March 6, 2016 – The Rev. James Richardson

One of my favorite movies, Smoke Signals, has a scene where a character, Arnold, is walking down an isolated road in the Arizona desert with his neighbor, Suzy.

Arnold and Suzy barely know each other until he gives her a lift. They run out of gas and have to walk home.

As they walk, Arnold asks Suzy to tell him the worst thing she has ever done.

She tells him something she did to a friend long ago. He says that was bad, but not as bad as something he had done.

They start telling each other about the shame that each had carried with them for years.

Suzy tells Arnold she has found peace with her past.

But for Arnold, his wrongs are eating him alive. He is lost.

Sometimes life is like that. We’ve done something we cannot get past like a boulder on an isolated road in the desert.

Another scene in Smoke Signals involves Arnold’s son, Victor, who cannot find a way to get past his resentments about the hurts others, including his father, have inflicted on him.

It is not important this morning what those are – go see the movie, it is a fine movie.

The point here is that Victor’s resentments, too, are eating him alive. He cannot get past his resentments, and he is lost.

Sometimes life is like that. Our hurts and resentments are like a boulder in the road.

How do we forgive others? How do we forgive ourselves?

Questions about forgiveness are at the heart of the story Jesus tells in the gospel lesson this morning.

The parable is popularly called “The Prodigal Son,” but it might better be called “the Lost Sons.”

The parable begs the question: Who is the lost son? The one who needs forgiveness because he squandered his father’s wealth – or the one who needs forgiveness because he is so resentful he cannot see past anything other than his own hurts?

I truly believe that forgiveness is one of the hardest things we will ever confront as faithful people ­– and as human beings. There is no simple or easy answer. Platitudes will not suffice.

How do we forgive Adolph Hitler for the Holocaust? How do we forgive the perpetrators of slavery, lynchings, and the racial bigotry and exploitation deeply embedded in our history and culture?

How do we get past the human trafficking of our own time? How do we get past the sexual violence, hate crimes and the mass shootings that seem to erupt like volcanoes every few weeks? How do we forgive any of that?

And should we?

[I don’t know if you watched the Oscars last Sunday evening, but I had to choke back tears at the performance by singer Lady Gaga who sang her song “Til It Happens to You,” surrounded by young victims of sexual violence, women and men. These courageous young people held hands, and on their arms they had written words like “I survived.”]

We are not called to ignore injustice. We are not called to cover our feelings with indifference or numbness. So where does forgiveness fit?

The Parable of the Lost Sons gives us a huge entry into the way out of this morass.

The parable tells us about the true nature of forgiveness – where it comes from – and what it can look like, especially when we feel ourselves utterly incapable of forgiveness.

The key is to see forgiveness as a gift from God, and not as a human achievement.

In the story told by Jesus, the younger son is completely lost, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. His shame has eaten him alive, and so he goes home, willing to lower himself to be a servant in his father’s house.

Notice what happens next: His father sees him coming, and runs to embrace him.

In the ancient world, fathers don’t do that. They don’t run to their wayward sons to greet them. But this father does.

And notice this: Before the younger son can get a word out of his mouth to ask forgiveness, he receives forgiveness from his father. And his father then throws him a party.

Do you notice something else about the father in the parable? The only authority the father claims is the authority of compassion.

He casts away all pretense of being regal. He gives his errant younger son a king’s robe. His judgment is the judgment of love.

Then we hear about the older brother.

The older brother, lost in his hurts, complains bitterly to the father. His resentments are eating him alive.

And what does the father do? Invites the older brother to the party.

The father tells him everything is already his – all of it. Forgiveness and abundance already belong to the older brother before he ever asks.

The story doesn’t tell us what happens to the older brother – that is the open-endedness of the parable. Does the older brother get it? Or does he remain lost, resentful? Can he finally join the party?

We don’t know.

But the father keeps the door open for his older son; everything will be there for him whether he deserves it or not.

Maybe this parable should really be called, “The story of the father’s extravagant, radical love” because that is what this is truly about.

This story is really about the limitless generosity of God that, through the eyes of humans, seems completely impossible, even outrageous.

The real source of forgiveness and healing comes from this over-the-top, loving God who embraces us, especially when it is beyond us to forgive others, or forgive ourselves.

God throws us a party, and all we need to do is show up. The party is always there waiting for us.

This power of God’s forgiveness will change us if we let it, and will allow us to get beyond the shame and resentments that can eat us alive.

To find ourselves there, we are called to embrace this gift of God’s extravagant grace and forgiveness – and then show it to others.

Make no mistake: if we do, grace and forgiveness will change us. This is a new way of life.

Saint Paul knew exactly how God’s grace and forgiveness changed him, and he lit up the world by spreading it.

Hear his words again:

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

My friends, Jesus invites us not only to join the party, but to throw a party and invite everyone in. And when we do, we will truly change the world. AMEN