Lo, the Lord Makes Merry, World Without End

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. We were using an old Lutheran liturgy as part of our year-long commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. The gospel text I preached on was Luke 15:11-32.

The liturgy we are using today was published in 1958. Things sure have changed in sixty years! Some of it is very familiar and similar to what we do normally, but some of it feels very unfamiliar and odd, at least to me. And there have been a lot more changes to worship than just the words. If we traveled back in time to 1958, and observed Lutheran worship then, here are some other changes you’d notice:

  • Obviously, no projection screens.
  • We would not have had Story Time.
  • We would have neither an assisting minister nor a lay reader. The only voice you’d hear would be mine.
  • Only boys would be acolytes. And of course, only men would be pastors.
  • Many of you would be dressed differently. Men would all have suits on, and women would be wearing dresses and quite possibly hats.
  • And when we get to communion, you’d notice a few changes there:
    • When I stand at the altar, I would not be facing you, but away from you.
    • Children wouldn’t receive communion until they were confirmed.
    • Communion would only be shared about four times a year
    • I would distribute both the bread and the wine. No communion assistants. It would take forever.
  • Oh, and speaking of taking forever, sermons would last much longer, twenty minutes at a minimum. Of course, maybe I am doing that today.

All these changes are just in the past sixty years. Imagine how much has changed in the 500 years since the Reformation. Imagine how much has changed in the church in the 2000 years since the resurrection. Makes you wonder if anything has stayed the same.

Our gospel story today may have been familiar to you. It is traditionally known as the parable of the Prodigal Son. But I’m not sure that title is fair. “Prodigal” means “spending money freely and recklessly,” and while that is true of that younger son, I’m not sure that’s really what the story is about. I think we hear it that way because of who we are. I think it would be better to call the story the parable of the Lost Son.

Let me explain. The theologian and author Mark Allen Powell once did an experiment with this story, and he discovered that people’s life experiences make a huge difference in how they read it. Dr. Powell told the Parable of the Lost Son to seminary students in three different settings: a class in the United States, a class in Africa, and a class in Russia.  And at the conclusion of the story, he asked, “Why did the younger son become lost and have to feed pigs?”

In the United States, most responded that it was because…well, because he was prodigal, because he wasted his father’s inheritance and did not live a responsible life. For many people here in the United States, investing and living responsibly are very important values, and so this is what the Americans heard: verse 13, “there he squandered his property in loose living.”

But in Africa, Dr. Powell found that people didn’t really focus on that. Instead, they heard that nobody helped him. In this African nation, a core value is to help people in need, and to act together as a community. The Africans heard this: verse 16, “He would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.” 

And in St. Petersburg, Russia, they noticed something else entirely, and claimed that the reason the son suffered was because of the famine. The Russians heard verse 14, “a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.” Dr. Powell reminds us that during World War II, St. Petersburg, or Leningrad, as it was known then, was besieged by the Germans for seven years, and hundreds of thousands of people starved to death.

Three different groups of people, with very different life experiences and perspectives, saw completely different things here, all of which are in the story. All of these interpretations are biblical; they are each reasonable readings of the story. It’s a reminder that the things we think are obvious are sometimes because of our own life experiences.

And I think this is an important thing for us to remember as we continue to heal as a congregation from the Reconciling in Christ vote we held in June. For many of us, our reading of scripture was a key reason for why we voted the way we did. Some of us voted no because we are convinced that scripture says so, and some of us voted yes for the exact same reason. How could we come to such different conclusions? Because faith is always a matter of interpretation. Faith is always seen through the lens of our own life experiences. There’s no such thing as “taking the Bible literally.” Any understanding of scripture at all is an interpretation, whether we recognize it as such or not. And hopefully acknowledging this can give all of us some humility, and some empathy for one another; hopefully we can see that we all share the intention of seeking God’s will. And hopefully we can continue to seek God’s will together.

That’s why I encourage you to be a part of upcoming healing opportunities. I encourage you to come to the Listening Time in two weeks. Come and listen to where others are coming from, and consider sharing your own feelings and story as well. I believe the Holy Spirit will stir amid that listening. And come to the “Keep Talking” study in September. It is a time for people who disagree with one another to learn how to work together as a community going forward. It is not a time to try to change anyone’s mind. It is a time for us to find common ground, and to seek Christ in that common ground.

It is striking to me is that we so often think that faith is unchanging, that the Word of God is a simple universal truth that is always the same, but in reality, it’s changing all the time. We see that today all the changes to Lutheran liturgy over sixty years. We see that in the various interpretations of the parable of the Lost Son. Our faith changes over time, based in part on our life experiences. Our understanding of God’s will changes over time. Perhaps God’s will changes as well.

But here’s what is unchanging: God’s response to us. I believe that the Father in the gospel story today represents God. The father never asked why the younger son became lost, but he rejoiced, he welcomed, he loved, he made merry upon his return. No conditions, no judgment. God’s response to us is the same, no matter what. Whatever your faith, whether it’s strong or weak, God is welcoming you with love and rejoicing in you. Whether you find more meaning in traditions or in novelty, God is welcoming you with love and rejoicing in you. Whether you are grieving, or guilty, or sick, or worried, or whatever mess you are in, God is welcoming you, healing you, holding you, throwing a party for you. Making merry.

The body of Christ is always given for you, or as I will say today in communion, given for thee. That’s what we can always hold on to.

Amen.

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