A Sermon preached on Fourth Sunday in Lent March 6th at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenJoshua 5:9-12, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
By now, you might have noticed that I like looking for a common theme, for something that links the readings, and ideally, also any event we may be celebrating on the day. And I think I have found one again: Welcome home! Coming home is the theme of at least two of our three readings and, as I explained in my weekly email, also the origin of the tradition of Mothering Sunday that we celebrate today. This was the Sunday when domestic servants and farmhands, were able to come home as they were given a day off to return to their mother church, and to their families, especially to their mothers. An occasion for celebration.
In the reading from Joshua, we heard how the Israelites celebrated their homecoming, their return to the land their ancestors had had to leave generations ago, when they fled to Egypt to escape from famine. They celebrate their safe arrival, their crossing of the river Jordan, and the end of the long trek that had taken them from bondage and slavery in Egypt to a new freedom in the Promised Land. Their celebratory meal is the second ever Passover meal, the first was just before they had left Egypt. It is still frugal, but a considerable improvement on the Manna that had been their main diet for the last 40 years. God has granted them a second chance, a fresh start, and that is an occasion for celebration too.
Last and certainly not least, our Gospel for the day is also about a homecoming, the return of the "Prodigal Son." This is one of the most well-known and I think also well-loved parables of Jesus’ that we find in Luke’s Gospel. You probably know the famous painting by Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” or the book by the theologian and writer Henri Nouwen that was inspired both by the painting and by the parable. And this icon of the Return of the Prodigal Son, which I will place on the side altar after the sermon, normally graces my desk and is the first thing I look at when I look up from my sermon preparation or my emails. As you will see, in this illustration Jesus welcomes the son home.
In the parable, the younger son – who has “carelessly and foolishly spent all his money,” that is the definition of prodigal by the way – decides that even working as a slave on his father’s and brother’s farm must be better than working, living, and eating with pigs, which are unclean animals for devout Jews. So with minimal expectations he returns home to his father, to the father from whom he has estranged himself by behaving as no son should ever behave. Yet as we heard, his expectations are exceeded far beyond his imagination. He is both welcome and welcomed, lavishly, and his father throws a party in his honor. The son’s homecoming, his return, his being found again, is an occasion for celebration.
Jesus tells this and two other parables about losses, of a sheep and a coin, in response to the Pharisees’ muttering and grumbling about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners. They are his way of saying, well yes, of course I do, of course I want to welcome and celebrate people who turn from their own way and want to go God’s way. Who wouldn’t? “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7) is how Jesus ends the parable of the lost sheep that comes just before this one. And I think that when he talks about ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance he is being a little ironic.
So we celebrate the son’s homecoming, we celebrate the second chance, the new life he has been given, and we celebrate and rejoice in the behavior of the father. While we tend to refer to the parable as the story of the prodigal son, it is really a story all about the generous father and about his lavish welcome, about his love and forgiveness for “this son of mine who was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:24) It is a story of reconciliation, of the restoration of the relationship between father and son, and of the end of the estrangement caused solely by the son, yet healed solely by the father. What we learn about and can celebrate in this story is the wonderful love and forgiving grace of God.
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul makes clear that our reconciliation, humanity’s comes from God: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” (2 Cor. 5:18) So where is our role in this as Christians? Do we just stand on the sidelines applauding and watching God act? Or even, God forbid, mutter, complain and grumble like the Pharisees or the older son about a forgiveness that is clearly undeserved? No, we clearly have an important role to play for as Paul goes on to say, God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation” and “in Christ God was “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (5:19) To be a minister, or ambassador as Paul also calls the role, is to be sent out with a message and with the power and authority to pass this message on as if it were our own. We do not do the reconciling; God does that. Our role as ministers is to make the world aware that the world and everyone in it needs to be in relationship with God, and that this relationship is freely available for any and everyone who wants and asks for it.
Some years ago the Anglican Communion defined what are known as the “Five Marks of Mission.” These are five key elements that we believe are the very core of the mission God has given us. Mark number one, is “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom,” to proclaim the good news of God’s love and forgiveness and God’s desire to be in relationship with us that is at the heart of all of Jesus’ teaching and the focus of this and so many other parables. To be ministers in other words.
However, our role and responsibility does not end there, not that the first mark is easy. No one, not even regular churchgoers, can claim to be fully reconciled with God if we are estranged from one another. The love of God and the love of neighbor are two sides of same coin. We cannot force reconciliation on another person of course, we are not responsible for their reaction or response to our offer, just as we are not responsible for whether the Good News of Jesus Christ that we proclaim is actually received and acted upon, just for its sincere and consistent proclamation. What we are responsible for however is a genuine and heartfelt desire and offer to be reconciled with the other whom I have hurt or felt hurt by.
This responsibility goes beyond our immediate neighbor, beyond those individuals we know directly. The communities and societies we are part of are also called to a ministry of reconciliation, and so the fourth mark of mission is “to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.” It is a call to act as ministers of reconciliation in the world by acting with others to bring about the second chance, fresh start, and the new life for all who need it.
Jesus’s parable is open ended. Did the elder son come round to the father’s point of view and enter the banqueting hall to celebrate his brother’s return and his father’s return? Will he be reconciled with his brother? I hope so. One thing I know is that we are supposed to invite people to this party and that we are supposed to join the celebration of God’s love and forgiveness sure in the knowledge that God welcomes everyone home who wants to come home and that God delights in all our company. Amen.