Rev. Bradley J. Bergfalk
First Congregational Church of Litchfield
The Welcoming Father
There was a man who had two sons. So begins perhaps one of the most well-known stories of the Bible. And the younger son said to his father, "Father, give me the share of the property that belongs to me." So the father divided his property and gave the share of his inheritance to his younger son. Those who heard Jesus tell this story must have been shocked by the brazen character of a son who approaches his father while he is still living and asks him to give him his share of the inheritance. The young son might as well as said to his father, "I wish you were dead so I can benefit from the largess of your estate."
And the father's response is even more startling when rather than disowning his greedy son and sending him away penniless, the father actually divides his assets and gives to his son what he asked for. And to be clear, this was not simply a matter of the father calling up his stock broker and requesting that he sell some shares so he can make a distribution to his son. Wealth in the ancient world was measured by land and animals not by the size of one's bank account. So for the father to give half of his estate to his young son would have required him to sell real property.
Once the younger son receives his share of the estate, he packs up his things and moves to a far country. And while he was there, he squandered everything he was given by living an out of control lifestyle. And before he knows it, he is penniless. So he scours the job postings and he gets a job working for a pig farmer. And while the young son was feeding the pigs the leftovers from yesterday's dinner, he comes to the realization that the life he is living doesn't hold a candle to the life he left on his father's estate. The text says, "he came to his senses."
The younger son comes to his senses, he wakes up, he figures things out, he receives "therapy on the run" and the things he left back on his father's farm seem pretty good right about now.
The hard work he did under the tutelage of his father was no comparison to the work required of him in a foreign country. And then he began to think about some of the servants who his father employed, it dawned on him that they lived at a higher standard of living than he did.
But he knew that he had disgraced his father by taking his share of his inheritance so he would need to pay some kind of restitution if he returned to his father's house. Perhaps if his father would take him back as a hired hand.
So he devised a plan to return to his father, hat in hand, and prepared to become a hired hand.
There in the pigsty, the younger son rehearses his speech for his father. And when he feels he's ready for encounter to come, he heads home prepared to get what he deserved. The young son comes within sight of his father's house and the father sees him from a long way off and does something no one expects-- he runs to greet his son. As someone has noted, in ancient Mediterranean culture, well-healed gentlemen didn't run. Children might run. Women might run. Young men might be seen running. But not the paterfamilias, not the dignified member of the community, not the owner of a large estate. But this father does. And when he reaches his son, "he puts his arms around him and kissed him."
This uncharacteristic behavior would have flummoxed the young son who was expecting quite the opposite. And as he begins to rehearse the speech he has been working on for months, the father will have none of that. The father interrupts him and calls to his servants, "bring the best robe and place it on my son. Bring my signet ring-which signifies the sons place as an heir in the family-- and put it on his finger. And give him a new pair of shoes. Kill the fatted calf and let's have a party." And then the father says the line that gets stuck in my throat every time I read it. He says, "for this son of mine was dead and now he is alive; he was lost and now he is found." So they celebrated the new life of a lost son who is now found.
The older brother who has remained with his father heard about the celebration for the return of his lost brother and he was furious. He doesn't even enter to the room he is so mad. Why is the older brother responding this way? He tells his father that he has never slaughtered the fatted calf for him. He says, "I've been working my tail off all this time and my brother has done nothing." Can't you just feel the resentment dripping from this response to his father's lavish love.
After listening to the rant of the older son, the father responds with amazing tenderness of heart, "my son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we have to celebrate, because hardly a day has gone by when I didn't think about your brother. Wonder and worry.
We have to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and now is alive; he was lost and finally he is now found.
Catholic spiritual writer Henri Nouwen received special permission from the Hermitage art museum in St. Petersburg, Russia to go into the museum after hours and sit in front of Rembrandt's painting entitled, "The Prodigal Son." As he sat hour after hour reflecting on the art, he thought about the story from which Rembrandt painted this famous picture. As a result of his extended reflection, he wrote a wonderful little book entitled, "The Return of the Prodigal Son-A Story of Homecoming."
Today, our over-arching theme is Homecoming. It doesn't matter whether you've been gone what seems like forever or you never really left, we worship and celebrate today a God who is in the business of welcoming people home. What is so amazing about this story about the two brothers is not the extent to which the younger brother managed to dishonor his father, squander his wealth, and find his way back home. Nor is the amazing thing about this story the fact an angry and resentful older brother, who has been picking up the slack in his younger brothers absence, refusing to celebrate the return of his errant brother.
What is so amazing about this story is the father. In fact, this story would be more accurately called the prodigal father because a prodigal according to Merriam-Webster is someone who is characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure, someone who yields abundantly. The real prodigal in this story a father who suffers the indignantly of having one of his sons tell him he wished he were dead and ask for his share of the inheritance. The real prodigal of this story is a father who when he sees his missing son a long way off, he hitches up his cloak and runs to greet him.
The real prodigal in this story is a father who pleads with the resentful older brother who wants nothing to do with the celebration surrounding his younger brothers return, yet the father gently tries to persuade him to see that anytime someone is lost and then found, anytime someone is dead and then alive, then the only reasonable response is to have a party.
And so here we sit this morning, you and me. Some of us can trace our experience directly to that of the younger son, we've squandered the father's love, we traveled far and wide looking for the experience that will sustain us give us meaning, we've wasted precious resources, we've used and discarded people along the way, we've grown weary of wandering in the wilderness, and we like the young son have finally "come to our senses" and we are ready to come home.
And for some of us here this morning, we can track our experience more closely with that of the older brother. We've been faithful. We've got a perfect attendance Sunday School pin to prove it. We've held down the fort when others were exploring greener pastures. We've worked our fingers to the bone and when we hear about a father who has welcomed home an errant son. And just like the older brother, we're a little resentful because had we known, we too would have enjoyed squandering the father's resources. Had we known, we too would have traveled the world without regard for the responsibilities back on the farm. We are the responsible ones. We are the ones who keep lists and don't enjoy ourselves until we completed all the items on the list. We are the ones who even when we are invited to celebrate the return of a lost sibling, we prefer to stand on the outside looking in.
Friends, let me tell you something. It doesn't matter which brother we are. In fact, we've probably been both at one time or another. What matters is what kind of father we have. And Luke wants us to know and understand that we have a father in heaven who welcomes all those who have been lost and are now found. We have a father who is ready to celebrate at drop of a hat for those of us who have been dead and now are alive.
If you have been wandering lost in the wilderness of life-welcome home. If you've been holding down the fort wondering where everyone is-welcome home. If you have committed sin that you believe disqualifies you from the love of the father, think again. And listen to the words of the father spoken over you today, "let us celebrate for this son or daughter of mine was dead and is alive; he or she was lost and now they are found."
© Sermon preached by Reverend Bradley J. Bergfalk
First Congregational Church of Litchfield
September 18, 2016