Sunday, March 27, 2022
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. Amen.
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: Prodigal Dead Son Walking
Does the Wicked Witch of the West still make you as scared as you may have been when you watched the Wizard of Oz as a kid? Do you still get a lump in your throat and/or a tear in your eye when that parade of friends and neighbors bring George Bailey whatever he needs at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life? Does Princess Bride still delight and captivate you as it did the first couple of times you watched it? Do you still laugh to the point of tears at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown on that classic episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Are you still charmed and warmed by Linus’ telling of the Christmas Story on A Charlie Brown Christmas?
Perhaps some are yeses. Perhaps some have lost their power and their impact over time and repeated viewings. For those who have heard Jesus’ story in today’s gospel reading many, many times, to the point that you could just about tell it yourself without missing a detail; what has happened to this story of the Prodigal Son in your mind and your heart. Do you hear the beginning and automatically and immediately skip to the end?
And for those who have not heard Jesus tell it as much, perhaps this original story has lost some of its impact because there have been so many stories, novels, films, TV shows, that have adapted Jesus’ story line. Names, locations, time periods, details have changed, but the basic arc of the story remains. It’s almost become its own genre. Child has everything they need, not satisfied, goes off and lives irresponsibly and wastefully, comes home, parents welcome them back, creates tension with other family members. Usually there is peace in the end, because we all love a happy ending. It’s an old chestnut. It’s considered formulaic. It might be seen as a cliché.
With the help of theologian and priest Robert Capon, perhaps we can find some new life in this old story. The paradox is that the new life for it is found when we bring death into the story. Death, you ask. Who died? Don’t they all live happily ever after? Assuming that the cranky brother sees the light and comes into the party. (Although Jesus never includes that hoped for detail.) But to get the full grace-filled impact of this story, Capon suggests that we have to see death in the story. In fact, multiple deaths.
The first to die is the father. Yup, he is as good as died after the son comes to him and says he wants his share of the inheritance. He might as well be saying: “Dad, could you hurry up and die so that I could have my inheritance and get on with my life.” The father obliges and, in estate planning terms, kills himself. As Jesus tells it: “And so he divided his property between them.” Take note it says them. The two sons. We’ll come back to the other brother later.
So, with his father as good as dead, the kid goes off and squanders all that has been given to him. All of it. Nothing is left of what the parent provided except the kid himself. He can’t even feed himself. And as we heard, no one gave him anything. At which point, we are told (and I always love this line) he came to himself. I always want to hear that phrase to say, he reminds himself whose kid he is. But he actually misses his own point. Because he talks himself into the thinking that he can never again be his parents’ child, he can never again be a member of the family that he was born into, the only way he can return to a fraction of the abundance and the life of his origins is to become a hired hand. He will have to work to receive anything that the family has to offer.
And so, we have the second death in the story – the son has killed his son-ship, and is recreated a hired-hand, a worker, someone who receives what he receives only because of the labors, accomplishments, works that he does. He even writes and rehearses his own eulogy. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” So, with his self-imposed funeral completed, he heads home to share the news of his own death.
Now apparently, the parent has been spending post-life life on the porch. Watching and waiting. Watching and waiting. Staring down the road. Eyes locked on the horizon. Watching and waiting. Because finally, when the day of return comes, he sees the wayward son returning home “while he is still a far way off.” He has been watching and longing for this day. And as one who truly understands death and all that is lost in it, the parent goes running out to meet the son and cuts him off before he can announce his own death. He refuses to hear the eulogy no matter how poetic or well-rehearsed. In the parent’s eyes, in the welcoming embrace, the child is restored, the dead one is pronounced alive. No works done by the would-be servant are able to bring the dead one back to life, no matter how well intentioned the son’s “I’m your servant now” plan was. Only the gift of grace from the parent can bring the dead child back to life. There is no lengthy detailed confession that qualifies for the grace. There is no “making amends” that qualifies for the grace. Grace is grace. And the one who has overcome death is the who knows and can pronounce that the one who was dead is now alive by grace.
Capon points out that there must be a death in order for grace to be received. Grace, by definition, cannot be given or received if there is any hint of the old life’s labors seeking reward or qualification.
Which takes us out to the barn. To that other sibling. The hard worker. The underappreciated one. The only member of the family who has not died in this story. And so, therefore, is not seeing or understanding this foreign concept of grace. A concept foreign to the one clinging to his own life, a gift unknown to the hard-working ones. Among that original audience, listening to Jesus tell this story for the first time, were some foreign-to-grace non-dead ones that are identified as the grumbling Pharisees and scribes who were condemning Jesus for welcoming the dead who are seeking new life.
But back to the barn. The other brother is feeling neglected, over-worked, under-rewarded, hating his life. Obviously, not a frame of mind for appreciating grace shown to him or to anyone else. He doesn’t even see the reality that the father calls to mind: “All that is mine is yours.” Remember back when the father died by dividing his estate between the two kids? Not only did the about-to-leave-home son receive his share of the inheritance; but the one sticking around got his too. He is living in full possession of all that the family has. And yet, he has not even treated himself to a party with a goat on the spit. He is working so hard that he is unable to see the abundance. Putting the farm hand to death, would have allowed for the child to rise to new life.
St. Paul writes: 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God… How can we become new creations if we don’t die? But when we die to self, we die knowing that God is watching, ready to embrace us with new life. And Paul reminds us that this is the message that we are called to bring to the world. And yet, too often the church has sounded more like the brother in the barn. Perhaps we ourselves have, if not sounded like him, have thought like, judged like, the brother in the barn. Well, it all dies there on the cross. And we know, with empty-grave confidence, that God-gifting grace will welcome us home. And what a party God throws for each and every one of us. The foretaste is here at the altar. And our watery-start at the font tells us that this is a party that has no end.
By the leading of the Spirit, hear the good news again for the first time, transform the heart-warming message into resurrection joy. Add death to your story to see that God in Christ Jesus is making you a new creation, welcoming you home by the power of the most amazing grace, and only by grace.
The Rev. Mark Erson,