2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

At a youth group cookout at another church, I turned around from the grill to see Sarah and Lucy sitting together on the church lawn. I saw Ryan (Sarah’s older brother) sitting alone, about ten feet away. So I asked what Ryan would have to do to qualify to sit with Sarah and Lucy. What would make him cool enough to join them? To which Ryan answered, “No, I’m starting the new cool table.” Sarah protested, “He can sit with us,” and she and Lucy came over to sit with Ryan. And there we sat, one big happy family, right? I doubt it. This was a small church group, so the boundaries were very flexible, but it doesn’t work that way in real life (by which I mean middle school).

We define ourselves by the company we keep, by whom we work and socialize with, and most of all, whom we eat with. You know the rules as well as those middle-schoolers did. When you go into a party – say a church dinner, or a reception without assigned seating – you scan the room looking for the correct place to sit. That’s not just because there are unfamiliar people there and we’re shy, and it’s not a question of our being extraverts or introverts. Even assuming that the energy in the room works for you, there is some complicated social math to be done. Who fits your status? What message would sitting with one person or excluding another person send to the other people in your life? One reason I love working with middle schoolers is that middle school never ends. It always matters with whom you will sit, even when we pretend it doesn’t.

Jesus tells us stories about the kingdom of God, which he sees in Luke as a joyful party for all people. It’s the kind of celebration that turns our world upside down. Jesus’ stories challenge our need to make careful decisions about whom we’ll welcome at the table, who can be at our party. This isn’t about whether we like or dislike people socially – of course we’ll be closer to or farther from various people for various reasons. But we also make more loaded judgments between people. Whether we enjoy a person or not, there’s also a question about who is good enough to belong at our table. Time and again, Jesus tells stories about God that reverse our judgments, because God welcomes us all at heaven’s table.

We typically call this story “The Prodigal Son.” ‘Prodigal’ refers to the son’s extravagant, wasteful life before returning home, but if you look closely, you see that his father is the real spendthrift here. The father had no obligation to give a third of his property to his son while he was still alive, but he apparently did so without complaining. And he was definitely under no obligation to take that son back as an employee, let alone as a son, but he did so with joy. He threw a fantastic party in his son’s honor without even waiting for a proper apology from that son, who had wished him dead and wasted his life.

Jesus seems to be suggesting that God’s party is for the lost, and that people are invited to the party even before they’re found. John Newton wrote one of our favorite hymns in response to that sense of being met on the road before he can even get back home. It’s not just that the door was left open for a proper repentance, but the son was embraced and kissed before he even said a word! The party was so gratuitous that the father had to go make amends with the older son, who was offended because just anyone was welcome at his table.

We tend to identify the father in this story as God. That lets us fit in nicely as one or the other son, depending on whether we feel repentant or faithful. But as I read the other two stories in this chapter, today I think that this story is about Jesus and the  church, not just about the God Jesus otherwise called “Abba.” I’m not sure that God is a visible person in this story. Jesus is answering a question about himself, and I think he casts the father as himself. So the father is also us in the church, because our role is to carry on Christ’s ministry. This story is supposed to be about us. Maybe we as individuals enter church like one of the the sons, repentant or always-faithful, but the church is the one who “owns” the table.

I never say that on Communion Sundays, of course, because this is ultimately not our table, but in the world’s terms, of course it is. We make the mortgage payments, we set the membership standards, we decide in human terms who qualifies to sit with us here. Our authority in daily life may be lower than it used to be, because your Christian affiliation is not the only social identity that matters anymore, but the church still has a strong moral voice. We still have the power to say who gets “the stamp of divine approval,” because the world (perhaps in spite of itself) still identifies us with God.

When the younger son returned, his father had the authority to decide whether or not to receive him. His status as a son depended on the choice of his father. That’s not how the legalities of paternity work anymore (and that’s a very good thing), but it was basically true in that time and place. It’s still very true in the life of the church. We have this incredible authority to tell the world who God’s people are and who can belong at our table. When we talk about God’s family, the world still listens. Whatever influence we have during the other six days of the week, we define God’s reality here. So it matters deeply when we include people who have mental illnesses, or scars from divorce, or unusual images of God. It matters more than we can imagine whether we make room at the table for homeless youth, gay or lesbian folks, military personnel, or people who can’t move around as well as the rest of us.

We have the humbling authority to say who God’s people are. Much of the world gives us that status in exchange for the work we must do to represent God. God gives us that status as ambassadors (Paul’s word), because our basic identity is as representatives of God’s deeper reality in the world. We bear the message of reconciliation, that “God made all human beings God’s friends through Christ.” We say that. We’re ambassadors of that message, and this is the embassy. This is the banquet hall and we get to host. Like the father in Jesus’ story, we get to go out on the road, name both of the lost brothers as our children, and give them a place at the banquet. We give ourselves to both, the semi-repentant wastrels and the self-righteous status hounds.

And where is God in this? God’s in the kitchen, I think. God is setting the table, fattening the prize calf, preparing the dinner. God has this celebration all ready to go, just waiting for us to find God’s reconciliation within ourselves. God is all ready to dim the lights and strike up the band, just as soon as we invite someone new to the party.