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The Prodigal One
By: Nancy Gaston
Some of you may have heard of the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a three-year cycle of scripture readings used in many denominations for worship services and sermons. Not all preachers use the lectionary, but many who do say It pushes them outside their favorite passages and provides a way to have dialogue about the readings for a given Sunday—sharing research, insights and inspiration for the otherwise lonely process of preparing a sermon.
Pastor Rob Elder is on his way right now to a week of doing just that. He meets annually with a small group of Presbyterian preachers for a “Homiletical Feast.” They all do homework in advance and then share their thoughts on the year’s lectionary. Of course, each then must, with prayer and discernment, develop sermons that fit a particular congregation.
As an occasional preacher, I open the lectionary a few weeks before “my” Sunday with anticipation and some trepidation: Will I read the scriptures and say “Huh?” or “Yes!”? What can I discern they’re saying to me and to US? You’ll note that the words we use before reading scripture aren’t “Listen to what the Bible is saying,” but rather “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church in this reading.” The Spirit spoke to me in these readings and I pray it may speak to US.
The first passage we heard tells a story that’s found only in John’s gospel. Very early in Jesus’ ministry, he—along with his mother and his friends, the disciples—had gone to a wedding. Something happens there that many a father of the bride has had nightmares about—they run out of wine at the reception! Jesus’ mother apparently feels the discomfort of the wedding party—maybe they’re her relatives. She says confidently that her son will take care of things. After a moment’s hesitation—and perhaps consternation– Jesus does so in a big way—a REALLY big way. He turns about 150 gallons of water into wine. That’s sixty-some cases as we package wine. And the wine steward notes that it’s better than what they had been serving, which everyone who’s hosted a party knows is most unusual. We typically serve the good stuff first and save the “Two-buck Chuck” till later, hoping it won’t be needed. We’ve heard stories that some folks have watered down the wine, but who besides Jesus has ever wined up the water?
Now the question is, “Why?” Why would Jesus do this? “Because his mother asked him,” we might say. But this is so very different from most of Jesus’ later miracles that heal, cure or restore life. In fact, John doesn’t even call it a miracle, for which there’s a perfectly good Greek word, but a “sign.” A sign points to something: Vancouver—8 miles; Beach—this way. What does this sign point to? What does it tell us?
First of all, it says something new is happening here, something good. And it’s not happening in a little, niggling fashion, but in a big, exuberant, abundant, generous and glorious way. It also suggests the old rules may not apply anymore. The wine isn’t in wineskins but in great big jugs meant for water. The old ways are being superseded by a radical new order, full of abundance and Grace. This sign points to God—a God who holds nothing back.
Now, fast forward a few years. Followers of the crucified and resurrected Jesus have gathered in communities of faith all over the Middle East. An amazing number of them have Paul as their founder, mentor and critic. Today’s second reading comes from a letter that founder has written to the church in Corinth. Now sometimes Paul can be a bit of a scold, addressing congregations as if they were willful preschoolers–but not this time. God has given you gifts, he says. You didn’t all get identical gifts–like impersonal party favors. You have gifts intended just for you. And they’re true gifts—not earned, not conditional, but poured out graciously by the Spirit.
There goes God again—pouring out gifts freely and abundantly. If you noticed the title of the sermon, “The Prodigal One,” you may have wondered what wasteful and careless person I had in mind. By calling a parable of Jesus “The Prodigal Son” we have skewed our thinking about that adjective. The more common definition of “prodigal” is “lavishly abundant, giving or producing something in large amounts, generous without limits.” Maybe it’s the thrifty Scots in our Presbyterian heritage, but the lavish, joyous pouring out of gifts gives us pause. “Wait a minute here! Resources are limited. Will we run out? Is there enough left in General Savings?”
For we sometimes operate from an assumption of scarcity. God operates from the principle of abundance. If Jesus had said, “I come that you may have life—but just barely,” I doubt that we’d be here today. But no, he promises us abundant life.
The excesses of the Creator are around us everywhere. In the 23rd Psalm, we have the image of a cup running over. In Africa, we saw migrating herds of thousands of animals, extending as far as we could see. In the Ridgefield Wildlife Preserve, any of us can watch so many birds take flight at once that the sky is dark with them. And speaking of the sky, have you ever tried to count the stars? Surely God’s overdoing it there. In my childhood home of Michigan, I’ve seen whole hillsides ablaze with autumn color. Even color itself is an extravagant gift. Why isn’t the world just black and white, light and shadow? What is color, but a joyful gift?
God is indeed a prodigal giver. In the Kingdom of God and the Messiah Jesus, the ridiculous gift of 150 gallons of good wine is not ridiculous at all. It’s par for the course. And the same goes for the spiritual gifts poured out upon us so abundantly.
So how do we respond? How do you respond to a generous gift? Well, if we’re honest, sometimes we get all hung up about whether we deserve it. “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” we say. Or we wonder what we can give in exchange. But that’s not how the prodigal God works. God doesn’t expect repayment. In fact, when He serves you a banquet of gifts and Grace, He doesn’t even expect you to leave a tip. A simple “Thank you” is sufficient.
It’s sufficient for God, but what response is the most fruitful for us? Gratitude calls us to do something in response, to pay it forward. When we lend without expecting return, give without the thought of reward, extend hospitality to those who cannot repay us, forgive those who offend us, we are participating in the abundant grace of the Kingdom of God.
And we are enriched beyond measure, for we do receive payment. It’s called gladness. It’s called joy. Presbyterian pastor and author Frederich Buechner says that “God calls you to that place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” You can see that for yourself. Observe the gladness of the choir as they satisfy our deep hunger for beauty and harmony. See the gladness radiating from the wonderful kitchen crew who serve us a FEAST Wednesday evening. Watch the gladness in David and Jennifer Parents’ faces when they tell about feeding the deep hunger—for community as well as for food—of the men at the homeless shelter. They and so many others give generously, and receive abundantly.
You see, things look different from the viewpoint of scarcity than they do from the perspective of abundance. Scarcity means we contract, protect what we have, circle the wagons. Abundance means we open up, expand and invite. We as First, Vancouver, have all that we need to do what we are called to do, for the God who calls also provides the resources—and yet we doubt and hold back.
“We have fewer paid staff than we used to,” says Scarcity. “We have more people than ever before sharing their gifts and talents,” says Abundance. “We have an aging building,” says Scarcity. “We have a well-used building that’s repaired, renewed and refreshed by our gifted members,” says Abundance. Scarcity looks at the budget and says, “Oh, it might be a tight year. We don’t even know how much new pastoral leadership will cost us.” Abundance looks at the budget and says, “It’s amazing we can use our resources to accomplish so much.”
The assumption of scarcity makes us overly cautious, overly calculating and self- absorbed, contracting into what J.B. Priestly has called has called a “a solid little lump of ego weighing a ton.” We resemble a black hole into which gifts and opportunities are swallowed up. Only when we let go and let the soul expand do we open up to joy. And this isn’t a squishy sentimental view. Albert Einstein, who, I think you’ll agree was not too shabby a thinker, said there are two ways to live life: as if nothing is a miracle or as if everything is a miracle. He recommended the latter.
Everything—even our very lives and our life as a congregation—is pure gift from a bountiful God. This whole wondrous world is a gift, not some cosmic accident.
Gifted beyond measure, how do we practice prodigal giving? Well, we could take one of those “sacks of kindness” the youth have prepared and hand it out a car window to a homeless person who’ll never know our name. We might anonymously pay for the meal of a sad-looking stranger at a restaurant. Or we could write a thank-you note to someone who won’t be expecting it—maybe even to a teacher or mentor we had years ago. We can pray for those on the prayer chain.
As we do so, our practice slowly changes us day by day, until we become literally different people. We may be “cradle Christians,” having felt a part of the community since birth. We may be still considering what it would mean to follow Jesus. Or we may have had a dramatic conversion experience. But we’re all on the same path. As a dear friend used to say, “The trouble with born-again Christians is that they come back as themselves.” We all do, but just like the church, we’re always being re-formed and transformed. We act our way into a new pattern of thinking, and think our way into a new pattern of acting as we move from fear to faith, from skepticism to trust, from scarcity to abundance–one day and one generous act at a time.
A book I love is called The Healing Power of Doing Good. It’s not some sentimental tract, but a scientific look at what happens to the body, mind and spirit when we do something for another with no expectation of reward. You’ve heard of a “runner’s high”—that profound feeling of wellbeing—even euphoria– that can come to a distance runner? Since I would run only if someone were chasing me, I know of that high only through reports. But a “helper’s high” is almost identical in its health-giving, joy-producing effects. You don’t have to trust me or the book. Just try it. Simply go forth as God’s gifted people, joyously, gratefully, generously—and you won’t even need any of that 150 gallons of wine to experience a high, the gift of extravagant Grace.