Lent 4C – Celebrating Grace
March 6, 2016
Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32
Psalm 32 says “Be happy – you’re forgiven!”
A friend of mine has a blog she calls the “Happy Lutheran.”
At first I thought the title was a little unusual….
I mean if I were to describe Lutherans –
I’m not sure the first word which comes to mind would be “happy.”
Maybe the “Thoughtful Lutheran,”
or the “Caring Lutheran,”
or the “Bold Lutheran,”…but the “Happy Lutheran?”
Frankly, we Lutherans (and perhaps church people in general)
can be a little suspicious of too much happy…
especially in Lent.
We have a sense that the more something hurts, the better it is for us;
We want to be sure that we (and others!) are really really sorry for our sins;
We profess our faith in God’s grace
and yet at the bottom of hearts we’re often thinking,
“But surely they should change that behavior!”
And so we understand the older brother.
The older brother who is doing all the right things.
The older brother who stays home, works the fields, never having any fun.
…he may have been Lutheran.
I say that tongue in cheek of course.
But one of the many things we can take from this parable,
and one of the things we hear directly in the psalm,
is “Be Happy!”
Happy are those whose sin is forgiven!
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice,
and shout for joy!
(Even in Lent!)
Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon calls this one of Jesus’ “party parables.”[i]
As Capon tells the story, the father and younger son have reconciled,
they are ready to make merry!
But then comes in the Older Brother.
Capon imagines the older brother saying:
And on a working day!
Why this frivolity?
What about the shipments that our customers wanted yesterday?
Who’s minding the store?
I will not dignify this waste with my presence!
Someone has to exercise a little responsibility around here!
The father comes out to speak with him.
“But see? The father continues…
The only thing that matters is that fun, or no fun,
your brother finally died to all that
and now he’s alive again-
whereas you, unfortunately, were hardly alive even the first time around.
Look. We’re all dead here and we’re having a terrific time.
We’re all lost here and we feel right at home.
You, on the other hand, are alive and miserable-
and worse yet, you’re standing out here in the yard
as if you were some kind of beggar.
Why can’t you see?
You own this place, Norbert.
And the only reason you’re not enjoying it
is because you refuse to be dead to your dumb rules
about how it should be enjoyed.
So do yourself and everybody else a favor..
go inside, and (go have lunch!)”
This is a parable of grace –
it is a story in contrasts
about who is able to receivegrace and who is not…
who is able to receive the love that God has for us,
and who holds onto the idea that there’s something we need to do;
some rules to be followed.
The younger son receives complete and utter forgiveness.
It isn’t clear that he ever repents!
When he “comes to himself”
he practices words to himself how he’s going to speak to his father,
“This is what I’ll do, I’ll say to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and against you…’”
but did you catch that there’s still a sense of conniving?
One preacher has called the younger son’s plan,
“Going to Daddy and sounding religious!”
He isn’t pulling the wool over his father’s eyes.
His father doesn’t even wait to hear what he says!
He runs to him, puts his arms around him,
and celebrates that he’s come home!
We’re left to wonder about the older son.
Grace means the lost are found –
those of us who think we don’t need to be found…
those of us who like the older brother
think that we make our lives acceptable to God by our behavior,
and then we’ll be found,
are missing the party.
Grace is amazing because it comes free of charge;
no strings attached.
A few years ago I was with a group of preschoolers
and I shared this parable.
In the end, as I reviewed the story,
I asked them whom in the story they liked best.
I was hoping of course that they might say the father,
but I was prepared for them to say they preferred
the younger son who went off on his adventures.
Who did they like best?
Not the father;
Not the younger son;
Not the older son.
They liked the pigs!
I thought a lot about that afterwards.
In all the commentaries that I’ve read over the years,
the pigs probably get the least amount of consideration!
It’s not just 3 year olds who hear different things in the parable.
Mark Allen Powell, a seminary professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary,
asked people who live in different cultures
what happened to the younger brother –
why he ended up in such straits.[ii]
When people in the United States were asked to retell the story,
all of them mentioned the younger son squandering away money.
He was wasteful, extravagant – he was prodigal!
However, in poorer countries such as Russia and Tanzania,
far fewer people talked about his wasting of money.
What the majority mentioned
was that there was a famine in the land
(do you even remember that part of the story?)
They say that the younger son ended up with the pigs,
because no one gave him anything to eat.
In poorer countries, the sin was not individual but was society’s.
The younger son went to a distant country,
which allowed him to go hungry.
You know who was generous?
Who took him in when no one else did?
(I think the toddlers had something there!)
This is a story of grace.
The grace perhaps of some pigs,
who don’t have much and yet are prodigal in giving what they have
to someone else in need, no strings attached.
But more importantly for us,
it is the grace of a father who is so extravagant – so prodigal with his love
that he gives both his sons everything he has
regardless of how ungrateful, or undeserving they are.
Join the party.
You are loved extravagantly!
And so is everyone else – whether they change or not!
[i] Robert Farrar Capon, Parables of Grace,
[ii] Mark Allan Powell, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew, 2007.