Sermon for Sunday, February 17, 2013

Forgiveness: A Season Of Release

Lent 1 – Luke 15:11-32 ~ “Modeling Forgiveness”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

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When several of us who do worship planning each week pondered what theme we might focus on during the season of Lent this year, the primal human struggle with forgiveness rose to the top of our conversation.  We talked about how a congregation like ours, that makes openness, honesty, and vulnerability positive values to be honored and celebrated will also become, quite naturally, a congregation that is hospitable to folks who are hurting, feel broken, and thus yearn for both the act of forgiving others as well as the act of being forgiven.  We have called, therefore, for a “Season Of Release.”

It is right and good that we have both embedded the discussion about such a complex and deep human effort as forgiveness in both an entire “season” as well as in a spiritual context.  This recognizes that forgiveness is often not something mechanical, that can be turned on and off like a light switch, but more often is something organic, that opens up like a seed or a flower or that shifts gradually like the movement of the sun or moon across the sky.  Our appreciation for forgiveness will not change overnight, nor will it be transformed because of one sermon.  This approach also underscores the fact that how we understand forgiveness directly reflects our understanding of how the world is made, how God acts in our world, and how our very salvation is shaped.  Forgiveness is a core theme of a spiritual life.

So, we shall look to scripture, our guide and our guardian in our efforts to understand life better and the ways of forgiveness more fully.  We will look at our forbearers in the faith, those whose lives have been preserved and lifted up in scripture, and shall ask the question, “How does this model forgiveness for those of us who follow?”  This question should always be followed by another question, and that is, “How, then, do I model forgiveness for others around me?”  Some of those whose lives are recorded in scripture offer beautiful models of forgiveness.  We might emulate them.  Others offer a model that should be held in contrast.  We might ought to be wary of their guidance and avoid their pitfalls!  More often than not, I suspect, our sisters and brothers in the faith provided a rich tapestry of ways of holding on and being distorted by the pains of life as well as ways of releasing our hurts to free us up to live and to love.  We’ll need to decide for ourselves.

And we begin with a look at the epic story of forgiveness, told by Jesus himself, with multifaceted characters who offer up reflections of ourselves and others for comparison, contrast, and discernment.  I will begin as all great journeys of the mind and the heart should, with questions.  We will have time later to discover answers as they are revealed.  Today, we will open up the story known to us as “The Prodigal Son,” but may as well be titled, “The Forgiving Father,” or even “The Resentful Brother.”  You decide.

Let us start with this wayward son who has been given the title role.  History has made famous his bold request for his portion of the inheritance, his rebellious ways while far away from home, his penitential return to his father’s house, and the over-the-top celebration for him upon his return.  But many questions are raised for me from this young son’s vantage point.  > What on earth would have made him so eager to ask for his portion of his inheritance, an act that essentially said to his father, “You are as dead to me!” for an inheritance is never given while the parent is still alive?  Could there have been something more than simply a child’s immature anger at a father’s preference for his first-born son and the ensuing casual dismissal of his younger son?  Might there have been a deeper grievance that left this young son to feel his best option was to leave his childhood home for places unknown?  Abuse, perhaps even? > The story sets us up to think harshly about the wantonness of this maverick of a boy, but those of us who are younger siblings know how very much attention and honor our older sisters and brothers get, sometimes deservedly and sometimes not at all.

+ Is the prodigal the only one that needs to ask for forgiveness in this story?  Is there anyone that should be asking the young son for forgiveness?  What burdens in this story needs to be released, let go, allowed to float away like a cloud in the summer sky?

And what about the father, who comes off looking so good and magnanimous in this story.  Why is he so quickly approximated as God?  What would cause an apparently able bodied man of sound mind to give half of his property away to his youngest child, seemingly without a second thought?  Why is their no spouse nor partner mentioned in the story?  Is there possibly a deep well of grief from which all three men draw and drink sorrow?  Would it make more sense to give a child an inheritance if you, yourself, are broken with grief at the loss of your beloved?  Would it make more sense to have the party of a lifetime upon the return of your lost son if you had been praying for the return of another one who you knew could never embrace you again?  > And as is frequently the case, could the father’s extravagant response to the prodigal’s return reflect in some way his own prodigal adventures years ago?  What if the father had been an errant son, and had returned to his childhood home with very different consequences?  Could his disproportionate response to his own son belie the fact that he was treated differently when he returned home, perhaps to shame, a harsh punishment and a biting rebuke?

+ Is the father the only one to offer forgiveness in this story?  What if he is in need of forgiveness from God for having roared in the night at the death of his wife and partner?  Or what if the “Forgiving Father” had spent a lifetime trying to forgive his own parents and in this moment, captured for all time in scripture, we witness the final release of his pent up anger and his receiving the grace of having finally forgiven?

And lastly we turn to the older brother.  Oftentimes he is treated as an afterthought to the story or a straw horse to be knocked down so quickly.  We use him as an example of how NOT to act, as the model of a poor response to the abundant grace and exhilarating forgiveness of the father.  > However, it is fairly easy to get into his shoes of resentment, as so many of us who have been the responsible sibling know.  Perhaps this instance of the prodigal’s wandering was just the latest in a series of bad choices the younger brother had made and the older brother had to clean up?  What if the older brother had felt compelled to take care of the younger one’s misbehavior behind the back of the father, in order to save the father the grief of knowing exactly how disobedient his younger, perhaps “favorite,” son was?  I imagine this could be the last straw for the older brother, having cleaned up messes one too many times.  > Or perhaps the older brother is angry that the younger brother beat him to the punch?  What if he had planned the very next day to approach his father and ask for his half of the inheritance, and was stunned to learn that his younger brother commandeered his idea and made his escape impossible!  > And let us not ignore the weight that all too many older children have had when it became crystal clear that their future will be tied not to their own hopes and dreams, but to the hopes and dreams of their parents, as the “family business” was destined to fall onto their shoulders whether they liked it or not.

+ Maybe, just maybe, the older brother deserves more of our sympathy that history has allowed.  Perhaps his need for forgiveness is overridden by his need to be asked for forgiveness?  It is possible that both the younger son and the older father might have need of asking the older son to release them from his all-too-legitimate anger?

Sisters and brothers, let us enter intentionally and faithfully into this season of release, exploring the powerful concept of forgiveness.  I pray that this hour of worship is not the only place you delve into this important topic, for I suspect each one of us has great need to understand forgiveness better and that there are those among us yearning to give forgiveness and be forgiven.  Spend time this week asking questions of those places in your heart that beg for release and those people in your lives who yearn to be released by you.  And may the saints of scripture model for us, in some manner, a way to truly be a forgiven and forgiving people.  I look forward to the journey.  Amen.

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Sermon for Sunday, February 17, 2013

Forgiveness: A Season Of Release

Lent 1 – Luke 15:11-32 ~ “Modeling Forgiveness”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

When several of us who do worship planning each week pondered what theme we might focus on during the season of Lent this year, the primal human struggle with forgiveness rose to the top of our conversation.  We talked about how a congregation like ours, that makes openness, honesty, and vulnerability positive values to be honored and celebrated will also become, quite naturally, a congregation that is hospitable to folks who are hurting, feel broken, and thus yearn for both the act of forgiving others as well as the act of being forgiven.  We have called, therefore, for a “Season Of Release.”

It is right and good that we have both embedded the discussion about such a complex and deep human effort as forgiveness in both an entire “season” as well as in a spiritual context.  This recognizes that forgiveness is often not something mechanical, that can be turned on and off like a light switch, but more often is something organic, that opens up like a seed or a flower or that shifts gradually like the movement of the sun or moon across the sky.  Our appreciation for forgiveness will not change overnight, nor will it be transformed because of one sermon.  This approach also underscores the fact that how we understand forgiveness directly reflects our understanding of how the world is made, how God acts in our world, and how our very salvation is shaped.  Forgiveness is a core theme of a spiritual life.

So, we shall look to scripture, our guide and our guardian in our efforts to understand life better and the ways of forgiveness more fully.  We will look at our forbearers in the faith, those whose lives have been preserved and lifted up in scripture, and shall ask the question, “How does this model forgiveness for those of us who follow?”  This question should always be followed by another question, and that is, “How, then, do I model forgiveness for others around me?”  Some of those whose lives are recorded in scripture offer beautiful models of forgiveness.  We might emulate them.  Others offer a model that should be held in contrast.  We might ought to be wary of their guidance and avoid their pitfalls!  More often than not, I suspect, our sisters and brothers in the faith provided a rich tapestry of ways of holding on and being distorted by the pains of life as well as ways of releasing our hurts to free us up to live and to love.  We’ll need to decide for ourselves.

And we begin with a look at the epic story of forgiveness, told by Jesus himself, with multifaceted characters who offer up reflections of ourselves and others for comparison, contrast, and discernment.  I will begin as all great journeys of the mind and the heart should, with questions.  We will have time later to discover answers as they are revealed.  Today, we will open up the story known to us as “The Prodigal Son,” but may as well be titled, “The Forgiving Father,” or even “The Resentful Brother.”  You decide.

Let us start with this wayward son who has been given the title role.  History has made famous his bold request for his portion of the inheritance, his rebellious ways while far away from home, his penitential return to his father’s house, and the over-the-top celebration for him upon his return.  But many questions are raised for me from this young son’s vantage point.  > What on earth would have made him so eager to ask for his portion of his inheritance, an act that essentially said to his father, “You are as dead to me!” for an inheritance is never given while the parent is still alive?  Could there have been something more than simply a child’s immature anger at a father’s preference for his first-born son and the ensuing casual dismissal of his younger son?  Might there have been a deeper grievance that left this young son to feel his best option was to leave his childhood home for places unknown?  Abuse, perhaps even? > The story sets us up to think harshly about the wantonness of this maverick of a boy, but those of us who are younger siblings know how very much attention and honor our older sisters and brothers get, sometimes deservedly and sometimes not at all.

+ Is the prodigal the only one that needs to ask for forgiveness in this story?  Is there anyone that should be asking the young son for forgiveness?  What burdens in this story needs to be released, let go, allowed to float away like a cloud in the summer sky?

And what about the father, who comes off looking so good and magnanimous in this story.  Why is he so quickly approximated as God?  What would cause an apparently able bodied man of sound mind to give half of his property away to his youngest child, seemingly without a second thought?  Why is their no spouse nor partner mentioned in the story?  Is there possibly a deep well of grief from which all three men draw and drink sorrow?  Would it make more sense to give a child an inheritance if you, yourself, are broken with grief at the loss of your beloved?  Would it make more sense to have the party of a lifetime upon the return of your lost son if you had been praying for the return of another one who you knew could never embrace you again?  > And as is frequently the case, could the father’s extravagant response to the prodigal’s return reflect in some way his own prodigal adventures years ago?  What if the father had been an errant son, and had returned to his childhood home with very different consequences?  Could his disproportionate response to his own son belie the fact that he was treated differently when he returned home, perhaps to shame, a harsh punishment and a biting rebuke?

+ Is the father the only one to offer forgiveness in this story?  What if he is in need of forgiveness from God for having roared in the night at the death of his wife and partner?  Or what if the “Forgiving Father” had spent a lifetime trying to forgive his own parents and in this moment, captured for all time in scripture, we witness the final release of his pent up anger and his receiving the grace of having finally forgiven?

And lastly we turn to the older brother.  Oftentimes he is treated as an afterthought to the story or a straw horse to be knocked down so quickly.  We use him as an example of how NOT to act, as the model of a poor response to the abundant grace and exhilarating forgiveness of the father.  > However, it is fairly easy to get into his shoes of resentment, as so many of us who have been the responsible sibling know.  Perhaps this instance of the prodigal’s wandering was just the latest in a series of bad choices the younger brother had made and the older brother had to clean up?  What if the older brother had felt compelled to take care of the younger one’s misbehavior behind the back of the father, in order to save the father the grief of knowing exactly how disobedient his younger, perhaps “favorite,” son was?  I imagine this could be the last straw for the older brother, having cleaned up messes one too many times.  > Or perhaps the older brother is angry that the younger brother beat him to the punch?  What if he had planned the very next day to approach his father and ask for his half of the inheritance, and was stunned to learn that his younger brother commandeered his idea and made his escape impossible!  > And let us not ignore the weight that all too many older children have had when it became crystal clear that their future will be tied not to their own hopes and dreams, but to the hopes and dreams of their parents, as the “family business” was destined to fall onto their shoulders whether they liked it or not.

+ Maybe, just maybe, the older brother deserves more of our sympathy that history has allowed.  Perhaps his need for forgiveness is overridden by his need to be asked for forgiveness?  It is possible that both the younger son and the older father might have need of asking the older son to release them from his all-too-legitimate anger?

Sisters and brothers, let us enter intentionally and faithfully into this season of release, exploring the powerful concept of forgiveness.  I pray that this hour of worship is not the only place you delve into this important topic, for I suspect each one of us has great need to understand forgiveness better and that there are those among us yearning to give forgiveness and be forgiven.  Spend time this week asking questions of those places in your heart that beg for release and those people in your lives who yearn to be released by you.  And may the saints of scripture model for us, in some manner, a way to truly be a forgiven and forgiving people.  I look forward to the journey.  Amen.

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