March 27, 2022
Fourth Sunday of Lent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer, March 27, 2022
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
A few months into the pandemic, I started dreaming about the party we would have when the long ordeal is finally over. We’d kill the fatted calf, or something: cake and ice cream, at least, with fancy lemonade. We’d run into each other’s arms. We’d pull out all the stops on the organ. We’d commemorate everyone who had died since we were together. We’d kiss all the new babies. We’d celebrate the graduates who never had a proper send off, and we’d have a great big wedding banquet, with all the brides and grooms putting ridiculously extravagant rings on each other’s fingers.
There’s so much that we’ve been missing. We’ve hungered for chances to celebrate with a feast. We’ve longed to linger over a meal with friends, reminisce over old stories and share updates, reacquaint ourselves with those we haven’t seen in a while, remember why we love our loved ones. We’ve felt lost from what gives us life.
The familiar story Jesus tells is about being found[i]. It’s in the same chapter as the two other stories Jesus tells in response to the grumbling about his dinner dates. Jesus includes stories of the shepherd who seeks the one lost sheep out of a hundred, and of the woman who turns her house over for a single coin. In all three stories, when the lost item is found, it’s cause for a rejoicing. A party is thrown to celebrate the good fortune of finding that which has been missing.
We tend to read this story of the two sons as a commentary on the way families should behave. We all can point to moments in our lives in which we can relate to the characters. Like the younger son, we’ve all recognized some terrible decisions we’ve made and tried to find ways to make up for them. Like the older son, we’ve all had moments where we resent the care and attention someone is receiving for things we’ve done with no notice. And many of us can relate to at least wanting to welcome home someone we’ve missed.
But more than a description of family life, Jesus is illustrating how overboard the Seeker is in celebrating the lost one, and comparing it to God’s wide welcome of us, how way beyond what is expected or normal God goes to celebrate our inclusion.
I like that we’re encouraged to read this text a week after we read about the fig tree. Last week we heard Jesus describing a gardener who makes the uneconomical choice to care for a dying tree, to feed it, and watch over it for another year, to wait before condemning it, and loving it instead. Can you imagine a healthy fig tree in the garden, complaining or worrying about whether the gardener should really be caring for a neighboring tree that is failing?
Jesus doesn’t seem to care whether either son should be included in the party. He could remind us that a lost coin doesn’t “deserve” to be lost or found, either. A lost sheep doesn’t “earn” the chance to be rescued, and neither of the brothers receives a banquet because he is entitled to it.
Rather, God loves all of them, those who know they are lost, and those who think they aren’t, the trees that produce good fruit, and those which fail, those coins sitting collecting dust in the corners, and those staying put in the purse: all of them are loved, cherished, worthy of celebrating beyond expectation.
“While he was still far off,” we read, the father recognizes the returning younger child, and runs to put his arm around him, welcoming him hope. In Jesus’ culture, running to the son was very poor behavior on the father’s part. After all, the son has shamed their family. By asking for his inheritance early, he’s essentially wished the father dead. By squandering the inheritance in dissolute behavior, he’s embarrassed and ridiculed the father further. And in rehearsing his homecoming speech ahead of time, his apology is somewhat questionable and untrustworthy. In the eyes of his neighbors, this family has lost all respect. It’s humiliating for the father to even accept the returning child as his son[ii].
Furthermore, as Niveen Sarras, explains, elders in Palestinian culture do not run. Pastor Sarras was born and raised in Bethlehem, Palestine. She shares that it is simply undignified in her culture for older men or women to rush. She can’t recall ever seeing her father run, and she suspects it was unusual in Jesus’ time, too, for one’s parents to run[iii].
But when we look over the book of Luke, we’ll find others who ran, too. Mary runs to visit Elizabeth when she discovers she’s pregnant. The shepherds go with haste to see what the angels described. Zacchaeus runs to be near Jesus. Peter runs when he hears the bewildering news that the tomb is empty. It’s as if Luke recognizes that when the news or situation is too unpredictable, too wonderful, too good to believe, we throw caution to the wind, we ignore what is right or appropriate, and do what love calls us to do. What was lost in the father’s life has been found, and he runs to welcome the child home.
In contrast, the older son refuses to even walk in to greet his brother. He’s lost in his own resentment, feelings of righteousness, and isolation. Rather than running into the party, or running away in disgust, the older child stays put. He won’t embarrass himself by embracing the sibling who has wronged the father. He won’t be seen showering love on an unworthy traitor.
But for him, too, the father crosses the threshold to join him. Here’s where we really see the truth unfold. The elder son feels as if he’s never received anything for his hard work and effort, never been recognized or celebrated. He feels he has lost out on the love his father shows his brother. But the father gently reminds him, “All that is mine is yours,” already. Every feast that’s ever been shared in the household has been yours. Every gift, every kindness, every day, love has been lavished for you.
Whereas the younger son begins the story by wanting nothing to do with the father, the oldest has been oblivious to all that the father’s love has offered him. He too has missed out on his father’s gracious, expansive inclusion of him, given not in recognition or response to his behavior, but simply because of his father’s wild, outlandish love. Love was never lost. It was there all along for both sons, for all 100 sheep, all the fig trees in the garden, all the coins, lost and found. Love was there, for every part of God’s creation.
During Lent, we are called to “return to God, with all our heart.” As children of God, we never need to feel “far off” from God. God has certainly never been far away from us, but is always running after us, to let us know that everything God has ever offered, all creation, all salvation, all forgiveness, all inclusion, has been all of ours, from the beginning.
Today, we finally are accepting what the doctors and health departments have explained. There won’t be a single day when they can sound the “all clear” for the pandemic, so we can plan a big party to celebrate. Instead, there will be periods of greater exposure and risk, and periods of reduced risk from the virus. There will be seasons in which some of us can safely gather, where some of us will feel safe taking off our masks. But even then, others will need to be more cautious. And, unfortunately, there will probably be new surges from new variants, when we’ll need to put into place more of the restrictions again.
In other words, there won’t be a grand opening day, when all is well again, and all that we’ve lost over the last few years will finally be returned to us. Rather, we’ll notice a slow thawing, and a willingness for more and more of us to slowly reengage with activities.
But I suspect that as we move into those seasons of more connections and chances to be together, we’ll discover that some of the best parts of life which we thought we had lost were here all along. We’ll discover that even in the stress and losses over the course of the last two years, we were loved; we were known; we were fed with the body of Christ, and found to be at home, safe and sound.
We may have felt lost, but God’s love will continue to find us, and welcome us back into the life we’ve forgotten to enjoy. Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
[ii] Sarras, Niveen, “Commentary on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32” Working Preacher, March 27, 2022, Fourth Sunday in Lent: God’s Prodigal Love, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-luke-151-3-11b-32-5