We’ve come to the final week in our three week Lenten series on God. We started out with Abram (or Abraham)’s God.” We talked about the radical character of monotheism, the belief in the one true God. Then last week came the Moses’ God, the God of Liberation. The story of the Exodus invites us to see that God relies on us to make God’s liberating dream real in our own time. Now, at last, we’ve made our way to Jesus.
Now, before you get some idea that your pastor has a problematic theological framework, let me reassure you. Abram’s God was Moses’ God. Abram and Moses’ God is Jesus God. There’s just one God. I want to challenge your theology in this sermon series a bit, but I don’t want you thinking we’re teaching tritheism up at Holy Communion. It’s all the same God.
This morning, we come to Jesus. Specifically we come to the story that history and tradition have called “the Prodigal Son.” This is one of the best known parables. Jesus preached with parables, because if a picture is worth a thousand words, a story is worth at least a dozen sermons. This is one of his best known stories, and I want to venture this morning, this may be the most central text for understanding Jesus’ God. There are two teachings about Jesus’ God in this text that I will spend some time with this morning. The first point is this: The God Jesus describes is more forgiving than we can possibly expect. The second is connected: God invites us to grow up.
Dr. Peter Gomes, longtime preacher at Harvard’s Memorial Church pointed out that history and tradition gave this story it’s title, “the Prodigal son.” But the words “prodigal son” are nowhere in the text. Gomes said, “the story is not about the son or about the sons, but rather it is about the father. How do we know this? Because the text begins with the utmost simplicity and clarity, ‘A certain man’—the subject of the sentence—had two sons’” Really, this is the “Parable of the father.”
Right off the bat, I’ve got to tell you I have a little bit of tension with the name Jesus uses in this parable, and most often, for God. Jesus called God “Father.” Specifically he often used the word “abba” which is equivalent to “daddy.” Don’t get stuck there. Let’s keep moving. Jesus uses a familiar word for God, something Moses and Abraham would not have done, something that was a break with tradition. On the positive side, Jesus’ God is an intimate God, a familiar God. God isn’t far off, but close.
That’s the positive side. I’ve got to open up a can of worms now, I know it’s a can that I share with a number of you in this congregation. We need to address God’s gender. And we’ve got a historic problem. Our tradition teaches that all of humankind was made in God’s image, but we men who have held power in the tradition often have rendered God in our own image. Our Christian tradition arises in a culture of patriarchy, and the power issues play into the tradition. Jesus’ choice of “Father” does not help us undo oppression based on gender.
Now, know that Jesus did not ONLY call God father. A couple of weeks ago, as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, he said, “How I have longed to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.” These words are very uncharacteristic of his time. Jesus sees God’s work as feminine. In many ways Jesus challenged the patriarchy of his day. He probably would have faced even tougher criticism if he had referred to God consistently as “Mother.” Maybe Jesus did and the disciples just chickened out, maybe they thought some of Jesus’ words were too radical to write down. Maybe, but that’s not the reason I find hope for a better conversation about gender in the Christian tradition.
As I eluded earlier, I find the most compelling passage about God’s gender as it relates to human gender to come from Genesis. Chapter one verse 27: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Now, notice the tension and the repetition. The text uses “he created them” yes, but twice it says, “in the image of God.” Twice, before hitting us with “male and female he created them.” The Bible is asking us to pay attention! Women are created in the image of God. Men are created in the image of God. All God’s people are created in God’s image. God doesn’t have one gender or the other. Something is going on with God’s gender that transcends our usual binaries. In that sense we might even say that God is trans-gender, transcending gender. We’ve got scriptural warrant for having a wider discussion about gender, human beings, and God. I told you this was a can of worms. We can talk about it more another time, I promise.
For this morning, I just want to take the parable on its own terms. Knowing that no story, no sermon, can ever describe the fullness of God, I want to talk about Jesus’ God using Luke’s language, “The Father,” as Jesus called him in our story. While the parable of the father may not be a radical statement about God’s gender, the story tells us some deep truths about God. Jesus description of God as Father is powerful, and it is why we will probably never stop using “Father” for God, at least as one of the names for God.
Let’s look at the text. “A certain man had two sons.” If you grew up in the Church, you know what happens next well. The so-called Prodigal essentially says to his father, “you’re dead to me, give me my inheritance.” Then he runs off and wastes the money on what the Bible calls “dissolute living” which translated is basically “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” The money runs out and the younger son finds himself in poverty, hungry, his life is a mess. So he takes a chance. He goes back to the Father, hoping to be allowed to work among the servants on the farm. Surprisingly, the son is welcomed with open arms, open arms. He’s not just given a job. He’s given a robe, a ring, and a banquet. The Father says, “my son was dead and is alive again, was lost and now is found,” Amazing Grace.
The Father in the parable is so unlike the expectation of fathers in Jesus day. Men were taught to be just, to be stern. They still are. This father is nurturing, loving. See, Jesus is messing with gender after all. He’s challenging our conception of fatherhood. This nurturing and loving father also has theological implications. This brings us to the first teaching about Jesus’ God: God defies all of the expectations we have for the sake of love.
Jesus’ God is a God who defies all of the expectations we have for the sake of love. We find ourselves here, in the midst of Lent. This season we spend time on our knees. We consider all of the ways we have fallen short. We remember the ways that we, like the prodigal son, have made terrible mistakes. Lent is about remembering our sins, but we do so to remember God. Jesus taught that God’s love defied all of our expectations, God’s forgiveness went beyond our human understanding. God meets us, all of us, with open arms, with words of reassurance. If you’ve been lost, you will be found by God. You will be embraced by God. Lent is all about God’s capacity to forgive, which blows our understanding of justice out of the water.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. The forgiveness of God knows no bounds. This is a vision of justice which makes no sense, just ask the other brother. While the party goes on inside, the Prodigal’s older brother pouts outside. When the Father goes out to plead with him to come enjoy the banquet, he whines: “I’ve been such a good boy, and my brother has spent your money with prostitutes. Yet you’ve never let me and my friends have a party.” The Father could rebuke his son, but he doesn’t, which brings us to the second teaching about Jesus’ God: God invites us to grow up.
As often as Jesus called God “Father” he talked about his followers, and all of God’s people as “children.” There’s no mistake that this story of the father features not just one, but two children who sin. Both of the brothers miss the boat. The older brother is pretty self-satisfied. I like to imagine the father’s face as he listened to the boy. I can imagine he started with great concern: “Are you okay my son? Why are you sad? What’s going on?” As he hears his angsty words, a smile breaks across the father’s face. He thinks, ah yes, of course. The father patiently explains, “my son was lost, now he is found.” He teaches the boy compassion. He smiles, and invites him to grow up. Jesus’ God is a God who invites us to grow up.
If you’ll permit me, a word about growing up. Dr. Ian Markham, the Dean of my seminary made a minor splash this week when he suggested that The Episcopal Church (that means you and me) has a role to play in the 2016 campaign. He named some theories for some of the anger that is playing out in this election cycle, particularly around a certain candidate. He described some of the rhetoric as “debased and coarse language [which] is totally inappropriate; in fact, it is wrong; it is sinful; indeed it is evil.” He said the campaigns using anger this way were “wrong because intemperate language against women, immigrants, the disabled, and Muslims is an act of sin.”
Dean Markham goes on to name the role he sees for us in this election:
The Episcopal Church has a role to play. What is needed is for commentators who are responsible for protecting the Public Square from the language of oppression to be a little less understanding with the anger that Americans are feeling. Much like teenage children, there might be legitimate triggers for angst, but…America is “acting out”. America can live with pluralism; it has done it well in the past and can do it well in the future. The Episcopal Church should start saying, loud and clearly, “stop this tantrum and grow up America”.
Being created in the image of God does not automatically mean we always act out of our highest nature. Human beings have a lot of growing up to do. As a nation, we have a lot of growing up to do. The most self-aware of us know this. If you talk to some of the oldest and wisest members of this congregation, they’ll tell you they still have growing up to do. That’s part of being a Christian, it’s part of believing in Jesus’ God: God invites us to grow up.
Believing in God is not a static exercise. As Abraham and Sarah found out, believing in the one true God can take you where you never imagined, and bless you with a lineage more numerous than the stars. As Moses discovered, hearing God’s call to liberation can be dangerous, because God invites us to work with God in the project of liberation.
Finally this morning Jesus tells us a story about a Father. In this central story of Jesus we discover that we are forgiven and embraced. God’s love and mercy are deeper than we could have ever expected. And in Jesus’ story we are also challenged, to grow up. Believing in God means growing up, so that we can help realize God’s vision for our world. We are challenged by Jesus to grow up, so that we help make God’s image shine a little brighter together.