If this sermon is messed up, blame a certain Oregon Episcopal Bishop named Hanley. You see, he noted on Facebook on Friday night his thoughts about Eric Clapton’s Layla, so I had to find it (both versions) on YouTube and listen to them. I was doing research for this sermon at the time, and I ended up doing a whole self concert of classic rock greatest long hits for about three hours.
I ended up writing this while listening to my marathon English Premier League tripleheader games early Saturday morning, and proofed it while doing another self YouTube concert on Saturday evening. So we’ll see how coherent this sermon is.
First, a little history. Today is the 4th Sunday of Lent, sort of the halfway point of this church season. It is also known as "Laetare Sunday. This Sunday has Roman Catholic origins, the word translates from the Latin laetare, singular imperative of laetari to rejoice; a word that opens the traditional mass introit of the day. “Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. Psalm: I rejoiced when they said to me: "we shall go into God's House!"
This Sunday is currently also known as Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday, and Rose Sunday (either because the golden rose sent by the popes to Catholic sovereigns used to be blessed at this time or because the use of rose-colored vestments instead of violet ones was permitted). So, if we had a rose colored vestment, our presider could wear it today. (Note: both Lorraine and Bonnie our priests say they do not look good in pink.)
I’m focused today on our Gospel reading about the parable of the Prodigal Son. I’m sure you have heard several sermons on this already, so what I offer you (mostly from others I researched) might not be new, but maybe it could at least provide some fresh perspectives.
From the stewardship perspective, our Stewardship Diocesan Officer Canon Lance Ousley tells us: “Our "human" culture places our value in our ownership of possessions. The prodigal son lived into this lie and soon found himself lost in a pigsty, dead to the world, and even worse, dead to himself. When our value is placed in the appraisal of our financial and material possessions we find ourselves valueless when these things are lost. This ideology leads to self-destructive behavior whether it is in "dissolute living" or miserly greediness. Paul exhorts us as Christians to live from a different perspective, not "a human point of view" but from an "in Christ" perspective.
We don't have to amass stores of financial and material possessions or have access to them to be "valuable." Once we get that, it is easier for us to see through our human point of view to Christ's view seeing us for the beloved we are. And it is easier for us to embrace the One who "owns" us and to whom we "owe" our lives. It is also easier for us to be prodigal givers, extravagantly sharing grace and our resources for the good of God's kingdom, not only for all of humankind but for all of Creation.”
From a more psychological perspective, Bruce Epperly, a theologian and writer tells us: “Today’s scriptures reflect on the burden of goodness and the unconditional love of God. Virtually every adult knows the story of the prodigal son, existentially if not biblically. We all know a family – or a part of a family – whose child has gone astray through addiction, incarceration, mental illness, or alienation. We all know the “lost child” or “black sheep” of the family, whose relatives speak of her or him in whispers and with a sense of judgment. We know the embarrassment some families feel about a sibling or child who has gone astray. There’s a mixture of feelings – anger, hopelessness, worry, helplessness, and denial. This is true now, and was true in Jesus’ time. These feelings of alienation are exacerbated by feelings of judgment – on ourselves, that we did something wrong to merit such a child, and on the “lost child,” who is outside of realm of grace.
Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son in response to an angry and judgmental audience. In response to Jesus’ welcome of outsiders, sinners, and persons deemed unclean – “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” – Jesus tells the story of two lost sons and a loving parent as part of a holy trinity of parables describing God’s care for the lost.
There is, however, as Thomas Merton says, a “hidden wholeness.” There is something of God in each of us, a still small voice, the whisper of sighs too deep for words, an undercurrent of grace, and somehow in his debauchery and destructiveness, this young man hears the call of home. He’s squandered everything, lost his spirit and place in society, and has nothing to offer. He’s old despite his youth, worn out, torn up, and devalued, even to himself. He’s lost all self-esteem, and has nothing to offer, even to his parents. He doubts his parents even love him anymore.
Yet, this story may have a happy ending. All the while, his parents have been looking for him. Perhaps they hired private detectives or sent out employees or reached out to the local constabulary – after all, the parents were upper middle class and had status in the community! They may have followed his every step, and grieved his choices every day. They may have prepared for a homecoming every day, hoping for the one day he’ll show up and they can restore him to the family.
That’s God! God never gives up, never abandons, never condemns. There may be a “hell”, but it’s of our own making, and God’s hand reaches into hell to rescue the lost. There is no predestination to destruction, no reprobate status. Such abandonment of creation is not in God’s vocabulary, though preachers and political candidates baptize their “in-group” status as God’s will. …Grace is greater than sin. Love never ends, and welcomes every lost child home.”
And then we have this perspective, from Jirair Tashjian: “It would take more effort to preach the parable in such a way that the audience is persuaded to identify with the older son. Most of us in the church are like the older son who stayed home. We have kept the commandments, we have done the right thing, we have walked in the narrow way, we have obeyed the rules. Our sin is not that we have gone to the far country. We have not lived in the fast lane. We have not wasted our life and resources. We are the "good" folk. We are righteous. The danger for us is the older son syndrome. We are more like the Pharisees and scribes who were critical of Jesus for his free association with tax collectors and sinners. What would we think if Jesus lived today and, for example, freely associated with the gay community to offer them the love and grace of God?
Sin is not defined in legal terms but in relational terms. It is not a matter of keeping or not keeping the rules but a matter of failing to maintain an open and loving relationship with God, community, family and neighbor. The essence of holiness is loving God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving one's neighbor as oneself, which is what Jesus said in summarizing the Old Testament commandments.”
I find that for this Lenten season I am doing something very similar—looking at my faith from various perspectives to help me understand more about myself, and how my faith can move ahead. No matter what, I know that God is always with me, and I can move to a closer relationship with God, and with everyone I encounter, using the example of Jesus Christ in how I deal with others.