Astronomers tell us that in a little less than eight billion years the sun will become a giant red ball of fire which incinerates the earth. Other scenarios are proposed which would end life on this planet much sooner – anything from a massive comet colliding into earth, to a black hole entering our solar system, or even a star going hypernova in our galaxy. And these are only the astronomical ideas about how the earth might end. Add to these the fearsome predictions about global warming, nuclear winter, or biological warfare gone wrong and, …well, take your pick about how the earth will end.
Robert Frost wrote a poem nearly 100 years ago about the options:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice. 
On the face of it, science seems to tell us that life is futile. One day, there will be no one left to remember anything of humanity. There is in the end, no meaning to life, nothing to be remembered. All will end utterly, absolutely and infinitely.
Before you get too discouraged with where this sermon is going, let me say that the Bible has another scenario altogether! Last week we talked about the end being when God comes to live with us on earth. But this is not a movie of what will happen at the end of time. There is no guarantee that the earth will never end, as we know it. These visions affirm something very powerful – that the God of life will be among humans in the end. Or perhaps more accurately, humans will be in the life of God at the end. We will be joined in the same life. Whether the earth ends in fire or ice, or doesn’t end at all, the end of time will be a big celebration with God and humans enjoying an amazing celebration, with everyone welcomed to the party by the God of love.
The Gospel is this: the God of the living, the one who created life in the first place, invites us into newness of life, no matter what chaos is in the journey. This is indeed good news.
Jesus’ parable about the loving father who is there for his two sons, could be understood as the story of the whole human family. Conflict sparks in the family. The younger rebellious son leaves home to live life his own way. The dutiful older son stays home and does what oldest children do, taking care of the parents and their estate. The younger son, for a while, loses his true identity as son of his father. The older son also loses his identity as son, looking more like one hired for the wages of his inheritance. When the younger son reaches the end of the line, he is in a deep, suffering crisis. He comes home. He is welcomed extravagantly by his father, and this begins the moment of crisis for the older brother. Who is he now? Family, or steward of an inheritance? The father loves both sons, even when they don’t know it, and even when they don’t love each other.
We are left hanging at the end. The story ends with a celebration – a welcome-home party, but we don’t know what the older brother will do. I am sure this was intentional in Jesus’ telling. The Rabbinic teaching method tries to elicit questions from the hearers. In this case, will the older brother join the party? Will he be reconciled with his brother, who chose a different path (admittedly foolish and sinful)? Will he join the family and recover his true identity in the family, as his foolish brother has done?
The focus of the parable, which we have called the Prodigal Son, is in the end a story about the older brother. We understand the father. He represents God in the story, the one who loves us completely. We understand the younger son. He represents those who stubbornly insist on their own way, endure great suffering, and finally choose grace. This is our story, who have come back to God time and again to receive another dose of grace after following our own ways and getting into trouble. And the older brother is also us, at least many of us. We are the ones who have grown up in the household of God, have enjoyed God’s provision for our whole lives and have been stewards of God’s estate. If we are older brother types, then what is the question for us today?
I am an older brother type, at times resentful of the younger brothers who had lived life, and had stories to tell, while I stayed home and was responsible. When I was growing up, the church I was part of had a coming of age ritual. Baptism. In that tradition, it is believed that baptism is what transfers us into the family of God. Until the age of accountability, children are protected by their parent’s faith. But that changes at around age 12. So the children of the church prepare for baptism, if they choose God’s family. The problem for me was that everyone had to tell the story of their conversion to the whole congregation. There had to be an identifiable moment when I could say, “Before this, I was not a Christian.” We had to tell our story of being the younger brother.
I was deeply troubled by this then and now. I could remember times when I chose to follow Jesus’ way – many of them. But to say that somehow I was the rebellious younger daughter at some point, walking away from God and needing to turn around and run back to the Father – that was a point I could not identify. I always felt loved by God, ever since I could remember. And since I was also a stickler for honesty, I felt trapped. I could not say I didn’t have a conversion story, because then I could not be baptized then. I could not make up a story, because that is dishonest. I compromised. I told a story of one of the times I remembered making the choice to follow the Jesus way. Not exactly a conversion story, but they voted to let me be baptized anyway.
Would they ever had said no? I don’t think so. But the struggle was very real to me then and for many years after. In high school I remember being jealous of people who came and spoke at camp, or chapel or revival meetings, about their horrible sins and their dramatic conversion.
This is one thing that I love about being Presbyterian now. Here, even before we are able to say yes or no, we are baptized, identified as a child of God, not based on anything we do or say, but just because God loves us that much! What a welcome for someone like me!
Jesus, when he told this parable was talking to his Jewish family which was almost exclusively “older brother” types. They had been raised as the people of God. The challenge for them was to come into the banquet with the younger brother types. Even the disciples, like Peter, had terrible troubles accepting the prodigals into the family tree. God gave him visions of inclusion, and his eyes were opened, at least for a moment (Acts 10). But later we find him still battling with Paul over inclusion of prodigals at the banquet (Galatians 2:11ff).
This parable is a big deal to cradle-Christians or Jews. It challenges us to believe the gospel that God holds all of creation in God’s heart. That we were created from the heart of God and return there. That nothing can separate us from the love of God, according to Paul in Romans 8:39.
This parable is a powerful statement about God’s inclusion. Everyone is welcome at the party. Sinners and saints together. They are all in there, enjoying the party. But there are some, the ones who we have often considered to be the most righteous, who stand outside, refusing to be part of the celebration. Does God cut them off because they refuse God’s hospitality? No. In trying to convince the older brother to come in and be reunited with his brother, the father still says, “You are always with me and everything I have is yours.” God doesn’t throw out even the stubborn older brother. God gives everything to that one, too. There is no “either-or,” no “in-or-out” in this story. All the energy we put into deciphering who God approves and who God does not approve – that is a human question, not God’s. God doesn’t draw the lines we draw.
This is the gospel. And this is really hard for those of us who have always been in church. We are the older brother. What will we choose? Will we remain outside, nursing our resentment against those who do not join the church, those who take advantage of our generosity? Or will we go in and join the big celebration?
This parable may be one of the best windows into God ever composed. God has a spacious heart, gracious and welcoming to all. One of our Presbyterian Churches has begun to identify itself with the term “Spacious Christianity.” The term reflects the God of this parable – who welcomes everyone to the table. There is room for everyone.
“Big Bang to Big Death? Or Big Bang to Big Celebration?” McLaren asks. There is no question that the whole library of biblical writers proclaim that the latter is true. Life moves from creation to celebration, not death! The question to us is whether we are willing to imagine big enough, to prepare our hearts for the all-encompassing table.
In the end, God!
If God is for us, who is against us? …Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
* Sermon resource: Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, New York, Jericho Books (2014), Chapter 52, pp. 259-263.
 Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”, in the selection “A Group of Poems” by Robert Frost, Harper’s Magazine, December 1920, p. 67.
 McLaren, p. 262.
Take a moment to close your eyes. I invite you to use your imagination with me.
• Let your mind’s eye draw the picture of this sanctuary. See the people who are sitting here with you. Think about the person who makes your face light up when you see them in the room. Look at that person with God’s eyes of love. Is there room at the table for this one?…
• Let your mind bring up the face of a new person in the room. Look at that person with God’s eyes of love. Is there room at the table for this one?…
• Now let your mind bring up someone from the community, who comes into the space, often when you are not here. Again, look at that person with God’s eyes of love. Is there room at the table for this one?…
• Now, here it get really difficult, but try it. Let your mind bring the imagined face of an enemy. Let you mind wander well beyond our little space. A Syrian immigrant, waiting for entrance to our country for sanctuary. A terrorist Saudi with a gun outside a mosque. A wealthy person who holds more than their share of the earth’s abundance. A gang member looking for acceptance with their peers. Now look at that person with God’s eyes of love. Is there room at the table for this one?… Is God’s grace big enough?