There are times for all of us when we want to do our own thing, or when we want to go our own way. Times when perhaps we lose sight of the bigger picture or the wider context. We all know the song “My Way”. It says it all really. Even though penned in the 20th century, in the 21st century that song speaks into our own sense of independence and I understand it is the most popular song at funeral services today.
It isn’t wrong to be independent – if we have a dependency on others it isn’t necessarily always healthy – although granted at times something like illness can force us to become dependent on others – but that is only because during those times we simply have no other choice. But apart from those times when we need to receive care and assistance, to become overly dependent on someone can cause us to lose sight of our humanity.
As children grow up they certainly become more and more independent; it is no longer cool to hang out with mum and dad (or so my eldest son and daughter keep telling me). We wouldn’t want it any other way would we? You know when you drop your child off at the school gates for the very first time, when you are more nervous than they are and you wonder who is more upset? And as you walk away you shed tears of pride but also loss? It is great to learn to be strong and independent; but there is a huge difference between independence and rebellion, between independence and going off the rails and living a wild life – loose living. There is a huge difference between independence and interdependence. We cannot exist in a vacuum apart from each other. And we see that all the time so clearly in church and communities that thrive. At one extreme, independence forces us to descend into that vacuum of isolation and the risk and consequence is that we go so far down that road that we no longer recognise relationship – relationship with each other and relationship with God.
The story of the wayward or prodigal son which we heard today is a story about a son who went off the rails in a big way. I wonder sometimes if the story should be called the story of the forgiving dad because it also tells us about God’s great love for those who are distant, those who are far off, and the forgiveness, welcome and celebration they can experience when they come home. It is a time when the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak and the deaf hear – it is a time when people at last begin to recognise their very identity in God. It is a time when harvest time comes early!
I wonder this morning as we think about the story if we can see ourselves in any of the characters? Who might we identify with the closest? Who are the players in the scene? We have:
- We begin by looking at the youngest son who lost his way and wanted to do things his way and nearly ended up losing everything.We can see the desire for independence and rebellion, the desire of the son to do things his own way. “‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’” And as we know he pursued a road to ruin and in a distant country “squandered his property in dissolute living.” When we are in rebellion against God we so easily squander the many blessings He has given us and we do that because we have taken our eyes off him. We must life up our eyes to the mountains though. “I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121) When we do that there is only ever one outcome – it is ironic that in our pursuit of independence we often find that we end up in a place of need and dependence! And as we know the youngest son “began to be in need” and he lost sight of his dignity and working as a swineherd. Sometimes in life we have to have hard knocks – where we lose something of that vain pride and arrogance and come to a place of knowing and grace. St Augustine wrote “Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You “resist the proud,” — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”The youngest son did indeed come to that place of knowing and grace. In returning home he said to his father “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That is the truth. And likewise, there is nothing in us that can commend us to God.
- And then we turn to the eldest son who at first glance appeared to be doing everything right – or was he?We can sometimes get so caught up in the task that we lose sight of why we are doing that task in the first place. For us at church, we must never ever lose sight of why we are here. We are here first and foremost to worship and be in relationship with God – that is the primary reason for existence. But a direct consequence of that is how we then are with each other and how we are with people in our community. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) The eldest son was so caught up with himself and his own narrow sense of pride, justice and righteousness that he had lost sight of the blessings he already had, the benefits of being his father’s son and the inheritance he was called into. All that his father had was his. All he had to do was ask. He could have had a celebration every night! His brother returned and received all the blessings a son could ever desire. The eldest son could have experienced the very same thing, but he really didn’t know all that his father would do for him. Sometimes we also miss all the blessings that are around us – the food on our tables, the clothes we wear, our family, and friends. God has blessed us with so much, and we don’t always recognise it. The eldest son became angry and refused to enter in to fellowship and it seems that for years he had fostered resentment in his heart – it was eating away at him. The elder son said “‘For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; 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 loose living, you killed the fatted calf for him!’” It is very aggressive language isn’t it? I worked like a “slave for you”, “you have never given me even a young goat”, “this son of yours” – he has pushed himself so far out of fellowship and relationship that he loses sight of the love his father has for him, the many blessings that he was given and taken for granted, and he loses sight of his brother.If things don’t always go how we want or expect, do we respond like the elder son? Do we become angry and refuse to participate and take ourselves out of that place of blessing and out of fellowship? Yet we are told to “seek first his Kingdom AND his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) – we have to recognise that righteousness cannot come from us.We are not told how the eldest son subsequently responds…the question is left hanging in the air. It almost beckons us to ask ourselves how might we respond? It is a gentle challenge.
- And we conclude with the father who was overjoyed to see his precious son return home.The father has the toughest of all the jobs. Who deserted the father – the youngest son or the eldest son? They both did! The father must have felt so hurt, so let down and disappointed. And yet the father is the one who is the seeker and responder, the one who is calm and in control, the one who is filled with grace, mercy, truth and righteousness. The father’s response to his eldest son was “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” You are always with me – nothing will ever stop me from loving you – all that is mine is yours – and see how the father’s heart is that his eldest son might capture such a vision of grace and mercy and forgiveness and love.And when we consider the gracious and compassionate response of the father to his youngest son, we are told “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” and then “…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”And we know God is our heavenly father and shows us mercy that triumphs over judgement and rejoices whenever we come home to be back in fellowship and relationship with him.
I share these thoughts with you because today we celebrate Harvest time. What might the harvest have looked like for each of the players in our story?
For the youngest son and the father…the Bible tells us “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:5) The youngest son and the father both sowed with tears and journeyed through a breakdown of relationship to a place of restoration and reconciliation – a place of joy.
Harvest time is such a great time to express thanks for all the blessings we have – all good gifts around us – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, our homes, our jobs, our families and friends. It is a good time to remember that whoever we connect with closest in that story, we are always welcome just as we are.
Always remember that God, like the father in our story, has the very best planned for us even if we have a tough journey to get there. Even if we feel far off and distant He will make the effort to come to right where we are and invite us home for the harvest celebration. Home is a place of forgiveness, a place of safety, a place of growth, a place of acceptance, a place where all the family should be able to come as they are, a place of celebration where all can gather. Let’s give thanks to God for the many blessings he has given us and ask that we might welcome people into our hearts and our spiritual home and pray that the harvest might come.