4th Sunday of Lent, Year C
(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 3/6/2016)
What I’m going to read for you is a very familiar Scripture. The familiarity might cause you to tune it out. But maybe we can hear it differently.
When I was little, my parents sometimes told me bedtime stories. Many times, I would want to hear the same one over and over again, until I could almost tell the story myself. The repetition and familiarity of the story did not make me bored and want tune it out. Instead, it opened up my imagination more and more and more. Let’s approach this familiar story this way, and see if we can hear Jesus, the master story-teller, teaching us something brand new.
Let’s approach this familiar story like that, and see if we can hear Jesus, the master story-teller, teaching us something brand new.
“All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus told them this parable…“A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
Right now, we’re in the midst of this season of Lent, the season of preparation for Christ’s death and resurrection. Lent is over half way over, Easter is coming up quick, on March 27! On Easter Sunday, we are going to celebrate by remembering and renewing our baptisms. But during this season of Lent, we’re preparing to do that by studying in depth the baptismal vows given to us by our denomination, the United Methodist Church. Just like the last several weeks, we’re going to be studying another portion of these baptismal vows. I’d like to teach you the portion we’ll learn about this week.
[For those reading this, I proceeded to teach them the portion in repeat-after-me fashion. This is what it says: “According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”]
Remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world. Remain and represent. Those are our words for today. And we can unpack them through the Gospel lesson for today. That was a familiar story, but I hope you heard something new in it. So let’s dive into it.
So there’s a father with two sons, right? An older son and a younger son. Now back then, in the 1st century Palestine, sons would inherit portions of their father’s estate-particularly land. Usually, the oldest son got half, and the second son got a third. Now, when do you think they should have received their inheritance? When their dad passed away, right?But the younger son had the
But the younger son had the nerve to ask his father for his portion of the inheritance-one-third of his father’s land, right at that moment. He didn’t want to wait for it. They were probably a farming family, so the younger son asked for a third of the family farm-one-third of the acreage, one-third of the crops, one-third of the family’s primary source of income.
But surprise, the father actually agrees to this crazy idea. The father actually goes through the process of giving one-third of his land to his youngest son, writing the deed to it in his name, jumping through all the legal hoops. But then this little twerp doesn’t even keep the land. The younger son goes off and sells the land, and not for any good reason. It’s just so that he’ll have the cash to run off to the big city and live the high life. This is the height of dishonor. Great shame is brought on this family. This is a slap in face for the father.
Now, we know how this parable goes. If you weren’t familiar with it, you just heard it a few minutes ago [or read it]. The younger son hits rock bottom and decides to come home. He’s not expecting to be welcomed back as a full son, he only wants his father to make him a servant or a hired field hand. But his father sees him from the porch, way down the road, and sprints out to meet him, picks him up in a giant bear hug, spins him around in the air, and kisses him-that may not be exactly biblical, but that’s how I picture it. Then he throws an impromptu welcome back feast.
Last Thanksgiving, I went back to my parent’s house in Findlay, and my whole family, all six of us, did the Turkey Trot 5K in Findlay. Now don’t think I ran the 5K, but I did participate. All 4 kids, myself and my three sisters, were all able to come home. It was the first time in a long time that Mom had all of her kids home, under one roof. And she was SOOO happy.
You who are parents here can sympathize, right? Imagine that feeling that my Mom felt, that you’ve probably felt when your kids have come home after a long time of separation. Now multiply by about 100, and that’s what the father in Jesus’ story is feeling.Those are the big emotions happening here.
Now there’s a word for what happened in this parable, and that word is reconcile. Reconcile can mean several things, but if we look back at the original root of the word in Latin, reconciliare, it means “to bring back together.” [Thank you, Google] To heal a broken relationship, not back to what it was before, but to something new and stronger than what the relationship was before it was broken and put back together.
We hear that in this story of the Prodigal Son, it’s reconciliation in story form. Now this word and theme also showed up in the reading from 1 Corinthians you heard earlier. [For those reading this, check out 2 Corinthians 5:16-21] In that passage, Paul said “God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ by not counting the people’s sins against them.” Now that’s the good news of the Gospel right there, in a one-sentence summary, right? It’s also what happened in the story of the Prodigal Son. The father was reconciled with the son. The relationship was healed and transformed into something new and stronger than before because the father did not count the son’s mistakes and bad choices and jerk-ish behavior against him.
Paul goes on to say that God has entrusted us with something Paul calls the “ministry of reconciliation,” meaning that we as followers of Christ are called to share this message of reconciliation and embody it in our lives. According to Paul, that makes us Christ’s ambassadors. Another word for ambassador could be “representative.” That’s one of our words for today, isn’t it? This is the essential role of those who are members of Christ’s church. This is who we are-Christ’s representatives.
Now, like I said earlier, we’re preparing to remember our baptisms during this season of Lent. And one of the most important elements of baptism is its role as an initiation into the church. In baptism, we are made a part of this 2,000-year-old movement that had its start with a 30-year old Palestinian Jew and his 12 best friends. Throughout history, we have outlasted the rise and fall of empires, survived mass persecution, changed the course of history, and impacted and saved countless lives.
At baptism, we come home to our Father’s embrace.
Our baptismal vows join us together with this 2,000-year-old movement and bring us home to our father’s embrace, and these vows call us to remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church.
Remain-that was our other word for today, right? And we remain faithful members by serving as Christ’s representatives in the world. And we do that by bringing the message of God’s radical reconciliation to the world and embodying that reconciliation in our own lives.
We do this by living the life embodied and seen in the story in the extravagant love and generosity and welcome of the father with the humility of the son.
We tell the world “I was wandering away in the wilderness, hungry, cold, and lost. But God called me back and ran out to greet me and pulled me into God’s love when I was still far off. God absolutely accepted me back and restored me to my original state as God’s child. And if God can do that for me, God can certainly do that for you.”
In baptism, Christ has called us remain faithful members of the church by being representatives who engage in this ministry of reconciliation. And we do this by bringing the extravagant, overflowing love of the father for the Prodigal Son out into the world. So I ask you, who in your life needs this reconciliation?
Is there a broken relationship in your life that needs to be mended? Are you the one who broke the relationship? God has given you the grace to bring healing to that relationship.
Is there someone you know-a friend, a classmate, a coworker, a family member-who needs to hear that someone loves them, who needs to experience that love? I guarantee you, we all have someone who needs that in our lives. God has given you the grace to show them the reconciling love of God.
Is there someone in your life who has come to the point of being ready to come back to God, to be reconciled with God? Is there someone in your lie who is ready to return home into God’s embrace? God has given you the grace to guide them into this reconciliation.
Are you the one who needs to experience this reconciling love of God, the love that patches up brokenness, sews up wounds, brings people back together and brings all people into the loving embrace of a God who has never stopped waiting and watching and pining for us? God has given you the grace to experience this reconciling love for yourself.
By the grace God has given all of us, let us all remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church by serving as Christ’s representatives in the world, bringing this message of reconciling love out into our communities.