“Today, as I read this familiar story one more time, the question at the front of my mind is this: how do we know it is time to celebrate?… In some ways, this is a question that we have been asking ourselves throughout the past two years during the pandemic…. How do we know when to take off our masks – eat, dance, and hug our loved ones again?… How do we know when to celebrate, with an awareness of all that is lost?”
Sermon Preached: Sunday, March 27, 2022 at Trinity on the Green
May I speak in the name of God, who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Most of us know today’s story very well, the story of the prodigal son. We know how the younger son asked for his inheritance early; how he traveled to a foreign land and spent everything. We know how he was caught up in other forces of bad luck, living through a famine. We know how he finally decided to return to his father, in a moment of clarity amidst the pigs, rummaging in the mud for food.
We know how the son’s father reacted upon his surprise return. We know all about the party his father hosted; the excellent catering – including a fatted calf. And we know how the prodigal’s older brother responded to it all: with pent up anger, resentment, and frustration. He chose the more responsible path, not unlike that other famous pair of siblings in the Gospels, Martha and Mary. And what did he get for it? In the older son’s eyes: nothing. No party, no fatted calf, no compliments or affirmations of “well done, my son.”
The father in the story does not bend or break beneath his older son’s frustration. Instead he simply says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Today, as I read this familiar story one more time, the question at the front of my mind is this: how do we know it is time to celebrate? After all, that is what irks the older son the most – that as soon as the prodigal son returns, his father throws a party. This party adds insult to injury; insult upon all those years when the older son was doing his duty. It’s this party that hurts the older son the most, and the fact that the father stands behind it completely.
In some ways, this is a question that we have been asking ourselves throughout the past two years during the pandemic. How do we know when it is time to celebrate? How do we know when this pandemic is over? How do we know when to take off our masks – eat, dance, and hug our loved ones again? There have ups and downs – and we cannot forget that there have been almost one million deaths in the United States alone from this coronavirus pandemic. How do we know when to celebrate, with an awareness of all that is lost? How do we know when to celebrate, when we have become all too aware that the future is uncertain? Did you celebrate last summer, in that brief window before the Delta variant spread around the country? Do we celebrate now, as mask guidance has been relaxed throughout our municipalities and even in our own church? These are complicated questions. And they remind me, in many ways, of the story of the prodigal son.
Surely there are people in our congregation who feel like that older son, right now. I know I sometimes do. Surely there are people who feel like they took the responsible route. They wore masks faithfully, avoided crowded spaces in times of high viral transmission. They postponed vacations and family gatherings, and all for a very good reason – for the love of their neighbors. For the protection of their loved ones, and strangers, and yes, themselves. They were good stewards of the inheritance their Father gave them. If you resonate with any of these things, perhaps you have a good sense of how the older brother was feeling when the prodigal son returned from his wayward travels, only to be welcomed with open arms and a giant party. Why should he get to celebrate? Why should he be rewarded when you have been patient and responsible for so long?
I think there are two issues at the heart of the older son’s frustration – that same frustration that we ourselves can feel, from time to time. The first issue is this: the love of the father was never influenced by whether or not his sons deserved his love. The father’s love is unconditional. And that means that the younger son can make all kinds of mistakes, he can act selfishly and he can squander his fortune, and it doesn’t make the father love him any less. It also means that the older brother could make his father ridiculously proud; he could double his inheritance and create a better world for himself and his community – and still the father would love him just as much as he was loved before.
Like the father in the story, God’s love is unconditional. There is nothing we could do that would make God love us less. But, on the other hand, there is nothing we could do that would make God love us more. We don’t earn God’s love – it is freely given. We can certainly act in ways that please God, or in ways that bring God anger or sadness. Yet at the end of the day, God’s love for us does not grow or diminish. It is a constant. And the amount of God’s love is more abundant than we could ever quantify.
It’s hard for us humans to wrap our minds around this truth. We are all too prone to love based on like, or to hate based on dislike. But whenever we choose to love based on these preferences, we are all squandering the gift that God has given us – a gift of love that has no bounds. By this standard, even the responsible older son has squandered his inheritance, by holding back his love for his younger brother. Ultimately love is the greatest inheritance that we have from God. Not wealth, or land, or talent, or luck. Love is our greatest inheritance. And we cannot miss an opportunity to share it – even with those people whom it is hard, at times, to love.
There is a second issue at the heart of the older son’s frustration, and that issue is this: the older son believes that the father has shown his brother preference, because of this great celebration that the father hosts upon his return. And yet – the father never put a limit on when it is right to celebrate. The older son assumes that the act of celebration, like his father’s love, is a limited commodity. And yet this is simply not true. Let’s take a look again at what the father actually says. He says: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
The father says “we had to celebrate.” His son’s return is a perfect opportunity to celebrate! And yet that does not preclude other celebrations. In fact the father says, “all that is mine is yours” – suggesting that there were always opportunities to celebrate, along the way. The older son simply did not recognize them.
The father never put a limit on when it is right to celebrate. I think this insight holds true for us, as well. Celebration is not a limited commodity. Rather, celebration is a gift freely given if we reach out and accept it. Celebration is an opportunity to be grateful; to gather together and mark the blessings of this life in good times and in hard times. And yet, so often, we act as if celebration is limited to a particular time or place. We assume that we can only celebrate on birthdays, anniversaries, or graduations. We assume that we can only celebrate how far we have come through this pandemic when it is finally over. And yet – celebration is not a limited commodity. And neither is it an excuse for reckless abandon or selfish behavior! Celebration is, at its heart, an act of gathering and paying attention. The origin of our English word celebrate is the Latin, celebrare, meaning to “assemble to honor.” There is no limit to how often we can do this. We may need to gather differently, in times of high risk or uncertainty – and yet the opportunity is always there. The opportunity to celebrate.
It is no mistake that the verb that Christians have used for centuries to describe what happens at the table of Holy Communion is that very same word: celebrare, celebrate. We call the person who presides at the table “the Celebrant.” And we are all parties to this activity; we celebrate communion together. For me, communion is perhaps the best answer to the question we started with today: how do we know when to celebrate? The answer is: often. Always. Every Sunday, if we can, as a reminder that we are called to celebrate in good times and in hard times. We celebrate communion on special occasions, like weddings. And we celebrate communion in the most vulnerable times, at the bedside of one who is dying. We celebrate. That is part of our identity as Christians. We celebrate, even in the face of sickness. We celebrate, even in the face of death. We celebrate, even in the face of war that is disrupting so many lives in Ukraine, and in other countries that face ongoing violence around the world.
Make no mistake: this celebration does not mean we take suffering lightly. This celebration does not mean we accept injustice in the world. This celebration does not mean we are always popping the champagne cork and roasting the fatted calf. The celebration that we are called to is a celebration of gathering, and honoring. It is a celebration that can look like our church services on a Sunday morning. But it can also look like gathering at a demonstration in solidarity with Ukraine on the New Haven Green. It can also look like holding a vigil, at the bedside of someone who is dying. It can also look like praying with your family before dinner on a regular old weekday evening. The celebration we are called to is vast, and varied. But it is always a call to increased attention. It is always a call to gratitude. It is always a call to reach out to someone else, in love.
The older brother of the prodigal son missed his opportunity to celebrate, not only on the day when his brother returned, but on many days leading up to that moment. How would our lives be transformed if we celebrated more often? Again, I’m not necessarily talking about throwing more parties. I’m talking about the attitude of celebration. The action of pausing to assemble, and to honor. This practice can transform our lives – making us stronger, more attentive, more loving, more ready to work for justice and peace in our communities and around the world. And there is no limit to how often we can celebrate.
Even on the night before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus celebrated with his friends around a table. And even in this penitential season of Lent, in this season of war and uncertainty, in this season of waning pandemic – we celebrate. Go forth into the world in peace today: to assemble and to honor, to love and to celebrate, to seek out the lost and to let yourself be found, in good times and in hard times. Amen.