2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
I say that little affirmation at the beginning of every sermon I preach. I don’t really remember when I started doing that, or how I pieced those words together, exactly. It’s a greeting, I guess, like the beginning of all the New Testament letters. And it’s true. I’m here to tell you that, always, in all times and in all places, the grace and peace of God are with you. You are full of the hope of the liberative acts of Christ. And your spiritual giftedness is abundant. Word!
I’m mentioning it, because the parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees in this week’s Gospel lesson is about being gone and then being back. It’s about being lost and then finding the way home. It’s about being alone and then being reunited. It’s about separation and reconciliation. It’s a story you might know fairly well, or maybe tonight was the first time you heard it. Maybe you’ve heard people use the phrase “prodigal son” to describe someone. Maybe you’ve been thought of--or thought of yourself--as this wayward one. Maybe tonight you’re feeling that way. Where are you? Where’s God? Where’s home?
I’m here to tell you that even without your knowing it, that which was lost has been found again! You who were presumed dead are alive again! You were alive all along. In your baptism you died and were raised again to new life. Amen! Thanks be to God! (We can’t say Hallelujah because it’s Lent, but, I just did. Oops).
So! In the story Jesus tells, there’s a rich man and there are two sons. One son wants his inheritance in advance. The father agrees, splits the fortune, and off the son goes. Meanwhile, the other one stays and lives and works and goes about his day-to-day life with the family. I’m sure we are all surprised to hear that the first son totally blows it. He spends all the money, sells all the heirlooms, gambles and loses. He ends up in some mud with some pigs, whose meal he envies.
That’s like the most rock bottom I think I’ve ever heard.
Let’s sit there in that muck for a second. This is Lent, after all. Let’s think about the other places we’ve been in the stories so far this season. We’ve been in the desert, where Jesus was tempted. Where else? We’ve been in Jerusalem, where Jesus is not welcome. We’ve been in an orchard with a dying fig tree. And today, we’re in a pigsty. Excellent.
Michaela Bruzzese, who writes for Sojourners, has this to say: “Having confronted our personal demons in the desert, by week four of Lent we should have a good idea of our shortcomings, our lack of faith, our tendency to worship false gods.” Sitting in that mud, thinking about the inheritance we’ve just squandered, we’re not going to be feeling great about ourselves. Self-esteem is going to be at probably an all-time low.
And not just as individuals! As we, here in this place, and as part of the larger Church and society think about how we got to the messes we’re in, we can feel pretty guilty of wastefulness, too. How have we treated our planet? How have we treated our neighbors? What have we destroyed by not even allowing the creative process to take hold?
Episcopal theologian and author Diana Butler Bass has us convicted here, too. “Corporately,” she writes, “we need to throw ourselves at God’s feet, asking forgiveness for all the ways in which we have wasted our inheritance.”
But she thinks we’ve had enough mud, now. So she finishes that paragraph by saying, “Lest we become disheartened by all this self-reflection, this week’s readings give us all the reason we need to turn toward home.” Just like that wayward son did. He got up out of that mud, by the grace of God, and went home.
I read an excerpt from a book about Christian religious experience, written by Doris Donnelly, a pastoral theology and spirituality professor. In it, she suggests we take a particularly Lenten focus on joy. Not usually the feeling we associate with this somber, dark season of penitence, is it? But! When we talked in previous weeks about repentance, what did we say that word meant? Turning around, right? Turning toward God? Turning toward home? And when we are closer to God, when we feel the presence of God with us right this minute, what does that feel like? Does that feel encouraging? Does that feel supportive? Does that feel hopeful? Does that feel joyous!?
When the prodigal son returned to his father’s house, there was a big party. It was probably awesome. Expecting his father to treat him as badly as he had treated his father in the leaving, this prodigal son is floored by the joyous reception he gets. Thanks be to God! He’s home! He’s safe! He’s found! His father could not be more pleased to see him.
Chew on a piece of what Doris wrote about this Lenten discipline of joy: “Reflecting on joy...may inspire us to alter the status quo and to anoint each other with the oil of gladness more readily than before. Maybe we owe it to each other to do just that. Maybe we owe it to ourselves to survey our culpability as squelchers of joy in others and of being part of systems and institutions that do not tolerate, let alone encourage, joy. Maybe we need to redress the balance of somberness by gladdening others with support, kind words, encouragement, laughter, hope, time, and the simple gift of self. It wouldn’t hurt. It could heal.”
As we move through this season of Lent, edging closer to Holy Week, reflect on joy. That doesn’t mean “be happy” all the time. It doesn’t mean ignore pain. It doesn’t mean ignore doubt. Reflect on joy. Remember the most joyful celebration you’ve ever been a part of. It warms you up right now, just to think about it, doesn’t it? The message of this Gospel lesson is that every time God remembers you, God rejoices. Every time.
Remember that however far off you feel you’ve gone, your father and mother in heaven is overjoyed at the prospect of your return. When you feel the least celebrate-able, God leaps for joy on your behalf. You are never outside of the love of God. You have never wandered too far. You are found, you are forgiven, you are beloved. Rejoice, sisters and brothers. Rejoice!