Grace changes everything – Lent 4 C, Westville

You could be forgiven for shifting in your seats –

for here certainly comes another heart-tugging message

based on this well-worn parable from Luke’s gospel.

Prodigal Son – perplexing brother – proud and (puzzling) Papa.

There are stereotypes beyond counting and we always end up in the same place.

One foot in the welcome home party room, the other on the threshold,

sadly considering the headstrong elder brother who,

though his arguments have some merit,

simply doesn’t allow himself to understand the gravity of grace –

he cannot accept his father’s earnest plea –

and we are forced to watch as another brother wanders away,

and the cycle of selfish self-destruction begins again.

That is the typical pattern of preaching when this text comes ’round –

it’s sound – it’s thought provoking – and it seems to me to be missing something.

Jesus parables are carefully designed to change us – to shift our focus

and this parable is his best effort when we let it touch us.

A typical approach to this parable keeps the lessons at arm’s length;

observe the grace of God, we say. See how it worries,watch how it welcomes,

notice that it does not discriminate.

Wouldn’t it be nice, we say, if everyone could see the Father’s grace for what it is,

unlike his foolish sons…

As often as you’ve heard that sermon (and as often as I’ve preached the same)

I’m now convinced that treatment falls short of what Jesus intended.

Parables in Jesus hands are weapons of great change;

surgical implements, designed to extract harmful habits of thinking from our narrowed minds.

“This fellow welcomes sinners – and eats with them!” so say the parodied Pharisees –

self-righteous and assured.

In their world, value is assigned by ‘people like them’ who can observe and correct.

They are quick to nod in sympathy with the long-suffering father –

sure that the boys need only mind their place – to make amends for their selfish behaviour –

and all will once again be just as it was.

When we keep this story at arms-length, that is our hope too –

longing to return to the status quo.

But Jesus story suggests that because of grace nothing can ever be ‘as it was’…

Grace changes everything.

I read this week a father’s account of an afternoon in the mall with his wife and 11 year old son.

His son has a birthmark on his face called a ‘port-wine’ stain.

He reveals how his sons lack of response to public taunting

taught him about honesty and the developing character of his nearly adolescent son.

He doesn’t go so far, but I’m inclined to think that this eleven year old embodies grace.

He has a physical reminder that changes how he is perceived by others,

but he chooses instead to let this mark change how he sees the world.

His father reports that the boy is much more willing than most

to accept people just as they are – no strings attached –

no preconceived notions of goodness or badness.

Grace is exactly like that – and until we allow ourselves that change of perspective,

we fail to enjoy the full impact of this most divine gift.

The moment of grace in Jesus parable is not when the father rushes out to meet the son,

having perceived him from afar.

No, the moment of grace is that moment when,

in the midst of the slop and the pigs

the son realizes that his comfort has been fleeting,

and there is something more important than his own opinion – his own pride

In his greed and his ‘plenty’, he cared only how the world saw him –

his impact on the world was measured by what he had and where he was.

sitting in squalor he could see the world clearly.

“aren’t my father’s slaves better off – better fed – better, than I am”

he has recognized grace and been changed by it – his world view has a different centre.

We in the Christian Church treat grace like merchandise.

We package it, call it amazing, and offer it up to visitors like the jewel that it is.

We are, however, reluctant to let grace do its work on us.

We stand apart from this story – a story so full of grace –

we choose sides between the brothers and sympathize with the father;

but this is so much more than a morality play.

Jesus parable should help us to fully surrender to God’s grace.

If we have heard it clearly – we should not hesitate to cast ourselves in the role of the younger son

not because we are wicked and prone to selfishness (though we are) –

not because we crave forgiveness (though we surely do)

and not because we are overcome with emotion at the reception

but because at his best the son has seen the world clearly only because of grace.

He is able to notice the world, and admit that it no longer revolves around him.

He is able to encounter God in the world

because he no longer expects the world to make a god of him.

That is our path, if only we would choose – that is the lesson of this parable

and the lesson of Jesus life, death and resurrection

no small thing, this grace we are offered

and it will change everything.

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