Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lent 4C

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I always think of home around this time of year.  Not my home in Jackson, Mississippi, but my family home in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  There, I know, the daffodils are blossoming bright and yellow, as through the sun were rising right in your own front yard.  The dogwoods will flower just in time for Easter, just in time for other children to learn, as I did, of Jesus' passion and death from its storybook petals.  And the azaleas...the azaleas are what set springtime in Spartanburg apart from anywhere else I've ever called home.  There are azaleas everywhere, each overflowing with blooms, each drenched in impossibly saturated shades of pink or purple or red or white.  Of course there are daffodils and dogwoods and azaleas in Jackson, too; for me, though, in the springtime, there's no place like home!

The appearance of these flowers, like familiar old friends, always announces the end of the winter season and the beginning of spring.  In the church, though, where we measure time a little bit differently, we're still right in the middle of the season of Lent.  And although we tend not to bring those flowers into our Lenten worship spaces, preferring at this time of year a spareness that helps us turn the eyes of our hearts inward, there is something to be said for the way in which the journey from seed to blossom resembles our Lenten journeys.  In fact, our word Lent is related to an old Dutch word that means spring.  The two seasons have a great deal in common - both are a time for opening up, clearing out, making space, planting seeds, and anticipating new life.

Perhaps the people who decide our lectionary were also thinking of home around this time of year, for in the scriptures they invite us to read today, fondness for home flowers in the hearts of those who have wandered through a winter of discontent.  Forty years' worth of wandering in the case of the Hebrew people, who have just crossed the Jordan River with Joshua and are about to enter the promised land full of milk and honey and the covenants and bones of their ancient ancestors.  The psalmist has made God a hiding-place and home after wandering in sin and guilt.  Paul describes a springtime of the soul for those who are in Jesus Christ - everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  Even Jesus speaks of going home, in one of his most beloved and familiar and in every way prodigious parables.

Indeed, familiarity is part of what makes this parable so effective.  It is easy for us to find ourselves and our experiences somewhere or another within the story.  We all know something about feeling rebellious, about the allure of far-off places, about running away, and about yearning for home.  We all know something about feeling alienated, facing the consequences of foolishness, and awakening to sober truths.  We all know the joy of reunion, the feeling of "it's not fair," and the struggle to understand what it means to be judged by love rather than merit.  It's not so uncommon for kids to leave home, and, especially these days, it's not so uncommon for them to return.  It's not so strange to struggle with siblings or fathers (literal or figurative), or with the expectations of communities.

Yes, it is easy to find ourselves within the parable, and so to believe that this parable has something to do with ourselves.  Listen, though, as Jesus begins his story: There was a man who had two sons... The character at the center of the parable is the father, and it is only in their relationship to the father that we understand anything at all about the two sons.  Perhaps we see ourselves in one or another of them - somewhere in the recklessness or repentance, in the righteousness or indignation, in the alienation or embrace, in the coming home or in the refusal to come home.

We may very well be characters in this familiar story, even as the scribes and Pharisees who listened to its first telling undoubtedly heard their own places in it, but it is not a story about us.  Instead, Jesus is telling a story about God, the gracious Father whose arms ache to welcome us home no matter how far off we've gone, the Mother Hen who spreads her protective wings over us and draws us close.  Jesus is telling a story about God, whose prodigious love far exceeds any recklessness you or I could ever commit.  Prodigal can mean wasteful, and perhaps that is how it came to describe the younger son in the story.  But prodigal can also mean extravagant to the point of seeming wastefulness, and how better to describe the love of God that would go to any length, that would cross any boundary, that would reach across any distance to invite even tax collectors and sinners home?

Our 21st century Mississippian (and South Carolinian) sensibilities are not familiar with some of the ways in which all of the characters - even the father - in this parable would have scandalized 1st century Jews.  In the South we do know something of the significance of family names and family land, but for those who listened to Jesus tell his story, family and land were everything.  When the younger son asked for his inheritance, he was declaring his father dead and dividing the family farm.  Selling his share and leaving the country further divided him from those who should have been able to depend upon him.  His actions would have brought shame not only upon himself but upon the rest of his family as well.  By all rights, his father should have turned him away at the gate when he came crawling back.  Surely that's what the older son believed.  But then, he was no saint either.  His faithfulness to his father faltered when he heard the sounds of celebration and learned that the party was for his good-for-nothing brother.  The older son refused to go inside the house, a shameful violation of the honor he owed his father.

And so the father is faced with not one but two sons who have brought disgrace upon him.  What would an honorable 1st century Jewish head-of-household do?  He would not hike up his robes and run down the road - it was considered undignified for an adult man to run.  He would not embrace the son who had declared him dead - that son would have been dead to him.  He would not up and leave his guests at the dinner table - he would have waited until after dinner to berate the son who sulked outside.  He would not forgo imposing punishment and demanding penance as a prerequisite for forgiveness.  He would certainly not be reckless, wasteful, extravagant, prodigious in his display of love and mercy, rolling away the disgrace of his children like a stone from a tomb...

This is the perfect story to tell now, deep in the heart of the season of Lent, itself a season of finding our way home to God.  In the parable we learn from Jesus that God is waiting eagerly for us all to come to ourselves, to make even the slightest turn from believing that our lives are about our own desires and realizing instead that our lives are about God's deep desire for us.  For in the very moment we say to ourselves, as the younger son did, I will arise and that very moment, we will find ourselves in God's embrace.  In that very moment we have come home to a love so prodigal, so eagerly spent, so lavishly given that we may fear it has been wasted on us.

But in that very moment, in Christ Jesus, we are a new creation, spring-ing, becoming, growing, stretching, blooming, drenched in impossibly drenched shades of love and mercy and forgiveness.  In that very moment we are given the ministry of reconciliation, of rising above our grudges and fears and disappointments and welcoming others home even as we have been welcomed.  Until we can embrace that ministry, we are stuck on the front porch while the feast goes on inside.  What might it mean for us to be prodigal Christians, loving recklessly, welcoming all of God's children (which is to say, all children everywhere) home, inviting them to share in a feast of biblical proportions?  What might it means for there to be a wideness in our mercy, as there is in God's, like the wideness of the sea?

Halfway through the season of Lent, it may seem as though we are still a long way off from the day of Resurrection.  But as surely as the dogwoods will bloom, we are on our way home to Easter, when we will find that even though we have behaved shamefully God loves us enough to go to any length, to cross any boundary, to reach across any distance - even across the valley of the shadow of death - to make all things new for us.  God choose to love us lavishly; our choice is to believe that we are who God says we are - children of God, and sisters and brothers of one another.  Our choice is to take our place at the table and join the great thanksgiving, the feast that has been prepared for us because it is God's delight to prepare it, for the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind, and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind; if our lives were but more faithful, we would take him at his word, and our lives would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.*  There is welcome for the sinner.  There's no place like home.  Amen.

*Hymn text by Frederick Faber.

Artwork: "The Azalea Way II," by Diane Johnson; "The Prodigal Son," by Jesus Mafa; "The Father and His Two Sons," by Elmer Yazzie; "The Prodigal Son," by He Qi; "The Parable of the Lost Son," by a 10-year-old in the 3rd class of Hoejby skole; "The Prodigal Son: Forgiveness," by Edgar Boeve.

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