Lent 4C, 2013, Gethsemane Episcopal Church
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
How many of you have heard the story of “the prodigal son” before? How many have also heard it referred to as “the forgiving or loving father”? Clearly, this isn’t a new story to any of us, and just as with any story we hear again and again and again, it becomes easy to stop listening, to think we know how the story ends and what the story offers. But, one of the wonders of the lectionary, of this invitation to hear the same stories again and again, is that in doing so we are invited to hear them anew and bring ourselves as we are in the here and the now into an encounter with the narrative. So, just as I groaned as I realized that the offering for today was that “tired old cliche of a narrative” I realized that I am a different person than the last time I heard it--and in that difference, I hear a different story--that is, if I am willing to listen. Let me explain...
My mother was a difficult person, even in the best of times--and unfortunately, those best of times were few and far between. And, in the worst of times I’d find myself on the phone with my brother and he’d refer to her as “your mother”. I would quickly correct him with an emphatic “our mother” and we’d continue on in our conversation...bonding over our shared relationship with our mom. A relationship that neither of us was willing to let the other deny. We were in this messy, broken relationship together and there was no getting around that truth.
And, part of that truth was the pain of love--and of broken trusts, and hoped for transformation. None of which seemed to ever become manifest--but at this point in our lives and the aftermath of our mother’s death I’ve realized that he hasn’t said “your mother” in a very long time. We both claim her, for better or for worse--she is part of us and of our story.
Therefore, when I hear this parable I find myself noticing something new. When the older brother speaks to his father and refers to his brother as “this son of yours", I hear what he is doing. The older brother is refusing to acknowledge the relationship he has with his brother--he has shunned him, he claims no love and no loss as his brother returns because he is making it clear...this man is NOT my brother, you may claim him as your son, but he is NOT my brother. I am not responsible for him, I will not claim him, he has destroyed our family’s reputation and brought shame upon us. He is no longer mine and I am no longer his.
But, the father responds quickly and responds using the phrase, "this brother of yours". The older brother does not get to disavow his relationship with his younger--regardless of what has happened, they are STILL brothers. No getting around it, no changing it, no refusing it. Brothers still. Kill the fatted calf, celebrate together...this is the resurrection, he was as dead to us and now he has returned. Here, now, there is a new chance and the opportunity for transformation that we had thought lost. How can we refuse this, this new shot at love and life? The brother’s simmering resentment is strong and seems just--I think most of us can understand his position of righteousness...
But, in this broken relationship between brothers, there is a father who mediates. A father who reminds them of what right relationship looks like and demonstrates to them what can be. This is a father who stands in the brokenness of relationship--the space between the two he loves and says, “love each other” as I love each of you.
This image is important to me--this image of God standing there in the midst of the brokenness and holding the broken pieces together. Sit with that image for a moment...picture it, find that broken place and picture God there...holding those pieces together.
God refuses to cast off or shun a beloved child, and neither is the brother allowed to abandon the relationship. It's easy to want to judge the brothers--the younger for his irresponsibility and the older for his insensitivity, but the father does not judge, merely welcomes--and in that welcome we are reminded that we are getting another chance. That the gift of reconciliation can be ours if we are willing to once again say “my brother” or “my sister”.
The parable challenges us to do as the father does, because if we get caught in the mire of judgement, anger and revenge, our own capacity for living into the abundance of God becomes limited. If we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ as "other" as somehow undeserving of God's love and grace, we find ourselves pulling away from God who loves us all. If we cannot continue to claim "our brother" it becomes harder and harder to claim "our God”.
How can one enjoy the party and participate in the free offering of love if one is consumed by anger? If we are caught up in our own wretchedness, if we are in the midst of our own pity party, how can we freely accept the gift of God’s unconditional love? And, if we are unable to forgive as God forgives, if we are unable to stand in the midst of broken places and offer healing we are disavowing a core portion of our calling as Christians.
“Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourselves...” if Christ is in all persons, than Christ is in us. And, therefore we are brothers and fathers both in the parable...and in this the words from 2nd Corinthians hold new light...
“We regard no one from a human point of view”--what is it to see others from God's point of view? God creates, reconciles, makes new...we are then called to this same work...God uses us to do God's work in the world. And, if that work is one of reconciliation and creation--how will that be made manifest in your own lives and in the life of the church?
Rob Bell writes in his book "Love Wins"
"What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story.
It is a brutally honest,
exuberantly liberating story,
and it is good news.
It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved.
That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts
and has spread to every corner of the world,
in spite of our sins,
and hard hearts,
in spite of what’s been done to us or what we’ve done, God has made peace with us.
As Jesus said, “It is finished.”
We are now invited to live a whole new life without guilt or shame or blame or anxiety. We are going to be fine. Of all of the conceptions of the divine, of all of the language Jesus could put on the lips of the God character in this story he tells, that’s what he has the father say.
“You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” (pp. 171-72)
Do you believe this? Do you believe the truth the hard truth, the almost impossible to believe truth that God loves you, that you are going to be fine?
That God's love just is...unchanging and permanent and fixed. That the pivot point of our lives is the love of God? How would our lives and our relationships be different if we lived as if we believed this truth?