a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent [Year C]
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
When was the last time you had to celebrate something? When was the last time something happened—or something was about to happen—that was so important that it actually needed a party to acknowledge it? Was it a major birthday? A retirement? Spring Break? There have been stories in the news over the past week about just how much college students are letting loose on Florida beaches this year. Two years of a pandemic have bottled up the intense desire to release a little school stress. Miami Beach actually had to institute a nightly curfew last week amid a rise in violence and if Miami Beach has a curfew you know things have gotten out of control.
Not too long ago my family felt we had to throw a party for one of my children upon their successful achievement of potty-training. I had never even thought of such a party, but after a long, long, arduous process of cajoling and coaxing, Herculean levels of patience, and countless loads of dirty laundry, my wife Melinda looked at me one day and said, “We have to do something big to mark this moment.” So we did. The whole affair was a mixture of carrot-on-a-stick reward for him and a chance to let loose for us. He got to choose the menu. Melinda made cupcakes. We used toilet paper rolls as centerpieces. His grandparents got to be guests, and he even got presents, including a Spiderman puzzle. We took photos. It seemed outlandish, but all of us were into it.
Jesus tells a story about a party that just had to happen and it’s outlandish too. There was a moment that needed to be marked. After—who knows?—months, maybe years of Herculean levels of patience a son had finally returned to his father after having squandered his whole inheritance. There are creative table decorations. Not toilet paper rolls, but something elaborate, for sure. Mom goes all out. There’s a huge calf on the spit over the fire, drinks flowing, and apps for everyone! The guest list includes anyone the son can think of—first and second cousins, guys he went to high school with, people from church, next door neighbors. The father sends him out to the mall with his credit card beforehand so he get a whole new wardrobe just for the party. Talk about letting loose! There will be no curfew here! They will carry on as long as they want and as loud as they want and the dad is happy to watch from the patio as the DJ kicks it old school.
It’s the party that had to happen. The whole parable Jesus tells is quite a doozy—the boy mouthing off to his dad at the start and then eating with pigs—but the party at the end was the part that would have stood out the most. Everyone who heard the story would have gotten stuck on that particular part. Why in the world did this father, who had just doled out a good portion of his legacy to this son and then watched him throw it all away feel like rewarding him with a big blow-out? Why go over-the-top? Why not just quietly and peacefully bring him back in, discuss it all as a teaching moment over a beer?
Why? Because that is how glad and thankful this father is. This father loves it that his child has come back to where he truly belongs. This father is elated that his family is whole again, that the kids are safe and sound. This is how God thinks of us.
Jesus tells this story because he needs certain people to hear that. The Pharisees and the scribes need to understand that this is how God feels about people who return. Call it extravagant, call it prodigal, call it elaborate, but it is a fundamental aspect of God’s character, and some people just don’t seem to get it. God loves his children and this is how he feels about then when they wander and come home. This is how God feels about people who make huge mistakes, who are hurtful and wasteful and ungrateful. This is how God receives those who come to themselves even after making terrible, destructive choices.
There’s an old hymn that goes, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” God’s mercy is wider than we can imagine. It’s like standing on the sand down at Virginia Beach and trying to see Morocco or whatever is straight across. God’s love is like that. There’s actually a website you can go to that will tell you what is exactly across the ocean from where you’re standing and apparently if you go straight out from the coastline at Virginia Beach you actually won’t hit land until the southern coastline of Australia because of the curvature of the earth, which is an interesting bit of geographic trivia that actually makes the old hymn even better. God’s mercy is so wide, and all too often people like the Pharisees and other really religious folk like to draw the lines closer in.
Sometimes Jesus tells parables to illustrate a point about God’s kingdom. Sometimes Jesus tells parables to warn people about certain kinds of behavior. Everyone once in a while Jesus tells a parable specifically so that one of his listeners might hear themselves in it. This is one of those times, and Jesus is hoping that the Pharisees and the religious leaders hear themselves in that older son, the one who didn’t wander and eat with the pigs, the one who didn’t insult the father by leaving. Often the younger son gets the attention, but in fact Jesus is really driving home a point to that older son—that one child found really is beneficial to the whole house. Being in the father’s care is life itself, something that older son still has and never lost.
What’s interesting to me is how easily this father leaves the safety of his estate to reach out to his kids. He leaves not once, but twice, in order to draw his sons into his love. A lot of the attention falls on that first son as he comes home on the road. The father rushes out to greet him and throws his arms around him. But again, the Pharisees need to hear that the father comes out of the house again—he even leaves the party he’s throwing, in order to have the son feel and understand his love and what the heart of this faith is. The heart of faith is joy, not getting everything right all of the time, not wagging fingers at those who trip up. The heart of mercy is focus on the other, not self. It is about remembering the embrace of the Father is always wider than the sins of the son.
I wonder if it might help to hear this parable as the difference between the concepts of equality and equity. The older son is very focused on both sons being treated equally, but the father knows he needs to treat them equitably. Equal treatment means each son gets the same, no matter what. Young son gets a big party, older son deserves at least a small party, right?
But God is more concerned that each son get what they need. The young son needs a big party to contrast just how far he strayed and how great it is to have him back. The older son doesn’t need that because he has always had the life of his father’s house.
Likewise, when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with the sinners, that is a case of God giving them what they most need. They need to feel and know that God still considers them children of the house. The Pharisees should see them as brothers or sisters and their own experience of God’s kingdom would be enhanced. Jesus wants those who maybe haven’t wandered as much to have some compassion, which is exactly what moves the father to embrace the son on the road. Episcopal priest and author Fleming Rutledge says in her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ says, “Trying to understand someone else’s predicament lies at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.”
Jesus wants all of his disciples—the Pharisees, the wandering, you and me—to see another’s predicament, to see God as running to give people precisely the forgiveness and grace they need and to rejoice with one another as we each receive it. Because one day he runs to us. He runs out to where we all are, at whatever point on the road as we limp along in shame, to have us home.
Eventually, Jesus will run so far and so hard that he will run right into death for us. He will run until they nail his hands and feet so that the wideness of God’s mercy will stretch all the way across to hell and bring us back. Because a household where we all rejoice and suffer together is such a blessed place to be. Younger and older, dead and alive, lost and found.
This week our friends from Hanover Adult Center were over here making sliders with Rob Hamlin for lunch one day. They worked hard in the kitchen putting together three different kinds—ham and mustard with poppyseed, Philly cheese steak, and pepperoni pizza. After they were done, they invited all of us in the office into the conference room to enjoy lunch with them. It was kind over the top. I wasn’t expecting such a decadent lunch that day, but I’m glad they compelled me to come.
While we were hanging out, having a great time, one of the Adult Center folks named Franklin wanted to tell us something. As it turns out, Franklin is completely deaf, so he started signing to us excitedly, spelling out words and phrases faster than we could understand. Greg Claud was the interpreter, and he said that Franklin was telling us that his birthday had been that Monday and the friends in his group home had blown him up a big balloon and had made him a birthday cake. Franklin is unable to read lips, so he depends a lot on facial expressions and vibrations in communication. So when his friends made things he could see like balloons and a cake and when they clapped really loudly on his birthday and smiled really big with clear eye contact it was more obvious to him that they were celebrating him and that made him so happy. So happy he was still telling people about it Thursday over sliders.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, however you are—hear this, please: God is clapping for you, smiling for you, making eye contact with you. Balloons, cake, bread, wine. Forgiveness with no curfew. It’s all here. For you. And God is sooo happy.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge