Can we party during Lent?

Here we are again in the church’s dark season, the season when we wear a “smudge” on our foreheads to tell the world that Jesus makes us so joyful we beat our breasts and hang our heads with shame and repentance.

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I could go one about that, especially since the Gospel tells us not to parade our piety before others but to keep our spiritual disciplines to ourselves, in secret, because God “who sees in secret” will reward us.  (Matthew 6:1-18). 

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God forbid that he gets a smduge on the mitre! 

Perhaps the finest parable in the New Testament is that of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, about which I have written perhaps hundreds of pages.  It still astonishes me that in the ecumenical Lectionary used by many denominations today, the Prodigal Son is read only once every 3 years!  How can you set aside the premier story of God’s love for humanity and the need for unity and love in the household of faith for three years at a time?

Today I am working again in earnest on the “Gay Catechism” project I have begun, and it led me back to the Prodigal Son.

Commentators have long pointed out that the parable’s two sons are a more covert teaching about Jews and Gentiles: the Jews are the older brother, the Gentiles the younger and reckless brother who comes home after squandering his inheritance. The point tucked in here is that Jews, or at least Jewish Christians, who were resentful about the sudden presence of Gentiles claiming God’s love and grace, have a huge lesson to learn about God’s unconditional love.

Today, those two groups may well be the welcoming churches and the scolding churches (for want of a better term). Conservative churches not only don’t want to speak to LGBTQ people, they often imagine terrible sins they think LGBTQ people are guilty of, even though it isn’t true. Moreover, they resist celebrating the return of LGBTQ people to the church of Jesus Christ.

(Please temporarily overlook the “sexism” of the parable, because it only mentions males. In fact, whether God is a “father figure” or whether the siblings are male is irrelevant.)

This inexhaustible parable teaches lessons on many levels. When the prodigal son has returned home and is unconditionally welcomed by the father, a party is prepared. The older brother is resistant and resentful “and refused to go in” to the party.

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Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Return of the Prodigal Son

Many conservative corners of the church today refuse to celebrate our presence.  They throw no party for us.  They are angry.  They want to believe that they have a “leg up” on the sinners (whom they claim to love while hating the sin, even though their anger is completely transparent and mocks the very idea of loving the sinner!)  They think their lifelong obedience to strict moral laws ought to have qualified them for a party of their own, and they certainly aren’t going to rejoice with us.

Some of the churches in the middle ground are “struggling” with the presence of lesbian and gay people in their midst, let alone bisexuals, transgender people and God-knows-what-else.  They put out somewhat “conditional” messages of welcome, such as what the ELCA has been doing for nearly 20 years.  And they are not prepared to rejoice with us, thinking that as long as the whole church can’t be of one mind about homosexuality and human sexuality, we had all better be pretty reserved and cautious.

Well, what does Jesus teach in this parable?  What would he say about celebrating the presence of LGBTQ people, on the basis of this parable?

Does the father postpone the party until the older brother has come around?  No!  In truth, even at the risk of disunity in the family, the father commands that the party be started without the older brother, in the hope that he will come to understand why the presence of his brother is a cause for such celebration.

We will never resolve the issues of homosexuality and human sexuality by obsessing about what the Bible says about sex.  That is abundantly clear.  But it is time to look all over the Bible, especially at major teachings such as that contained in Luke 15, to better understand who brothers and sisters of widely differing opinions are expected to get along in the one church.

So this parable is a lesson for the whole church, which must understand that some people in the household of faith are going to celebrate the return and the presence of the “prodigal” even before the rest of the church is ready to come in.  We are not commanded to wait until those who are morally narrow and emotionally resentful can get over their fears and their anger (and their appeal to the father’s authority).

In fact, in Jesus’ teaching as made clear in several places in the Gospels, he repeatedly says that the Jews will come late to the Kingdom of God because they resist allowing others in, even while those others are gladly entering it before them.  Prostitutes and tax collectors in his day.  Bisexuals, transgender people, lesbians and gays and queers, oh my! in our day.

Can we party during Lent? I think it’s safe to bet that we know how to party, even while others are not ready even to talk to us.

—Pastor Dan Hooper, Los Angeles

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