"Family Values"
Scripture - Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Sermon Preached by Anne R. Ledbetter
Sunday, March 10, 2013

Thirty years ago the religious right hijacked the term family values, declaring unequivocally that marriage is defined by a man and a woman committing themselves to one another for life, that abortion should be illegal, that women should play a traditional role in the family, and that abstinence should be taught in schools. Jesus' parable today offers a different lesson in family values, specifically God's family.

This gem of a parable is perhaps one of Jesus' best known stories. It resonates with so many life experiences: adolescent rebellion, wandering young adulthood, alienation from family, sibling rivalry, self-awakening, the perils of parenting.1 At particular points in our lives, we may identify with different characters - the wayward son, the faithful son, the disconsolate parent.

We may even have a love-hate relationship with this parable - we love the image of the forgiving father running out to embrace the son returning home, remembering those times our parents may have met us with grace rather than blame. We get a lump in our throats or queasy stomachs remembering times when we stood at the window like the father, anxiously awaiting our daughter's return home some Saturday night, hours after her curfew. And don't most of us grind our teeth with the older brother who remained faithful all this time, and who returns from a long, hard day in the fields only to discover that there is a huge party going on - not just a punch and cake kind of affair - but a shindig of extraordinary proportions - a feast of the fatted calf and exultant dancing as everyone gets in the act - circling to "Hava Nagila" and morphing into a soul train. We can almost hear Kool and the Gang's blasting forth, "Celebration! We're goin' to celebrate and have a good time."2

But is everyone able to celebrate? Notice how the parable ends with the father inviting the older brother inside. Do you think he joins the party? Will we join the party? If we go in, we accept grace as the Father's rule for life in the family. How will we respond to the invitation to join the celebration?

Jesus first told this parable to the Pharisees and scribes who criticized him for hanging out with sinners - for eating and drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus responds to such criticism with three stories in chapter 15 of Luke: The parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost (or Prodigal Son) respectively. Regrettably, whoever entitled these stories missed the point - the stories do not highlight the lost as much as they paint a picture of a God of extravagant love and extreme grace. In the first, God is the shepherd who seeks relentlessly until he finds and rescues the lost sheep, then God is a woman who searches diligently and tirelessly until she finds her lost coin. In this last parable, God is the father who waits unstintingly for his son to return home, and when the son does appear on the horizon, he dashes from the house, running down the road with his cloak waving behind him, and wraps his son in his arms.

Biblical scholar Ken Bailey helps us to get the full impact of the parable and hear it like Jesus' original audience. First, for a son to ask for his inheritance was anathema. He was essentially telling his father, "I cannot wait for you to die." The appropriate response in that culture would have been censure and punishment. But instead, this father swallows his sorrow and divides his property between his two heirs. When the younger son leaves and squanders his inheritance, the father would be expected to disown him. Instead the father waits at the window, yearning for his boy's return. Bailey also describes how villages were laid out in such a way, so that the son would have to pass other homes to get to his father's house. Such a foolish, selfish young man would be instantly cut off and publicly rebuked by society; however, the father runs to his son before any of the neighbors notice him and the father's kiss and embrace quickly squelch any social denunciation. Moreover, in directing the servants to bring his son a robe, shoes and a ring, the father reinstates his younger child as a member of the family.3

Today, many call this story "The Parable of the Prodigal Father" - for it is the father who shows recklessness in his profligate love and scandalous grace. Others refer to it as The Story of A Father and Two Sons; and what about that other heir?

If we identify with the older brother, then we probably dislike this parable. One colleague told me this week that he can't stand this story, nor the one about the day laborers who punch in at different times, but all get paid the same amount. The two parables are similar, in that they both tells us that God's love is not fair, but merciful, unconditional, unbelievably generous.

Who are we to resent God's love for others? And yet, we sometimes do. Or we quietly and unknowingly become the gatekeepers of the kingdom, the guardians of the church. In my first parish, University Presbyterian Church back in Texas, it was the church's tradition on Stewardship Dedication Sunday to serve tamales after worship, during fellowship time in the courtyard. A large group of street people, aka homeless, routinely sat along a low wall across the street, smoking cigarettes or weed, drinking sodas or beer, and begging for handouts to support their daily habits. (Can you tell that I was not one to drop a quarter in their cup?) As I saw a group of these characters make their way toward the table, lustily taking as many tamales as they could handle, I was incensed. Not only were they not part of our worshipping community, they were grungy and smelly and were about to put away our platter of tamales. I moved toward them to issue a kind but clear warning, when an elder named Peggy Simpson reached them first. Giving them a huge smile, Peggy said, "Welcome, glad you could join us today! Did you get enough? I'm sure we have plenty more." I might as well have heard God say, "Watch it, Anne. Peggy understands that these are members of my family too." Peggy was much more in touch with God's desire to welcome the outcast and celebrate the homecoming of any and all of God's children.

You may have experienced something similar here or at another church. I recall a longtime member sharing a story of a Christmas long ago. Seated in the choir loft, he noticed a young man with long hair, a beard, an earring, dressed in jeans and faded t-shirt enter from the back of the sanctuary. Though this was years after Westminster ushers wore morning coats and gloves, these gentlemen still did not know quite how to greet such a person. Meantime, the man next to my friend in the tenor section, whispered, "Can you believe it? They should throw that jerk out of here!" And the man quietly responded, "That jerk is my son." While the father may have preferred that his son dress differently, he was simply overjoyed that his son had chosen to show up for worship on Christmas Eve. Can you think of someone among your family and friends, who has wandered from the fold, become lost to the household of faith, or squandered resources in dissolute living? Or perhaps you know someone who has felt rejected by the church, condemned by the faithful, branded a heretic for unorthodox views or an alternative lifestyle. How would you want them to be received at our doors?

Look again at the front of our bulletin. Let's read the boxed print together: "Westminster Presbyterian Church extends an enthusiastic welcome, in Christ's name, to all who would worship here or join us in fellowship. We affirm that there can be no exclusion within the body of Christ. We invite all children of God to join us as disciples of Christ and participate fully in the life of our congregation."

You see, we seek to follow a revolutionary rabbi named Jesus, the one who welcomed children, taught women, touched lepers, ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, and sought to view people through the eyes of God, the lens of Love. We worship a God whose love is scandalous, whose welcome is unlimited, whose heart reaches out instinctively for the lost and lonely, the exiled and vulnerable, the condemned and cast off.

Is it possible for us to grow more like this God of radical welcome and ready celebration?

Let me tell you a story - a remarkable, true story, within our own church family, concerning a couple with three sons. Several years ago one of their sons came out as gay, explaining that he was in love and wanted to marry a man whom they had thought was simply his best friend. Well, these parents rallied from their shock, embraced their son, welcomed his partner into their family, and happily celebrated the wedding in a nearby state where gay and lesbian people can legally marry. They embodied these intrinsic traits of God's family in their own nuclear family - generous welcome, unconditional love, and joyous celebration when someone comes to himself and finds his way home.

But that's not the end of the story. Just over a year ago their youngest son confessed to them that he was transgender - in other words, his gender identity is female. He told them that not only was he in counseling, but he was beginning the process of becoming female. This time the shock was seismic, and was accompanied by hurt, loss, confusion, grief, and despair. The wife asked her husband that night, "Will I ever be happy again?" They were losing their son. How in heaven's name could they accept him as a daughter? This couple reached out to their pastors and closest friends, and got busy educating themselves on the issue of transgender. They found parents of other transgender children, they met with their son's counselor and physician. They cried. They listened to their child, and gradually they did indeed welcome a new daughter - a daughter of whom they are extremely proud and who means the world to them.

This past week this couple hosted a huge party for their daughter in their home. The evening was also a fundraising event for Equality Delaware, which is working to pass legislation in our state to protect transgender people from hate crimes and discrimination, and to enact a bill for marriage equality. This couple's lives have been turned upside down and inside out, and yet they feel like the most blessed family in the world.4

The road was anything but easy for them in the last fifteen months. Watching their hearts break, then open and stretch and heal, has been an extraordinary witness to the power of our God. A God who will not forsake her nursing child, and who runs to welcome the prodigal home. A God whose radical welcome and outlandish love continue to teach and inspire us as members of God's family. A God who values love and inclusion over judgment and rejection in the human family, in God's family.

Will we ever learn to embody such love? Some of us have; and others of us are still taking lessons.


  1. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume IX, p. 304.
  2. Inspired by the Rev. Sarah Jackson Shelton, in her sermon "There's a Party Goin' On €˜Round Here" March 18, 2007.
  3. Agnes W. Norfleet, Fourth Sunday in Lent, A Sermon Brief, The Abingdon Women's Preaching Annual (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1997.) pp. 68-69. Agnes cites two books by Ken Bailey: Poet and Peasant, and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke.
  4. Used with permission by the family.

Prayers of the People
By Gregory Knox Jones

Creator of all that is, much of the time we live as though we deserve our lives; and not only do we act as though we deserve our eyes, our ears, our breath, but we imagine that we are entitled to good health, protection from tragedy, opportunities to prosper, fair treatment, a loving family and more. We forget that we have done nothing to earn our existence and the blessings that come with it. We fail to remember that it's all a marvelous gift that comes to us by your gracious hand. Help us to come to our senses while our heart still beats and our brain cells still hum. Help us to wake up so that we do not take life for granted and squander our days chasing the false idols of hedonistic pleasure, momentary fame and mindless materialism. Alert us to our addictions that spark momentary highs but chip away at our souls so that we may return to you and the abundant life you yearn for us to experience.

Loving God, we live in a land of plenty. Yet, despite our prosperity, we find that we are often dying of hunger. Late at night when all of our electronic stimulants have been powered down and we have time to think, we wonder if this is the life you hope for us. Could the restlessness inside be a longing for happiness, for meaning, for love, for peace?

God we are grateful that you continually seek us and are eager to sprint down the road to welcome us home even after we have bungled our opportunities and disappointed you. Rather than scolding and punishing, you love each of us as if we are your only child. You fire up the grill and pop the corks to celebrate our return. You revive our dead souls and infuse us with joy by showing us the path that leads to health and wholeness.

We are grateful for your love for us and pray that we may develop hearts of compassion. Give us the courage and the capacity to love others with the same generous spirit you love us. May we experience the joy that flows from lifting others, for we know that when we extend aid to people who are hurting, we minister to you.

God of compassion, make us mindful of those within our church family who long for our kindness - those who grieve the loss of loved ones, those who are ill, those who sit all alone at home and even here in the pew. May we touch them with your love as we reach out to them with our lives.

Weaver of the world, as we drive home from church, may we be mindful of the beauty of your creation. Help us to spot the signs of the coming spring and the new life beginning to burst forth. May the crocuses that are pushing through the dirt and reaching heavenward, coax us into allowing new life to blossom in us.

God of all people, make us mindful of the poor we see on our sidewalks - your sons and daughters who are far from home and those who have lost their homes. May we respond to your challenge to reach out to them through Sojourner's Place, Emmanuel Dining room, Family Promise, FISH or Friendship House.

God of all nations, this day we especially remember the suffering people of Syria who are experiencing the violence of a brutal dictator. They seek what all your children want: freedom from oppression, a just legal system and simple human dignity. They need our prayers and international political pressure to stop the killing and to forge a path to democracy where diverse people can learn to live together in peace.

There is much work to be done and opportunities for everyone, guide each of us to the ministry that is calling our name. Amen.