Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Joshua 9:5-12 ++ Psalm 31 ++ 2 Corinthians 5:16-31 ++ Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. (Luke 5:32)

There was a woman who had two sons. The younger son was artistic and sensitive, suffered from mental illness and emotional wounds from childhood and fell in with a bad crowd as a young teenager. Periods of living independently, supporting his children, and steady work were interrupted with periods of substance addiction, mostly opioids, and moving home to live with his mother. To feed his addiction and that of his girlfriend, he stole from his mother, depended on her to support him with food and gas money, and, the woman suspects, permitted her house to be broken into by so-called friends of his then-girlfriend. When his mother was weeping from the severe pain from radiation treatments for breast cancer, the son and his girlfriend even stole her pain meds.

After the break-up of that relationship, the younger son became involved with a woman with a heroin addiction. The mother did not want an active addict living under her roof, so the son and his girlfriend moved into a single wide trailer in the country where they had no money, no food, and no jobs. The power was cut off in the trailer, and they lived on what they could beg from others. To make money, they built a methamphetamine lab in the trailer but were soon caught and arrested.

Months in jail forced the son into recovery. Convicted and released to a mandated rehab treatment program, his future was dim as a convicted felon with a fragile recovery from addiction. When it was time for his release, his mother drove the miles to where he was and took him home with her, moved him into her guest room, cooked his meals, bought his gas, and waited patiently for him to get a job so that he could get back on his feet.

The older son is highly successful with a happy marriage and two children. He bailed his brother out of jail once, but when the younger brother fell back into addiction, he refused to help any further nor would he let his brother visit because he didn’t want him around his own children.

The woman loves both of her sons – the one who is successful and the one who has struggled all of his life. Her love is not contingent on their success or how good they are or even how they treat her. And when the son who had been jailed was finally released, she went to him with open arms to welcome him home.

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Many times in my preaching, I have urged you to never forget that you must always, always read a passage of scripture in the context of what surrounds it. I think I may need to add an addendum that this is even more critical when it’s a familiar story like this one, commonly known as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s so easy to think we know what it means, but do we? Really?

The editors of our lectionary mislead us just a bit, because they begin at the beginning of the 15thchapter of Luke but then skip over 8 whole verses; they skip the story of the shepherd who left his 99 sheep to go retrieve that one that was lost, and they skip the one about the woman who lost her coin and swept her house clean trying to find it, throwing a party and inviting her friends when she located it.

Our story begins with: “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable…” (15:1-3).

He doesn’t launch into the story of the prodigal son, he starts with the lost sheep then lost coin and only then does he get around to the lost son. It’s the “lost-ness” of the prodigal that is the point of this story and the father’s joy at his return, just like in the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

When this younger son demands of his father his portion, the word Luke uses, βίον, literally means “life.” He took his father’s life. He as much as said “you’re dead to me.” And then Luke tells us he committed every sin in the book with that inheritance. Our translation says he engaged in “dissolute living” (15:13), but the Greek word Luke uses is not found anywhere else in the bible, and it doesn’t exactly mean “dissolute.” It’s an adverb, ἀσώτως (asōtōs), that means “prodigally.” He lived prodigally, spending freely and recklessly. This is where we get the common title for this parable – the Prodigal Son. 

This guy goes off, blows through his fortune – his father’s life – lands on the streets homeless and hungry, and then hatches upon a plan.

Yes, it would be nice to think that he realized that he had wronged his father and abandoned his family and that he felt badly about it all. But that’s not how it happened.

He was drooling over the pig’s leftovers and saw that he’d hit rock bottom, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up on his addictive way of thinking that he could make things happen just because of his charm and persuasive personality. That particular moral defect would have to be dealt with at another time.

No, he plans his speech. “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll go home, hat in my hands, crawling on my knees if I have to, begging for forgiveness so that I can have a decent meal and sleep in my nice, cozy bed again.”

There is no sign of contrition, the way Luke tells it. He’s completely manipulating the situation to get back in his old man’s good graces. He probably expects that his father is going to be a hard sell, angry and resentful. This son was probably prepared to beg, to be sent out with the servants to sleep with the animals. At least it would be better than where he was now.

And this is where Jesus plays a trick on his listeners. It’s sort of a joke, really, because while it seems that this story is about a young man living prodigally, the one who is really the prodigal is the father.

He is so happy to see his son again that he loses all sense of decorum and goes running down the driveway to greet him, cloak flapping in the breeze, hair flying all over the place. He doesn’t care what he looks like or how he shouldbe responding. His son who was lost is now come home, and he gives him the most extravagantly generous welcome he can, rolling out the red carpet and barbecuing the fatted calf, throwing a party for the whole neighborhood. The son barely had a chance to get the first well-rehearsed word out of his mouth.

Now, if I’m one of the Pharisees listening to this story, I’m wondering what the heck this Jesus is talking about at this point, because, remember, our reading starts with them grumbling about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, right?

And then comes the money shot. Big brother gets his jockey shorts all in a twist because that self-centered, snot-nosed little brother of his has come groveling home and dad, that doddering old fool, doesn’t take a horse whip to him. No! Dad dresses him in his own best robe and puts rings on his fingers and bells on his toes and throws the biggest bash ever seen in these parts, and big brother doesn’t like that too much, does he?

He pitches a fit! He gets up on his self-righteous high horse and practically screams at his dad that hewas the one who did everything right. Hewas the one who followed all the rules. Heshould be the one getting a party thrown for him.

And it’s at about this point that I imagine the blood draining from the faces of those law-abiding Pharisees, because they know where they fit in this story, and they don’t come out looking too good.

But the father loves the older son, anyway, just as God loves the Pharisees. It isn’t that the older son did anything wrong, he just never realized that he didn’t have to do all of those things to earn his father’s love – it was his all along. 

Going back to what I said earlier about the idea of lost-ness. Imagine for a moment how the father was when the son was gone. Imagine him staring out the window, looking for some sign that his beloved was on his way home. Perhaps he left a candle in the window each night to provide a path of light. It isn’t just that we decide to turn around, it’s that God’s steadfast and unwavering love for us invites us to turn, whether we’re the wandering child or the older son who was just as lost because he couldn’t see the love and acceptance right in front of him.

This father wills the reconciliation of the son who was lost as well as for the son who stayed, to be reconciled to him, to themselves, and to each other. Thisis the ministry of reconciliation to which we are called; it’s an inside job – it starts inside each one of us. It is an answer to an invitation to turn around. It can not be earned, only received. It is pure grace.

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The woman in the story I told at the beginning is my sister. The two sons are my nephews. There have been many times over the years that I have warned my sister to stop letting her younger son take advantage of her, to make sure he pulls his own weight. Like my older nephew, I refused for a while to send money or help even when my nephew was hungry, because I didn’t want to feed his addiction. I told my sister I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to let the younger son return home for any length of time.

And yet, there they are. A mother who loves prodigally, not just the younger son but the older, as well. All that matters to her is that one was lost and is found, the one that was dead has come back to life. And the one that was never lost is just as beloved. 

This is the closest we will ever get to understanding God’s love. No matter how far we stray or what awful thing we may have done, and no matter how good and faithful we are, we are still welcomed with open arms. So put that speech back in your pocket and turn around and come home to this table that Christ has prepared for all who love him. God will meet you there with extravagant, prodigal love and acceptance. Thisis the party that the father throws for us. You don’t have to do anythingto earn it. All that is required is for you to show up and say “yes.”

ASEPSermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas