A sermon given during the 6:00pm Choral Evensong, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 26th March 2023.
This evening at Choral Evensong we gather to hear the final in our sermon series on Forgiveness. The series started with Bishop’s Chris exploration of forgiveness being a precursor to hope. Rev’d Sally, in the second sermon in the series explored the intricate relationship of repentance and forgiveness. In the third week, Rev’d Joan reflected upon healing and forgiveness. Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold continued to explore the journey to forgiveness and grace which offers to be our companion on such journeys through a discussion of a tragic event which occurred in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday June 17, 2015 at 9.05pm at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.
This evening we gather our reflections together by spending time pondering two passages from the Gospel according to Saint Luke, passages that give deep insight into the nature of God. All our forgiveness of one another, even of ourselves, is found in the love and forgiveness of God.
Luke Chapter 15 shows Jesus telling three parables in response to the grumbling of the religious leaders:
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
The parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin are followed by the Parable of the Prodigal Son or what is better described as the parable of the two sons. The chapter which opens with the grumbling of the religious leaders, closes with the grumbling of the elder son at the generosity of his father’s response to the return of the wayward son. Grumbling is its context. A failure to understand the nature of God whose essence is love and forgiveness and the longing to restore relationships whenever they are broken.
A man has two sons. The younger of them says to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divides his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathers all he has and travelled to a distant country, and there he squanders his property in dissolute living. Finding himself almost destitute he “comes to himself”, seems to realise this situation, and sees a way home. I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ So, he sets off and goes to his father. But while he was still far off, his father sees him and is filled with compassion; he runs and puts his arms around him and kisses him.
Middle Eastern men in the time of Jesus do not run. Proper pride would not allow them to do so. This father has heard no words of regret, no request for forgiveness. He sees his son and runs to reach him. He holds him and kisses him and with robes and repast makes celebration for him. This father has no proper pride, no care for what his neighbours would think of him, no apparent need for confession, discussion, counsel, contemplation. He has seen his son. That is enough. And so he runs to embrace him.
Rembrandt’s beautiful painting of this reunion, The Return of the Prodigal Son seen on the front of our orders of service and before us in front of the nave altar, this painting helps us feel the love of the father, the unquestioning warmth of his welcome, the unconditional love that will not be deterred by sin and neglect. Whatever the reason for his son’s appearance on the horizon, this father will welcome him home and welcome him lavishly, love and compassion in his eyes.
This is what God is like. That is what Jesus would have us know God is like. Whatever we have done, whether we ask for forgiveness or not, it seems, God gazes at the horizon for our appearance for whatever reason, that God might run towards us and gather us home. This is what God is like.
This parable shows deep insight into our nature, as well. The two sons show us at our worst. Grabbing what he can, insulting his father deeply – certainly in the culture of the time- squandering his inheritance, and then fleeing home, really, as the only hope of survival, this son could not have treated his family or his inheritance with less respect and care. The second son sheds light on another of the worst of human traits. Resentment. “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command;” he says to his father, “yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
As the parable ends, the hearer is left in discomfort, the nature of God shining like the sun, the nature of humanity hanging in bleak uncertainty. Will the grumbling resentment of the second son cause him to treat his father with the same disrespect as the younger son? Will the father yet again be rejected? We do not know the story continues, but we know who God is, and our struggle, is to allow God to enfold us in God’s arms and to nurture our growth in God’s likeness.
Jesus told parables, healed, taught, shared meals, cast out the powers of evil that at times overpower, all to show the love and forgiveness of God, to invite frail humanity to thrive in the Kingdom of God. In the end he became the parable, Jesus inhabited the parable, lived and died it, and in the story of the cross we see even more deeply, God’s nature, God’s longing to draw sinful humanity back into relationship.
It is in Luke’s account of Jesus Passion that we hear him speak the words of forgiveness.:
When they come to the place that is called The Skull, they crucify Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus says, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’
Jesus is bereft here. The power of the grumbling of the religious authorities seen in chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel, seems to have won its battle with him when we reach Chapter 23. That, and the fierce power of the political leaders, and the fickleness of the hosanna braying crowd. Jesus’ friends have betrayed him and deserted him, only a few standing by, watching him from a distance dying on the cross.
And yet even in dying, Jesus is true. True to his being as God’s son. As the one whose mission it is to bear God’s love and forgiveness to the world. True to his loyalty to God and to humanity, whose essence his being embraces.
He looks at the soldiers who nailed him to the cross and he forgives them. Asks God to forgive them. There is no request for forgiveness from these soldiers. They are just doing their job. As he said, they do not know what they are doing. Jesus’ words to God asking for forgiveness for the soldiers is about all human sin, really. The political and religious structures that allowed such brutal violence, the human frailty that led to the denials and betrayals of those he held dear. But not just then. Not just that day two thousand years ago in Golgotha. This is not a one-off event. This forgiveness weaves through all creation, all time and all space. This forgiveness embraces every small and petty sin, every repeated and habitual sin, every vile and abhorrent sin. He forgives every sin regretted, every sin, barely acknowledged. In Jesus’ forgiveness of the soldiers who nailed him to his cross, creation is redeemed.
And so all frail human scenes where forgiveness is glimpsed, struggled with, tried and tried again, forgiveness being a precursor to hope, the intricate relationship of repentance and forgiveness, the relationship of healing and forgiveness, and the journey to forgiveness and grace in even the direst of circumstances as seen in the violent crime in Charlston, all these aspects of forgiveness that we have explored this Lent are held in the holy event. In the Christ event. In the cross of Jesus, the cross where Jesus’ love and forgiveness could not be quenched. In the cross of Jesus where God’s love and forgiveness shine out through all creation.
So, what of us, this place this night? What of us and God’s forgiveness reflected upon these evenings during Lent, seen in the Father of the Prodigal Son, heard in the words of the dying Jesus, what of us?
We might allow Rembrandt’s painting to reach us, sitting with it perhaps for a few minutes or over time, we might allow God to help us reflect on the sins of which we are ashamed, we might hear Jesus’ words speaking to us begging God to forgive us, we might as we approach Holy Week and Jesus’ Passion give God a little time ..knowing that God waits for us to turn just a little towards home, home in God, knowing that God’s forgiveness embraces us as we do.