March 27, 2022: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund
Year C; 4.FB.Lent; 3.27.2022 Luke 15:1-3; 11-32; The Story of the Loving Father
Something that is strangely satisfying to me is to view a sprawling mass of data placed neatly into a contained pie chart. I particularly like the different colors that can be assigned to the data in each piece of the pie. From the days when I presented the advertising budget of the antiviral product I worked on years ago, to just last January when our trusted treasurer, Nancy Whitehouse created a pie chart of the year’s expenses IN COLOR, I place a very high value on the finite nature of a circle cut into orderly slices of limited amounts.
Most of us like to know the limits we have to deal with in our lives. We are soothed by the knowledge of orderly proportions of spending, and we are alert to any unfairness or lop- sidedness we might detect in the colored proportions of the chart. Pie charts help us visualize the limited data we have and help us interpret its meaning.
The satisfying visual of a pie chart came to mind this week as I dwelled with the gospel story we heard today. In my childhood, I competed mightily with my older brother for the limited resources of my parents’ attention and the family treasure. I tended to look closely at the proportion I received compared to my older brother, and I was never satisfied. So, a sibling story always interests me. This very familiar story that we might even call the “best short story in the world,” is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, and is the best sibling story for any family that is dealing with sibling rivalry.
The younger son demanded a pre-payment of his inheritance. What might that have looked like on the family pie chart? A younger son was to receive a lesser portion of the “pie chart” than the older son. Still, he was demanding it before he inherited it upon his father’s death.
This son took his inheritance early and disappeared. Not a word from him about how he was doing. No letters. No texts. No phone calls. Nothing. He took it and ran to a far country and spent it in…and I love this translation…“in wanton recklessness.”
Destitute not only without resources, he was destitute during a famine and hired himself out to look after the pigs so he could eat their feed, making him as ritually unclean a Jew as anyone could imagine. Direct association with swine made him, by religious law, unclean. He suffered misery and soon comes to himself. He makes his way back home having rehearsed his words of repentance to his father to beg for forgiveness.
Upon his return, he receives lavish hugs, kisses, robe, ring, the best banquet – a party! He was lost and was joyfully found.
Meanwhile, the older brother, who no doubt has been stewing in jealous rage as he worked the property, has no capacity to receive the good news of his brother’s return. He is repelled by his father’s outlandish embrace of this scoundrel of a brother. Those of us who have had the role of the “responsible one” in the family relate best with him. On the other hand, those of us who have lived a bit of “wanton recklessness” and have returned home, weep for joy at the father’s lavish compassion and mercy.
There is no orderly chart that can contain and “portion out” the endless love, mercy and compassion the father has. There is no neat way to color the proportion of lavish compassion and mercy given to one or the other brother. A symbol from mathematics that I love is the symbol of infinity. Infinity looks like the number “8” on its side. THAT’S the truth of this story. The infinity of the father’s love, compassion and mercy.
Rodney Clapp who wrote one of the commentaries on this parable points our attention to the father. He writes, “…the father does not berate and get all [disapproving] with the elder brother. Nor does he defend the younger brother. Instead, he shifts attention away from both of the brothers. The father turns attention to his own love and bounty. There is plenty to go around. No one will run short.”
The father is saying, “MY DEAR SONS, THERE IS PLENTY OF MY LOVE AND MERCY TO GO AROUND. NO ONE WILL RUN SHORT.” There is no need for jealousy because the father’s resources and treasures are limitless. That parent loves both sons endlessly. This story tells us all we need to know about the nature of God as we focus on the father.
Jesus tells this story in the presence of sinners and outcasts as well as the scribes and Pharisees. Sinners and outcasts had been coming to hear Jesus preach for months. They were hearing something they had not heard before. A loving, forgiving God. Can you imagine how this story impacted them?
Jesus had even been eating with them. I imagine these gatherings were like a celebration. But the judgmental keepers of the law growled disapprovingly and said, “…this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Like the older brother, those who objected to Jesus’ friendship with the outcasts were also invited to the party because love, compassion and mercy never run short.
Our Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Michael Curry loves this parable and urges us to dwell on the “determined, compassionate, infinite providence of God…” rather than “…the way of God’s prodigal children.” Our Presiding Bishop loves hymns and sets one of his favorites before us today.
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy; like the wideness of the sea…there is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good.” For those of us who tend to be judgmental and self-righteous, the phrase, “more graces for the good” reminds us that there is plenty for us all.
But humans set our own limits to the wideness of God’s mercy. We set boundaries on God’s infinite gifts. Michael Curry shares the unknown verse of this hymn to remind us of our own restrictions. “But we make [God’s] love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify [God’s] strictness; with a zeal [God] will not own.”
I do still cling to pretty pie charts that give me proportions of spending and budgeting. And I do want to know that I’m getting my fair share of whatever the “pie” doles out! Such a worldly model I follow! But no pie chart on earth can be a visual for the endless compassion and mercy God has for all of God’s children. God has enough for me! God has enough for you! God has enough for the world, the universe. Infinite.
Another beloved Anglican, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu who knew first-hand how the world places limits on resources, wrote about God’s dream that is the hope of our God,
“I have a dream, God says. Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts: laughter, joy, peace, justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that My children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family…”
Are we ready to imagine God’s endless compassion and mercy? And to spread this good news wherever we can?
Welcome to God’s party, my friends!