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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Big Brother sermon

Luke 15:1-3, 11-24
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3 Then Jesus told them this parable:
11 ... "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate. ' So he divided his property between them.
13 "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants. ' 20 So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. '
22 "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. ' So they began to celebrate.

Reading 2 Luke 15:25-32
25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound. '
28 "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! '
31 "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 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. '"
So, we're in the second episode of a series called, Prodigal You. We're talking about the parable of The Prodigal Son and using it to figure out what's up with ourselves.
Last week, we talked about THE prodigal son, the Little Brother, who thought it would be really cool to pretend his father had already died, so he can collect his share of the inheritance. The dad says, "OK, son. Here you go." Which reminds us that it's just a parable, not a documentary. Realism is not the point; the point is truth. Little brother goes off and squanders his inheritance with girls gone wild. He hits rock bottom in the muck of a pigsty. Only then does he come to his senses and choose to repent and go back home.
So, with Little Brother's help, we asked some questions.
Which prodigal parts of you separate you from your brothers and sisters in Christ?
Which prodigal parts of you separate you from the forgiving, welcoming, loving Father?
And, what parts of you need to give up the fight, and come home?
So where we left it was saying, we're all kinda like Little Brother. Everyone has parts that separate us from the redeeming love of God, and from love itself. We all have this deep, basic longing to return home. Everyone needs love and acceptance, despite the stupid things we pretend and do. That's the truth in the Little Brother half of the parable.
But say hello to my other brother. Momma had another. Big Brother. There can't be a Little Brother if you don't have a Big Brother. That's a true fact.
Ah, Big Brother. I love Big Brother. Of course I love Big Brother. Everyone who stands in a pulpit, wearing a preacher's robe, proclaiming God's word, loves Big Brother. Big Brother is watching you. He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He can see the glow in your glasses when you're texting. So be good for goodness' sake.
Any of you have big brothers or big sisters? They might complain about you, but secretly, they love their job. Because without you, what would they be? Only children.
And you who are younger sisters and brothers, you've seen Big Brother's job. And you don't want it. You're secretly thankful. You need them.
I love the story of the town of Historic Rugby. Charming place. About an hour and a half northwest of here. Rugby was created as a utopia for Little Brothers. This is true. You can go there. Rugby was founded as a refuge by Thomas Hughes, who wrote Tom Brown's Schooldays. In 1880, Hughes was sick and tired of how the Big Brothers in England got all the land and all the inheritance when their fathers died. (Is this Biblical, or what?) So he came to Tennessee and created this beautiful society where Little Brothers who had no land and no inheritance could come and create a place where there was no one going, "Tsk, tsk, tsk." A utopia of Little Brothers. (And all of you who are Big Brothers or Big Sisters are going, "Oh for the love of...") You know what happened? It went bankrupt. In little more than a year. It was a total disaster. You know why? Because there were no Big Brothers telling everyone what to do.
Even Jesus knew. Everyone loves Big Brother. Everyone needs Big Brother, or Big Sister. Well, sort of.
In the parable, which is sounding more like a documentary this week, Little Brother comes home and Dad throws a huge party. Big Brother gets *this* close to the party, no, he will not go in. Why not? You know why not. Because everyone inside is too loud. You young. Too unrepentant. The whole situation is too unfair.
You see, Big Brother stands for everything that's right. But what Jesus sees is that Big Brother also stands for everything that's wrong. Which is not what you'd ever expect. If you're Big Brother.
Like his spoiled sibling, Big Brother asks us his own set of questions.
Is it possible that your rightness is also your wrongness?
How does our rightness make us wrong before the Forgiving Father?
Big Brother gets *this* close to the party but he won't go in. Why? Because Little Brother people are too loud, too unrepentant, too unfair.
Last week, while doing exhausting research for this sermon, I discovered a huge batch of 1950's educational films on YouTube. I recommend them to all the teenagers. They'll help keep you out of shenanigans. They have great titles, like, "What the Future Will Look Like," "Good Eating Habits," and "Molly Grows Up." There's one in particular called, "The Snob." It's about Sara. Sara's up in her room, at her desk, wearing a very tasteful, high-necked dress. She's doing her best to finish her Trigonometry homework on Saturday night. But she can't concentrate. Because Billy and his friends are next door, having a wild party in the rumpus room. Sara throws down her pencil and slams the window shut. Yanks the curtains closed. Which causes her Mother and Father to enter her room and ask, "Sara, what's the matter dear?"
"Oh, it's that Billy and his wild party next door. How's a person supposed to prepare for the big exam with all that noise? They're just terrible. So thoughtless and rude."
Father says, "But Sara. Billy always invites you to his parties. He's such a nice boy. Why don't you go? You might have fun."
And Sara says, "They're horrible and stupid. They're just concerned with fashion and fads and being popular. They're so shallow and fake."
Sara's father, with that 1950's fatherly wisdom says, "But Sara. Ask yourself. Who do you think is happier? You? Or the people you dislike so much?"
I don't want to spoil the ending. But the movie ends with a giant question mark on the screen. The all-seeing Narrator asks, "What do you think will happen to Sara? Do you think she's a snob? Do you think she'll learn to have friends and be happy?"
The closing scene shows Sara outside, looking in. Will she go to the party? Or not? Then the music swells and "The End" comes across the screen. Fade to black. We'll never know.
Which is exactly where Jesus leaves us in his story. Big Brother is standing outside the party. Big Brother's within his rights not to go in. Big Brother has a societal right to his anger. But are his rights, right?
Timothy Keller, in his book, The Prodigal God, points out that by focusing on Little Brother the way most preachers do...
uh, care to think of a reason why?
… by focusing on Little Brother, we miss the point. We also misuse the word, "prodigal." if you look up, "prodigal," you see that it doesn't mean what preachers imply it means. Prodigal doesn't mean "runaway" or "run-a-home." It doesn't mean, "naughty," or "wild," or "poorly behaved." Prodigal comes from the root that gives us words like, prodigious, or prodigy. "Prodigal" means, extraordinary. It means, lavish. It means having an abundance of. Sometimes it can be used to talk about over-abundant or lavish actions, like, reckless spending without concern. That's what Little Brother did with his inheritance money. But prodigal can also be used to mean, incredibly generous. The dictionary says, you can be, "prodigal with kindness."
And so, it might be more correct to call this parable, "The Prodigal Family." Because you've got three people who are overboard in their actions. Little Brother is prodigal in his spending. Prodigal with his body. Father is excessively prodigal with his forgiveness.
And Big Brother is prodigal, too. Big Brother is prodigal with his sense of responsibility. Big Brother is prodigal with his resentment. Big Brother is prodigal with his rights, and with his rightness.
Big Brother has spent his whole life being restrained, obedient, hard-working, serious. And it's made him mean-spirited, nitpicking, and self-righteous. In the words of the 1950's, he's a snob.
29 But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! '
You see, his little outburst - probably the first one he's had in years - gives us a peek beneath the facade of Big Brother. Sure, he's been the ideal boy. But he's in it for himself, every bit as much as his little brother.
Big Brother has spent his life playing by the rules. Being safe. Being the good son. But the truth is, he feels like he's owed. All these years and Father's never even given him a goat.
And by the way - and this is something Keller points out that I hadn't thought of. Remember, the Father's already given out the inheritance. So, rightfully, everything left of the farm will belong, or does belong to whom? Big Brother. That's Big Brother's fatted calf they're carving in there. That's Big Brother's fancy family heirloom ring Dad's put on the kid's finger. By rights, that's Big Brother's money paying for the hootenanny in the Fellowship Hall. Big Brother's got a point. He's totally within his rights.
And that's where Jesus leaves us. He leaves us standing outside the party, with the Big Brother. Jesus is asking US, are your rights more important than your forgiveness? Is keeping what you've earned and choosing what's done with it more important than welcoming your prodigal brothers and sisters home?
Jesus didn't preach this parable to the sinners. Jesus preached this parable to the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, to the people who showed up for worship, the people who did everything right, the people who tithed 10% or more, the people who carried their Bible, the people who upheld religion, the people who evangelized for God, the people who were the backbone of society. Jesus told this parable for the Big Brothers.
And he ends his story with a big question mark.
What do you think will happen to the elder brother? Will he go in to the party? Or will he be left out in the cold?
It's funny how God works. I was running out of time last week, and I knew I had to get this sermon done. So I decided I'd get away from the office and hide out in a coffee shop, with yummy pastries. I put my ballcap on and and earbuds in, and hunkered down in a corner. Focused on the laptop. Was going to pound out this sermon about the Big Brother if it killed me.
If you're ever in a coffee shop, and the people behind you start pulling tables together, and rearranging chairs, that's a bad sign. You can be sure your quiet habitat is going to be overrun with hoodlums. Sure enough, I could feel the crowd forming. Tables moved, chairs added. Focus, focus. Turned up the headphones. Got my Nicki Minaj up to 8. Reinforced the cone of silence. And then *they* started coming. From north and south and east and west they came. Filled up the tables behind me. Obnoxious. Loud. Telling wildly off-color jokes. Laughing way much. Oh, Father, they were just horrible!
And I swore to myself. That's the last time I sit by the people from the Senior Citizens Center. Especially after they've come from early voting.
Just because you're old doesn't mean you don't know how to party.
Snobby big brothers, and big sisters, can be any age.
Sometimes, they're preachers. Professional ones, that is.
I'm pretty sure there's someone - or some group of someones - you point your finger at. Some people you click your tongue at, "Tsk, tsk, tsk." Some folks who deserve your scorn and shame, and receive it, even if they don't know it.
You're absolutely within your rights to give it.
But is it right?
Jesus said, "Love your enemies." Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Who annoy you. Who are obnoxious and rude and get what you deserve. Love your enemies and pray for those who get prodigal, prodigious amounts of over-abundant love and forgiveness that they haven't worked a day for. He said to love your enemies and...
come inside, and join the party, which he has prepared,
for all of us.

- James