God’s Welcome

prodigalA sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019.  The scripture readings are Joshua 5:9-12Psalm 322 Corinthians 5:16-21, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

One of the highlights of ordained ministry happened for me in summer 2012.  A couple had been together for ten years and had served as foster parents for several children.  They had hoped to adopt, but each time the process got close, something happened.  Finally, the couple served as foster parents for two children and began the process to adopt them. The birth mother was supportive and encouraging, but the couple was surprised when the social worker called to announce that the little boy and girl also had a smaller sister, and if the couple would like to adopt here, as well, it might be possible. After a year or two of process, paperwork, meetings, and reviews, on a hot Thursday in July, a bunch of us met in family court in downtown Washington.  As the judge signed the documents and made the adoption official, we all cheered. The little girls aged 2 and 3, and their big brother, age 6, now had a new family and a whole new family support network.  At that point, everyone left the court (included the judge) and we walked to a nearby restaurant, where we were expected.  After a few celebratory drinks and after a few more people arrived, I officiated at the marriage of the couple (they happened to both be men, and marriage had just become legal recently), and then once they were married, we used the Book of Common Prayer’s form for the Thanksgiving of the Adoption of Children.

I remember talking with the couple for years before they were finally able to adopt.  I remember how deeply they felt called to be parents and how almost every decision they made was done with an eye towards a future family.  I’ve known other people who have had similar hopes, expectations, and dreams of having children—whether biologically or through adoption. In each family, I look at the children and I think of how lucky they are to be so deeply loved.  How blessed they are.  And I wonder if they have any idea of just how much and for how long they’ve been loved?

Do WE have any idea of how much WE are loved and wanted and desired and hoped for and planned for and dreamed about—by God? THIS is what today’s Gospel story is about—it’s about God’s searching, seeking love; love that disregards custom or protocol or cultural expectation—love that disrupts and makes a new world, love that moves towards each one of us.

The story of the prodigal is straightforward enough and whenever we hear it read, we probably hear a bit of ourselves in one of the characters or another.

The story is a welcome one for those who relate to the prodigal—St. Augustine related to him, having spent some of his early years running, living beyond his means, using people to rise socially, fathering a child out of marriage, joining an heretical sect. But Augustine came home, and he came to know the welcome of his mother Helena, who had been praying for him, and he came to know the welcome of his spiritual father, Ambrose. He spent the rest of his life coming to know the heavenly father—who is the combination of all that is maternal and paternal, the one who seeks us out and finds us. Augustine writes, “The prodigal son was sought out and raised up by the One who gives life to all things. And by whom was he found if not by the One who came to save and seek out what was lost?”

One could also pretty easily step into this story and understand something of the older brother. Some of us might relate to the older brother who has stayed at home and done his work—and yet gets no feast from the father. But I wonder if there’s not more than resentment in the older brother—but perhaps also, isn’t there just a little bit of envy? Notice that he assumes the younger brother has spent time with prostitutes, though there’s no other mention of that little detail in the story. Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, once thanked God that in his youth he had escaped the more “grievous sins” and that he had not been one of the “young corruptors,” as he put it. But, he said, the reason he didn’t sin more was because of a kind of “sacred cowardice.” It was not his goodness that had kept him from sin, but the only the fear of the consequences. (Do we ever stop to wonder what trouble we might get into if there truly were no risk of getting caught?)

Today’s Gospel presents us with characters we can understand. There is the younger child who runs away, who becomes lost, and who loses himself. But then he is found, and in the finding he finds himself. He comes to himself.

There is the older child who watches all of this and doesn’t understand, who simply grows angrier and angrier and angrier, until at last the rage breaks.

But there is also the father who forgives. Jesus tells the story, “While [the younger son] was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” And then it’s party time. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

The way Jesus tells the story, we can be tempted to stay within the story itself.  And yet, for us, living in the 21stcentury, the context is a little different. God in Jesus has given himself for us and in the outpouring of God’s love for humanity that begins on the cross, wave after wave of God’s love comes to us.  We simply have to turn and receive the love God wants to give us.

Perhaps we have never acted out as explicitly and dramatically like the younger child in the Gospel.  Perhaps we have never quite stewed, steamed, or harbored resentments like the elder brother, but we have each surely done our part to cause separation– from God, from one another, and from our deepest and truest selves.  We have each of us sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. But God is always and forever seeking us, loving us from afar, hoping and praying for us to return.

Austin Farrer was a chaplain and theologian in the early 20thcentury and he writes in one place about the forgiveness of God.

“God forgives me with the compassion of his eyes, but my back is turned to him. I have been told that he forgives me, but I will not turn and have the forgiveness, not though I feel the eyes on my back. God forgives me, for he takes my head between his hands and turns my face to his to make me smile at him. And though I struggle and hurt those hands—for they are human, though divine, human and scarred with nails – though I hurt them, they do not  let go until he has smiled me into smiling; and that is the forgiveness of God.” (Austin Farrer, in Said or Sung. London, Faith Press. 1960.)

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about a new world order, and that’s what it feels like when we turn to God in humility and honesty, and receive God’s love.

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! . . . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

How do we know and feel the depth of God’s love for us?  In this life, we may find it difficult to believe the Good News, the depth of God’s love for us.  But in faith and in the community of the Church, we listen, we receive, we grow in faith.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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