notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Deut 30 / Luke 15 - Choose life: join the party
Good Shepherd 7/8/2005 (Communion Service)
Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Luke 15.11-32
This is a wonderful story, and we can tell it in all sorts of different ways. Usually it's told as the parable of the prodigal son, but sometimes we look at it as the parable of the reluctant older brother, or of the forgiving father. Today, I'd like to ask you to think of it as the parable of the party.
Jesus told this story because he was in trouble with people who didn't like the way he was behaving. The first two verses of chapter 15 say that: "... 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." In other words, they were grumbling, "This guy parties with the wrong people!"
And throughout this whole chapter Jesus tells three parables, and each one ends with a party. First comes the parable of the lost sheep. We all know that one. We love the picture of the shepherd coming home with that lost sheep on his shoulders. The story ends this way: "And when [the shepherd] comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'" It's a party!
Next comes the parable of the lost coin. Do you remember that one? A woman loses one of her ten silver coins, and she sweeps her entire house with a fine toothed comb until she finds it at last. The story ends this way: "When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.'" Yes, that's a party too! From the sounds of it, she might have had to spend a couple of those silver coins in order to have a party for the one that was lost and found. What sense does that make? It makes sense if the point in the first place is the party.
And what about our wonderful parable of the prodigal son? How does it end? Yes, with a party. The overjoyed father interrupts his son's speech about being nothing more than a hired hand, and immediately calls for a party. He'll have nothing to do with this hired hand business and instead calls for some new party clothes and has the fatted calf killed.
In those days, you didn't have refrigeration; you didn't have a way to keep meat fresh when you slaughtered it. So you didn't kill something unless you had enough people to eat it up and not waste it. Killing the fatted calf meant you were inviting the whole town. It meant the biggest of celebrations, a massive party. (A point not lost on the older son who grumbles that his father never killed even a skinny little goat for him.) 
Jesus told these stories to help us see what the kingdom of God is really like. And they make it clear that the kingdom isn't like a dull business meeting or a series of depressing tasks which God forces his people to do. No - the kingdom of God is a party.
Now, we had a little party here last Sunday evening. It was a special occasion - the commissioning of our Shared Ministry Team, the opening of a new chapter in the story of this church. I think everyone who came to that party, and the service beforehand, sensed that this is a good thing which has happened here, sensed that God was smiling along with us that evening, sensed perhaps more deeply that something of the kingdom of God is at work here.
In a way we're in the same sort of position as the people were who Moses led through the wilderness, when he made that speech we heard in our first reading. Forty years of wandering, forty years of preparation, and here they were at last on the banks of the river Jordan looking across to the land that God had promised them all that time ago.
Not quite like that - the start of the Shared Ministry Team is not quite like entering the promised land, it's a bit more modest than that, but I suggest that just like Moses' people we're about to cross a line, to take a step into new territory. We're about to start following God into new ways of serving him.
Now there are different ways we can react when we're asked to put the past behind us and move forward with God. Moses knew this very well and that's why he told the people,
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.
We can move forward with God or without him. And there are different ways we can come to a party. We can join in God's party enthusiastically or we can be like the older son in Jesus' story - stay out in the fields, playing hard to get. The rest of the town is already inside, singing and dancing and having a great time. But he plays dumb and asks one of the servants what's going on. Just like the Pharisees and the scribes, now he's complaining about who's partying with whom.
There's a danger when a team is set up that those inside the team and those outside the team might begin to feel differently about themselves and each other. Like the two brothers in the story do. But in the story the father loves and values them just the same, and the party he throws is for both of them. And the slaves and the servants and everyone else in the town.
We're all invited to the party of God's kingdom. And we're all invited to bring others along to that party. That is what the church is for. And that is what Shared Ministry is about.
Now, the Shared Ministry team, acting on the advice of the PCC and taking into account the questionnaire which the whole congregation did some time ago, has put together a list of aims for what we might do as a church. It's called the Agreed Statement because it's been agreed by the whole church, and it's what we signed up to last Sunday evening. You might say, it's a list of what's going to happen at the party. I'd like to pick up the first two aims this morning, and talk about them very briefly.
With God's help, with prayer, and with the support of the PCC and congregation the Good Shepherd Shared Ministry Team will aim to develop these areas of ministry:
- Baptism and Marriage preparation;
- Baptism and Funeral follow-up;
Bishop David picked up on these, too. Helping people through the rites of Baptism, Marriage, and Funerals. Saying, quite rightly, that these three things are at the very heart of what the church is about; it's so good and right that we as a church have decided that they should be the centrepiece of the party.
It's so right to want to share in the lives of families who want to bring a child for baptism, or with an unbaptised adult who decides to make a mature decision of commitment to the Christian way. Because we know from the story of Jesus' own baptism that God celebrates in heaven and on earth when this happens.
Baptism is at the heart of the party of God's kingdom; it is good that we have decided to help people to know and experience that more fully.
And it is right to want to share in the lives of couples who want to celebrate their commitment to each other in an act of Christian marriage. Because we know that God is love, and that those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.
Marriage is part of the party of God's kingdom; it is good that we have decided to help people to know and experience that more fully.
And it is right to want to be with those who have been bereaved and have brought their loved ones for a Christian funeral here. Because we know that God deeply cares for the lost ones, those brought low, the lonely and the weeping.
It's harder to believe that bereavement is part of a party. It doesn't seem like a time to celebrate. But remember the reason why the father in our story threw the party in the first place - "for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." God's kingdom is about discovering new life after death; it is good that we have decided to help bereaved ones to know and experience that more fully.
The other parts of the Agreed Statement will help us as we learn how to turn these ideas into practice - prayer, mutual support, the study of God's word to us. All of these will help us to grow, and help us enjoy God's party more and more.
So today, let us celebrate a new phase in the life of this one-hundred-and-one-year old church. Let us celebrate our decision to share the good things of God's kingdom with those around us. Let us uphold the members of the Shared Ministry Team who will help us all to enjoy the party which God has invited us all to.
Members of the SMT and non-members alike, we might all be thinking, 'If it's a party, am I expected to bring something to it? I don't know what to bring; I don't know if I've got anything worth bringing.'
Don't worry about bringing anything; remember that this is the Father's party, and like the father in the story he is the one who will provide everything you need for the party. We're all invited. We just have to bring ourselves, to offer ourselves fresh to him, to put our cares and concerns behind us; to choose life, and join the party.
 The first part of this sermon owes a very great deal to a sermon by Paul J. Nuechterlein, The Moral of the Story: Life Is a Party . . . to Be Shared