First Congregational Church
March 31, 2019
4th Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Before launching yet again into another spectacular sermon that will be remembered for one reason or another, I ask all of you to make sure you have a little room next to you. You may need to move just a bit to give yourself a little elbow room. More on that later.
I know I’ve used this introduction before, but I think it’s been a long while. For those who remember it, perhaps, like scripture, you will hear something new in the telling today.
Every Friday night after work, Ole went over to Sven's for supper. They would fire up his outdoor grill outside of Duluth and cook some venison steaks. But many of Sven's neighbors were Catholic. And since it was Lent, they were forbidden to eat meat on Friday.
The delicious aroma of the steaks wafted over Duluth all the way to Esko. It caused such a problem for the Catholic faithful that they finally talked to their priest. The Priest visited Ole and Sven, and suggested that they become Catholic. After several classes and much study, the two attended Mass. As the priest sprinkled holy water over them, he said, "You were born Lutheran, and raised Lutheran, but now you are Catholic."
Ole and Sven's neighbors were relieved, until Friday night arrived. Once again the wonderful aroma of grilled venison filled all of Duluth. The Priest was called immediately by the neighbors. As he rushed into Sven's yard, clutching a rosary and prepared to scold his two new converts, he stopped in his tracks and watched in amazement.
There stood Ole with a small bottle of holy water which he carefully sprinkled over the platter of grilled meat held by Sven. Ole chanted: "You vuz born a deer, an' you vuz raised a deer, but now you is a walleye!"
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: (about the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin)
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Thank you, Tom. This morning’s scripture passage is perhaps Jesus’ best story. It sits at the end of Luke’s 15th chapter, after the telling of two other parables about lost and found. It has been called the story of the Prodigal Son, although the word “prodigal” is not found within the passage. In fact, it’s a Latin word, first found in the Latin translation of the Greek originals. And if you look at the meditative thought at the top of the bulletin proper, Miriam Webster’s definition could be used in reference to all three men in today’s story: the younger son in his squander of resources, the older son in his poor use of opportunity and the father in his lavish love.
There are certainly a lot of details that make the story more poignant: remembering that the younger son’s job at a pig farm would be considered abhorrent to a Jew - one could not get any lower, that the younger son wasn’t just spending just his “own” money, but his father’s security, how undignified is was for an older man to lift his robes and run - for anyone or anything - and that it’s not about the younger son’s real change of heart, but about his hunger and desperation, even if it is all a bit cynical - still taking advantage of his father. In fact, as the Rev. Dr. James Howell of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC, says, as a story about God’s Kingdom, it “isn’t about getting straight with God, but it’s about raucous delight, total joy.”
When I was trying to figure out if the Ole and Sven story had a place in today’s message, it struck me that we all are who we have always been - not venison or walleye, but beloved. It’s easy to get caught up in the poignancy of the story, forgetting that it is also a story about God’s kingdom, about all of us, having the free will to do what we want, getting to pay for our decisions, but always, forever and ever, being one of God’s dearly beloveds and always, always, welcomed back home, no matter what we’ve done.
One of the great spiritual writers, Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian Henry Nouwen, wrote a sentence that grabbed my mind - and then my heart. He said, “Had I really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God, instead of choosing over and over again the position of the outsider looking in?” It was a response to a comment by Rev. Howell, but it got me to thinking: when was the last time I envisioned myself in that story - as the one coming home - after doing all the dumb things of which I am so thoroughly capable? When was the last time you did that?
In this season of reflection and confession, we might go down our lists of “God forgive me’s,” and “thank yous,” but do we take the moments - as many as are required - to just sit there, looking into the eyes of the One who is overjoyed with love for us - for you?
There was another pastor, a Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr. of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts, who was talking about the value of grace from an economic point of view. In a reflection from a college economics class, Rev. Graumann talked about grace in terms of supply and demand, and of the great principle: as the demand for something increases, all other things being equal, its price increases.
Graumann, referencing another great German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, described Bonhoeffer’s idea that “cheap grace” is the disease by which the Christian comes to rest on their laurels. With cheap grace, a Christian is led to believe “the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Cheap grace produces no change of life, no discipleship, but rather becomes a throwaway commodity, an abundance of rotten apples.” Bonhoeffer contrasted cheap grace with costly grace, that which costs the Christian much, even their life, resulting in a counter-cultural living. Rev. Graumann suggested “I can hear the older brother yelling, “Cheap grace!” as he argues with his father.”
In making his point, Rev. Graumann said, “Prodigal grace is neither cheap nor costly but rather hyper-abundant. From the Magnificat to the breaking of bread in Emmaus, Luke announces that Jesus brings the world into God’s economy. This economy is not bound by the earthly laws of supply and demand, for one could argue that the demand of sin is eternally high. God foolishly and enthusiastically showers us with grace upon grace, believing like the parable’s father that our life is worth celebrating. Yet, in God’s world, that which is abundant remains extremely valuable; a precious gift.”
Graumann’s last point was that “the weekly churchgoer, faithful though they may be, may likely see themselves as the prodigal son, the forgiven one. However, their actions may be more like the older brother, preferring that the price of God’s love remain out of the reach of “those people.” In his concluding remarks he said, “Prodigal grace is priceless, lavished on those who can’t afford it. Prodigal grace offends the pious. Prodigal grace even forgives the bad joke at the end of an essay.” I say, now that’s an expensive grace!
No matter how, how often, if, when, where we miss the mark of God’s target for us, God doesn’t simply pat us on the back and say, “too bad.” Every time, every day, every moment, in every breath we take, God’s grace is trying to draw us back into the arms of love that is costly, priceless, beyond comprehension astounding. And how often we forget to “be” in that grace?
I suggest that you go find a place to “be” in that grace this week. Do it in the bathroom if you need a place out of sight of eyes that may think you a little off-plumb. Breathe in the Holy Spirit, and breathe out the distractions and their names: irritating individuals, offensive brain obsessions, would-a’s, could-a’s and shoulda’s. Breathe in the Holy Spirit, breathe out that which isn’t, and “be” with the Spirit - in all it’s grace and love and mercy and peace. I know it will be weird for some of you, but just try it. See what happens. I won’t cost you a thing except a few minutes of time.
To get you going, in a moment I will ask you all to close your eyes, so that you can use your arms and no one will feel goofy. I ask that when you breathe in the Holy Spirit, you use your arms to invite it into you, and when you name the thing to yourself that you are breathing out, you use your arms to not only flow out of you, but that you free it into the cosmos, trusting that God will take it from there - for the moment, at least. And repeat for as long as you need, until you are able to focus on the Holy Spirit without needing to remember to breathe it in.
So go ahead and close your eyes, and breathe in the Holy Spirit, and breathe out the most worrying thing on your mind at the moment, silently naming as you release it. Breathe in the Holy Spirit and breathe out the next thing that has been troubling you lately, silently naming it as you release it. Breathe in the Holy Spirit, and breathe out that thing that you know you should or shouldn’t have done, silently naming it as you release it.
Holy Spirit, Creator and Redeemer, silence our impudent minds and come into us. It is so easy to forget whom we have always been - your beloved. We forget that your joy is in us - all of us, broken and miraculous, human and beloved “us.” We forget there are no lost and founds in your kingdom, only love and love and more love. And grace. Loads of prodigal grace. With each breath, remind us of the magnitude of your love and grace - that spreads not only over the globe, but over all of time, before and into eternity. Enable each of us to live into such love and grace, not just in the coming week, but in all our days, as representatives of all you are to the world. For each and every blessing and grace and love, all your beloved say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.