The Adventurous Lectionary – Fourth Sunday in Lent

Creative Commons, Paulo Etxeberria, Flickr

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

When I reflected this week on Jesus’ parable of the lost son (popularly known as the prodigal son), my mind wandered to Bob Dylan’s classic “Like a Rolling Stone,” the story of a young woman’s fall from a life of ease to a hardscrabble life on the streets, perhaps, due to addiction, “on your own with no direction home.” As a sixties child of the San Francisco Bay Area, I recall many of my upper middle class friends taking this journey from riches to rags, imagining drugs as recreational and then falling into the world of addiction, from which some never found a way home.  Every once in a while, when I return to the Bay Area, I accidently encounter one of these lost sixties children; they don’t recognize me and I can barely recognize them, now in their fifth or sixth decades, as they meander about my old neighborhood, barely a shadow of their teenaged selves.

The story of the lost boy is both a tragedy and a comedy. It portrays a rolling stone that got lost and then found its way back. It is about losing and rediscovering home, of falling from the ease of the “taken for granted” and being lured back, with nothing to offer, discovering that the “taken for granted’ he wanted to escape was heaven in disguise.

These days there are many lost boys and girls, some of whom have been doing all the right things, but find themselves feeling like they’re out on the street looking for economic recovery in jobs far beneath their skills and experience.  The taken for granted day job they once held is now little more than a hope and a dream as they circuitously wander through classifieds and mine their networking files, often with few results.  The story of a lost boy is the story about any of us who want to get back home, but can no longer return via our own spiritual and professional GPS.  We need someone to run out to greet us, throw us a party, and restore us to grace.  We need grace and whether we deserve it or not, whether we’ve done all the right things and followed the rules, and even been a success, grace is a gift that we cannot assume but must depend upon despite the odds.

We may have wandered off into a far country and squandered our inheritance and we may have also stayed at home, lived righteously and frugally, but have lost the joy of life.  In both cases, we are alienated from our deepest experiences of holiness and wholeness.  In one case, we know we don’t deserve unconditional grace; in the other case, we assume we don’t need it because we’ve earned it.  Either way, we’re lost – in addictions beyond our control – whether drugs or our own goodness, gluttony or looking good, aimlessness or successful, or the apparently unrecoverable addictions – unrecoverable because they are socially acceptable despite their destructiveness – to consumerism, fossil fuels, guns, success and celebrity (personally or vicariously).  We are lost and we need have, as Dylan says, “no direction home often as individuals and, right now, as a culture.”

Grace alone can save us and it comes to us in a father and mother looking out for us and rushing out to greet us or a father seeking out his good, but alienated, son.  In both events, the superior places himself or herself at the mercy of the inferior and is willing to be rebuffed for the greater good.  As I read this story, I imagine that both father and mother kept tabs on their lost boy.  Perhaps, they hired private detectives and interceded with law enforcement and potential employers when he was at risk of incarceration or homelessness.  Perhaps, they also tried to reach out to the older boy, whose heart was hardened toward his brother and whose days were filled with joyless labor, despite the success of his occupation.

Grace is willing to be fool number one to bring lost children home.  Grace has its own integrity, but it never gives up in the quest for lost ones.  It respects our freedom and the ability to say “no,” even to what’s good for us, but it constantly adapts to its relationships, seeking their wholeness, by any appropriate means necessary.  There are no minimal requirements for grace.  As another pop song asserts, “ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough,” to keep grace from seeking us out.

One of the stories joined with the lost boy is the lost sheep.  A key word in this story is “until” – until has no time limit.  The shepherd will seek the lost sheep until it is found.  This is very different than so-called theologies of grace that assert God loves us, but if we fail to say the right words or come to Jesus in a particular way or have the proper lifestyle, God has no choice but to cast us out.  This is not grace, but borderline behavior: loving only if we get the result we want, and abandoning if the other chooses another path.

The kabbalah and other mystical writings assert that numbers have particular meanings:  perhaps the shepherd is so ardent about finding the lost sheep because he knows that the 99 cannot be saved without the 100th sheep.  When we save a soul, we save the world, so the mystics say, because the whole cannot be truly saved until each part finds its home.  As long as there is a hell, there really can’t be a heaven.  In our story, both boys’ salvation depends on the well-being of the other.  A graceful parent knows this and does everything possible to bring both boys home to the love they need for wholeness.

Grace is all about a celebration whether it is the Passover Seder celebrating liberation from Egypt, unexpected love, or new life.

Psalm 32 continues the theme of graceful transformation.  Those who trust in grace experience greater well-being and energy.  While this cannot be described as the prosperity gospel or new age “create your own realities,” the Psalmist recognized that awakening to God, trusting God’s faithfulness, opens us to a wider vision and new possibilities that may change the circumstances of our lives.  When we are open to God, we enable God to be more active in our lives, providing resources for transformation in every circumstance of life.

Corinthians speaks of God’s new creation.  Paul asserts that we no longer see things from a human point of view, but from God’s vantage point.  I recall catching glimpses of the divine vantage point in the hallways of Benedictine monasteries, where hallways have placards saying, “Treat everyone as Christ.”  Treating everyone as Christ is grounded in seeing everyone as Christ-like and this means seeing from God’s viewpoint and not that of the separate, fearful, alienated ego.

Christ’s work is creative transformation: connection to Christ brings a new creation.  Though we cannot escape the impact of the past, we can experience the past, even the negativity of the past, as the wellspring of new possibilities.  The lost boy will always be shaped by his journey to the far off land and his addictive behavior; but this past may become a gift to others as he shares his experience in ways that reflect his new vocation and partnership with divine transformation others like himself.  The older brother, also lost, may experience the limitations of his own goodness and in going from (what the Reformers called) “works righteousness” to radical grace, he may discover a healthy lifestyle and become a model for others as well as a creative and loving companion to his spouse and children.

Grace leads to transformation.  Embracing freely given grace, we become new creations and this novelty changes our spiritual lives, vocations, relationships, and physical well-being.

About Bruce Epperly

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, and Pastor of South Congregational United Church of Christ, Centerville (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. He is the author of twenty five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study,The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He has served as chaplain, professor, and administrator at Georgetown University, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Wesley School of Theology, and Claremont School of Theology. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).


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