Come to the Party
First of all, I want to do something just for fun. I’ve wanted to do this for eons, and now that the story of the Prodigal Son has come up in the Lectionary cycle. It’s my chance. This little piece has absolutely no religious or social or psychological significance. It’s a bit of fun with “f” words, using the Prodigal Son story. I want to see if I can do this without falling on my nose.
Feeling footloose and frisky, a feather-brained fellow forced his fond father to fork over the farthings. He flew far into foreign fields, and frittered his fortune, feasting fabulously with faithless friends. Finally, facing famine and fleeced by his fellows in folly, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy farmyard. Fairly famishing, fain would he have filled his frame with the fodder fragments.
“Phooey! My father’s flunkies fare far fancier,” the frazzled fugitive fumed feverishly, frankly facing facts. Frustrated by failure and filled with foreboding, he fled forthwith to his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he foundered forlornly: “Father, I have flunked, and fruitlessly forfeited family favor.”
The faithful father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged the flunkies to fetch the finest fatling, and fix a feast — fast! But the fault-finding frater frowned on the fickle forgiveness of the former fledgling. His fury flashed, but fussing was futile, for the far-sighted father figured, “Such filial fidelity is fine; but what forbids fervent festivity? For the fugitive is found! Unfurl the flags! With fanfares flaring let fun and frolic freely flow!”
Failure’s forgotten! Folly forsaken! Forgiveness forms the foundation for future fortitude.
I said that piece had no significance, but it does. It’s fun. We were laughing. And laughter is one of God’s great gifts to us. Laughter is a gift of grace, a way of healing the small hurts of life, and we should take laughter much more seriously.
The story of the prodigal son is a parable. It is a fictional story Jesus made up, in order to teach us something important. Another parable Jesus composed is the story of the Good Samaritan. Those two are undoubtedly the most famous parables. Jesus used parables constantly which is why, I think, that Mark’s gospel tells us “the large crowd listened to him with delight.” (Mark 12:37)
Jesus stood in a long tradition of parables – fictional stories composed to make a point. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of them. The book of Jonah is a prime example. It’s a piece of humorous fiction composed to get the Hebrews laughing at themselves and realizing that their God was the God of all humanity, including those Ninevites who kept beating up on them.
In the parable tradition that Jesus followed, the genius is in what the parables don’t tell us, as much as in what they do. They leave out the details. They let you hang in mid-air, making you imagine most of the story.
Parables use one of God’s great gifts to humankind. Imagination. They use the theatre of the mind. They suggest things, then leave you to fill in the details.
Here’s a little experiment. I am going to say two words that will mean nothing to those of you under 70, but will bring a smile to those older faces. Magee’s Closet. How many have actually seen Magee’s Closet? None of you. The image you have was created in the theatre of your mind by a very clever sound-effects person for an old radio drama called Fibber Magee and Molly.
I want to shine a different kind of light on the parable of the Prodigal Son. On the screen, you see Rembrant’s famous painting called, The Return of the Prodigal Son.
There are folk tales from around the world about the youngest child. Cinderella is the first one that comes to mind. These are stories about the youngest daughter, or the youngest son, pushing against the established order. The youngest child runs away from home, falls in love with a wandering folk-singer, breaks the rules. In some of the stories, the youngest child does everything wrong, but somehow manages to prevail in the end. The story of King David is such a story of a kid from a jerk-water town who fought a giant with a slingshot, ran a protection racket for a few years, finally becoming Israel’s greatest king.
Of course, it isn’t always the youngest child who does such things. Older children often kick over the traces. But in the folk tales, they tend to be the youngest son or daughter. The birth-order doesn’t really matter so much, as the idea that this is the archetype of the child who acts out in ways that are unacceptable to the rest of the family.
I was the youngest child in my family. In one of the last conversations I had with my mother, she said, “Ralph, you were a good boy. You never gave us any trouble.” And I’m still trying to figure out if that was a compliment or an insult. Because I’ve never been in really serious trouble, but I think that had more to do with being a coward than with being morally upright.
But we did colour outside the lines, Bev and I. (Bev, by the way, is the eldest child in her family.) With two babies in tow, we sailed off to the Philippines a few years after we were married. And neither of our families thought that was a really wonderful thing to be doing. Bev studied theology and was ordained a minister at a time when female clergy were the exception rather than the rule.
The youngest child goes to the far country – the land of new and upsetting ideas, of doing things in strange and different ways, and in the process, thoroughly upsetting the elder children, the stay at home children. Moses, Esther, Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Nellie McClung, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malila Yousefzai, Marilyn Perry. All of these are in that “youngest child” tradition, along with countless others who did nothing worthwhile with their lives, who wound up in jail or on skid row. When the youngest child dies, the church is either packed, or mostly empty. When death comes, the youngest child either makes the front page or not at all. It depends on what they rebelled against, and more importantly, what they lived for.
But — without the youngest child, the world would stand still.
The tradition of the eldest child is at the other end of that behavior spectrum. The people whom the Kelowna Courier labelled “the top 40 under 40” are all in this eldest child tradition. This is the one who works hard all the way through school, gets a good job, gets married, has 2.5 children, retires with a good pension, goes to Arizona in the winter. When the eldest child dies, the church is decently full and there’s a nice paid obituary in the paper.
Those who fit the archetype of the eldest child are the keepers of the scroll. They are the guardians of tradition. They know how hard it was to gain the social progress we have made. They remember the hard times, and how people sacrificed. The eldest child loves things like flow-charts and spread sheets and progress reports, and objective, scientific analyses. The eldest child works hard to keep the whole thing on the rails. Without them, we would live in chaos.
But the eldest child can also be a hopeless stick in the mud. A Luddite. The eldest child is against everything that’s new and unfamiliar. There’s the story of the young minister that came to a church, and got into a conversation with the oldest member of the congregation. “You must have seen many changes in your lifetime,” said the young minister. “Yep,” said the oldster. “And I’ve been against every one of ‘em.”
At their worst, relationships between the youngest and the eldest are toxic and destructive. At their best, relationships between the youngest and eldest are creative, progressive, exciting. They combine the best of the old with the best of the new, and have the wisdom to know the difference.
Now there’s a third character in the story Jesus told. The parent. The parent doesn’t try to persuade the youngest child to stay home, nor does the parent encourage the eldest child to loosen up a bit. The parent runs out to meet the youngest child and then goes out the other door to embrace the eldest child. Both receive the unconditional love of the parent. For the parent, both the youngest and eldest are an essential part of the family, and things will not be whole again until the eldest and the youngest can sit down together and really talk.
Here’s the fun part. Many of us have both the youngest and the eldest child in us. Certainly I feel that way. We want to welcome the new while preserving our heritage. Which is OK, but it often leaves those of us who are both youngest child and oldest child feeling somewhat conflicted. We don’t really know how we feel about a lot of things.
The parable of the irresponsible youngest child, the stick-in-the-mud elder brother, and the hopelessly in love parent, is a parable that can be most useful to all of us here at First United at this time in our community’s life. We are in a time of transition. The Search Committee is working hard at the process of finding another minister to join Cheryl Perry here in our church. That new minister will not be a clone of Karen Medland, David Martyn, Pat & Glen Baker, Clyde Woollard, or anyone else. That new minister will be different. That new minister will delight some of us and annoy some others. A few people will leave, and some new people will join. That’s a totally safe prediction.
Next weekend, First United is sponsoring another in the Lenten Lecture series, bringing to Kelowna a free-wheeling Irish prophet by the name of Peter Rollins. Rollins, I think, is in the youngest child tradition. When I read his book, I found myself responding like an eldest child. I didn’t like a lot of what he said.
Rob Riddle and Paul Might have been leading a dozen or so of us in a study of one of his books. So another safe prediction. Peter Rollins will upset some, delight others, and confuse many others. Which is as it should be. You’ve got to plow the field before you can plant the seed. So if you’ve got the courage, if you’ve got the gumption, to think some new thoughts you’ve never encountered before, sign up right after church. I’ll be there because I need people like Rollins to blow away some of the cobwebs in my brain. Beryl Itani is the one who’s making this whole event happen. Talk to her after church. Beryl, please stand up so we can identify you.
But back to our story. The key person in the story of the Prodigal is the figure of the parent. Most people feel that in the character of the parent, Jesus intended us to see the person of God. God as the loving, outgoing, accepting parent who loves the rebellious younger child and the cautious older child and knows that both are necessary in the household of God.
Which means they are both necessary in a community such as First United Church. The parable of the prodigal can be read in many ways, but right now, for this church, it is telling us to value and to fear both the youngest and the eldest. It is calling us to genuinely value the delightful diversity we have here. The prodigal son story calls us to delight in a rainbow community that includes all kinds of weird and wonderful people, every one of whom has a valuable contribution to make to our life and ministry.
To be God’s child – to feel the loving parent come out to you and give you a hug and welcome you to the party, to be part of the household of God, it isn’t about believing all the right things, or saying all the right words, or liking all the right hymns, or doing all the right things. It’s about joining the celebration. Come join the party and spend some time listening to those people in this family we have here, this church we have here, this rainbow community we celebrate – come and enjoy those people who say things you’ve never heard before, old things and new things, lovely things, and ugly things. Sing the songs you’ve sung since as far back as you can remember, and the songs you’ve never heard before. Sing the songs you dislike and the songs you love.
Here at First United Church, we enjoy the blessing of a parent God who aches to have all the children together enjoying each other’s company, and celebrating each other’s gifts. This loving mother, father God is calling out to every one of us. “Hey! Welcome home, youngest child. Stop working for a bit eldest child. Come to the Party. Everyone of you.
Please, come to the party!