A sermon preached by Brian Mason

First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau

March 31, 2019

My dear friends, I have witnessed miracles! I have seen God! Yes, I saw God in melting snow, giving way to brown and green grass underneath. I heard God welcome dawn’s arrival in the songs of birds. I saw God slip through my window shades in dusty bands of afternoon light. I smelled God on evening walks simmering atop BBQ grills. I’ve seen God in the three men who gather in the warmth of the sun along the river’s banks to drink beer each morning. I hear God in the voices of children who play on sidewalks again, drawing chalk pictures of houses and monsters, pulling toy trucks on strings behind them as they go.

Spring is many things, a season no stranger to metaphor and symbolism. It is a season of returns—birds and snowbirds amble their way north, tax returns, Game of Thrones returns, and yes, God’s greatest gift to humankind, baseball returns.

This is my 35th spring, my 35th return to warmth and longer, light-filled days. And for that, I am grateful, more grateful than I remember being the last 34 times. I have Wisconsin to thank for that. And so, this year, as the snow melts and the skies turn from grey to blue, I feel a sense of survival, if not accomplishment. That’s a post-winter feeling only people like us and others who live in climates like ours can claim. In some ways I am grateful for that, too, if only for the bragging rights.

The theme of return is a favorite among humankind. Think Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy, Back to the Future, or The Best Years of Our Lives. We love stories about adventure and adversity; we love stories about getting lost in the wild and learning hard lessons only to realize that it’s home we longed for all along. T. S. Eliot, native son of my beloved St. Louis, wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” This is the hero’s journey; it is a story of braving what is for what might be and returning to tell the tale.

One of the most memorable parables Jesus tells is found in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, most often referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother. Many, if not most of us are familiar with this parable. It is a story that captures the theme of return. For some of us, the story of the prodigal son might cut close to the bone. I suspect all of us knows a prodigal son or daughter. We all know some knucklehead who’s drifted far from the fold and traded custom and tradition for pleasure and excess. The Gospel of Luke tells us the prodigal son asked his father if he could have his inheritance early, which is a bold thing to do so far as I’m concerned. The father, no doubt aware of his son’s tendencies, gives his son his inheritance early anyways.

The prodigal son wastes no time and flees the boring old small town of his youth for the big city where he wastes every penny, and I quote, on “dissolute living.” “Dissolute” isn’t a word you hear too often these days. It’s an old word that means to live unrestrained by morality, and we all know a thing or two about that.

Most of us know a prodigal son or daughter, and some of us know two or three. I doubt there are any prodigal children here at the Unitarian church, but next door at the Presbyterian Church rumor has it that there are at least three sitting in the pews. But all of us, whether we knew the definition or not, have spent at least one evening in dissolute living.

The story of the prodigal son is everywhere in our culture. It’s woven into our understanding of adolescence. It’s the arc of the story for more movies than I can to count—there are variations on the story…we’ve all seen the one about the sorry sap who doesn’t realize how good he has it so he takes advantage of his good fortune only to cheat or drink or gamble it all away until he hits rock bottom and is forced pick up the broken pieces of his shattered life in order to finally, or maybe even for the first time, live.

We’ve all seen the movie or read the book about the woman who finally realizes what matters most isn’t a life of adventure and excitement, but the simple things like friendship, and warmth, and a place to call home. Like Luke’s prodigal, some people really do have to hit rock bottom before they can change. Some people I’ve known never found rock bottom, though; instead they crashed right through and ended six-feet under. So, I’m grateful for rock bottom this morning just as much as I am for warm and blue skies.

But I don’t plan to spend the rest of my time in this short sermon talking about the prodigal son. Nor do I intend to talk about his boring, nagging brother. This morning we’re going to set aside the brothers best we can. They get all of the attention most of the time anyways. This morning we’ll focus on the boys’ father, the character who gives half of everything to a good-for-nothing son.

Luke tells us that when the prodigal son finally runs out of money, that moment when all the friends who joined him to party and have a good time stopped showing up, he is overcome by hunger and loneliness; and he finds work tending pigs, a most disgusting job. It doesn’t take him long to realize that he’d rather die than spend the rest of his life eating pig scraps. So, rather than waste away in the filth of a pigsty he devises a plan and starts rehearsing an apology to his father. Just imagine the prodigal son’s shame for a moment. Imagine spending half of everything your parents worked for indulging every base impulse only to end up living like an animal in a pen.

Imagine going back to the very father whose money you wasted, whose reputation you were careless with. Shame and humiliation are at the heart of this story. The prodigal son practices his apology one final time; he says, and I quote, “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.’” Finally, with his lines memorized he rushes back to the boring, old family farm, in the boring old small town of his youth, with his goody two shoes brother, and his gullible, sucker for a father.

Luke tells us that as the son approached, just barely within sight of the family farm his father recognized him. It’s as if the father always kept an eye toward the horizon hoping that his good for nothing son might one day return. When he sees his son far out on the horizon the story tells us that his heart was filled with compassion. It says he ran to his son, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. The son wastes no time and says to his 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.” The son asks his father to be banished into fields, he offers to trade his good name and freedom for bread and shelter.

The ancient world of this story isn’t all that different than ours. Our culture prefers successful people to dissolute people a million to one. Then as now, it hardly mattered if you lived like the prodigal son so long as you had enough power and money to hold off poverty, the pigsty, or the long arm of the law. But the Parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t meant to help us gain a better understanding of humankind’s ideas about patience, and grace, and forgiveness.

In the words of the great preacher and professor Jonathan Walton, “Luke’s parables paint a contrasting picture about God’s love for us. […] they offer lessons about what the reception of God’s love demands from us. It’s not just about us and God. The parables are about us and our neighbors.”[1]

When the father holds his son in his arms for the first time in ages, he wraps his filthy, pig filth-covered body in the best clothes money can buy, he places beautiful jewelry upon his ragged hands, and shoes upon his bare and almost certainly aching and bloody feet. He tells everyone to prepare for this son a feast fit for a royal family. With all the commotion going on, the prodigal son’s goody two shoes brother looks toward the house and sees his brother sitting at the head of a table, dressed like a king, enjoying the finest food and drink money can buy. The responsible brother demands an explanation from his father. He cries to him, why would you do this for him, he is a sinner, a waste of air—“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 come back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

The father said in response, “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.”

I wonder if you’re able to predict where the story is trying to lead you?

Here in the middle of the season of Lent, a season of waiting and patience, we encounter a story about forgiveness and grace. Here in the heart of Luke’s gospel is a story about second chances.

Perhaps you see what’s happening at this point. Careful readers of the story are quick to note that the father’s forgiveness of the prodigal son comes before he ever even asks for it. The father’s love is already there, it already surrounds the boy; it was there all along. Could it be that this parable is meant to tell readers that God’s love is like this? Is this story trying to tell us we should model our lives on the son’s father? Is our human calling to forgive even the most obnoxious and careless people, those people who start their mornings drinking beer out of a bag, those people who abuse the system to their own advantage? Are we meant to forgive people who hurt us, people who say and do things knowing that what they say and do will break our hearts or worse?

The Bible is filled with stories that tell us about God’s righteous vengeance, God’s eternal judgment and damnation. These stories make sense to us; we have constructed our society around these idea. We are taught to that you reap what you sow. We are taught that good things come to people who keep their heads down and work hard; we are taught that lies spin a web that eventually lead to our own entrapment. But this isn’t how the world works at all. Prodigal sons and daughters are everywhere, bad things happen to good people, and tragedy is a democratic force that never discriminates.

So, how are we to respond?

There is an old African story about an ancient forest that was consumed by a raging fire. The people, who lived in and around it, along with the animals within, all fled, as the flames grew higher. Everyone felt powerless and overwhelmed; they thought there was nothing they could do to save their homes and the ancient forest. They stood on the forest’s edge believing that everything was already gone. The animals spoke to one another; even the giant elephant with a trunk capable of spraying water by the gallons refused to do anything, as everyone was convinced that hope was lost. But then a hummingbird with a tiny teardrop of water in its beak flew deep into the forest and dropped the water upon the fire. Everyone told the small bird that it was wasting its time; the forest was as good as gone. The bird turned to everyone with the fire raging behind her and said, “yes, but I will still do the best I can.”[2]

We cannot save our children from themselves. We cannot save ourselves from heartache and disappointment. We cannot prevent every criminal from getting away with theft and murder. We cannot prevent all the tragedy of the world. But we can do the best we can. We can forgive people before they ask for it. We can fight fires with teardrops, and we can give what we can knowing all the while that so much is beyond our control.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is not just about what God demands of us; it is about our neighbors and us. What will you do when someone you love drifts far from the fold? What will you do when the love of your heart pulls away? What will you do when everyone tells you all hope is lost?

You can rage; you can give up; you can convince yourself that this is just the way of the world. Or you can burst forth from the hard, cold earth. You can warm yourself by light of the returning sun. You can forgive before it’s asked for. You can do the best you can. You can take the hero’s journey—you can brave what is for what might be.

[1] Jonathan L. Walton, A Lens of Love: Reading the Bible in Its World for Our World (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 123.

[2] https://thekidshouldseethis.com/post/wangari-maathai-i-will-be-a-hummingbird.