Sermon - Sunday, 31 March 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 31 March 2019.

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21 / Luke 15: 11-32

Text: But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found                                                (Luke 15: 32)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

So what happened next?

Like a television soap opera when the final dramatic scene leaves the viewer wondering what’s going to happen next, Luke’s great story of the father and his two sons leaves his readers in suspense.

Had the younger son really learned the error of his ways?

Was the party a great success?

Were the two brothers finally reconciled?

And did the family live happily ever after?

Luke doesn’t tell us and the story ends with these unanswered questions hanging in the air.  

Traditionally and somewhat misleadingly known as the parable of the Prodigal Son – it really should be known as the parable of the Loving Father – Luke sets the scene beautifully.

As Luke’s gospel unfolds it is evident Jesus ministry is proving popular among the people of the Galilean towns and villages.

People are turning out in great numbers to listen to his teaching or to bring their sick relatives and friends so Jesus might heal them.

Unfortunately the religious authorities are less impressed.   

While some of his teaching and acts of healing bore the authentic hallmarks of their long expected Messiah, the time he spent, the help Jesus gave and the evident pleasure he took in the company of those the Pharisees deemed irreligious didn’t match with their understanding of who and what the Messiah should be.

As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus’ teaching and healing was attracting the wrong sorts of people, tax collectors and sinners, people in the employ of Herod and the occupying Roman army, those who for a whole variety of reasons did not observe all the ritual laws and customs of Jewish tradition.

Time and again the gospels report Jesus questioned by the authorities about the company he kept and asked to explain why he and his disciples didn’t observe Israel’s ancient religious laws and rituals, especially the Sabbath laws and rituals.

So in order to answer these charges and refute the criticism, Luke gathers together three lost and found stories: a shepherd with a lost and found sheep, a woman with a lost and found coin and a father with his lost and found son.

Far from undermining the integrity of Jesus’ mission and ministry, Luke intends these lost and found stories to reveal something of its true nature and purpose.

The stories are also intended to teach us something about God.

From the insights of Old Testament prophets such as Amos and Micah, we have already learned God’s calling to the people of Israel was a calling to love mercy, do justly and walk humbly with God.

So the question is this: what does such a calling look like when turned into practice?

As he makes his way through the towns and villages of Galilee, the wandering preacher, teacher and healer, Jesus demonstrates exactly what God’s calling looks like.

Indeed, far from contaminating himself and putting his spiritual health and well-being at risk by eating and mixing with the wrong sorts of people, tax collectors and sinners, those born on the wrong side of the track, below the salt, second class citizens or worse, Jesus seeks them out purposefully.

Why?

Because, as Jesus said, it wasn’t people who were healthy who needed to see a doctor but those who were sick, and he hadn’t come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners, that is, people who knew their need of God?

So what kind of church is it which purposefully seeks the people others would ignore, walk past and even despise?

The Pharisees might dismiss them as the wrong sorts – but Jesus didn’t.

And what do we learn from these stories about God, the God who goes looking, the God who waits patiently, the welcoming God whose joy is unrestrained when the lost are found and the missing restored?

But we had to celebrate and be glad,

because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again;

he was lost and is found

Mothering Sunday:  traditionally the Sunday people returned to their mother church, the church where they were baptised, the Sunday when servants would be given the day off to visit their families often with a gift of food or clothing for their mother, a special day when the Lenten fast might be broken with simnel cake.

Yet beyond the important social and family aspects of the day, Mothering Sunday gives us the opportunity to think again about what it means to have faith in a welcoming God.

Some years ago one of my colleagues went on a caravanning holiday with his wife and friends to the south west of Scotland.

As they approached the local church on the Sunday morning they were greeted by the elder on duty.

Standing with his hands behind his back the man did not speak, did not smile and did not make eye contact, preferring instead to gaze into the middle distance.

When my colleague asked if there was an order of service, the man nodded in the direction of a table.

John collected four orders of service and four hymn books and by the time he had handed them to his wife and their two friends, another person arrived.

So John said ‘good morning’ and handed them an order of service and a hymn book by which time another person ……………...

I hope your experience was a little better this morning.

But having come into church and found a seat, have you said good morning to the people around you?

And have you introduced yourself to the person you don’t recognise, told them your name and asked for their name?

And if they are a visitor, have you invited them to join you for tea or coffee after the service?

All of us, not just the elders on door duty, share in the responsibility of making this a welcoming place.

Yet there is a different kind of welcome, might we call it a deeper welcome, when people know that whatever has happened in their life, whatever has gone wrong, whatever mistakes they have made, whatever dark and lonely place they find themselves to be in, this is a place where they will be welcomed and accepted without judgment.

At its best the church is the place where we show what it means to have faith in a welcoming God.

Whatever else it is for, the church is not for the plaster cast saints of this world, those who live perfect lives with perfect figures in perfect homes with perfect marriages and perfect families and perfect friendships and perfect jobs.

We don’t do perfect at Cramond Kirk – and while I don’t want to suggest you are all miserable sinners with no redeeming qualities whatsoever – is there one of us who hasn’t said something they later regretted saying, is there one of us who hasn’t acted out of selfishness or thoughtlessness or carelessness and caused hurt to even those we love best, is there one of us who has never made a mistake, broken a promise, told a lie, accidently or otherwise, and who hand on heart would claim to have lived as God would have us live?

Or to put that in other words, are God’s gifts of healing and forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration only for other people or are they also intended for you and for me?

As I have read and thought about this story over the years, one of the things I have come to appreciate is the insight it offers into different aspects of human nature.

There is the ‘lostness’ of the younger son who makes mistakes in life, bad choices, wrong decisions and ends up facing the consequences and paying the price for them.

Equally there is the ‘lostness’ of the older son wrapped up in his own virtue and self-importance, certain he is on the side of the angels and condemnatory and judgmental towards those who are not – that son of yours – can’t you hear years of bitter resentment in his voice?

And if you recognise these different aspects of human nature, do you also glimpse in the person of the father something of the image of God, the God who sometimes goes looking, the God who often waits patiently, the God whose love and forgiveness is not exhausted, the welcoming God who comes running to greet us with arms outstretched.

So what does it look like to be a healing church, an accepting church, a welcoming church, a church which delights to throw a party for God’s children lost and found?

Does it look like Cramond Kirk?

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen