First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Neil H. Wilson, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720


A Long (un)Expected Party

Sunday, March 6, 2016 ~ Sermon ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

Hobbits, in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, as well as being diminutive, hairy-footed people who along with comfort, enjoy gardening, good food, a casual smoke of pipe-weed, also above all else enjoyed a good party.

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The Lord of the Rings

Hobbits also had, according to Tolkien, an unusual tradition surrounding birthday parties. On a hobbit’s birthday, he or she does not receive gifts from family and friends. Instead, the birthday-celebrating hobbit presents gifts – and perhaps throws a party – for all of his or her family and friends. At first glance, this may appear an unappealing custom. “What? It’s MY birthday and I have to go to the trouble and expense of gifts and a party for everyone else? This is supposed to be MY day to celebrate and be celebrated!”

But stop and think for a moment what this means in terms of the total number of birthday gifts and parties a hobbit participates in every year. Instead of celebrating a birthday – “my birthday” – only once a year, the Hobbit celebrates birthdays many times a year, in fact on each and every day that a loved one has a birthday. JRR Tolkien gave the first chapter of his The Lord of the Ring trilogy the title “The Long Expected Party.”

It is at this party that Bilbo gives his famous speech with that wonderful quote that I’ve considered using when I’ve left one church to move on to another. (Perhaps I’ll use it when I retire!)

“I am immensely fond of all of you, and eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent hobbits. . . I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like half of you half as well as you deserve . . .”

Their birthday custom suggests that the hobbits might understand very keenly the famous story we usually call the parable of the Prodigal Son. As Jesus tells it, a prosperous landowner has two sons. The younger cannot wait until Daddy dies before he gets his inheritance. Despite the insult, the father gives the younger son his share of the family property (which would have been 1/3). The youngest son then runs off to some first century Las Vegas, squanders it all, and ends up eating beans and mush alongside the hogs he is reduced to feeding. (There is a lot there that I will not bother to unpack today! Needless to say he had hit the very bottom.) Then he decides he might return home – even if his father will not take him back as a son and treats him like a hired hand, it will be better than this. So he rehearses his “Please take me back Father” speech.

So home he goes, he doesn’t have to pack his bags because he has nothing. All the way there he is preparing himself for humiliation. I cannot imagine what might have been going through this younger son’s thoughts as he approached the last rise in the road over which would be the family farm and whatever future awaited him. Just as he reaches the top of the hill and comes in sight of the homestead, the unheard of happens, he sees his father running up the road to meet him.

He hardly has time to launch into the speech had prepared and been rehearsing, “I deserve nothing Father and would willing serve as a hired-hand” -before the old man is wrapping him in the family’s finest robe and putting a ring on his finger, literally getting the “royal treatment!” Before he can grasp the full gravity of the moment, a fatted calf has been slaughtered and most of the town invited to celebrate in a spectacular party. A party, dare I say it, “of biblical proportions!”

Thinking again of Tolkien and his customs of Middle-Earth he titled the first chapter in the Hobbit where all the dwarfs show up at Bilbo’s: “An Unexpected Party.”

For us Plain Earth folks, the story would be perfectly satisfying if it ended right there. It would be like Jesus was trying to tell us the Kingdom of God is like a birthday party. You or I or he or she finds our way back to God and God celebrates. Not bad. Like the sound of that.

However, Jesus does not stop his story there. For next he brings in the elder son and big brother is not happy! This is putting it politely! He has never insulted his father. He has not blown his inheritance on prostitutes and wild living. His stayed on the farm, worked hard every day all these years. And what did he ever get for his faithfulness? NOTHING! Not a single “atta boy” good job party for him and his buddies.

His is mad. And he is not going to set one single foot in this overblown, over the top extravagant bash. He could hear the music from the upper field where he was working. His face is getting redder by the minute and the steam rolling out of his ears.

Now, I do not know about you but as a Plain-Earth person I can relate to the older brother. He had been responsible, behaved himself, didn’t bring any disrespect or shame to the family name. The spoiled brat on the other hand wasted it all and word had gotten out about his escapades and he can remember the shame he saw in his mother’s eyes. And now, for his punishment, he is getting the party of the year! Who was being punished here anyway? Doesn’t big brother have the right to feel at least a little resentful?

In the story, as Jesus tells it, the father does not berate and get all critical of the older brother. Neither does he defend the younger brother. Instead he shifts attention away from both of them. The father turns attention to his own love and bounty.

There is plenty to go around, he says in so many words. “No one’s going to run short ‘all that is mine is yours.’ This is not your younger brother’s party so much as it is my party, the party I throw for many. I am on the lookout for all my loved ones, near or far. I am working for them, and ready to celebrate with them before they even think of responding to me or giving anything back.”

Behind this well-known and loved parable of Jesus lies a profound and overwhelming truth about God and God’s kingdom. We humans, we are all lost, mired in the sins of our own doing, the sins of others, and the cultural/societal systems in which we live: greed, sensuality, self-referential resentment, we’re floundering hip-deep in the slop of envy. Before we knew it, God reached out in the people of Israel and then in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

God raised us up out of the pods and slop and called us home. It is not just about you or me, or my sin or your sin, or what I deserve or what you should have coming. It is about God and God’s life-giving love and mercy.

God reaches out and invites each and every one to forgiveness long before our hearts are softened to a place of repentance.

Every time God’s active, stretching, searching healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us.

It means there is more. More good feasting. More food and drink. More music. More dancing. It means another and now bigger party with gifts enough for all!

Maybe those hobbits are on to something!