Amazing Grace: Sermon by Rev. Canon Patrick P. Augustine, Rector, Christ Episcopal Church, La Crosse, on Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2007

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Luke 15: 1-15
I love the fifteenth chapter of Luke. It is filled with familiar stories of “lost and found.” There is a story about a lost sheep…followed by a story about a lost coin and leading to a story appointed in the gospel reading for today. This story is commonly known “The Parable of Prodigal Son.” It has many theological themes such as sin, repentance, forgiveness, love and grace.
Kenneth B. Bailey is a biblical scholar who spent most of his life in the Middle East. He writes, “From 1955 to 1995 our family lived in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus, where I taught New Testament in seminaries and institutes. Indeed, when I began to take seriously the traditional Middle Eastern culture of which Jesus was a part, the parable of "the father and his two lost sons" began to unfold for me in a new and exciting way.”[1] He often asked Palestinians if they ever heard of such a thing. Has any one ever made such a request in your village? Never! Such a request would be the greatest insult to a Middle Eastern father. It`s like saying, "I can`t wait till you`re dead.”
According to the Middle Eastern Laws, the older of two sons was entitled to two thirds of the property and the younger one third. The estate did not consist of stocks and bonds but it was mainly in land and cattle. It was a worst insult to sell your ancestral land. There was a deep sense of belongingness to the land. It was passed from generation to generation within the same family. This young man demands his father to give him the share of his ancestral land. The listeners of Jesus parable were shocked in learning that the father actually gives his youngest son the inheritance. He sells his land and turns into cash.
Next, he goes off and wastes the money on high living and womanizing. Soon his new found wealth and fun is gone with the wind. He is now homeless and has no money. He looks for a job but has no references or no credit and ends up getting the most menial job in the pig pen. Then Jesus said, “when he comes to himself…’ The Greek actually does not mean ‘when he came to his senses’. The Greek literally means ‘off by himself’. It means he came to be with himself, i.e. he came to recognize his situation. So talking to himself saying, “Gee, Why am I wasting my life here, hungry, cold and homeless? This is a miserable life. I had it. I am going home.” Notice, he comes home when he has nowhere else to go. On the way back home he is rehearsing his confession. We have no idea how sincere he is in returning home.
The next thing we notice that from a distance his father spotted him. His father runs out in the open street to meet him. Again it is opposite what is expected of the father. No Middle Eastern man with a long robe and a head dress jogs in the street. It is considered indecent. Father violates all standards of decency. Jewish tradition said, “a man’s manner of walking tells you what he is.” The son is blown away by his father’s action. He stares out through the tears quivering in his eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech, “ Dad, I’m sorry. “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). His father interrupts him. “Hush, my son. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.” This is, of course, the story of humanity, our story. God gives us our inheritance, and then relinquishes control. He sets us free. (What else does it mean when we are given "dominion"?)
This gospel story has unique message for us to share with the world. The God of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a God who forgives, yes, but reluctantly, after making the penitent squirm. Often God is viewed a distant thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of a father publicly humiliating himself by rushing out to embrace a son who has squandered half the family fortune. There is no solemn lecture, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson!” Instead, Jesus tells of the father’s exhilarationâ€"“This is my son who was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
Jesus says in effect, “Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? When one of those two-legged humans pays attention to me, it feels like I just reclaimed my most valuable possession, which I had given up for lost.” It is a beautiful image which gives us a glimpse into the heart of God what it must feel like for the Maker of the Universe to get another member of his family back. In Jesus words, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” This is called Grace of God.
Grace is shockingly personal. As Henri Nowen points out, “God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising Him for His goodness. No, God rejoices because one of His children who was lost has been found.”
At the very moment when Jesus was captivating the attention of the crowd which included tax collectors, half breeds, foreigners, and the women of ill repute who had experienced his saving grace. Pharisees stood at the edges of the crowd muttering and grinding their teeth that Jesus has no sense of the justice of God. In the story of the Prodigal Son, provocatively, Jesus brought in the older brother to voice proper outrage at his father for rewarding irresponsible behavior. What kind of “family values” would his father communicate by throwing a party for such a scoundrel? What kind of virtue would that encourage?
Fred Craddock a well known preacher once tinkered with details of the parable to make just this point. In a sermon, he had the father slip the ring and robe on the elder brother, then kill the fatted calf in honor of his years of faithfulness and obedience. A woman in the back of the sanctuary yelled out, “That’s the way it should have been written.” But the gospel is not at all what we would come up with on our own. In Jesus’ teaching we learn quite shocking teaching such as God ignoring a fancy religious teacher and turning instead to an ordinary sinner who pleads, “God, have mercy.” Throughout the Bible, in fact, God shows a marked preference for “real” people over “good” people. In Jesus’ own words, “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”[2]
Look at the cross where Jesus forgave a thief hung for his crimes. Jesus knowing full well the thief had converted out of plain fear. That thief would never study the Bible, never attend a church, and never make amends to all those he had wronged. He simply said, “Jesus, remember me,” and Jesus promised, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It was another shocking, reminder that grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us.
The season of Lent reminds us to come to God with penitent hearts and ask God for “Help!” That is the act of confession in the liturgy. Confession is not some calculated act of bookkeeping. Confession means throwing out the books. Confession doesn`t precede forgiveness, it follows it. God incarnation in human flesh in the person of Jesus is in search of the lost and drifted away in their careless acts of disobedience. Jesus is the Shepherd who left the safety of the fold for the dark and dangerous night outside. To his banquets he welcomed all the marginalized people of the society. He came for the sick and not the well, for the unrighteous and not the righteous. God responds to our cry, our confession like a lovesick father.
God always has the power to turn the worst into the best. He can turn a cross into a victory. He can turn our sordid, filthy, contemptible sins into the first step of our wholeness. That’s why some people who have the most spectacular fall ended up being the most humble and effective saints. They fall into the Father’s arms. This is how this parable of the “Prodigal Son” speaks to me this morning. No matter who we are, what we`ve done, how far we`ve wandered; the father is waiting for us. Come home! Come home! The Father’s been waiting for so long for us. The generous love, the amazing grace and the joyous welcome is offered to each one of us.


[1][1][1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Christian Today: The Pursuing Father, October 26, 1998.

[2][2] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Zondvervan, 19

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