Besides looking frighteningly realistic, Madden quarterbacks are listed as “predictable” or “unpredictable,” with the former being a positive trait. More below (and what the heck Madden has to do with the Prodigal Son).
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Every Sunday in Lent, I’m tackling one of the five values that we chose at our first congregational retreat to represent our congregation. First Sunday: sacramental. Second Sunday: inclusive. Third Sunday: generous.
Today, the season of Lent gives me a gift. Today is Laetare Sunday. “Laetare” is the first word of the Latin mass for today: “rejoice.” As luck would have it, one of our values is “joyful.”
Today, four Sundays into Lent, our ancestors in faith figured that we might be feeling a little weary of all the fasting and repenting. So they would deck out the altar and the clergy in pink instead of purple, representing the whole repentance and “feeling sorry” thing getting lighter.
In today’s Gospel, you’ve got a familiar story if you’ve been doing this church thing for a good length of time. Even if you haven’t, our culture sometimes refers to “prodigal sons” anyway, when someone who has gone away comes back. We know the basic plot of this story Jesus tells: a son demands his whole inheritance from his father and goes away, blows his whole inheritance on “dissolute living.” The Greek word is “asotos,” in case you care, and in the whole New Testament, it’s only used this one time in Luke. It means something between and including “immoral” and “wasteful.” Point is, the dude ran through his money in a short amount of time, and soon, he finds himself as a poor laborer in a foreign country, wishing he could eat what the pigs were eating. To say that this would’ve been a low point for any of us, but especially for a first century Jew, is an understatement. So he decides to go back and work for his dad. You know the rest of the story because we just read it: his dad doesn’t even wait for his son to get all the way down the road. The old man runs to meet his son.
It should be noted that in the culture that these folks inhabited, running was an absolutely undignified act. Whenever I tell some people that I am a runner, they look at me in a way that tells me that it is still an undignified act.
Adults in those days did not run. Running was for children. As an adult, you ran if you were trying to escape from something. That’s about it.
So it would have been shocking to Jesus’ first hearers that this man of means — enough means to give his son his inheritance ahead of time — ran to his sorry, no-good son. But he does. And the father throws a feast of absolutely offensive grace. It’s especially offensive to the guy’s older brother, who has been here working for his father the whole time, being the “good son.”
The whole thing is at once joyful, messy, scandalous, and offensive. And, if you know anything about Jesus, it’s also an entirely predictable story for him to tell when he is confronted about hanging out with “sinners.”
If you’ve talked to me recently, you know that I’ve got two relatively new hobbies. The first, apropos of nothing, is CrossFit. The second is probably its exact opposite: playing video games.
We’re coming back to the prodigal son, I promise.
You see, I’m currently particularly enamored with the Madden football games. Some months back, I created a quarterback for my Patriots franchise based on a popular and talented college player. It turns out, you see, that Brady lasts for awhile, but not forever, and I wanted to be prepared.
In creating my quarterback, something struck me: “predictability” was a positive trait. It turns out to be true both in sports and in life: a quarterback is a leader, and a good leader is usually predictable, at least to their teammates.
If you’ve played sports, or even if you hate sports, you can figure out why “predictability” is good rather easily: a predictable quarterback is one who gives few-to-no surprises to his teammates in tense moments. He is calm, and his teammates can practically read his mind and know what he is going to do and help him do it. Good leaders are predictable, at least to those on their team.
It works, as I said, in sports and in life: I would be a terrible pastor if, when you presented me with a problem, you didn’t know whether I was going to be kind about it or kick you in the shins.
Patriots players, too, know what is expected of them because Bill Belichick is a stable leader: we all know that he’s a person who values routine and sacrifice and hard work. Those expectations don’t change on a whim. He is predictable.
In the same way, if you think of the worst bosses you’ve worked for, it’s likely that they could be unpredictable: their expectations might change frequently. Their moods might shift on a whim. They might respond to your email or they might not.
The lesson is pretty clear and reliable: bad leaders are unpredictable, but good leaders are steady.
It’s no secret that the father in the prodigal son story is meant to be God. That’s the way we’ve interpreted it for centuries and likely exactly how Jesus meant it to be heard. The father in the story has been lauded for many things: he’s generous, he’s trusting, he’s not afraid to make a fool of himself, he’s loving, he’s full of grace.
He’s also predictable; his sons just don’t see it at first.
Think about it: from beginning to end, this man is the same father he’s always been. But his sons, both of them, expect something different. They expect their father to suddenly be vengeful, to ask for repayment, to let his son come back, maybe — but only after he works hard for it.
I don’t have to tell you that people do the same thing with God.
“I’ll go back to church,” they say, “when I get my life together.” Someday becomes the time that they will return to religious community, get their lives together, and start to do the things they want to do and live their lives fully. And someday never comes, because they — we — never feel “good enough.” When we finally do come back, if we come back, we expect wrath. Hence all of the jokes people tell about the church roof collapsing if they ever walk in.
But that’s not who the prodigal son’s father is. That’s not who God is.
You know, we should really know that by now. God isn’t an unpredictable, capricious, bad leader. God is the same as always, just like the father in Jesus’ story.
God is the one who is fine with being undignified as God sprints towards the returning child. Then God throws a party, not because of who the child is or anything they’ve done, but because of who God is. And while God is unknowable, God is also, like any good leader, predictable. We need not worry ourselves wondering how God will respond to our return to grace. The answer is always the same.
God is love. Everything is grace. Everything is love. God knows what every parent knows: everything is joy when the children finally come home.
Like a good quarterback, when things go amiss, you can bet on which way God will move. The answer is towards you. God is always moving towards us to make us new, over and over and over again. We screw it up, God makes us new. Death and resurrection — a painful, joyful, predictable cycle.
If you think about it, the Eucharist is a feast like the one the father throws in the story. We all return, week after week, after failing and getting up and failing again, and God joyfully throws a feast for us, every single time.
A wise Our Savior’s person once said in a council meeting, and I’m paraphrasing here: “The Lord’s work should not be torture.” You, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, believe this in your bones: church should be a place of joy.
We do God’s work not because we have to, but because we believe in the crazy kind of grace in the prodigal son story. We are joyful. It’s not the kind of fake joy where you feel obligated to pretend that everything is okay when it’s not, either. It’s real joy. The kind that dresses up in silly costumes for Easter Vigil and makes balloon animals for council meetings and has fun at church just because we love one another and because God loves us. The kind that knows love, and therefore knows it’s okay to laugh in church. Sometimes a lot.
And every time we gather here, there’s a feast. It’s a feast that God throws for us. Because we were lost, but now we’re found. Because we left, went about our weeks, and we failed, over and over, got up, tried some more, and failed again — and now we’ve come back. There’s always a feast to welcome us home to God and one another.
So thank you. Thank you for being joyful. Thank you for making me believe in the church even when I want to give up. Thank you for making it a joy to be your pastor. Whenever someone tells me that I must love my job, all I can offer is — “you should meet my church people. You would love your job if you were me, too.”
So let us go to the table with joy, because the feast is spread, because, like the prodigal son, we are back, again, and our God of insanely free and absolutely predictable grace is, as always, welcoming us home. Amen.