The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare)
10 March 2013
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Joshua (4:19-24,) 5:9-12
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Last spring I taught the Prodigal Son to our Sunday School class. I had never done that before. We had included the story in our curriculum because it is such a jolly tale and because it illustrates more clearly than any other in Scripture, I would argue, the depths of God’s love for us. I made this choice because I had an idea, not because I thought it would teach particularly well to a group of young children.
When I sat down to prepare for the lesson, I looked in the book I had been taking as a guide for our curriculum, our friend Bill Gordh’s Building a Children's Chapel one Story at a Time, and read the version there. I was particularly taken by his pairing of the story with the great hymn “Amazing Grace.” This was an excellent choice, I thought. The hymn, as we all know, expresses the author’s own sense of being enveloped by God’s love, having turned his life from the slave trade to the cause of abolition and a vocation to the Anglican priesthood. Indeed, with William sitting on my lap in chapel at his old school, I had experienced Bill telling the story and having us all sing “Amazing Grace” at the end. I felt it had worked very well and I was excited to share this experience with our children with me as the storyteller.
While preparing my version, I took a hard look at the text from Luke and I decided that I would try something different. Luke’s own words are so full of colour and texture that they help us imagine the scene as it unfolds. Indeed, this story helps us understand why fairly early on folks began to imagine Luke as not just an evangelist but also as a painter. It seemed that the children should hear the Bible story in its original form—with some additional explanation where necessary—as this particular episode is so carefully laid out. Not all Bible stories work this well. The description of the Flood in Genesis, for example, needed a good deal of help and Bill’s version was just perfect. Luke, however, is a different case. Our word painter carefully draws an image of a family, of a place, and of real conflict and teaches us something profound about the love of God.
On that Sunday morning, therefore, I began as we began just a few moments ago: “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me.’” And we continued,
“And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.” Now, this whole question of squandering ones property on “loose living” did have to be explained, so I asked young Master Smithie, what would happen if he spent all of his father’s money on candy and playing video games. He and the others, you will be pleased to know, got the point and decided that that was not such a good thing.
So we continued,
And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father.
They certainly understood how the younger son had gotten himself into quite a pickle and I asked them what they though about his decisions. Did they think it was right that he should go off to work in a hard and lowly job? Did they think it was sensible for him to think of returning home? How did they feel about his idea to go home and work for his father? How did they think the father would react? Luke’s story naturally evokes these questions and forces us to think hard about the decision we make. I am happy to report that once again our children are thinking along the right track. They understood the young man being afraid to come home, afraid to ask for outright forgiveness, they understood his desire to put himself to hard labour. They also had a sense that the father would be receptive.
I read them more:
But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
The children discovered that they were quite right. The father was receptive; and not only was he receptive, but he did not even wait for the son to get all the way home and make that offer of working as a servant. The father acted first. He came out to meet his son and “embraced and kissed” him. The children understood the young man’s desire to still spew forth his apology and his offer—it is truly the natural thing for the boy to have done. They understood the joy of the father and understood his response. When I asked them whether the father reminded them of someone, a couple of hands shot up and responded, “God!” They got it. They knew that God, like the father in the story, forgives his children and always is prepared to embrace us when we return to him.
The story does not stop there, however, so we pressed on:
Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always
with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'
They had understood how and why the father had forgiven and embraced his younger son. I now asked them if they understood the older brother’s feelings. Indeed, since we have a number of children with siblings, there was no problem here, as well. They instinctually knew why the older brother was miffed, but could see the father’s point. They could see and know and feel that God’s love is big enough for all his children. They knew that when one child has gone away, perhaps for ever, and now that child is back, it is a cause for rejoicing. God’s love is big enough for all of us. It is big enough for those of us who keep to the straight and narrow and for those of us who do not. It truly big enough for those of us who make mistakes—which means it is big enough for everyone.
God waits for each and every one of us. God runs out to meet each and every one of when we return to him. He embraces us like a lost child and holds us fast. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” knew this from his experience returning to port from the slave trade to a new vision of a world full of God's love. Our children got this from the story of the Prodigal Son—better titled, in fact, the forgiving father—and I hope we all hear this again, loud and clear this morning. Amen.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
8 March 2013
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume