A sermon by the Rev. Linda Harrison
Lent 4; March 31, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt shows an elderly man embracing a younger man, kneeling at the elder’s feet and dressed in rags. Three other figures look on.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt, circa 1668, oil on canvas

Listen to the first and last two verses of the psalm from the Inclusive Bible:

Happiness comes from having your rebellion taken away,
from having your failures completely covered …
from the Almighty not counting your mistakes …

Wrongdoers are prone to many sorrows,
but those who trust in the Almighty
are surrounded with unfailing love. 
Be glad in the Almighty and rejoice, you righteous ones. 
Exult you upright of heart! 

These past few weeks, I’ve heard people offering various opinions concerning the future fate of the perpetrator of the heinous attack at the mosques in Christchurch.  Same opinions and arguments that I hear anytime there is a human tragedy of this scale committed by other human beings. 

One such opinion is that the person responsible for so many deaths should himself die – executed by the State.  The majority of the arguments in favor of execution reference closure and justice for the dead and the families.  Other times people will insist evil must be eradicated; therefore, the evil monster must die. 

I am not willing to go there.  I cannot say that the person who perpetrated the mass murders is evil or that any person is inherently evil.  Yes, people do evil things, but human beings, by virtue of our humanity, cannot be evil precisely because God does not create evil.  Every human being is made in the image of God, and therefore every human being is inherently good.  One may choose to do evil, but that does not make one inherently evil.  We do not get to judge or define another person as evil, and we certainly do not have the right to meet one evil act with another in an attempt at retributive justice. Calling for “justice” as “closure” on behalf of the dead and their families is nothing more than revenge.  God tells Israel as regards Assyria – their great enemy and tormentor – “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip” (Deut 32.35). 

Revenge is not ours to enact.  However, as a society we do have an obligation to endeavor to keep our communities safe from such evil acts.  I have no problem with a sentence of life in prison with no parole.  

Given that New Zealand abolished the death penalty, using this specific case is purely hypothetical.  Yet, the sentiment remains the same whether for the perpetrators who terrorized the DC area in October 2002, for the criminals behind the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, for the perpetrator of murder and hate crimes in Charlottesville.  Vengeance is mine, says God. 

And here’s the rub: it is not even up to us if God ever enacts that vengeance.  It is not even up to us if the wrongdoer ever repents.  I realize that statement seems a bit antithetical given the focus of Lent. 

Yet, as a Christian pastor, I remain firmly rooted in the abundant and lavish and embarrassingly extravagant love of God. 

This is exactly what the parable in Luke is about: Love.  The story we have come to know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Prodigal.  As it turns out, perhaps more aptly named than I had thought.  As reckless and wanton as the younger child is, is as reckless and wanton the father’s love and forgiveness are – especially in the eyes of the elder child, who gets no say in the matter of forgiveness. 

Reading the entirety of Luke – without hearing the voices of the other gospels which is tricky – you will hear that Luke’s theology is not one of atonement.  Jesus wasn’t sent to die for our sins; Jesus is not an atoning sacrifice, that is not Jesus’ purpose in this world.  For Luke, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love.  Luke’s theology lays out God’s profligate and prodigious love for us.  As much as the younger child was prodigious in greed and lascivious living wasting everything recklessly … that mirrors how prodigious and reckless God is in loving us. 

That makes us uncomfortable.  In human terms it just does not compute.  Where’s the justice?  Where’s the quid pro quo? 

Yet, God’s prodigious love doesn’t even wait for repentance – like the parent in the parable who doesn’t let the child finish the rehearsed speech, God loves us because we are God’s children.  The father welcomes the child home because he’s just so glad to have his kid home again.  Like the parent in the parable, God just can’t hold back. Love is poured out on all humanity, no matter who we are or what we have done or not done.  And here we are, given the focus of Lent, left with the question of how repentance fits into this narrative.

Paul tells us that God made Christ to be sin and that we are reconciled to God through Christ.  We are indeed reconciled through Christ, but not because Jesus took our sin to the cross and offered himself up in our place.  I’ve never been comfortable with that theology.  Why would a loving God require human suffering and a human sacrifice to appease God?  Yes, we are reconciled to God.  We are reconciled through love, the love Jesus embodies, a love that makes no sense, Incarnate Love that lived among us and showed us how to be in this world. A love that beckons us to be honest with ourselves and to trust God to come before God in repentance, anyway.  

God made Christ to be sin.  The Greek is as ambiguous as the English.  It could easily mean a sinless Jesus joined the sinful human race to be with us and know the human condition, to invite everyone to accept God’s love … to invite everyone to the banquet trusting in the love of God.  Remember what the psalmist writes:

Happiness comes from having your rebellion taken away, from having your failures completely covered, from the Almighty not counting your mistakes … Wrongdoers are prone to many sorrows, but those who trust in the Almighty are surrounded with unfailing love.  Be glad in the Almighty and rejoice, you righteous ones.  Exult you upright of heart! 

Sorrows surround wrongdoers who hide their sin and then it festers in their hearts. Repentance and reconciliation heal the heart and heal relationships.   Repentance and reconciliation are just as good for spiritual health as it is for mental health.  

To be righteous is to be reconciled with God – to be in “right relationship”, repaired relationship.  It isn’t some level of purity or sinlessness.  We are righteous when we come before God in honest reflection and repent … and that takes a certain amount of trust.  And for Luke, Jesus comes as the embodiment of God’s love so that we may come to love and to trust God … all of us, whether or not we like the other people or think they are deserving. 

That’s love: coming among us as one of us to invite every last one of us to the banquet – no ifs, ands, or buts.  Incarnate Love – showing humanity the lengths to which God will go to assure us of that love … all the way to the cross.  Reckless love.  Prodigal love.  This is who God is. 

Blessed be God forever. 

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