Today is the first Sunday in Lent, which began on this past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Lent is the 40 days, not counting Sundays during which we prepare us or Easter Sunday. Traditionally, the season of Lent is a bit more somber and reflective. It is a time to take a good look at ourselves and our faith, to remember our baptism and our Lord. It is also a time of renewal and in nature it is one of the most vibrant times of year as we enter into Spring. The trees all turn a particular shade of green this time of year, blossoms are everywhere, birds are singing their little hearts out! It is a mixed bag – one day we are all wearing our winter coats and drinking hot chocolate and the next day we have on our flip-flops while we sip lemonade; sometimes this happens in the same day! So all in all, Lent is a little bit of a messy season – a peculiar mixture of melancholy and joy, of inward reflection and outward celebration, of retrospect and renewal. So in honor of this messy season, our Sunday sermons will focus on Messy People found in Scripture. You know, once I started looking, I found that there are a whole lot more messy people in the Bible than there are Sundays in Lent! But friends, think about it, that is very encouraging news. Because these messy people are all the beneficiaries of God’s remarkable grace – given to them even in their messiness. Not one of the individuals that we will look at over the next few weeks deserved the grace they received, not one. Their lives seem too messy to accomplish anything meaningful for God, but they did. That is very, very encouraging news for us. Over the next few weeks we will see what we can learn through the lives and experiences of the prodigal and his brother, through David, through some of the women that show up in Jesus’ genealogy, through the woman accused of adultery (which by the way will be a drama by Rev. Jan Chambers), and through the church in Corinth.
Today we start with the parable of the prodigal. This is a parable Jesus tells to a mixed group that includes tax collectors and sinners who are gathering around Jesus, attracted by his message and a group of the religious leaders and scribes who are busy grumbling about Jesus because of the sinners who are gathered. This parable is probably familiar to you. And if the parable isn’t familiar, then the themes probably are because they are so typical. Perhaps something you have encountered resonates with the experience of adolescent rebellion; alienation from family; the appeal and temptations of the world outside of the routine; the consequences of foolish living; remembrance and self-awakening; repentance; reunion (hopefully) and forgiveness (hopefully). Perhaps you have seen or felt the dynamics of sibling rivalry. This is a complex tale, with many facets and messages – it is about more than the title would lead us to believe – we could call it The Prodigal Son, the Waiting Father, and the Elder brother – recognizing that each of them has a significant role in this drama.
But perhaps, of most significance is the one fact that is unchanging and unchangeable: the love of the father. All of the commentaries and articles interpret the father as who? God! Now, I don’t in anyway want to suggest that God is anything less than perfect but I would like to suggest that since God made us – he knows us – even better than we know ourselves and he is able to deal with our imperfections; he is comfortable with our messiness. He never once tries to persuade the younger son to consider a better plan, he does not berate his decision, he does not chase him down the road, but he watches for his return. How much longing is conveyed in that action? How much grace is there?
The younger son, this is the son who exploits the father, who doesn’t care that he is damaging his family relationship. In asking for his inheritance, he is willing to act as if his father were already dead. How does the father respond? He willingly grants the request and divides the property between the two sons. The father gives him room to make mistakes. God’s grace gives us room to make mistakes. A temptation that human parents sometimes face is to allow the separation to go both ways, to be tempted to respond in kind. “You want to go off on your own? Fine! Don’t come back.” That is not what we see here in the parable of the prodigal; this model of parental love insists that no matter what the son has done he is still the father’s son. And the younger son, then goes off to the big city (the passage actually says he goes to a “distant country”) seeking to make a life based on his own ideas that do not include living with his “stick in the mud” dad and boring older brother. Unfortunately, as often happens, his new life is not a good one. He soon finds that his money has run out and he has to take a job of the absolutely lowest kind – feeding the pigs. For Jesus’ Jewish audience, pigs are religiously unclean and unfit, it would have seemed a very humble job indeed. But even this isn’t the lowest he will go. Jesus tells us that the young man is so poverty-stricken he would gladly have eaten the pods the pigs are eating. He is helpless and hopeless. Let’s zoom out a little bit – how many of us would look at someone in this situation and say, “he made his bed, now he can lie in it?” Truly, that might be our first thought. We might know people even now, that have made a mess of their lives and to whom we would say the same thing. It is important (important!) for us to see – here is the young man at the bottom of the pit –here is the Father ready, waiting, longing for him to return. That is the case for the prodigal and for all of who are lost. But first, something happens to the son. Verse 17 says, “he came to himself.” That first step is often the most difficult. The younger son has to face himself in his rotten situation, to admit that he is helpless and it is his own fault. Spiritually, he makes the biggest step of his journey toward home when he is able to honestly see his situation, when he is able to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” (15:18) This is what repentance looks like. Do you see his decision as courageous? Desperate? Selfish? Honest? Dishonest? Some theologians question whether he really means it. They question if his repentance is real or just convenient. As we hear this story now, during this season of reflection and contemplation, during this season of Lent – do we see the “lostness” of this son? Can we allow it to help us see the instances in our lives and relationships when we have allowed our desire for extreme autonomy, to cut us off from the grace that could be ours? Can we let it help us examine our own motivations for apology or repentance? And then can we free ourselves to say, “father, I have sinned against heaven and before you”? And then, like the prodigal, just like the prodigal, the Father is waiting – not to shoo us away, but to welcome us in a robust welcome. “Beloved”, he longs to say, “welcome home, I have been waiting for you!” And the celebration begins. In our parable, the fatted calf is prepared, the best robe is brought, shoes, rings, a party!
Ah, but then there is the older brother. He shows up and the mood takes a dive. As he is “in the field,” laboring, working, he hears the sounds of celebration and goes to check it out and boy, is he mad. He becomes angry and refuses to go in. It’s a messy family scene; maybe you have seen something similar – one sibling pitted against the other. Many of us can relate more to the older brother than the prodigal. The elder brother, too, is in need of grace. He represents in many ways, all of us who think we can make it on our own, who are proud of the kind of lives we live. Who believe that our actions preclude our need for grace. Who find it hard to believe that God would forgive THAT! But the father’s grace is big enough to encompass him too, if he is willing. The Father is as patiently loving as ever. He reasons with the son, it’s heartbreaking really, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. (hear that?) But we HAD to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; was lost and has been found.” (15:31-32) The older brother could and should celebrate regularly – all that the Father has is his. All that the Father has is ours. I am sad to say that the elder brother misses the celebration. His self-righteous pose, and his unforgiving stance prevent it. How sad that he could live a lifetime in his father’s house and take in so little of the joy. I would hope we would not do that, either, but unfortunately, we are sometimes just as unforgiving, self- righteous. Sometimes we see our faith as drudgery and responsibility and completely miss the celebration. Or begrudge the celebration of those we deem unworthy.
Whether you are the prodigal needing God’s grace to pull you out of a hopeless situation or whether you are an elder brother or sister needing grace to overcome your self-righteousness. In truth, the one needs love as badly as the other. The point is we all need God’s grace, the gift of forgiveness, redemption, and celebration. The good news is God’s patient love is for anyone. Let’s remember that. Let’s never let church become a place of exclusion, a club where only “nice people” are welcome. Instead, let’s be sure we join the celebration. (I challenge you to use this season of Lent to spend some time in self- examination? To look for and recognize the prodigal places in yourself? To see those things that have pushed you away from your true home or have hindered you from celebrating God’s grace. Could we use this time to reflect, repent and also celebrate?) Let’s pray:
Lord, we gladly acknowledge that the prodigal’s father is you, and that we also are your children. We thank you for the grace we have received in our lives. Forgive us, that we have not always realized the extent of your mercy and have not been as grateful as we ought to have been. Help us to extend to others the kindness we have received. Make us instruments of your grace, so that some younger or older brother or sister may feel the robust embrace of your divine heart. With thankful hearts, we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.