Monday, October 3, 2011

Sermon - "Prodigal Children"

Prodigal Children
The prodigal son is a story that is pretty embedded in Christian culture. It’s in songs and art. The picture on your Order of Service is actually Remebrant’s visual interpretation of the story. It’s a story that I didn’t know much about until fairly recently. It’s a prominent piece of a book call “Love Wins” by Rob Bell. It’s basically a treatise on Universalism. Anyway, I found the story and the layers beneath it pretty amazing and I wanted to share it with you, as we talk about forgiveness this month.

I think it’s perfect for Unitarians for a couple of different reasons. First, of all, it speaks to us at various theological levels. Now originally this parable from Jesus is clearly meant to be a description of relationship with God. It’s all about God’s grace and love, and our ability to accept that love. It’s a Christian parable from the Bible. For some of you that means good things, for others it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And there’s the beautiful part. The story works equally well from a Humanist perspective. There’s much to be learned from the prodigal son not just about our relationships with God, but about our relationship with other people, and with ourselves.

I also love this story because it is the perfect example of Universalism in the Bible. It’s all about God’s grace and forgiveness. Remember that’s what that second U stands for in UU. Universalism, Universal Salvation, essentially forgiveness. And it’s that second U that we could use a little more of as Unitarians in the 21st Century. We Unitarians get so caught up in what we do to be good, as if love / salvation is something we can earn. If we just work a little harder, if we just give a little more, if we just learn the right words to say we will somehow be “in.” Well, Universalism and the prodigal son teach us a different lesson. They teach us that the love that we seek, call it acceptance, salvation, community, peace. The wholeness that we seek is there for the taking, if we just open our hearts to accept it.

So on to the story. This story comes up in only one version of the Gospels, it is in Luke along with a huge collection of parables. He’s telling story after story.

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

Obviously, this is not the kindest thing for a son to say to his father. “Hey, you’re getting older and I want to have some fun now. “Why don’t you just give me what I have coming anyway, and we’ll call it good?” I can’t imagine that getting a good reaction from anyone I know. But it seemed to work with this father.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.

This last piece is worth unpacking because we don’t get exactly how insulting this situation is. By hiring himself out to a citizen of that country, we put himself in that person’s care. He was not quite a slave, but he was far less than a man of equal rights in that country. What’s more is we can safely assume that those hearing the story were Jews, and they would assume the characters were Jews. You don’t have to know much about Judaism to know that pork is a big ‘no-no’. It is not kosher, it is ritualisticly unclean. So far beyond what you or I might think about the unpleasantness of livestock, this son had sold himself to work in an industry that was both physically unpleasant and morally problematic.

The story continues, “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” That’s a pretty sad state of affairs. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. So he got up and went to his father.

This is a moment of extreme humility. He didn’t say, ‘well, Dad’s wealthy, I’m sure he can take me back into the house. Of course he’ll forgive me. I mean, I’m his son after all. I may have really screwed up, but Dad will get over it.’ No. This is an important transition in his attitude, especially as we are talking about forgiveness.
The son came to a deep realization that he had made a grave mistake. He had squandered everything he had, to live in a sub-human existence. That sounds like shame to me. So he didn’t say, “sure, Dad will take me back as his son.” He thought, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

Can you imagine what it would take for you to say that to your parent. Or what that would sound like coming out of your child’s mouth. “I’m no longer worthy to be called your daughter.” “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” That is heartbreaking stuff 2000 years ago, or today.

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” And this is where it gets really extravagant. “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” Now, killing the fatted calf is like maxing our your credit card to call in a catering company. It’s a big, big deal.

“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ the servant explained, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
Now the Bible really likes s sibling rivalry. “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

I know I can sympathize with the older son’s frustrations. We all get a little cranky when someone else gets rewarded when we were the ones doing all the work. It’s just not fair.
But this little passage to me is the crux of Universalist message, and the crux of what we so need to hear as Unitarians. The son said, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” This is the Unitarian do-gooder par excellence. All these years I have slaved… it begs the question, who asked you to slave? Certainly you weren’t forced to do this work that you are so committed to. And what were you trying to earn in the process? The love of your father? A gold star? The Unitarian of the year award?

“All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.”

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Like I said, this parable is most obviously about relationship with God in the Christian view. God’s grace is always available. Even after we commit the most egregious acts of betrayal, if we return in sincere repentance, we are forgiven and welcomed home with a celebration. That’s what this who concept of being dead and alive again is about. Over and over again there are ideas of finding a new life in faith. You know it through people being born again. But that’s actually exactly what the ritual of baptism is about. “This brother of yours was dead and is alive again.”

But this story of forgiveness isn’t just about Christian faith. It’s also about how we treat one another, and how we find forgiveness in ourselves. Especially this piece about celebrating because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again. It’s really dramatic language, but it’s practically the same thing when we have a broken relationship with any person. When there is someone in our lives we cannot forgive, we lose them. We lose another human being, with all that they have to offer. That’s a big price to pay for a disagreement. But when we are able to forgive or reconcile, it’s like that person returning into our lives is revived. It’s cause for great celebration. Forgiving is big business.

And accepting forgiveness is equally big stuff. It’s often something that we don’t do very well as Unitarians. How often do we fall into the trap of being the older brother, slaving for the cause we believe in, or always doing the right thing. How often do we feel like our noble efforts have gone unacknowledged? It’s part of our Puritan history. It’s part of Unitarianism, through and through.

But the other part of our tradition, Universalism has a much more compelling message. It tells us that love and worth can’t be bought with action. “Slaving” for another is missing the point. Enjoying a relationship with them and sharing a life with them is much more productive.

In the end, who is happy in this story? Well, the younger brother has quite the journey of adventure, hardship and humility. But in the end he finds that love is there if he knocks on the door. In the end he faces a huge challenge, the challenge of forgiving himself. Remember, he said, “I’m not fit to be called your son.” But through working on that relationship, he was able to be forgiven, and to forgive himself.

The older brother, who has slaved all his life to make his father pleased, the brother who couldn’t bring himself to come back into the family home after his lost brother returned alive, seems like he never forgave. And he found himself in a self-inflicted hell on earth. He found himself angry and separated from all that he loved, because he couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive.

Before I wrap up I want to address one big lingering question about forgiveness, and about the example of these two brothers. Is the point that we should go off and mess around and waste our time and money and not do any good for anyone until our luck runs out, and then ask forgiveness? Is forgiveness a free pass to live life as we choose?

No. If it were, I wouldn’t be talking about it. As Unitarian Universalists, we, and especially I, talk about living your faith, a lot. It comes up in just about every worship service, living our your values, making them manifest in the world.

I realize I say that a lot, “living out your faith.” But the truth is we always live out our faith. Our actions are always a reflection of how we think really think and feel. They don’t always match what we say our values are, but they do match what our values really are. Encouraging forgiveness is not a blank check to go out and live a life that totally contradicts your values. Because the question isn’t about if we will live out our values. The question is which values will we live out.

Will we live out a faith of judgment, like the older brother, where love is something we must earn, something that is meted our like a fee per service, or will we live out a faith of acceptance and forgiveness, with the knowledge that reconciliation is always waiting? Will we live out a faith of judgment or a faith of forgiveness? The outcome of the story I think gives you an indication of which side I want to stand on.

“My son, said the father, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” May we remember the fact that we are always in the midst of the spirit of life and love. And when we drift from that knowledge, which we are bound to do, let us return to that power, with an open mind, and forgiveness in our heart.


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