The Two Brothers:

A Sermon

Hollywood United Methodist Church

31 March 2019

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit,

General Secretary

World Council of Churches


Thank you for this invitation to this wonderful church, the church of Bishop Mary Ann Swensson, who is not only serving your ecumenical programs here, but also the World Council of Churches as vice-moderator. I greet you on behalf of this world-wide fellowship of 350 churches.


Dear sisters and brothers,

We all like good stories. Some of the best are presented to the world from this very town. Indeed, some of those movies become points of reference for our times and around the whole world. In them we find plenty of opportunities to identify ourselves with some of the characters and their lives, finding that many of the stories are also about myself in one or another way. And some of the best-known stories also become stories about the persons who make or perform in the movies. Their real-life stories and the stories told and shared and shown get connected, inter-woven in a way.

This is also how biblical stories and the stories of the Christian tradition  shape our lives. Our Bible is in fact a unique collection of stories. Some of them we like, some of them we don’t.  Some of them are what you in English call “fiction,” like the parable we heard today.  Some of them are very visual, even when they are not seen, not even in a film. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of those stories from the Bible. I see it, like a film, in my head, and have since Sunday school days at a very young age.

Who is this story about, really? Often in the various versions of the Bible – and when we name this text in our lectionaries – it is called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus, the excellent storyteller, has given us a piece of world literature. Yet, as it is presented by Luke, the writer and editor of the third gospel, it is part of another story: Jesus told this story to the Scribes and the Pharisees, in response to the conflict and discourse among them. It is a justification of the inclusive practice of Jesus, his eating and drinking with the others, the sinners. So Luke clearly indicates who is the focus in this story. And it is not the so-called prodigal son.

When I received the invitation to be here today and to preach the gospel, I hoped I could use this text. Because I am often reflecting on another story, the story of what we call the ecumenical movement, the worldwide, century-long effort to renew the churches in the world by bringing them into unity, justice, reconciliation, and peace. Churches calling one another to unity is based on their shared faith in the gospel, the good news about Christ’s love. This is the purpose of the World Council of Churches. Nowadays we are preparing our next assembly, the eleventh since the first one in 1948, and the theme chosen is “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” My task is to help and encourage reflection about what that means. If it means anything at all, if it is possible at all to envision a world changed by the love of God that we experience in Christ and his ways.

Indeed, for many reasons, people experience just the opposite. Every day we see that it is something very different from love that moves the world. Many would also ask if it is really reconciliation and unity we are moving toward at the moment and in these times. Isn’t it rather the opposite: division, polarization, nationalism, racism, xenophobia, exclusivism, discrimination?

So why should we have a gathering with such a theme? Well, the answer lies in the question: Because we believe something else is possible. Because we believe in God’s love. Just as the gospel story of the two sons perplexed and provoked people then, so it still can and does lead to critical self-reflection, questioning of our values, and ultimately to transformation. To something better.

The world we live in today is definitely in need of words and stories that can provoke us to action that brings us together, through reconciliation, searching for the common good, finding a quality of our relations that really is proper for human beings living together as sisters and brothers.

So this story from the Gospel of Luke is not really about the prodigal son. Of course, is about him as well. So many preachers and artists have depicted him and his story as typical for how human life can be, how it is possible to lose so much and to get lost in our own miseries. But even more, how it is possible to find ourselves as who we truly are: Belonging to a loving God, even if or when we experience ourselves as lost. Jesus portrays some of the miseries and tragedies we can find ourselves in, and also the prejudices and other attitudes that exclude us. Yet the loving Father remains loving and longing, eagerly running to receive “the son who was lost, but now is found.”

One of our most beloved hymns uses these biblical words to describe God’s amazing grace. Even if it sometimes a bit too much to call ourselves a “wretch,” who has not found moments in life when we understand what that means - and realize that it could be anyone of us, me too? Then comes the message: You are still loved, still received. This was the most important meaning of grace for Martin Luther, as he struggled to find a gracious God. God’s love is given for free – to sinners – and – as we shall see: It might be somebody else than we think that need the most to change.

However, the clear message is that God’s radically inclusive love particularly embraces all those whom society excludes or disdains: the poor, the migrant, the homeless, the prisoner, sexual minorities and those excluded because of their gender identification.

Hearing this story, we have no alternative but to share this message. We have no other mandate as church than to follow the example of the generous father, offering grace for free. Nobody should be excluded. Everybody, everybody has a place at the table. This is definitely the message of the prodigal son. Jesus’ gospel could not be clearer. Or – for some - more challenging.

Jesus’ description of God as the generous father in this way was provocative for his listeners. After all, God should care more about what is right and just, rewarding good behaviour. The other brother had lived in this  way, dutifully at home, decent and proper, as it should be, at least for that culture, then.  But he excludes himself, creating a barrier between himself and the brother who has come back. He is the character who most needs transformation and grace.

That is the part of the story that most amazes me. Not that the attitude of the older brother is criticized, but that he too gets the grace of being urged to come to the table. He too is particularly and personally invited to come and participate in the feast! The father steps out of the house, out of the grand party, especially for him. He reaches out to this reserved, jealous, self-centred brother, caring for his rights and what he has not yet gotten, in addition to everything and every right he has enjoyed at home.

So the parable is really about both brothers, and their different stories and their relationship. Or lack thereof. They are brothers, they belong together, because they have the same father.

Dear sisters and brothers, this is what the ecumenical movement is all about: the relationships that are broken between us, that are dividing us, as persons, as families, as churches, as humanity. These divisions appear for so many reasons.

Even today, we human beings do many things we should not do.  Ours is hardly a time in history when the word “sin” has become out-dated or obsolete.

Yet the power of God’s love is even greater, even when we cannot believe it. That is not so say that sin is just something we forget and don’t care about. Sin today appears in injustice, violence, racism, attacking the dignity of others, abuse, consumerism, destroying God’s creation by emissions and plastic, and so much else. And perhaps overriding them is the sin of self-righteousness, claiming our privileges, because it can look like a matter of our rights and justice. But it too is destructive, in all forms, this attitude of degrading the other, breaking down the self-respect of the other.

Our human relationships are never divided because of generosity, openness, gentleness, grace. That is what it means when we say we are united in Christ’s love, not because we all agree, but because we are all loved.

Therefore today, as then, is the right time to work for what is right, what is just, what is good – and to do so in the name of the God in whom there is no partiality. Therefore today, as then, it is time to share Christ’s love, because it has the power to forgive, to reconcile, to transform our lives. Therefore today, as then, it is time for us to work for reconciliation and unity – to overcome the divisions that render us unable to confront together the steep challenges we have to address as one humanity – as God’s children. Christ’s love is still moving – all brothers and sisters who need to be loved.

This is the way forward. It is not a God-less world we are moving in; we are always in God’s world and in God’s care. This is the world that God loved so much that he gave his only begotten son for it. This is the world that still can be and is moved by love.

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, God our Creator, Saviour, and Life-Sustainer, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.