St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon given Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
4 Lent C
     God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use is in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
     Our gospel lesson today is the story of the Prodigal Son. Most of us are familiar with this story and most of us can identify with the various characters in the story - the rebellious son who wants everything now, makes no plans for the future, blows all his money on riotous living, then nearly starves before admitting he has really messed things up and then, hanging his head, he comes home to face the music.
     Then we have the older son, the responsible, obedient one who does the work his father asks him to do. He is now so angry with his younger brother that he can't even look at him. His brother has run off and left him to do all the work, while he has the time of his life. Not only that, but when the brother returns home after using up all his money, his father not only does not punish him, but he throws a big party for him and invites all his friends and neighbors! How unfair is that! He never got to have a party with his friends and he did everything his father asked of him. He doesn't understand how his father could just welcome his brother home with open arms.
     Then there is the father, the father who loves both his sons. He doesn't want to see his younger son take his inheritance even before the father has died, but that's what he wanted and his father gave it to him. How his father must have worried night after night, wondering where his son was - was he safe, was he dead, was he hungry or homeless? Where was he and why didn't he come home? The not knowing was the hardest part. If only he could hear a word about him from someone traveling through the area. That would ease his mind.
     I think this story should not be called the Prodigal Son, but rather the "loving and forgiving Father". The story is really about the love a father has for his sons, and the love God has for us. It's about repentance and forgiveness. Before the younger son arrives home, while he is still a long way off, his father runs to him (a very undignified thing to do in those days) and embraces him, and forgives him, even before the son has the words out of his mouth....."Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands."
     Sin, repentance and forgiveness. That's what I think this story is all about. The son knows he has sinned and he takes full responsibility for his actions. He does not come sauntering home, expecting to be embraced and able to live the kind of life he had before he left. As he repents, all he asks of his father is to be hired as one of his servants and not to be treated any differently that they are. He knows there will be consequences for his actions and he is ready to accept them, after first apologizing to his father for what he has done. By running off with his inheritance, he has disrespected his family. For working as a hired hand feeding pigs, who were considered unclean, he has disrespected his Jewish religion.
     But it is the father's love and his willingness to forgive his younger son that is the at the center of this story. He doesn't scold him first, he doesn't outline a plan for his son to pay back the money that he lost. Maybe that comes later, but his father's first response is unconditional love, a welcome home, a party to celebrate this joyous event. Now maybe he can sleep at night, knowing his son is home safely.
     But the father also has to deal with his older son who is angry at the father's unconditional love. He is bitter. He was the "good" and responsible son, but his father never threw a party for him. His father tries to explain the joy he has that his younger son has returned, no matter what he has done. He wants his older son to join the party. But he refuses. He is going to wallow in his anger and at the injustice of this father lovingly accepting his brother home.
     This father shows us what God is like - loving unconditionally, forgiving us of our sins, always ready to welcome us home when we go astray. God's arms of love are always open to accept us back when we have sinned, to accept our words of repentance, to forgive us and to let us know that we are loved. God rejoices over the lost sheep that is found, the sinners who repent, all of us who return home.
     Both of these sons have divided and hurt this family, the younger son by taking his inheritance before the father dies and going off to who knows where, wasting his money and leaving his family to worry about him, not knowing if he is dead or alive. The older brother divided the family by being self-righteous and self-centered, and not being happy that his younger brother has returned safely. He is angry that his wasteful, irresponsible brother is forgiven by his father and thrown a party when he was the one who has worked so hard. He is resentful.
     In this story, it is selfishness that breaks apart this family - the selfishness of the younger son to do what he wants without regard to what it might do to his family; and the older son by only focusing on himself - his wants and his desires - when his brother comes home.
     What breaks apart our families? Is it selfishness or deceitfulness or lack of forgiveness or holding a grudge? Every family has struggles to overcome. That is the nature of being human. But as we see in our story, it is the father who offers forgiveness and mercy to his sons. That is what will bring healing and wholeness to this family.
     And that is what our loving God gives us when we ask - healing and hope and mercy and love and forgiveness. That is what will heal the brokenness in our relationships. But we have to ask for God's healing presence. We have to ask for forgiveness when we have hurt others. Our God is a loving and forgiving God and God alone can heal our broken relationships, if we ask, and if we do the necessary work. May we put our dependence and hope and forgiveness in God's hands as God works in us to heal our wounds. Amen.
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