Tony Campolo is a famous evangelical preacher, one I admire greatly. His most famous story is this. He flew from east coast to Honolulu, and when you fly that far west, you wake up really early, and can’t get back to sleep. So he woke up at 3:00 in the morning. He was hungry, so he went out looking for a restaurant that was open at that time of night, and finally found a greasy spoon diner. He went in, sat on a stool at the counter, and the owner, a big man wearing a dirty apron, handed him a plastic menu with grease stains on it. He didn’t want to touch it, so he said, “Could I just have coffee and a doughnut?”
The owner wiped his hand on his dirty apron, reached out and picked up a doughnut, and slapped it on a plate in front of Tony. So Tony was sitting there with his dirty doughnut, when the door opened and 7 or 8 prostitutes walked in, sat on stools at the counter on either side of him, so he said he sat there and made self small.
As he sat there, the prostitute to his right said to her friend, “Hey, I just remembered, tomorrow is my birthday, I’ll be 39.”
Her friend said, “What do you want me to do about it? You think you’re special? You want me to throw you a party or something?”
The first woman said, “I don’t want you to do anything, what do you have to be so mean for, I’ve never had a birthday party in my life. I’m just saying, tomorrow is my birthday.”
The women sat there a while longer and then all left, and Tony said to the owner, Harry, “You know that woman sitting next to me?”
Harry said, “You mean Agnes? Let me tell you about Agnes. Agnes may be a prostitute, but she is one of the good people in this world. She has a heart of gold.”
“Yes,” said Tony, “I have an idea, what if I come tomorrow and decorate the place for her birthday, and buy her a cake, and we can surprise her?”
Harry said, “That’s a great idea, and I’ll make the cake!”
The next night, Tony came in about 3, had streamers and ribbons and signs that said Happy Birthday Agnes! He had everyone cued up so about 3:30 when Agnes and her friends walked in, everyone shouted Happy Birthday!
Agnes looked like she’d been hit by lightning. She stopped dead in the doorway, and everyone started singing Happy Birthday. Harry guided her over to a table, made her sit down, brought the lit-up birthday cake out, set it in front of her. She just sat there with tears pouring down her cheeks, till Harry said, “Come on Agnes, you’ve got to blow out the candles.” But she couldn’t, so Harry did it for her.
Then Harry handed her a knife and said, “Cut the cake now, Agnes!”
She sat there with tears on her face, and finally she said, “Just a minute, can I just carry it next door to show my mother and I’ll be right back?”
She walked out the door, holding the cake like it was made of gold, and everyone in the place stood there in silence. So Tony said, “Tell you what, let’s say a prayer for Agnes. He prayed for her to have a happy birthday, for her to recover from all the things men had done to her, for this year to be a new beginning for her, and then he opened his eyes and found Harry staring at him.
Harry said, “You lied to me! You said you were a sociologist, but you’re a preacher!”
Tony said, “Well, I’m a sociologist AND a preacher.”
Harry said, “What kind of church you belong to?”
Tony said, ”I belong to the kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:00 in the morning.”
Harry said, “No way, there ain’t no church like that. If there was a church like that I would belong to it.”
Well, it might be hard for us to understand or to accept, but Jesus started the kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:00 in the morning. He was famous for hanging out with prostitutes, sinners, and tax collectors, and when he got criticized for it, he said, “People who are well don’t need a doctor – people who are sick do.” And he tells today’s parable of the Prodigal Son in answer to the scribes and Pharisees who complain, “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Associating with those kind of people brings shame on him, yet Jesus doesn’t flinch, doesn’t shy away from the shame of these sinners. Instead, he tells a very interesting story – the most famous of all his parables.
The risk is that it can become too familiar: we hear “There was a man who had two sons,” and we know what is coming, we are accustomed to the idea that no matter what we do, God will forgive us and welcome us home.
And what comfort that can bring us – what assurance of God’s love. God is like a loving parent who watches us run away with all the gifts we have ever been given, watches us misuse and squander those gifts, waits, watching the road and praying for us to come home, and comes out running to greet us before we can even get out our speech of repentance.
God is the one who doesn’t even look very closely to see if we’ve actually repented. We can listen to this parable and say, did this boy really repent of his sins? Or did he simply act in self-interest and return home where at least he could get a decent meal?
We can ask those things, but this parable tells us God doesn’t care – the gift of welcome from God, our loving parent, comes even before we can choke out our trumped-up speech begging forgiveness, asking to eat the scraps from his table like any servant – but God refuses to treat us as servants, God insists that we are God’s beloved children.
That’s a lot of love from a parent whose heart we have broken. No wonder we love this story – no wonder it brings us comfort.
Yet we sometimes forget about the other part of the story – the older brother who is just as alienated as his younger brother, who refuses to forgive, refuses to welcome his brother home, who at the end of the story is standing outside the party, refusing to come inside and celebrate. Does he ever come in? We’re left hanging, waiting for his decision. We have to decide how it ends for ourselves.
A God who throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:00 in the morning? A parent who welcomes home the prodigal son who has thrown away his inheritance, lived with the pigs, and hit bottom? The older brother isn’t sure he wants anything to do with a parent like that. Do we?
The thing is, this parable is the perfect story for thinking about ourselves in Lent. Lent is the season of repentance, of cleansing, of preparation for the Easter feast. Lent is the time when we get ready for a surprise so unexpected, a gift so glorious, that no human being can ever deserve it.
As Paul says, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us – but opening up God’s eternal home to us. We are the Prodigals God is welcoming home, yet we are also the older brothers who stand outside and scowl, wondering if we should go into the party, trying to decide how this story should end. Both brothers stand in need of repentance and reconciliation, both brothers need to be welcomed by their father.
And when I read this parable, I am reminded of the words of our Confession. We confess that we have sinned against God by thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. Yes, the Prodigal Son has done many things of which he must repent, while the older brother has scrupulously kept the rules all his life. But both sons have left things undone – they have not loved their father with their whole heart, they have not loved their neighbors as themselves.
Lent is a time to repent, not so much of the things we have done, but of the things we have left undone – we have failed to love God with our whole hearts, we have failed to love others as we love ourselves.
And yet it turns out that Christianity is not a religion of sorrow and repentance though – so much as it is a religion of welcome, reconciliation, celebration. Every single one of us could repent a thousand times over of our failure to love God with our whole heart, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Our human nature leads us to love ourselves more than we love others, to act in our own self-interest, to refuse to welcome others into our embrace.
Yet the gift of God – the gift of reconciliation that God offers us – is the gift not only of complete acceptance, of open invitation, of a welcome so exuberant that God would run down the street and fling the divine arms around us at even the thought that we might return home.
It is not only that incredible gift of love, but more still. It is the gift of letting that love come to life in us. As we open our hearts to God, as we allow God’s love to welcome us, that love begins to take root in our hearts and grow. We can’t love others enough under our own power, but God can love them through us. And God’s hope for us is that not only will we accept the love God gives us, but that we will begin to learn to give it away to others, letting God’s love shine in us and through us, pouring out of us into all the people around us.
We cannot love others as we love ourselves – but God can. And God can love them through us.
A few years ago there was a story in the news. Julio Diaz was on his way home from his work in NYC to his home in the Bronx. He got off the subway and a teenager put a knife against his ribs and demanded all his money. Diaz gave him his wallet, then as the teenager turned to go, something in him made him say, “Hey, aren’t you cold, don’t you want my jacket too?”
The kid turned and looked at him in shock, and Diaz said, “Well, if you’re desperate enough to need my money, maybe you’re hungry too – want to come have dinner?”
Together, they went to the diner where Diaz ate every night, the owner and all the employees stopped by the table to talk. The kid asked if Diaz owned the place, and he said, “No, but I come here a lot.”
The kid said, “But they all treat you like a celebrity.”
Diaz said, “That’s because I treat them nice, didn’t anyone ever tell you that that’s what you were supposed to do?”
The kid said, “Yes, but I didn’t think anyone really did it.”
They finished their meal, and Diaz said, “Well, I don’t have any money, so it looks like you’re going to have to buy dinner. Unless you want to give me back my wallet, then I’ll be happy to buy your dinner.”
The kid turned it over. Diaz paid for dinner and then gave the kid $20, but he said he wanted something in exchange – he wanted the kid’s knife. The teenager reached into his pocket, took it out and handed it over.
Julio Diaz was a man who understood how to let God’s love live in him. He understood the nature of forgiveness, he knew how to look at a person as a beloved child of God.
We are all called to be that person of love. That doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to be victims, but it means that we always watch for the chance to love when we can – in our personal lives, in our work lives, in our communities.
God gives us the gift of love, and it is one gift that grows as we give it away. Because love comes to us free, from the author of love, the one who always welcomes us home, and throws a party when we arrive, and tells us not to stand out in the cold, but come on in and celebrate.
Sermons by Susan Snook prior to 2013 can be found on her old sermon blog, here.