Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Enjoy the Lamb, or Demand Your Own Goat and Pout Off?”
Sermon, Year C, Lent 4, March 10, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 15:

As a pastor and as a hospital chaplain, and being in the church and around people a lot, I have heard over the years many tales of woe. Stories of suffering from people. And you would be surprised – unless maybe this applies to you, then you won’t be so surprised – but I think you might be surprised at the number of stories of suffering that I have heard that begin, or end, or at some point in the story have words to this effect: “I did everything that was expected of me. I did everything that was expected of me. I didn’t break the rules. I was responsible. I did everything right. Everything I was supposed to do.”

That, I think, would be the story of the elder son here. The elder son who has done everything that was expected of him and who apparently, at least by the words that he says at the end here, has done everything expected of him and resents it. Hated every minute of it. Resents that he has done it, that he has had to do it. Or if not resent or hated it, he has found no joy in it. “I have worked as a slave.” You don’t say that about a job that you are happy to have done. He worked like a slave. He saw the mold that he was supposed to fit in to, and he ignored himself to live in to it. And he lived into that mold very well, as far as it appears in the text. He was very diligent and very responsible. He fit into that mold he thought was expected of him. He fit into that mold so well that when a party breaks out, he can’t find space within himself to enjoy it. To enter into it.

And I have seen it. I have heard the stories of the responsible child he grows up and gets to an older age and realizes that they have never really lived. Not for themselves. Not had much joy in their life because they never felt they had permission to be anything other than what others wanted them to be. And to do that even as they saw others going out and following their passions, or following their joys. Those who stay close to home to take care of the parents, or take care of the siblings, or other people. Those that have taken care of their children, who have done what their parents wanted them to do, did what the teachers wanted them to do, did what the spouse wanted them to do, the children... did everything that they thought was expected of them. But in that, they denied themselves. Denied themselves vacations, denied themselves afternoons to go out and have fun or have lunch with a friend. Denied themselves opportunities to find joy. To find a job that they really liked. Those who have denied their dreams and their passions because of that sense of responsibility, while at the same time secretly resenting it all along. Or envying others who have broken out of that pattern. Broken out of that mold. Have seen their friends and family run off to follow some idea, or dream, and then feel stuck and boxed in. Who felt that they could never ask of those around them, “Where is my goat?” To ask, “Where is my party? When do I get to have a party? When do I get to celebrate me?” until they are too old to do anything about it and can only ask the question in anger, or regret, or both.

I have heard those stories. There are many who are the elder son. And when I hear these kinds of stories from people, about regretting not having fully lived, they have had otherwise very good lives. Sensible lives. They’ve always made good decisions, and right decisions. They have a good job. They have a good education. They had good kids. They were never in jail, they never went bankrupt, no financial problems, the kids are fine. On the surface everything appears to be okay. They have done everything right their whole life. But they never really lived it. They were so busy taking care of other people, or fitting into the mold that they felt was expected of them, that they really never lived. And Jesus wants us to live before we die. We have the promise of eternal life, but it starts now. We don’t have to wait until we die to live. That was one of the Jesus’ points: to live before we die. And that is not to say that responsibility is not a good thing. It is a good thing, and so is being responsible and taking care of your things. But responsibility itself can become and idol or an excuse. It can become a source of suffering. And so we have this elder son here in this story who resents the younger son who defied the norm, who went out of the box, who didn’t do what was expected of him. Who didn’t stay at home to work on the farm like a slave and to resent it every day.

At the end of the parable the father sees the younger son from far off. He sees him coming. Which makes me think that maybe dad was out there every day, looking at the horizon hoping that the son will come home. And perhaps this was another point of resentment. Dad was out looking for the younger brother every day, not working the farm or paying attention to the elder. I wonder if the elder brother joined him in that. Maybe he, too, went out to look out on the horizon. But he’s not looking for his brother. He doesn’t care one way or another whether the brother comes home. Maybe he doesn’t want him to come home. But I wonder if the elder brother is out there, scanning the horizon in a rare and private moment of allowing himself to fee. To look out on the horizon and lament what he’s missing. To look out and go, “There is a city over there. There is probably a party over in that direction. There are places that I’ve never heard of over there, that I bet are beautiful and amazing and that I would love to see and experience. There is a whole world out there. I wonder what it is like.”

But he will never know because he keeps that as a private thought because, as we know, he’s responsible. To consider acting on the yearnings might be irresponsible. So he can’t consider even acting on those thoughts, and so perhaps be begins to hate the horizon because it represents all the stuff that he doesn’t get to have. That he doesn’t get to experience. And because hating what he doesn’t have, and hating those who aren’t like him, or convincing himself that he doesn’t want them is the only way to deaden the pain of not having them. To say, “Ah, I wouldn’t want that anyway. It’s stupid.” Or “why would anyone want to do that?” Or, “Everything is perfectly fine right here. Everything is great. It’s all perfect right here. I don’t need any of that other stuff.”

And so he never even tells his dad, never says to dad at any time, “Dad, you know what? I would like to have a day off? Could I have a goat so my friends and I can have a celebration? Can I have a day to live?”

And who knows, maybe he does finally say to his dad about never getting a goat to celebrate with his friends, he’s also being sarcastic about having friends. Maybe he’s been so responsible he has no friends.

It seems that for him and many of us, it’s easier to just stay in that self-righteous angry place. That woe-is-me self-righteous angry place. Or to stay in that quietly suffering responsible pious place. But they are really the same place. It may come out differently, but they are really the same place. They are both places to avoid being who we are. Places of missing out on so much that God has to offer.

It reminds me of a story of another farmer. A farmer was out working in the field one day like he did every day, and like he had done every day as long as he can remember. He worked the farm that his father worked on, and this is what his whole life had been. Then an angel appears next to him. He’s kind of shocked, startled like any of us would be. The angel says, “Don’t be afraid! I come with good news. I come to bring you a great blessing. God has said that you can asking for anything you want, anything at all, and God will give it to you. You just have to say what it is. Whatever you want you can have.”

The farmer was just about to speak, and the angel said, “But. But that’s not all. You will not only get whatever you ask for, your neighbor will get it as well! In fact, your neighbor is going to get twice what you asked for. Whatever you ask for yourself, you can have, and your neighbor gets twice as much. If you ask for a new tractor, he’ll get two. If you ask for a million dollars, he get’s two million dollars. You both win! Whatever it is, whatever you want, your neighbor gets twice as much.” The farmer thought about it for a moment, and said, “Aha! Make me blind in one eye.”

That’s an elder son kind of response. We humans seem to have this capacity to endure suffering if it means that someone else suffers more because of it.

The two sons in this story are each getting it wrong. They’re getting life wrong. They think it is about themselves. The younger son wanted his inheritance. He lived for himself. And he finally returned to his father not out of love or a religious sense of wanting to be a different person. He’s really returning out of selfish interest. It is an economic decision on his part. He’s willing to accept being like a hired hand, and he does use the language of “I have sinned against you”, but I think he’s really making an economic decision. This is not a religious conversion on his part. It’s an economic one. He knows that if he goes back his dad is going to have to take him in. It’s the one place that he knows he will get fed. That there is someone who will have to take care of him. Very much about himself.

And the elder son also is thinking very much of himself. He has been responsible. He has worked. He has done his duty. And so he asked the question, “What about me? Why did I never get to much as a goat to celebrate with my friends?”

But it is not about them, and it is not about us. Life is not so much about us. What can I get out of it? What is God going to do for me? Though this parable is about us in the sense that we’re all the prodigal son, we’re all the elder son, the father, the slave throughout our life and probably even during the course of a day we can find ourselves falling into those roles. What it is about, is God. That’s what Jesus is saying here. Jesus has had a complaint against him that he is eating with sinners and tax collectors, so he offers these three parables about loss and bringing back those who are lost. They are stories about God. About God’s reckless love. God’s extravagance. God’s eagerness to throw a party. God’s party. Not a party in our honor for anything that we did, but a party that comes out of God’s joy that there has been restoration in the relationship. That the family is whole again. The one who was missing, whose absence diminished the family. The absence that diminishes us all, has returned! That one who was missing has returned. And we’re now all together again. Our community is restored. No more holes. No more broken links in the chain. We are all back together. There are no more missing children!

And yet in all that joy, the elder brother just. Can’t. Bear it. He just can’t bear it. And he says to his father, “This son of yours” did these bad things. And then dad turns that around. He says, “This brother of yours... came back!” There is a relationship there. “Like it or not, he is your brother. Like it or not, he’s ours. And this party is mine. And it is up to you to decide whether you will attend.”


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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