Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

The theme of ‘Coming Home’ – used by Canon Jenny for the Sunday night preaching series in Lent – fits very well with today’s readings, and Mothering Sunday. Unlike the much younger commercial Mother’s Day, Mothering Sunday has been kept in the Anglican Church for more than 150 years. As a child I remember making cards and posies of flowers to give to our mothers, and we always heard about “mother Church” on this 4th Sunday in Lent. Much more important, however, to us as children was the fact that the 4th Sunday in Lent is also called Refreshment Sunday – and we were each given an ice-cream during Sunday School, a rare treat at any time, let alone in Lent.

Be that as it may, today’s Gospel parable, the story told by Jesus and known variously as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Loving Father, the Angry Brother, invites us to consider what ‘coming home’ means. As a story on its own it is a powerful one, and one we know well. Taken as metaphor for the Christian life it becomes even more so. This morning I want to spend a little time thinking first about the idea of ‘coming home’ as found in today’s readings, and then finish by noticing that once we are ‘home’ we are immediately sent out again.

One of the big questions that is asked, time and again, throughout the Bible goes something like this: How do we get ‘home’ to God? From the very early chapters of Genesis we read of a sense of estrangement, alienation, separation. Humankind is conscious that things are not as they should be. Those early chapters of Genesis deal with some of the great universal truths of being human – we have to work hard to earn a living, it is a painful experience (for a woman) to give birth to a child, sibling rivalry is extremely common and can lead to terrible suffering and isolation, the desire for power and to control our own lives does not always have happy consequences, we seem to be naturally suspicious of anyone different to us – race, language, culture, class – all are factors. But above all, we find in the Bible a great longing to find ways of being right with God. So people are encouraged to pray, to make sacrifice, to do good works, to live lives of asceticism and even deprivation. We celebrate as saints those who beat their bodies and wills into submission – for God’s sake.

But always, it seems, there is something missing. We can’t quite make it there. It is as if there is a deep chasm between us and God, me on one side, God on the other – with no real way of getting from one side to the other, of ever being on the same side. This has an effect on our thinking about God. It is all too easy to think of God as a vindictive old man (interestingly I’ve never heard God referred to as a grumpy old lady!), complete with white robe, beard and measuring rod – just waiting for us to put a step wrong. We caricature the hell-fire-and-brimstone preachers, but deep inside wonder if there is any truth in their message.

And then we read Luke chapter 15, verses 11 – 32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We know the story well. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance and sets off to live the good life. Inevitably the money runs out, his ‘friends’ desert him and he is left in the worst possible circumstance a Jew could imagine – working for a Gentile, eating with the pigs! Today we would say he has reached rock-bottom. He comes to his senses, prepares a nice speech and sets off for home. Meanwhile, back at the farm, the father – who had, it must be admitted, given the younger son what he asked for – sits on the veranda waiting, looking, longing. St Luke has captured brilliantly the drama in the story. It is easy for us to imagine being the younger son, rehearsing the lines over and over again – “Father, I have sinned…” How desperate he must have been to be willing to admit his mistake, his foolishness, his wastefulness. How hard to come back and say sorry.

In fact, as we know, he is not given the chance to do this. Long before his words are uttered, he is overwhelmed by the love of his father. My favourite Greek word is used to describe the father – esplangchnisthei – filled with compassion. It is a word used to describe Jesus’s emotion towards a leper. Literally the word means that your gut wrenched, your bowels move – such is the sense of emotion. It’s a touching and heart-wrenching scene, this reconciliation between father and son; one that easily brings a tear to the eye.

And then there is the older son. He has not been away. He has not wasted his father’s money. He has been sensible, hard-working, loyal. But, sadly, and in a strange and uncomfortable way, he is just as far from ‘home’ as the younger brother. There is no joy in his heart, only resentment and anger. How dare this happen! How dare my brother come back! How dare my father kill the fatted calf! (Have you noticed? We are back in Genesis country. This is Cain talking about his brother Abel – Am I my brother’s keeper?) Why should I bother with this wastrel? Why should he have a place here?

Strange as it may seem, each of the brothers needs to ‘come home’. The younger from his sinful ways – his profligate living; the older from his sinful ways – his arrogance, his nursing consuming jealousy and hatred. And the father? He is at home – where he has always been, waiting, longing, loving – for each of his sons. The power of the parable is that it is very easy for us to put ourselves in the shoes of any of the characters. We can all be the younger son. We can all be the older brother. We can all be the loving father – desperately wanting what is best for our children, knowing we have to let them go, make their own way, giving the gift of freedom; ready always, to welcome and embrace, to kill the fatted calf. It’s a parable to be savoured, to mull over, to enter into. Take time this week to live with it. Spend a day being each of the characters.

A few words on the first reading from Joshua 5. The Lectionary actually has us read from verse 2, which describes in fairly graphic detail the rite of circumcision. I decided to spare you the details lest we get hooked there and not notice what is actually happening in this passage. Circumcision was the outward and visible sign (a sacrament) of a covenant relationship with God. In return for their obedience and worship of God, God would care for the people, giving them a name and a home. Following the long years of wandering in the Wilderness, during which time there appears not to have been any circumcision, the People of God cross into the Promised Land. No longer do they need the emergency food supplies of manna. Now they eat food grown in the new land, their new home. A land described at times as one ‘flowing with milk and honey’. They are home. As a reminder of this – their home with God, their covenant with God, their identity, through circumcision, as God’s People – they celebrate the ancient annual festival of Passover, and recite the memory of their story. Once we were nobodies, oppressed, without home and identity, far from God. God heard our cry. God rescued us. God fed us through the long years of trial and wandering and led us here – ‘home’.

In a very different way St Paul tells of something similar. The metaphor has changed, but the meaning is the same. Over and over in Paul’s writings – to the Gentile congregations of Galatia, Philippi, Ephesus, Colossae, Corinth and Rome – he has the same message. Without God, we are nothing. On our own, we cannot find God. We are lost and cannot save ourselves. God has the answer. God is the answer. The answer is focused on Jesus Christ, a peripatetic teacher and miracle worker who challenged the establishment of his day, pointed out to people just how lost they were, even those who thought they were ‘found’ and ‘at home’, and was arrested and crucified. In today’s few verses from 2 Corinthians Paul invites his readers into the new creation that is in Christ. This, in Paul’s words, is to be reconciled with God, to be forgiven, to ‘come home’.

Two final things.

In order to come home, we have to be serious about asking for forgiveness. We have to prepare the speech of the younger son; sharpen the knife for circumcision; follow the way of the cross. There is no short cut. “Father, I have sinned…” is the start, the middle and the end of every cry to God, every genuine home-coming.

Once home, we are immediately sent out – to proclaim to others what we have found, the way home. Paul is emphatic about this. See how it is underlined in the New Testament reading. (Christ) has given us the ministry of reconciliation … entrusted the message of reconciliation to us …we are to be ambassadors for Christ.

Coming home does not mean staying home. As we will hear tonight, there are the lost sheep to be gathered in – and we are entrusted with the sacred task, ministry, of spreading the message that God loves, has always loved, and longs for us to come to our senses, be genuine in our repentance – and come home!