A Sermon offered March 10, 2013 at
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church, North Port, Florid
Lent IVC: Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
This is the fourth Sunday of Lent – it falls a little past the mid-way point in Lent. As you know Lent is a season that is associated with lightening up, simplifying – giving up something like chocolate or sweets. It’s associated with fasting of some kind. And one of the traditions for this fourth Sunday is to relax the discipline a bit, let go of the fasting for a day. It’s a Lenten break! Sometimes it’s called Refreshment Sunday.
Another traditional name for today is Laetare Sunday – laetare means rejoice. So the focus of the day is on Joy!
During the sixteenth century people would go home to their mother church to celebrate on the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Domestic servants were given this day off to visit their mother church – and to be with their own mothers and family members. Often it was the only time that their whole families could get together because of their working days and hours.
With this connection to mother churches – and visiting mothers – this Sunday came to be known as Mothering Sunday, something like our Mother’s Day in this country. So the idea of family reunions and homecoming is traditional for this day . . . Family reunions and homecomings are wonderful times of celebration. They are also times that bring out the worst in family relationships. A case in point is the story in today’s gospel.
The parable in the Gospel reading is about homecoming – the story of the prodigal son coming home – a story with a happy ending. It ends in a celebration when the son who was lost . . . is found!
It’s easy to identify with the prodigal son who made so many mistakes – to feel his pain and misery – the result of his rebellious living. It’s easy to feel compassion for him because we remember our own guilt for the times we’ve made mistakes. And we rejoice in the forgiveness of his father.
The father in the story represents God – and we can identify with God’s forgiveness in our own life story. It’s a comforting story!!
Comforting . . . until we look at it from the older brother’s point of view. From his perspective, the story doesn’t seem very comforting – it doesn’t seem fair at all! The older brother has stayed at home with his father – obedient and responsible and loyal. He’s lived prudently – – and now he’s asked to sacrifice because of his brother’s sin. . . Notice that the gifts and the party – the cost of the whole celebration is coming out of what was left over for his inheritance.
The older son’s anger is reasonable and justified, right? He has worked like a slave for his father, he has never disobeyed …
BUT working like a slave is not the same as living like a son – and never disobeying is not the same as loving obedience . . .
Someone once said that there are two kinds of sinners in the world – those who know they’re sinners and those who don’t. It is tempting to focus just on the forgiveness and the homecoming of the lost younger brother who “came to his senses” . . . repented and found his way home.
But in his anger, the older son is as lost as his younger brother once was. He stays outside the house, refuses to come in for the celebration. He insults his father and denies his relationship with his own brother. The older son thinks he’s never left home – but in his pride and self-righteousness he is poised to cut himself off . . . from his father, from God, from his family and community.
The centerpiece of this parable is a feast. The father throws a feast to celebrate the reconciliation and homecoming of his son. He says that when the younger son came home “we had to celebrate and rejoice” – there was no choice. Why is this feast so important?
The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time forbade their people to eat with sinners. But Jesus shattered this restriction – he ate with notorious sinners and with the marginalized.
In the Old Testament, meals celebrated all kinds of victories, and meals marked special family occasions like births and weddings and funerals. In Jewish history the greatest event in salvation history, the Exodus from Egypt to the promised homeland – – this Exodus was celebrated with a feast – the Passover.
Today it’s the same. It’s at meals together that we feel most at home. At a family reunion – or at a gathering here at St. Nathaniel’s – we eat!! Right? And at these feasts, no matter what else may be wrong in our lives, we feel . . . almost at home. Meals signify acceptance and relationship.
Jesus is the ultimate son – who was dead, cut off from his Father at his crucifixion . . . and he is now alive again. So we have to celebrate!! In God’s love we are drawn together into a new community; we break bread together to celebrate the new life we have in Jesus.
The feast in the parable of the prodigal son means that God will bring us home someday. Jesus gives us a foretaste of that great feast at the “Lord’s Supper” at the Eucharistic table. To come to the table you don’t have to be perfect – only repentant – only forgiven. Anyone can come – and everyone is invited.
In the parable we heard today, Jesus doesn’t finish the story. We’re left hanging. We’re left wondering if the older son will realize the error in his thinking – if he will repent of his anger and resentment.
Will he respond to his father’s plea and accept the invitation to the feast?
Actually this story does have an ending – it has many endings. These endings are lived out in our lives everyday. Is the ending you choose to give this story a happy one?