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Tag Archives: Forgiveness

And When You Pray: Debts or Trespasses?

(a sermon for July 16, 2017, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost; fifth in a series, based on Psalm 32, Mark 11:20-25 and Matthew 6:9-15)

It’s just a little scene that, pastorally speaking, has repeated itself time and time again over the years.

Maybe it’s at a funeral, sometimes at a wedding where I’m the officiant; or for that matter, it could be a regular service of worship, particularly one where there are people present from different churches or faith traditions.  But it’s always the same thing:  everything’s going along just fine, and then you start to pray the Lord’s Prayer and everyone along with you; and it continues to be fine… at least until you get to that one line, that piece of the prayer that we’re looking at this morning:  “And forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.”  For it is at this moment that even the most spiritually unified of congregations will become strangely disoriented; hesitating, stumbling and looking up from their prayerfulness, suddenly unsure of what they’re supposed to say next:  is it “debts” or “trespasses?”

This may seem like a small matter, and in the greater scheme of things, I suppose that it is; however, I also have to say that I’ve seen more than a few times of prayer disrupted, if not unraveled, by the lack of a shared and appropriate translation!  I mean, which is it:  are we to “forgive our debtors,” or “forgive those who trespass against us,” which not only sounds and feels different to say, but is also a bit longer; which matters, especially if you’re in a “mixed group,” so to speak.  I remember once leading a graveside service where I prayed, as I’m familiar, using “debts and debtors” but those who were gathered prayed as they were familiar, saying “trespasses;” which is fine and wholly appropriate, except that when I paused just a moment to let them say, “…as we forgive those who trespass against us,” their voices quickly faded away to nothing (!) and they literally looked up to me for guidance, as though when I stopped speaking, that meant they were supposed to stop, too (or at least until the moment I started again with, “And lead us into temptation…”)!

Now, this actually speaks to something that we’ve been referencing throughout this sermon series: the danger of our letting such an important part of our worship as the Lord’s Prayer become little more than something we say out of habit; or more to the point, the tendency we have of praying these petitions unto the Lord without really understanding what it is we’re actually asking!  So maybe it is a valid question after all, this matter of “debts” versus “trespasses,” especially when it comes down to that which is at the center of this part of the prayer that Jesus has given us: our request for and our need of… forgiveness.

And the thing about it is, at least where the question of “debts or trespasses” is concerned, scripture doesn’t really give us a definitive answer.  Matthew’s gospel, from which we read this morning, very clearly refers to debt, which then, as now, suggests a financial indebtedness; and that’s not by accident.  For the Jews of Jesus’ time, you see, financial indebtedness was akin to the worst kind of oppression and slavery; there was no greater crime, so to speak, than to have failed to pay back what they owed And so to pray, “Forgive us our debts” was to acknowledge that one’s unrighteousness and sin was the debt incurred to a Holy God; in other words, every time we violate the laws, the principles and the will of God in thought, word and deed we are creating for ourselves a mountain range of moral debt unto the Almighty!

Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, on the other hand, is a bit more to the point: “…forgive us our sins” (11:4) is how it’s translated there.  And here’s a fun fact; trespasses?  That particular word isn’t really part of the Lord’s Prayer at all (though it’s a word that does turn up elsewhere, and in fact, as part of our readings today): our use of “trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer itself dates back to William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English in 1525!  But regardless of the translation, the meaning ends up exactly the same:  we are each and all of us debtors… sinners… trespassers; for we have broken God’s loving laws time and time again.  And when we come to this point in Jesus’ prayer of asking God to “forgive us our debts” (or our trespasses, or our sin) we are both confessing this to be true about ourselves, and asking that somehow, someway by his grace and love God might forgive us that huge mountain of debt we’ve built up.

I’m reminded here of an old colleague and friend of mine from my seminary days who in a class one day confessed to us that perhaps the hardest thing he ever had to do as a newly minted student pastor and preacher at this little church in Maine was to stand in the pulpit and look into the eyes of that beautiful, wonderful elderly lady in the third pew with the kind and gentle soul – pillar of the church, dontcha know (!) – and, holding fast to the biblical truth of our faith, to say to her and everyone else in that congregation, “You are a sinner .”   Now, in this particular tradition of faith, we’re not exactly “hellfire and brimstone” in our approach to such things; but I have to say that this is a truth that haunts me as well, and nowhere more so than when I look in the mirror.  This is the sad truth of our existence, friends: we are all sinners; by our unrighteousness we are so deeply indebted to the Holy God that there is never any hope at all of paying off that indebtedness n our own.

And it would seem hopeless, except that there is good news; and that good news is that ours is a God who desires mercy more than judgment, and who will be faithful, just and above all, forgiving to those who would acknowledge their sin, who, in the words of the Psalmist, “will confess [their] transgressions to the LORD,” and thus have their sins be covered.  As The Message translates it, “Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be – you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean. Count yourself lucky – [for] God holds nothing against you and you’re holding nothing back from him.”  This is true forgiveness and a gift of true grace, and all of it begins, simply and profoundly enough, by our coming humbly to God and saying from the heart, “forgive us our debts…”

However, all this said, there is a catch… well, not so much of a catch as an understanding.  And it comes in the other half of this particular petition of prayer:  “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It’s one little word that makes all the difference – “as” – and in the words of Charles Williams, “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause.”

Yes, it is true that we are all sinners; but it is equally true that we are all sinned against; we are not just the perpetrators of sin, we are the victims of sin; we have been hurt and sinned against, betrayed, abandoned and made to feel far less than what we are.  And so as such, then, we not only are debtors, we have debtors as well.  And the question is – the question always is – what do we do about that?  What kind of attitude are we to have toward all these debtors in our lives?  We may well struggle with our answer to that, but make no mistake, God’s answer is clear, and it’s right there in our prayer:  “…forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

There is a correlation, you see, between the way you and I treat our debtors and the way God treats debtors like you and me.  Since we’ve been including Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday through the weeks of this sermon series, I’m sure by now you’ve noticed that as Jesus comes to the end of this teaching on how we should pray, there is something of a caveat:  “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  It’s also there in our text from Mark, in which Jesus reminds Peter and the other disciples that the power of prayer is such that even mountains can be “taken up and thrown into the sea,” but then adds, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

And for any of us who would be looking for loopholes where this is concerned, rest assured that this same principle is confirmed throughout scripture. The measure of mercy that we extends to others will be the measure God extends to us; or to put it another way, no one can truly love God and be un-forgiving to a brother or a sister. Are we to take this to mean that our forgiveness from God is earned solely on the basis of how we forgive other people?  No; remember that our forgiveness is a gift of grace; but, to quote pastor and blogger Ken Baker, “If we choose to hoard the forgiveness granted to us by failing to forgive others, not only do we disobey the Lord’s teaching, but also we miss the full benefit of forgiveness, [for] God’s purpose in forgiving us is that we might be reconciled to him and to each other.”

To be forgiven so that we might forgive; in the end, you see, it’s all part of the same gift.  Divine forgiveness strengthens and empowers us to share mercy that would otherwise be beyond our ability; forgiving others their “trespasses against us” is what brings us into a closer relationship with the one who fills our lives with deeper purpose and a fuller love.  This is central to everything we know to be true about our faith; and it’s been made real in the life, death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus:  we forgive “as” we have been forgiven… friends, for us to neglect one part of that equation cannot help but diminish the other!

And so when we pray this prayer of our Savior, this is what we say: “forgive us our debts (or trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (or those who trespass against us).”

I trust that each one of us in this room today can easily claim the blessing of forgiveness for ourselves; but I ask you this morning, beloved: who is it right now that we need to forgive?  Who are those who right at this moment stand amongst our debtors? Maybe it started as just a small thing; a minor slight, a misspoken word or hurt feeling; but now here’s someone to whom you are estranged.  Who has trespassed against you? Perhaps the one you thought you could trust and with whom you risked a relationship, but who ended up breaking a confidence or who betrayed you in a way that you feel is irreparable?  Maybe it was the one who took advantage of your good nature or your generosity and left you feeling empty and used?  Or could be it was someone who withheld from you the affection or the caring or the kind of blessing you so desperately needed at some given time of your life, or even now?    Or maybe it’s that ever growing mountain of offenses, either real or perceived… but which cumulatively has begun to tear you apart from the inside out, and which has ever so slowly but surely changed you and put a wedge in the center of your relationship with God…

Whoever it is, whatever it might be, it might be good for you to remember today that there is great power in forgiveness; like love itself, forgiveness has the power to move mountains… and us, as well.

Forgive us our debts, O God, as we forgive our debtors.

And let our thanks always be unto you, O God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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I Love to Tell the Story: The Unforgiving Servant

forgiveness(a sermon for August 31, 2014, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Matthew 18:21-35)

I ask you, are there any more difficult words for us to speak than “I forgive you?”

I have to confess that whenever I approach a biblical text like the one we’ve shared this morning I am frequently overwhelmed by its utter enormity in the face of reality.  By that, I mean that it is one thing for us to hear Jesus’ teaching that if a brother or sister sins against us we are to forgive that person “not seven times, but… seventy-seven times”  (or seventy times seven,” depending on the translation!); it is quite another for us to actually put that teaching into practice!  I think, for instance, of the woman who has suffered years’ worth of physical and emotional abuse at the hand of their spouse or partner; is she literally expected to “forgive and forget?”  Or the parents and families of children who have been abducted and have gone through things no child should have to endure: in all honesty, friends, as a parent there’s a very big part of me that wonders if forgiveness in such situations is even possible!  And yet, if we are to take Jesus at his word in our reading this morning, not only are we to forgive those who sin against us, we are to do so without hesitation, and without limit!

It’s one of the cornerstones of the Christian message, friends, but I’m here to tell you this morning that it’s way too big for me!  I can’t always hold on to it the way I should; more often than not I struggle to rise to the challenge of it.  But, then… I suspect that I’m not alone in that, am I?

I mean, we don’t even have to think in terms of such extreme scenarios to feel the enormity of what Jesus is asking: all most of us have to do is consider all those sins of thoughtlessness, verbal cruelty and an uncaring spirit that have been done against us; the “little” slights and offenses that in and of themselves don’t seem like all that much, but cumulatively have a way of wreaking havoc on relationships; creating conflict that festers far too long and much too deeply, often to the point of eating us alive!  Think for a moment of the worst thing that someone has ever said to you or done to you – for that matter, not even the worst thing (!) – think of someone just recently who has really hurt you by something they’ve said or done, and then imagine saying to that person, “I forgive you,” and what’s more, meaning it; having it come, as the gospel puts it, “from your heart.”  Think of that, and then you begin to get some sense of the enormity of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.  The fact is, this is one of those passages of scripture that tends to weighs a ton upon our shoulders, because it has a way of exposing our weakness that we can’t avoid!

That’s what’s at the heart of the admittedly difficult parable that we’re looking at this morning: the deceptively simple story of a man who is forgiven a huge debt that he owes a king (10,000 talents, we’re told, a huge amount even by today’s standards), and yet refuses to show mercy to a fellow servant who owes him, by comparison, a paltry sum; an act for which, in the end, he’s punished, thrown in debtor’s prison and “handed over to be tortured” until every denarii of the formerly forgiven debt is paid off.  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” Jesus says to them, “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Now granted, this is a story with a very clear moral: that those of us who have been forgiven ought to forgive; that forgiving “seventy-times-seven” is not merely a suggestion, but an imperative; and that there are consequences for a lack of mercy.  But what I would suggest to you today that there’s more to the parable than simply that.  Because remember that as he so often does, Jesus uses this story to make a point about the Kingdom of God; and in this case, the kingdom is to be compared to this extraordinarily forgiving king who had mercy on his slave who had run up such a debt!  So what we really have in this story is this remarkable evocation of the utter grandeur of God’s incredible and limitless forgiveness; and we end up seeing this forgiveness in comparison to our own, which as it turns out, is far, far less than that of God!

In other words, this is not a story that portrays you and me in the greatest of light!  Like Peter, we might well be interested in knowing what we’re required to do where forgiving others is concerned (“How often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”); how many times we need to be magnanimous about things before we can then legitimately hold on to our well-deserved grudge. But here comes Jesus, who not only raises the seven acts of forgiveness to 77 (and quite possibly 490!), then who goes on to talk about a king, of all people who easily forgives the debt of a slave on a scale that we can’t even begin to comprehend!

But that’s the point, you see; for this is a story about a God who is greater than our comprehension… and more forgiving than we deserve.  For though we’ve run up this incredible debt of sin; though the conflict and separation that exists between us and God so often just seems to fester and worsen by “the devices and desires of our own hearts,” God still forgives; and does so again, and again, and again, easily and joyfully erasing the debt we’ve accumulated and reconciling us to himself.

It all comes down to God’s forgiving heart; God’s relentless determination to make us his own and to bring us all into the circle of his divine purpose.  Bottom line is that we all stand in the need of forgiveness; and it is only by grace, manifest in divine forgiveness and love, that we are set free from the sheer weight of the moral debt that we owe God.  But here’s the irony of it, friends; all those things that are seemingly impossible for us to forgive are in the end forgivable offense in light of what God has already forgiven us!  What this parable teaches us is that just as love given can be the only true response to love received, the only way that we can adequately answer to God’s forgiving heart is to rise to that challenge of forgiving others!

And, no, it’s not easy for us; nor is it usually a one-time effort.  L. Gregory Jones, a professor of theology at Duke University, writes that forgiveness is not some “isolated, occasional heroic act, but rather [it’s] a way of life, a constant practice of Christians.”  Its central goal is “not to get over guilt; it is to reconcile, to restore communion with God, with one another, and with the whole creation.”  In other words, forgiveness is what brings us together.  When we truly forgive others, we are reaching out to heal brokenness.  We are doing what God has done for us, and we are participating in what God intends for us with each other.  And in that regard, it is true; forgiveness from our hearts is our mandate as Christians; and moreover, it’s what marks the beginning of new life, of changed hearts, and even a better world.

You know, to tell the truth I’ve debated as to whether to tell you this story from the pulpit, because frankly all these years later I still feel a little embarrassed about it.  But I think I will, because for me it serves as something of a parable about forgiveness and new life.  You see, years ago while I was in college (and very young and stupid), I accused a good friend of mine, a girl I worked with, of stealing something from me.  The details of what happened are unimportant except to say that my accusations were baseless, and they hurt my friend a great deal.  Incredibly stupid… but we were kids and in those days I managed to do stupid in great abundance!  In pretty short order when she’d confronted me with how much I’d hurt her, I offered up what was a heart-felt apology, we made up and that was pretty much the end of it…

…except for the better part of a decade, friends, I never forgot it.  I felt so bad about what I’d done, accusing this sweet girl about being a thief.  I mean, here I was, studying to be a minister, for crying out loud (!); what kind of a Christian does that to a friend?  And I always said that someday I was going to tell her again just how sorry I was that it had ever happened;  but, since she’d gone on with her life and I’d gone on with mine, I doubted that I’d ever get the chance.

Well, as fate would have it, a number of years later I did get the chance (she asked me to sing with her in church, believe it or not!) – so while we were rehearsing I mustered up the nerve to ask if she remembered what had happened way back when.  Now, I don’t know if she was being kind, because at first she acted as though she didn’t even know what I was talking about.  But then, as I began to remind her of the whole, horribly embarrassing story, I began to see that tiny flicker of recognition in her eyes;  and when I’d finally finished pouring my heart out, she just smiled, put her hand on my arm and said, “Michael, I forgave you for that years ago!  Why are you still thinking about it?”

Friends, I’m not kidding when I tell you that at that precise moment, it was like the weight of the world was lifted up off my shoulders and tossed away forever!  I think about it now, so many years later, and I still realize not only what an incredible, gracious gift that was, but also and especially what it says about the kingdom of God in our midst; what it says about you and me and our calling as Christians and as the church: to bring together those who are divided and conflicted and hurting under the shelter of God’s infinite and redeeming love; dwelling together in great anticipation of the promised kingdom of heaven.

I only say it because as I look out on all of you sitting in these pews every Sunday, I know that a lot of you have come here nursing grudges of every shape and size.  I know how it goes, because I’ve been there:  someone was rude to you and never apologized for it.  That so-called “friend” let you down, broke a promise or betrayed you in a way that has really damaged the friendship.  You’re mad at your spouse, or your family, or your neighbors, or your church, because somewhere along the line they slighted you, or ignored you, or insulted you, or failed to be there for you the way they said they would; and maybe they did it inadvertently, but maybe they really were being judgmental and mean!  At any rate, you’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re confused, and you honestly don’t know what you’re supposed to do about it!

Friends, believe me when I tell you that this is the stuff that “gray areas” are made of!  But it’s precisely in the midst of this kind of hurt and confusion that Jesus comes to us, urging us to forgive as God has forgiven us.  How many times do we forgive those who sin against us; seven times?  Seventy-seven?  Seventy times seven?  Might as well be seventy million, because in Christ the numbers don’t matter; it’s our way of life that does!  Beloved, forgiveness is our spiritual work: it is the music we play before God, and sometimes it’s a very hard song to sing.  But as any musician will tell you, when we keep working on the song – when we practice, practice, practice (!) – eventually we discover that beautiful melody that’s always been inside of us; that wonderful song of love and mercy that God intended for us to sing all along.

So might we learn to sing – and forgive – ever and always from the heart.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2014 in Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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I Love to Tell the Story: The Prodigal Son

return of the prodigal son forain

“Return of the Prodigal Son,” by Jean Louis Forain (1852–1931)

(a sermon for August 24, 2014, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on  Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

If you really want to get to know someone, or perhaps get some insight as to why they are the way they are, here is a simple question that might just do the trick:  where are you in the birth order?  In other words, are you the oldest child, a middle sibling, or the baby of the family? Seriously, this is a very relevant question; and there are in fact a number of studies that show that even more than we have believed in the past, who we are and how we relate to others has a great deal to do with where we are in the birth order!

For instance, if you are the oldest child in a family, you are probably something of a perfectionist:  conscientious, reliable, and likely a little self-critical.  Eldest siblings tend to see themselves as playing the role of mediator between parents and the other siblings (probably because they’ve known Mom and Dad the longest and know just how to play them!). Yet on the other hand, they are often not allowed to be kids for very long, because parents tend to push older children faster and farther than the younger ones; more ends up being expected of them – they’re supposed to be the example (!) – because, well, they’re the oldest!   But the thing is, that oldest child will generally embrace that role willingly; in fact, psychologists tell us that they’ll often live their whole lives feeling as though they are meant to not only set the standard, but also to soar above everyone else! Of course, the flip side of all this is that very often these eldest siblings also feel outshined and neglected by their brothers and sisters, even though one glance at the family album will reveal more pictures of them than anyone else!  (Oh… and by the way, psychologists also say that if you are an only child, you are the eldest child squared!)

Middle children, on the other hand, tend to be the compromisers of the family unit: they are the peacemakers, and tend to be very generous and socially oriented.  They also have a tendency to want to carve out their own niche in the family; unique from their brothers and sisters, which can be either a positive or a negative thing, depending on the child!  And then there are the youngest children, who perhaps above all else feel compelled to make a contribution to the world, and so they’ll do it any way they can.  Youngest children tend to be very creative, sometimes are show-offs, and oftentimes they’re the ones who carry the mantle of family clown.  Youngest children can be both charming and rebellious: endearing one minute, hard to deal with the next; and they often do battle in whatever way they have to in order to be taken seriously.

Now understand, this is not to make a blanket statement about all siblings, because every family is different and every child is unique in character and purpose; but I do think that where we are in that family dynamic does make a difference on how we view each other, the world and the way we live; it also, I think, offers us a unique perspective on our parable for this morning, that of the prodigal son and the forgiving father.

This is probably among the most familiar and beloved of all of Jesus’ parables; in large part, I think, because it is so easy for us to see ourselves in it.  Some hear this story and immediately identify with the younger son, who with both charm and the rebel spirit typical of a younger child, wanders far away from home, literally and spiritually, and loses everything; but who, in the last analysis, “[comes] to himself,” recognizes where it is that he truly belongs and at last returns home to his father.

Others hear this story and see themselves in the young man’s father; particularly those who have known in their own lives the pain of a loved one who turned away from them and essentially became lost to them; those who yearn deeply for that lost one to be found; and who would gladly run across any obstacle so to meet that loved one in a moment of reconciliation.

And then there are those, though they might be loath to admit it, who see a fair amount of themselves in the other, rather disgruntled older brother!  Now, the older brother is essentially the “third wheel” in this story, and therein lies the problem: to wit, the younger brother’s home, there’s going to be this big party, and suddenly now the older brother’s an also-ran! And he’s none too pleased about it; in fact, he says so to his father in no uncertain terms:  “Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends?” (The Message) But then, hey, this “son of yours” who has thrown away your money on things we can’t even talk about… he shows up and immediately you go all out on a feast!  He’s so upset over this he can’t even bring himself to have anything to do with the homecoming celebration, which as the story closes is already in full swing!

Friends, believe me when I tell you that this man is the quintessential oldest child!   Here’s a guy who has spent every effort his whole life being the best possible son he can be; yet, as soon as baby brother re-enters the picture, he feels threatened and full of resentment!   He resents the love his brother’s being shown, because he sees it as something unearned and undeserved; he resents his father for having been so soft on his brother who’d squandered everything he’d been given; he even resents all the work he’s always done for his father because now it seems to him to have gone unrewarded!   By his reckoning, he’s supposed to be the “number one son;”  he’s supposed to be the one reaping the rewards and feasting on barbecue; he’s the one who’s earned the joy of his father, not this little pipsqueak reprobate loser who happens to be his brother!

The elder brother in this story represents that part of us that looks around at our lives, measures and weighs every deed for its value, judges every person solely for what they’ve earned or deserve in their lives, and then decides that maybe we aren’t getting what we deserve in comparison!  Maybe that’s why we can identify with him the way we do; truth be told, it is our all-too-human approach to things like forgiveness and grace, especially when it only appears to be happening to others and not to us!  But you see, as Jesus tells this story, that kind of attitude ends up a slippery slope for anyone who would walk with God.  As Richard Fairchild has written, there is ultimately something missing in someone like that older brother, “something that makes a person want to grieve over him, something that makes a person want to shake him until he comes to his senses.  He is so frustrating… so close minded… and so without joy.”

And that’s the question that’s at the heart of this parable: where’s the joy?  That’s, in fact, the whole reason that Jesus was moved to tell this story in the first place; to illustrate before grumbling scribes and Pharisees that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous ones do everything right; that when someone would turn to receive the fullness of the Lord’s grace and forgiveness, God’s joy is as full and as all-enveloping as the father’s in the story.  Of course, the scribes and Pharisees, for all their obsessing on being “religiously correct” before God, could not even begin to conceive of that kind of unmerited grace, much less share in the joy of it; and so, like the elder son of the parable, they stood outside, refusing to be a part of the celebration, which in this case was God’s celebration!

And the question that Jesus is asking in this parable; the question we have to ask ourselves is: are we any different?  Where’s our joy; where are we in the celebration?  You and me; do we share in the rejoicing that’s inherent in spiritual homecoming; or have we allowed our own sense of self-righteousness and resentment to keep us outside of the celebration?

It’s a good question; and do not think that this is all hyperbole, or some exaggeration of what happens, because the fact is, it is all too common a thing in our lives. Let me give you an example: I have an old friend who, many years ago, had a marriage that ended very badly; without suggesting that all the issues were one-sided, which they were not, suffice to say that this man’s wife not only walked out on him and their children, but also quite literally disappeared from their lives for quite a number of years. As you can imagine, it was devastating for them; but somehow my friend and his children got through the pain and struggle of it; and in many ways they became a stronger family unit because of it.

Well, many years did pass, the children grew, my friend remarried and all was well; but the time eventually came when the woman who had left home “came to herself” as the parable puts it, and recognizing the mistakes she had made in her life and the damage she had caused, “returned home” in the sense of seeking forgiveness and some level of reconciliation with her children.  The good news is that that was pretty much accomplished; but when she came to her former husband to ask his forgiveness for all that she had done, my friend realized, to his horror, that he could not do it.  He could not bring himself to offer her his forgiveness.

And as he told me about it, he said, “I knew she was sincere; that there was true repentance, that she had gone the extra mile to reconcile with our children and that this had been a very good thing for them; that she had found her way home in a literal and spiritual sense; but I could not be happy for her on any level.  I knew that I was somehow “supposed” to forgive, but I could not run to embrace her in any spiritual or literal sense.  And I knew at that moment that I did not want God’s forgiveness, or reconciliation, or grace for her. At that moment, I only wanted God’s judgment.”

And that’s who we are, isn’t it?

When it all comes down, friends, we are a people who vacillate between believing in God’s forgiveness and wanting God’s judgment to prevail.  We want the conflicts that rage around us to be ironed out, but deep down we want vindication for how we’ve been hurt.  We desire justice, but in truth, there is that dark place within us that would prefer that justice be of the “eye for an eye” variety.  But you see, what this parable shows us is that while that may be how we are, that is not how God is. God is a God of grace, welcoming the lost one home, and wants us to celebrate with him that homecoming even when that is impossible for us to do.

The good news is that God does understand our reluctance.  In the parable, when the eldest son refuses to celebrate his brother’s homecoming, we are told that his father responds to his “attitude” with love.  He doesn’t say to the son, hey, get over yourself, and it’s not, keep working hard and maybe next time the fatted calf barbecue will be yours; this isn’t about competition, who’s more important, or who has the most power in the family dynamic.  Quite the opposite, really:  the father says, “Son, you don’t understand.  You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours; but this is a wonderful time… this brother of yours was dead and he’s alive!  He was lost, and he’s found!” (The Message)   Don’t you understand that I want all my children to be home with me; that I grieve when even one is outside of the house of joy, and that I rejoice over each one who returns to come inside?

We’re never told if in the end, the older son relents and goes to the party; personally, I’m guessing he probably went back to re-plow the lower forty in some attempt to regain his “favorite son” status!  We’re kind of left hanging in this story, which is frustrating; but I suspect that’s what Jesus intended.  Because ultimately what matters is that however we see ourselves in this story is that the father is God; an infinitely loving God who wants all of us in the family to come into the house of joy:  prodigals and righteous alike, ours is the God who runs to embrace us all with abundant grace and unending forgiveness.

May we have the grace to receive that love; and may our thanks and praise be unto Him as we do.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2014 in Jesus, Joy, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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