I called the children up front and set a plastic tub in front of them… filled with balls of colorful Play-Doh. Every child took a piece and immediately began to roll them between their hands, squish, form, and do everything else possible with Play-Doh.
I talked about how in the scripture for the day, we would hear about compassion. And that the Greek word for compassion is σπλαγχνίζομαι, or as I shortened it, splackna. I gripped my stomach as I said it, because what it means, I told them, is to have your insides all twisted up. You go, I said: “Splat!” And I squished my Play-Doh ball between my hands. We all did, and said together, Splackna! Squish. Splat.
This is what happens, I told them (and their parents) -- when we love someone, when we care about them, and we see that they are hurting, our insides go splat. They get all twisted up. Splackna.
And that hurts us. But it’s also okay, because it means we love someone and care about them. And sometimes we need to be splackna’ed. That’s the only way that dough -- I held up my ball -- can be made into bread. Getting splatted and twisted is the only way to mix dough well enough to eat it.
So then we took some communion bread I had made -- molasses and flour and honey and olive oil, all splackna’ed together -- and we ate, and remembered how sometimes we need to be a little twisted up.
Scripture: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’
Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
Then the father said to him, ‘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.’ "
We call this the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus tells this story right after the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin; we heard them last week. The Pharisees and scribes are unimpressed because Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. So he says, “Let me tell you a story about a shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep. Let me tell you a story about a woman who searches the house for her lost coin. And let me tell you the story of the prodigal son.”
It’s a beloved story from the gospels, this beautiful tale of repentance and forgiveness. It connects to something deep in us. There’s a universal longing for broken families to be mended, for people who are lost to come home and for the party to start.
We call this the story of the Prodigal Son, and almost everyone knows what story that is. “Prodigal” has come to mean, in a lot of ways, repentant: it’s the word for someone who realizes their mistake and comes home. What it really means is wasteful, extravagant, overspending. We call this the story of the Prodigal Son, because the younger son wastes his money until he starves. We know this story. Except for the little tiny problem that this story has no ending.
Then the father said to him, “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.”
...And then what? What does the older brother do? Maybe he stays in the yard, arms folded, brow furrowed, his whole body declaring “There’s no way I’m going in.” Maybe this backyard scene is just a prelude to years of family gatherings with this tense and palpable resentment, a taste of bitterness in the celebratory wine.
We don’t know. Jesus doesn’t tell us. It’s not very good storytelling, really. He doesn’t wrap up the plotlines. We’ve got character arcs that don’t get resolved. We call this the story of the Prodigal Son and maybe it gets shelved right next to TV shows like The Sopranos and movies like Inception. We don’t know how it ends. And that leaves us a little queasy.
We want to know how it ends. Because this is a story that gets us right in the gut. For me it feels like a hook in the chest, the longer I think about it: this story of the Prodigal Son, of greed and waste, of hunger and pain, of the long journey home, of the wide open arms of the father. I am a sucker for this story, and I don’t think I am alone in that. When the father is filled with compassion, and hikes up his robes and runs, and throws his arms around his lost son’s neck and kisses him -- that gets me, right here, because I have known so many people who are lost and are trying to find their way home. And I have been that prodigal son, too. When all our fear and worry and starvation and self-hatred are bundled up on our shoulders. And in that moment when the father’s arms go around me the only thing I can do is drop everything that’s been weighing me down. And it is beautiful. It is grace.
But it isn’t the end of the story.
There is still the older son, working like a slave in the fields, working twice as hard since his shiftless younger brother left. He is coming home too -- coming home after a long day, sweaty, dirty, exhausted, starving, thirsty. His hands are blistered and raw. And his father killed the fatted calf for that stupid younger brother who took off with half the family fortune.
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.
We call this the story of the Prodigal Son, and it leaves us without an ending, because we want to know: what happens to the other son?
Both sons, in their own way, are lost. Both sons are caught up in the net of sin. When Martin Luther talked about sin, he didn’t talk about specific acts but about a state of being: that sin was, in Latin, incurvatus se. Inward curved. Curved in on oneself. Focused on what I want, what I do, what I’m owed. Father, give me my share of the property. For all these years I have been working like a slave for you. Luther understood the gospel to be about our relationship with God and with our neighbor, and so the thing that all sin had in common was this inward curving. So focused on myself, on what I have or what I want, how good I think I am or how bad, how hard I work or how well I can humble myself, on getting what I want or think I deserve … and my world gets very, very small.
I can get lost in there. Like a sheep separated from ninety-nine others. Like a silver coin rolled in a dark and dusty corner. Like a younger son starving in a faraway land, or an older son with his back turned and his arms crossed.
And then in breaks grace, this abundant and ridiculous mercy and love, and there’s a party and celebration and drinking and amazing food, and it explodes into that little curved-in world with a force that is almost destructive. It’s hard for something to stay small and hold that much joy.
See, we call this the story of the Prodigal Son, but I think we’ve named it wrong. If prodigal means extravagant and wasteful, then isn’t this the story of the Prodigal Father?
A father who hands over a son’s share of the family fortune. Who gives him the money and lets him go. Who waits and watches and then runs, arms and legs windmilling, down the road to is dirty and rail-thin and pig-smelling son. A father who shouts for the best robe and the family ring and says, “My son who was lost is found.”
A father who works alongside his son. Who does not let his love for the younger make him forget the elder. Who looks around the party and sees that his son is missing, and runs, pleading and hoping, into the yard where the older son refuses to come in. A father who looks another lost son in the eye and says “All that I have is yours.”
This is the prodigal. Pouring out family riches and fatted calves in excess. This is extravagant, wasteful love. This is a prodigal father.
And Jesus doesn’t tell us the end of his story, because the ending isn’t what’s important. The Pharisees and scribes didn’t say, “Tell us a story with a beginning and a middle and an end.” They said, “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” And Jesus said, “Let me tell you a story about a shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep. Let me tell you a story about a woman who searches the house for her lost coin. And let me tell you the story of the prodigal father, of the man who wastefully and extravagantly poured out love and mercy and hope.”
They say, “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” And Jesus says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep, the coin, the son that was lost. Let me tell you about abundance, about celebration, about joy that breaks into the smallness of ourselves. Let me tell you a story about grace.”
Jesus doesn’t tell them the end of the story. Not then. Because the story of grace takes much longer to tell. The end of the story comes much later, on a dark Thursday night in Jerusalem, when Jesus takes a loaf of bread from the table and says, “This is my body, given for you.”
This is the pinnacle of waste and extravagance: that God is this in love with us. That God slipped on skin and walked among us. God, the creator of the universe, the liberator of the Hebrew slaves, the God who time and time again loved people even when they were broken and sinful and human. This God was born as a tiny, helpless child in a stable in Bethlehem. And God in skin, as Jesus, walked among us, healing and teaching, telling stories without good endings, knowing that his message of love and mercy would lead him into rejection and hatred and death. And in the face of all of that, he gathered his beloved disciples together, took a loaf of bread, and said, “This is my body, given for you.”
We have repeated his words for two thousand years. I can’t tell you what happens at communion. That is beyond my capacity to understand. I don’t know why, or how, or what. I know there isn’t any magic. It’s still bread and wine. After worship, it is just bread and wine, and we can eat the extra pieces and pour out the leftovers. I don’t know what happens at communion, in the moment when bread and wine stop being just bread and wine. But I know that when I take the bread and look into someone’s eyes and hear “This is the body of Christ, given for you”... I know that Jesus just showed up. The God who slipped on skin and poured out everything, even life, to tell us about grace and love, is reaching out for me, for you, for us, just as much as I am reaching for the bread. God is reaching into that small space, into all the places I am curved in on myself, and holding out pure grace.
The communion table is a place of waste and extravagance. A place where love and mercy mix up with logic and mystery. A place where we hold bread and wine, ordinary and common things, and say: There is something here that is more than what it seems. We don’t know how. But this is God, for you, right here, right now.
This is the table of the prodigal father, where God is doling out love in abundance and it is all we can do to keep up, pouring wine and breaking bread. This is the place where God takes action, where God reaches out, where the father throws his arms around the younger son and stretches his pleading hands out to the older. This is the feast for sinners and tax collectors, a promise of salvation, an offering over and over: This is for you, for you, for you. This is Jesus. For you.
Come to the table of mercy.