Worship | Lent 4: Turn/Return | March 27

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Sermon | Inheritance
Text: Luke 15:1-2;11-20
Speaker: Joel Miller

What if, you could have your inheritance now?  All of it.  What if all you had to do was ask?  “Mother, Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”  And they do it.  Everything divided out in proportion to what would have been yours is now yours.  You can do with it as you please. 

There’s the furniture – with the end table your grandfather made from the maple in the fencerow.  The piano.  That favorite chair that survived every move, mostly.  Some quilts and rugs and paintings and books.  So many books.  Your mother’s wardrobe and the scarves that belonged to her mother.  The silverware and plates are yours to use or sell or give away.  I’m making this up, but you get the idea.  Fill in your own details. It’s all yours. 

Diaries and journals.  Boxes of pictures, from back when you put pictures in boxes.

Then there’s the house.  It has a new roof, but the furnace has been acting up and one side of the basement floods during a heavy rain.  What do you and your siblings each do with 1/4th of a house?  And the land.  The land is yours too.

For many of you this is not hypothetical.  You could lead a seminar or three about how to care for aging parents, what to expect as an executor of an estate, your own story of what you did and are doing with the inheritance. 

And there’s more.  As we come to realize over the course of a life, what we receive from previous generations, what we carry, what we inherit, involves quite a bit more than things we can use, or sell, or give away.

There’s your father’s dry sense of humor that got passed directly on to you.  There’s your grandmother’s way she turns her neck when she has a question that skipped a generation and lodged in your body.  And her mother’s depression, and your grandfather’s arthritis, and your mother’s inclination to close her eyes whenever she hears beautiful music.  These too are yours. 

These last couple weeks I’ve been working my way through a book by the historian Mary Stockwell.  It’s called The Other Trail of Tears: The Removal of the Ohio Indians.  I knew about how the Treaty of Greenville, 1795, created an East/West line in the upper half of the state that gave White settlers full access to the area south of that.  What I didn’t know, or had long forgotten, was how the remaining tribes had been assigned to reservations within Ohio soon after the War of 1812.  The Shawnee, Seneca and Delaware, Wyandot, and Ottawa were each limited to certain townships that had been created through the national surveying grid.  The expressed intent was to define the borders of land where the Indians would learn to farm, which many of them did very well.  But during the 1830s, into the 40s, all of these groups were removed from their Ohio township reservations to West of the Mississippi to make way for more White settlement. 

Among the details that caught my attention was the first group removed, the Seneca, in 1831, the second year of Andrew Jackson’s presidency.  What made this personal was another document I recently came across from our family history, a copy of a land patent made out to Solomon Miller, my 4x great grandfather, signed in 1835 by President Andrew Jackson, for the purchase of 80 acres in Seneca County, Ohio.  Just four years after the removal of the Seneca Indians.  And in looking again at the language in the patent, there I am.  This plot of land was sold “unto the said Solomon Miller and to his heirs and assigns forever.”  There have been several sales and moves and purchases of other land from those proceeds, but there is a direct connection between that patent and the farm I grew up on.  That whole story is part of my inheritance. 

And so is this one: Last summer I spent four days at my 90-year-old Grandma Miller’s house, the house on the farm my 2x great grandfather John Frank Miller bought in Champaign County in 1912.  I was putting in a walk-in shower in a downstairs bathroom, and at meal times getting stories from Grandma.  I learned that back when she and my Grandpa Miller owned the Tastee Freez in West Liberty, they would work such long hours that every Sunday in the pew at church they would hold each other’s hand with the agreement that one would squeeze the other’s hand if they noticed them drifting off to sleep.

I treasure this holy hand squeeze and the partnership it symbolizes, an essential ingredient in their co-labor at the Tastee Freez, providing a beloved gathering place to their community, complete with 100% beef raised just down the road on their farm.  This story is also part of my complicated inheritance.

When it comes to inheritance, we likely don’t know the half of what we’re getting.  What comes to us comes passed through multiple generations.  What’s ours to keep, to sell, to give away?  To protect and display?  What’s ours to mend?  To return to those from whom it was taken, if that’s even possible?

If your full inheritance was already part of your life now, what would you do with it?

Luke 15:17-32

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of three related parables Jesus tells back to back to back. It is by far the most complex.  In the first there is a shepherd with 100 sheep.  One of them wonders off in the wilderness and the shepherd pursues that one lost sheep until he finds it.  He hoists the sheep up on his shoulders, and calls all his friends and neighbors together to rejoice with him that the lost sheep has been found.

The second parable features a woman with ten silver coins.  But she loses one of them.  She searches everywhere.  She lights a lamp, looks in every corner, sweeps the entire house, and finally finds the coin.  She too calls together her friends and neighbors.  “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

In both of these parables something has been lost, and there is a God-figure – the shepherd, the woman – who not only pursues the lost item, but is so overjoyed in finding it that the joy overflows to friends and neighbors.  I think it would be kind of cool if the woman threw that big party by spending the very silver coin she had just found, transforming a piece of metal into the warmth of human celebration. 

And so the template has been set for a third parable.  A parable which does and doesn’t fit that mold.   

“Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them.’”  The reason the hypothetical situation we were playing with earlier doesn’t happen much is because asking for one’s inheritance on the spot is basically telling your parent you’d prefer them dead.  So right from the start in this parable there is a great loss, a severing of relationship that takes place before any money or property changes hands.  The father does comply, and the younger son famously goes off and spends it all, to the point of having nothing left to eat except pig slop, and no friends to help him out.  In the spirit of our Turn/Return theme, this story is a classic story of return.  So much so that the popular Catholic writer Henri Nouwen wrote a whole book titled The Return of the Prodigal Son, which he named after Rembrandt’s painting of the parable titled The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

The younger son returns home but not necessarily because he’s had a change of heart.  He’s hungry, and he’s only got one place left to go.  So he starts rehearsing lines in his head he’ll tell his father so maybe, just maybe he’ll have a table to eat at.   But as he nears home he doesn’t even have a chance to finish those well-rehearsed lines because his father runs to greet him and smothers him with a loving embrace.  This is what God is like, Jesus is saying through this parable.  All of our best excuses get swallowed up in the Divine embrace.  The father is so overjoyed that the lost son has been found that he calls for a celebration.  His best robe placed on his son, a ring on his finger, new sandals for his feet, and the fatted calf to serve as the main course of a great feast. 

It has some added human interest elements, but we’ve heard this story twice before, seen this pattern play out now a third time.  What was lost has been found, and the finder is so overjoyed they invite pretty much everyone around them to join in a great celebration.

That could be the end.  That is the end of the first two parables. 

But not this one.  This father had two sons.  And we’re about to hear from the second, older son.  And the way it plays out it’s almost as if everything up to this point is a set up for what’s about to happen.  A lost sheep is found and the shepherd throws a party.  A lost coin is found and the woman throws a party.  A lost son is found and the father throws a party.  But, dear listeners, a great question remains unanswered. The invitations have gone out, but who will join the shepherd, the woman, the father, in their joy?  Who will show up to celebrate? 

The elder son was out in the field, being responsible.  Any oldest sons or oldest daughters here?  I guess you all can decide for yourselves if this is a responsible bunch of folks.

The older son is coming in from the field and hears all this commotion – music and dancing.  What’s going on?  Well, your brother’s back and your dad’s feeling festive.

And so, the parable concludes with this charged exchange between the older son and the father.  It starts with the older son refusing to go inside and join the celebration, so that father comes outside and as it says, “began to plead with him.”  Plead.  That’s an intense word.  And then they each get one thing to say to other, and then the parable is over. 

The elder son basically says “Hey, you’ve never celebrated me and I’ve been here all along. In the field, where the work gets done.”  And he has a point.  We probably didn’t expect this parable to challenge the God-figure who only celebrates what’s been lost, but there you have it.  Maybe even God hasn’t been celebrating enough.   

The father’s response, and this is quoting directly from Luke: “My child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” 

And that’s the end of the parable.  After a careful reading one might be tempted to retitle this the parable God’s dysfunction family.  It’s an open ended story.  Choose your own adventure for what happens next.  

Here’s one possible outcome.  What if everyone comes out of this with a different idea of what their inheritance truly is.  The younger son has blown all the money he had coming to him, the older son will continue his management of the property that will ultimately be his.  But what they both most want, what they most need, is to be celebrated.  And the best thing the father can offer, that which has the greatest value to be given extravagantly on down through the generations, is the gift of joy, delight, grace and love.

To bring this to a conclusion, consider the tremendous, abundant inheritance we have received as humanity.  How many generations has it taken to grow the forests, to create the soil from which grows beauty and sustenance, to fill the fresh water lakes and aquifers, to sequester all the carbon underground in the form of oil and coal?

What if our primary relationship to this outrageously abundant inheritance, is not to squander and burn through it like the younger son, or to grudgingly manage it like the older son, but what if our primary relationship with this inheritance is to delight, to honor, to celebrate, to dance within it.  To turn towards home and live within it not primary as consumers or administrators, but as celebrants.

And so we’ll conclude this open ended parable with an open ended question:   Since this full inheritance is already part of your life now, what will you do with it?