Transcription from the audio

Please pray with me.
Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Reflecting on this morning’s gospel lesson, do you remember a time in your life where you hurt or disappointed someone you love deeply, where you breached a relationship? When you came to yourself you wanted nothing more than to return, repent, to be forgiven, to be reconciled and whole in that relationship. We’ve all been there. Some of us may find ourselves in that place this morning.

On this fourth Sunday of Lent, we’re a little past halfway on our journey to Jerusalem. And it seems an apt time to pause and to reflect. After all, our journey in Lent is a time of self-examination and reflection, to see where we are as we continue to make our way ultimately to Calvary and the cross and not try to jump ahead to the joy and celebration of Easter morning.

In her book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine talks about parables and how they are captured in Scripture, usually in the form of an open narrative. It invites us to find ourselves, to situate ourselves, in the story. This morning I’m going to invite you to do just that. She goes on to make the point that there’s not one simple message, there’s not one simple lesson like a fairytale. That how you hear and how you experience these parables depends on where you are.

In the parable you heard this morning, parents will hear that story differently than children. Rebellious or faithful, it will be different for you. And during the time of the Reformation, as this parable was debated, if you were Roman Catholic you tended to hear it with an ear towards our sinful nature and the need for repentance and forgiveness. If you were Protestant, your focus was more on the compassionate mercy and love and grace of God, God the Father. So where do you find yourself in the story this morning?

As I was reflecting on this parable, I had one of those crazy flashbacks that happen when you really wrestle with Scripture. It took me back to age sixteen. I had just gotten my driver’s license—every parent’s nightmare—and my parents and my few friends’ parents had reluctantly agreed to let us go together an hour’s drive to the nearest city to see the latest, greatest, hottest movie. My mother asked me, “When do you expect to be home?” To which I replied, “10 pm.” Well, you know how those things go, we didn’t quite calculate it correctly, and the movie was longer than we thought, and so we were going to be late getting home—by at least two hours. And this was pre-cell phone era. So on that one hour ride back to home I started composing and rehearsing the little speech I would make when I got home; praying actually, that my parents would be asleep and I could just slip in unnoticed.

Well, as we pulled up the drive to our house, it was illuminated like the aurora borealis and there was no slipping in. I opened the front door to the most terrifying sight that I vividly still remember. It was my mother and my maternal grandmother, who was visiting, sitting upright on the piano bench like this. And I got “the look.” You know the look. You’ve probably received that look. You’ve probably given that look. And I quickly glanced from my mother to my grandmother looking for just a shred of mercy and I quickly realized that the look was inherited.

What I remember most was not the look. What I remember was the churning inside of me, knowing that I had caused people who loved me to unnecessarily worry. And I wanted nothing more than to go home, to be reconciled, to be forgiven, and to have the relationship whole again. In truth, I pretty much received what I expected and deserved; and I frankly was let off fairly easy, despite the look.

Where do you find yourself in the story? One of the most extraordinary meditations on this parable is contained within a little book by Henri Nouwen called The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. In the book Nouwen shares a spiritual journey that ensued after his encounter with one of the most famous masterpieces in the world, Rembrandt’s massive painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Some of you have probably seen it. It’s in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It’s huge, larger than life size.

On the left part of the canvas we see the younger son kneeling before his father, in shaved head, tattered clothes, sandals falling off. And you could see on the soles of his feet the scars that symbolize the journey that he has made. The father is bending over him, embracing him, pulling him into himself with the look of love and compassion and mercy that I don’t have words to adequately describe.

On the right side of the canvas, is standing, ostensibly the older son. He has on a vivid red cape like his father’s, a turban, and he is standing up looking at the scene with vestiges of “the look.” There’s no celebratory expression on the young man’s face.

What’s fascinating is the center of this painting is essentially open, which highlights the tension of the story. In Nouwen’s book, he chronicles the intersection of his life with Rembrandt’s life and our life with God. Rembrandt, in his early years, lived the good life; we’ll leave it at that. This painting was the last masterpiece he painted before he died, so he’s coming from the vantage point of having lived a long and full life.

In the painting, your eye, the center of your view, is the young man on his knees. You can’t help but go there first; the painting draws you in. Nouwen certainly saw himself in the young man—someone who had been restless and traveled all over the world seeking love and affirmation in the wrong places, the wrong things, the wrong people. Just this restlessness—reminded me of the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions where he says, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you,” meaning God.

And Nouwen spent some time reflecting on how he really resembles the younger son until a friend challenges him and says, don’t you see yourself in the older son? And he’s shocked. Could he possibly be that angry, jealous, spiteful, sanctimonious older brother? You know, the good one, the model one. The one who stayed home and did what he was supposed to do. And, of course, as he wrestles more deeply with it he can readily see himself in that space, too.

What he finally comes to in his meditation in his book is that, while we inhabit many of these personas, as Christians we are ultimately called to emulate the father. Christ said love one another as I have loved you. Nouwen realizes that his real calling, his real vocation, is to emulate the father extending hands to those who are suffering, resting his hands on the shoulders of those who will come, offering blessing as he has been blessed.

Noted preacher and professor Tom Long looks at the parable in this way. It’s too easy to know the end of the story and want to race there, to think if we, you know, say we’re sorry, that there’s a banquet waiting for us, a celebration. And that it’s not about cheap grace. That we are always given the opportunity to come to ourselves, repent and return to our true home, our true grounding, our true love in God in Christ.

He tells the story of a seminarian student of his who was studying urban ministry and he was on a run with his father who was an urban minister in a big city. About midway through their jog they decided to stop and order a pizza ahead, to be waiting for them when they got home. This was also pre-cell phone and they encountered a homeless man who said, “Do you have some spare change?” The father dug into his pockets, pulled out every coin he had and said, “Here, take what you need.” The homeless man couldn’t believe it. He was shocked with the generosity, the grace that he met with that simple request. And he said, “I’ll take it all.” He took every coin into his two hands and he turned to go on his way. The father quickly remembered, wait a minute, I need a coin to make that call. So we went back to the homeless man and he said, “I need to make a call, do you have some change?” And the homeless man held out his hands and he said, “Here, take what you need.” You see, in this journey of life of ours we are all, at times, homeless beggars, lost, looking for our true home, our true grounding.

We have three weeks of this Lenten journey left. Remember, that it’s never too late to come to yourself, to run to the one who loves you more than you can possibly ask or imagine, the one who will meet you where you are and say, “Here take what you need.” Amen.

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