church on the corner of a farmer’s field. There might be a pastor who was riding a wagon or train around the countryside preaching at several congregations a Sunday, being paid in eggs, milk and chickens. Churches would be struggling to keep up, putting out herculean efforts just to gather together for worship. That person from 1912 would recognize the church of 2022 more than the church of 1962. 

Christianity and local congregations have been enduring boom and busy cycles for hundreds of years, and what we are living in now has been more of the norm for most of history. The golden ages of the middle 20th century was the blip. 

Now, if someone from 2052, maybe even 2032, had shown up in our pews in 2019 and told us that the church of the future will be lively and vibrant and growing in surprising ways, we would have laughed at them too. 

But today in 2022 with the world in as uncertain and topsy-turvey as it has ever been in most of our life times, maybe a vibrant future church doesn’t seem entirely out of the question. If the Ukraine way keeps escalating and further threatening our own safety, if (when) another variant of COVID-19 emerges causing widespread illness, hospitalization and death, if our economic troubles create even deeper hardship, if climate change continues to streek our infrastructure… it is easy to imagine people turning to religion for hope and support.

Change is upon us, and what has just happened to us is extremely unlikely to continue on forever. In fact, knowing what we know about the cycle of history, a vibrant and growing church in 2032 is more likely than a church that fades completely into nothingness. It is hubris for us to think we are going to be the last generation of the faithful. But our recency bias is often so strong that we cannot believe it – more of the same decline “feels” like our future. 

However, the church of the next 10 to 30 years will be a church dramatically changed from even what we know now. As different as my grandfather spending Sundays riding the train across the country side in 1948 to 1951 to preach at small rural congregations to growing multi-pastor, multi-staff program corporate churches of the late ’60s to early 2000s. 

This week we will hear the story of the Prodigal Son which (spoiler alert) is not so much a warning against dissolute living, but a story about undoing expectations. The younger son expects condemnation and the older expects vindication. Neither gets what they expect. Instead God provides something else entirely. 

I don’t know what the church of the next 10 to 30 years will look like (I have lots of ideas!) but I do know that it will not be what we expect. Instead, at the guiding of the Spirit, we will be transformed for this new and changing world again. God has always been changing and making us ready for the world we find ourselves in, even when we have no idea what that will look like. 

The community built at funeral lunches – Pastor Thoughts

This week I did something that I have not done in quite a while as a pastor. I presided at a funeral proper.

I was covering for a colleague on holidays. Something that pastors do for each other in case of just such an occurrence.

The day included a viewing, the service, a lunch and interment at the cemetery. While the pandemic has mostly eliminated this kind of extended gathering, it was long before 2020 that these full funeral days were becoming less common. Cremation and memorials have changed the rhythms and patterns of these events, in addition to unchurched families planning services for churched loved ones. 

A funeral with all the traditional pieces often takes the whole day. There is a lot of lingering and waiting throughout, as the whole gathered community moves from ritual moment to moment. There are the condolences and greeting of the family at the viewing, there is the remembrance and stories in the service, there is the visiting and community building during the lunch, there is the final goodbye at the graveside, maybe even mourners shovelling dirt over the casket themselves.

The day reminded me of funerals at my first call, a rural community outside of Edmonton that I began serving in 2009, but that was still frozen in a time period of a much earlier era. 

Part of me thought back nostalgically. Funerals for many congregations and communities are about community, fellowship and connection as much as they are about mourning and grief. Funeral lunches can get quite raucous with laughter!

And for a certain generation of church goer, this a familiar pattern of life. Coming together at a time of death has a way of pushing aside everything else: all the to-do lists that occupy our time most days, all the crises in the world (that are ultimately about avoiding death). When that casket arrives, when death itself enters the room, even things like pandemics and wars take a backseat to grief. 

For much of my time as a pastor, I have been serving congregations and communities who are grieving the slow degradation and loss of these familiar rituals of community. As these once common parts of communal life together continue to disappear, building and maintaining community within the church and beyond becomes more and more challenging. 

Maybe this week for the first time, I felt that twinge of loss too. Or maybe I glimpsed just what so many folks have been grieving for a long time in the church. The generations before us used to know how to come together as a community – often with sandwiches and coffee – and support one another through the ups and downs of life. Before the pandemic it was often a struggle to pull off a funeral and lunch. Now, we may be close to losing that capacity entirely. 

Or more accurately, all the habits and skills we had for being communities of support and care are going by the wayside right at a time when we could use them the most. Being church together does not and will not just happen organically or unintentionally as it once did. 

Today in 2022, community takes work. Community takes intentionality. Community happens when we do it on purpose, it will not happen by accident. 

Yes, there is a certain comfort and nostalgia for a community that knows how to walk through a day of mourning together without a lot of planning. 

There is also a certain part of us that doesn’t like that community takes more planning. We don’t like appointments and schedules and lists. We long for the days when people just showed up without notice and neighbourly intrusions were welcomed (except when you actually do show up at someone’s house unannounced these days, and they are mortified!).

Day long funerals were and are lovely ways for communities to come together and care for each other but they are increasingly relics of times past. 

Zoom meetings, doodle polls, Facebook events, texting to schedule phone calls and limited availability are here to stay. 

Community will only happen on purpose. Community will only be built through planning and intentionality. 

As we continue our Lenten journey through the wilderness, I cannot help but see that churches and communities are walking through a wilderness of community now that is calling on us to find new ways to come together, new ways to offer that care and support for each other, new ways to be the Body of Christ for each other and for the world.

Love that couldn’t care less for power

Luke 13:31-35
Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

King Herod was not a well liked King. 

He was a puppet King for the Roman who didn’t really care about who was King over the backwater province of the empire, Judea. The people of Israel didn’t care for Herod, knowing that he was all about power. But like most people in power, Herod made the right allegiances; with Rome and with Hebrew the religious authorities. 

So when the Pharisees come to Jesus with a Message, he knows they too are puppet authorities, doing the puppet King’s dirty work in order to hold on to their own power and privilege. 

Today, on the second Sunday of Lent we continue with Jesus who can’t help but be confronted by people who think they have power. Last week, it was the Devil tempting Jesus to misuse the power of incarnation, the power that comes along with being God and being God in flesh. The Devil’s temptations set the stage for the recurring theme that Luke’s gospel holds up for us this Lenten season. The Devil tries to offer Jesus power. And now the Pharisees come to Jesus with a warning. They sound sympathetic, maybe even concerned for Jesus. Herod is out to get you, they warn. And it just so happens that getting rid of Jesus might also be convenient for them. 

Herod, the unpopular King and the righteous yet conspiring Pharisees, are concerned about their power. They are concerned about Jesus’s impact on their power and privilege. They have worked to build alliances, with their unpalatable overlord Romans, and with each other. Their power is tenuously held and only maintained by fear and division. With soldiers who intimidate, with control over money, over the temple, over the city of Jerusalem. 

Yet, no matter their work to maintain their power, they cannot gain the confidence and support of the people. Yet, Jesus who doesn’t seem to be looking for any power, is wandering the countryside, living off the generosity of others. Jesus is popular and therefore powerful in the eyes of Herod and the Pharisees. And while he hasn’t made a play for their power yet, they know it will come. And so they conspire. They will frighten Jesus off. Just as they frighten the people with soldiers or unrighteousness. They see Jesus as a threat who must be dealt with. 

Like the Pharisees, our world too is full of misuse of power. As we watch an awful and tragic invasion of Ukraine, we see a desperate despot casting about for power and former glory. Closer to home we also see politicians and corporations pandering to our consumerist desires in the hopes of acquiring our votes and our dollars. We also look about and see our unhappy neighbours, friends and families lashing out at the world, frustrated by all the ways they feel their power and freedom slipping from their grasp. We look at this community and other churches like it, and we see something that once occupied a place of central power and importance in the world, being slowly sapped of energy and resources, crumbling before our very eyes. 

Power does that. Power makes the powerful manipulate and play games. The loss of power splits, divides and demoralizes. 

And in all of that, the powerful King Herod, the power hungry Pharisees and we who feel as though we are leaking power, all share in one thing:

We all feel threatened by Jesus. 

There is a something inside of all of us that gets anxious and concerned when Jesus starts talking about what God wants for us. A thing inside of us that is tangled and twisted. That thought in the back our minds, that feeling that makes our blood pressure rise. It is the thing inside of us that makes us fearful of our neighbours. It it the thing that makes us resentful of having to change our lives for the sake the world around us. It is the thing that inside of us that closes us off to people who think differently than we do. The twisted tangled thing makes us shout our opinion louder, makes us wall ourselves off to the other, makes us fear difference, makes us angry when we feel aggrieved. 

The twisted, tangled thing is what Martin Luther called the Old Adam, the Old Sinner.

It is sin. 

And the sinner inside of us bristles when Jesus starts talking about the first being last, and losing our lives to save them. The sinner doesn’t like the idea that God’s forgiveness isn’t deserved, that we aren’t entitled to it.  

The twisted tangled sinner is the part of us that thinks power will save us. That controlling the world around us will keep us from being hurt. That protecting ourselves from anyone different from us is the way to be safe. 

And when Jesus starts talking about giving up power, the old sinner feels threatened. And when Jesus starts talking about prophets being stoned and hinting at crucifixion, the old sinner will have none of it. Like the Devil who thought power was the purpose last week, the old sinner thinks power is our salvation. 

The pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is willing to kill Jesus for the sake of power. 

Herod is worried that his power could be taken by the popular preacher Jesus. 

How wrong can Herod and the Pharisees be?

How completely off the mark can the twisted, tangled sinner inside of us get?

Jesus has come in weakness, not power. 

Jesus has come to be open, not closed off. 

Jesus has come to be vulnerable, not fearful. 

Jesus has come to show love. 

Love that will change us. 

Love that will undo the twisted, tangled thing inside of us. 

Love that risks being hurt, being unsafe, being weak in order to come close and near. Love that gathers and holds us together under its wings. 

Love that couldn’t care less for power. 

Herod and the Pharisees don’t live in a world of love. They don’t know how to let go of the little power that they have. They can’t see that Jesus hasn’t come for power, they cannot see how Jesus is trying to show God’s love to the world. 

And Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that the same crowds will chant “Blessed is He who comes in the same of the Lord” on Sunday, will shout crucify by Friday because they want a King of power, not a King of love. 

Jesus knows that the Pharisees who are warning him to get away will soon cry to Pilate to do their dirty work. 

Jesus knows that the King Herod will defer to the power of Rome to finally rid his Kingdom of this popular preacher. 

Jesus knows that their desire for power will lead to death. 

It is the way of the Old Sinner. 

But Herod and the Pharisees don’t know that Jesus is willing to die for the sake of love, willing to die to save the world. 

But we do. 

And still this Jesus who saves the world, who endures our greatest power of death to show love, still threatens us. 

Because the old sinner within us who pushes us to fear, to resent, to be closed off, to divide and to control… this old sinner, this twisted and tangled thing knows that the love of Jesus will change us. That love will untwist and untangle. That love will forgive and show grace. 

And Jesus knows that love makes us anxious, that old sinner, the twisted and tangled thing doesn’t want to be loved. Jesus knows that loving us will transform us. Jesus knows that loving us will make us care less about ourselves and more about others. Jesus knows that love will make us less afraid, less closed off, less divided, less controlling, worry less. 

Jesus knows love will make us let go of power… 

Herod wasn’t a well-liked King and the Pharisees weren’t well-liked religious rulers. We are people threatened by love.  

And Jesus isn’t either of these things either. Not puppet King, nor religious overlord, nor symbol of power and influence. 

Jesus is a mother hen with nothing but love to give. Love for sinners who feel threatened. Love for tangled and twisted people who get anxious. 

And just like stubborn chicks who need their mother hen, Jesus love will gather and change us too.

What keeps you up at night? – Pastor Thoughts

“What keeps you up at night?”

I was listening to a leadership podcast from Luther Seminary in St. Paul that asked this question. (Find the podcast here)

“What keeps you up at night?”

Once I get past Ukraine, the Pandemic, inflation and economic inequality the thing that keeps me up at night is the present and future of the church. Sherwood Park, the MNO Synod, the ELCIC and Christianity around the world. 

But lately, it has been on my mind about how pivotal this moment in history is for us. It is a moment that I have been anticipating for quite some time and a moment that I expect to be looking back at in 15 years and reflecting on the choices made and courses of action followed now. 

I say this often, so excuse me if I have written it before: In my first few weeks of being pastor, it hit me like a ton of bricks, the overwhelming sense that I would be spending my entire career in ministry helping congregations navigating change. In fact, at that time my exact thoughts were “I am going to be cleaning up the messes of predecessors for the next 40 years.”

Of course by now, I know that things aren’t that cut and dry. The “messes” have really more to do with a rapidly changing world and church than the failures of those who have served before me. 

In the same podcast, the main theme of the episode was on challenges. I talked with council this week about this idea. We usually think that we have a pretty good idea of what the challenges we face are, whether at home, in the neighbourhood, at work, at church, in our country and in our world. I asked council to quickly identify the challenges facing Sherwood Park. 

We immediately came up with financial challenges, declining and aging membership challenges, building and maintenance challenges, transition out of pandemic (or into the next phase) challenges. I named that the MNO Synod is looking at clergy shortage challenge (we have to call from outside Manitoba to fill vacancies and have few or no candidates of our own – even Courtenay and I are not original Manitoba clergy). 

But the podcast episode pushed back at the idea that we actually do know the challenges we face. We are very good at identifying surface challenges, we know what our presenting issues are. But often our deep challenges are not that clear to us. 

For Sherwood Park and Lutherans in the MNO Synod, financial problems and declining membership is the story everywhere. And we have all been chasing after these problems for a long time. The church I grew up in, with 250 attending on Sundays, 50 to 100 kids in Sunday School, 75 college and careers that also attended every Sunday…. They too in the mid-90s were convinced that they had a finances and declining membership problem!

The deeper issue we face is about our identity as a community of faith. It was getting hard to continue being a community in 2019. Today, it is just that much harder. 

The deeper challenge is whether the way we choose to be a church and do ministry still makes sense. Does Winnipeg need 14 Lutheran churches (and more than twice that in Anglican churches) all working mostly independently from one another? Our shared youth program, which is certainly the largest in Winnipeg, if not the ELCIC, suggests that there is a significant benefit to working together. 

The deeper question is how committed are we to continuing to be a community of faith, followers of Jesus together in the longer term?

When I think about our challenges in this way, finances and people stop really being concerns in my mind. Yes, the budget is tight and it is going to take work to remember how to come together again. 

But as I sat at our council meeting, I was struck by just how committed the 9 of us were to the ministry of Sherwood Park. And know there are so many others beyond council who feel the same. I know that we have the capacity within our community to meet our budget this year, to fill our volunteer roles, and to continue to provide all the different kinds of ministry and community opportunities that have been central for us. 

Our deeper challenges, about understanding and knowing who we are and what we are about as a community is the more difficult question. But it is a question that comes with an opportunity. A survey came out this week saying that overwhelmingly Canadians feel more disconnected and divided than ever. Our sense of belonging and community has been degraded during these past 2 years. 

Well, hold on! Isn’t that exactly what we as the church are best at? Being a place where people can find community? Being a place where people can belong?

As we find ourselves in the pivotal moment for the future of the church, there ARE deep challenges that we face. But challenges also bring opportunities. And I think God is calling us to step into these new places: To explore who and what we are as a community of faith; to invite the world around us into that community of hope and promise, that community of belonging. 

I thought at first that discerning our challenges would be scary. But taking the time to unpack what the challenges are that we actually face, reveals whole new ways to approach our common life together as people of faith. Things stop being scary and start becoming exciting.

God is calling us into the challenging but exciting world, with an unknown but promise-filled future.