I don’t want to brag but… in second grade, I became the School Spelling Bee Champion at Glen Allen Elementary School in Virginia. Second grade was the earliest you could participate, and as a second-grader — at only eight years old — I beat out other second graders and also third graders and fourth graders, and even fifth graders. I still remember the winning word that sent me to the Spelling Bee for the whole county. It was physicist. I had no idea what it meant, but I knew how to spell it. I was kind of a big deal. I was pretty sure there would rename the school after me in my honor — or at the very least the gymnasium.
Fast forward a year — I’m back in the school spelling bee looking to defend my title and retain my crown. I was feeling good, loose, confident. I’d been practicing. And so there in the first round, the moderator says, “Brent, your word is “Separate.”
“Separate,” I say, confidently. “S-E-P-E-R-A-T-E. Separate.”
And there’s this long awkward pause before the moderator somberly announces, “I’m sorry. That’s... incorrect.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned. I had been so confident. I went back through the letters in my head, wondering where I’d gone wrong. But then, before I could make my way off the stage in the gymnasium (that hadn’t been renamed, by the way), the moderator stopped and said, “Brent, we don’t normally do this, but do you want to give it another shot?”
I responded, hesitantly, “Sure,” looking around to see if she was serious. And so I stepped back up to the microphone and gave it another go: “Separate. S-E-P-A-R-A-T-E? Separate.”
The moderator responded, “That is correct.” And the audience cheered, I got to stay in, and I went on to retain my crown.
And now, if you’re sitting there thinking, “What in the world? That’s amazing! I’ve never heard of that happening in a spelling bee,” then… you’d be exactly right. Because that part didn’t happen. I made that part up. My parents are probably at home shouting at their screen, thinking, “He’s gaslighting everyone right now!”
What is true is that I did win the spelling bee in second grade, but I did not receive a do over the following year. What is also true is that I was knocked out in the first round by the word, “separate” — a year after winning the whole thing. And what’s also true is that the winner my third grade year was a kid named Elizabeth who, to add insult to injury, was in second grade. It’s also true that I’m very over it and definitely not bitter nor have I been holding a grudge for 27 years.
But a do-over in a spelling bee would be wild, right? That just doesn’t happen. That’s not how the world works. We have an order to things here, you know? We have rules and laws to live by.
Like if you overdraft your account, you have to pay a fee. If you miss a buzzer-beater that would tie the game — like in the Perdue and St. Peter’s game the other night — you don’t get try again. And if you misspell a word in a spelling bee, you’re out.
This is just how the world works. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair. The world would be reckless, chaotic, scandalous. And yet, as Lila read in the story today, sometimes that’s precisely how it is with God. That’s exactly what life is like in God’s kingdom — God’s reign.
But first, a reminder that we find ourselves in the season of Lent. Lent is the forty-day season in our church calendar in which we prepare for the heartbreak and hope of Holy Week and Easter. Lent is sort of a spring cleaning for our souls. It gives us the chance to air things out, clear out the cobwebs, and discover something beautiful, something fresh, something abundant — something that perhaps has been there all along.
I’ve said this each week in this series, but I think it bears repeating: When we think about Lent, we often think about giving something up or taking something on. And if that’s you, keep going. We are proud of you, and please let us know how we can encourage you.
But what if this year — as hard as the last two years have been, as heavy as the world is right now, what if this year, Lent was simply about receiving the goodness of God that’s already there — already abundant? In other words, what if Lent wasn’t about self-denial or beating ourselves up? What if it wasn’t about emptying ourselves to nothingness? Instead, what if it was about orienting our lives to experience the fullness of what God has for us — already?
That’s what our series, “Full to the Brim,” has been about. In some ways, it’s sort of the anti-Lent in that way. Instead of one more thing to do or take on or give up, all this season asks of you is to simply receive the goodness of God that is already abundant. So let’s get into our theme for this week: “Full to the Brim: Prodigal Grace.”
And this week, we encounter a family that may have some parallels and intersections with our own. In other words, the struggle is real. Next time someone starts lecturing about biblical family values, remind them of this story.
Jesus shares this parable after tax collectors and sinners have gathered around — and the Pharisees and the scribes — the religious leaders — have started to grumble about how Jesus welcomes the sinners and eats with them. The horror!
To this point in the story, Jesus has told two other parables with a similar theme — one about a sheep who was lost out of a flock of 100 and the shepherd who goes after it, finds it, and celebrates, and another about a woman who loses one of her ten coins and relentlessly searches until she finds the one lost coin and throws a big party to celebrate.
So he continues here with this parable — this story — about a man with two sons. The younger son comes to his father and says, “Dad, give me my share of the inheritance.” This would have been equivalent to the younger son saying to his father, “You’re dead to me. Give me what would be owed to me if you were dead.” And the father actually does — which is amazing in its own rite. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t laugh flippantly and walk away. Instead, he does what the younger son asks — divides up his property between the two sons at which point the younger son gathers all he has and leaves.
While he’s away in the far country, he squanders everything he has. That’s the definition of “prodigal,” by the way — recklessly extravagant. Remember that. And that’s how this younger son lives… until he’s left with nothing. There’s a famine, and the younger son grows hungry and destitute. He ends up working in the fields feeding pigs — a job that is among the lowest of the low. And that’s when, according to Luke, the gospel writer, he “comes to himself.” In other words, he comes to his senses. He wakes up. He realizes he has it even worse than those who work for his father. So he resolves to get up and go to his father and say, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you; I’m no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
That’s exactly what he sets off to do, rehearsing these lines, this confession, the whole way home. But while he’s still a long way off, the father sees his son and runs to meet him. And this is remarkable because older men running in such an undignified manner as this just didn’t happen. It wasn’t a thing. But that’s the compassion he feels. That’s the love bursting out of him — full to the brim. That’s the excitement he can’t contain. The father embraces his lost son, and even before the younger son can finish saying everything he’s rehearsed, the father calls for a robe and a ring and sandals and a party. Because his son has returned home at last.
But the elder son — he’s not nearly as thrilled. He finds out what’s going on after hearing music and dancing, and he refuses to join the celebration. He’s like, “Nope. Hard pass.” His father comes outside to try to get him to join the party, but the older brother isn’t having it. He’s like, “Are you kidding me? I’ve spent all these years here with you doing what’s right — have never disobeyed you — and I don’t even get a goat, much less a fatted calf. But this son of yours comes back” — note he doesn’t say “my brother”… he says, “your son” — this son of yours comes back, and you throw him a party. Is that how it is?” And that’s when the father responds, “Son, you’re always with me. All that’s mine is yours. But we had to celebrate, because this brother of yours” — note the father’s correction — “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
What a story. I wonder who you resonate with most in this story today. Where do you see yourself? In my family, I’m the oldest of three, so I am right there with the older son. The chip on my shoulder appeared the day my younger sister was born.
And when I read this story, I’m incredulous that the father didn’t even tell him his brother was home. He had to find out after the fact — once the party had already started. And maybe as you hear this story, you’re livid with the older brother at how unfair this all seems. Not only has he done everything right, performed well, worked hard, never caused the trouble his brother did, checked all the boxes — not only that — but the money that the father is spending on this prodigal party is coming out of the older son’s share of the inheritance!
And so the father’s full to the brim embrace? His unquestioning welcome? This celebration? This party? This grace? Yeah, it’s not fair. It’s recklessly extravagant. Scandalous. It’s prodigal. And in a world with order and laws and rules and standards — where you’ve got to do your time and pay off your debts and all of the things — this prodigal grace just doesn’t make sense. That’s not the way the world works.
It’s lavish. It’s illogical. It’s unearned — and that’s precisely the point. And this grace is offered to all. Because not only does the father embrace the younger son who’d run away and wasted everything, but notice how, as the story ends, the father also stands with the older son with the chip on his shoulder — inviting him to join the celebration. That’s grace, too.
I’m reminded of the words of one of my professors, the Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings, as quoted in the book we read last month for The Local Book Club, Saving Grace by Kirsten Powers. Jennings says, “Grace is to live in the possibility of what does not exist. Grace means that you can actually look at the other person recognizing that there's not only things that you don't like — but there’s things that you hate — and still ask yourself: Can I be open to the possibility that something can be created where there's nothing right now?"
Can I be open to the possibility that something can be created where there's nothing right now?
Maybe you’ve got someone in mind right now. I know I do. But here’s the thing: I hope someone has me in mind, too. I need that grace just as much.
And if it seems impossible, I get it. If it seems unfair, I’m with you. If it makes you angry, yes. Me, too. The thing about grace is that we can only offer it, we can only extend it, with God’s help, by God’s grace — with the power of God at work in our lives. We can’t do it on our own. We just can’t. And sometimes, truth be told, the best we can do is give it to God, and let God figure it out.
I was talking with someone a few weeks ago about church, and this person was lamenting the state of things — declining attendance, overall disengagement, questions about its relevance, and the like. And this person made a comment to that end that really struck me. They said, “You know, it just feels like the church is incompatible with people’s lifestyles.”
They were trying to make the point that for many, the church has become a place to consume, to be entertained — and they’re just not finding what they’re looking for. They can find a better sermon on YouTube. Better music on Spotify. The church just doesn’t fit their lifestyle.
And the more I thought about grace this week, the more I realized that this person is exactly right — just not in the ways they might have thought. At its best, the church — the hands and feet of God on earth — live completely counter to the way the world works.
Because in a lifestyle that is quick to draw lines and build walls, the church says, “All belong here.”
In a lifestyle that says you have to earn what you get, the church says, “God’s grace is freely given and available to all.”
In a lifestyle marked by scarcity and fear, the church says, “There is enough to go around.”
In a lifestyle where there’s no such thing as second chances, the church says, “No one is beyond redemption.”
The invitation, just as it was last week, is to see with the eyes of Jesus. And sometimes, that’s just not compatible with the lifestyles we’ve created. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, and that’s precisely the point. That’s what makes it grace. That’s what makes it good news.
And God is full of it. Full to the brim.