Delivered 10 March 2013, the 4th Sunday in Lent (Year C) by Meribeth Kussmaul.

Good morning! I am Meribeth Kussmaul, and I will be working with you, Rev. Mary, your search committee, and the diocese as you discern and call your next rector. Rev. Mary asked me to preach today so that you would all have an opportunity to see me and to hear me. I am a lay person and do not often provide sermons. Please be kind. I am honored to have this privilege and opportunity.

This is the fourth Sunday of Lent as we move along our path to Easter, the Resurrection, and a new creation. In the Gospel reading from Luke (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32), Jesus is doing what Jesus does so well—telling us a story that we might relate to and perhaps learn from. This story is well told and well loved. It is the story of a father and his two sons.

One of the first things we hear in this passage is the context for this parable. The Pharisees and scribes are grumbling because Jesus is welcoming the tax collectors and sinners to listen to him and even (heaven forbid) to eat with him. Perhaps to address this grumbling and judgment about those who they considered unworthy—and to show the extent of God’s love, embrace, and acceptance of all, Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes this story of a father and his two sons. 

This story is a kaleidoscope of perceptions. This story is also provocative—can make us think— perhaps because most of us can relate to at least one person in this story and perhaps to each one of these persons at various times in our lives. (I know I can.)

We can look at the story from the perspective of the son who demands his inheritance from his father. By doing this the younger son in that culture is in effect saying to his father, “You’re as good as dead as far as I am concerned.” As the story progresses, he ends up in a foreign country, squanders his inheritance, and becomes a hired laborer doing the most degrading imaginable work for a Jew: feeding the pigs. While in the pig sty, the son has a moment “when he came to himself.”  

Some of us have had that moment—one of revelation about what to do or say or be, what might be expressed as an “aha” moment, a moment of transformation or awakening. He returns home in shame, ready to do anything for a warm bed and good meal. And guess what? The father doesn’t even listen to his prepared speech of penitence, but instead throws him a party! And the older brother is ticked off at the seeming unfairness of it all.

There are several ways to look at each character in this parable. The best side of the story for the younger son is that he wants to spread his wings, try out new cultures, and countries . . . do it while he is young and has enthusiasm and energy. The other part of the younger son’s story is that he comes across as undisciplined, has little if any organization plan and/or follow through. He can also be seen as dependent, perhaps manipulative, and only appearing contrite. We might interpret that for the rest of his life with his father, this experience will be with them in their relationship.

We can look at this story from the perspective of the father. For those of us who have experienced a child reaching an age and leaving home, we can certainly empathize with the father, who must have some feelings about his younger son leaving. It is an act of faith for us to let our child or children go. And yet in our society we also consider it normal, a stage of development on the path to becoming independent. In the culture of Jesus’s time, the younger son is actually defying tradition. And the Father in the story lets him go. He gives his son his inheritance and lets him go. Certainly not a common occurrence in the world Jesus is living in, but seemingly an act of faith and generosity.

On the best side of the story, the father is all-merciful, forgiving, embracing, welcoming, enfolding. In fact, we may even interpret that Jesus is telling us that God our Father is this way. On the other hand, it is difficult for me at least to overlook that the father is a lot unconscious when it comes to showing his appreciation for his older son and for the choices that he has made to stay with him, be at his side. 

We can look at this story from the perspective of the older son who has stayed at home in a narrowly defined world, working side by side with the Father. He is steadfast, persistent, loyal, and hardworking—being okay within the confines of the world he has chosen and the world he is expected to be in. All is probably well with the older son until there is a point of comparison, until the younger son returns home and the father kills the fatted calf. He comes across as resentful and questions his father’s actions of celebrating the return of his younger brother to the homestead. Celebration and joy are the theme of the day for the father when the son who was lost, who was counted as dead, returns home, but not for the older son, who questions his own actions in light of his brother’s actions. 

To shift our focus a bit, in our search process we will be using an approach called Appreciative Inquiry. In this approach we will be focusing on our own stories of our best selves in this worshiping community—for example, stories to illustrate what you love best, what you value and want more of. In this Appreciative Inquiry approach, we will share stories with one another that will become the basis of your desired future, and hopefully you will have joy and celebration while doing so.

As we think about the older son in this story, we may want to remember that we do have choices about how we respond to God’s love, how we respond to times when we feel unfairly treated or overlooked. This is a very difficult thing sometimes for us humans to do. The older brother’s reaction is in many ways reasonable, one with which many might be inclined to agree. This story does invite listener’s of all ages to feel the older brother’s hurt and resentment and maybe recognize in themselves several aspects of his resistance. The father has acted over the top and certainly, in some minds, overly tolerant of bad behavior.

As we think about the younger son, we may want to remember that each one of us has gifts and that as members of a new creation we are called to develop and use our unique gifts.  

Another aspect of AI is that what we focus on tends to get bigger. As we remember the love of the father in this story, we may want to remember that we too are being called to bring that compassion and mercy into our own lives with ourselves and others and to make that real now and in our future.

For many of us, at the heart of this story is the true meaning of reconciliation, grace, and mercy. It is the story of a father’s love for his two sons. And in and through this love, the father in this story goes beyond what most of us believe we are called to do in the arena of grace and forgiveness. Are we comfortable with a God who acts compassionately with the foolishness of love, forgiving us no matter what our actions may be? Can we embrace a God imaged as the forgiving father in this parable? Can we be part of a family whose hospitality is so extravagant, so uncalculating and accepting of human failing as this? Remember that what we focus on tends to expand.

As we move forward as a faith community and continue our journey to Easter and begin our journey of search, we too will have many different perceptions and expectations. We will look at the journey of St. Stephen’s from many different perspectives. We will articulate expectations; we will make choices. Together you will focus on your best selves as a worshiping community and, based on your desired future, discern a call to someone to walk with you into that future as your next spiritual leader. 

I am going to end by asking you to consider and reflect upon a question from the Appreciative Inquiry Approach” “What if the best you are experiencing now is the worst of what you will experience in your future? How fabulous would that be?”