Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
During my first couple of months I decided that I would preach a sermon that would get people’s attention. This was not the first time I preached it and it won’t be the last. For those of you who missed it, I’ll give you a quick synopsis. It was a first person narrative story. I told the story from the perspective of the main character. Although some might disagree, I started off by saying, “I am going to tell you a story” and then I went into it. I told them that I demanded my father treat me like an adult and to do so he gave me a credit card with $20,000 on it. I used it to go to Vegas where I made a ton of money playing cards. I spent all the money on fast living and faster women. I eventually went to LA to look for work but lived on the street after a while. I hitched hiked my way back to my parents house in Charlotte where I was welcomed in by my dad.
Then at the end of the story I reveal that this is not a story about my life, it is a story modern retelling of the prodigal son parable. At my last appointment one of my youth came up to me afterward and said, “Jim, you were really cool for about 15 minutes.” I told my parents and my in-laws I was doing this sermon again and they came up that Sunday just to hear it first hand. They think it is hilarious. I do this early on in my appointment because it doesn’t take long for people to figure out that this isn’t me. I am not a younger son type of person. I am not going to run off and live a life of debauchery and sin. My childhood and early adulthood is pretty strait laced and sanitary.
If I waited to preach that sermon then you all would see through it really quickly and it would lose its dramatic effect. You all would say, “Wait, he doesn’t have an older brother, he IS the older brother.” It’s true. I am the older or the elder brother in my family. I have three younger sisters. In fact I am the oldest of my generation. I am the first born. How many of you are the first born or the oldest in your family? With being the first born come all the stereotypes of the first born. They say that the first born children are smarter, at least 3 points higher than the younger siblings, I would agree with that. Us, oldest children, are also better educated, and we earn more money. That is one not necessarily true. Studies have shown firstborns identify with their parents and conform to parental standards. I find this is because we have no other option and our parents get warn out on us so the younger ones get away with murder. Studies have also shown that because firstborn children are older, wiser, and more powerful, those born later become have broader interests and they become more open to experience.
Jesus knows that the elder son would not go off and waste the father’s inheritance. That is more of a younger son move. So the vast majority of the parable is focused on the younger son. Most sermons focus on the younger son. That is where all the action is. That is where we see a great transformation. That is where preachers bear down on the idea that God, the Father, will welcome back any person no matter what they have done. This is the “come to the altar” side of the story that simply preaches itself. But how does Jesus start this parable? “There was a man who had two sons.” This is not a parable about the Prodigal Son, it should be labeled, the Prodigal Sons.
If I would relate to anyone in this story, I would relate to the elder son. He is the one who stayed back and helped his father with his father’s work. He didn’t stray off and waste his father’s inheritance. No, he helped build the company up and helped build the profit margins. He is the one who does everything the father tells him to do. He is the perfect son. Like I said, as the perfect son, I can relate to this story.
When we look at most established congregations they are usually filled with older sons and daughters and only have a sprinkle of younger sons and daughters. Remember I said established congregations. There are some newer congregations out there that are full of younger sons and daughters but I can say with most certainty that in any congregation older than 50 years old, you will only find a handful, if you are lucky, of younger child stories. The vast majority will be older child stories.
Let’s face it, especially those of us who are the oldest, we feel bad for the elder son because we can relate. There he was doing what he was supposed to do and he has all the right to be angry at the father’s reaction. He was out working in the field and he comes back home to a party and finds out it is being thrown for the youngest son, the one who went off and wasted his inheritance. He went off and disgraced the family name. He went off and lived a life unworthy of God and now the father is welcoming him back with open arms? He is killing the fattened calf, the most honored animal, for him? The anger built up so quickly and so fierce inside the oldest son that he couldn’t stay at the party.
The father runs after him but the oldest son turns around and yells at him, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” We feel the pain in this sentence. We understand the sorrow and struggle. We recognize and identify with the older son because if it were us in this story that is who we would be. And we are mad too when a person who has thrown their life away on self-indulgent things comes back and once again gets what he wants. They are welcomed back by the father and there seems to be no repercussions for their actions. Once again the youngest get away with everything!
In Solomon’s Porch Sunday School Class we went through a study called the Modern Parables. They take Jesus’ parable and in a modern twist create a video story retelling them. I found their modern retelling of this parable remarkable. Because it brought to light the role of the other son in this story. The one we tend to forget yet we identify with most often, the older son. What this video showed was that the older son though was not innocent in this story and actually in the end, has a worse relationship with the Father than the younger.
The sin that envelops the older son is the sin of self-righteousness. This is a hard sin to come to grips with and can infect a person’s whole worldview. So much so that in the end they get so mad at God that they tend to fall away from their relationship with God. Self-righteousness is the act of being confident in one’s own righteousness. People smugly think that their morals above all others and their way of life and opinions are the way everyone should live and think and breathe. They tend to be extremely intolerant of other’s opinions and behaviors.
Ministers are the worst when it comes to this and that is why this parable hurts so much. I was sitting in Annual Conference one year listening to a minster preach. The preacher used the first person so much it was distracting. The person next to me started to keep count and at the end of the sermon she leaned over to me and said 47. The preacher had used “I, me or my” 47 times within the sermon. If a person uses this man first person singular pronouns within a sermon, guess what the focus on the sermon is suppose to be?
This is also true with the “Back Egypt Committees” that exist within congregations. As the Israelites were traveling in the wilderness some of them wanted to go back to Egypt. In the first four verses of the 14th chapter of Numbers it says; “That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Things were getting tough and some people thought it would be better to go back and be slaves than to be free and under God’s care. They had come through the Red Sea and been lead by a pillar of smoke and fire, fed with manna, and taken care of for years but when things got rough and things weren’t going their way, they wanted to go back to the suppressive, abusive, and horrible conditions of being slaves in Egypt.
There is usually a Back to Egypt bunch in every church as well, filled with Older Sons. These are the members who have been at this church forever. They have helped the church through the toughest times and have seen ministers come and go. They remember the rough years and how things worked back in the day. They are the faithful people who have served on every committee the United Methodist church can come up with. They are the ministers who stand in the pulpits and the people who seat in the pews. They are the ones who would rather see things as they were instead of being opened up the possibility of seeing things as God wants them to be. Decisions about the future of “My Church” or “My Congregation” are made with the self-righteous thought of “what do I get out of it,” or “does this fit into my idea of what the church should be doing?” They are in every church in every denomination in every part of the world. They are hard to identify because they are you and they are me.
The father in this parable goes out to meet both sons. The younger one, he meets while he is coming home. The older one he goes after when he leaves the party. We don’t know how either of them reacts to the father’s attempt to reach them in love. All we know is that the love and grace is offered to both. The Father tells the older son to “rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Yet, was his self-righteous heart willing to admit the greatness of the Father’s grace? Did he leave that conversation understanding the Father and recognizing that he loves him as much as his younger brother? Or did he leave still thinking that he knew better and that his Father was insane?
Ginghamsburg UMC was created in 1863 in Tipp City, Ohio. When Mike Slaughter arrived in 1979 it was a typical established United Methodist Congregation. Slaughter said that he had to preach the congregation down from 118 to 5 in order to get the right mindset for the congregation. He had to get rid of a lot of self-righteous, back to Egypt, older sons and daughters before Ginghamsburg UMC could turn into one of the largest United Methodist congregations in the nation. Now they have over 4500 people a Sunday and through their local missions they help more than 40,000. What changed was the older sons and daughters either left or finally realized they were attempting to tell God what to do.
There are many times I wonder if I stand in the way of God. I’m learning that God’s grace covers the younger sons in our world; those who I don’t understand because they indulge themselves and then come crying back to the Father. I’m also learning that God comes out to meet people like me, people like us, the elders, the firstborns, the dedicated church goers, and the life time members. Those who think they are doing everything right and doing what God has always asked them to do, but who continually reject God’s grace by stepping in front of it because it doesn’t look like what we think it should.
And all God’s people said…Amen.