you can listen to today’s sermon here. Or, read on.
I’m glad to see that so many of you set your clocks forward and made it to Sunday services this morning. I’ve called you all together today in order to make a major announcement. Today, the Fourth Sunday in Lent of 2013, having still not decided what to give up this year, it is my great pleasure to announce that for Lent 2014, I have decided to give up Lent. That’s right, you heard it here first, I’ve decided to give up Lent for Lent.
I am certainly not be the first person to have this idea, but I am 100% serious about it. Every Lent, I take on the discipline of reading a few extra daily devotionals. I signed up for them years ago, and they auto-magically arrive in my inbox beginning on Ash Wednesday. If I’m lucky, Lainey lets me sleep until 6am, and as I sip my coffee, I strain to read 6 point, yellow text on a white background on my tiny iPhone screen and wonder, “Why am I doing this?” Every year, I struggle to come up with something to give up for Lent. I’ve tried giving up sweets, beer, and snack foods. One year, I tried to give up contempt for Lent. Inevitably, our wedding anniversary happens during Lent, and Cassie and I go out to a nice dinner, have an adult beverage, and some dessert and somebody annoys me in the parking lot. As I feel guilty about all of my failed attempts at self-denial, I wonder, “Why am I doing this?” So, I’ve decided, I’m just not going to do it anymore, and I’m using this morning Gospel lesson as my motivation.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is, most certainly, a top-3 best known Parable of Jesus. It is such a famous text, that I’m fairly well convinced most of us don’t even listen to it being read anymore. We hear, “There was a man who had two sons,” and our brains are off and running: younger son, inheritance, dissolute living, pigs, running dad, fatted calf, party, and a bratty older brother. Before we know it, the story is over and we’re ready to move on, but we haven’t heard a thing. If I’m going to use this text as an excuse to give up Lent next year, I mean, if we are going to hear the Good News in this story, then we need to slow down and really listen to what is happening.
Our story begins before the beginning. Before the man with two sons, we hear that Jesus is in the midst of an argument with the Pharisees and Scribes. It seems that Jesus’ message of repentance, restoration, and the Kingdom of God has hit home with certain undesirables in the Galilean countryside. Tax collectors and sinners, Luke tells us, were coming near to listen to Jesus. Worse than that, Jesus was welcoming and eating with them. This does not sit well with the powers-that-be, and they begin to murmur and grumble. In turn, Jesus tells three parables, aimed directly at the Pharisees and Scribes. The Lectionary skips over the story of a man who left 99 sheep behind to search for one who was lost. We didn’t hear the story of the woman who searches high and low for one lost silver coin, and throws an extravagant party when it is found. We do hear the third parable, the Prodigal Son, and so it begins, “There was a man who had two sons.”
The younger son asks his father for his part of the family inheritance. There being no such thing as 401Ks or reverse mortgages in Jesus’ time, the man’s only choice would be to divide his land for use by his children. The older son would receive 2/3rds of the family estate when his dad died. In the meantime, the younger son would have use of 1/3rd. Rather than fulfilling the law and dutifully farming the land to support himself and his father, the younger son sold it off, took the proceeds and headed to Gentile territory where he spent every last dime with prodigality; living a sinfully extravagant lifestyle. As fate would have it, a famine struck the land, and the younger son found himself impoverished, hungry, and the indentured servant of a Gentile pig-farmer. The days were long and hot and the young man was exhausted and starving. Eventually, the pods that the pigs ate began to look good enough to eat. Suddenly he came to his senses, “Back at dad’s house, even the day laborers have more than enough food to eat. What am I doing here, dying of hunger?” Once again, without regard for law or duty, the young man left his obligations in the foreign land and headed back to the home of his father. En route, he practiced his speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, but won’t you please hire me on as a day laborer on your land?”
Again and again, he practiced those words; until he reached the top of a small hill and way off in the distance he saw it, his Father’s land. Within minutes, he realized that there was another person on the road. The silhouette was coming toward him. Quickly. It was as if someone was running to meet him. Was it? Could it be? It was! His own father was coming to meet him. With fear in his belly and lump in his throat, the younger son clenched his whole body as his Father dove toward him. But wait. What was happening? He wasn’t being beaten or berated; abused or arrested. His father was hugging him, even gave him a kiss on the cheek.
Confused but undeterred, the younger son began his speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” Before he could finish, before he could ask to be hired on, his father interrupted, barking commands at his household servants, “Quickly! Bring the best robe and put it on him as a mark of his distinction. Put a signet ring on his finger as a symbol of his authority. Put shoes on his feet, he is not a slave, but a free man. Kill the best calf, we are going to have a party for my son who was dead is now alive; who was lost is now found.”
It wasn’t until the party was in full swing that the older brother returned from a day of hard work in the fields. He smelled the calf roasting over the fire. He could hear the music and see the dancing. Confused, he asked one of the household servants what was happening. The slave replied, “Your brother is home! Your father has killed the best calf to celebrate his safe return.” Incensed, the older son refused to go into the party. When his father came out to ask him to join in the fun, he told him, “All these years, I’ve lived as a servant to you and this farm. I’ve followed every rule, and you’ve never even given me as much as a young goat to have some fun with my buddies. But now, this so-called son of yours comes back after squandering our livelihood on booze and hot-pants, and you pull out all the stops for him!?!”
His father looked him square in the eye and said, “My child, you are with me always and everything I have is yours, but today we have to celebrate for your brother has been raised from the dead. He was lost, but now is found!”
Did you hear it this time? Did you catch the Good News? The story of the Prodigal Son makes it clear that God desires relationship, not slavish rule following. Both sons see their relationship with their father as one of servant and master. The youngest son, as he returns to his disgraced home, wants to be treated as a misthios, a day laborer. The elder son, as he laments against his Father’s prodigality in love and forgiveness, says he’s been his Father’s dulous, servant or slave. The Father, however, isn’t interested in either. Instead, he desires relationship: strong, deep, real relationship. The younger boy he calls his huios, his son. The older son, his teknon, his child. These men are not slaves, but beloved children. As we slog through the middle of Lent, [as we prepare to welcome a newborn child into the family of God] I’m profoundly grateful to hear that God doesn’t desire slaves, but instead hopes that we will live fully into our identity as his beloved children. I’m giving up Lent for Lent. I’m giving up seeing God as a master who must be served, a ruler who must be obeyed, and I’m taking on the robe, ring and sandals, signs and symbols of God’s beloved children. I hope you will too. Amen.
 When this idea came to me on Wednesday evening, I was sure I had heard it before. Lo and behold, I had. In 2007, Diana Butler Bass wrote a piece for beliefnet carrying “Giving up Lent for Lent” as its title. http://blog.beliefnet.com/godspolitics/2007/02/diana-butler-bass-giving-up-lent-for.html Accessed 3/7/13
 Thanks to Alyce M. McKenzie for the symbolism in the three gifts http://www.patheos.com//Progressive-Christian/Prodigal-Son-Alyce-McKenzie-03-04-
2013.html?print=1 Accessed 3/4/13
 Donahue, John R., S.J., The Gospel in Parable, Fortress Press, 1988. Note 62 on p. 157.