• Rebecca Brierley

Titles are Telling

This is a Guest Blog contributed by Journey of Hope participant, Paul Jeffrey. Paul is a licentiate in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. This is the sermon he preached at Mountpottinger, Belfast on 31 March 2019, Mothering Sunday and the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Is it a patriarchal plot that the lectionary has given us a story about a father on Mother’s Day? I jest, of course. But on a more serious note, might this be the right story for the right day? 

We know well, or so we think, the story of the lost son, or the story of the prodigal son, or the story of the two sons, or the story of the two brothers, or the story of the forgiving father, or the story of whatever title we have given it or received.

Titles are telling. 

There is a fantastic resource called Working Preacher which I always consult when crafting a service. They offer helpful essays on lectionary texts and have a weekly podcast discussing them. This week, when discussing today’s Gospel reading, one commentator said that he advised preachers to think of their own name for this parable. Of the alternative titles suggested in the podcast, the one that sticks in my mind the most is this: “A Party For A Dumbass”.  

I invite you to come up with your own title for this parable.

The Return of the Prodigal Son - Rembrandt

This story that we think we know well has been named many things. And yet, in each naming, it is always one or more of the characters given prominence. The Prodigal Son. The Two Brothers. The Forgiving Father. Each naming is a christening of the same story: a dysfunctional relationship between males. Notably the voice and perspective of the mother and wife is missing from this story. What might we name this parable if we were to name it in honour of the woman? The Absent Mother? The Divided Wife? The Tortured Silence Of A Mother/Wife/Woman? 

I invite you to come up with your own title for this parable that references the unmentioned female experience.

A life of faith is a full life and life more fully lived. Your faith will pull you to your feet when things are bad and keep you humble when things are good.

Faith is our story. Belief is entering into the story. And our story will set us free.

But our stories reveal more about us than we think. And our titles reveal more about us and our stories than we think. And who we exclude from our titles and stories reveal more about us than we think. Our story will set us free. But if we become too complacent, or too arrogant, or too individualistic, or too dismissive of the stories or tellings of stories by others, or if we get too close to the painting that we miss the story, then our story won’t set us free. Quite the opposite. Our story will enslave us. 

I would like to try an exercise with you at some stage. Not now, but in another meeting should you wish to explore it. You know that I am currently on a course called Journey of Hope, being organised by Reconcilers Together. The point of this journey is the bringing together of twenty people involved in ministry throughout the UK and Ireland to provide them/us/me with the tools to develop ministries of reconciliation. The last stop on the journey was at Corrymeela. And the exercise I am taking about was led by the poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama. He asked everyone to write down the first line of the story of their life. After doing so, he asked some volunteers to share what they had written, and it was analysed by the group. The author was to remain silent during this discussion. Some these first lines had lots of details, some began at their own birth, some started at a pivotal moment in their lives, others were a phrase.

An Introduction to the Corrymeela Community

Mine happened to be this: I don’t know if believe in luck, but if I did I’d say that I was lucky.

Although it is hard to convey in a description, it was astonishing how revealing these opening lines were – even lines thought to be fairly innocuous by their authors. And these were only the first lines. But it took others being invited in to our stories for our stories to be revealed more fully to us. 

I invite you to invite someone into your own story.

Jesus invites us into his story.

It might be that you identify yourself with one or more of the characters. As the eldest son myself, I can certainly relate to being held to a stricter standard than my younger brothers! Maybe, like the younger son, we have lived recklessly and caused division. Maybe like the father we have been so broken-hearted in losing someone dear to us that we haven’t appreciated those who remain by our side. Not only did the father use the eldest son’s inheritance to throw a party for the younger son, but the eldest son wasn’t even invited to the party! Maybe we understand why the eldest brother didn’t want to go. There are many ways to understand this story.

Someone I studied with at Queens is now a teacher, and he asked if I’d send a video to his class talking a bit about the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church and my recent trip to Corrymeela. One of the questions he asked me was this: is Christianity the best means of reconciliation? I flipped the question around and said that I thought that reconciliation was the best means of Christianity. 

We see how central reconciliation is to our story in our reading from 2 Corinthians. And we see how difficult reconciliation is in our Gospel reading. Big questions are raised of ourselves and of the whole notion of reconciliation. Is reconciliation fair? Is it just? By our own standards, probably not on both counts. May God help us to go beyond the human point of view.

You can follow Paul on his Journey of Hope via his website and on Twitter - @WPaulJeffrey

Views expressed by participants are not necessarily the views of Reconcilers Together. 

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