+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on March 31, 2019 +
Texts: Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
When I was growing up, I was very active in the Boy Scouts.
As you probably know, an important part of Boy Scouting is hiking—going out in the woods with your troop, exploring new trails, and learning how to better understand the natural world.
Now, as can happen with an organization often led by a bunch of 15-year olds, there were times that we didn’t always know exactly where we were.
So perhaps it’s good that another important part of Scouts was learning the skill of orienteering—learning how to get home when you’re lost.
By using tools like a map, a compass, and sometimes even the stars you could find the true north and use that constant to guide you on your way.
So then after learning this skill, when you go hiking and realize you are lost, you have the tools and the confidence that will get you back home.
When I move to a new place, I sometimes like to intentionally get lost so I can find new ways home.
I remember when I first moved to Seattle after college, my parents gave me a GPS for my car so I wouldn’t get lost in the big new city.
But even with that device, I remember my dad suggesting that I use it to get lost—to go to a destination or new neighborhood, turn it off, and find my way home.
When I did this, I often found that I would drive roads that my GPS would never have suggested, finding new routes, exploring more than just I-5 and seeing how different neighborhoods connected with each other and in doing so gaining a better understanding of my new city.
It’s something I like to do each time I’m getting used to a new place—getting lost to better learn how to get home.
Sometimes it helps to get lost a few times so you can be sure that you’re going to find your way home.
This morning we heard one of the most famous stories in the Bible, one that we probably have heard so many times that we may get lost in the meanings we have attributed to it in the past.
In some ways, this story seems to have lost all of the suspense and surprise that were characteristic of Jesus’ parables in the ears of their first hearers.
We may even know this one so well that as soon as I started saying, “There was a man who had two sons…” we got lost in our own thoughts, sure that we already know the moral of this story.
Even the title that has traditionally been ascribed to this parable gives away our assumption of its meaning: “The Prodigal Son.”
“Prodigal” means reckless, extravagant, wasteful. It describes a son who wandered off and squandered his money before seeing the error of his ways and returning home to ask his father for forgiveness.
Especially since the lectionary has placed this parable smack dab in the middle of the more penitential season of Lent, we assume that this is about Jesus calling us to see how we have embodied the prodigal son and encouraging us to engage in repentance and seek forgiveness.
But as always, it’s important to recognize the context of this story.
Today’s gospel comes from the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel—a chapter that has sometimes been labeled the “Lost Chapter,” not because it was missing but because it consists of Jesus talking about things that were lost.
When the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about how Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, Jesus told them three parables.
The first was about a shepherd who had 100 sheep in his flock and when one wandered off, he left the 99 to go and find the lost sheep.
When he found the sheep he gathered his friends and neighbors and had a party.
Then Jesus tells a parable of a woman who had ten coins but lost one so she searched all through her house until she found her lost coin and when she did, she celebrated with her friends and neighbors.
And then we have the third parable, which we heard this morning, about a father and his lost sons.
And yes, I mean sons plural.
Because while we often focus our attention on the younger, so-called prodigal son, I think we can see that both sons are lost in their own way and they both have a story to tell.
We see the younger son who brashly gathers all he has and travels to a far off land.
But when the money is gone, however that may have happened, a famine hits and no one was there to support him.
He finds himself lost in a strange land unsure of what to do except return home.
And we see the older brother, who though he remains home seems to get lost in place.
So lost in his work and self-righteousness that he cannot see the love around him; so lost in resentment that he fabricates stories about why his brother is unworthy of the love he is receiving.
But Jesus doesn’t tell us how these sons got lost—we don’t know their full story.
Maybe that younger son convinced himself that through some rugged individualism he could pull himself up by his bootstraps (with the help of a hefty inheritance) and make something of himself—that he doesn’t need his family or community.
Or maybe he got lost not by squandering his inheritance, but by assuming that the love of his father was only worth as much as it was beneficial to him, that his blessing was only as helpful as it increased his own financial prosperity.
Or maybe he felt like he was forced out from his home, maybe he felt unwelcome and thought he had no choice but to go it alone – maybe his family or community or church refused to accept him because of his sexuality or because he no longer identified with the sex assigned to him when he was born.
We don’t really know his story.
And the elder son, we don’t know how he got lost while staying home.
Maybe he doesn’t recognize all the advantages he has—the promise of inheritance, a loving father, and a family with wealth enough to hire extra workers—that he is blind to his own privilege.
Or maybe he’s so focused on doing what he has to earn some future reward that he cannot dwell in the love and celebrate the abundance that already surrounds him.
Or maybe he’s just going through the motions day after day as the doubt starts sneaking in; doing what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing, but not always able to trust in the love he has or the promises his father has given him.
I’d like to hear more about his story, too.
But whatever the stories of the sons may be, Jesus does tell us about their father.
The father who is constantly scanning the horizon waiting for his son and at the first sight of him rushes out to embrace him and lavishes him with love.
The father who rushes to the fields to find another son and urges him to join in the party.
So maybe it doesn’t matter too much that we don’t hear how the sons got lost because that allows us to better see our story in theirs.
Maybe we don’t need all the details filled in because we know this story as our own.
Because I think we could all identify with one of these sons at one time or another—or maybe both of them.
We all have been lost in our own way at one point or another—maybe in an obvious way that draws a lot of attention like the younger son, or in a way that’s more subtle and internal like the elder son.
Maybe we are all too aware of how lost we are or maybe our lostness is a little less obvious, even to us.
But we know that we too have been lost—and maybe we still are.
During this season of Lent, we have an opportunity to recognize the ways that we are lost, whatever they may be.
We have an opportunity to engage in self-reflection and confess the ways we have wandered.
And while this season may focus a lot on repentance and returning to God, these parables remind us that even we are lost, we are never alone and that God’s love for us does not depend on our repentance.
Sheep cannot repent and neither can coins.
And even though the younger son was going back home to repent, he didn’t even have a chance to finish his well-rehearsed apology before he found himself enfolded in the love of a father who was overjoyed to see him again.
So maybe the active party in these parables is actually God—the shepherd seeking out the wayward sheep, the woman searching high and low for her lost coin, and the father watching and waiting for one son and going to find the other—the one who lavishes us with love beyond compare.
Especially in this season of Lent, when we can focus so much on our own work and what we have to do to be right with God, we have this assurance that there is nothing we can do to escape the love and compassion and grace of God, no more than there is anything we can do to earn it.
Just as we came to the waters of our baptism having done northing to deserve it, we were showered in a gift of love and grace.
Just as we come to this table bringing nothing, coming only as beggars, we are fed with heavenly food beyond compare.
The only choice we have to make is whether we will allow ourselves to return to this love, to allow it to embrace us and surround us, to allow it to permeate our very lives.
But especially in this season of contemplation and introspection, please hear this: we have a God who never abandons us—that no matter how lost or alone we feel, our God is with us.
We have a God who is always searching for us—who drops everything and will not rest until we are found again.
We have a God who guides us—who has fixed the love that we know through Christ Jesus like a shining north star that leads us home.
We have a community here to walk with us as the one who welcomes sinners and eats with them guides us to the banquet feast that he has set before us.
And when we who were lost are found again, we have a God who runs down the path to embrace us, who lavishes us with love, and who throws a party to celebrate our return.
Sometimes it takes being lost to be sure that we will always be found and will always make it home.