March 21, 2004

Sermon: St. Mary Magadlene, Wheaton, MD

March 21, 2004 Fourth Sunday in Lent

Amazing God, take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and love through them; take our mouths and speak through them. Amen.

Good morning! I want to tell you what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning, and how honored I am to be able to worship with you and to take some time to celebrate the ministry you have for and with the young people of St. Mary Magdalene.
Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke has a lot to teach us about God’s grace. At first glance, it sounds like another great parable from Jesus, a story that could even stand on its own. And to those who heard it straight from Jesus’ mouth, it probably did stand on its own. But for us, 2,000 years later, in a different world and in a different culture, it is worth taking a deeper look.

There are a lot of places to find grace in this story and several points where there is clearly some missing grace. Many preachers have taken this story from the angle and vantage point of each character: The father, the prodigal brother, the “good” brother, the slaves, and even (my father’s favorite angle) the view of the fatted calf. It was not a good day to be a fatted calf in this story.

There is one important thing to know about this story before we look too deeply at the grace points. Jesus’ hearers knew and understood that to be the one who was feeding pigs, especially for a Jew, was to have fallen about as far as you could fall. Worse than Martha Stewart scrubbing floors in a jail house, this fella had fallen pretty hard.

So where do we find grace in this story? Where is their some grace that is missing? And who is really the lost son?

The son who left and squandered his dad’s money, we’ll call him, Jeff, comes to his senses and is willing to come back to his father and be treated as a slave, someone with no rights and no way of earning those rights. But as “Jeff” is making his way home, no doubt practicing his groveling speech to his father, (Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to make a groveling speech and practiced what you were going to say right up to the point where you had to say it.) daddy sees him off on the horizon and is so overcome with joy that he puts a ring on Jeff’s finger, a robe around his body, and prepares a huge party. Now, raise your hand if you think that Jeff deserved all that.

Of course he didn’t “deserve” it, but that’s what he got from his father: Unconditional welcome and reception. He probably wouldn’t be getting any more money when daddy went on to the great by-and-by, but he again had a place to call home.

After Jeff had been given more than enough, he spent it on “dissolute living.” One translation of the Bible calls it “wild living” and another calls it “loose living.” And yet, his father welcomed him back with open arms.

How many times in our lives have we been loose or wild with what we have been given? Maybe we haven’t spent it on parties or jewelry or other extravagances, but we all have been guilty of it at one point or another. Maybe it’s what we haven’t done with what we’ve been given.
God has given us all a share in the kingdom of Heaven. For us to do nothing with that, like other stories Jesus tells, is what breaks God’s heart.

But our God is a God of Grace and Mercy, who is willing to forgive, to love and to give us untold number of chances. Just as Jeff’s father took him back in and threw a party for him, I am a firm believer that God takes us back and throws a party (with or without the fatted calf) each time we return and re-commit ourselves to doing God’s will.

Let us not, dear friends, forget Jeff’s brother, Ben. Ben is in the field, hears the sound of a party, sees nothing on his Palm Pilot and goes to ask one of the servants what is going on. When he finds out, Ben is a little mad. I’m not real sure what he is madder about: that Jeff came home or that daddy is throwing Jeff party. Ben has every right to be ticked off that his brother gets a party for all his loose living and money squandering when Ben has been faithful and hard working and yet, daddy has yet to give him even a small goat for a small party. So who is really the lost brother? But Ben needs to see the big picture. What was lost, daddy says to Ben, has now been found; what was dead is now alive. We don’t know if this made much difference to Ben since that is where the story ends, but it leaves us with a good point: Christ came for the lost, not those who were already found.

We don’t deserve the spiritual and material gifts that God has lavished upon us, but we get them anyway. We don’t deserve God’s grace when we screw up, which we do, and then return to God. But God showers us with that grace anyway. As Mother Teresa said, “People are illogical, self-centered, and unreasonable. Love them anyway.” Some part of me believes she was pleading to God on our behalf when she said that.

I always close my sermons with a challenge. So here is my challenge for you in this fourth week of Lent: As you go about our lives this week, find at least five places where you see God’s grace in an unexpected way. Keeping our eyes and hearts open to the power of that grace will keep us mindful of God’s presence in our lives.