Week Three: The Father
God Gathers Us for Worship
Opening is structured as congregation is accustomed.
God Embraces Us in Grace
Drama: The Wayward, Wanton, and Wasteful
Daughter (Modified—see box, pp. 24-25.)
Hymn: Sung to the tune of MORNING SONG, PsH 615, PH 60O, RL 48O, TWL 277
[Sing stanzas 1 and 2.]
1 Afflictions, though they seem severe
are oft in mercy sent.
They stopped the prodigal's career
and caused him to repent.
2 Although he no relenting
felt till he had spent his store,
his stubborn heart began to melt
when famine pinched him sore.
[The liturgist recites stanzas 3 and 4.]
3 What have I gained by sin, he said,
but hunger, shame, and fear?
My father's house abounds with bread,
whilst I am starving here.
4 I'll go and tell him all I've done,
fall down before his face,
not worthy to be called his son,
I'll ask a servant's place.
[Everyone sings stanza 5.]
5 He saw his son returning back,
he looked, he ran, he smiled,
and threw his arms around the neck
of his rebellious child.
[Congregation recites stanzas 6 and 7.]
6 Father, I've sinned, but O forgive!
And thus the father said:
"Rejoice, my house! My son's alive
for whom 1 mourned as dead.
7 Now let the fatted calf be slain,
go spread the news abroad.
My son was dead, but lives again,
was lost, but now is found."
[Everyone sing stanza 8.]
8 'Tis thus the Lord himself reveals,
to call poor sinners home;
more than the father's love he feels,
and bids the sinner come.
Note: This hymn enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. It originated in the The Baptist Harmony of 1834 and was reprinted in many different shape-note hymnals, including The Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony. Contemporary hymnals have picked up many tunes (for example, the tune for "Amazing Grace") but few texts from these popular hymnals from the southern United States.
Assurance of Pardon
God Speaks a Word of Grace
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
Sermon: Part 1: What Love Is This?
Today the spotlight shifts from the boys to dear old Dad—the father who willingly hands over his estate early to his boys, the father who receives the younger son back with open arms and who pleads with the older son to join the party.
Although he's a rather magnificent figure, really, that shouldn't stand in the way of directing some hard questions his way. Because, you see, the father in the parable (just like the mother in the drama of week one) doesn't do or say exactly what we would expect fathers to do either. When the younger son asks for the inheritance, the old man hands it over. No protests. No seven-day waiting period. No mut-terings about "you ungrateful wretch." No anxious urgings to "spend it wisely." The father just hands it over and watches the younger son walk off into the distance.
There's something odd, too, when the younger son returns, grovelling, admitting his error, saying, "I have sinned against heaven and against you...." This is a moment to savor and to chide the boy for his sinful ways. Yet the words are barely out of his boy's mouth before Dad's working on the guest list and the menu for the welcome-home bash. Doesn't the father worry about what's going to happen a month from now when the son gets tired of home again?
What is it with this old man? It's what you might call ultimate love. It's a love that startles us both by its simplicity and its depth.
In the first place, there is a freedom in this love. It's a love that recognizes the freedom of others. It hands over its own goods and property without so much as a word of protest. You can wish this father dead and still have a go at life. Your meal ticket doesn't get revoked just because you complain about the food or don't care to acknowledge the existence of the chef. Even those who tell God to drop dead, who take this creation and run to a far country, are free to do so. God's love for us is great enough that it exists and continues and gives even in the face of our rejection and rebellion. There is freedom in God's love.
At the same time, though, it is a tough sort of love. It may not lecture or browbeat, but it allows us to bear the consequences of our decisions. It doesn't prevent the son from running off to the far country or wasting the father's property, but then, neither does it shield the younger son from the consequences of his actions. The father doesn't send a private detective to the far country to track his son down; the father doesn't warn the bartenders not to serve him more than two drinks; the father doesn't slip his son a box of condoms and warn about safe sex. It's a love that waits and watches, but it also lets go even if it means that ill things may come to us due to our obstinacy and rebellion. It's a tough love.
But in the end, it's the sort of love that overwhelms us and draws us back, even when we are mired in the midst of tragedies of our own making. Look at the picture on the front of your bulletin. This is a close-up of part of a picture by Rembrandt. Notice particularly the father's hands sheltering the weary child. Aren't those hands marvelous? They caress and comfort. They shelter and shield. If you look closely, you might notice that they are two different hands. The left hand is gnarled, strong, protective, masculine. The right hand is soft, elegant, comforting, perhaps feminine? Some art historians think that Rembrandt may have painted a masculine and a feminine hand to show the wide-ranging love of our gen-derless, or perhaps we should say "genderful," God. There is no more wide-ranging love than the love of God: a love that sets us free, that opens its arms to let us go when we insist, but that also beckons us back and enfolds us.
Quartet: "Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling"
Sermon: Part 2: Will the Real You Please Stand Up?
In thinking about the parable of the prodigal son, most of us oscillate back and forth between identifying with the younger son or the elder son. The younger son touches that rebellious side of us that wants to be off on our own, finding our own happiness, setting our own rules, pursuing our own agenda. The older son touches the resentful side of us that seeks to earn love and respect by obedience, resenting being dependent, secretly wishing to be off cavorting in a far country.
Where do we find ourselves in this parable? Are we the younger or the older? Or is our life a pendulum, swinging from a resentful obedience to a rebellious disobedience, hoping that somewhere in the middle of the pendulum swing we can maybe, just maybe find a joyous obedience?
Henri Nouwen has an interesting perspective on the question of which is the real you in the parable. He writes: "It was during [a] period of immense inner pain that ... a friend spoke the word that I most needed to hear and opened up [a new] phase of my spiritual journey. . . . When [this friend] visited me in my 'hermitage' and spoke with me about the Prodigal Son, she said, ' [Henri], whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father. . . . You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving affection as long as I've known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right. The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.'"
This story—insightful as it is into our tendency to rebel and run away from God or to resent our obedience to God—most strikingly provides a glimpse into our calling as Christians: to become spiritual mothers and fathers who can welcome God's children home without asking any questions and without wanting anything from them in return—merely rejoicing in their return.
Why do we think so much about being like the sons or daughters when the real question is, "Are you interested in becoming like the father?" Do I want to be just the one who is forgiven or also the one who forgives? Just the one who is welcomed home, or also the one who welcomes? Just the one who receives compassion, or also the one who offers it? Just the one for whom the party is thrown, or also the one who throws the party?
This challenge to godly compassion is the greatest calling in our lives—to achieve the spiritual maturity to let others be their own persons before God. It calls us to give up what we clutch closest to our hearts, power and control. It calls us to stand in God's shoes and hold out God's arms, to hitch up our robes, jump off the porch and run down the street, throw dignity to the wind, and clasp God's lost children in our arms. Do you want to know who you are? Well, perhaps who you are isn't as important as who you are becoming.
Hymn: "May the Mind of Christ, My Savior" PsH 291, TH 644
God Prompts Us to Respond
Closing is structured as congregation is accustomed.
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