March 6 Sermon

Date: 6 March 2016 – Lent 4                                                                                                     
Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32                                                                                                          
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS

Kim and I appear to like paintings that feature windows looking out on the horizon. A few months ago Lucy and I were at a Street Yard Sale in Halifax and I spotted a large print of the Christopher Pratt work Cottage Interior. It is now prominently displayed in the office where I work. I’ve thought long and hard about why I like it so much. When I sit behind my desk and look at the print I see the long horizon, the informal porch setting and the sense that in an ordinary moment we can see “the big picture”.

At the Seaport Market last week Kim saw a painting by a local artist (Mason’s Point Road), the frame was a rustic, like barn board and just inside the frame was the painting itself, a window looking out on a meadow, water and a hazy horizon. It’s a little confusing since the frame itself is almost identical to the window in the middle of the painting. I asked Kim why she chose the painting. She responded, “Because I like it, not everyone spends hours and hours trying to figure everything out you know. Some of us just live life as it comes, they aren’t interested in analyzing everything!”

OK, guilty as charged! But I am not alone. The late Roman Catholic Priest, author, and mystic, Henri Houwen, once convinced the curator at the State Hermitage Art Gallery in Saint Petersburg, Russia that he could sit alone in a comfortable chair for hours at a time, for weeks at a time, staring at the oil painting The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. Why? Nouwen the mystic wanted to absorb all of the lessons the painting could teach him, the classic Gospel text mediated by the creative genius of Rembrandt. As a result of this intense spiritual exercise Nouwen was able to pen a very short and readable book, available at our Halifax Library. In the book Nouwen spends time looking at each of the three persons portrayed in the painting and asking himself what that Gospel character has to teach him.

Nouwen struggles to identify with the younger brother, the prodigal, which means extravagant. Nouwen had always done the right thing, was polite to his elders, respectful of authority, worked hard, and played by the rules. He excelled at school, church, writing. But moving deeper into younger son’s identity in the story, in the painting, Nouwen realized there was one aspect of God’s love he had never truly experienced. Testing the limits of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness was something completely foreign to Nouwen. While he knew what grace was, what it meant, Nouwen did not understand grace as part of his life for deep down he wondered…if he had not worked hard, if he had not been good, if he had not succeeded, would God still love him, would God welcome him home?

Tell me you haven’t felt like Nouwen? There have been many, many sociological studies done of who goes to church and why. Basically it is people like Nouwen, the oldest sibling, hard-working persons, clever persons, and successful persons. They/we come to reaffirm all the reasons we have made it, that we passed the test, we made it by our wits and brains and sweat equity. Words of grace may be on our lips but in our hearts we feel we’ve earned this love. We weren’t welcome home. We had to earn our way into the doorway, now and to eternity.

Jesus spent a lot of time eating with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees couldn’t believe a holy man would spend his free time with very poor people. It is actually in response to the Pharisees’ comments that Jesus tells this parable. He’s talking to them. The Pharisees would not have understood or had any more empathy for this younger brother than we do.

Then there comes the father. While Nouwen, as a Priest, has never married or had children, he does have some experience with the love of a father. The painting shows a loving father, hands placed on the back of his kneeling son, who has just returned home. Nouwen offers this penetrating look into the Father’s heart: “The same God who suffers because of his immense love for his children is the God who is rich in goodness and mercy and who desires to reveal to his children the richness of his glory. The father does not even give his son a chance to apologize. He pre-empts his son’s begging by spontaneous forgiveness and puts aside his pleas as completely irrelevant in the light of the joy at his return. But there is more. Not only does the father forgive without asking questions and joyfully welcome his lost son home, but he cannot wait to give him new life, life in abundance. So strongly does God desire to give life to his returning son that he seems almost impatient. Nothing is good enough. The very best must be given to him. While the son is prepared to be treated as a hired servant, the father calls for the robe reserved for a distinguished guest; and, although the son no longer feels worthy to be called son, the father gives him a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet to honor him as his beloved son and restore him as his heir.” (p. 111)

Does this story speak to you? Is this father someone who has wisdom for your life? How difficult is it to get there, to be this person, to love this way? Most of us in church today are oldest siblings, or at least we act like one. We cannot imagine being so frivolous, so loose with everything, so disrespectful of our parents, of authority. We cannot conceive of being so greedy and lazy and selfish, that this youngest brother is a bridge too far for us. But we can imagine, from time to time, being the father, at least partially. We might welcome home a lost soul, we might give them things, and we might even throw them a party. BUT FIRST we would need to shame them, make them feel small for what they did, wait for some groveling and contrite heart to be exposed, and then, and only then, will be like this father. It will not surprise you to learn that Nouwen said he gained the most perspective from looking at the father in this painting.

And finally we come to the older brother. One might expect that this reunion scene would occupy the centre of the canvas, but it does not. Look carefully, it is placed on the left hand side. To the right stands another man, at a distance, watching the reunion with detached glazed eyes, hands folded near his chest. It is that oldest son of course. Clearly, the artist is giving equal weighting to the reunion and to the reaction of the oldest son. The way Rembrandt paints their hands says it all. The father’s hands are bathed in light, and the oldest son’s in darkness…hands reaching out in unconditional forgiveness, contrasted with hands clasped close to the chest, refusing to reconcile.

Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock points out, "Sure, let the prodigal return, but to bread and water, not fatted calf and cabernet; in sackcloth, not a new robe; in ashes, not a new ring; in tears and not in merriment, and kneeling, not dancing. The older brother’s outrage seems natural, doesn’t it? He had seen his father’s face the morning after he gave his youngest son his share of the inheritance, and watched him walk away. He had watched his father stand at the gate of his property every single evening just before the sun went down, peering into the dusk, hoping against hope a solitary figure would appear on the road, and then turn and walk back to the house, alone. He had witnessed the spirit go out of his father. He had seen the depth of his father’s love for his younger brother; and he would have gladly given his share of the inheritance to the prodigal brother, to know for just a moment or two, that he was loved as deeply. But that’s, of course, precisely what he didn’t know, because he had never tested it. His younger brother had tested it, and found it to be as deep as the ocean.”

Take a good look at your hands. We can’t see the hands of the younger brother, but they are nestled around his father, an embrace of love and acceptance. Have your hands felt such things? Now look at the father’s hands. They are open, they are extended, and they are holding the son you thought was dead and gone. Their grip is light, but they hold all that matters. Have your hands felt such things? Finally, look at the older son’s hands. One hand holds the other, there is an anxiety here, a grip of upset, and a clenched hand says it all. We know our hands have felt such things. Imagine, somewhere on the horizon, we see the big picture, we know we need to let go and place our hands on those we love and let others places their hands on us.

Please join me in singing VU 570
Jesus' hands were kind hands Doing good to all
Healing pain and sickness Blessing children small
Washing tired feetAnd saving those who fall
Jesus' hands were kind hands Doing good to all.
Take my hands, Lord Jesus, let them work for you;
make them strong and gentle, kind in all I do;
let me watch you, Jesus, till I'm gentle too,
till my hands are kind hands, quick to work for you.

Amen.