Monday, March 15, 2010

Prodigal Love

Sermon for 3.14.10 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)
Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11-32

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.”

Last week’s parable of the fig tree reminded us of the need to be fruitful and of the likely need for repentance in order for that to happen. Although God will often give us time and the support of his word and sacraments, we do not really know how much time we have. Today’s gospel shows how God receives our repentance, how God seeks out what is lost. Right before the parable that we have just heard this morning, Luke tells us the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. But the final and longest is the Story of the Lost Boy. It is only found in Luke.

This is a story to break our hearts, for very personal reasons. In the inevitable process of growing up and separating from the parent, how often does a child make poor, even dangerous choices, sometimes over and over again. As Jesus tells the story to us, there is only one disastrous self-imposed exile on the part of the boy, but Jesus only needs to tell the story once since he is focusing on the significance of the younger son’s behavior.

The actions of the younger son are shameful and would have been considered even more so in ancient Palestine. He rejects family solidity and makes the incredibly insulting demand for his inheritance before his father’s death. It’s not really important that the father doesn’t refuse and that the older son doesn’t object. This is a worst case scenario. The inheritance the son demands would have been a portion of the family’s land holdings, presumably ancestral. In a land-based economy, a family needed its lands. What is truly shocking here is the sale of land that families believed were a gift to their family from God and then waste that money on a shameless lifestyle.

Money goes fast and it’s clear that the son would have gone broke sooner or later. He’s unlucky enough to encounter a recession—a famine—and a job shortage. The only work he can find is tending hogs. Hogs are not kosher and no Palestinian Jew would have been caught dead taking care of them, much less asking to share their food. So he’s lost his family, his hometown, and his religion. Perhaps worse than death is the feeling of being lost, having become a nonperson.

But when bottom has been hit, through some miracle, some memory of home or love, the boy realizes that who he has become is not who he really is—or was. He takes the most difficult first step of facing himself in that pigpen. Somehow then he is able to speak the word “father,” that word he used with such arrogance and entitlement when he asked his father to hand over what was not yet his. The only place to go is home and home means a restored relationship. And so on the way, he rehearses a speech of deep apology, a speech that acknowledges that he can no longer be called his father’s son. Knowing this, he intends to beg for a job as a servant.

Then, of course, the miracle happens. One has the sense that the father has been waiting, praying, and watching, longing to see that dust on the road. Without regard for his dignity or his previous humiliation, he runs to embrace his son. The boy then delivers the first part of his speech, but before he can beg for anything, his father orders all the signs of sonship: the best clothes, a ring, and sandals.

What a wonderful way to describe Grace. If we can cry out to God and try to find him, God’s prodigal love runs out to meet us and we begin to realize that we have been found, that we are precious enough to be worth finding! I suspect that many of us can see something of ourselves in this younger son and hope that such unconditional love will be waiting for us too. That is true, but even more important; it is true because of God’s incredible love and the abundance of God’s grace. No matter how much stuff we’ve thrown at God, God is determined to find us, if at all possible. The son turned home, but the reconciliation in the story comes from the father’s huge generosity. The father did not respond to separation by distancing himself; the boy always remained his son.

The father’s deep love is key to his relationship to his older son. I can so easily see that son’s point of view. Sin is a serious thing—especially since he is assuming that his younger brother enjoyed it. He, on the other hand, has been responsible, hard-working, respectful. And so he’s angry. When I asked the children this morning which son needed God the most, I was hoping they had seen that there are two lost boys here. This older one is in danger of being lost in his self-righteousness, his pride, and jealousy. By making his father leave the guests and come out to beg him, he is not showing respect. He’s smart enough to know that the party is not only for his younger brother, but is face-saving for the entire family, showing the neighborhood that they are united again. Notice that the father doesn’t defend the younger brother nor does he criticize the elder. He speaks only of his own love and abundance, which is more than enough for both of them: “You are with me always, and all that I have is yours.” These words are counter-intuitive for us, difficult to understand. Something limitless, something that is given away and yet still remains; something that can belong to all equally?

We don’t know whether the Elder Brother finally comes in to the party or not. Clearly Jesus is giving the same invitation to the Pharisees and Scribes who had been complaining about the people Jesus was eating with. The party, whether in the story or anywhere else, is God’s party, thrown for many more than we like to imagine. We had a party here last night. Not large, but a real gathering. We knew everyone who came, including friends from the Reformed Church. Everyone, that is, except one. I’d hoped something like this would happen. A man just walked in, first name only, ate, talked with those at his table, obvious knew Port Ewen and families from this church. Then he left. Who knows?

God is planning the party of God’s mercy even before we think of responding—and certainly before we contribute very much. It is the party that asks us to think less about ourselves, about how things may affect us, and more about how we can build up the body of Christ in this world. God’s on-going party urges us to come to our senses, our right minds; to come to our selves and never stop praying that the world and our loved ones will return home as well. All of this means not forgetting the determination with which even the wronged and humiliated father—Our Lord as well—waits and watches and longs for each of us to return.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, it is hard to admit that we have strayed from our best selves, following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. It is hard to forgive the sins of others and to ask the same tolerance, the same mercy for them that we ask for ourselves. Help us to see your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. Help us to live into your abundant, prodigal love. Amen.

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