Sermons

"Lost and Found": Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

"Lost and Found": Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Mar 31, 2019

Passage:Luke 15:1-32

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Lent

Category: Love, Grace, Forgiveness, Abundance

Keywords: damnation, forgiveness, hell, lent, love, reconciliation

Summary:

With the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus answers the question about who God loves and with whom we should share God's grace: basically, there are no conditions for God's love. God is the loving, hope-filled, patient Father of the parable. All are loved, no matter what.

Detail:

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

There's a memory that's been on my mind lately. It's the story of a few people from my past in the Church. Here's what happened (more or less).

Years ago, long before I was ordained, I was teaching an adult Bible Study. There were several people in the class. Among them were a man I will call Harold and a woman I will call Harriet.

Harold had been in the church a long time, and he had very strong views on the Bible and on how it should be applied in all situations.

Harriet had very little church background. She had been through many difficulties in her life. And, quite frankly, she still lived a lifestyle that could hurt her and her family. But she had wandered into the church, and she was in the Bible study.

During the Bible study, Harriet showed great interest in anything that talked about God's forgiveness. As the class went on, it became clear that what she was most concerned about was her eternal soul.

Finally, one day in the class, she came right out and stated: "I do a lot of bad things. I have a lot guilt for these things I do." Then she asked:  "Am I going to hell when I die?"

Before I could say anything, another member of the class spoke up and said: "No, Harriet. God created you. And the God who created you loves you more than you can ever know.  No matter what you have done, there's no way that can surpass the level of love God has for you. The God I know and who knows me would never send you to hell!"

A flood of relieved tears came over Harriet. She crumbled in front of all as she silently poured out this sense of pent up anxiety and guilt. Most people in the room teared up with joy. We were all overwhelmed with compassion. This was clearly a cathartic, healing moment for Harriet. We felt God's presence in the room.

But, then, Harold spoke up. Harold was not happy with the answer that had been given. A countenance of discontent took over from his side of the room. "I have to interject here," he finally stated. "I don't mean to pour water on this warm, fuzzy understanding of God, but it's really not very Biblical!"

"The Bible clearly says that there is a hell and that eternal damnation is a consequence for our behaviors here in this life. If we don't have hell as a deterrent, what's to stop us from doing whatever the hell we want?"

We all just froze. We sat silently. All eyes were on Harold. And then... All eyes turned to ME! They wanted me to respond!

The truth is, I'm not exactly sure what all I said in response. But if I had it to do over again, part of what I would do is to look at today's Gospel reading from Luke.

What initiates this interchange are the Pharisees and scribes taking umbrage with the nature of the company Jesus is keeping. They ask him how he can have dinner with "tax collectors and sinners"?

Instead of simply giving a straight-forward explanation, this is where Jesus really shines.

He tells them a story.

And the story he tells them has now become one of the most famous stories in the Bible, if not the world.

We often call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

There are so many wonderful elements to this story. But I want to focus on just a couple.

First, let's focus on the son who asks for his inheritance from his father. The son wants the property. If we've never heard this story before, this might be shocking to think that a son in the first century is going to take half of the property--land is extremely important for families.

But, perhaps we might imagine that the son really needs the money for something important. Perhaps he wants to get married or try his hand at being successful on his own.

The father doesn't even blink at the suggestion. The Father simply immediately divides up the property and gives the son his half. In other words, the Father has abundant generosity, even if the son--the offspring--is going to screw it up!

So, back to the son. What is his plan for this new wealth? Is it marriage? Is it at least a well-thought-out business plan?

No, Jesus tells us the son goes with the money to a distant country and spends it all in dissolute living. He blows the entire fortune!

Finally, the son hits absolute rock bottom. A famine hits the country. No food is available. The only way the son can survive is to feed pigs...and eat what they are eating... This is ultimate insult for a Jewish man...

So, let's look at a second major component of this story... The Father.

The Father, in the meantime, is evidently watching and waiting for the son to return. The Father, day by day, still loves the son, and yearns for the son.

Then, one day, the son returns... The son has decided he will ask to be a hired hand for his father--better than eating pig food in a foreign land.

But the Father, who has been waiting for the son, runs out to greet him before he can even get to the house. The Father embraces him and kisses him.

Even though the son makes his confession of unworthiness, the Father still insists on the son having the best robes and rings and calls for a party -- a feast.

"This son of mine was lost and now he is found!"

This is about love. It's about the abundant, grace-filled, you-can-always-come back-to-God-no-matter-what love.  This is what I would have said to my Bible study class all those years ago. God loves us unconditionally!

We know that Jesus came "to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” We know that from the fullness of Christ, we have all received grace upon grace.  And we know that we are to take God's grace and God's love into the world. This is what it means for the lost to be found... when WE discover that God loves us, no matter what.

But despite this wonderful news--this Gospel-- sometimes in the church, people miss the focus. Like the Pharisees and scribes from our Gospel lesson today, they grumble that sinners are dining at the table, forgetting that we all sinners.

Like the "other son" in the parable, they grumble that God should be more generous to those of us who deserve special favors.

The grumblers can be quite destructive for us all. Even though we know the message of the Gospel is God's unwavering love for us, some plant the idea that there may be conditions for God's love. Even though we see that the way of the cross is the way of peace and reconciliation, some tell us that the only way forward is through this conflict or that, and convince us that the proper way to behave is to argue, fight, or cause discord. Even though we are continually welcomed back to the loving Creator with open arms, because love is the way... there's always someone out there who tries to put limits on God's love.

What Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is that God has no conditions for loving us. When we turn to God, God is already there, waiting for us with open arms. We are forgiven our sins. We are loved for who we are. Period. End of story.

A fundamental question for us a Christians is: do we need a deterrent--like hell and damnation--in order to live a life of propriety and goodness? Or do we live as the Body of Christ--the incarnation of the living God--because we journey at different times in this life from the hell of despair ...and anxiety ...and hopelessness ...and suspicion ..and hatred ... to a place where we are transformed by the abundance of God's grace and love into the people God created to be?

This is exactly what happened to Harriet. She listened to the voices of the majority in our little Bible group--those who told her she was loved by God. Over the next few years, she became more involved in the church. She started bringing her family. They had good times and bad. But, more than anything else, she came to know that she is a loved child of God. And she got to the place where she was able share that love with others in their times of need.

She has an abundant life. Truly the lost has been found.

May we all be found, and then share God's love with the world.

Amen.