“Be the Church: Enjoy Life”
Today’s story is one of my favorites.
I love that there is a vision of a parent, who, despite his child’s wandering in the wilderness, welcomes him home with open arms.
Who among us has NOT made a mistake and been overwhelmed when we were offered grace…?
I also love it, because it reminds us that one of the keys to enjoying life is forgiving and celebrating those we love.
There is study on happiness that comes out of Harvard, where they started with 700 young men in college and in the neighborhoods surrounding the university. They started with Harvard sophomores and as well as children from the toughest neighborhoods of Boston.
It started before WWII, so most of the original participants are now in their 90’s.
The study has continued now with the original participants’ families and their thousands of children and grandchildren.
And along with a variety of health statistics, they also studied attitudes and general levels of happiness over those decades.
It’s the longest continual research study in history.
And what’s found is the single most important factor in both physical and emotional health, seems to be the quality of our relationships.
It found that close relationships, more than any other factor, predict long and happy lives. Close friends and family help people be more resilient in the face of difficult times and delay mental and physical decline.
In our story today, when the father reunites with his long-lost son, he literally brings new life to his son. And to himself.
And yet there’s also the older brother, the one that’s perhaps easier for many of us to relate to. The young man who’s worked hard all his life and feels overlooked.
He storms out when his brother comes home.
And his father PLEADS with him to come in.
But he’s not having it. He speaks angrily to his father.
And he sulks.
And then the story ends there.
You turn the page to the next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, but there’s no resolution.
There’s no ending for him.
We don’t know if he goes back into the house. We don’t know if he storms off and squanders his own inheritance in protest. Maybe he goes in and flips over the tables and causes a scene. Or maybe he takes a deep breath and says a prayer and returns to the party and embraces his brother and welcomes him home.
We don’t know.
The story is unfinished.
And thankfully, unlike many parables in the Gospels where a later editor goes back in and explains the ending and what it all means, here, it just ends unresolved.
Jesus leaves us hanging.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells this parable to the Pharisees and Saducees, the religious officials, who are furious with him for eating with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus is not inviting the PHARISEES or the SADUCCEES to dinner. He’s not talking about how THEY have a place in the kingdom of God. And they don’t understand. They are doing everything RIGHT. And yet Jesus is breaking the rules to break bread with people who are doing everything WRONG.
And so Jesus tells them this story about the child who was lost and is now found.
And about how much the father welcomed him.
And in the process, Jesus puts them, just as Jesus puts us, in the role of that older brother and asks without having to say anything, okay – well, what are you going to do now?
Are you going to continue standing outside and sulking? Are you going to throw a fit about how you’ve been overlooked and underappreciated?
Are you going to go sin yourself? In order to get attention?
Or are you going to find some humility and come back inside and restore relationship with someone we thought was lost forever.
How are you going to be in relationship?
Jesus leaves it open, for consideration.
He doesn’t give us the answers. And he doesn’t resolve the story’s tension for us.
Which forces us to really consider, how are we going to end this story?
Jesus leaves us with open-ended questions, unresolved issues, which are very difficult for us to put down.
Unfinished and unresolved problems are like earworms, those songs that you just can’t get out of your head.
You know what I’m talking about.
Those catchy songs that get stuck in your mind and just won’t get out.
They pop up before bed, while you’re in your car. Maybe right now.
Sometimes they’re a song you love, but other times they’re an annoying jingle or song that you’d much rather let go of.
There IS a fairly reliable way to get those songs out of your head, by the way.
And it’s not just to get an even more irritating tune stuck in there.
The solution – All you have to do is finish the song.
Our brains love putting energy into thinking about things that are unfinished.
This is why your todo list comes up before bed. And probably during the sermon.
Because things that are unfinished preoccupy our mind.
Our mind is always working to solve problems.
So whether it’s a todo list or a song that’s unfinished or a relationship that’s under tension. It’s almost impossible to let go of it.
But if you finish the song, your brain is more likely to let it go.
Jesus tells us this parable in such a way that it’s intended to get stuck in our heads.
He intends the listener to have a need to finish the story.
So what’s the ending that we’re going to add?
Does the older brother eventually take a deep breath and go back inside? Does he remember that his father’s already given him 2/3 of the inheritance, while he gave his younger brother 1/3. Does he remember those great times he and his little brother had playing in the fields or sharing laughs together in the family home?
I don’t know.
I do know that even if we close this story, there are many in our own lives that are unresolved.
Some of those, we can’t control.
But others, we can.
Leaving stress and a lack of resolution in our relationships is draining.
And it keeps us from experiencing the true joy that God has created us for.
So whatever’s circling around our heads this morning…
My challenge to us this week is to consider, how are we going to resolve our own cliffhangers, our own unresolved, unfinished stories?
If we’re connecting today with the older brother – How will we relate to those who have received undeserved grace or attention around us? Will we hold onto our bitterness? Will we find the courage and the humility to go back into that house and celebrate that someone we lost is alive, imperfect as they may be? Will we let resentment be the song in our head that just won’t go away or is there another song we’d rather sing?
If we’re connecting today with the parents in the story – How are we welcoming those who have hurt us? How are we offering them grace? How will we resolve our feelings of grief and loss? And how are we caring for those who have been loyal and loving to us for so many years? How will we celebrate THEM while also celebrate those who were lost and now are found.
Some of us also connect with the prodigal child this morning. How is our story going to end? What actions will we take to restore relationship and change our habits? How are we going to build up trust again? And knowing we are forgiven, how might we better forgive others?
May we ponder these questions, turn the page, and being writing the next chapter today…