By Rev. Joan Kessler
Luke 15: 11-32
Today we hear what many consider the most well-known story Jesus ever told... it’s only rival would be the parable of the Good Samaritan. We could say the parable of the Prodigal Son comes with lots of baggage. It is a story about family dynamics, and it is a challenge to keep our attention because it is so overly familiar. It is a tale for every phase of our life: for our wandering youth, our stay in place middle-age, and our softened old age where wisdom is found.
We live out the three characters in this play; we have all been someone’s child and perhaps we have parented. It is a coming-of-age story, it is a love story, a putting back together story, that reminds us of the joys, the challenges, the heartbreak of what it means to live as a family. Jesus told parables to make us think… to not draw simple conclusions… not to promote a law to be followed, but a way to invite us into the story… because this story of a family is our story too.
Perhaps we hear this parable in new ways given the disagreements about COVID and other divisive topics that have driven families and friends apart. A recent survey of Saskatchewan residents, conducted by the Canadian Hub for Applied and Social Research, in partnership with CBC Saskatchewan, asked participants questions around the health of their family and inter-personal relationships. It found that more than 31 percent of respondents had experienced reduced contact with family or friends the past year due to differing viewpoints on a variety of topics. And from this grouping, 94 percent identified the reason for estranged relationships was due to COVID-19 differences. One woman explained that she was unable to share the heartbreaking news of her miscarriage with her mother and other family members because she feared their reprisal of her decision to be vaccinated while pregnant. A senior mother of four adult children also shared her one child’s contrary view of the pandemic and the rift it caused in her family. She described the breaking apart of her family as an “unexpected burden”.
COVID-19 restrictions that we have lived with these past two years are beginning to be eased. As we come out from under the pandemic, the strain within family relationships may be a side-effect of COVID that may linger for time to come. What does it mean to reconcile these broken relationships? When differences of opinion arise and relationships become estranged, reconciliation can only take place when the parties sit down together to listen openly and without judgment. It takes time and a willingness to turn back towards one another… to forgive and let go grudges.
The father in the parable has two difficult sons: one who is ready to branch out on his own, away from his family, and take his inheritance with him; and another who bears the burdens of family loyalty and remains at home out of a sense of deep obligation. The father is a loving arbitrator and longs to see his family reconciled once again. It is painstaking work that will take time to heal the fractured places. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son challenges us to live generously and graciously with others we may not always agree with. May we welcome grace into our communities and families as we are invited to this necessary work.
I asked myself this week, “what is the challenge of this familiar story?”. What is it that Jesus is asking me to consider that I hadn’t noticed or thought of before? Prodigal refers to that which is recklessly extravagant or giving profusely. We’ve all heard our share of sermons that make an example of the prodigal son… the wasteful and wanton one that shows dishonor to his father and asks for his inheritance… it is like he was dead to him already. But the father gives, and he watches his son walk down the lane out of sight. And then one day, when his money is all gone, this youngest son has a change of heart and decides to return home and ask for forgiveness. There is also the older son… he resents both his father and his brother for their actions and feels overlooked and underappreciated. We could say he too is a prodigal, harboring an abundance of animosity that sees him draw inward and become self-centered. And then there is the father… the one who anxiously awaits and celebrates the return of his wayward son, who through much heartbreak and disappointment, welcomes him home with love and forgiveness. The one who had been lost has been found. He too is extravagant with his love and forgiveness. Could it be that all three are prodigal sons?
This story doesn’t have a perfect ending. Not everyone is happy. Reconciliation is like this. It is hard work. It takes time to bring back together things that have been torn apart. It takes a love that is willing to risk… to say I don’t agree but I accept that you have a different point of view. The father is most ready to begin the process. He has a heart big enough to hold the disappointment, the resentment, the hard feelings and begin again. Can the past really be forgiven AND forgotten? Jesus is asking this… it is a Love Story. I want to share with you these words from an Irish liturgist and author named Flor McCarthy…Flor writes:
The Prodigal Son is a story about hearts: selfish hearts and generous hearts, closed hearts and open hearts, cold hearts and warm hearts, broken hearts and joyful hearts, unrepentant hearts and repentant hearts, unforgiving hearts and forgiving hearts, resentful hearts and grateful hearts. It reveals so much more about the vagaries of the human heart. When all is said and done it is the heart that matters…the Heart is what I am deep down. It is the real me. Darkness of heart is the blackest night of all. Emptiness of the heart is the greatest poverty of all. A heavy heart is the most wearisome burden of all. A broken heart is the deepest wound of all. But the parable reveals how steadfast the heart of God is.
The Prodigal Son is all these kinds of love in the beautiful mess of a family. As a community of faith, we too have known our share of disagreements, broken hearts, and even estrangement over the years. I have often reflected that COVID perhaps gave us an opportunity that we weren’t expecting… in spite of the isolation and being physically and sometimes emotionally severed from one another, it also created space for healing and for listening to one another. Conflicts are part of our story. And I have come to see the past couple of weeks that we still need to talk about the things that divide us and make sense of them.
We have often shared with one another the positive impact Zoom services have had on our community. They are far from perfect – they were difficult for some to access and participate in for lots of reasons. But I experienced firsthand the way Zoom created a place to come together get and to know each other in ways we hadn’t experienced before. And now we are two groups. One in-person and another on Zoom and I feel the shift in energy. Maybe you have noticed it too. There is a part of us that is missing… and I long for the day when we come together as one and continue our work of reconciliation… to come back home, to a place of belonging, where we can celebrate our joys and name our fears.
This story is about us. If you are wondering this morning whether or not you matter, this story reminds us that we do. Our hopes, our dreams for the future, big things and small things… they all matter and are important to God. Being in relationship these days is hard, hard work. It takes an openness of mind and of heart, and a willingness to say, “I’m sorry” and “please, can we try again?”
May your families and relationships be well this day… not perfect, but always on a road to health and reconciliation.
May it be so… Amen.