A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Sunday, March 27, 2022

By: David May, Rector


I used to cross the Norris Bridge that connects the Middle Peninsula with the Northern Neck at White Stone all the time. Where the bridge goes across the Rappahannock River the water is a mile or more across. It’s hard to take a good look when you’re driving across the bridge, but even a quick glance is breathtaking. To the west, the river stays broad into the distance; to the east, the wide river flows out into the great Chesapeake Bay and beyond. If you were to trace the river west, (say you could fly just above the surface) it would still be broad – a mile across at least – as you reach the crossing at Tappahannock. Further west, as you go on, the river stays broad until it narrows suddenly just east of Port Royal near the fall line below Fredericksburg. At this point, the ocean tide ceases to influence the rise and fall of the river, and the water becomes entirely fresh for the first time. Traveling still further west, you arrive at a branching where the Rappahannock continues to the north while the Rapidan River flows off to the south. Into the hilly country still further west, the Rappahannock narrows more past Culpepper , and runs northwest til it plunges into the mountains south of Front Royal. Somewhere below Chester Gap, in the shadow of Mount Marshall’s 3,368 foot peak, the Rappahannock contracts from a hurrying river to a narrower stream, to a racing creek, til it arrives at its spring and source. In all, the river runs 184 miles, from a spring breaking out of the mountains, to the broad ocean-like mouth near the bridge at White Stone.

One day when I was stopped at the top of the bridge for roadwork perched 110 feet above the river’s surface, I had a funny thought. I thought, what if you could find your way to the source where the original spring breaks clear of the earth and begins to flows out…and what if a leaf dropped onto that fresh surface. (For all we know, that could’ve just happened!) Could that leaf make it all the way to the Bay? Seems unlikely doesn’t it. Too many obstacles along the way. It would just have to get lost somewhere along the way, rigtht?. But stranger things have happened. Consider this…

On one particular day, long ago, Jesus of Nazareth opened his mouth and said for the first time, “…there was a man who had two sons….” There was a day when Jesus first spoke these words and it was heard for the very first time, and this story began its journey – through the mercy of God – to us this morning so far away.

It is the third of a trio of stories he tells, one after the other, to a group of Pharisees and scribes who were upset with Jesus because, they said, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Their point was that these weren’t nice people who were simply misunderstood. Some of them were people working with a foreign government to collect taxes from their neighbors and making good money at it. And there were others who had messed up big time and had serious amends to make. There is a difference between right and wrong, good and bad and it looks a lot like Jesus is condoning their bad behavior. But Jesus doesn’t counter their arguments with an argument of his own. He tells them stories – about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.

And this last story as much as anything Jesus ever said has been the one people like us have held onto for dear life when it seems like we’ve got nothing else to hold onto. Maybe our story isn’t as dramatic as the younger son’s story, but we all get lost. It’s a story that tells us as clearly as anything Jesus ever said who his Father is. When Jesus tells us this story he is leading us back upstream to the source of his life and ours: our God whose property it is always to have mercy. This story is a treasure we’ve been given to tell through our own lives.

I want to revisit a story I’ve probably told you that happened going on twenty years ago. The story is about a 10 year old boy and his 15 year old half sister who I was preparing for baptism. They were new to the church. She was a refugee from Liberia whose name is Ethel. He was a refugee from a Liberian father living in New York and a Senegalese mother living in Philadelphia – neither of whom, apparently, wanted him. His name is Kay.

I met them in the church after school and we gathered around the huge marble font. It was a beautiful day, and the sun streaming through the stained glass windows colored the air golden and amber. I told them to take their Prayer Books and open them to page 299. I told them we were going to talk about the meaning of baptism.

Kay said, “you’re going to tell us about Jesus, right?, and then I get to be baptized, right?”

I thought about the definition of a sacrament, and the ways I usually talk about baptism: how the world is not the way God means for it to be and neither are we. But something else occurred to me so I said, “close your Prayer Books.”

I knew something of each of their stories. They already knew the world wasn’t the way it as supposed to be, and where questions of right and wrong and whose fault it is and who’s to blame gets all jumbled up. Ethel had lived in the mountains of Liberia for months during civil war there, hiding from armed men who roamed the countryside killing indiscriminately. Kay had spent nights on the streets of New York when he was six years old searching for his father wondering what he had done wrong.

I decided I didn’t want to talk about ‘the church’s teaching on baptism’. So I said, “OK. I want to tell you a story. A man once had two sons….”

Kay blurted, “I know this. The younger son took his father’s money and left home, right?”


“You tell him, Ethel,” he said.

Ethel who was a very quiet girl said, “and he spent it all in a far country in dissolute living.”

“You know this story?” I asked.

She nodded. “We had church I remember when I was little.”

“What happened to the son,” I asked.

“He ate with the pigs!” Kay exploded with laughter. Ethel began to laugh.

So, we told the story together. How the younger son finally came home but before he could even get there his father ran out and caught him in his arms, and then threw a party for him to end all parties. And about the older son who refused to come to the party because he couldn’t see past his own sense that he had been wronged. What I remember most is how much they laughed. How could they laugh so much with the lives they had lived? How could these two little leaves have made it so far downstream, through so much, and come to the wide deep waters of the baptism they received a week later surrounded by people who loved them as their own?

It can only be because these two—who knew so much about being lost—had already been found. The Father had already run out to greet them too on their way back from the far country. The grace of God had gotten there first. God’s grace had already happened.

Which is part of the problem with this most famous of Jesus’ parables. Grace has already happened. The father is too glad to have his son back to worry about anything else. It’s too late for arguments about what is right and what is wrong and what is fair. God’s grace has already been given, because it is the property of God to always have mercy.

The father says to the elder son, “son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” And then, it seems like something is missing to me. The story ends there, but it ends with me wondering what the elder son will say of his father’s mercy for his brother. We are left looking at the elder son, wondering what he will say.
Which is the position of the church. This is the place from which we will proclaim good news or not. What will we say of the mercy of God that has already happened? Is it fair? Or is it…gracious?

We are making our way in these last Sundays of Lent following Jesus and his way of the cross back upstream to the source of our lives, where God’s perfect mercy breaks through into the world. We will make our way with him, or at least as long as our hearts will hold, to the place where he plants his cross in the earth for the sin of the whole world.

Listen. God’s mercy has already been given, and forgiveness, for you. So, if in your life, what happened was bad, maybe even awful; whether it was something you did, or something that lies past blame and fault; whether you are the younger or the elder son; God has already overcome the past by his forgiveness. So forget it. And move on. Move on.

Here’s something to think about. What that little leaf that fell into the source of the river when this sermon started. I wonder where it is by now. Imagine this: through the mercy of God, in the ways of grace, it is already floating under the big bridge at White Stone, on it’s way to the great Chesapeake Bay, and beyond. Amen.