Lent 4 • 6 Mar 2016

Joshua 5:9-12
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

Rev. Chris Udy

God has had some pretty bad press
over the last few days.
What started with Cardinal Pell’s response
to questions from the Royal Commission
and attempts by a group that calls itself
the Australian Christian Lobby
to promulgate bigotry and fear
ended with the conviction
of a ‘Christian hip-hop artist’
for brutally murdering his partner’s child.

In every case there were children at risk,
and in every case there were questions
about what kind of God
might motivate and stand behind
followers and leaders like this –
and where, perhaps, almost everyone
would agree with the judge in the murder trial
that a man who harms a child
in the name of any religion
is seriously unwell –
it isn’t as easy to understand
a lobby group whose primary aim
is to victimise and strip away protection
from kids who think they might be lesbian or gay,
or a Cardinal who says
that sad stories of abuse
were not of much interest to him.

Many of our neighbours already believe
that if there is a God,
God doesn’t care;
God doesn’t show an interest in his children.
They also believe
that many of God’s representatives
are angry and judgemental,
and if the God they represent
is anything like them,
they and the world are better off without him.

I’m not sure about you,
but if I believed in a God like that –
whether that God was real or not –
I wouldn’t worship him.
A God who shows no interest,
or an angry, judgmental God
isn’t going to make the world
a better and happier place –
and we’d be better leaving that God alone.
But thankfully the God we worship
isn’t like that at all.
The God who inspires our worship
is the one we meet in Jesus,
and the God Jesus reveals
in his words and stories.

The God we meet in Jesus
doesn’t stand aloof in passive isolation
or sit in critical and bigoted judgement;
the God that Jesus reveals
is running down the road, as fast as he can,
all dignity and family pride forgotten,
running towards the child
who’d been lost and run away,
but has now woken up,
and is on his way back home.
The words and images
Jesus gives us for God
aren’t distant and imperial or judicial,
they’re intimate and domestic -
they’re about a family -
and in most families issues are worked out
in ways that are very different
from those of a courthouse or temple.

The God Jesus worships
is most like the loving father
in the parable we read from Luke this morning.
One son in the parable
essentially wishes his father dead.
He asks for his inheritance -
his share of the family’s wealth -
but he asks for it while his father is still breathing.
Then the son runs away.
He looks for a place
beyond his father’s influence -
a far country -
a place removed, not only in space,
but also removed beyond
that kind of wisdom and moral compass
we are meant to learn from our parents -
and he finds it.
Soon all he had is gone
and he remembers what life was like
in the home he’d run away from.
He’s still not ready to be his father’s son,
he still sees himself as an outsider -
but where before he’d thought
that he was better than his Dad,
now he’s convinced himself
that he is worthless - he’s just a slave.
Either way he’s avoiding what’s really needed:
an honest, open relationship
of loving trust and respect.

All this time his father’s been waiting -
as it seems all parents have to wait -
waiting for his child to grow up enough
to understand that parents are also persons.
It’s sad that sometimes parents and children
never get to that point.
They never become adults to each other -
they just stay in their roles
until the day comes that they swap:
demanding children become domineering parents
to their ageing mothers and fathers.
But the father in Jesus’ story
doesn’t fight to control his son -
either before he leaves
with his share of the family’s wealth,
or when he returns
with nothing left but his self-loathing.
What the father wants - what God wants -
is not control,
but an honest, open relationship
of trust and respect.
So the father interrupts
his son’s litany of self-indulgent shame
and he calls for a celebration,
because his son, who was dead,
is now alive again,
he was lost, but now he has come home.

The party has barely started in Jesus’ story
when the father has to leave.
He has heard that his older son,
the good son, the dutiful, reliable son -
the son who’s probably more like most of us -
is outside the house refusing to come in.
So the father, who wants nothing more
than to be part of the celebration,
leaves the light, and feast, and the music,
to face the cold and darkness
of his older son’s refusal to join in.
Years of resentment then come spitting out:
“Listen! For all these years
I have worked like a slave for you,
and I have never disobeyed your command;
but you have given me nothing
that I might celebrate with my friends.
But when this son of yours came back,
who has devoured your property with prostitutes,
you killed the fatted calf for him!”

We really have to sympathise with this father.
It seems that neither son
has ever understood
what it means to be part of the family.
Both of them describe themselves as slaves
while also believing, in their heart of hearts,
that really they are better
than their parents and their siblings.
Both of them, in one way or another,
refuse to take up what their father offers
and what he wants -
an adult relationship -
honest and open communion,
and mutual love - a sharing of trust and respect.

And that’s how the story ends.
Jesus never tells us
whether either of the sons
really comes to understand
how much their father loves them.
We get the sense
that one is sitting, stunned, in the party,
wearing his father’s robe and ring,
but still feeling like a pigsty,
but the other’s out in the dark, and in the cold,
burning up with bitterness and resentment,
with his father there beside him,
pleading for him to come inside.

That’s the clearest image of God
that we receive from Jesus.
Not an implacable, inflexible judge
nor an aloof, uninterested and isolated observer,
but a father - a loving parent -
who grieves for all the wounds his children carry
and who wants to help his children
find healing and maturity and wisdom
and share in the celebration of life with him.
If we want to lose ourselves
and run away from him,
he’ll let us - and he’ll wait
for us to make the turn towards home
before he runs to meet us on the road.
And if we’re lost in bitterness and anger
he’ll come looking for us
and wait in the darkness with us
until we’re ready to come in.

The God we meet in Jesus -
and the God he worships and loves -
is a grown-up God, an adult God,
who also wants us to grow beyond
our insensitivity and selfish rebellion,
and our judgmental self-righteousness and pride.
The God that Jesus worships and loves
offers us what we yearn for,
a place where we belong,
and a people to belong to,
a family where all children,
no matter what their class or race,
their sexual orientation or their gender,
are loved and valued,
trusted and respected,
and where we will always be welcomed home
in joyful celebration.