FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
Readings for this Sunday:
Joshua 5:9-12 | Psalm 32 | 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 | Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
I think the story of the prodigal is one that we can come back to again and again, and always find something relevant for our lives. The story is accessible and compelling. It sticks with us. It is hard to forget once we’ve heard it because even though it is such an old story, it speaks to life here and now. Not all scripture seems to be quite as inspired in the way this one is, stirring in us the potential for considering our own way in the world. It gives us a good example of how scripture is meant to be engaged—as a mirror on our own lives, as a compass for making our way together, as a window into a universe of truth we have only begun to get a handle on, as a way into wholeness and well-being.
Invite people to try an experiment by making a fist and holding it.
So let me ask you about your birth order, as we start off. How many of you are eldest children? How about youngest? Any middle sibblings? How about only? And I wonder, if there are any here who for one reason or another don’t know where you fall in your birth order? I think it is an interesting question because I suspect that’s one of the lenses we each bring into the hearing of a story like this. We might tend to sympathize with one of the sons more than another because we are an older or younger sibling. And yet, that may actually change over the course of the years as we hear this story. I know for me, even as I am a youngest, I have found myself connecting with both of the sons at one point or another, as well as the father. I wonder if you’ve had that same experience.
Sometimes I am the younger son, searching for the unconditional love I crave in all the places it cannot be found, or trying to prove to myself and to my world that I can make a life on my own, that I am fully independent, when deep within I doubt that its true.
Remind people to hold that fist.
At other times I am the dutiful older son who does everything right, a high achiever. But on the surface self-righteous, jealous, full of self-pity. Hiding behind my principles. And I hate myself for it! Or maybe I don’t. There is a deeper complaint, isn’t there, that is harder to dismiss because it is rooted in justice? It comes from a heart that feels it never received what it was due: “I try so hard, work so long, do so much, and still I don’t get what is handed on a silver platter to others. Why do people not thank me, not invite me, not play with me, not honor me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and so casually?”
Remind people to hold that fist.
Every now and then, I’ve seen myself in the father too, particularly as I get older. I’m not the one coming home, but the one waiting hopefully, my deep sorrow ready in a moment to give way to joy. Cracks in my own wounded heart have filled me with compassion, opened me to the light shining within myself and in others. I’ve thrown aside all that armor I have worn for so long that I thought protected me, when really it just kept me isolated and alone. My own memories of grace have taken over.
Love is such a part of my being that there is little room for lesser emotion.[i] The father, by his actions, deals with the guilt of both his sons, but he never shames them. He never imagines them as anything less than his beloved children.
Who knows, there may be a day when I find myself viewing the story from the perspective of the fatted calf, or the pigs too! I’ll let you know!
And then there’s our own cultural biases too. Did you know that different cultures read the parable differently? In Russia people reading this same story fixed on the famine that drives the younger son back to the father because they had lived through a famine themselves. It becomes another character in the story that reshapes our understanding of the younger son. In Tanzania they fixed on the fact that no one helped the younger son while he was away in a far country starving. Where was the community? The value of hospitality is so strong there, that this was the key interpretive lens. We go right to the psychology, don’t we? Or we go to the morality play we’ve inherited from our puritan ancestors. When did wasting money become one of the greatest sins anyway? Are we sure about our assumptions?
There is no end to the ways that this story might open up our own stories, challenge our own assumptions, go at those barriers within us we’ve just begun to see that keep us from eternal life.
We’ve been talking through this season of Lent about the power of confession to free us. Confession takes many forms, of course, and many wrong turns. The church has often used confession as a way of beating us over the head with shame. And for some of us, to confess is to remember and reinforce this shame once again. Not surprisingly, we will do everything we can to refuse to go into that room. But that’s not really true confession, because it is rooted in a lie that says we are worthless rather than creatures with sacred worth.
Confession is about telling the truth in all the ways it needs to be told—whether it is the truth of my passion, my whole-heartedness, my value alongside others. Sometimes it is telling the truth of our broken hearts and the doubt and fear that we’ll never find a way out. Sometimes it is telling the truth of a corrupt political system that doesn’t play fair. Sometimes it is telling the truth about a system of relationships that sets some up as scapegoats while bullies are rewarded for their behavior.
We confess our sins. But we also confess our belief. We Presbyterians have a whole book of beliefs we call the Book of Confessions. It is one of our denomination’s core documents, charting statements of belief from many times and places. Some of those read pretty strangely today, but they can also tell us something about where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
The invitation of Lent to confession is understood at its best, I think, as bringing as much honesty as I can bare today. The kind of honesty that ultimately frees me, and frees others with the kind of generous, courageous spirit that the father offers to his sons, and the Spirit offers to her beloved children in that light that burns within you and me.
Spirit, open my heart, we pray and we sing, to the joy and pain of living. As you love, may we love. In receiving and in giving. For we confess our hope and our belief that in this loving is life for all.
So, humor me if you will, and close your eyes for a second. Are you still holding that fist? If you are, with your eyes still closed, let go. Unclench your fist. Notice how it feels. Notice what the rest of your body is doing. Is it relaxing? Releasing tension? Breathe. Pay attention to the pain that you might even have forgotten about as you were listening, and the relief you are feeling now.
Isn’t this too a parable for us about all that we hold onto and what it does to us? And the relief. Isn’t that what we feel when we find ourselves lost in freedom and forgiveness and wholeness? A new creation, wide open to compassion, ready to hold the world in love.
Spirit, open our hearts.
[i] These perspectives are drawn from The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. Copyright © 1992 by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Used by permission of Doubleday,
a division of Random House, Inc.
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St. Andrew Sermons