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

s156g16   Fourth Sunday in Lent  6/3/2016

‘bring out a robe -- the best one -- and put it on him‘     Luke 15:22

These words remind me of the end of the parable of the wedding feast: ‘when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”   And he was speechless.   Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”   For many are called, but few are chosen.’  (1)

The parable of the prodigal Father is set within the context of the Pharisees and the scribes grumbling about the company Jesus was keeping.   In their estimation, ’real’ religious leaders would be avoiding these sort of people, not associating with them.   Their grumbling for me parallels the man without the wedding robe - he didn’t want to be in a kingdom that included others, where his superiority was not acknowledged and highlighted.   So he was weeping and gnashing his teeth even before he is ejected.   Like the elder of the sons in the parable, the one who refused to join in the celebrations; he prefers his self-righteous solitude.   He didn’t want to join in the celebration when his brother was wearing the robe rightfully his!   Or, to go back to the one who refused the wedding robe, he relegated himself to his chosen religious minority, weeping and gnashing their teeth in unison .. or in harmony :-)

So again, everyone is called; those who are deluded to think they are chosen, find themselves desperate to be elsewhere!

I do apologise - one of the realities is that people from Christchurch have only one topic of conversation: earthquakes ..   I know that the suffering of those in the Sendai prefecture of Japan in 2011 suffered far more than us (2), as well as more recently the nation of Fiji where Cyclone Winston has caused so much devastation. (3)    We here in Christchurch were rudely reminded again last Valentine’s Day that we haven’t ceased to be evolving. (4)   When we began this protracted series of shakes over five years ago, some conservative evangelical ‘christians’ attributed the destruction as God’s punishment on those in the ‘red-light’ district of the city and on liberal Anglicans and others propounding marriage equality.   How convenient for them!   But two weeks ago (before that Valentine’s Day quake) I wrote: ‘Woven throughout the fabric of the Old Testament is the fact that the Lord uses secular authorities to execute divine judgement and restoration on the ancient people of God.’ (5) - not earthquakes.    Earthquakes merely give an indication of when things occurred. (6)   In a society where there weren’t calendars and newspapers to tell us the date, it was the beginning and end of the reign of kings and significant events like earthquakes that were the only things which place other events historically.  Indeed we are told: ‘the LORD was not in the earthquake’ (7) but in the ‘still small voice’.

God uses secular society to judge the church and if secular society finds the church judgemental and exclusive rather than a force for inclusion and acceptance then their judgement is just.
As St Paul, quoting Isaiah, writes of his religious persecutors: ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’ (8)   If secular society finds the church denying incarnation rather than proclaiming and instrumental in incarnation then their judgement is just.

The reaction of the prodigal father to the return of his wayward son is the same as the response of Abraham who sees those three travellers approaching his camp in the wilderness - welcome!  (9) Unconditional welcome.   And the first thing that both Abraham and the prodigal Father do is to arrange a feast.   The parable of the prodigal Father makes it clear that self-recrimination is entirely unnecessary, indeed irrelevant.   There is plain and simple joy of communion; whether unexpectedly new or longed-for restoration, made explicit by eating together.

And it is this welcome, this plain and simple joy of communion with all others that is the stumbling block of the gospel for the devout and the orthodox; the gifting of the wedding garment to others as well as to themselves, they refuse to accept.

And this reaction of welcome ought to be the first, last and lasting impression of our services of Holy Communion.   They ought to be known for the welcome afforded to others, irrespective of self-recrimination, irrespective of the particular name used to address the divine, irrespective of the other’s perception of the nature of the divine, irrespective of the race, belief or the gender of the person the other chooses to share intimacy.  

Indeed the whole reason for the feast in the parable of the prodigal Father is the return of the son.   The father didn’t hold a feast weekly in the hope of enticing the lad back to the fold.   Similarly Abraham in the wilderness didn't hold weekly feasts in the hope of attracting visitors to his part of the wilderness!   No matter how lovely our weekly celebrations, they have become routine rather than welcoming; others are routinely criticised for not attending.   The feast prepared for the son and the strangers was to honour them .. not to reassert the divine prerogative of the host.

So perhaps we oughtn’t to celebrate the Holy Communion unless there is someone who isn’t a straight, baptised, confirmed, communicant, tithing Anglican of my particular variety newly come!   Or, to put it the other way, unless there is someone who isn’t a straight, baptised, confirmed, communicant, tithing Anglican of my particular variety newcomer present, our Holy Communion is but a façade.

And as Abraham didn’t expect, or particularly want the three travellers to stay, so also the prodigal Father didn’t elicit promises of everlasting fidelity from the wayward son before arranging the festivities.   They were simply welcomed without expectation.

It is this sort of welcome; a welcome without hesitation, without discrimination, without expectation, a welcome in the hope that these others will contribute to our understanding of the broadness of God’s mercy (10); it is this sort of welcome that will lead others to welcome the divine that inspires this sort of welcome.

And if we hold a feast for the one who comes or returns, the feast is offered in the hope that the other will enrich us by recounting his or her experiences, which will involve us listening.   And again, as I so often say, we might do this on a personal level and we will certainly be blessed; but if the church corporate were to be known for listening to society rather than pontificating at it, what would our society and our church look like?   What might our services of Holy Communion look like if they involved two-way communication?   The commonwealth of God perhaps?   I was amused seeing the play ‘Winston’s birthday’ at the fabulous Christchurch ‘Court Theatre’ (11) to hear the socially inept Dr Jenkins saying to the 88 year old Winston Churchill in exasperation at the family dysfunction, words to the effect: ‘You’re all talking but no one is listening to the other.’   Churchill replies, again words to the effect: ‘Of course not, that’s the Westminster system!’

Would our reaction be much the same as the elder son, if we found in the end atheists exalted above Christians?

At breakfast this morning (26 or 27/2 depending on US or NZ time) Mary (being American by birth) commented that it was the 57th day of this year and it seems there have already been 33 mass shootings in the USA. (12)   I wonder if this would be happening in the world if the church was seen to be an instigator of unconditional welcome rather than a propounder of mostly self-evident truths.

There is little point in ‘christians’ demonising people like Donald Trump when the church continues to be a force for division rather than inclusion; when the church has really not even begun to welcome others ready with ‘gay apparel’ (13) for all.

1.  Matthew 22:11-14
5., Isaiah 67:13-16, Jeremiah 4:6, Ezekiel 23:24; Isaiah 44:28
6.  Joel 4:1
7.  1 Kings 19:11
8.  Romans 2:24  Isaiah 52:5
9.  Genesis 18:1-3
10.  Ephesians 3:18-19
12.  #notonemore