Father and Two Sons: Forgiveness

Mar 31, 2019 by

Sermon for March 31, 2019       Lent 4       Paula Papky for MacNeill Baptist  Church

Joshua 5:9-12        Psalm 32          2 Corinthians 5:16-21          Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


A girl I know was perhaps ten years old when she phoned me for help and advice.  Sobbing, she told me she had acted so badly that day toward her nanny, so loud and rude and defiant, that her nanny had quit.  “What should I do?”  she wailed.

As I recall, I first told her yes, she had acted badly but she hadn’t murdered anyone.  People mess up, sometimes – everyone does, I assured her.  But there was still a possibility for setting things right.  She would have to call her nanny and tell her how sorry she was for her hurtful words and actions.  And then she would have to ask for forgiveness.

I did warn her, though, that the person she had hurt might not be ready to forgive her and that would be hard.  She might have to wait on that as patiently as she could.  But I reminded her that her nanny was a church person, after all.  She was used to stories of forgiveness, and so we could hope she would say, “I forgive you.”

A few hours later, this young girl called again and I could hear the gladness in her voice.  She told me what she had said and about asking for forgiveness.  And her nanny had replied, “Yes, I forgive you.  I’ll still be your nanny.”  I was very proud of them both.

Isn’t it sheer joy when we honestly ask of someone we have hurt, “Please forgive me,” and they reply, “I forgive you.”  It can sometimes be a long time before those words, “I forgive you,” are spoken; but when they are, it’s as if we have a new life given to us.  It’s as Paul says in this morning’s reading from Second Corinthians:  “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; everything has become new.”

This morning, we have a parable about forgiveness, the well-known story of the prodigal son, sometimes called, “The Father And Two Sons”.  In it, one who was lost is found and forgiven.  That story follows two other parables about loss.  One is about a sheep that wanders far away from the flock and the shepherd searches all night until he finds it.  I think of the times when I was a child and sang that while my grandmother or my great aunt Ada played the piano.  I was so completely drawn into the story, the feeling of loss, the darkness and danger and fear.  And then came the joy of the shepherd finding the sheep and bringing it home, rejoicing.

The following parable of the woman who searches for her lost coin and finds it ends with rejoicing as well.  And the parable of the prodigal son ends with a big feast, the whole village invited.  At least, we assume they were.  A fatted calf for one small family would have meant lots of leftovers in an age before refrigerators!  So, one gathers, the whole village comes to share the joy in a celebratory feast.

Well, except the elder brother.  He doesn’t wander to a far country, but he certainly drives a wedge into the family, and likely the village, by refusing to forgive either his brother or his father, and by refusing to join the joyful feast.  He has his reasons, of course.  They are those crucial Middle Eastern themes of honour and shame.  One imagines how he had gloated over his brother’s disgrace, likely hoping he was dead.  After all, the younger brother brought shame on the family by asking his father for his inheritance before his father is dead – or even sick!

There was a well-known passage in Ecclesiasticus warning fathers never to surrender their estate before death.  The whole village would have gasped when the father did just that.  In fact, both sons were given their inheritance, leaving the father utterly dependent.  The village would have scorned the father for his weakness.  And then there was the disgrace caused by the younger brother’s leaving home and kindred, cutting himself off from that most prized relationship, the family.  More scorn and shame would have been heaped on all three of them.

Word would have gotten back to the village and family about the feckless younger son’s immoral behavior and reckless spending.  We can be sure that people knew he’d gone into Gentile territory where pigs were raised and consumed.  He was in a far land literally but also spiritually, trespassing against the laws that declared contact with pigs as unclean.  And of course, he would have spent his inheritance – the God-given family land – among Gentiles.

One senses the father waited a long time, despised by the village, as he dared to watch every day for his son’s return home, and then, when he saw him, he ran across the fields to meet him.  The father was shamed by his loss of dignity.  Men in the ancient middle east were taught not to run.  They were to walk at a moderate, dignified pace.  But one writer suggests that there’s more than the father’s dignity at stake.  Perhaps, he says, the father runs to catch his son before the hostile villagers can step in and punish him.  He kisses his son and embraces him, thus declaring publicly that his son is under his protection.  The robe, the ring and the sandals all say the son is accepted as a fully forgiven family member and not as a servant or hired hand.  It is, indeed, a lavish show of forgiveness.

The eldest son will have none of it, even though he too had received his inheritance, a larger share than his brother.  He criticizes his father.  He refuses even to call him, “Father”, as a sign of respect.  He turns his back and keeps working in the field.

It’s an ancient story that takes place in a country far from us.  But the parable is not totally alien in describing those who have taken the birthright of others and have spent it all recklessly.  Of course, I am thinking of those people Bob Bond spoke about last Sunday.  Have we not taken and squandered the birthright of those on whose land we live?  Those people are called the Haudenosaunee, or, people who build the longhouse.  Today they are part of the Six Nations.  Do we not continue, even as our Prime Minister makes an apology, to squander the land, to clear it for ever-larger houses, to pollute its water, and to squeeze its wildlife into smaller and smaller parcels of land?

In this Season of Lent, we are especially reminded of our need to ask forgiveness of those whose land this is by treaty.  But in this time of climate change, do we not also need to ask forgiveness of the very earth and air and water for our recklessness?  This is not how the original stewards of the land used it.  How do we make amends?  How do we learn from our indigenous neighbours and from others brave enough to speak out, how to care for the earth, how to restore it?

The good news from the parable is that in so many areas of life, there are second chances for forgiveness and making amends.  Look at the gifts we might bring to the work of reversing climate change!  For one thing, we are willing to  study and learn.  Have you seen the books and other resources out in the narthex these last few weeks?  Some of us are learning a lot and want to share what we’ve learned.  Second, we have in our congregation some well-informed leaders, Gary Purdy for one, who are willing to talk with us about climate change, its causes and dire consequences, but also about ways we can reverse the slide toward an unlivable planet.  It’s not too late but we must act now, in the next decade, to make amends if we are to be successful.

One book I have found helpful in thinking about the ways we have misused the land we inhabit is Daniel Coleman’s “Yardwork.”  His book is about this very area of Ontario that we live on, this Haudenosaunee land we call we call Princess Point, Spencer Creek, Cootes Paradise, Ancaster Creek.  It’s about the hiking trails and waterfalls, the songbirds and the wildlife right close to us.  I was surprised to learn from Coleman some of the history of these places.  He tells us, for instance, that archeologists’ best guess is that Indigenous people were growing corn at Princess Point by 600 to 759 C.E.  That’s a long time before we colonizers lived here.

We have indeed paved Paradise and put up parking lots.  McMaster’s west campus parking sits surrounded by marsh.  Yet, somehow, Cootes Paradise is still spawning ground for 20 million fish fry, supplying half the fingerlings for all of Lake Ontario.  Information like this is helpful.  It gives us hope that our efforts at restoration can work.   Surely part of our repentance must be to notice and pay attention to what is happening around us; to talk about what we are learning; to take opportunities to learn from people who have lived here a long time and to those who do the research and write the books and articles.

A dozen or more of us have been gathering on some Thursday evenings to learn what we can do to reverse climate change.  This is “Bread for the Body, Food for the Soul,” of course.  Another gathering is scheduled for next Thursday because people find it really helpful and have asked our Christian Education Board for more sessions.  This might be the most important learning we’ll do this year at MacNeill and we need to keep up the momentum.  Please consider joining us.  It’s a simple supper of soup and bread and cheese and cookies.  Then we talk, watch podcasts, pray together.  You might want to consider making a personal pledge describing your positive step toward climate recuperation.  There’s a box and you don’t even have to sign your pledge, but we will find a way to share the steps people are taking to make amends to the earth.

I think true repentance involves what you might call coming down from our high horse; lowering ourselves as the younger son does when he throws himself at his father’s feet:  admitting our unworthiness and making a pledge to live a new life as stewards of creation.  When we come to our senses and come home, we have the promise in Scripture of a great feast, a cosmic feast even, where all who hear the call of God may gather to eat and to rejoice in abundant life for all.  Amen.



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