— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 4th Sunday in Lent ~~~
We could build a religion on the story we are about to hear
of the prodigal sons and their loving father!
Everything we would need is right here in this story –
insight into the nature of God … namely, God is
generous, freedom giving, forgiving, running to meet us!
We could build a religion on this story!
The story gives us insight into the nature of human beings…
We are sometimes selfish, unforgiving
yet we are also capable of selfless love
and deep searching after meaningful life.
The story we are about to hear gives us
insight into the importance of human relationships…
parents loving children no matter what,
children struggling to find their own way
while honoring or failing to honor father and mother.
It is all here in this story!
We could build a religion on this story!
Today I don’t need to, or want to, build a religion because we already have that gift; praise be! What I want to do is make a simple point that focuses on the two brothers. I think they both shared a shortcoming, a blind spot, a failure of spirit that led to strain on their relationship with their father and with each other. Listen now for truth in an important yet simple story…
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then 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 slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “
When my nephew, Bobby, was two years old, he lived in Luverne, Alabama with his mother, my sister, and his father and older sister and brother. Now, some of you may have never heard of Luverne; it is the home of the famous “Sister Schubert” rolls. Luverne is also an Alabama version of Mayberry, R.F.D. And in early December, 1995 my dying mother and I made a trip to Luverne that was very important.
On that trip, however, and just to give you a feel for the place, my sister needed to go to the pharmacy to get some medicine for Bobby. She told me to wait in the car, that it would only take a second. And then she added as she closed the car door – “I know these people.” After twenty minutes or so I went in to see what was happening. The pharmacist was working hard, and my sister was next in line. What’s going on? I asked. My sister, having lived in Luverne for several years now said, “Oh, he’s not from around here.” As if this would be all the explanation I would need. I said, “Where’s he from – Mt. Pilot?” My sister laughed and said “Probably!” Eventually the outsider pharmacist got the job done, and we were off to the house to do what my mom and I had come to do.
I had driven my dying mother down to Luverne from Montgomery to take a “race car” bed to her grandson. We put it together. We made slats from old boards in the attic. And Bobby, the two year old grandson climbed into his own bed and started to drive. It was a hit! And it helped Bobby make the transition to sleeping in his own bedroom and in his own bed. It was a hit with the whole family!
You have to have a reason to go to Luverne. For my mother, the reason was her grandson. Mom knew her time left on earth was short. She died on January 7th, 1996 – about a month after the trip to Luverne. But the best way she knew to use her time was to take that trip of about ninety miles to offer a gift to a child she loved. Mom traveled from the state capital to a little backwater place to lay her gifts at the feet of little Bobby. It gave my mother great joy to do this simple thing!
In her last months of life Mary Warden Prim did not need a castle rising in Spain, nor to dance to a constantly surprising refrain, no moon in the sky or a blue lagoon standing by… as the love song, My Romance goes (Rodgers and Hart)… all she needed to make her most fantastic dreams come true was the simple joy of loving and giving a race car bed to her grandson.
The younger son in Jesus’ story needed more than the family farm, the love of his parents, the fraternity of his brother. Maybe he needed castles in Spain and blue lagoons standing by. He needed to see the world. He needed to fly the coup and soar on his own. His father’s life was just that…his father’s life; it was not his life. The younger son wanted to find his own way, chart his own journey, discover his own truth in the world.
There was nobility in this younger son’s quest. We are built to be free and to make of the world what we can make of it. It can be suffocating to exist under the reputation and accumulated wealth and cultural capital of your parents. There could have been for the younger son in Jesus’ story a natural, healthy, life-giving drive to be his own man and to grow into his own life; so, I don’t want us to quickly dismiss this young man as selfish, disrespectful, flagrantly hedonistic.
It does seem, however, that this young man failed to take notice of the simple joys of his life. Maybe to see those simple gifts he had to venture out on his own, he had to come to his senses after a descent into a world without the basic elements needed for fullness of life – food, shelter, loving companionship. It seems he was blind to the gifts of his family life and ultimately he came to see that which was really important.
The younger son came to his senses. The story does not let us know if the older son came to his. His blindness was similar to his younger brother’s but his blindness was embodied in a different way. The elder brother never cashed in his inheritance to go see the world; rather, he was dutiful, reliable, servile. The elder brother was the one who never gave his father a moment of trouble. The elder brother just lowered his head and did his work. His fulfillment of duty, however, was without delight. He, too, was blind to the simple joys of life on the farm. He, like his younger brother, did not have eyes to see the beauty of being surrounded by familial love, enough to eat, shelter, and friends in the wider community. His daily life was fulfillment of responsibilities without a sense of the wonder, grace, and relational happiness. At the end of the story the elder son was invited into a party of all that he had failed to see, but we are not given his answer to the invitation; we do not know if he went into the party or simply nurtured a life of resentment.
Part of the calling of this story, the lesson from the brothers, I think, is to find deep joy in ordinary life and day to day relationships. This story calls us to open our eyes to the blessings that are right before us – food, friendships, family, shelter, the possibilities for forgiveness. There is more freedom in the love of simple things than in the accumulation of expensive toys and exotic experiences.
Day to day we are invited to come around to the truth of the song by Elder Joseph Brackett written in 1848 from the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine….
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
Another truth embedded in this simple story from Jesus is that God, our Parent, is patient and recognizes the challenges of being human. We hunger for meaning and purpose and sometimes we make mistakes trying to find our way in this world. God, however, recognizes our frailties and is always ready to welcome us back when we come to our senses.
In a sermon on this passage Tom Long, professor of homiletics at Candler School of Theology, recounts a story about a woman who was reminiscing about her father…
She said that when she was young, she was very close to her father. The time she experienced this closeness the most was when they would have big family gatherings with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. At some point, someone would pull out the old record player and put on polka records, and the family would dance. Eventually, someone would put on the “Beer Barrel Polka;” and when the music of the “Beer Barrel Polka” played, her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, “I believe this is our dance,” and they would dance.
One time, though, when she was a teenager, and in one of those teenaged moods, and the “Beer Barrel Polka” began to play and when her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, “I believe this is our dance,” she snapped at him, “Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!” And her father turned away and never asked her to dance again.
“Our relationship was difficult all through my teen years,” she wrote. “When I would come home late from a date, my father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep, wearing an old bathrobe, and I would snarl at him, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He would look at me with sad eyes and say, ‘I was just waiting on you.'”
“When I went away to college,” the woman wrote, “I was so glad to get out of his house and away from him and for years I never communicated with him, but as I grew older, I began to miss him.
One day I decided to go to the next family gathering, and when I was there, somebody put on the “Beer Barrel Polka.” I drew a deep breath, walked over to my father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I believe this is our dance.’ He turned toward me and said, ‘I’ve been waiting on you.'”
Tom Long concluded this story by proposing this… Standing at the center of our life is the God who says to us, “Everything I have is yours. All that I am is for you, and I’ve been waiting on you.” (Dr. Tom Long, Day 1, March 21,2004)
So, I say, on this day, let us pray
that God will give us eyes to see the beauty of simple gifts
and the ever-present invitation of God –
I believe this is our dance! Amen.