Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Lent 4C
Maybe you can go home again.
Returning home wounded, even if wiser, is not on the top of anyone’s wish list. Even so, it will happen. Repeatedly.
Stumbling, fumbling quietly but oh-so-loudly into the house after curfew – having not been where you said you were. It has been known to happen, right? Running away in an I-will-show-them moment – only to realize you really have nowhere else to go. Who among us has done it? Calling in contrition to test the waters before returning to the scene of a nasty argument, hoping the absence has calmed the waves and not churned them up. Haven’t we tried this? Who hasn’t gotten to the point in a family, a church, a job where the best option seemed to walk away and never look back? Who hasn’t gotten out the door and even down the road a bit? And yet, how often do we truly leave and never return? How often do our ties that bind keep us bound spiritually, emotionally, psychologically – even if we’ve thought we’d severed them?
You can’t go home again, the saying goes; and yet, we often can do nothing other. That’s what strikes me about this familiar tale this time around. That wayward son didn’t want to come home; he had to come home. Desperation is a funny thing, isn’t it? It can cause us to run away, and it can drive us right back where we began. But in this story, transformation does happen. In fact, all three of these texts appointed for the fourth Sunday of Lent share a radical before-and-after element.
You once ate manna, now you eat produce. You once were slaves in Egypt, but now you are landowners in Canaan. You once were estranged from God, but now you are reconciled to God and commissioned to reconcile others. You once were lost, but now you are found. You once were cocky and entitled, but now you are penitent and humble. Transformation has happened. The prodigal is back home, but miles and miles away from where he started. The father he thought he knew has surprised everyone – older brother included – with grace rather than condemnation, mercy instead of judgment, a welcome in place of a rejection. That’s the crux of this parable and indeed all three of these texts: God acts over and over again with compassion, provision and care for us. And we never cease to be surprised.
This Gospel story is so well known, what new under the sun can be said about it? That’s the frustration when it rolls around again. How can we possible say anything new? Well, don’t. We need to hear over and over again that we have a home and we can return to it – wounded and wiser perhaps, but welcomed and celebrated, regardless of where we’ve been, what we’ve done and who we’d almost become. There is a reason such amazing grace is powerful. Who hasn’t stomped away or felt cast away or wandered into the wilderness and longed to be embraced, clothed and beloved? We’ve all been lost and yearned to be found.
That’s the big reversal in all three of these stories. The Israelites complained in the wilderness, got nostalgic about Egypt, got tired of manna and quail, doubted the promise and resigned themselves to a homelessness existence. Don’t we, too? Why should tomorrow be any different than today and yesterday and the day before that? New creation? Yeah, right? People don’t change. Haters gonna hate. Divisions persist for generations. Oppressive systems perpetuate. Resentments mount. Who am I – or who are we – to have the audacity to think we can make a difference? When people show you who they are, believe them. If sons want money and squander it, they will do so again. Pull one over on me once, shame on you. Twice? Well, shame on me. Those junkies and losers are drains on the system and life is often easier without them. Maybe giving that inheritance was cheap at the price. Now we can move on and have peaceful Thanksgiving dinners from here on out. Our culture basks in writing circumstances and people off as unworthy or unchangeable. But God’s ways are not our ways.
Coming home again is possible. Getting out of the desert is inevitable. Reconciliation has happened. God acts. God acts with mercy, grace, provision, compassion and love. God acts and shows us how to act. And with the ever more imminent crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, God acts decisively revealing once and for always the lengths God will go to be in relationship with us. Are we surprised?
Are we relieved or are we resentful? Are we ready to do what we now know to do? Be who we now are? Or would we rather stay away from the party and grouse to whoever will agree with us that that good-for-nothing little brother hasn’t really changed? Never mind that the father ran out to meet his son, oblivious and unconcerned about the boy having learned his lesson. That’s what really surprises us. That’s what makes grace hard to swallow. That’s what renders reconciliation anathema. We want consequences. Attitude adjustment. Some groveling would be a nice touch. You can come home again, but I will make you pay. But our ways are not God’s ways.
God acts. God acts with provision, compassion, mercy, care and exuberant love, apart from the actions or attitude of those on the receiving end of God’s embrace. God says: You not only can come home again, this is where you belong, I’ve made a space that can only be filled by you. All that I have is yours.
God’s enacts this great reversal… but imagine if we recognize God’s grace, receive it and in gratitude extend it to others. Who would be fed? Celebrated? Embraced? Imagine how surprising such a welcome would be to those desperate for a place to call home!
- Psalm 32 lifts up how keeping silent regarding our sin kills, but how acknowledgment saves. What sin, corporate and individual, do we need to speak boldly and honestly in order to be healed?
- Make a list with before and after on each of the week’s text. What do you notice? Similarities? Differences?
- Note how God is the primary actor in each of this week’s lessons. How do people in the various texts respond to God’s actions or how are they called to respond?
- Are we too quick to write people or situations off as intractable or unworthy of our time and efforts? Can you name some specific examples? How can we remain engage with difficult circumstances that are slow to change?
- Try to read the parable of the prodigal son as if for the first time. What do you notice? Better yet, read an age-appropriate version to a group of young children and get their responses to the story. What do they notice?
- Consider this quote from “Imaging the Word, Volume I:” Before returning, there is departure. Before forgiveness, there is estrangement.
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