A Sermon Preached by Rev. Alister Bell in Banbridge 26th June 2022 (Audio only)
400th Anniversary Sunday
Unfortunately it wasn't possible to record the sermon today as it had to be cut short in a very full service. It will be delivered at another point on another Sunday.
The Return of the Prodigal Son - Week 7 - Becoming the Father
I’d like to begin today by telling a story that is found in an ancient Indian Buddhist scripture called the Lotus Sutra. It is quite interesting because it it is very similar to the story of the Prodigal Son as told by Jesus. The version I am telling now is a shortened or summarised version and goes something like this:
Once upon a time a boy ran away from home and wandered about for many years becoming more and more poor and more and more confused.
The boy’s father loved his son very much, but had no idea where to find him. As time went on, the father became very rich.
Fifty years passed. One day, the son showed up at his father's palace. He did not know whose grand home this was, but wondered if he could find a job there. The father recognized his son, and set messengers to greet him. The father was overjoyed that his son had returned.
But the son misunderstood. He thought the messengers were trying to arrest him for doing something wrong and so he tried to get away.
The father saw his son’s fear and confusion. He realized his son was not ready to accept the truth, so he told the messengers to leave his son alone.
Later the father had some of his servants dress in rags. He had these servants go to his son and offer him a job shovelling cow dung. The son had been living so poorly for so long, he saw this job as a wonderful opportunity.
Over the years, the father showed great interest in his son. Sometimes he even disguised himself in dirty rags so that he could speak with his son and get to know him so that his son would not become afraid and run away from him. During this time, the son grew and changed and he was helped to become more and more responsible, taking on more and more important jobs on his father’s estate. The father praised him, encouraged him, increasing his pay, as the son grew to be more and more responsible. The father loved being near his son and seeing him grow and mature, but he never told his son his true identity because he didn’t want to scare his son away.
After twenty years, the father was old and near death. By this time the son was in charge of all of his father’s money and business. The son had become a responsible and a humble man just like his father, even though he didn’t know yet that it was his father.
Finally, just before his death, the father gathered all of his friends and all the powerful people of the city to his bedside. He revealed then the true identity of his son. The son inherited all of the fortune.
(The Parable of the Impoverished Son - From the Lotus Sutra Chapter 4, Belief and Understanding. For a full English translation of the chapter click here)
Like I said earlier, this story is very similar to the story in the bible of the prodigal son. But in this parable, we see that it has been so long the son had completely forgotten who his father was. He couldn’t recognise his father. He was even scared of his father even though his father only wanted the very best for him. And so the father had to help his son grow until he was ready to hear that he was the son of his father.
Indeed we are like that too. We are God’s children. In the book of Acts (17:29) in the Bible, it says “We are all God’s offspring”. The Greek word for offspring is genos from which we get the word genesis. Our genesis is in God. It is another way of saying, “We are God’s children.” But we don’t always know how to act like God’s children. Over time God needs to help us grow and become more and more responsible and more and more loving so that we can become more and more like God, full of wisdom and compassion.
And that is the conclusion that Henri Nouwen reaches in his book. Some of us may be more like the younger son in the story of the Prodigal Son. Some of us are more like the older son in the story. But in the end, we all need to grow into being more and more like the father.
And as Henri Nouwen says, Jesus shows us what true sonship is: He is free like the younger son without becoming rebellious. He is obedient like the elder son, without being resentful or becoming a slave. He does everything the Father sends him to do, but remains completely free. He gives everything and receives everything and so reflects the likeness of his father. And so when in John’s Gospel Philip says to him “Show us the Father”, Jesus responds, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”. (John 14:9).
Henri Nouwen says that perhaps the most radical statement that Jesus ever made is in Luke 6:36 “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate”. In these words, Jesus is inviting us to become like God. As Paul puts it in Galatians 4:7, God has made us God’s heir.
Our destiny is ultimately to inherit the fullness of God’s nature and offer to others the same compassion that God has offered to us. The return to the Father, is ultimately the invitation to become the Father, becoming transformed in his image, loving as God loves.
But how do we do this? Can I give without wanting anything in return? Can I love without putting any conditions on my love? Can I be kind to the ungrateful and to the wicked as Jesus suggests in Matthews Gospel? It seems like an impossible task.
I wonder if the answer is that ultimately it is not our own doing or something that is even possible for us to achieve in our limited ego strength, but rather it is the unfolding of God’s infinite compassion within us. The transformation into God’s image begins when we allow ourselves to be received and embraced and held by the love and compassion that God has towards us. The more deeply we come to know God’s loving compassion towards us, the more profoundly that compassion will flow through us towards others.
1 John 3:2-3 Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him. Amen.
The Return of the Prodigal Son - Week 6 - The Prodigal Father
What I find so moving about Henry Nouwen’s book on the Prodigal Son is that he is so open and honest about himself and his own struggles. He writes that for a long time in his life he struggled with self-rejection self-contempt and self loathing. He says it is a very fierce battle that rages within making him think that he is worthless, useless and negligible. He goes on to say that for a long time he considered low-self-esteem to be some kind of virtue. He says he was warned so often against pride and conceit that he came to consider it a good thing to look down on himself. But in his later years he writes how he had come to see that the real sin is to deny God’s first love for me, and to ignore my original goodness. He says that without claiming God’s infinite love and our original goodness, we lose touch with our true selves and begin to embark on a destructive search for that which which can only be found in God. For some that destructive search leads them to distant country’s of destructive and wild living, like the younger son. For others it is expressed in the attempt to justify our existence and to prove our worthiness and to earn others love through our hard work, our dutifulness and our achievements. Both are dead-ends.
By contrast, Henri Nouwen writes that the parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks of a love that existed before any rejection was possible and will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of God who is the fountain of all true human love. He says that Jesus whole life and ministry had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible and unlimited love of God. And this is perhaps expressed nowhere more profoundly than in his parable of the Prodigal Son, which Henri Nouwen suggests should be more accurately titled, the Parable of a Father’s love, in other words, a Parable of God’s love, a love that comes out to meet us, welcomes us home and celebrates our arrival.
Today we explore that infinite love of the father as we look more closely at the Parable of Jesus as well as exploring Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Rembrandt’s portrayal of the Father Henri Nouwen notes that Rembrandt paints the father as almost blind. He does not see with his physical eyes, rather in Rembrandt’s portrayal it seem that he sees with an inner vision that goes beyond just the physical sight. He sees with inner spiritual eyes with an inner seeing of the heart that goes beyond mere outward appearances. As Henri Nouwen suggests it is a seeing that encompasses the whole of humanity. Even the elder son has the light shining on him, despite the fact that he has chosen to stand in the shadows. He too is touched by the gentle inner light of the father.
Henri Nouwen points out that that the centre of his painting are father’s the hands. And those hands appear to have become extensions of this inner seeing and inner perception of the heart. The hands of the father also appear to be the instruments by which the father expresses and communicates his love as they are stretched out in blessing. Of particular interest in the painting is that the two hands are different. The one hand seems strong, muscular and masculine, holding the sons shoulder. The other hand appears slender and soft resting gently on the younger son’s back. Henri Nouwen makes the interesting observation that this is the hand of a mother. And thus in a single painting, Rembrandt reveals that God is the source of both fatherly and motherly love, God is the source of not just masculine strength, but also the source of feminine gentleness. It reminds us of the feminine love of God expressed in the prophet Isaiah, “Can a mother forget the child at her breast… I will never forget you!”
Henri Nouwen draws attention to the great red robe of the father which is stretched out like a tent ready to create a warm safe space for the weary traveller who has come home. He suggests that the cloak again speaks of this warm feminine love of God like a mother hen who is taking her chicks under her wings, a reminder of that passage later on in Luke, where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and cries out, “How I have longed to gather you under my wings, but you refused.”
Writing of Rembrandt’s portrayal of the father in the parable, Henri Nouwen writes that seldom if ever has God’s immense, compassionate love been expressed in such a poignant way. Every detail of the father’s figure – his facial expression, his posture, the colours of his dress, and, most of all, the still gesture of his hands- speaks of the divine love for humanity that existed from the beginning and ever will be.
Turning to the parable itself, what does the parable tell us of the father?
1stly, the Love of the Father at the beginning of the parable is a love that does not constrain or imprison his younger son. His is a love that lets the younger son go. His love is too great to force the son to stay. It is a love makes room for people to make mistakes. It is a love that is wise enough to recognise that sometimes people need to face the consequences of their own actions before they will come to their senses. It is therefore a love that holds dear and yet a love that is willing to let go, even though it might break his own heart in doing so. AS Henri Nouwen expresses it: As a father, he wants his children to be free, free to love. And that freedom includes the possibility of leaving home, going to a distant country and losing everything.
2ndly we see that the love of the father is such that he has clearly been waiting for his sons return. He has been on the lookout. Having let his son go, knowing that he was about to make some terrible mistakes, he doesn’t wash his hands of his son. He does not disown the wayward son. He continues to hold him close to his heart with a deep longing within him that causes him watch and wait for the sons return.
3rdly, when the younger son returns, the father runs out to meet him. Timothy Keller writes that no respectable patriarch in the ancient world would have gone running out to meet his wayward son. He would have considered it beneath his dignity. It is far more likely in the ancient world that the patriarchal father would have emphasized his authority, making the son wait, giving him the cold shoulder to emphasize the crimes of the son against him. Perhaps even more likely, he might have had his son publicly beaten before meeting with him.
Not so with the father in Jesus’ parable, he runs our to meet the lost son who has returned home. He wears his heart on his sleeve. There is something reckless about the love of this father which is why Timothy Keller refers to the parable, not as the parable of the prodigal son, but rather the Prodigal Father.
4thl, There is no desire to punish. The lost son has already been punished enough by his own waywardness. He has already experienced the hell of his own making. The father’s only desire is to heal and bless.
5thly, The father’s love in the parable is extravagant. He is not into half measures with his love, as he says to his servants that they should put a ring on his son’s finger and to go and put the best robe on him. The father in the parable wants only the best for his son which suggests that God only wishes the very best for us as well.
6thly, This is a Father who enjoys a celebration. Isn’t it interesting that in a different era there were Christian groups who looked down on dancing. Dancing was the work of the devil. I wonder how they justified such a stance when at the high point of this parable of Jesus, the father throws a party celebrating the return of his son and we read that there is music and dancing.
Henri Nouwen writes that he is not used to the image of God throwing a big party. It seems to contradict the seriousness and solemnity I have always attached to God. And yet he reminds us that so many of Jesus parables are about feasts and banquets. It is a reminder that the invitation into the spiritual life is supposed to be an invitation into joy.
God rejoices writes Henri Nouwen, not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found. What I am called to is to enter that joy. It is God’s joy, not the joy that the world offers. It is the joy of being embraced and held by a love that is stronger than death. Perhaps one call it a crucified and risen joy.
7thly, As we said last week, the same father who runs out to meet the younger son, is the same father who leaves the party to plead with his elder son to come in. God does not play favourites. Henri Nouwen writes: There is no doubt that his heart goes out to both of his sons; he loves them both; he hopes to see them together as siblings around the same table; he wants them to experience that, different as they are, they belong to the same household and are children of the same father.
And so here, says Henri Nouwen, is the God that I want to believe in: a Father who from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing. Never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return.
He has no desire to punish them. They have already been punished excessively by their own inner or outer waywardness.
Instead his deepest desire is to say, more with his hands than his mouth: “You are my beloved, on you my favour rests”. Amen.
The Return of the Prodigal Son - Week 6 - The Lost Elder Son
Most Bible translations introduce Luke 15:11-32 with a title, calling it the parable of the prodigal son and sometimes, the parable of the lost son.
But this diverts our attention away from the fact that Jesus begins the story with these words:
“A man had two sons”. This is a story of two sons, not just one son. It is also the story of two lost sons, not just one lost son. The second son, the elder son, doesn’t receive much attention in the Church or in our preaching, perhaps because he has more in common with most church goers than most of us would care to admit.
And so today we turn to the parable of the second lost son today. His lostness is more difficult to pinpoint. It is more difficult to identify it. His lostness is far more respectable and thus it almost seems that he is not really lost at all. But at the end of the parable, while the first son is described as having come home, having returned to the father’s love, the second son, the elder son is perhaps even more estranged than the younger son ever was. His story is not resolved. The question is left hanging in the mind of the listener? Will the elder son be reconciled with his father? Will he be reconciled with his younger brother? We don’t know. We are not told.
Jesus leaves it up to us. He plants the seed of the story and leaves that seed to germinate. The problem is that we have so heavily fixated on the first half of the story, that we seldom reflect on what it means to be the elder son.
Who is the Elder son? Why at the end of the story does he exclude himself?
In the first two weeks of this sermon series, I reflected on the life of Rembrandt as an aid to reflecting on his painting of the return of the Prodigal Son. Rembrandt for a large part of his life was very much the younger son, who ended his life having squandered much of his wealth. But Henri Nouwen writes that digging a little deeper into Rembrandt’s life, it is clear that there is also an elder son living within Rembrandt, a hardness and a self-righteousness that could express itself in coldness and even in cruelty. When Rembrandt’s wife had died, he had an affair with the women who he had hired to look after his son. Apparently he had intimated that he would marry her, but when he never did, the whole thing turned sour. She like Rembrandt was from the Reformed tradition and so she took him to the elders of the great Kirk which led to a kind of a church trial for Rembrandt which I didn’t end well for him. But his response to her was a vindictive one, and, after drumming up false testimonies from his neighbours, he ended up having her committed to a sanatorium, saying that she was mentally unstable. Even quite a number of years later, when she made attempts to be released from the sanatorium, he pulled strings with high ranking people he knew to make sure that she would remain inside. He could be both wild and profligate, but he was also capable of being cold, cruel and vindictive.
Turning to Rembrandt’s painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son, the elder son is depicted in the painting standing on the right hand side. Strictly speaking, according to the parable, the elder son was not present at the meeting of the father and the son but only appears much later. While Rembrandt’s painting is therefore not a factual representation of the story, what he is trying to do in one frame, is to capture something of the spirit of the story.
As I have shared before Rembrandt depicts the elder son standing off to to the right hand side with a shadowy space between him and his father and brother.. He seems set a little higher in the painting as though on a platform. His posture is bolt upright, his hands in a crossed, closed position as he appears to look down in a mixture of judgement, disgust, pity, contempt and disapproval. While there is a gentle light that shines upon the father and the younger son, the elder son is appears to be disappearing in the shadows.
You can almost hear the words he speaks in the parable in verse 30 when he addresses his father and describes his younger brother with the words: “This son of yours…”. In these words, he seems to have disowned both his younger brother, and even his father. “This son of yours…”
Henri Nouwen writes of himself: It is hard for me to concede that this bitter, resentful and angry man might be closer to me in a spiritual way than the lustful younger brother. Yet the more I think about the elder son, the more I recognise myself in him. He goes on… All my life I have harboured a strange curiosity for the disobedient life that I myself didn’t dare to live… I have known the envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises when I see my friends having a good time doing all the sorts of things I condemn. I call their behaviour reprehensible or even immoral, but at the same time I have often wondered why I didn’t have the nerve to do some of it or all of it myself… The obedient, dutiful life of which I am proud or for which I am praised, sometimes feels like a burden that was laid upon my shoulders and continues to oppress me. And so Henri Nouwen writes that he has no difficulty identifying with the elder son who in verse 29 complains “All these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me so much as a kid to celebrate with my friends.” In this complaint, obedience and duty have become a burden and service has become slavery.
Henri Nouwen writes that the lostness of the younger son is obvious. But the lostness of the elder son is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hard-working. People respected him admired him, praised him and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly he was faultless. But when confronted with his father’s joy and forgiveness at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts within him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden for so long in the shadows of his own heart.
If this elder son is lost, he is lost, not in a distant country, living a wild life somewhere else, he is lost in his sense of judgement, condemnation, resentment, bitterness and anger. He is lost in self-imposed rules that the father has never actually placed upon him. Somehow he has placed them upon himself and then blamed his father. He is lost in a joyless life.
Timothy Keller makes an interesting observation about the older son. He suggests that while the older son outwardly seems to be the polar opposite of the younger son, he is in fact motivated by exactly the same thing. He loves his father’s money and his father’s stuff more than he loves the father. The only thing that is different are his methods of trying to achieve the same result. The younger son rudely and disrespectfully blurts out that he wants his portion of the inheritance and then runs off and wastes it when he gets it. The older son has a longer term strategy. He has his eye on his father’s wealth and aims to achieve it by compliance rather than rebellion. But on the inside there is no real warmth or love towards his father. He is more interested in money than relationship with the father. And so rather than living everyday in the light and joy of being his fathers son, he has come to regard his father as a slave driver from whom he will one day get his just desserts.
In the end, both sons are lost, but only one returns. Wild, lustful living can be wasteful and destructive. But resentment and anger can be equally destructive because it leaves no room for love. It is often the resentful saint whose moralistic intensity can spill over into fanaticism. Henri Nouwen writes that joy and resentment cannot co-exist. The elder son refuses to join in the joyful celebration of a lost son who has come to his senses and finally returned home. If it is true that joy and resentment cannot co-exist, then it is also true that love and resentment cannot co-exist either.
Perhaps what the parable is suggesting is that the spiritual answer to a destructive life of wild and
wasteful living is not going to the opposite moralistic and dutiful extreme. If our obedience, our sense of morality and our sense of duty rob us of our joy and prevents us from celebrating life and expressing love and grace and forgiveness towards others and instead produces resentment and anger within us, then it should be an alarm bell that something is wrong. Just as the younger son needs to learn something of the more responsible ways of his older brother, so the older brother in the parable needs to learn something from the younger brother (and indeed his father) in how to let his hair down and to enjoy life a little. The answer does not lie in the extremes, but in a middle way.
How can the elder son in me and in you return home, because I can see that there is definitely an elder son living in me? Jesus leaves the question open, although he makes it very clear that the father who runs out to meet the younger son is the same father who leaves the celebration to meet the older son too. There is no favouritism here. The father desires for the elder son to join in the party.
As Henri Nouwen wrestled with this question in his own life, he came to the conclusion that the way for the elder son to return is through trust and through gratitude. Firstly to begin to trust that God is not the slave driver that I thought God was. That I can relax sometimes. That I can make time to let my hair down. That rest, celebration and joy are as important as duty and hard work. If I am resentful that others are not working hard enough, then maybe it is a sign that I am working too hard taking on more responsibility than God is asking of me, that I am beginning to put myself in the place of God. And secondly, through a life of gratitude. Henri Nouwen writes that gratitude is the opposite of resentment. Resentment blocks the perception that life is a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve and that others are getting more than they should. And so underlying my resentment is normally a hidden envy. By contrast, gratitude brings us back to our senses, back to the here and now, enabling us to experience the truth that all of life is a pure gift.
Henri Nouwen writes in conclusion: There is always the choice between resentment and gratitude, because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home and declared in a voice filled with affection “You are with me always and all I have is yours.” Indeed I can choose to dwell in the darkness in which I stand, point to those who are seemingly better off then I, and lament about my misfortunes. Or, there is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me, and to see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift, calling for gratitude. And this takes a leap of faith and trust. And every time I make this little leap, I catch a glimpse of the One who runs out to meet me with joy. Amen.