Lost and Found (Prodigal Son x 7)

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on March 30-31, 2019 (the fourth Sunday in Lent) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois)

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ The father refused, saying ‘we do not have enough property to divide; if I give you your share now, we will all come to ruin. Ask me again next year, after the harvest.’ The family’s property stayed intact, and each year when the younger son asked for his share, the father gave the same answer: ‘The time is not right, ask me next year.’ The younger son grew resentful and angry, so that he could hardly bear to speak to his father and his brother. In great old age, the father died, and the younger son finally received his smaller share of the inheritance while the older son assumed control of the farm and the hired hands. The younger son was left to wonder what his life might have been if he had been given his share sooner. 

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided the property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he tended his resources carefully. When the famine came into that country, he survived it with his savings intact, and purchased his own farm after the famine ended. He learned the local language, adopted the local dress, practiced the local religion, and became like one of the citizens. He was prosperous and well-regarded, so that one day he said to himself ‘I will get up and go to my father, so that he may see how well I have done for myself.’ He put on his best robe and new sandals and a beautiful ring and set out for the journey. But while he was still far off, his father and brother saw him, and turned away. When he arrived, bearing gifts and offering gestures of love, they acted as though they did not know him. He went away without a greeting, with a heart full of sorrow. 

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided the property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I have sinned before heaven and against my father. I have disinherited myself; I am no longer worthy to be called his son. But I cannot bear the disgrace of facing him again. So I must bear the burden of my unworthiness and my shame.’ The young man lived out his days in terrible need, never daring to go home, and never hearing word from his family.

The young man would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘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.’ So he set off and went to his father. While he was still far off he saw the house and the fields and his steps became slow and heavy with dread. He went up to his father and said ‘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.’ The father replied ‘You have spoken truly. As I granted your request when you left, so I will grant your request now.’ And he sent the young man to live with the hired hands, to do the same work and eat the same bread. At night, in the hired hands’ quarters, the young man wept for what he had lost. At night, in the house, the father wept for what he had lost. 

The young man would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him ‘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.’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ The father said, ‘You have indeed sinned against heaven and before me, and you must make satisfaction for the wrong you have done. But you will always be my son.’ And so, with tears in his eyes, the father beat his son and put him in the servants’ quarters. When he had worked to satisfy the debt to his father and the family, he was restored to the household. And the father called the slaves to kill the fatted calf, and to eat and celebrate, for this son of his was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found. But the young man never knew if he had done enough to pay for his wrongs, and never knew if his father or brother still held a grudge against him. 

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to the slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen, for all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.’ But the older son would not be reconciled. His father had become a disgrace to him, and from that day he had neither brother nor father.

Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.’ And the older son felt the terrible weight of those years of work that he and his father had done, without his younger brother and the property he had taken away, and he knew that all the toil and anger and bitterness and poverty were for the sake of this one moment. And in an instant it was gone, and he and the father wept as though a long fever had broken, and he went in and joined the celebration. 

There are many ways to be lost. Our words of confession this season have followed the Ten Commandments, two commandments each week in Lent. And in each of these simple commands there are infinite possibilities—words and actions, a road with endless branches in which you can lose yourself. You can be lost through anger. You can be lost when duty curdles and festers into frustration and resentment. You can be lost through pride and arrogant self-sufficiency. You can be lost through wealth. You can be lost through deprivation. You can be lost through dissolute living. You can be lost through self-righteousness or irritable self-denial. You can be lost at home or lost in a distant country. Younger sons can be lost, older sons can be lost, fathers can be lost. You can be lost by selfishly asking for more than life gives you. You can be lost by pridefully accepting less.

But there is really only one way to be found. And that starts with letting go of all of it: the pride, the dissolution, the resentment, the need for debts to be satisfied and wrongs to be atoned. It starts with coming home empty-handed. It starts with receiving whatever you have foolishly lost, or wickedly squandered, or resentfully craved, as a gift—a pure gift, from a loving parent who wants you and only you to be part of the family, part of the celebration, and part of the world to come. Amen. 

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