Sermon: What If We Don’t Want Them?

March 27, 2022

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

by Eric Anderson

It was time for fishing class in the koa’e kea school. One young student was… well. He just didn’t feel good about this class. He’d never felt good about this class since the very first day.

The young bird was a pretty sound and steady flier. He’d been something of a standout in those first few days of learning. His fellow students rather envied the way he’d taken to soaring around the craters of Kilauea. Somehow he managed to find the angle of the wings very quickly, and his long white tail streamed out behind him gleaming in the sunlight. Some of them, who just struggled to find that way of holding their wings, got just a little bit jealous of him. In flying class.

Nobody, however, felt any jealousy or resentment of him in fishing class. He was terrible.

Oh, there were elements of fishing that he was very good at. That initial hover, for example, looking down, facing into the wind, letting the breeze hold him up while pointing his beak at his prey. That, of course, was much like the skill of soaring, and his talent there served him well.

He could make the first part of the dive, too, folding his wings half-way back and plunging toward the water’s surface, his beak pointed unerringly toward the fish beneath the waves. His teachers commended his technique.

But that’s also where it all fell apart. As he neared the water’s surface, his wings would open out. He’d spin out of his dive. Sometimes he’d level out or climb away, but sometimes he’d just cartwheel into the water. Everyone watching – the students, the instructors, other koa’e kea nearby, wandering noio, pretty much everybody except the rapidly escaping fish – would wince in sympathy as he floundered on the surface.

It was rather sad.

One of the teachers was trying to give him some pointers when he burst out in tears one day. “I can’t do it!” he cried.

“Why can’t you?” asked the instructor.

“I’m afraid of the water,” he said miserably.

The teacher gave him a sideways glance, which is what you have to do when your eyes are on the sides of your head anyway. “You’re floating in the water right now,” she said.

“I’m afraid of crashing into the water,” he said.

“So how will you eat?” she asked.

“I’ll catch flying fish when they fly,” he said, but he didn’t sound very sure about it.

“You can,” she acknowledged. “I do. But that’s a tough way to make a living. You’ll need to fish beneath the surface, too.”

“But I’m hopeless,” he said. “How long are you going to try to teach me?”

She looked at him again, and said, “I have plenty of hope. I know this is something you can do. And I will teach you until you can do it.”

The Rev. Nareen Sarras, a Lutheran pastor in Wisconsin, was born and raised in Bethlehem in a Palestinian Christian household and community. She brings that culture’s perspective to this story of Jesus we know as “The Prodigal Son.” At Working Preacher she writes, “Jesus begins his parable with the younger son asking his father for an advance on his inheritance. In Jesus’ shame-honor culture and mine, asking a living parent for an early inheritance is rude. N. T. Wright explains that ‘asking for his share before the father’s death; it was the equivalent of saying “I wish you were dead.”’ Children who make such a request lose their respect and honor, and their community ostracizes them. The parent’s response to their children’s request is usually a wave of great anger. I encountered a few cases when parents and children cut all ties with each other because of such an insulting request.”

Thus begins this well-known and yet puzzling story of a well-off family that just didn’t behave as anybody would expect. This younger son insulted his father and not only got away with it, he got away with a substantial amount of wealth. Having shamed himself in his family, he managed to shame himself on his own, engaging in shameful behavior that also, it turned out, cost him his shamefully achieved fortune. When he found himself feeding pigs – and eating their food – he finally hit “rock bottom,” as it’s usually said of those who make a turn toward recovery from addiction. It was a simple realization – my family’s hired hands do better than I’m doing now – and it set him on the road back home, burdened with the shame of all his prior misbehavior and his failure.

The father should have sent him packing. That’s how such stories would go. It’s still how they go much of the time, isn’t it?

To be honest, I’m not sure where I want to go from here. Part of our throwaway culture is, let’s face it, throwaway people. People struggling with addiction, for example. It will come as no surprise that a disproportionate number of those without a home in Hawai’i are also suffering from addiction. When Honolulu set up a quarantine facility for homeless people diagnosed with COVID-19 in 2020, they found that some 40% of the people there for treatment had a substance abuse disorder. These are the people that, if we’re honest, we would rather not see.

The hearings this past week on the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court have made it rather clear that for some, black women or black people should be discarded, not considered for a seat on the bench. The Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that Ukrainian lives, at the very least, are disposable. So also, I’m afraid are the lives of young Russians asked to kill Ukrainians and to die in the process.

Repeat that again and again for war zones elsewhere.

The thing is, there’s a lot here that needs to be discarded. We don’t want invasions. We don’t want race and gender-based prejudice enshrined in governance. We don’t want folks to be suffering from addiction and mental health disorders. We don’t want their situations made worse by homelessness.

We don’t want our children insulting us by demanding their inheritance, scattering it in self-indulgence, and coming back to do it all again.

You know, I just wouldn’t want that. I don’t want this young man coming back to abuse my love and trust again.

At journeywithJesus.net, Debie Thomas writes these words of sympathy to the elder son: “I won’t lie; my sympathies are with you. Your story haunts me. Your resentments mirror mine.  Whenever I think of you standing — appalled — outside your father’s house, your brother’s easy laughter ringing in your ears, I ache inside. I imagine you sore and sweat-stained after a day in the fields, longing to go inside for a shower, a meal, a bed. Longing for so many legitimate things — only to be thwarted by a robe, a ring, and a fatted calf.  Not intended for you.

“Theologians tell me I’m supposed to look at you and see self-righteousness, arrogance, and unholy spite.  But I don’t; I look at you and see pain.”

Yeah. The pain of the brother. The pain of the parent. What if we don’t want it all to happen again?

Jesus just left it sitting there. The pain. The possibilities. The risk.

What if we don’t want to take that risk? What if we’d rather throw away the people?

Jesus left it right there for his listeners to answer for themselves.

He ended the story before we learn what the older brother did. The last words of the story are the father’s invitation to join the celebration. We don’t know what the elder brother did. Or rather, we do… every time we make the choice for ourselves, to take the risk of reconciling relationships, or to throw them away.

But here’s a thought: in reconciliation, there is the possibility of joy. In rejection, there is none.

Karoline Lewis writes at Working Preacher, “There is just so much right now—for all of us—personally, professionally, communally, nationally, globally. It doesn’t seem like the right time, the right place, the right circumstances to choose joy. But isn’t this when we need God’s grace the most? Not grace as reward for repentance. Not grace as forgiveness. But grace as no defenses. Grace as letting go of all our reasonings for refusal and resistance. Grace as interrupting our rehearsed speeches. And grace as walking through the door and sitting down at the banquet when it’s the last thing we can imagine doing.”

There are abundant reasons not to want to join that celebration, my friends. The hurt is already there; the potential for more hurt is tremendous. But if we reject the risk, we also refuse the joy. That, my friends, is too high a price to pay to remain in our pain.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the entire service of March 27, 2022. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

Any variation between the text as prepared and the sermon as delivered have to be attributed to Pastor Eric. Sometimes he thinks he has a better idea. Sometimes he just goofs.

The image is The Prodigal Son Returns by Károly Ferenczy (1908) – Válogatás a Herman Ottó Múzeum Képzőművészeti GyűjteményébőlInfoPic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18308964.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on March 27, 2022

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