4th Sunday in Lent

First Reading: Joshua 5:9-12

9The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.
  10While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. 11On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Psalm: Psalm 32

1Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven,
  and whose sin is put away!
2Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt,
  and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3While I held my tongue, my bones withered away,
  because of my groaning all day long.
4For your hand was heavy upon me day and night;
  my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt.
  I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” Then you forgave  me the guilt of my sin.
6Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they | shall not reach them. 
7You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble;
  you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
8“I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go;
  I will guide you with my eye.
9Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding;
  who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.”
10Great are the tribulations of the wicked;
  but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.
11Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord;
  shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
  3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
  25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.’ ”

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  I think we all know the story of the hare and the tortoise by Aesop.  They race and surprisingly the tortoise wins.  Why do you think we expect the hare to win?  What slowed the hare down?  Why was the tortoise slow?  Share a few thoughts with your neighbor.

Let us pray.  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

SERMON

Today’s text is very familiar but it is not being read during Epiphany when we are discovering who our God is and what his character is like. We are reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son two weeks before Palm Sunday, winding down the Lenten Season.  Some of the questions we bring to the text today are about how this text sheds light on our Lenten journey to the cross.  I see three crosses in the text that we all carry: the cross of the younger son, the cross of the older son, and the cross of the father.  In full disclosure I realized as I write this sermon that I am not looking at the text through the eyes of a young adult or young married or even as a middle aged parent seeking to know God but I am looking at the text as an elder looking back on a life blessed by children, some who grew up making choices I didn’t agree with and some who seem to be doing ok.  I am also that kid who had my wayward days and my conforming days.  Oh my, so much to unpack.  As we listen to the news about a world at war arguing about how to be a good leader, be more like the father figure, I pray that looking at the parable of the Prodigal Son through the lens of crosses blesses us all.

         So perhaps I best define how I understand “cross.”  Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, to headquarters, where criminals were killed by crucifixion.  At this point in the Gospel no one is expecting the crucifixion of Jesus but rather expecting the unveiling of a triumphant messiah.  We look for happy endings.  Normally when a baby is born, it is born surrounded by the dreams of parents and prayers for its future.  When we stand and say “I do” we have no idea what the future holds.  In fact, none of us know what news tomorrow will bring.  Jesus presents a parable of a father who has two sons.  I think it could have just as easily been two daughters or two siblings. Perhaps “crosses” are the things we carry that define us and how we live.  For Jesus it was the cross of dealing with our sins and brokenness but let’s see how it plays out here.  Like the tortoise and the hare we are running the race of life.

THE CROSS OF UNFAIRNESS

12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’

         The younger son was carrying a burden.  He would never, under Jewish tradition, inherit the same as his older brother. His older brother was number one and he was number two through no fault of his own.  Life was and is unfair.  It was not his fault he was the younger.  It was not his fault that he was Jewish.  Perhaps I should write in capital letters, LIFE IS UNFAIR!  We know this so very well.  It is not my fault I am a woman or I am black or I am Ukrainian or challenged in some way.  It may not even be my fault that I am poor or that my spouse left me or that the drunk driver hit my car.  Life happens. We are broken people in a broken world that needs a savior.  The journey through life often involves carrying that cross of unfairness.

         The younger brother breaks with cultural norms and demands his fair share of the inheritance early.  In the face of the unfairness of life, we make decisions on how to move forward.  He says, “Give me.”   This sounds to my ears like a demand.  When we first went to the mission field we worked in a former famine relief camp where people, wiped out by drought and famine, would line up at our door and say, “give me.”  One of their favorite jokes was to take my infant into their hands, in-front of the older brother who was three, and say very clearly, “Give me your brother.”  Then they would laugh as my oldest son cried.  I never understood.  Their language had no words for “please” and “thank you.” One solution to unfairness is to demand what life has to offer now.  The younger brother asks for his share and departs to “live the dream.”

         In the face of the unfairness of life, the younger brother takes his future into his own hands and seeks the “goodies” this world has to offer.  The text says “he squandered his property in dissolute living.”  He chased his dream but then the cross of unfairness reared its ugly head yet again.  With his money spent, life happened.  Perhaps rents went up.  Perhaps that beautiful young thing drifted to another guy.  Perhaps the company went belly up.  Perhaps Putin decided that Ukraine belonged to him.  Life happens and innocent people are crushed in the process.  Life is unfair.

         Hard times strip us to a version of ourselves we do not recognize.  We work feeding pigs and long to eat their food.  We are humiliated and feel dehumanized.  The dreams of this world are “fools gold” and often leave us empty. The younger son comes to a point where life forces him to pivot.  Like the tortoise, he carries a heavy shell, a heavy burden, so how to go forward. After the temper tantrum of demanding comes the moment of truth.  In the Disney movie, Lion King, I love the scene where the father, Mufasa, speaks from a cloud to his son Simba, “Remember who you are.  You are more than you have become!”

         The text says the younger brother came to himself and realized he could humble himself before his father.  Unfairness can drive us to demanding, to tantrums and bitterness, but it can also clarify for us our options.  The world offers us the cross of unfairness.  The kingdom of God offers us the journey of Lent to the cross of Christ.  We cannot imagine death and resurrection when weighed down with unfairness but we do have options.  We do have resources.  We do have a God who cares.

THE CROSS OF RESPONSIBILITY

‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goatso that I might celebrate with my friends.”

         The older brother is carrying a burden too.  He is the first-born son.  He has worked hard.  He has been faithful.  He has honored his father.  He has carried the responsibility of the family business.  He has executed his responsibilities but he feels unrecognized, invisible, unappreciated perhaps even taken for granted.  I suspect some of us know the burden of carrying responsibility because of our position as eldest child, as spouse, as corporate employee, or as faithful worker in some business.  We have tried our best to do our best but somehow we don’t feel we have received an attitude of gratitude from our “boss.”  We have run hard like the hare but we are tired.

         When appreciation is not expressed, it is so easy to feel sorry for ourselves. The parable has the older son outside, not going in to the party for his wayward brother’s return home.  Perhaps he was busy burning the midnight oil.  Perhaps he was waiting to be explicitly included, invited, or seen.  It does not seem he was included in the planning of the party and he is …. You name the adjective, forgotten, overlooked, excluded or bitter.  A root of bitterness is growing in his heart.  Bitterness, resentment, and grudges are hard crosses to carry.  They destroy our enthusiasm for life. Perhaps the hare began to feel the insult of being raced against a tortoise and knowing he could win he took a nap.

         We are back to Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, the beginning.  Cain the eldest of the first two sons, becomes angry when his younger brother Abel offers a sacrifice pleasing to God.  He too became angry.  In fact he killed his brother.  OK, perhaps we have not killed anyone but we do know anger or hate that kills in our hearts and which Jesus calls murder in the Sermon on the Mount.  God says to Cain,

         “Why are you angry?  Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right sin is      crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over        it.”

          Not only is the older brother carrying a cross with anger in his heart but the burden blurts out of his mouth.  He speaks sharply with his father. The younger brother spiraled down from squandering his wealth and life into servitude and despair.  The older brother spirals down through works that are not rewarded into bitterness and harshness. The journey of Lent is not the journey of “ah ha moments,” epiphanies of insights into the wonderfulness of our God who incarnates and comes in search of us.  The journey of Lent is the journey to the cross and death for we cannot save ourselves either as the younger brother tries by embracing life or as the older brother tries by embracing good works.  Both end in a dark place.

THE CROSS OF LOVE

The Father’s Love

         So… The third person in this parable often equated with God is the father figure.  I think we would be wrong to jump over the cross that the father figure pays for his children and that we pay for those we love.  The father carries a burden in this parable.  He loves the younger son who insults him by asking for his inheritance, not trusting him, not willing to wait and not willing to live with him.  Some of us know that rejection, that insult of the kid who does not understand our parenting, that kid that wanders into places we would never have chosen for them.  Love cries and carries the brokenness of our own humiliation and rejection.  The father knows those feelings and I suspect Jesus is telling us that God understands that burden also and carries it with us.

         The father allows the child free-will to choose to leave.  Love cannot demand to be reciprocal and must wait for the other to come to himself.  Sometimes that happens for us and sometimes it doesn’t.  But the father does not stop being alert, looking for the wayward child to return.  Those prayers are hard.  The father picks up his robes and runs to meet the wayward.  Elders do not run.  Elders are not particularly known for being partiers.  The father is willing to incur the ridicule or gossip of the community by associating with the lost come home.  That is not easy.  Likewise, it is not easy to forgive insults and rejection.  We do not know how this all played out over time but the point seems to be that the burden that love carries is the challenge to pride and the challenge to forgive.

         The father also goes after the elder son and does not allow the son to wallow in self-pity.  The father braves the anger of his son to restore relationship and to affirm his love.  I believe the father in our parable understood the cry of Christ from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  That’s not the end of the story but it is part of the story of Lent, of the journey of the cross.

         Some of us today are lost in a foreign country, trying to correct the unfairness of life, trying to find in worldly pleasures the happiness we feel we have been denied due to no fault of our own.  Lent calls us to come to ourselves and return to God.  In his house, even servants live like kings.  Some of us today are lost in bitterness and grudges against this person or that who has hurt us perhaps with intention and perhaps accidentally, but we got hurt.  Those memories of how hard we tried to do everything right and then life went bottom up, haunts us, and we must come to a point of confessing our bitterness this Lent.  We have been invited to a party and all God’s resources are ours, not just a goat!  And then there are those of us who carry the cross of love, love rejected, love unappreciated.  Like the father we wait, watch and pray and we do not know how the story is going to play out.  Grief and sorrow are part of love.  God waits to embrace us and celebrate with you and me!

         The truth is that we probably have a bit of each character within ourselves.  We carry burdens.  We carry burdens of unfairness, of responsibility unappreciated, and of love waiting.  As we bow our heads in prayer these remaining weeks of Lent, may we sense the always-present God who like the father, runs to meet us and embrace us and also invites us to join the party.  Thank you, Lord.

The people of God said, “AMEN!”

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