“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of his servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come, he replied, ‘ and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” Luke 15: 25-31
University of Texas research about self esteem considered two people, Max and Gene. Max considered his job robbing convenience stores. He did not graduate from college and felt very good about himself. In fact, Max seemed to possess a certain pride and self confidence. Gene graduated from Harvard Law School and took a job as head of a prestigious law firm. Yet his whole life Gene felt insecure and inadequate, and finally he took his own life. The study concluded that each person weights self values differently. I think many of us can relate to that study. How is it that we are blessed with so much, yet at times feel empty? How is it that we can be worth so much,, yet struggle with feeling worthless? Something hinders our relationship with God. It may be that there is a deep prodigal feeling that we have wasted God’s gifts. God welcomes us- if we recognize that fact, our spirituality will grow. That is the point of this sermon.
When the prodigal son decides to return to his father, he practices his arrival speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” Before he could say these words to his father, his father saw him coming from a distance, ran to him, and welcomed him back home. That welcome was just one of the ways Jesus shocked his listeners as they heard this parable. The fact that the son left in the first place was a cultural taboo. Kenneth Bailey, a professor at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut and expert on the culture of the parables, said that in all his years teaching in the Middle East, he only heard of one instance of a son asking his father for an advance inheritance. The father drove the son out of the house with a stick and the village cheered. A request like that was akin to telling your father you wished he would die.
The father figure in the parable represents God. This is the only instance in the Bible when we have God running. What good news to know that God runs toward us when we turn and head back to him! There is one person in the parable that would rename the story of the prodigal son to the Prodigal Father- and that is the elder son. He views the father’s celebration of the fatted calf and party as being wasted on the younger son. Filled with resentment toward his father, the elder son stood outside the party. Each child has experienced resentment against parents at one point or another. That kind of resentment can fill the heart and bring a cloud of darkness into life. Could it be that we resent God for some reason, and we are standing outside God’s celebration by our own choice? We would feel a lot better about ourselves if we felt good about our relationship with God. God wants us to experience the greatest joys of life, and he leads us towards them always.
My family does not withhold much to celebrate a child’s birthday. We believe that a child’s birthday is something to cherish and celebrate to the fullest. This weekend we celebrated the youngest child’s birthday. It was Anderson’s fourth birthday, and it may be one of his best memories so far. He felt so loved. At one point I even felt a little guilty as the expenses began to add up. Were we being wasteful? Then I justified the expenses. You turn four once in life, and four-year-olds deserve a fun birthday party.
Theologian Brennan Manning, the author of Ragamuffin Gospel, said one of his worst memories was his fourth birthday party. For a long while that party made his life stuck in the mud of low self esteem. Brennan’s mother submitted his picture into his neighborhood’s newspaper contest of best looking three year old in Brooklyn. His curly locks, chubby face, and blue eyes won his family ten dollars. Brennan recalled the birthday: “My mother gets the money and says I can have a birthday party, but there would be none of my little friends, no other children. I say this without a trace of bitterness or mean spirit, but I never knew a moment of love from my mother in my life. I have no memory of being held, hugged, embraced, or kissed by her. My mother was a registered nurse. When she came home, I was alone in the house. When she’d come in, I’d run and wrap my arms around her waist and she’d say, “Leave me alone, you’re such a pest. You’re such a nuisance. Go over in the corner and leave me alone!” … My mother never knew any love as a child, and was never able to give any as a parent. Instead of inviting children to my birthday party, my mother invited three married couples who were friends of hers and my dad. They came into the house. They haven’t seen me since my infant baptism, and they’re picking me up, hugging me and telling me what a wonderful little boy I am. I’m like a little sponge. I’m sucking up every bit of attention and affection I could get. And my mother says, “Stop that. It’s disgusting!” So I stopped. We go to the dining room table, and my father sits at one head, and I’m allowed to sit at the other head.
I’ve got on one of these two-cent birthday hats with the rubber band under the chin. A latecomer walks in, a man (his wife couldn’t come). He walks over to my seat, picks me up, throws me into the air, rolls me around and kisses my forehead, my eyes, my cheek, my neck. And then he held me out in front of him and said, “You are the most remarkable little boy I have ever met in my life. You’re very bright. You have a gentle spirit. Life is going to be very good to you.” Well, I really started to act out. I rubbed my nose against his, chewed on his hair and bit his ear. And my mother screams, “Why do you insist on shaming me in front of my friends? Your birthday party’s over. Go to bed!” Well, this ghastly pall fell over the table because of the intensity of my mother’s anger. As I went to my bedroom, my mother said, “Shut that door behind you.” So, I’m standing there, and there is no light in the room, only two lamps, and I am too short to reach the switch on the wall. Standing there in the darkness, I started to cry. I guess it was a combination of being rejected — my father never said a word; we had a matriarchal household — it was abandonment, it was the terrible shame of being humiliated in front of all these big people.
My mother always told me to wear my pajamas when I went to bed, and for some reason the very idea of being even temporarily naked while I found my pajamas in the drawer was even more frightening. So I left my clothes on. I found the pajamas and pulled them on over my clothes. I crawled into bed, pulling the covers up over me, and thought, “My mother’s going to come in right now and demand that I give back my birthday hat.” I cannot exaggerate how much I treasured that birthday hat. I was convinced that the reason people were nice to me, and not only spoke to me but actually listened when I spoke to them, was all because I wore that little birthday hat. I thought if I could wear that every day the rest of my life, my life would be a picnic on a green lawn. So I took the birthday hat off, shoved it under my pillow, and I said to myself, “I’ll just lie to my mother and tell her I lost it and don’t know where it is.”
Well, during the healing of memories, here I am four years old, lying on the bed and I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look up and it’s my Heavenly Father. He said, “Hi. Where’s your birthday hat?” I said, “Under the pillow.” He said, “Sit up and put it on.” I sat up and put it on, and he reached out and he held me. And he said, “Now hear me well. No one will ever take your birthday hat from you, and no one will ever tear you from my hands.”
Visualizing God the Father coming in his room to redeem that moment meant the world to Brennan, and God in the same way, knowing God’s love could redeem us as well. Jesus began teaching his disciples to pray to God as Father, but moving from creator of the universe to God as Father is quite a mental jump. But what is keeping us from taking that leap of faith? Do we need to pour
ourselves out in order for God’s spirit to fill us? Jesus doesn’t tell what happens after the father tries to get the elder son to enter the party. The passage ends with this exchange:
“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! My son, the father said, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” When God beckons us to enter the joy of his presence, what is keeping us outside? Whatever it is, God wants us to know it is never too late to join the celebration.
You may recall Rembrandt’s painting “The Prodigal Son” that features the son with a feathery hat lifting a glass of beers carousing with two women. Years later he painted, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Theologian Henry Nouwen visited the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia and watched that painting for two hours, noticing the features of the elder son who stood apart from the others.
Nouwen writes: “For a very long time I considered low self-esteem to be some kind of virtue. I had been warned so often against pride and conceit that I came to consider it a good thing to deprecate myself. But now I realize that the real sin is to deny God’s first love for me, to ignore my original goodness. Because without claiming that first love and that original goodness for myself, I lose touch with my true self and embark on the destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of my Father. Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly-fatherly love of God and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives. In his painting of the father, Rembrandt offers me a glimpse of that love. It is a love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate.”
Even though we miss God’s gracious invitation, God continually welcomes us. Caryll Houselander wrote in the book, The Reed of God: “If ever you have loved anyone very deeply, and then lost him through separation, estrangement, or even by death, you will know that there is an instinct to look for him in every crowd. The human heart is not reasonable; it will go on seeking for those whom it loves even when they are dead. It will miss a beat when someone passes by who bears them the least resemblance; a tilt of the hat, an uneven walk, a note in the voice.” Just as we look for our loved ones, God looks for us. God is looking for us in the celebration. What is keeping us from coming in? What in our lives
needs to be let go in order to feel fully freed to be in the presence of God? Jesus taught that God is looking for our true selves. That should fill us with confidence.
When the poet Maya Angelou moved to San Francisco she lived as an agnostic. It felt like the natural thing to be. Once she was doing a voice exercise and the teacher told her to repeat the last few words of a reading which were, “God loves me.” The teacher told her to read it again, and she did, time and time again. She writes: “After about the seventh repetition I began to sense there might be some truth in this statement. That there was a possibility that God really loves me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew if God loved me, I could do wonderful things. I could do great things. I could learn anything. I could achieve anything. For what could stand against me with God, since one person, any person, with God form a majority now.”
In this familiar story of the prodigal son, we may discover that for some reason we are standing outside the celebration of God’s joy. Maybe we have a memory that needs to be healed. Maybe we feel that life is just unfair. Or maybe we feel as if being apart from God is the natural thing to do at this time in life. Jesus teaches that God wants to replace the resentment in our hearts with the joy of celebration. May this good news about God’s love for you lift your spirit to the highest heights. Amen.