Monday, March 7, 2016

Sermon: "It's Not Fair!"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
March 6, 2016 – Fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“It’s Not Fair!”

Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau.
Isaac and Ishmael. Moses and Aaron.
The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of sibling rivalry – brothers who fought over birthright, inheritance, and who was truly the favored one.

Joseph’s brothers threw him in a ditch and sold him into slavery.
And when the prophet Samuel lined up the son’s of Jesse to choose Israel’s next King, he went down the line and rejected every single one of them except for the youngest, a small boy named David who was barely old enough to tend the sheep…leaving David’s brothers incensed because an inexperienced child had been chosen over them.

Often when we read the ancient stories in our Old and New Testaments – with their emphasis on shepherds and Pharisees and obscure religious laws - we have to perform some mental gymnastics to tease out a meaning that we can relate to our own lives, here in our modern world.

But the story of the Prodigal Son is one we can relate to in any time.
It’s a story of rejection, and resentment, and reconciliation.
In this story of a father and his two sons we have the story of our human condition. 
Our desire to love, our desire to be loved,
and our fear that there isn’t enough love to go around.

Those of us who have siblings know first hand what it’s like to compete for love, attention, and favor.
Regardless of where we fall in the birth order, most of us have at one time or another felt like we were not getting our fair share, or that someone else was getting more than they deserved – whether we’re talking about the size of a piece of birthday cake, financial support in times of need, or the praise or approval of our mother or father that we so long to have.

As many of you know, I have nine siblings.
In a family with ten children, it’s almost a given that someone is going to feel slighted in some way or another at any given time.

My younger brother Larry and I just missed out on being “Irish Twins”  - we were born just over a year apart. I was number nine and he was number ten. Which means he had quickly and permanently stolen my thunder as the baby in the family.
We were rivals from the beginning.
When Larry was 2 and I was 3, my mother plopped him down on the living room floor in front of the TV to keep him quiet for 5 minutes while she went to fold the laundry.
And I seized upon the opportunity to grab a large can of cookies off the kitchen table…and sneak up behind Larry and drop it on his head.

In the ensuing years, my poor mother heard a chorus of “It’s not fair!” coming from one or both of us, nearly every waking hour.
We’d scrutinize everything from how much cereal we each had poured in our bowls, to who got control of the TV after school, to who got more of my mother’s very limited attention. 
And like any competitive sibling, I would delight whenever Larry got into trouble. The sight of him running down the driveway with my mother quick on his heels swatting at him with the back of her giant hairbrush brought tears of joy to my eyes.

Of course I rarely took into account that in addition to me, poor Larry had our three older brothers to contend with. Unlike my sisters, my brothers were masters of torment. There was the time they woke Larry up really early on a Sunday morning and convinced him that he was late for school. He had his school uniform on and was half way out the door before he caught on.

When we have siblings we learn at an early age that we are not the center of the universe.
But as children with or without siblings, we’re all taught that it’s in our best interest to share with others, despite the resentment we may feel when someone takes or receives what we think rightfully belongs to us.
Still, it may surprise us to hear that studies of young children have shown that human beings are more naturally inclined to be altruistic than selfish.

Studies of 18-month-old toddlers show that they will almost always try to help someone who is visibly struggling with a task, without being asked to do so: if someone is reaching for something, the toddler will try to hand it to them, or if they see someone drop something accidentally, they will pick it up and hand it back.
Another study found that 3- to 5-year-olds who are rewarded with stickers or candy for performing a task with a partner, tend to give a greater share of the reward to their partner if the partner has done more work — again, without being asked — and even if it means they get to keep less for themselves.

So perhaps our inborn inclination to cry, “It’s not fair!” has less to do with our selfishness, and more to do with our sense of equity.
We don’t want more than our fair share, we just want each of us to be given what we feel is deserved.         Unfortunately, our perception of what is deserved and what is not deserved is not always accurate.

The fear that the resources and rewards of life are out of balance or unfairly distributed is what lies behind most of our human conflicts – both on a personal and communal scale.
And it’s this fear of imbalance that weaves its way through Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son.

One son – the younger son - demands his inheritance be given to him while his father is still alive.           
Jesus doesn’t tell us why.
We might assume that the younger son is just itching to get away, and he needs money to do it.
Perhaps he’s bored with life on the farm, or he has no desire to be a part of the family business, or he’s tired of being compared to his hard-working older brother and being made to feel like a disappointment in life.

Whatever the reason, the younger son takes his inheritance, runs off to a faraway land and squanders it all on dissolute living – which is meant to suggest he spent it all on partying, prostitutes, and other primal pleasures. 
When his money is gone and a famine spreads over the land, the younger son takes a job feeding pigs, and winds up envying not just the pigs for their slop, but the slaves back on his father’s farm.
So he concocts a plan – He will return to his father with his head hung low and spouting a well-rehearsed plea for forgiveness.

What happens next may surprise some -
when the father runs out to meet his Prodigal Son and wraps his arms around him in welcome.

It may not be surprising it you’re a parent of a child who has messed up on occasion – either in small ways or big ways.
We don’t stop loving our children – or stop welcoming them home with open arms– just because they’ve made bad choices in life.

But the father’s exuberant welcome may be surprising if we’ve ever had someone in our life who habitually makes bad choices, and never seems to learn from the consequences.
A child, a sibling, a parent, a spouse, a friend – Someone who always seems to need help out of a jam, mostly of their own making.
Someone who hangs out with the wrong crowd, or runs from responsibility, or who doesn’t have enough self control to stop spending all their money on frivolous things or taking unnecessary risks in life.
Someone who habitually lies, cheats, or never seems to get the message that if they keep putting harmful substances in their body they’re going to destroy their lives, and the lives of those around them.
Even if we understand the trappings of behavior disorders, mental illness, and addiction, when it latches onto someone we love we can’t avoid getting caught up in trail of sorrow and pain that it leaves behind.

We all have our breaking points.
The point where the Prodigal Son returns home pleading for forgiveness, for the umpteenth time, and we’re fresh out of compassion and sympathy.

Those of us who have experienced that breaking point, may identify more with the older brother in the story than the father.
Especially when it’s obvious that the younger brother is not sincere in his show of remorse.
He’s only come home because he’s run out of money and he’s hungry.
Yet the father still insists on greeting him with robes and rings and throwing a party in his honor.

Even as toddlers we seem to innately know, this is not fair.

So what point is Jesus trying to make with this parable?

Traditionally, we’re apt to see the father in this story as representing God, and we are the Prodigal Son.
God loves us and welcomes us home, no matter what we’ve done.
And no matter how many times we come seeking forgiveness, it’s always ours for the taking.

In this interpretation, we are the older brother as well.
When we hold on to judgment and spite.
When we’re overly concerned with getting rewarded for our right behavior, and seeing others punished for wrong behavior.

When we believe that our father’s love – God’s love – is limited and there’s only so much to go around, and we become resentful when that love is given to those we believe are unworthy, because it means there’s less for those of us who have rightfully earned it.

But perhaps this story that Jesus tells us about fathers and sons in not just an allegory about our relationship with God and how we encounter God’s love….perhaps it was also meant to be about the relationships we build with each other – and the love that we feel or withhold from one another - as well.

One might say all three characters in the story have lost something.
The father has lost both his sons – one to rejection, and one to resentment.
The son who walked away has lost his home and sense of belonging.
The son who stayed has lost his trust in the fairness of life and the breadth of his father’s love.

Many of us have been on all sides of this relationship at some point in our lives.
We’ve been the one to turn our back in anger on someone who has hurt us.
We’ve been the one who has done the hurting, and at some point we’ve had to reconcile our wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness.
We’ve been the one who continues to offer forgiveness to those we love, regardless of how many times it has been asked for and offered, and how many times our trust has been betrayed.

We do this because God created us as relational beings.
We long to live in relation to one another – to be connected to one another, but we struggle with those relationships because human love, unlike divine love, is not limitless and it is not unconditional.

We mess up. We reject love and we withhold love in response to pain.
We resent those whom we judge to have not earned the rewards they’ve been given.
We feel compelled to take and hold onto more than our fair share, out of fear that there won’t be enough to go around.
Thus we live in a constant state of reconciliation.
We hurt one another, we seek forgiveness and grace, we offer forgiveness and grace.
We turn away, and we turn back.  We turn away, and we turn back.
This is the dance we do with one another.
As siblings, as parents and children, as spouses, as friends, as members of a community, as citizens of this world.

But reconciliation can’t happen unless both parties participate.  
With each taking a step towards the other.
It involves a willingness to swallow our pride and return home, and a willingness to leave the door open for the one who seeks to return.

This is the challenge that Christ has given us in the story of the Prodigal Son.
The challenge to be as generous with our love and our grace towards one another, as God is with us.

We won’t always get it right – and we’re not expected to.
But amazing Grace, how sweet it sounds, when we do.

Thanks be to God.

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