Sermon preached March 10, 2013
Texts: Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32
Hang on. This morning we are going to be discussing one of the most controversial topics, one of the most difficult issues, I ever preach on. Don’t tell me that we are going to use the story of the prodigal and the father to talk politics? Will it be about sex or sexual orientation or sexual ethics? Am I going to preach about money? Given the rather edgy sermon title, you may wonder if I am going to address foul language. You are right, there is an f-word involved.
Forgiveness. There, I just dropped this morning’s f-bomb.
I’m sorry. I forgive you. Difficult words. Challenging realities – challenging but important. A couple of weeks ago when I preached about prayer as a pathway to God and mentioned Anne Lamott’s new book where she says that she has found three essential prayers – help, thanks and wow – someone came to me following worship and said they would add a fourth – “I’m sorry.” I think she was right.
Why should forgiveness be as difficult to discuss as sex or politics or money? It begins with our recognition of the importance of forgiveness. We know this is important. Forgiveness calls to us, addresses us in the depth of our souls. Forgiveness whispers to us in the quiet places of our hearts. We recognize that forgiveness is important, that it matters, and we sense that it is a good thing. At the same time, we know, just as deeply that forgiveness can be incredibly difficult.
We hear the call of forgiveness in our lives. We understand it to be a good thing. We also know it to be incredibly difficult. And sometimes the very Scriptures we look to to hear something of the voice of God in our lives tell us things such as: If anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:13) Wow. Forgiveness – just do it. Not much complexity there. It sounds so simple that such words can make us feel guilty when we experience forgiveness as anything but simple. Forgiveness becomes a delicate subject.
If those verses from Colossians can make us squirm uneasily, the lovely story we read this morning might also complicate forgiveness for us. What a great guy that father was, running toward his prodigal son, throwing his arms around him, kissing him. He seems to have forgotten those long days of worry. You wonder if there ever was anger toward a son who had taken his wealth and squandered it in dissolute living. I love that phrase – leaves much to the imagination. But what a wonderful father. Oh to be able to forgive as freely and generously and joyfully as that. It doesn’t seem that simple or easy. Is there something wrong with me? I’m not sure I want to hear any more about forgiveness because I struggle with it.
The story about the prodigal and the father is a story about forgiveness, but there is more to the story, a richer reading, that I think recognizes some of the complexities of human relationships and forgiveness. It is helpful and useful to look at each primary character in turn.
Yes, the father represents pure, unbounded love, to use a phrase from one of our hymns. There is an image of God here. Let me suggest this, that this father who represents unbounded love, joyous and generous forgiveness is always, in a very real sense, running out ahead of us. If this father is forgiveness itself, my response to the story is that this is someone to grow into. Forgiveness is a horizon beckoning us forward. If forgiveness is more like a horizon calling to us from out ahead, it is less like a commandment that is simply to be obeyed in one single fell swoop. Forgiveness is more an invitation than an ought. This figure of the father, pure, unbounded love, forgiveness itself, is always running out ahead of us. The journey of forgiveness is the journey of following this loving way, growing into it.
There is the son who outside the bounds of the social conventions of his day asks for his inheritance early and then goes off and wastes it all on dissolute living. We might think of his theme song as the Grateful Dead’s “Hell in a Bucket” – “ I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” Things don’t work out. He ends up envying the pig slop. By this time the ride has gotten old – been down so long it looks like up to me. Then he comes to himself and realizes that he might have a father who still loves him, and might forgive him.
This is a story about forgiveness, and we shouldn’t forget that one of its primary purposes has been to remind us how often we are like this son. We are good at squandering. We waste opportunities to appreciate the beauty of the world. We take for granted the people closest to us. We use our gifts only for our own benefit rather than also sharing our energy, our time, our talents for the good of others. We fail to develop our gifts and abilities. We fail to see our own shortcomings and it takes us some time to come to ourselves. One important aspect of the Christian message of forgiveness is that we are all in need of it. I appreciate Reinhold Niebuhr’s insightful writing. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness. (The Irony of American History). Part of the important work of forgiveness is the continuing recognition of our need for forgiveness, and of our need to forgive ourselves. That, too, is a complex journey. Maybe part of this son’s coming to himself is his journey toward self-forgiveness. Within our own hearts and souls we need to allow pure unbounded love embrace our inner prodigal.
There is another son in the story, too. He gets much less attention, but we are like him, too, and he speaks to us about the difficulty and complexity of forgiveness. This elder son is not so excited about the return of his brother. The music and dancing and feasting which are a sign of forgiveness only make him angry, hurt and stubborn. He is not ready to join in the party. He is not ready to forgive. He has been hurt by his younger brother. It seems that he feels hurt by his father. Is it possible that the father, in this relationship, has not adequately appreciated his faithful son? There is a realism here about how easily we can wound others even without intending to do so.
What is the father’s response? Does he command him to forgive? Does he tell him it is his duty? The father does drop the f-bomb – forgiveness. But it is an invitation. We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. The father understands forgiveness like Jack Kornfield does. Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, p. 25) We cannot change what the wayward son has done. Refusing to meet him today only means we miss out on the music and dance of life. And maybe that’s o.k. for a time. Maybe we need to hang back for a bit. Forgiveness isn’t a switch to be flipped; it is a work of art that needs creating.
When we focus on this older son, we see that this story sees forgiveness as a process. The journey of forgiveness can be bumpy. There can be potholes. The hurt doesn’t just go away. Richard Foster: Forgiveness does not mean that we will cease to hurt. The wounds are deep, and we may hurt for a very long time. Just because we continue to experience emotional pain does not mean that we have failed to forgive. (Prayer, 187) We won’t forget. Again, Richard Foster: Forgiveness does not mean that we will forget…. Forgiveness is not pretending that the offense did not really matter. It did matter, and it does matter, and there is no use pretending otherwise. The offense is real, but when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior. (Prayer, 187)
Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past. It is a journey to a new place, and it is your journey. We can learn from others, but forgiveness always remains our journey, our process. It is a journey to which God’s Spirit keeps beckoning. It is a call from the horizon out ahead. Perhaps we need to learn to say “I’m forgiving” as much as saying, “You are forgiven.” Forgiveness is an openness to a person who has hurt us, but that openness can look different, and it doesn’t always mean a party with music, and dancing and feasting. It may simply mean not letting that past hurt define who we are, while maintaining distance from the person who hurt us.
Forgiveness is a journey, a running after the God of pure, unbounded love, who is always both with us and out on the horizon. Forgiveness is a journey, a journey where we draw closer to God. Forgiveness is a pathway to God. It is a journey where we become more god-like. It can be a struggle. It is worth the struggle. Amen.