Sermon preached at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Wilmette, IL, March 27, 2022
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT Year C
Text: Luke 15:1—3, 11b—32
We hear today one of Jesus’s most well-known parables, as it is told in the Gospel of Luke. It’s a story in three parts. Part one is about a son who demands his inheritance in advance, squanders it in loose living, ends up destitute, and decides to return to his father and ask for a job. Part two is about a father who welcomes his wastrel son home with open arms and throws a lavish feast to celebrate his return. Part three is about an older brother who begrudges his father’s mercy and grace to his younger brother. You could easily get a three-point sermon out of this parable. Better yet would be to get three sermons out of it, so rich and suggestive are the details in this story. Today at mid-point in the season of Lent I will focus mainly on the first part: the younger son’s waste of his inheritance, repentance, and return home.
We could let our imagination roam over the younger son’s reasons for wanting to leave the family farm. He wants to experience the wider world. He asks for his share of his inheritance to fund his adventure. We could ponder why the father would give in to this demand. He must have surely perceived an irresponsible streak in this boy just from his behavior around home. Was it not irresponsible of the father to give into the son’s request, knowing that it might not be put to a good use?
The son is oblivious to the fact that everything he has came from his father: the clothes he wears, the food he eats, the house he lives in, the many possessions he has already acquired. His father could give all this to him because the family farm was productive. But his father is aging. Wouldn’t the younger son be needed to assist his older brother in managing the manor? Wouldn’t taking his share of the inheritance in advance eat into funds that might be needed for the care of his father in his old age?
The son does not consider any of this. Nor does he use his inheritance – the capital his father gave him – to buy his own farm or start his own business. He simply lives off of his inheritance, and he’s not frugal about it. This is why he is called “the prodigal son,” the wastrel son. He lives high. He throws wild parties for his friends. The story invites us to imagine his loose living. His older brother later charges him with squandering his father’s inheritance on prostitutes.
But then came a time of famine. There were food shortages. The prodigal son had to spend his money on food, goods, and services with inflated prices because of the shortages. Not having another source of income, he eventually runs down his bank account and must find a job. He has worked on a farm. So he applies for a farm job and ends up feeding pigs. Pigs! Can you imagine? Isn’t this a Jewish boy? How low can he get?
Sitting in a pig sty, sharing the food given to the pigs, he comes to his senses. He forms a plan in his mind. He knows the workers on his father’s farm eat better than this. He will return home and throw himself on his father’s mercy, begging for a job on his father’s farm. He rehearses his speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Is he being sincere or just looking after his own interests? Could he have been genuinely homesick by this point in his life?
Before going further, I want to insert us into the story thus far. Don’t we all have an inheritance that we have squandered? What that inheritance is, is suggested by the condition that created the crisis for the prodigal son: famine. Famine is caused by drought, nature not cooperating with our desire for Earth’s produce.
Is it not our inheritance the very planet we live on? Is it not a planet that makes life itself possible, situated at just the right distance from the sun so that it’s not too hot or too cold? Earth provides an oasis of air. The atmospheres of other planets, at least in our solar system, are not conducive to the life forms we know because their atmospheres are too toxic. I won’t go into the geological history of our atmosphere’s formation, or the evolution of the life forms Earth has produced with the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. I’ll simply point out the symbiotic relationship that has formed between animals and plants. Animals like us humans take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. Plants like trees take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Life is maintained in a fragile balance on this island of life in our solar system.
But now we are experiencing an imbalance of too much carbon emission into the atmosphere which is producing global warming. Changes in the atmosphere are contributing to an increase of natural disasters like droughts and floods, forest fires and tornados, warming waters and hurricanes. And our human habitants are in the way of all these upheavals.
We’re past the point of debating whether we’re experiencing global warming, or that human activity has contributed to it. But we haven’t reached the point of repentance whereby we act to mitigate the threats to life. We haven’t even begun to act in our own self-interest, like the prodigal son did. We continue to burn fossil fuels and cut down rain forests. Too much carbon goes into the atmosphere and not enough oxygen is produced to counter it. The nations of the world act in the-interests of their own economic development. They lack the political will to work together. It seems we’re not going to tackle the ecological issues. This can lead us to despair.
Despair is hopelessness. We have no reason to hope for a turn-around, for repentance, because it hasn’t happened yet. Nations can’t even follow through on what they agreed to do, like diminish our reliance on fossil fuels such as Russia offers to European nations and cease acts of deforestration in the Amazon region, which is done to make way for more agriculture and benefit the logging industry. The temptation is to resign ourselves to the inevitable consequences of our prodigal ways. It doesn’t seem like we’ve come to our senses yet.
But our Gospel today offers a reason for hope. In the face of the great crisis facing the prodigal son, he looked realistically at his situation and was ready to turn around. He was ready to go home. It was in his self-interest to do so. It is in our self-interest to go home also. And maybe down deep we have a deep-seated homesickness.
What is home for us? Eucharistic Prayer C in The Book of Common Prayer, which has an ecological theme, speaks of “this fragile earth, our island home.” This prayer was written in the 1970s. You would think that after fifty years of use it would be dated. Lamentably, it’s not.
Before the prodigal son even has a chance to make the speech to its father that he has rehearsed in his mind, “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran out and put his arms around him and kissed him.” It’s as if the father was waiting for his son to return. Our Creator, too, waits for us to come to our senses. God waits for our return with open arms.
Now I’d love to talk at length about the lavish welcome home feast and the grumbling older brother. As I said, each of these is worth a sermon in itself. But I do want to note that the father directs the servants to put the best robe on his son’s naked body, sandals on his feet, and a ring on his finger. The ring is a sign of kinship in the family and authority. When the partying is done, the father has work for his son to do in the management of the farm.
When we are dismissed each week from the eucharistic feast, we have work to do in our fragile and broken world. We can’t be stymied by the inaction of governments and corporations. Our motivation to act comes from the fact that we are children of our Creator, siblings of Christ our Redeemer, animated by their living Spirit. We are sent out into the world to fix things, without even knowing what the consequences of our actions will be.
Have you heard of complexity theory? It teaches that in the chaotic zone between two attractors (let’s say despair and hope), tiny perturbations can have huge, unpredictable effects. For example, I read in the New York Times about a young man named Caulin Donaldson, who joined Tik Tok in December 2019 to chronicle with good humor his daily efforts to pick up garbage from the beaches near his home in St. Petersburg, Florida during a twelve-day Trashmas, and then how he furnished his new apartment using secondhand goods, framing it as a scavenger hunt. By October 2020 he had a million followers. Today, it’s up to 1.4 million.
Climate change is not all gloom and doom. Who can predict the effects of little things we might do to clean up our planet and reduce our consumption of resources? Like Caulin Donaldson, we can all be influencers.
Whether visible or not, acts that come from a stance of faith and hope send powerful ripples that surface in the visible world. This season of repentance as the daylight lengthens gives us an opportunity to try doing some things that will influence the renewal of this fragile Earth, our island home, as we obey the first command our Creator gave to us humans: tend the garden of the Lord. Amen.
Pastor Frank C. Senn