Saturday, September 14, 2013

Healing hearts and coming home

After teaching her students the story of the Prodigal Son, a Sunday school teacher asked the kids, “Who got the worst end of the deal in this story? The younger brother or the older brother?” One of the kids quickly raised his hand and answered, “Neither one.  It was the fattened calf.”

There’s a short story I came across somewhere along the way by Richard Pindell called “Somebody’s Son.” It opens with a runaway boy, named David, sitting by the side of a road writing a letter home to his mother. The letter expresses the hope that his father will forgive him for all that he has done to wound his family and accept him again as a son. The boy writes: “Dear Mother, In a few days I’ll be passing home. If Dad will take me back, ask him to tie a white cloth on the apple tree in the field next to our house.”

Days later David is seated on a train rapidly approaching his home. Nervously, two pictures flash back and forth in his mind: the tree with a white cloth tied on it and the tree without a cloth on it.  As the train draws closer, David’s heart begins to beat faster and faster. Soon the tree will be visible around the bend. But David can’t bring himself to look at it. He’s too afraid the white cloth won’t be there; too afraid that he will be rejected; too afraid that his father will not accept him back again.

Turning to the man next to him, he says, nervously, “Mister, will you do me a favor? Around this bend on the right, you’ll see a tree. Tell me if there’s a white cloth tied to it.” As the train rumbles past the tree, David stares straight ahead. And then, in a quaking voice, he asks the man, “Mister, is a white cloth tied to one of the branches of the tree?” The man pauses and then answers in a surprised tone of voice, “Why, son, there’s a white cloth tied to practically every branch!”

My friends, this story of David and his father, illustrates well the same point that Jesus wants to make today in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  It is a message so simple, so profound and yet so often overlooked – God loves us; God always forgives us; nothing can take us away from that love and forgiveness that God extends to us – and we are called to forgive others in the same way.

This parable is certainly one of the best known and one that just about anyone could recall, but it’s one that I’m not sure we always appreciate in its depth.  Yes, we get that the Son sinned.  Yes we get that the Father forgave him. And yes, we get that the older brother didn’t like it one bit.  But, entering the depth of the story teaches us not only more about the depth of God’s love for us, but also more about how we are meant to truly love and forgive each other.

We live today in a world of broken relationships.  There isn’t one among us here who hasn’t been touched by divorce – whether directly in our own families, or extended family or friends.  There isn’t one of us here who doesn’t have a broken relationship somewhere in our lives – a friendship destroyed, a misunderstanding overblown, regretted words spoken and never taken back.  But, the myth of the world is that we have to accept that brokenness and can never achieve healing.  Jesus tells us something different and gives us the opportunity to restore, heal and reconcile the broken relationships in our lives.

The Prodigal Son is a story of just such broken relationships. The younger son has severed the relationship with his father in the worst way.  He recognizes his wrong actions and wants nothing more than to be accepted again into his father’s household – not in the status he had before, but even just as a lowly servant.  That’s supposed to be us – recognizing our sin, approaching our God asking to simply be allowed to remain a member of His household; of His family.  And, what is the father’s reaction to the younger son?  He is overjoyed at the son’s return.  He says, “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” 

And the real kicker is that this is not just a story.  Jesus tells us that God deals with us the same way.  God will always forgive us with joy.  And, he expects us to do the same with each other.  We pray it every day, “Forgives us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  This is the bargain we make. God forgives us and restores us to His family and He wants us to forgive each other the same way. There is a story about President Lincoln. Someone asked him how he would treat the South after the end of the Civil War. Lincoln responded, “I will treat them as if they’d never left home.”  This is how we are meant to forgive as well – as God has forgiven us.  We are called to forgive others and take them back into our hearts with the same generous love that God shows us.

And if we do this, we can be sure that when we depart this world and approach the gates of heaven, we too will see an apple tree there with a white cloth tied to practically every branch.  Let us not be bound by the hurts and wounds we carry, but be freed by the forgiveness God extends to us and we can extend to others.

Let’s end with a prayer. Lord, show me your mercy and fill my heart with your forgiving love. I am the younger child who ran away and has returned home. Thank you for receiving me back. I am also the older child who finds it hard to forgive sometimes as you forgive me. Touch my heart with your forgiving love. Help me to know the peace, the joy and the freedom that comes from dwelling in and offering to others Your forgiveness.

May the Lord give you peace.

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