The sermon for week March 10, 2013
The Prodigal Son and Mainline ProtestantsOnce upon a time there were two types of Christians. One was the older sibling. She was an intellectual type, rooted in science and the modern literary criticisms. She was a child of the Protestant Reformation. She was strong, known by some 40% of the people in the United States. She was in fact, instrumental in the philosophy which helped found this country. She didn’t go by any name, she didn’t have to. If you called yourself a Christian, it meant that it was assumed you were part of her group--whether you called yourself Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, American Baptist, Reformed, or Congregationalist.
This older sibling founded universities across the land: Harvard, Princeton, even two in our area, Defiance and Heidelberg. She was passionate about social justice for the sake of service, not for the sake of conversion. She set up labor unions, orphanages and nursing homes and fought for women’s suffrage and abolition. She valued economic development, equality and justice, and a whole number of other activities. Her voice was heard across the land, covered in newspapers, debated in universities and discussed around dinner tables. Names like Antoinette Brown, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Henry Emerson Fosdick spoke her words and gave voice to her works.
But there was a younger sibling. Her name was Evangeline. She was younger, more brash than her older sister, not quite as heady, more emotionally driven. She believed four foundational things.
The first was that that the Bible was inerrant. It was without error in all of its claims about the nature of the world and the nature of God.
The second belief was that the only way to salvation was through belief in Jesus Christ.
The third belief was related to the second and was the one that was most well known: The idea that individuals must accept salvation for themselves. People must be converted. Sometimes that's referred to as a born-again experience.
The fourth belief Evangeline held was the need to proselytize, or in her case, to spread the word, to evangelize, and that’s where she got her name.
The older sibling did what older siblings do with annoying younger siblings; she ignored her. Evangeline didn’t have the drive for justice. She didn’t know what the older sibling knew. She was too simplistic, too emotional, and too loud.
And that’s how they operated for a long time. But then something happened. From 1965 to 1988, the older sibling saw a huge drop in membership at her churches. No longer did she have 40% of the population but somewhere around the mark of 18% or 16% today. Her voice was not heard any longer by the people. Her philosophies that built institutions of higher learning were just assumed by scholars but they no longer paid her any attention. Instead people started comparing her to her younger sister. She has tried many different things to gain members back, she even took a name. She started calling herself “Mainie” to show that she was the older sibling, the assumed and true type of Christianity in the country. But people didn’t believe her. So Mainie became jealous and bitter toward her younger sibling Evangeline. When Evangeline says something now, Mainie scoffs or laughs up her sleeve. Yet Evangeline is building churches everywhere one looks, and these churches draw thousands each and every Sunday.
This story is the story of the Mainline Church and the Evangelical Church. I told it in story form to highlight how the history between the mainline tradition and the evangelical tradition echoes, at least for me, themes in the parable of the prodigal son.
For me the evangelicals remind me of the prodigal son. They wander off somewhere and then they come back. The prodigal son has a change of heart. In a beautiful bit of poetry, the author of Luke writes “The son came to himself.” He remembered who he was and decided that if he was going to tend pigs for the rest of his life and live in humiliation, he would rather do it at home with people he knew. So he came back.
Here is where many Christians really connect to the story. They talk about their born-again experience. Some even remember the exact time and date that they “came to themselves” and came home, back to a church family.
In evangelical cultures, we often hear of these dramatic conversions, but we also hear about them at Sylvania UCC. Why, don’t we say every week that “No matter where you’ve been, no matter where you’re going, right now, during this hour you’re home?” That appeals to the born-agains in the crowd, the prodigals who left and then came back. Maybe we didn’t listen in Sunday school and found we needed some guidance after college. Maybe many of us were just bored with church until a friend brought us along to this one that’s not like anything we thought church could be! This place is fun! People laugh in service! Sing great songs! There is a freedom to ask questions! There’s a dedication to justice and living out beliefs. Here people care about one another and what’s going on in the world.
The prodigal’s father does the unexpected in the parable, just as Sylvania UCC does to many people, maybe even did to us. When the father saw the return of the son, he runs out and hugs and kisses him and then throws a huge party. He welcomes him home without asking where he has been. He offers a hug and not a lecture. Here the son’s journey was not simply geographical, it was relational. There is a spiritual homecoming in this moment and it’s very powerful.
Well….That’s all fine, well and good but what about those of us who have been in church our whole lives? It’s nice that people realize that they need God in their lives but what about those of us who never left? Who have always believed in God? Those of us in the “once born crowd?”
What about those of us who identify with the older brother in the parable or the older sister “Mainie” in my story?
I sure can relate to the older brother. I would be mad, too, seeing my wayward brother come home after wishing my beloved father dead. He deserved everything he got and more! Where’s the justice?! I never had to leave church to find out how cool it is. I never had this silly “born again” experience, and frankly I think that these people are making it up for attention. How are we to know if they are serious and if they will stick around this time?
Yet that question sounds rather resentful and bitter. Maybe both sons were lost. The first went to look for freedom and happiness in a distant country and got lost doing so, but the older one who stayed home also became a lost man. On the outside he did all the things a good son is supposed to do, but inside, he wandered away from his father. He did his duty, worked hard every day, and fulfilled his obligations but became increasingly unhappy and unfree.
I am an oldest child. Oldest kids, psychologically speaking, often feel like they have to be the role-model. They seek to please and are obedient and dutiful, so says the Bowen Family Systems profile, but there are exceptions. Their biggest fear is that they will be a disappointment to their parents. They develop certain envy toward their younger brothers and sisters who seem to be less concerned about pleasing and much freer to do their own thing. I confess this as my own nature, as I have a fascination for those who buck the rules. I never had the courage to simply run away. In some ways, I envy the prodigals.
I see this in today’s scripture right at the moment when the older brother is confronted by the father’s joy at the return of his younger brother. An anger erupts and boils to the surface. In that moment, when he leaves the party and heads outside it becomes glaringly obvious that a resentful, proud, unkind person--one that had remained deeply hidden comes out. The older brother represents the Pharisees and Scribes in this story, those convinced of their righteousness while Jesus was hanging out with sinners.
In a way, I think the mainline church is like the older brother. We are jealous that Cedar Creek has 4 campuses and draws thousands. They take out full page, full color ads in The Blade. We are shocked by how they articulate their faith even while we struggle to articulate ours.
We are still mourning the fact that we used to be the assumed version of Christianity and now, according to a recent Pew Survey, we make up only 18% of the population while the Evangelicals lead the pack at 26%, and the Catholics make up 24%. We USED to have 40% of the population. We rested on that fact. We thought we had everything locked up. But we didn’t, and now everyone assumes evangelicals are the “true Christians.” And we’re mad about this. I hear it in our small groups, at clergy gatherings, heck! I hear it from myself! I might be the worst offender in this category.
Ladies and gentleman, we need to get over ourselves. Sure we’ve had a great history. The dinosaurs were pretty proud of their history until the meteor came. Same with the Aztecs, Mayans, Mongolians, Romans, Ottomans--even the British Empire is a shadow of what it used to be.
Can we stop laying the bricks of resentment that would seal our fate and instead become architects of what we might create? (Rise Against)
Instead of comparing ourselves to the evangelicals, let’s just be ourselves. Take pride in where we’ve been, learn from the past, and start to build a bright future. A future where faith and science aren’t at war but compatible. A future where justice is advocated unapologetically with our voices and our hands. A future where questions are honored, difference is rejoiced, and diversity is expected. A future where love and grace are shown to all people, no matter what.
We can’t continue to be the older brother. And there will always be the prodigal, that spot is taken. And plus, neither sibling is the point of the parable. The point of the parable is to become the father.
Jesus is calling us to become the father. The father offers grace and forgiveness. He understands both of his sons and calls them both home, into a relationship with one another. Just as Jesus did to those sinners and saints in his world, leper and Pharisee, tax collectors and scribes, Gentiles and Jews all ate at one table.
Maybe, if you’re an older child, you're worried that Jesus is giving people permission to go out and do all kinds of terrible things as long as they walk in afterward and take the free gift of God's forgiveness. I don’t think it works like that. Once prodigals experience this type of love, you don’t forget. Jesus has the father say only one thing to the older brother: "Cut that out! We're not playing good boys and bad boys anymore. Your brother was dead and he's alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.” (Capon)
That’s the name of the game from here on out: resurrection. That’s good news! Now we fully embrace and understand what we say when we say, "No Matter where you’ve been, no matter where you’re going, right now you're home. because of this hour." let us commit to becoming the father, and welcome each other to the party, the messianic banquet where the table is set for all. AMEN.
Belief.net. "What Liberal Protestants Believe."
Capon, Robert. Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI : Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997.
Frontline. Evangelicals vs. Mainline Protestants. Posted on Pbs.org on April 29, 2004
Nouwen, Henri. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A story of homecoming. New York: Double Day, 1992.
Pew Religion Survey. Statistics on Religion in American. Conducted from May 8 to Aug. 13, 2007
Rise Against. quote comes from the song Architects, found on the album Endgame.
Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Mar. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.