Sunday, March 31, 2019
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
Prayer of the Day
God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Readings and Psalm
Joshua 5:9-12 Israel eats bread and grain, the produce of the land
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 The mystery and ministry of reconciliation
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 The parable of the prodigal father and the repentant son
Title: Small Details, Great Grace
The favorite and familiar – what comfort we find in them, what joy when we come back to them. Whether it be a favorite song or a favorite movie or a favorite book or poem. A few notes of melody, a single bit of dialogue from the script, reading or singing an opening line, hearing a brief phrase of melody can be all that is needed, and memory supplies the rest as we bring to mind all that is necessary, and we are filled with joy and comfort, delight and warmth. Which ones are on your list? What are you favorite and familiar songs, movies, books, and poems? Being a movie lover, my favorite and familiar film list is the longest. One image from a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life and my mind fills in every detail from George Bailey’s life that we experience in full through the scenes of the movie. Lines from early in the film that meant nothing to me the first or second time I watched it now move me to tears because I know what they are pointing to, I understand with deeper awareness their significance.
Now that we live in the wonderful world of 1,000 channels of cable and “on demand” viewing, not to mention streaming from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and a bunch of other services whose numbers are growing by the day, I find that while channel surfing all I have to do is take in five minutes of a favorite and familiar movie and I’m set, I can move on, it’s like I watched the whole thing with one jog of the memory, all the pleasure and delight of the movie in a quick five minute refreshing sample.
Perhaps you had this type of reaction to the gospel reading this morning that contains one of Jesus’ most well-known parables. The story we call The Prodigal Son. It’s right up there with the Good Samaritan when listing Jesus’ greatest hits, the ones we are most familiar with. All you have to do is say “There was a man who had two sons…” and its, “oh, yeah I know this one.” The well-versed listener stops back into the story for the killing of the fatted calf and returns for the finale to hear the classic line because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. We know it so well. And there is joy and comfort in this familiar, if not favorite, story.
The story fits in perfectly with our Lost and Found Lenten series as it is the third of the three Lost Parables that Jesus tells in the heart of Luke’s gospel. Lost sheep, lost coin, lost son.
But perhaps because this story is so familiar to us such that we think we know it backwards and forwards like all those other favorites and familiars, perhaps what is lost is some of the most important details. This time, rather than the Devil being in the details, I’d propose that it is the gospel, the good news, that is in the details. Details the we risk missing because of our familiarity of this favorite story.
One detail that is crucial to appreciating the impact of this parable is not even part of the story’s narrative. It is found in the first three verses of this 15th chapter of Luke that contains all three of the parables about lost and found things. For the purposes of our reading this morning, and so that we would not miss this detail, these three verses were tacked on to the beginning of our story. They set up the context for Jesus to tell these three parables. As we read, there Jesus is, hanging out with the dregs of society. Even eating with them. Tax collectors – the hated traitors who, in the name of Roman oppression, collect from and probably cheat their fellow Jews. And other sinners – AKA breakers of the laws that the Pharisees cling to and are defined by. In a classic case of foreshadowing, Jesus, with these dregs of society, is already at the end of the story. There is a party going on and he is the host. The ones seen as lost are guests of honor, and there are a whole bunch of older brothers standing around grumbling. When we get to the fatted-calf feasting party at the end of the story, perhaps it would be a good thing to go back and remind ourselves of this context of the story’s telling and imagine Jesus with a big grin on his face inviting those Older Brother/Pharisees to join the party, share the joy of being found.
Now, everyone always loves a story about the one who turns their life around, has that moment of redemption, decides to make the necessary changes. Inwardly, we cheer as they pick themselves up and perform the big corrective. Of course, this story has that moment. There in the pig sty. With those unclean animals that law-abiding Jews do not eat, let alone keep, or tend to. But listen carefully how that moment is expressed. The young son has lost it all, suffering in the midst of a famine, doing the lowest possible work, and we read “But when he came to himself.” Not, when we was thoroughly disgusted with himself. Not, when he felt sorry enough for what he had done or was ashamed of himself. We read “when he came to himself.” When he realized who we was. When he was reminded of his identity as the son of that father he had left behind. He had lost the wealth. He lost his ability to provide for himself. Maybe, he had lost his dignity. But he had not lost his identity. He was still a child of that parent. No matter what the Pharisees were saying about the folks who Jesus was partying with, Jesus was saying to them, saying to us, “you are children of God. That is your identity. I see it. I bless it. I’ll search you out because of it. Come to see it in yourself. You are welcome to my table because of it.” There is no shame when our eternal, grace-born identity is child of God, given to us in the waters of baptism.
I guess one of the best things about a favorite and familiar anything is that, as you live with it, you develop new favorite things about it. It evolves as you return to it each time. For me, over the time of living with this story, one of my favorite details, that could go unnoticed in the name of familiarity, is found in the moment when the son is on his way home. And we read: But while he was still far off, his father saw him. That means his father was watching the road not off attending to the business of the farm. He was standing on the porch or at the gate or maybe in the road itself. Watching. The parent was looking for the child. With the lost sheep, the shepherd goes looking for the sheep. In the lost coin, the woman cleans the house looking for the coin. In this story we don’t read that the father goes looking for the son. But there the father is. Watching. Probably every day, every month, every year, since that child of his decided to leave. The father never forgot he had a child. The parent never disowned the child. The child was never out of the parent’s mind, even though the child was out of sight. Shame separates from the community. In the parent’s mind, there was no shameful separation. There was only longing. And so, there was uninterrupted watching, looking for the missing child.
And take note of this, the older brother is really not so different from the younger brother. Sure he doesn’t leave the farm. However, the older brother is also lost. Lost in his work that he thinks will keep his father happy. Win his father’s favor. He is lost in his anger and his jealousy at how his father is welcoming home his lost child. One need to go away to be lost. And like his younger brother, he needs to come to himself. He tells his father that he has been working like a slave. He no longer sees himself as a cherished child. He even enters the story out in the field, in that place of works, where we convince ourselves that what we do and accomplish determines our worth.
But then comes the best similarity between the two brothers, the father comes looking for the older brother as well. The party is going on and the father wants everyone there, all the kids, in their mercifully prepared place – at the feasting table. The loving parent will stand in the road and wait. The patient parent will go out into his/her own fields. Wherever the kids are missing out on what is prepared and offered, that’s where the parent will go looking.
And what does the parent say about this party that welcomes everyone home – “we HAD to celebrate. We HAD TO CELEBRATE.” Because that is what a parent defined by love does.
May we become more familiar with the love of this parent who is our God, as we grow in the understanding of just what a favorite each of us are. Yes, God has to celebrate. Let’s join the party and take our place at the table. After all the party is for us. It’s just a taste now, but it points us to so much more to come.
The Rev. Mark Erson,