Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
I was at a funeral this past week, for a friend from high school who died of cancer. We’d played soccer together on the school team—he rather more ferociously than me—and then in our forties ended up on opposing teams in a men’s league. A tireless competitor, he still played ferociously… and yes, his team won. The two of us were among the oldest players on the field, yet his play was instrumental in his team’s victory that evening. I had to hang up my soccer boots at the end of the 2007 season, my knees no longer able to deal with the strain. At the funeral there was a picture of my friend with his team from 2014, gathered around a championship trophy no less. He was a strong healthy man, with a carpe diem “seize the day” attitude to life, and yet there I was at his funeral. It was sobering, really, and it got me thinking about life and death; my life and my death.
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Over the years I’ve often encouraged people to do some thinking about their own funerals, and last year I even offered a planning workshop here at the church. What music would you want at your funeral? What should we sing as we bid you farewell? Who do you want to speak? What scripture readings would you like proclaimed on that day? Not that I was suggesting people set it all in stone—maybe their families would have things they’d really want included—but to leave some instructions is always a good thing. What’s more, the exercise of thinking about such things can be a really powerful one, whether like me you’re 55 with busted up soccer knees, or 85, or 25. What do you think would best mark the closing of your own life?
Several years ago I decided that the gospel reading I want proclaimed at my funeral is this parable from Luke. The Prodigal Son, or as Robert Capon called it, “The Father Who Lost Two Sons.” That’s probably a more accurate title for the parable, as not only does Jesus never use the word “prodigal,” it really is about two sons, both of whom have been lost to their father, though in very different ways. I’m powerfully aware that at different times over my life I’ve wrestled with lostness, and that in different ways I can relate to both of those sons. I’m also aware that the character of the father in the parable also places a claim on my life—on all of our lives, really—and that at least from time to time I’ve been given the grace to live into that claim.
You know the story, of course. It is one of a series of three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sons—Jesus tells in response to the complaint of the scribes and Pharisees that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Each parable speaks to Jesus’ desire that the lost—those whom his critics dismissively call “sinners”—be found. The lost sheep and the lost coin offer an implicit critique of the scribes and Pharisees. “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”—over one who was lost and is now found—so drop your scruples, gentlemen, and get ready to rejoice with the angels. The parable of the lost sons offers a more explicit critique, one that faces down their self-righteousness and leaves them with a big question mark hanging over their religiosity.
The besetting sin for both sons is pride. The younger son is self-centered and self-absorbed. He’s bored with his life on the farm, and he thinks he’s ready to launch and to cut his own path. “Father,” he says, “give me the share of the property that will belong to me,” and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the father does. A couple of days later this all too self-assured young man hits the road, and as Jesus tells the story, he all too quickly “squandered his property in dissolute living.” He ends up having to take work as a farm laborer of all things; the very work he thought he’d left behind. Doubly humbling—galling, maybe—is that a character in a Jewish parable is reduced to feeding pigs. This, of course, is the moment that he begins to return to his senses. “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.’” And so he begins his long, sorry walk home, rehearsing his apology speech as he goes. Do you know that experience at all? You’ve done something or said something, and you know that you have to set it right. Whether it is with a friend, a work colleague, a parent, a spouse or partner, you go over and over and over your apology in your mind, desperately hopeful that the words will come out right.
As he approached, his father looked up and saw him, and “filled with compassion, he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” The son launches into his rehearsed speech—“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son”—but the father doesn’t even let him get it finished. Before the son can say, “treat me like one of your hired hands”, the father is putting a party into motion. And why? Because he “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
The part of the speech that the son has managed to get out before being smothered by his father’s kisses is instructive. “I have sinned against heaven and before you,” he says, which is a confession of guilt. A sense of guilt over something we’ve done isn’t a bad thing, not at all. Guilt like that can move us to make amends and to change; it can be a bit of a teacher in fact. Your conscience pushes you to an uncomfortable place, and that’s the moment you can actually begin to turn things around. It is the next statement that strikes to the heart of what the son is bearing.
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he says, which is an expression of shame. If guilt is feeling badly about something we’ve done, shame is feeling badly about who we are, and that can be killer. Yet “filled with compassion”—that’s the phrase Jesus uses—“filled with compassion”, the father overrides both the guilt and the shame, and reclaims that son as his own.
The noted author and speaker Brené Brown is convinced of the centrality of compassion in overcoming shame. “Compassion,” she notes, “is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.” In other words, while the father in this parable offers healing compassion into the life of his lost son, he does it not as a grand pronouncement from above, but by standing face to face with him, on the same level ground. If the besetting sin of the younger son is self-absorbed pride, the great gift of this father is offered precisely because he’s not bound up in a shallow pride that would have him put limits on forgiveness. Let the party begin.
Cut to the older brother, who has just returned from the field to discover music and dancing. What’s up with this? That no good brother of mine has come home? And our father is throwing a party? Count me out. But the father—who is, remember, compassionate—comes out to the garden to try to talk him inside. He’s first run out to greet the younger son, and now here he again comes out, this time to seek the older son. “I’ve behaved,” pouts the older son. He’s “devoured your property with prostitutes.” I’ve worked like a slave, I’ve followed the rules, but I don’t get a party.
“Son,” replies the father, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” You can’t blame your puritanical workaholism on me, thank you very much. Don’t you see? “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.” And that’s where the parable ends. As Jesus tells this story to the scribes and Pharisees, he’s really saying, “drop your self-righteousness, gentlemen, because the party is underway.” Like the elder son, you can stay sulking in the garden, but if you’d like me to pour you a drink you’ll need to sit down with me, right next to the ones you so confidently paint as “sinners.” And maybe they are sinners, but I’m finding them and raising them from the deaths of their own thin lives. And I can do the same for you. What’ll it be?
I want this story read and preached at my funeral, because I want to say that my own lostness—whether of self-absorption, self-importance, self-righteousness, self-whatever—has been over-written and wiped clean by the compassionate grace of Jesus. In this I trust: my death is kept safe in the death of Jesus.
And my friend? His name was Vic, and he really was a hell of a soccer player. But that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that he counted himself as being numbered among the sons and daughters of the divine Parent, whose compassion and love was, by the standards of this world, the most prodigal thing of all. There is sorrow, yes, but also deep, deep consolation. May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.