A Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who welcomes the sinner and invites them into the banquet. Amen.
I have some good news: we are more than halfway through Lent. In three weeks, we will gather to proclaim that Christ is risen, and our fasting will turn to feasting.
As we enter the home stretch, it’s important to remember that we don’t fast during Lent simply because God wants us to give up coffee or dessert or some little vice or because skipping that hamburger on Friday earns God’s love. Rather, Lent is a time of preparation; around the Church, people are preparing to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism or to re-affirm their baptismal vows, and the fasting is a traditional way to remember our dependence upon the Lord, to remember our need for God’s redeeming grace poured out in these waters. Our fasting is a way of both supporting these new Christians and preparing to renew our own baptismal vows at Easter.
As we gather to break our fast and enjoy both the Resurrection and that first sip of beer or that first bite of chocolate, we will also celebrate that our family has grown. Across the Church catholic, we are going to gain thousands of new sisters and brothers in Christ. At Easter, as we celebrate Christ’s Passover from death to life, our newest kindred will pass through the waters, dying and rising with the Living Christ.
At this feast, we’ll welcome in a lot of infants and children, and Christ’s Church will grow. Some will be people who grew up outside the faith and who are responding for the first time to the Gospel of our Lord. Such a joyous occasion. There will be people transferring from one congregation to another, renewing their baptismal vows as they live anew into who God has called us to be. After gathering around the Font, the Church will move on to the sacramental banquet, the great meal of thanksgiving as we celebrate that the Almighty has redeemed the sinner and rescued us from the power of sin, the devil, and Death. And what a tremendous time it is to rejoice with these newest sisters and brothers as we gather with them for the first time around the Heavenly Feast.
But then there will be the people it’s harder to welcome – those who put the whole notion of grace and forgiveness to the test, who have wandered far from home and are returning to a family that abandoned years ago, those who have done truly terrible things, even those who have lived lives that can only be described as wicked. There are, in Christ’s Church, people whose history would shock us. Undoubtedly, they are met with whispers as those in the know recall all their trespasses. And yet they too will be given an equal share of the Body of Christ, a position in God’s divine household. They, even they, will be welcomed back with a divine love as though they never left – indeed, with greater fervor because they left and have returned. It’s enough to make you pause and ask, “Wait. How is this fair? Dear God, don’t you know what they did?”
A man had two sons. One claimed his half of the estate and skipped town to squander it in reckless self-indulgence. The other stayed behind. He was faithful to the family. From the rising of the sun to its setting, he worked in the fields. By the sweat of his brow, he honored his father. What else could he do? His younger brother had abandoned them, taking a chunk of the family fortune with him. It is this elder brother, the one who stayed home, who kept the estate running, kept the lamps lit, and put food on the table. He was justly rewarded for his labor: well fed, a roof over his head, comfortable bedding, and an ever-growing position of authority in the household. Some day, his father would hand over the keys to the estate. It would all be his, and he and his friends would kill the fatted calf to celebrate.
Late one day, as he returned from the field, drenched in sweat, body aching, exhausted from hours of back-breaking work, just before the house came in to view, he heard it: the raucous music and joyous sounds of laughter. He could smell the meat wafting in with the smoke from the cooking fire. Calling to a slave, he asked: “What’s going on?”
The slave answered, “Your brother has come! And your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound!”
The news hit like a brick. The man walked home slowly, stunned, and he stopped in the courtyard. He could see in the door – his brother in the middle of the crowd, wearing his dad’s favorite robe, the glint of the signet ring on his finger.
His father ran out to meet him: “Have you heard the good news?”
And then the brother erupted.
“Dad, what are you thinking?!? I’ve been working like a slave– look, even now I am dripping with sweat, covered in dirt, from toiling in the fields – and all for you! But where’s my party, huh? You’ve never even given me so much as a goat that I might celebrate with my friends. I, who have worked hard and only ever sought to bring honor to this family, and what do I have to show for it? But this – this – this “son” of yours comes back and gets a feast? Don’t you know what he did? You’ve heard the rumors about how he was living – how he spent the money you gave him, how he ended up sleeping among the swine – and yet you welcome him back with open arms?”
His words hung in the air for just the briefest of moments before the father hugged his son tightly. He put his hands on his son’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes: “Son, you are always with me. Everything that I have is yours. But we are celebrating because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life. He was lost and has been found. Now come, take your place at the banquet. Please.”
The father turned and went back in to the party. And his son stood there, outside the doorway looking in.
Grace – a truly all-encompassing prodigal grace – is, on its face, remarkably unfair. To accept this grace is to see the sinner made into a new creation, to see them as beloved kindred in Christ, to embrace the ministry of reconciliation.
On Easter, we will welcome the lost who have been found. These sisters and brothers of ours, though they were dead, will join us in new life. And we’ll give thanks with this great Heavenly Feast, eating sumptuously of the Bread of Heaven and drinking from the Cup of Salvation. Will you take your place at the banquet?