A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent: Joshua 5:9-12, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3,11b-32, Psalm 32
He was simply known as Bill. The Air Force Academy Cadets did not notice him much; there was only an occasional nod of the head or “good morning.” as they rushed off to whatever. Bill was the janitor, the housekeeper, who picked up behind them, kept their squad room spotless, from floors to showers. Bill was just another fixture, all but invisible, blending into squad’s dorm.
One afternoon James Moschgat was reading about the US Army battle for Italy when the story of Altavilla caught his attention.
On September 13, 1943, a Private William Crawford of the 36th Infantry Division, had been involved in some bloody fighting on Hill 424 “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire… with no regard for personal safety… on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions.” It continued, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States …
James couldn’t believe it; his squad’s janitor held the Medal of Honor. He asked Bill about it the next day. “Yep – that is me,” he said. When asked why he didn’t say anything he answered: “That was one day in my life, and it happened a long time ago.”
Things changed. The cadets greeted Bill with respect. They began to pick up after themselves. Bill was invited to some formal squad affairs. Bill also changed. He moved with more ease, wasn’t quite so stooped. He answered the cadet’s greetings eye to eye and a hearty “good morning.” He learned many of the cadets’ first names. As James left the dorm for the last time, Bill shook his hand and wished him “Good luck young man.” (Moschgat).
You know the story of the Prodigal Son or Sons¸ or whatever title you apply to Luke 5:11. You know the brash young son asks for his inheritance, essentially telling his father to “drop dead” (Hoezee, Luke). After squandering it all, he returned home intending to ask his father for a job as a hired hand. But he never got the chance, as his father lovingly welcomes him home, throws a lavish party for him, and gives him luxurious gifts. You know the parable is about God’s boundless grace, given to all without merit. You might even have thought about the older brother. He bears the burden of goodness, always doing what he should, as he should when he should (Epperly). He gets angry at his younger brother and his father, complaining that his father has never given him anything. The father replies “All this will be yours.” But we never hear if older brother eventually understands his father’s grace, or is as lost as his younger brother was (Ringe). You might understand how indignant he feels if you’ve ever worked hard all day, given it your best, only to have all your efforts overlooked at best and perhaps considered worthless (Lose). Have you ever noticed that the older brother never got any joy or fulfillment from his work; that, for all intended purposes, he thought of himself as a hired hand, exactly what his younger brother, in shame, sought to be (Hoezee, Luke).
Yes, we know this parable is about grace. However, when we remember that this morning’s Gospel reading begins with the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus fellowshipping and eating with tax collectors and sinners, the undesirables of the undesirables, we begin to understand how it is also about relationships. Not just our relationship with God, but also with each other, as Paul is defining it to the Corinthians. Jesus, reconciling everything to God, through himself, changes all relationships. Paul says we must see everything and everyone as reconciled with God. Not only are we bearers of God’s image; we also are bearers of God’s saving grace (Hoezee, 2 Corin.). The parable reveals that grace, righteousness, and justice are not about balancing the books. Grace, righteousness and justice are about restored relationships (Ellingsen). It is about seeing God / Jesus in everything and every person (Epperly). Perhaps most difficult for us to glean is that it is about our internal transformation (Sakenfeld). We get that in our relationship with God; we struggle with it in our relationships with others.
There is a Bible study method that invites you to see which character, in, or implicit, or imagined you are in a parable. You are asked to reflect on how you are that character; not as the typical allegory, but as you. You know the father is the allegorical figure of God. This study method asks you to imagine yourself as the father, as you are. We might ask ourselves, “How did we contribute to our older son’s feeling?” We might review our behavior to see if we ever expressed the feelings we have for our dutiful older son. We might wonder how we can express the same joy we have for his diligence that we expressed for our younger son’s return from his indiscretions. Moschgat’s story of his cadet squadron’s changed relationship with Bill is edifying.
At the end of the article, he lists several learnings; two apply this morning. He writes
Everyone Deserves Respect. Because we hung the “janitor” label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others. He deserved much more, and not just because he was received the Medal of Honor. Bill deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among us, and was a part of our team.
He continues – courtesy makes a difference, daily words moving from a perfunctory ‘hello’ to heartfelt greetings matter (Moschgat). I once heard a priest say “How are you?” is the most dangerous question you can ask because you must be prepared for the truthful answer; ready to listen to all of it. It is important to notice that the cadets did not directly change Bill’s behavior. They changed their behavior, and the impact of the change in themselves evoked the change in Bill.
The Book of Common Prayer teaches us that “the ministry of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP). Our mission is to reconcile all relationships. Clearly I cannot reconcile all your relationships, nor can any of you reconcile all of anyone else’s relationships, and none of us can reconcile relationships of those we don’t know. What we can be, is responsible for is our own relationships. We can trust that through Jesus our relationship with God is reconciled. We can understand that it is our behavior towards others, not just what we say; that is the true measure of our Christian relationships, especially involving those we don’t like and/or don’t believe are worthy. And, finally, we can trust that by working on our behavior, by working on changing ourselves, we will, as the cadets demonstrated, evoke changes in the other.
It is my prayer for each of us that some portion of our remaining Lenten discipline, and our daily discipline thereafter, will be to tend to our prodigal selves, known and unknown, joyfully welcoming our repentant self, and likewise jubilantly celebrating our diligent self.
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Hoezee, Scott. Lent 4 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. 6 3 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
—. Lent 4 Luke. 6 3 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel>.
Lewis, Karoline. Perspective Matters. 6 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lose, David. Lent 4 C: The Prodigal God. 6 3 2016.
Moschgat, James. Leadership and the Janitor. Fall 2010. <http://usoonpatrol.org/archives/2010/09/07/leadership-and-the-janitor>.
Ringe, Sharon H. Commentary on Luke 15:13, 6 3 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
The Episcopal Church. Book of Common Prayer. 1979.