St. Peter, the Pearly gates and the Prodigal Father – sermon for Lent 4 c

March 6, 2016  – disclaimer – a sermon is an oral event, not a book report
The Senator and St Peter: 

One day a Senator came to the pearly gates.

“Welcome to heaven,” says St.. Peter. “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we’re not sure what to do with you.”

”No problem, just let me in,” says the Senator.

”Well, I’d like to, but I have orders from the higher ups. What we’ll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”

And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.
The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.
Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and the finest champagne. Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes. 

They are all having such a good time that before the Senator realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him, “Now it’s time to visit heaven…”;

So, 24 hours passed with the Senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

”Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”

The Senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: “Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.”

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell…

Now the doors of the elevator open and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls to the ground. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.

”I don’t understand,” stammers the Senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time.

The devil smiles at him and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Now, you voted..
Good ol St. Peter jokes, with their golden walls, pearly gates, book of lives, and questions. These jokes are good for a giggle or even a laugh. But that’s about it, contrary to what some people believe, they don’t give us a particularly good or accurate picture of heaven or even of God. They are not theologically correct, at least according to the parable, the story that Jesus gives us this morning.
But before we go there, you might have noticed that our gospel for this morning is missing some verses. The committee that designed our pericope cut out vs. 3 – 10. What we have lost is Jesus’ words about the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to look for that one little lost lamb and then the woman who had 10 coins, stays up all night sweeping and cleaning up to find that one single solitary silver coin. In both stories/parables the shepherd and the woman look for and then find their lost and then invite neighbors, family and friends over for a party to celebrate. Sound familiar? Kind of like the father in the gospel story we just heard.  
Jesus responds to this criticism by some religious leaders that the “wrong” people were coming to Jesus—that tax collectors, sinners, outcasts. And so Jesus uses these three illustrations to gives us a picture of what heaven is like, what God is like. It’s almost like Jesus knows how good and upright pious people can get—you know a bit judgmental, a bit stuck in their ways, maybe a bit resentful. So Jesus gives us a different picture of heaven than that of pearly gates, gold walls, and some spiritual testing.
A picture of God— as a shepherd searching for his lost and rejoicing for his found sheep, God as a woman searching for her lost and rejoicing over her found coin, quite different than the one we get from the St. Peter jokes. The first big difference is where is God in those pearly gate jokes?
Usually nowhere to be found—somewhere safe and secure, hidden from our eyes in the heavenly halls.
But that’s not the God we see today. Today we have a God who leaves the heavenly throne and becomes the prodigal father. You heard me right, the prodigal father. Now you may be a bit confused because we’re used to associating the prodigal with the younger son. Prodigal being defined as wasteful, lavish, extravagant. And this younger son, the one who treats his father so badly, the one who says, “You know old man, you are as good as dead to me; I want my inheritance, and I want it now. I don’t want to have to wait till you kick the bucket. He’s not prodigal yet, but the father, for some reason, perhaps out of crazy love, actually gives it to him. So the kid takes off to some unknown place where he does squander and waste the money as our translation says in “dissolute living”. He is wasteful.
But you know that trait must run in the family, first of all the father gave him the inheritance—that was a waste. But also when the son finally comes to his senses, runs out of money, gets so desperate and he returns, what does his father do? This father who has been basically disowned and disrespected by this dissolute son of his—throws a party for all in the family, household, the neighborhood, the town.  
The father is lavish in his love, in his forgiveness, in his joy and in fact his other son, the elder one thinks it’s quite a waste of time and energy—wasting on this other brother. But according to Jesus though God’s love is never wasted. It might be, ok it is lavish, it is extravagant, it is the complete opposite of a properly pious, dare I say staid and stingy faith. God throws open the gates of heaven to come down to our level, and God doesn’t wait till we make it, get ourselves through the walls. God doesn’t wait for St. Peter to give the a-ok. God gathers up his heavenly robes to sprint out the door in joy over, joy for the lost—now that’s not a waste. God’s love is never wasted. Alleluia!
Oh, I forgot, I wasn’t supposed to say that. I guess I got a bit carried away. Afterall, It’s Lent, and in our churches we aren’t saying that—Word. We’re saving it for Easter. But you know that rule wasn’t written in stone or in heaven, even if it were I bet we’d be saying it an awful lot more, because you know what? Jesus throws out the window our rules of holy decorum to give us a heaven that is a righteous raucous party place. All because, well you are here. Because you for whatever reason didn’t stay in bed, you didn’t linger over coffee and the Sunday paper. You could have been at a myriad of other places doing so many other things but today you are found right here. You who get lost in the struggles of this world, you who have waste money, time, resources on wine, cigarettes, the internet or lord knows what else. You who get lost in self-doubt, shame and pain. Even you who may feel that love is sometimes a waste. Heaven is ringing with shouts of alleluia, the floors and walls are shaking with heavenly happy dances. Why?
Why because you are here and because God is here. Perhaps St. Peter’s hanging out at some pearly gate, but God isn’t. God is right here. God is smiling in our smiles, God is flowing with our tears, God is laughing with our joy. God is here saying, “Get lost sin, come on in. Get up out of your seat, have some heavenly food to eat. Lift up your voice, it’s time to rejoice. Alleluia. I shouldn’t be the only one to say it. Join me. Alleluia, alleluia, say it like you mean it. Alleluia, say it like you might when you find your keys, your wallet, Alleluia. Say it like you feel it when you hold that person you love with all your heart. Alleluia. Say it like you’ve been lost and now are found. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.

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