SERMON: Are you home? (Lent 4C)

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (NRSV): Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable:

Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The 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. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So 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. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.” ’

Sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ; grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Yay! A Sunday where I get to complain! What am I complaining about? The Revised Common Lectionary! I simply do not understand why on earth we get the parable of the prodigal son here in Lent 4, but the introductory parables about the lost sheep and coin don’t come until the end of the summer. These three parables are intimately related, they share a similar structure and language, and they are clearly intended to reinforce each other; they belong together!

So, just a quick reminder! You heard the first few verses of Luke 15, which gives us the setting and audience hearing these parables: the tax collectors and sinners as well as the grumbling Pharisees. Then Jesus relates two parables that share the exact same literary structure, along with very similar language. The first parable is about a lost sheep and a shepherd who leaves the 99 to go find the lost one in the wilderness. The second parable is about a lost coin and the woman who turns her house upside down to find it. In both parables there is much rejoicing when what was lost is found.

Now, while these two parables are very similar to one another, I believe it is in the only major difference between the two that Jesus’ point is really being made. And it is that difference that is preparing us for the third parable, the one I read just a few moments ago. That difference has to do with what is lost and how it may have been lost.

In the first parable we have a lost sheep. Sheep aren’t the brightest creatures and can be prone to wandering off from the flock in search of food or water or what have you. In the second parable we have a lost coin; unlike the sheep, coins are inanimate objects and completely unable to wander off on their own (although it can sure feel as though my keys wander off sometimes). Why is that difference important? I believe it highlights the different sorts of “lost-ness” we can find ourselves in. Sometimes we are lost through our own actions, wandering off to find…something. And sometimes we are lost in place, somehow at “home” and yet not where we are supposed to be, at home yet not really.

Perhaps you can see now where I am going with this. These introductory parables are preparing us for the third parable, the prodigal son. Although I would like to suggest a different title. Let’s call it the parable of the two lost sons, because, of course, both of them are lost! One is lost like the sheep, wandering off far from home; and the other is lost like the coin, still home but not really.

This begs the question, then, where is home for the sheep and the coin? Where is home for these two lost sons? Where is your home? What defines home for a sheep? Or a coin? Or a wastrel? Or a stickler? What defines home for you? Perhaps the best question to throw all of this into clarity is this: where are you when you’re NOT lost? Where are you when you feel as though you belong completely?

A sheep is not lost when they are in the flock, under the care of a shepherd. A coin belongs when it is where its owner wants it to be. Those are easy answers, it gets harder in the third parable because the sons can conceptualize and pursue their own “home” in a way coins and sheep cannot. So, a wastrel would think that their home is wherever they are surrounded by friends and food and drink. A stickler would think that their home is where they know and can follow the rules. But all of that is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The point of this parable, the point of all three of these parables is the same. The variety of “lost-ness” expressed in them may be different, but where we are lost from…that’s the same. We’re lost from our true home. Where’s that? Well, I believe that our truest home is wherever we are when we are resting in God. Whether sheep, coin, wastrel, or stickler, home is the tender embrace of a loving and gracious God. Ultimately, we are lost when we are not resting in God. And wow are we good at getting lost!

We get lost looking for things that don’t satisfy, food, fun, wealth, power, popularity. We get lost trying to live up to rules and standards that we (largely) inflict on ourselves. We get lost in comparing and judging. We get lost in doing everything for everyone. We get lost in ever greater achievements. We get lost in our emotions. We get lost in sterile objectivity. We get lost in our anxieties and fears. We get lost in pursuing the latest shiny objects. We get lost in trying to prove ourselves to others. We get lost in pleasing people. We get lost in envying the “home” others seem to find.

See, we’re experts at getting lost; we’re pros at leaving the presence of God, that warm embrace which is our surest rest. We have found a multitude of ways to get away from God, sometimes wandering off, and sometimes standing still. We can even turn the gifts of God in to ways to get lost from God’s presence.

There is an old Jewish story that goes like this: “The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating Gods goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling envious and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.”[1]

What if I told you, you don’t need to be lost any more? Could you believe that? I mean, really believe it? Could you dare to believe that you don’t have to wander off in search of home? Could you believe that you don’t have to be a stickler for some set of rules that too easily become substitutes for God’s presence? Could you believe that you need not do a single thing to be welcomed home to God’s embrace?

The fact of the matter is this: anywhere that is not God is not our home. So, my siblings in Christ, let’s go home. Let’s turn to God, trusting that God forgives even before we can finish our confession. Let’s turn to God, trusting that how we got lost, or where we wandered off to are irrelevant to God. Let’s turn to God trusting that all God cares about is that we are home now. And when we wander off again, or get lost standing still; God rushes to embrace us in the most undignified, joyous, exuberant and prodigal manner…again and again and again! What good news!

Do you think there might be one or two others in the world that could use some directions on how to get home? Do you think you could show them the way to their true home? I think we can! I think we do that by being loving and accepting people, just as God loves and accepts them. I think we do that by wrapping others in that same loving embrace which we know as our home too. So, let’s walk the Way of Christ, knowing that it will take us, and all people, home. Let’s walk the Way of Christ, straight into the tender and loving embrace of God. Amen.

[1] R. Alan Culpepper. Luke 15:1-32, Parables of the Joy of Recovery and Return. (1995). In The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX: The Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John (p. 298). Abingdon Press.