The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s156g13  Fourth Sunday in Lent  St Chad's Linwood  10/3/2013

'Listen!   For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command ..'  Luke 15.29

As I have often remarked, one of the problems with the church is the temptation to personalise the parables as if they are directed towards you and I, that you and I personally have got to live by the messages.   And the parable of the prodigal Father with the two sons is a classic.   We quickly assume that it's about forgiveness in families, yours and mine specifically.   But if this were actually the case I contend that Jesus would have been made high-priest, not crucified.   And the church to this day is content to interpret these words as personal directions to the people in the pews to avoid the corporate implication they have, the corporate implication which led to Jesus being killed.

On one corporate level we could interpret this parable as a metaphor for the ancient people of God and the new church of christians.   God goes out to the elder son - the orthodox and the devout – those who refuse to join in the celebrations for the new arrivals - the christians - into the kingdom.   As far as the orthodox and the devout are concerned the new arrivals haven't 'done the hard yards' like them.

But this still conveniently turns the focus away from the christian church as a corporate body, and means that effectively the parable has no corporate relevance to the church of today.  

Time and again I have seen congregations for whom new-comers are welcomed really just to perpetuate what is, which is as self-serving as child molestation.   But in this they are really only doing what dioceses do, and communions do ..

Indeed if new-comers don't call God by the correct name, or live a different lifestyle to that what we have been brought up to believe is the 'christian' one - e.g. LGBT - the conservative christian may well be feeling the same as the elder son in the parable.   The 'old-timers' have lived lives of fear and obedience and look at these new-comers askance - they have lived lives of freedom and abandon.   How could they be welcomed even more effusively than them?   How indeed can they be admitted at all?

But the real difficulty is that if the 'church' is pictured as existing with the elder-brother-type believers, the kingdom is not with him and any cohorts he might gather around him - it has moved on - the celebration is happening elsewhere.   The prodigal Father is exhorting the 'righteous' to forgo their sanctimonious pretensions they think God wants, and join in the celebrations of the kingdom with others.

So the concept of people sufficiently repenting of their sins and joining a sanctified elite has got the message entirely wrong.   It is the sanctified elite who have to repent and join in society and the fun of community.

And I reflect how much the ‘church’ aims to get others to come to ‘church’ to validate their own particular form of orthodoxy against others.   But this inherently means that the others who come must accede to the existing orthodoxy – and not deviate from it.   Others are to be seen and not heard, like children.   In ‘my’ Anglican tradition the most ‘kosher’ service was the early, often said, service using the 1662 form of Holy Communion with the elderly who fasted prior to coming.   Innovations to this 1662 service were resisted and others who wanted a more children-friendly service came later on.   But the doctrine of the especial sanctity of the 1662 service flows on – and others just have to accept it.   So ‘Fresh Expressions’ and ‘Messy Church’ have sprung up to circumvent the 1662 'holy huddle'.  

Similarly the ‘church’ has encouraged parallel organisations – but often only as they serve to funnel others into the worshiping community.   Sunday School, Youth Groups, Young Marrieds, Mothers Union, Sanctuary Guilds, Men’s Clubs, Prayer Circles – the list is endless.   But unless they lead to attendance at ‘Holy Communion’ they do not serve their ‘real’ purpose. 

'Church' has sometimes become a place for wannabe (but un-elected) politicians, and consequently an arena for all sorts of wrestling matches.   The minister's task has been to support the most powerful lay person.   I still recall an elderly parishioner regularly describe herself as the matriarch of that parish!   If this is what eternal life is like - count me out!  

I wonder if some 'christians' think that the words 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' apply only to others.

Of course, others soon realise that they are wanted only for perpetuating someone else’s spiritual edifice and if they have bothered to persist with the church have sometimes joined charismatic and pentecostal groups where they might be heard and allowed to contribute to a spiritual edifice they might call their own.   Speaking in tongues by members of the congregation is the complete antithesis of our fine liturgical poetry reserved to the ordained.   Do we criticise or do we learn that people need to express themselves?

If what I have said above is true, then the kingdom is elsewhere, where people are accepted for who they are and are busy rejoicing with others.   So perhaps a better picture of the kingdom is a gay-pride march :-)

Recently I have been reading about the leading of the Holy Spirit in the forthcoming conclave of Cardinals to choose a new Pope,   If what I have said above is true, then the primary activity of the Holy Spirit is to lead us out of our 'holy huddles', not to proscribe the next (or any) person ordained to keep the holy huddle together – Catholic, Anglican or Calithumpian.

We have all been encouraged by the picture of Jesus the good shepherd gently carrying the little lost lamb back to the fold and we have immediately assumed that this is what the vicar is supposed to do, gather the lost and bring them back to church to worship with us.   And again, if this were the meaning, Jesus would have been made high priest.  

No, I suspect that the real meaning is that Jesus has got the orthodox and the devout – those who have deliberately separated themselves off from society in the name of ‘god’ – on his shoulders, kicking and screaming, as he brings them back to the fold of all people.   This is the picture much more in tune with the prodigal Father pleading with the elder son to come back and join in the celebration for his brother.   No wonder Jesus was killed!

I want to finish returning to the conclusion that the kingdom is not with the 'holy huddle' but in real life, where - without any particular reference to belief in a divine or the correct name to call him or her - a person is welcomed as a relative.   Not a second class citizen but as someone deserving a place at the table.   If 'our' table is defined by who can't be welcomed without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation, then this parable tells us that the kingdom is elsewhere, and it is the church who has got to repent!