Unfortunately we had some sound issues following the sermon. Our apologies.
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C
27 March 2022
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
When our kids were little and they were at a friend’s house or their friend was at our house, often they did not want to leave they so enjoyed each other’s company.
Parents would usually visit with each other for a bit, get coat and shoes ready, maybe pick up the backpack if it was an after school play date. And then I would say that it’s now time to go, and that if we don’t leave we can’t come back.
I thought I was pretty smart in saying this for it affirmed their friendship while at the same time it insisted that we had to go.
That is also the history of some of us with the church, we can’t come back if we don’t leave, and our relationship after we have left and come back may be qualitatively different than the relationship we had before. But of course, some don’t come back.
A friend in Winnipeg told me some years ago how nice it was when her son and partner came to visit, shortly after he had moved out. She said, ‘we sat around the table and visited with each other. When he was living at home he’d just eat and get up.’ Suddenly they perceived each other’s presence as a gift.
I don’t know why the young man in the story had to leave. Understandably, we have not held him in high regard. But he has inspired the imagination of countless preachers and artists, particularly in regards to loose women and pigs, but especially loose women. Of course, the story is not about livestock, nor about women of our imagination.
The painter Max Beckmann painted a wonderful picture of the younger son in a setting that looks like a bawdy house. Surrounded by three scantily clad women we see the son sitting at a table, lost in thought, his head resting in his hands, disengaged from his surroundings.
There is a debate among English language interpreters who in the story is prodigal, is it the son who wastes his inheritance in dissolute living, or is it the father who does not hesitate to have him back, and the majority vote is on the father, so that the story should properly be called The Story of the Prodigal Father.
But Christians in other languages have given this story different titles, and I just happen to know what the story is called in German. It is called ‘The Story of the Lost Son.’
It is true, the title still focuses on the son, but it says something about him that is truer than the English title. He may be wasteful, but he doesn’t even know it. What he really is, is lost. And that is the way Beckmann depicted him in the bawdy house. Fully clothed, and out of sorts and out of place. Not interested in his surroundings, but feeling pain and emptiness inside of him, alienated not only from his father, but alienated from himself, having looked for life in all the wrong places.
There is a beautiful prayer for the First Sunday in Lent we have used from time to time that articulates this experience, as what it describes is common not only to the one we call the Prodigal but to all of us:
God, whose hands have molded all the earth; bring us to the place of discernment
that we may never mistake the tinsel of the world for your glory,
nor bow to that which is evil,
nor offer stones to those who hunger for bread,
but rather serve you with a Sabbath mind
and worship you only;
through Jesus Christ, your Word near us. Amen.1
Mistaking the tinsel of the world for God’s glory is the phrase that resonates with me. It’s not about God’s creation which is beautiful and which helps us urban folk to pull away from the busyness of life and about which God said it was good.
No, the tinsel of the world is anything that mistakes secondary things for primary things, penultimate things for ultimate things.
Tinsel is a great metaphor because while it is pretty, it can only reflect the light, but never be the light. And astonishingly human beings have a great capacity to go for reflections, for anything that sparkles, for the newest trend, movie, show, innovation, technology, whatever. And chasing the things that sparkle, we never make it to the light.
The Prodigal, the lost son, lived in the light but he didn’t know it until after he had had left.
Joni Mitchell sings, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.’
I am not suggesting that one has to leave the church, or that paradise has to be turned into a parking lot – I never left the church and never left the faith, I am only suggesting that it happens, and while it’s sad, it’s not the end because sometimes it is in the dark that we see the light and not just the tinsel.
It can also be that we, who call the Prodigal names, after all, we call him ‘prodigal’, and whose imagination is inspired by dissolute living, are far too concerned about appearances, about what’s on the outside, that we look down on those who have strayed, and that we are so concerned with appearances that we too no longer see the light that is Christ. Remember here that it’s the older brother who speaks of prostitutes, but that is only his imagination, too. He wasn’t there as far as we know.
One does not have to leave the church to leave God. One can distance oneself from God while still attending church. I am not speaking of questions or doubts which are healthy and which Fredrick Buechner calls “the ants in the pants of faith that keep faith alive and moving”, I am talking about a lack of love. Lukewarm is what the Book of Revelation calls it.
My parents were married for 30 years before my father moved out. After he did, my father’s siblings both said that my parents never should have married. I can’t speak to that as I wasn’t born yet, and hadn’t they gotten together I may not have been born. But my mother was ill and neither my father nor my mother knew it, and so they lived under one roof but they were miles apart.
That’s the kind of distance we see in the older brother. He was always home, always loyal, but somehow in his heart he had drifted away, which is why he does not see his father’s generosity, and which is why he cannot practice generosity, and which is why love is absent from his heart. Does he not, in some small way, as much as the disappointment still wears on him, rejoice and feel love for his brother who was dead but is alive again? The older brother never left physically, and yet he is not there, not with his father, and not with his brother.
This is a story about home, about being home with God. It is a story about God’s unconditional welcome. And the unconditional welcome includes that God doesn’t care where it is that we were, as long as we come home. It can be from far away, and it can be the welcome for those who never left.
While it is the father who is doing the welcoming, the embracing, the loving, there is a point when the younger son who had gone away, comes to himself (v.17). This coming to himself suggests more than survival, more than having bread enough. Rather, it is the beginning of the realization that we don’t live to ourselves,2 as much as we sometimes would like to. And so he goes home. Because his failure in his pursuit of a life of pleasure has humiliated him he has come to the realization that we don’t live to ourselves. He sees that we are dependent creatures, in need of the community of life and the care of God.
The father not only welcomes him but is the image of God who in Christ empties himself, meets us where we are, and heals by solidarity not by condemnation. The father embraces him. The Father embraces us.
May we, in all our living and in all our searching, know that to be with God is to be home, and that being with God in the communion of the church we are home, we are ourselves, even while we’re still wandering and wondering.
1From Gleanings: Essays on Expansive Language with Prayers for Various Occasions, edited by Ruth A. Meyers and Phoebe Pettingell, New York, NY: Church Publishing Inc, 2001, page 80