Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lost and Found: A Sermon

Lost and Found
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 14, 2010
Fourth Sunday in Lent

Joshua 5:9-12
Luke 15:11-32

We are coming to the end of our creativity.

That is not true at all. What I mean is that we have been exploring the path of creativity during Winter, and Spring is coming. We will begin exploring another of the four paths of Creation Spirituality.

Creation Spirituality is a term coined by theologian Matthew Fox but it refers to a way of looking at life that is quite ancient. An aspect of Creation Spirituality is to approach Life (or "God" if you prefer) through four vias.

How do we become authentic? How do we in the words of the story the Velveteen Rabbit, become real?

Traditional mystical Christianity has given us a three-fold path of purgation, illumination, and union.

Purgation is letting go of worry or sin.
Illumination is receiving the divine light or salvation.
Union is empowering the self, taking ownership, becoming holy.

Fox added a path and shifted the image from climbing a ladder to dancing a spiral.

How do we become real? He invites us to think of four vias or paths.

We can think of them as the journey of the heart. In his book Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, he describes the four paths in this way:
  1. The heart of exaltation, awe, wonder, and delight (Via Positiva)
  2. The heart of silence, letting go, suffering, sorrow, grieving, and “roaring” (Aquinas’s word) (Via Negativa)
  3. The heart of passion for creativity, co-creating, birthing, life and power in all its forms: the art of empowerment. (Via Creativa)
  4. The heart that is compassion: moral outrage at injustice that leads to the passionate work of justice making and healing and the heart-work that celebration entails and demands. (Via Transformativa) p. 29
I have been playing with and celebrating one path with each season of the year. During the Winter we have been exploring the via creativa in sermons and in worship. I have been trying to look at the scripture readings through this lens.

The via creativa is again, to quote Matthew Fox,
“the heart of passion for creativity, cocreating, birthing, life and power in all its forms: the art of empowerment.”
How might that path, that way of looking at life and acting with life give juice to our reading of this very familiar parable of the man who had two sons, not only a “prodigal” son?

Traditionally, this story has been one of fall and repentance. The younger son, the prodigal son, is the sinner who finally hits bottom, comes to his senses and comes home to the father who, ready to forgive, welcomes him with a fatted calf.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
Some of you may remember singing that song in church. I do. I also remember as a kid hearing many testimonies that at times detailed the dissolute living of the prodigal in the sinner’s own life. Then the testifying sinner found Jesus or Jesus found them and we heard the story of repentance, forgiveness, and union with the Father.

That is how this parable has been read and how the Christian life was thought to be lived.

But there wasn’t much for the rest of us who didn’t have those dramatic stories and were sitting in church like the elder son behaving ourselves in the first place.

In this reading, the elder son’s story is an uncomfortable add-on. He is the grumpy do-gooder who should just lighten up. But really, after you have been saved and been given the ring, robe, and calf, the rest is a bit anti-climactic.

If that is the extent of the spiritual path what do you do with the rest of your life? You could rinse and repeat. Go do a bunch of sinning again just because making up with Jesus feels so good. Or you could sit there in your smugness like the other son and with a scolding and knowing look welcome the other sinners home.

Bernard Brandon Scott has been helpful with this parable in his book Re-imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus.

That is a great title. Re-imagine is the work of creativity. Creating images and using our imaginations is what creativity is all about.

The parables of Jesus become not allegories for how to get to heaven but pushes, pokes, and prods to inspire us to think differently, to imagine differently, to change our script so that we might live differently as individuals and as a human community.

These parables are creative stories to inspire creativity.

Creativity is perhaps the best thing we have going for us in a time of change. Our Thursday reading group is reading a sober book. Dianne Dumanoski, The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive a Volatile Earth. She writes what really is needed at this time of change. She quotes C.S. Holling:
Do not try to plan the details…the only way to approach such a period, in which uncertainty is high and one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly via diverse adventures in living.” P. 213
We need to get some background on this parable. The eldest son received 2/3 of the inheritance. The rest of the sons split the remaining 1/3. Usually this meant that the eldest would buy out the others and they would have to find some other way of making a living.

The Father would be a fool to give his inheritance away before his death. The word translated "property" is bios or life. The younger son is asking for his father’s life, as if he were dead to him. The Father, out of character for a traditional Father, does it. The Father seems to be shirking his role. He is careless and allows his youngest son to disrespect him.

The younger son parties. Dissolute living says the text. Blows it all. Then he despises his own religion by living with pigs. While he is at the bottom, he doesn’t repent, he calculates.
Even my Father’s servants have food to eat.
He dreams up a story that he hopes will fly and heads home.

The Father when he sees him, again acts out of character for the Father. He runs which is a shaming thing to do. Embraces him, kisses him, and doesn’t even let him make his rehearsed speech. No questions asked. No justice meted.

Instead he gives him a ring, robe, sandals, and kills calf so the whole village will have a feast. He is restored as son not as servant.

Meanwhile, after the party the elder son who has been working comes in from the field finds out what is happening and is angry. He insults his Father by refusing to go to the party. The penalty for disrespecting his father in this traditional society is death.

But the Father again rather than fulfill his role as Father pleads with his elder son. Again, shaming. He again sacrifices his male honor.

We have two sons and a Father. The youngest is home celebrating. The oldest refuses to celebrate even though he has all the property. They are operating under the codes. Honor and shame. Property and duty.

It is a male story. It is a man story. The only one who consistently refuses to be a man is the Father. He continues to act not out of concern for his life, his estate, his duty, and his honor, but instead out of compassion and mercy.

Ultimately, he hopes that his two sons will see themselves as brothers.

What happens next?

What happens when the Father dies?

This is how Bernard Brandon Scott closes his commentary on the parable:
So what happens next? The audience is perhaps asked to imagine a third act. Soon the father will die. Then what? If the sons continue on with their established scripts, they are headed for a collision. One will kill the other. Or they can follow the father’s script and surrender their male honor and keep on welcoming, accepting, and being with the other. They have a choice between being lost or found, dead or alive. P. 83
This parable is open ended as are many of the parables of Jesus. We don’t know what will happen. The ending is not satisfactory. The ending is up to us.

This is our story of life on Earth. While the parable lives in a world of male codes, scripts, honor, inheritance, duty, and property that prevents human beings from seeing each other as human beings, as brothers and sisters, we as well have codes and scripts.

The parable invites us to examine our entitlements, expectations, and patterns to which we cling. Are we so tied to a script, a code, a system of honor and shame and entitlement that we are killing each other and Earth for it?

This story of a Father and his two sons is a story familiar in the Bible.

Cain and Abel.
Ishmael and Isaac.
Jacob and Esau.
Joseph and his brothers.

Brothers can end up killing each other. This is the script. You kill for your honor. You kill for property. You kill for security. You kill to right wrongs.

Jesus tells this parable to invite us to change the script. Can we be foolish enough as the father in the story is foolish enough to say that the entitlements, grudges, wrongs real and perceived, are not enough to keep us from seeing each other as beloved?

Perhaps the way of the foolish father is the way of wisdom.

Can we be foolish enough to recognize that our codes, our boundaries, our allegiances, our creeds, our national pride, our way of life can be changed so that all can live?

Can we be foolish enough to come to our senses and share one Earth as one family and with joy and courage change our script?

Can we be foolish enough to become real?

That choice is ours today.


  1. I think my jaw was in my lap through this sermon! I am looking at this parable in a completely different way now. Talk about losing your baggage!

  2. I'm still with you John, but you wouldn't know I was here if I didn't say I was here.

    So I am.

  3. Thanks Snad and Steve.

    Glad you are still with me and telling me so! : )

  4. Interesting thoughts.

    When I think about the parables, I tend to take a less direct "The character of God is played by the Father, The character of the prodigal son is played by us, the character of the brother is the Pharisees" point of view.

    When in our lives have we been or felt like the brother in the story? When in our lives have we been the son in the story? When have we been the father? The parables end up being more like a koan when we consider every viewpoint, rather than a puzzle to be solved.

  5. I think that there are 3 ways of looking at this parable: from the father's viewpoint, the younger son and the older son.

    If we look at it from the father's viewpoint we should start with the question "Why did the rich man run?"

    From the younger son's viewpoint: can I be accepted back even though I sinned. And curiously he was willing to be a servant but his father accepts him back as a full fleged son.

    And from the older son's viewpoint: why have a party for that scum? And as John has pointed out the older brother sins the same sin as the younger brother: failing to respect his father.

  6. Thanks guys...

    The parables can speak to us, question us and so forth when enter them honestly.

    If we put too much "theology" on them they can flatten and become just another voice for conventional morality.

  7. Good stuff. I've been "geeking" all week, getting my laptop set up, etc.

    Good to see a nice quiet week on Shuck & Jive.