Rev. Teri Peterson
February 21 2009, Lent 1C (off lectionary—Reconciliation series)
I have two sons. One day, my younger son came and said to me, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So I divided all my property between my two boys. A few days later my youngest gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and walked the road toward home.
I had been looking out the window every day, so while he was still pretty far down the road I saw him and I was overcome with compassion; I ran out of the house, through the gate, and down the road. When I met him on the dusty road, I put my arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. Then my son began to say to me, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But I could barely hear him through my tears of joy, and I said to my slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And we all began to celebrate.
My older son was still out in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. The servant replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then my older son became angry and refused to go in. I came out of the house again and began to plead with him. But he answered me, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then I said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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. Please, come and celebrate with me.”
There is a story that floats around the email-chains every now and then—a story about a person who hurts other people. Now, I know that none of us are ever hurtful, and none of us are ever hurt by others, but consider the story anyway. This person used words and anger to wound—sometimes on accident and sometimes on purpose. One day a pastor suggested driving a nail into the fence around the backyard each time they wanted to (or did) say something hurtful. Over time, the fence filled up with nails even as skill at restraining hurtful or manipulative words grew. Eventually, a time came when no anger let loose, no words flew, no temper was lost, and the pastor then suggested taking a nail out each time kind words were said instead. When that project was completed, the person and the pastor considered the fence together—no longer filled with weapons, but still scarred by anger and manipulation and hurt. It seems that forgiveness and kindness still don’t always erase the holes.
It seems we humans, particularly in groups—and even in churches!—have a real talent for hurting each other. And though we try sometimes to practice the forgiveness we know in Christ, or we feel we should make an effort to forgive and forget, we often forget instead the wounds and the sadness we inflict. And, on the other side of the fence, as it were, we sometimes nurse our grudges and continue to feel the holes, forgetting the damage we continue to do to ourselves and others when forgiveness is out of reach within our own selves.
Reconciliation—working toward wholeness—is never an easy task. Sometimes we can’t get to the whole for all the holes, sometimes we’d rather be wounded than do the work that leads to healing, and sometimes we haven’t even stopped to consider what nails our words and actions are driving in. Like the younger son who thinks of the possibilities, the places to go and things to see, who asks his father for his inheritance early. Translation: “I wish you were dead so I could live my own life the way I want. Since you’re not dead, how about you give me what will be mine when you die, we go our separate ways, and we live as though you’re dead?” There aren’t many more hurtful things we can hear after we’ve heard, “I wish you were dead—you’d be more useful to me than you are right now.”
But when the tables turn, and its time for the son to take the nail out of the fence by asking forgiveness, being meek and mild, groveling and hoping for a spot in the servants’ quarters but all the while knowing the gaping hole in the relationship would still be there…the father does something remarkable. While there’s still just a small form on the horizon, maybe even a mirage or a dust devil, the father RUNS out of the house, through the gate, and down the road. Before the son can speak a word, the father embraces, kisses, and calls for servants to start the party. By the time the son is led back up the road, through the gate, and into the house, he’s dressed in finery and the hamburgers are on the grill.
That doesn’t sound like the kind of forgiveness we’re used to. The way forgiveness works, right, is that someone apologizes for what they’ve done, asks for forgiveness, and then they are forgiven. This business of making a fool out of ourselves running through the street, shouting party plans over the apology, and literally welcoming home with open arms is not the kind of reconciliation most of us normally think about. But it is the kind of reconciliation we are called to—it’s the kind of welcome we have experienced and the kind of life God wants us to live. Sure, we could wait for the person who’s hurt us to come to the door, where we will receive them politely but not let them into the parlor. We can listen to the groveling, then sigh and say “it’s okay” even while we remember the hurt for years to come. We can shake hands for the camera but shake our heads in private. Or…we can be God’s compassion overflowing, poured out of the house, out beyond the fences, and down the road, love making a fool of itself for the sake of wholeness. Even when the older brother refuses to come inside, the father again lays it all on the line, again coming out of the house, pleading in a most undignified manner, overflowing the boundaries of propriety for the sake of a resurrection celebration.
That’s right—I know it’s Lent, but in some ways this is a resurrection story. The son lived as though the father was dead…and the son was in many ways dead, but now that we’ve come together, now that we have reconciled, we are both alive again.
This is what prodigal love does—it leaves its boundaries and runs out to make the first step toward wholeness. Prodigal love doesn’t forget—remember, the father says “my son was lost, and now is found, was dead and now lives.” But it also doesn’t nurse grudges. It doesn’t give different explanations of the problem to different audiences. It doesn’t forgive only after confession. In fact, it doesn’t even wait to be approached—it runs, overflows, fills, pours.
There is a zen proverb that says that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. And there is a line in a David LaMotte song, a song we will end worship with each week during Lent, that points out what may be obvious and yet is still so difficult, “there can never be any handshakes until somebody puts out their hand.”
Is it easy to make the first move, to run down the road toward the source of our hurt and open our arms wide? Obviously not. But we were never promised an easy calling. There is pain, right here in our community. Some of us have been hurting and others hurt, and in all of that God weeps, begging us to consider a different path. This path may make us look foolish, may cause some to call us naïve, may open us up to future pain…but it is the way of Christ. In Christ, God reconciled the world to God, and entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation. May our hope overflow, our compassion pour out, our love be prodigal as we run down this path through Lent and beyond to resurrection.