Returning - Lent 4C
Psalm 32; Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
One of my favorite theologians, Henri Nowen once commented that "the story of the prodigal son is a story about returning — and that makes it an ideal Lenten parable. I have come to realize the need for returning over and over again. My life drifts away from God. I need to return. My heart moves away from my first love. I have to return. My mind wanders. I have to return. Returning is a lifelong struggle that is especially renewed each Lent.”
Return is, in the most basic sense, reconciliation. Reconciliation with God, reconciliation with each other, but we also must consider that each of us, each individual needs this reconciliation... we NEED to be reconciled with ourselves...
I am reminded of how H.G. Wells described Mr. Polly, a character in one of his books: "...he was a walking civil war."
How many people today, even many of us here, could be described in the same way?
Each day I become more aware of how much self-hatred there is in the world. People who, for whatever reason, abuse themselves, despise themselves...some committing suicide outright...others committing suicide slowly through drugs and alcohol...
I have met people who sincerely felt that they had done so many "bad things" in their lives that no one, even God, could love them. These people often avoid Communion because they feel unworthy, or come to communion as though it is always Good Friday, but never Easter.
There are far too many people who feel that they have to be perfect, to be the best at all they do or no one will value them. They are perfectionists. And the only problem is that they never achieve it, so they are seldom, if ever, truly happy with themselves or anyone else.
I have one friend, a perfectionist for sure, who jokes about having a hyphenated last name – which she does… and which she compares to the word "Anal-Retentive” -- which she points out also has a hyphen in it… which she CLAIMS is truly the biggest problem in her own life. She says it as a joke, but underneath her joke is a concern about an anal-retentive society… Where we all push ourselves to incredible limits, apply impossible standards to ourselves, and worst of all fail to forgive ourselves, where we would forgive the same fault or transgression in another.
Jesus assumes that we will love ourselves. "Love your neighbor AS you love YOURSELF,” he says. There IS such a thing as proper self-love. It’s a good and right thing to have a healthy self-love, a sense of self-worth and value.
Now, if you will, let's go back to that story of the prodigal son we heard earlier -- The son is returning. He’s been starved. He’s weak. He’s laboring just to put one foot in front of the other. A little cloud of dust rises with each footstep. But a thousand of those little clouds have come and gone. And the dust has filled his throat, and nose, and has clogged his eyes. And yet he drags himself, step by step, toward an uncertain welcome.
If his father was angry enough -- and why shouldn't he have been after what he had said! Now he could barely believe he did it. Asking for his share of inheritance – why! it was the same as saying, 'Father, I cannot wait for you to die.' The same as saying, 'Father, would you please drop dead.'
If, indeed, his Father were angry enough, so hurt --
· Do you suppose his father performed the ritual which would make him an outcast? Had his father stood on the threshold of the house -- smashed a pot -- and declared "My son is dead, I have no son."?
· Would he find himself shunned in the village? ... Family property lost to Gentiles was a serious matter, and a violation of the whole community. The townspeople… No one to talk to-- no one would sell him food -- no one would give him shelter. . . .he shuddered and thought of a gathering mob. . . abuse… violence. . .
So he comes up over the hill – and there in the distance is the house, the home for which his heart has longed. But he’s afraid… terrified actually. His heart begins to pound, and it seems as if his throat has closed in, he can’t swallow, in fact, he can hardly breathe.
Oh my! There’s someone sitting at the gate... as he comes over the hill they notice him and they stand up... stand up and shade their his eyes. "He will never love me again." "What if I'm an outcast?" "Treat me as a slave, not your son." Momentarily the figure at the gate turns and shouts something back toward the house, and then begins to run toward him, -- sandals flopping, robe flapping -- toward him. It’s his Father, moving in on him. But it can't be -- not his father. His father is always so proper, so stately, never undignified. And this figure is hurtling pell-mell down the lane. What does it mean? Was his father calling for help to repel the intruder, the outcast, the unwelcome? Maybe he should run the other direction…But, he couldn't; he was too tired. So he just stood there as the old man drew near, and he said his speech silently to himself one more time, hoping that his words might somehow reach a soft spot in his father's heart. "Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I'm not just bewildered... I am truly lost. Will you let me come home not as a son, but as a servant?"
By the time he had finished the question in his mind, he found himself encircled in his father's arms, his father pressing him to his chest in an embrace so tight and so long it leaves him dizzy. And his father -- touching his arms and his face, as if to insure that wasn’t a ghost, a figment of a mind half-crazed with yearning and worry.
The young man slumps into his father's arms. For the moment, at least, all of his worries are gone. No matter what else happens, he is home, and he’s in his father's arms. Now he can rest -- he is home.
When the son could finally breathe again, he started his speech. "Father, I have sinned, sinned against God and against you. I can't be a son to you any more; I don't deserve it after what I have done. But could you, would you take me on as a hired hand?" His father didn’t even answer him, Yes or No. Instead, the old man turned to the servants encircling them and gave a series of quick orders. "Robe! Ring! Shoes for his feet! Butcher the show calf and fire up the barbecue! Celebrate! My son! My son lives! My son who was dead has come back to *live* among us. My son who was lost has finally been found!"
Isn't it amazing? No criticism. No blaming. No recrimination. No "I-told-you-so," or "I-hope-you-have-learned-your-lesson, young man." -- Only superlative joy over the return. Reconciliation is what God wants more than anything -- lost sons to come home; lost daughters to be found; bewildered offspring to come to themselves and turn homeward once again to claim God's welcome.
For those of us who have been estranged from a parent or from someone we love, and then reconciled – well, this story has deep, deep meaning, earned in hard experience. This is a beginning -- there will be hard work rebuilding the relationship -- but to fall into the arms of someone you love -- someone who has raised and nurtured you or been with you over thick and thin, -- this represents a special kind of coming home.
I am always moved by the fact that the father didn't require any motivation. His love was so total and unconditional that he received his son back whatever his motivation. This is a very encouraging thought. It tells me that God doesn’t demand a pure heart before embracing us. 1) Even if we return only because following our desires has failed to bring happiness, God will take us back. 2) Even if we return because drifting has brought us less peace than being faithful, God will take us back. 3) Even if we return because our sins didn’t offer as much satisfaction as we had hoped, God will take us back. God's love doesn’t ask any questions. God is just glad to see us home and wants to give us what we need, just because.
But that wasn't the end of Jesus' story. There was an older brother. When he heard the sound of music and singing, smelled the incredible, mouth-watering aroma of festival foods, and saw signs of celebration, he asked one of the slaves what was going on. "Your father is throwing a party! Your brother has come home. There’s a feast being prepared, and the whole household, even me, are invited!!" "You have got to be kidding!” he thought to himself. And he sat down at the gate of the house where the father had been sitting just a while ago to pout -- to pout with the biggest attitude you ever saw. And he was still sitting there fuming, not just pouting, when the father came out. Note how wonderful this father is…He doesn't wait for the son to get over it and come in; he goes out and he tries to make him feel loved.
But the older son is so angry doesn’t even call the man "Father." He just says, "Listen! I'm the son who stayed. I'm the son who has been working like a slave for you all this time. I've never crossed you. I've never let you down. I’ve followed all of your rules. You never thought I might like to celebrate with my friends! And now this son of yours (which is like saying, he's no brother of mine)... this son of yours shows up after doing God knows what, and you throw a party for him..”. “It isn't fair! It just isn't fair!"
And in a way, he's right. It isn't fair. But as long as a person insists on everything being exactly fair, they aren’t likely to understand what grace means. "Son," he calls the older boy, and even in the face of anger and hardness of heart, he calls him son. "Son, you are always with me, and all I have belongs to you already. But you see, this party had to happen.” What he meant is “This party isn't for your brother. This party is for me. This party is for me because I am so glad that he has come home. Your brother...yes, your brother... was as good as dead to me, and he has come back to life. He was lost and might have been lost for ever, and he has been found. It's my party, and I wish you would come in."
So that’s the story for the day… Truth is, the wasteful son is not new to us. Nor is the reckless and radical love of the father. The Gospels are full of parables about the "Lost and Found." The lost coin, the lost sheep.
But it's this other son . . . this righteous, hard working son that I'm worried about. I’m concerned because he is unable to look beyond human systems of equality and fairness to find any real joy. I'm afraid that he stands a good chance of going to his grave miserable and angry. His sense of being "wronged" causes a righteous jealousy that can seem so right that he might never sense a need to "come to himself."
He too can reap the unconditional love of the father, but he’s possessed in such a way that he may never realize it . . . nor even want it. And this possession, it seems to me, is possibly more insidious than the greed, the arrogance, and the wanderlust that takes the soul of the prodigal.
A good many Biblical interpreters say the main point of this story is really the father, who stands for God and God’s unconditional forgiveness… Of course, we can all see that in the story, can’t we? But I really do think that this other son is the main point of the parable, the elder son, "lost while still at home." I think one could argue persuasively that the older son is far more lost than the younger, returned son. It could be an interesting contrast or debate. The danger is that we can move from being younger brothers to elder brothers -- and never even recognize it. Most of us have known at least one person who, over the years, has become rigid and condemnatory, even though they were the wild prodigals in their youth.
When considering the lostness of the older brother, this is much more than a simple "lost and found" parable. For his “lostness” is harder to identify. It exists as a secret, a buried resentment which erupts only occasionally, especially in moments when others are experiencing joy.
The truth is, we all know the experience of making parts of our lives off limits to God -- times when we don’t want God meddling in our activities; times when we’re seized by rebellion; times when God seems an insistent pest.
So this is a parable meant to haunt us with the notion that it's possible to be lost and to prevent ourselves from ever being found. It’s a parable about self-excommunication.
But the question today for us is this: Do we want to generate joy in heaven? Do we want to make God glad? If so, then we need let ourselves be found, wherever we may be – either far or near. And give our lives to God, again – each and every day—day in and day out over and over -- and God will give it back to us better than ever.
Why would any of us wait to come to ourselves and turn our steps toward home? Why want to close our hearts to anyone God loves?
Everything in us yearns to return -- to be received in the same way the prodigal son was received, even if were never the prodigal (so to speak) and stayed “at home” all our life.
God's welcome home is ALWAYS waiting, so we might fall into God's waiting arms.
And the party -- God is planning the most wonderful party!
In the midst of lives, O Lord, which are often cold and raw, we pause here to warm ourselves with words of praise and kindling of thanksgiving on our lips. It is you, O God, who touches us with the breath of life. You encircle us with your presence and draw us into your world. We step forth into the sunlight of all that you have made, marveling that blizzard days evolve into gentle rains of spring, and barren fields give birth to summer grain. We thank you that all new life comes from you; that we should be granted the incredible miracle of life; that we should know ourselves free and responsible; and mostly that we should be upheld by a love we often spurn and resist. Before we were even born, you dreamed of us, you gave birth to us, you nurtured us, and still you hope that we will grow to maturity, the very stature of Jesus Christ. And you give us the opportunity to be with you, partners, in your holy work.
Hear us this day as we pray today for members of your family both near and far. We remember before you all who have a song they cannot sing, all who have a burden they cannot bear, all who live in chains they cannot break, all those who are sick as well as those who tend them. We pray for all who wait for loved ones yet seem to wait in vain. We pray for those who live in hunger and those who will not share their bread; for those who are misunderstood and those who misunderstand; for those who are captives and those who are captors; for those whose words of love are locked within their hearts and for those who yearn to hear those words. Have mercy upon these and us, O Lord, and draw us graciously into the family – your family -- in which the hurt of one is the hurt of all, and the needs of the least are the concerns of the greatest.
We pray also for our community today, O Lord – for friend and stranger, family and forgotten ones; for those we love deeply and those whom we are struggling to love. Especially, though, we want to pray for members and friends of this church family, remembering particularly those who keep their distance because they fear there can be no happy homecoming. Grant that nothing in us – no intolerance, no censoriousness, no unkind word – may ever contribute to their remoteness. Rather, lift our voices as heralds of your hospitality and bearers of your welcome for ALL people.
Trusting now in the abundance of your love we lift before you all those who are ill, dying, or grieving amongst us; as well as those who may be facing difficult treatments, tests, or decisions; Dear Lord, please let the needs of each of these individuals be the occasion of your generosity and love today, as well as in the days ahead. Walk with them -- as we ask that you also walk with us --.
Now , having remembered both those who have gone before us and those who are apart from us this day, we join voices with them to trust in your goodness and ask that your will be done. “Our Father…” Amen.
And now the time has come for us to leave this place; guide us and protect us and lead us in Thy grace. Wherever life may take us as we go our separate ways, help us share with others the things we’ve shared today. May the peace of God the Father, and the love of Christ His Son; Guide us in the days ahead and strengthen us each one. May the blessings of the Spirit fill us from within; God bless us and return us to this fellowship once again.
Have a Popsicle with you and start eating it as the children gather at the front. If they ask for one or say it's not fair, tell them that you have had an upset stomach this week and Popsicles are good for you. This will lead nicely into a talk about fairness and how sometimes things don't seem fair. But there are times when people get special treatment because they have been sick or lost or unhappy and someone does something special to make them feel better.
It can be hard to be the "other" person who doesn't get the treat. Yet it is nice when we are the one who needs that special attention. There's a story in the Bible about one brother getting special treatment. (If the story is not being told in Sunday school, you might share it now.)
(from ‘Gathering’, ‘United Church of Canada’ 2004)