The Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

Luke 15.1-3, 11-32; (2 Corinthians 5.16-21)

In our staff meeting this week, as we read the epistle lesson for today, it seemed the obvious choice for the sermon. After all, how many sermons can one preach on the Prodigal Son? And what better news than Paul’s proclamation that, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” God’s reconciliation of us through Jesus has given us the ministry of reconciliation. What better choice for sermon material on this Lenten midpoint Sunday-when the Lenten theme switches from judgment and repentance to mercy and forgiveness and joy.

But then comes the gospel, the familiar story of the Prodigal Son, as nothing less than the perfect model and illustration for what Paul is talking about. The grace of reconciliation, of the reconciling love and righteousness of God.

So here we are on Refreshment Sunday, Mothering Sunday, Latare (or “Rejoice”) Sunday. Whichever name you choose, the end or purpose is the same: to remind us that, ultimately, this season is not so much to mark sorrow for our sins but to work toward attaining our place as “ambassadors for Christ” and heirs of God’s kingdom.

In the end, the message of the gospel, the message of the Prodigal Son, is the one we should hear loud and clear: that God’s love, God’s reconciliation, God’s forgiveness and welcome home comes to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I’m reminded of the old Corn Flakes commercial that invites us to, “Try them again for the very first time.” And, with that mantra in mind, let us look again, maybe for the first time, at the very familiar parable.

First, it is a parable that can be heard in different ways and can take different twists in our imaginations. Most of us, at one time or another, have identified with all of the 3 main characters. We’ve seen ourselves, on our best days, as the loving parent. We’ve identified with the Prodigal Son and, probably for most of us, most of the time, on our worst days, with the older brother.
We are Loyal.
We play by the rules. And we don’t like people that don’t.
We understand his feelings, and join in his resentment and the fuss made over this twerp who wasted his inheritance and then came crawling back for a second helping. Who hasn’t been there: taken for granted by a parent (a partner, a sibling, a child, a boss, our church). Everyone pays attention to the prodigals. But what about us? The good old salt-of-the-earth, hard working, dependable, humble, non-complaining, faithful “chumps,” it would seem. We can become as bitter as the brother just thinking about it.

Who gives the “steady Eddies” a party? Yet, even as we align ourselves with the brother, as a team member, as one of us, AS US, he also reminds us of the Pharisees and the scribes that constantly pained Jesus. And well he should, for this is the context of the parable. In the first verses of Chapter 15, and our Gospel reading today, the Pharisees are criticizing Jesus for associating with sinners—prodigals. And so Jesus tells his parable, not to teach some timeless truth, but rather to point out the reaction of the Pharisees–the “good sons”–to God’s unconditional love and grace—and to speak about what is happening concretely, at that moment, in his life and ministry. But it is timeless, too.

For Christian love is never seen apart from the cross. It is the greatest symbol of love and forgiveness. It is the ultimate sign of sacrifice and acceptance –for all. For it is only by the gift of grace that any can be called children and welcomed home. The good and the fallen.

The Prodigal is rebellious, selfish, self-centered, wreaking havoc not only in his life but in the lives of those who love him. Yet, when it all falls apart, he remembers that love he abandoned and he begins the journey home. He recognizes his need for grace and forgiveness, and receives it.

The older brother, the good and righteous son, is faithful to and appreciated by the father, but misses his blessing of being home – misses the joy of unconditional love (for his brother and from his father) – because he is too busy keeping score. He cannot accept grace because he cannot extend grace. He misses the opportunity to be reconciled and to be a reconciler. He misses the celebration for the return of his brother, which should really be a celebration for all.

The parable, besides being about the reconciling and uncontrollable love of God, is also about understanding just who is in control. The Prodigal returns with a humble heart, turning over and over in his mind just how he will approach his Father: with head down and knees bent, as a servant, unworthy, begging forgiveness and asking to be taken back as a slave. He wants to establish the conditions for his return, hard as they may be on himself.

The elder brother also wants to be in charge. By maintaining his distance and refusing to accept his brother without conditions, he seeks to maintain control over and set the rules for the father’s acceptance of the wayward son. There have to be consequences for his brother’s errors. There has to be some order or rank that gives him, the loyal son, the most favored status.

But according to Jesus’ story, the father will have none of this. He goes out first to the younger son refusing his conditions. He gives him all the symbols sonship—full sonship—and throws a great welcome home party, restoring him to the family circle, without conditions.

He then extends himself to the older brother, reminding him that his love and care know no bounds and have always been freely given—to all his children. The love of the father is a no questions, no conditions love which reaches out in acceptance to both sons. It is a love that spends itself freely as it seeks to restore to the family table not only the Prodigal, who physically went away, but also the elder son who was spiritually lost in his self-righteousness.

How difficult it is, whether we are prodigal or prudent children, to accept forgiveness, or give it, when people don’t live up to our standards or expectations.

Have you ever had the experience of being forgiven by someone close to you for an offense you’ve committed? Maybe you approached that person with the same fear and shame that the Prodigal had when he approached his father, carefully rehearsing what you would say, how best to put your offense on the table. And then that person met you and received and forgave you before you could even deliver your carefully rehearsed speech to try and win that person’s favor again.

If you have, then you know what a powerful experience it is. You know you have experienced a cleansing of the spirit and a restoring of the soul. You have experienced the reconciling grace of God that Paul and Jesus call each of us to possess as imitators of our Father in heaven and ambassadors of Christ.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! [And] All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry [and responsibility] of reconciliation.

No matter where we are or where we’ve been, if we will turn toward God, he will come and meet us and welcome us as his favorite child, for that is what we all are.

John Newton was a ship’s captain and slave runner in the 18th century. He lived a life that would have made the Prodigal Son look like Gandhi. But one night when he and his ship were delivered from a storm that almost sunk them, he realized the grace of God comes to even the worst of sons. He never forgot how God saved him, not just from shipwreck but also from moral disaster and despair. Newton gave up his life as a sea captain, became a priest and worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery in England.

If you don’t know Newton from that part of his life, you may know him as the author of several hymns, one written about his own experience with God’s unconditional love and forgiveness:

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

Indeed, God’s grace is amazing! Indeed, God’s love is full and complete. Indeed, God’s forgiveness is freely given to each one of us who will receive it. God comes and meets us with open arms, offering forgiveness without conditions and love without questions.

And he invites us to join him as guests at the feast, children at the family table, ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors for Christ. May we accept the invitation. May we seek our place and God’s grace.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.