Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Cor 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
March 27, 2022
Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the fourth Sunday of Lent. Within this penitential season this day is sometimes observed as Laetare Sunday, with a parallel in Advent of “Gaudete.” Both mean “rejoice.” These days offer a ray of greater light in the midst of our weeks-long season of preparation, pointing to an undercurrent of joy flowing around and beneath us even when that can be difficult to perceive. A tradition of pink vestments and paraments emerged to mark these parallel Lent and Advent days, as if lightening the shade for a moment before Resurrection (or in the case of Advent, Christmas) light bursts through at the conclusion of the season. I’m reminded a bit of those pink lilies that bloom all around our dry brown hills in August, long after their foliage and other greenery has died off for the season—a colorful burst of life offering joy even as the journey continues in all its challenge (or in August, even as school begins). Our readings this morning, particularly our gospel passage, invite us to receive this invitation to joy in the journey, including when that journey is marked by ambiguity and struggle.
Our first reading from Joshua sets this tone for us by marking the milestone of the Israelites’ journey out of their bondage in Egypt and the longtime wilderness journey into the land God had promised to lead them. In the chapters before our passage, Joshua, who had succeeded Moses, had led the people across the Jordan river. The water had parted just as it had for Moses and the Israelites as they crossed the Red Sea. They had prepared themselves to fully enter this new chapter in their communal life, reaffirming their covenant with God. God now declared a terrible chapter of their harrowing journey to be “rolled away” (Joshua 5:9). And now, on the Passover, they ate not manna – the literal “what is it” of their journey in all its wandering ambiguity – but the actual produce of the land (Joshua 5:11-12). They were able to rest and rejoice in this incredible moment amid a journey that would continue.
Our gospel passage presents another story of rejoicing as a chapter of a challenging journey comes to a close. It is a highly familiar parable, often referred to the Prodigal Son, a favorite bible story for many. Jesus tells this parable in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel just after he had shared two other parables that emphasize joy, that in fact issue an invitation to rejoice: the parables of the lost sheep and of the lost coin. In both of these previous parables, the call is to rejoice at something or someone who was lost and is now found. At the conclusion of the first of these earlier parables, Jesus reports the shepherd saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (Luke 15:6). In the second of these, a woman who has searchingly lit a lamp and swept her house declares, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost” (Luke 15:9). At the conclusion of our story the father says, “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” (Luke 15:32). Our story issues an unmistakable invitation to rejoice. But as the differences between this declaration and the earlier two already suggest, that invitation can be challenging.
This parable is, as I have already said, is one of Jesus’ most famous teachings, rich in detail and much beloved. When I see this story coming in the distance, I run… in the opposite direction. This parable is emotionally complicated, and it can raise many questions. Much depends on how you identify with the characters of this passage. The story of the younger son points to the human experience of making what turns out to be a terrible decision, experiencing broken relationship, loss and alienation, realizing you’ve seriously erred, and seeking restoration. Paul’s charge from our second passage today resonates here: “be reconciled to God.” In one way or another all of us need to hear this call, to be honest with ourselves about where we have done or gone wrong, and to turn and to seek restoration. This process will look different for each of us. There are no cookie cutters here. Our contexts can and do vary widely. Our possibilities for relational restoration are not all the same. The figure of the youngest son speaks to our call to turn, to own up to where we have fallen short, to embrace what God in Christ has in fact already taken up and reconciled, and to seek out with God’s help what the shape of that restoration can and should look like in our lives—as well as what it cannot and should not seek to look like (here I especially have in mind relationships that may not be safe or just simply to “reconcile” in any straight forward way.
The figure of the father speaks especially to experiences some of us may have had of having been left behind, of having lost a loved one and not knowing if and whether they will return, and on whose time-scale. When I was growing up, navigating a family loss, a dear family friend introduced me to a song about our gospel passage called “the Prodigal” by the singer Amy Grant. The refrain goes, “I’ll be waiting, I may be young or old and gray, counting the days; I’ll be waiting, and when I finally see you come, I’ll run when I see you.” I was very moved by it and found it comforting in the midst of my loss. This week as I sat with today’s story, the song echoed through my mind and I suddenly noticed how the tense of the lyrics intensify the unresolved qualities of loss in the story. The heart-felt reconnection is rendered in the future tense, not the past or present— “when I finally see you come, I’ll run when I see you.” The father has to sit with the pain of the loss of his youngest son for some unknown period of time before it is resolved. I don’t think one needs to be a parent to appreciate the gravity of this loss, or its ambiguity. Broken relationships are a widespread and deeply challenging reality many of us have lived through or continue to hold in various ways. The figure of the father can name that for us. His impulse to rejoice honors the depth of the relationship, the love he has for his son, and his determination to uplift that love first and foremost. He leads with love.
And then there is the oldest brother. Many of us can relate strongly to this figure as well. He is angry at his father and I think it safe to safe at his brother. At his brother for leaving him and the household behind. For the impact of that loss on the father, with whom the oldest brother continues to live and to whose household he continues to contribute. And at his father for seeming to condone the youngest brother’s actions. How could he? The older brother basically asks in disbelief? The fatted calf? You never give me a party. I’m here day by day faithfully, and what do you do for me? The resentment is thick. It is to the older brother that the father responds, “we had to rejoice.” The father’s point is not that the brother is not allowed to be angry, or even resentful. Indeed, the anger and resentment could be understood as a translated expression of the oldest brother’s long-carried loss. But it is also actually important to be able honor, to make space for rejoicing at a moment such as this, the father is saying. Your brother (not just “my son” or “your son” as the brother previously put it) was lost and is found. He has come back to life again in a significant way. Nothing can dampen the significance of that reality. Love leads the relationship. Now, is this exchange with the brother, and the thrown party the whole story of the father’s response to the youngest son? No. We only see day one. We don’t see days two or three. We don’t know how the younger son fully re-enters the scene, how the relationships are rewoven and what complications emerge along the way. But what we do see is the framework. The framework is love, a love that makes space for the joy of God in whom nothing is impossible, the God who sets us free, who raises us together to newness of life, who brings us home.
Friends, all of us relate to this story through its characters— even multiple ones—and we will relate better to some than to others. And part of the reason for the incompleteness of our relating to these characters has to do with the unresolved quality of this story. Yes, it comes to a close. But as I have already said, there is so much we don’t know. And in that sense this story, even its resolved qualities – the son’s return – can speak to those of us who have losses that remain unresolved. The invitation to rejoice does not need to erase or ignore pain or hurt that we may feel. It should not, in fact. Joy has an incredible holding capacity. As the song that I mentioned earlier echoed through my mind this week, I found myself hearing for the first time the words of its bridge: “even if you never do return, still I will have learned how to love you better." My question for all of us who live with what Pauline Boss called ambiguous loss, is how to hold grief as we make our way in the world, in the midst of our loss, variously resolvable this side of the grave, is how we can learn to love God and one another better? How can we learn to treat one another with greater compassion along the way? How can we open our hearts to the possibilities of newness of life, to the seemingly impossible, making room for that and yet also honoring the lines that we may have had to draw or that others may have had to draw with us? How can we hold it all with love and be about the work of manifesting the good news of God’s reconciliation that is real and concrete in this life, here and now? It is mystery. It is the Paschal Mystery as it is manifested to our life in this world. It is not easy, but it is in fact joyful. It is, in fact, possible, filled with love. And together, we make our way into this mystery, here in this season of Lent and as the unimaginably good news of resurrection life comes to us at Easter. In the words of hymn we sang earlier this morning, in the beautiful melody written by Calvin Hampton: “for the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind, and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind.” May we carry that kindness and that love knowing that we are carried by a mercy that is wider than we can possibly imagine.
 Justo Gonzalez points to the common thread in these three parables and the challenge of the call to rejoice, in Luke: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 190.  Amy Grant, Gary Chapman and Robbie Buchanan, “The Prodigal (I’ll Be Waiting)” recorded on the album Unguarded. A & M Records, 1985.  Pauline Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning To Live with Unresolved Grief (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).  Frederick William Faber, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” Music: “St. Helena” by Calvin Hampton. The Hymnal, 1982 (New York: Church Publishing, 1982), 469.