Sermon March 31, 2019
I distinctly remember a one day retreat I attended about the story of the Prodigal Son. It was led by my spiral director and he used a book that was written by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen based his book on a painting by the famous artist Rembrandt. In the painting, the prodigal son is seen kneeling in front of his father. His clothes are ragged, one shoe has fallen off his foot and the other is barely hanging on. The son is leaning his head onto the chest of his father, overwhelmed that his father has accepted him back. The father is standing over the son with his arms gently holding his son as if to say, “all is well, don’t worry”. During the retreat I felt God’s loving presence.
The Prodigal Son story is about temptation, repentance, and forgiveness. Those three themes have been in many of our readings this Lenten season. The younger son demanded his inheritance, left home and lived a life of sin. Only later, when he was down and out did he return home to ask for his father’s forgiveness. And the beauty of the story is that the father is overjoyed to have his son back. The father was so excited that he called for a celebration.
Jesus told the parable in response to the complaints of the Pharisees and the scribes. They did not think it appropriate for Jesus to eat with sinners. But Jesus told them through this parable that if God welcomes sinners back then we should welcome sinners as well. More importantly, God will welcome us back if we turn from our sinful ways and return to the Lord. We once again hear the message that we should turn back to God.
Asking for God’s forgiveness is a message found in our other readings as well. In the Psalm for today we hear, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” followed by the knowledge that God will forgive. “Then God forgave me the guilt of my sin.”
The reading from second Corinthians mirrors the message. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The New Testament emphasizes the reconciling work of Jesus, the one who brings us to God and who demonstrated through his suffering that God will do all to bring us home.
A part of our Lenten discipline is to reflect on our lives. The tale of the prodigal son should help us as we think about our relationship with God. We consider times that we have been like the younger son. Have we ever acted as if we deserved some special treatment from God, asking that God give us our due even though we have done nothing to earn it? Have we ever left God and sought to lead our life according to our own rules? Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given?
The parable suggests that we must realize our mistake, and return to our home, in the arms of a loving God. Haven’t we all felt the love of God whenever we have changed our ways? Haven’t we all felt the joy of knowing that God not only forgives us but is jubilant upon our return?
The story is beautiful. It brings us hope. We have heard the story many times and we know what it means. We like things to be simple, straightforward and easy. We like stories about the good guys and the bad guys. There is no confusion, the good guys wear the white hats. We like love stories where we know that the couple is going to get together from the very beginning.
But there are sometimes when we are surprised by a different story. I experienced that when I went to Hawaii in February. Hawaii is so beautiful. I always have appreciated lovely accommodations on broad sandy beaches. I remember being excited when Hawaii became a state in 1960. I was vaguely aware that native Hawaiians were not always happy about the use of the land for hotels and other commercial ventures but I didn’t think about that a lot. This time, I learned more as we visited the Iolani Palace in Honolulu.
The Hawaiian Islands were consolidated by King Kamehameha in 1795. Over the next nearly 100 years, life in the islands changed significantly with an influx of traders, missionaries and wealthy investors from Europe and the United States. Disagreements grew about how to rule the islands. In 1875, a small group of wealthy and influential people forced the king into signing a new constitution through the force of a militia. The new constitution favored landowners and those who could read and write. When the king’s sister ascended to the throne, she tried to wrest control back from this group. On Jan. 17, 1893, Hawaii’s monarchy was overthrown when a group of businessmen and sugar planters forced Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate using the power of 162 US Marines and Navy personnel. The queen was imprisoned in the Iolana Palace and no longer able to communicate with her people. Two years later, the monarchy was absolved and the islands became a territory of the United States. On our visit to Iolana Palace we saw the quilt made by the queen and a few of her helpers. The quilt describes the sadness of the queen and her followers. Some Hawaiians feel that these islands were taken illegally. My visit helped me to see a different side of the place we call paradise.
The parable of the prodigal son is so familiar. We all know what it means. But I ask you to think about the parable from two other points of view. Let us today look at the story as if we were the older brother. In the painting by Rembrandt, the older brother is shown as a ghostly imagine looking unhappy as the father embraced the younger son. The older brother resented the fact that his father had forgiven the younger brother. He felt as if his own loyalty had not been valued. Have we ever had a similar feeling as the older brother? Have we ever judged whether others can be forgiven by God? Have we ever felt that we were more deserving of God’s love than some other person? Have we refused to accept another person because they have sinned even though they have clearly asked God for forgiveness. Who among us has not felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear at being left out? I think it may be more difficult to see our faults when we have lived a life of goodness. It can be difficult to see the times that we have excluded others from our love or from God’s love.
Another name for the gospel is The Parable of the Father’s Love. Some of us can relate to the father in the Prodigal Son story. We have tried to forgive someone who has hurt us. Perhaps we have forgiven one of our children only to have the experience that another child felt as if they had been mistreated. Maybe we have tried to love another person but our love has never been returned. Or perhaps we have experienced the joy when a long lost family member has come back into our lives and we just want to celebrate. If that has happened to you then you understand how pleased God is when we turn back to be in God's presence.
I can say that I have been the younger son, the older son and the father at different times in my life. I believe that Jesus reaches out to us whichever position we find ourselves in. He wants us to know that God is always with us. Sometimes our sins are so obvious that we feel guilty even as we are committing them. Other times our sins are much more subtle. And other times we seek to find love knowing that it is difficult. God is always there.
I would suggest that we use one of the steps found in Bishop Michael Curry’s Rule of Love. Through regular worship of God, we find stability, comfort and joy. Worship is our time to come together in community, It helps us to see Christ in one another and to love one another. During worship, we thank, praise and dwell with God. I especially like that part of dwelling with God. For I know that even if I have strayed a little bit, I can turn back and God will welcome me once again. Amen.
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