Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year C] - March 6, 2016 (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

It was a brilliant attempt at bridging an increasingly polarized conflict. The two sides had become irreconcilable to each other, and it had actually gotten kind of nasty. They both found each other repulsive, and the dislike between the two groups had become so strong and intense that members of either side wouldn’t dare be caught with the others. In fact, as time wore on, even though the plan was to bring people closer together, the two groups were actually moving farther and farther apart. There had been debates, and, my, how the sparks had flown! Those who had watched them had harbored some hope that they would clear up some of the issues, but the disputes had actually muddied the waters even more. Things were reaching a boiling point, and so the person at the center of the controversy, the one person who had been able to listen and engage both sides reached for one of the most trusted tricks in his bag. He told a story.

He told them a story—a story that he hoped would illustrate that they both had a place at the table, that in the new regime no one was going to be left out intentionally. It was a story which would use everyday images and occurrences but then he would twist them just a bit, then add a mixture of exaggeration in order to get them interested in how it might all play out. It was a story which, of course, he hoped they might recognize themselves in—both the members of the legalistic rule-following crowd and the ones who didn’t seem to care about rules.

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" (Batoni, 1773)
In the story there was a father with two sons and right at the start everyone knew what that meant: boys do what father says. The older one would one day be fully independent and receive the majority of the estate—once the father died, of course—and the younger son would receive whatever was leftover. But right at the start of the story something goes horribly, offensively wrong. The younger son, seemingly out of nowhere, walks up to his father and unceremoniously demands his portion of the property right that moment. This is kind of unheard of, and that group of rule-followers listening to the story probably would have thrown up a little bit in their mouths at that point. No one has the audacity to do that, except the most vulgar of people. No one makes a request for their inheritance while their parent is still living. It’s basically like saying, “I wish you were dead.”

Most other fathers most likely wouldn’t have handed his son the money, but for whatever crazy reason this father does. He takes the younger son right to the bank, gets the attorney and the will, does some basic calculations, and liquidates the assets. He divides out who gets what and the younger son then promptly takes his share of the cash and gets as far from his dad as he possibly can. Think Vegas. Or the Cayman Islands. Wherever you would go to escape it all and put your past behind you…that’s where this guy heads. And there is no intention of staying in touch. He goes off the grid completely. He wants absolutely nothing to do with that place he came from.

But the way in which he lives ultimately is a dead end for him. He never sees the famine coming, but even if that hadn’t happened, he would have had plenty of problems sooner or later. He winds up working for some guy who pays him just to slop pigs, a dirty job that no self-respecting Jewish person would lower himself to, even if he weren’t that religious. And a strange things starts to happen to him while he’s hungry and covered in mud. Maybe it was a childhood memory. Maybe it was the thought of his mother fixing his old favorite food. Something starts him thinking about all that he left behind him. He’s an awful long way away now, but might there be a way to get back? He knows his father, if he’s like any normal father out there, would never welcome him back as an equal, but maybe he’d be able to get a job there and he’d at least not have to worry about starving to death.

So he comes to himself. Literally. It’s like part of him had been wandering elsewhere while a small part of him had secretly stayed behind, and at this point, the two parts meet up again.  The wandering him comes back to the long-lost version of himself and he realizes everything more clearly. He practices a little speech that might win his father back over, and he starts off back towards home.

So far much of this story has been very over-the-top—the disrespect shown by the younger son, the profligacy of the father, the job slopping pigs out in Timbuktu. But the most over-the-top part of the story what comes next. The father sees his son on the road back and runs out to meet him. At this point you realize that this father must have been waiting the whole time, because otherwise it would have been really uncanny that he just happened to spot his son in the distance coming back. The father runs out to his son on the road and is so excited he tries to chest bump his son. He starts high-fiving him, basically smothering him with love because he’s so happy to see him. And the younger son, probably a little taken aback, starts to go through his well-rehearsed speech about being sorry and everything, but before he can really get to the end of it the father has already started texting the kitchen to throw on some barbecue. He’s ordering a tent so friends can come over and they can party all night. And he’s got the D.J. lined up. Just to drive it all home, they’re going to start the party off with that song by American Idol winner Phillip Phillips from a few years back, the one that goes,

Settle down, it’ll all be clear.
Don’t pay no mind to the demons, they fill you with fear.
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone.
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home.

That’s what’s playing in the background as they head back to the ranch.

Which is what the other son must have heard. All the focus so far has naturally been on that younger, wandering son, but all this while the older, dutiful son has been helping out dad and not interfering with anyone’s life. And yet, he is just as distant as the young son. He hears the party and can’t even bring himself to join in. Not only that, but instead of asking his father what’s going on he goes to one of the slaves to find out. He is so angry and confused about what his father is doing that he doesn’t even want to be a part of it. He’s out there Tweeting, though, all kinds of nasty things about his family. #unfair #cantbelieveit #wheresmyparty.

And then, for the second time in the story, the father comes out of the house to greet a son. For the second time in the story, the father deals lovingly and patiently with profound disrespect from one of his sons.

"The Prodigal Son" (Auguste Rodin)
Remember that one of the original ideas behind telling the story about these two sons was to get them to recognize themselves, the Pharisees and scribes, especially, since they were acting kind of like the older brother. But the main idea, the storyteller hopes, is to get them to recognize the father. He’s the one who brings it all together. He’s a father of profound grace and understanding, a parent who is more excited to celebrate the restoration of someone’s life than in handing out punishments. He’s a father of seemingly unlimited compassion, who waits patiently and pleads insistently. He’s a father who illustrates that the kingdom of God is always running out onto the road to forgive and renew, who wants both sides—all sides—to join in the joy of bringing everyone home. That’s the nature of this father’s love, which is something the older son is too self-focused for the time-being to understand: It is inherently a love that looks outward, waiting, anticipating a chance to show mercy. That’s who the man telling them the story wants them to recognize, because that love can actually pull these two groups together.

The story ends, though, without any resolution, which is another quirky feature of the way this guy tells stories. We never know if the older son actually makes his way into the party and is reconciled with his brother and his father. We don’t know if the younger son, perhaps, wanders away and gets lost again. It’s kind of open-ended, any conclusion playing itself out over and over again in the lives of the listeners who get lost and then found, then lost and found again…or who get self-possessed and resentful and then found again.

Eventually the time for storytelling, however, runs out, and the man who tries desperately to bring all of God’s children under one loving kingdom of profound forgiveness ends up dying to do so. He lays his life down on the cross in order to show what so many of his stories and sermons tried to: that it’s impossible to get too far from his Father’s love. It just can’t be done. No amount of turning your back on his life, no amount of ignoring the grace, no amount of internal resentment and selfishness no amount of dying can separate you from this God.

The focus of Lent is repentance, learning to receive again and again God’s grace in Christ. Two weeks ago repentance looked like coming to terms with our vulnerability as humans and realizing God is our refuge. Last week it meant understanding our lifelong responsibility for growth in faith and God’s desire to give us new chances to attempt that. This week it’s about coming to ourselves, turning around, and running back into the open arms of a God whose instinct is to come out onto the road of life to meet us.

The troubles, they might drag you down
You get lost, but you can always get found.
Just know you’re not alone…
This God will always be your home.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


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