St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Trinity, August 14, 2022
“Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
THE OLDER BROTHER is fit to be tied. Let’s call him Fred. Fred just arrived home after working from sun up to dusk, running field hands, fighting birds and scorpions, drought and loose goats. He’s physically spent, and he’s angry—as he is every day—that his younger brother has left this all to him. The no account loser! It barely helps his mood to think the brat is starving over the border, having wasted his inheritance on tequila sunrises. If he came back now, he’d be sorry. There’s no welcome mat out for him. He’s no brother of mine.
There are many stories about brothers. It’s a famous relationship. Sisters make for drama too. Vying for top spot as siblings teaches us either service or sin at an early age. The war between brothers, each raging with hormones, outdoing each other, is a battle won and lost in all generations. If they survive, they’ll be a team, sharing a loving vow for each other. If this never happens, they’ll be the most bitter of enemies.
Cain, envious of his brother, killed Abel in the field. Ishmael gave his baby brother grief: so he and his mother were thrown out of camp. Esau was careless, and Jacob sought to trick his brother out of his legacy. Joseph was taken by ten older brothers and sold into slavery. Moses stuttered, so God sent older brother Aaron to be his spokesman, later his high priest. David, youngest of eight, was chosen over his brothers as king of Israel.
Jesus’ disciples, Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus; James and John, were fellow fishermen. There is energy between brothers that raises questions: if they’re at odds, they can be defeated. If they have each other’s back, their combined power is more than two.
I had sisters. I haven’t had the experience of this parable, though I have three brothers-in-law. Special laws were established about brothers. Jesus said, “That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council… Therefore if thou … rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; …go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” Matt 5:22-24 John wrote, “If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar . . . he who loves God must love his brother also.” 1 John 4:20-21
We understand the new family of which Christ spoke. “Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Matt 12:50 Christians have long regarded one another as sisters and brothers in Christ. This is great, but sometimes we must work out our ‘sibling’ issues as sisters and brothers in Christ. They will be there, as real as in natural families.
Here stands Fred, fuming. He’s already angry; he’s angry most of the time. His father’s too old to help. Dad’s always praying for the lost son, the good-for-nothing jerk. Fred has a routine work-a-day relationship with Dad and with himself. He doesn’t work for the good of working, for the accomplishment, knowing that truly this is his own farm. When his younger brother—call him Jeff—departed, the old man’s wealth was divided, the money went south with prodigal Jeff, and the land stayed with Fred. The farm was his already, with the aging father living on his son’s property. But the gift was not received. Fred still thinks himself a slave rather than a landholder. He begrudges having to work and sweat. He hates his brother for running out on them. Fred is frankly a mess.
Now Jeff took the money, but didn’t really receive it. It was cruel for him to ask. It put the family in jeopardy, taking funds away from the homestead, like saying, “You’re all dead to me.” But he claimed it as his own, not as the family treasure, and then played the fool, running up bills at saloons and cat houses until it was all gone. He didn’t steward his inheritance, see it for the blessing it was, but threw it away. Neither brother saw their inheritance for what it was. Jeff treating it as nothing, Fred acting as though it wasn’t his.
Dirty and sweaty, Fred asks a servant what all the fuss is. He observes activity, excited voices, the prize calf at the slaughter post, and music coming from the house. “Your brother has come back. Your father ordered that we butcher the calf for getting him back safe and sound.”
That did it. Days of back-aching work, nights yearning for some other company than Dad, hating his brother and the wasting of a fortune: all adds up. “If they think I’m going into that house, they’re crazy. No way. I won’t see that ingrate. I’m spending the night in the barn.”
Jesus tells this story, setting us all up. We focus on the joker who ran off and blew his fortune, ate with pigs, cooked up the scheme to get back in the family as a servant, just for some decent food. His aims aren’t much higher than before. Jeff is still just looking to eat. He’d had his fun—drinks and girls and lost nights—and sobering moments—starvation, betrayal of fair-weather friends, harsh bosses. He now sees the difference between father and cruel task-masters. A lesson learned the hard way. We hear him practice his lines, stumbling homeward.
We watch the father. He’s a sermon all in himself. His forgiveness, his love, his humanity—a father’s undying love, unconditional welcome—is the graciousness of our Father’s kingdom to which we are invited, not as guests, but as sons and daughters. It’s unbelievable how welcome we are in these places made for us, mansions, tables groaning with a great banquet. We see the father running to greet the lost boy returned.
But we’re caught by the epilogue. Fred hadn’t seemed like a real part of this family tale. Now he comes larger than life. We understand his bitter wrath. How could this idiot take all our money and waste it? What makes him think he’ll just waltz back and show his face? What’s Dad doing, letting him back like this? Throw a big party for him? Kill the calf? What about me? I work like a slave for him. On and on…
We get it. If we’ve ever been the hard worker, ever held up more than our end, ever given more than we got back; we understand Fred. But then maybe we don’t understand the story. Jesus’ gentle trap opens beneath us and we are caught. Like fish.
Heaven is not for the hard workers, dutiful and on time, well-scrubbed, vaccinated, face masked and distanced. Heaven is for schnooks. Heaven is for sinners. Heaven is for fools. Heaven is for the prodigals and street bums and stinky fishermen and bedeviled hookers. I’m sorry: didn’t you know that? It’s not a reputable place, if we judged it by the earlier state of its denizens. The early state of every true son and daughter of God is often rotten.
Heaven is where we go when we’ve discovered we’re not okay as we are. Even if we didn’t go off to foreign parts and waste a fortune partying, even if we didn’t join a cult and worship the devil and get on drugs—even if we never did anything worth being arrested. Even the squeakiest clean of us. Then we’re the older brother. We are all of us one of these or the other—and we may have been both. Jeff obviously needs to confess and cry over his sins. His are evident. He can’t hide his disgrace. Fred’s sins are things we may see as fine character traits: diligence, ethical business, trustworthiness, loyalty, self-sacrifice. The trouble is, these fine traits were done as a grudge against himself and against his family. He resents his decision to work on his farm, thus knowing nothing about his inheritance and the generosity of his father. Doing a thousand good deeds in resentment turns every one of them sour like bad milk. Heaven is not for such virtuous but hate-filled men and women. Heaven is for the drunk who crawls to the feet of Jesus and says, “I blew it. I’m sorry. I don’t deserve You, but I beg to be forgiven.”
Fred needs to get on his knees and cry out his own pain. “I have hated everybody all my life. I’ve hated the work, the fields. I’ve hated myself for coming under obligation. I’ve burned with hatred against my poor brother.” It’s a more difficult prayer than that of the drunkard. It wasn’t so obviously a sin, not until the drunkard came back.
People have disregarded the Bible and claimed its stories are mere myths. But myths are only teaching stories based on reality. Jesus told a lot of myths, what we call parables, and in his mouth, they become familiar and true. We know these people, and they live in us. We hang pictures of this family, and we really like the father a lot.
Jesus indicates for us to be like the Father in His willingness to forgive and to love. It’s His promise to us. He said “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven, perfect.” Sinless, boundless in heavenly virtue, we will someday be. We’ll be forgiving toward all, and loving like God, when we’ve arrived in that place. We have nothing to defend. We all lay it down—high or low, elder or younger, Fred or Jeff. Nothing to lose. No more to gain than everything that is bestowed on us. Can we envy or object to anyone in heaven if we are in heaven ourselves? Let God serve the choice calf to that man who once lived a wicked life. He’s only here because of Jesus, and I’m only here because of Jesus. The difference between us? Maybe that he’s more grateful than I am.
Hear Jesus’ comforting voice, younger children. “Welcome home, my dear son and daughter. I’ve heard your speech, and that’s good, but let me get you better clothes, a robe, here’s a ring for your hand. What are you doing out there? Come inside—your room is ready. Don’t you ever leave us again.”
Hear God’s voice now, elder children. “My child, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”