Sermon for Day of Penitence
Deans’ Retreat 2015
We have just heard the greatest short-short-story of all time
from the lips of the greatest storyteller of all time.
At least that’s one preacher’s opinion,
and you may disagree with that assessment.
But think of this story’s impact.
Rembrandt has painted it,
Prokofiev set it to music,
Nietzsche philosophized about it.
I’m guessing Freud had a field day with it.
But it’s not just a great story,
a superb piece of fiction,
of which Faulkner or Salinger might well be envious.
It is the gospel of Jesus Christ;
this is what God’s Son took flesh to do;
here is your Christian hope.
Here is a lad just out of his teens.
His father is not a Donald Trump,
but he does own a farm or at least a lot of land.
But the youngster is restless,
unhappy at home.
He craves action, a few fleshpots.
So he asks and gets his share of the property
which he converts into cash
and gets as far over the border as he can.
He squanders his money in lewd living;
his older brother complains that he spent a good bit
at the best little whorehouse outside Palestine.
Down to his last shekel, he is hit by a famine
and in desperation hires out to a Gentile
who sets him to the ultimate in degradation:
a Jew feeding pigs.
He sinks so low that he longs to fill his belly with what the swine are swilling
until he comes to his senses.
Back he goes.
And his father spies his son while the lad is a good way off.
"Well, well, well.
I always knew if he got hungry enough he’d come crawlin’ back.
Let him squirm a bit."
That’s not what dad does.
Compassion fills his heart;
he runs to meet his wayward son
as fast as his varicose veins will let him,
and the son can hardly get his apology out.
His father hugs him,
kisses him, not just in welcome but in tearful forgiveness.
Treat him like a hired hand?
Not on your life!
Treat him like an honored guest!
Dress him in the finest you have.
Call the neighbors and get a party started.
Out in the fields, sweating with a vengeance, is son number one.
Coming to the house,
he cannot believe his ears.
He summons a servant:
"What in God’s name is going on?"
And when the servant tells him, the son is outraged.
A party for the prodigal,
the lazy lout who washed his hands of the estate,
who treated his dad like dirt,
the sexed-up neurotic
who fornicated a third of the family’s fortune?
His father comes out,
pleads with him to join the party.
Not on your life.
Frankly, I’m mad as hell.
Here I’ve been slaving for you ever since I grew muscles,
never disregarded a single command of yours.
Have you ever thrown a party for me?
What kind of father are you?"
His father gently chides him:
"Son, you are always with me.
All that I have is yours.
But your brother –
yes, he’s been stupid, he’s sinned against God and against me;
he’s been as good as dead.
But, son, your brother has come alive again;
Why shouldn’t we have a party?"
Of course, we all know the main character in this story is the father.
Before all else, the parable preaches a striking set of truths about God.
Our God is not a God of vengeance,
waiting to pounce on you
as soon as you stray from the straight and narrow.
Our God exemplifies to the nth degree
what you would expect of a loving parent.
"Can a woman forget her sucking child,
that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have graven you
on the palms of my hands." (Isaiah 49:14-16)
Do you imagine that God’s own Son took your flesh
in order to wreak vengeance on it?
Can you conceive that he was joking
when from the cross he murmured, "Forgive them"?
The primary principle of this parable is a message we have to share:
God loves the sinner while she or he is still a sinner!
God loves us all the time.
God loves us anyway.
And not only does God love and forgive;
God takes the initiative, the first step, in forgiveness.
God doesn’t wait, aloof and aloft in solitary splendor,
stroking a gray beard like a shrewd shrink
until you come to your senses.
God runs to meet you.
Before you can actually say "I’ve really screwed up,"
God, who knows your heart,
kisses you in forgiveness,
dresses you in new garments,
throws a party for you among the angels.
And, here’s a truth as consoling as it is frightening:
Unless God took the initiative,
the first step in forgiveness,
you could never come to God.
You cannot decide all by yourself,
"This life of sin is for the pigs;
I’m hurrying home."
What makes it possible for us to crawl out of the pigpen,
to eat the Bread of Life and to drink the cup of salvation,
is God’s love.
Without that we’re dead,
and we would stay dead.
We did not ask the Son of God to hide his glory in our feeble flesh.
We did not ask the earthly Christ to wean us from sin by a bloody cross.
We did not ask the risen Christ to keep interceding for us
till time is no more.
It’s all God’s own wild idea.
But unless Christ had done all this,
if he did not continue to draw us by his love,
you and I would still be lusting for the carob pods of pigs.
I can only tell you what I have learned about this story from my own life.
Your best bet is to listen to God and learn for yourself.
First, I have learned, slowly,
to relate to God more as a loving Mother.
My God is not the God of the Deists,
a cold Creator who shaped the world and then let us go our merry way, uncaring, unheeding, unhelpful,
waiting for us to appear before the throne for our just judgment.
God is like a Mother to me
and in God’s sight I am unique and wonderful and beloved.
Somehow God lets things happen that are unexpected of a loving Mother:
fires and floods;
two world wars, a Holocaust that gassed six million Jews,
schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and Alzheimer’s and AIDS.
I can’t explain that stuff.
But neither can I explain why God sent Jesus to die for me
and still cares for me when I repeatedly say "no"
and wants me to share the divine life forever.
My basic belief is: God is love.
Without that, the whole Christian edifice crumbles.
I begin not with a question but with an act of trust –
the same trust the God-forsaken Jesus forced through parched lips:
"Into your hands I commend my spirit."
The movement is not from knowledge to love;
the movement is from love to knowledge.
The more I love God, the better will I know God.
Second, I have learned,
through years of experience,
not to play the elder sibling,
even though I fully expect his renewed family
eventually threw a party for him, too.
It’s called mercy.
I have learned not to turn up my nose at "foxhole Christians"
who cry to God in final desperation,
and I am working at not judging born-again Pentecostals
except when they try to impose their religion on everybody else.
Because I know from my own life that God’s mercy is limitless,
not bounded by my myopia.
I identify best with the prodigal because I recognize in him,
far more than in his brother or his dad,
our human condition, my condition.
For all our apparent strength,
of ourselves we are frail creatures.
We chafe under restrictions,
rebel against authority,
sulk when slighted,
go off into our own far countries.
Even we who are professional Christians
take God all too lightly,
give God the time left over from more important events,
leave God’s family and house, the Church,
spiritually, emotionally and sometimes physically
when we don’t like what’s going on.
We toy with temptations.
We can be awfully small,
At times we come slinking back, embarrassed,
"I have sinned against heaven, against you…"
If you’ve never experienced any of this
please take your pulse to see if you’re alive.
But this I have learned above all:
The prodigal’s "I have sinned" is not just an admission of guilt,
it is an act of love.
The prodigal could just as effectively have said,
"Father, I love you."
If sin is rejection,
repentance is acceptance.
I have received God’s love
and I return that love to God.
This is what we do today,