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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Prodigal You - The Forgiving Father

Prodigal You - The Loving Father
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

The cost of unforgiveness is too great. - Polly Hood

Prayer of confession
Forgiving God, I confess I am both wayward and obedient. I take your love for granted, and I resent when you grant it to people who haven't earned it. You seem to love all your children equally, even though some are so sinful and so bad. I confess that you confuse me. Forgive me for not forgiving you for showing so much love. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

Luke 15:1-3, 11-24

1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

3 Then Jesus told them this parable:

11 ... "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate. ' So he divided his property between them.

13 "Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.

14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 "When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants. ' 20 So he got up and went to his father.

"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. '

22 "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. ' So they began to celebrate.

25 "Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound. '

28 "The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! '

31 "'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. '"


The Prodigal Son - In the Key of "F"*

Feeling footloose and frisky, a featherbrained fellow forced his father to
fork over his farthings.  Fast he flew to foreign fields and frittered his
family's fortune, feasting fabulously with floozies and faithless friends.
Flooded with flattery he financed a full-fledged fling of "funny foam" and
fast food.

Fleeced by his fellows in folly, facing famine, and feeling faintly fuzzy, he
found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy foreign farmyard.  Feeling frail and
fairly famished, he fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from
the fodder fragments.

"Fooey," he figured, "my father's flunkies fare far fancier," the frazzled
fugitive fumed feverishly, facing the facts.  Finally, frustrated from
failure and filled with foreboding (but following his feelings) he fled from
the filthy foreign farmyard.

Faraway, the father focused on the fretful familiar form in the field and
flew to him and fondly flung his forearms around the fatigued fugitive.
Falling at his father's feet, the fugitive floundered forlornly, "Father, I
have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favor."

Finally, the faithful Father, forbidding and forestalling further flinching,
frantically flagged the flunkies to fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a

Faithfully, the father's first-born was in a fertile field fixing fences
while father and fugitive were feeling festive.  The foreman felt fantastic
as he flashed the fortunate news of a familiar family face that had forsaken
fatal foolishness.  Forty-four feet from the farmhouse the first-born found a
farmhand fixing a fatling.

Frowning and finding fault, he found father and fumed, "Floozies and foam
from frittered family funds and you fix a feast following the fugitive's
folderol?"  The first-born's fury flashed, but fussing was futile. The frugal
first-born felt it was fitting to feel "favored" for his faithfulness and
fidelity to family, father, and farm.  In foolhardy fashion, he faulted the
father for failing to furnish a fatling and feast for his friends.  His folly
was not in feeling fit for feast and fatling for friends; rather his flaw was
in his feeling about the fairness of the festival for the found fugitive.

His fundamental fallacy was a fixation on favoritism, not forgiveness.  Any
focus on feeling "favored" will fester and friction will force the faded
facade to fall.  Frankly, the father felt the frigid  first-born's frugality
of forgiveness was formidable and frightful.  But the father's former
faithful fortitude and fearless forbearance to forgive both fugitive and
first-born flourishes.

The farsighted father figured, "Such fidelity is fine, but what forbids
fervent festivity for the fugitive that is found?  Unfurl the flags and
finery, let fun and frolic freely flow. Former failure is forgotten, folly is
forsaken. Forgiveness forms the foundation for future fortune."

Four facets of the father's fathomless fondness for faltering fugitives are:
  1) Forgiveness
  2) Forever faithful friendship
  3) Fadeless love, and
  4) A facility for forgetting flaws

Fank you.

(*I have no idea who first floated this fabulous fable on the Finternet.)


So, we're in the 4th & final phase of our formal flow featuring the Prodigal Son. Fankfully. It took Jesus 3 minutes to tell the story, but a seminary trained preacher can stretch it out for weeks.

We've let the characters in the story ask us questions. The Little Brother, who went to town (the Prodigal Son), got us asking,

Which prodigal parts of you separate you from your brothers and sisters in Christ?
Which prodigal parts of you separate you from the forgiving, welcoming, loving Father?
And, what parts of you need to forsake the fight, and come home?

The Big Brother, who stayed home asked us,

Is it possible that your rightness is also your wrongness?
How does our rightness makes us wrong before the Forgiving Father?

We've been using Timothy Keller's book, The Prodigal God, as a guide and in a Sunday School class.

Keller points out that "prodigal" doesn't mean what we normally think it means, what preachers have implied it means. "Prodigal" doesn't mean wayward. Prodigal means "exceptional" as in prodigy, and prodigious.

You can be prodigal in disobedience, like the Little Brother. You can be prodigal in obedience and rule-following, and stick-in-the-mud-iseeism, like the Big Brother.

Today, I want to talk about the Father. The Father was prodigal in his own way, too. The Father was prodigal in fidelity, forgetting and finally, in loving. The Prodigal Father has his questions for us too. Actually, I think it boils down to one. And it's this:

Are you willing to pay the price of forgiveness?
Or, to put it another way, are you willing to be - or at least try to be - as prodigal as the prodigal Father?


What stops us from being as prodigal as the Father?

Some of you may remember this. Right before last Christmas I was walking on the Maryville College campus and found a little Chihuahua curled up and quivering in the cold. He let me pick him up and carry him home. He seemed very sweet and grateful. Then, when I got him inside, he kind of freaked out. He became a very fierce, angry Chihuahua. If any of you have ever been attacked by a Chihuahua, you know how frightening that is. He bit me as hard as he could. Broke the skin.

I took him to the vet who showed me how the little guy had been terribly abused, probably kicked in the chest and flung across a room. He had bruises all over and broken ribs. No wonder he freaked out in an enclosed space. He had learned to fear. He remembered. Forgiveness wasn't really an option. He just wanted to defend himself.

We're not really all that different. It's not that we don't want to forgive. I think we all know forgiveness is good. Forgiveness is healthy. We want to forgive. But we also don't want to get hurt again. So we protect ourselves. When we're threatened, we bite. We bite before we get bitten. It's a sign that your memory is working right. We're hardwired in our DNA to have the survival instinct. Not forgetting past hurts, remembering and defending yourself is simple logic. It's basic emotion. It's natural.

We're not as prodigal with our forgiveness as the Father in the parable because we're alive, and we'd like to stay that way.

Here's another reason we're not as forgiving as the Father.

Any of you have kids?

We talked about this in the Children's Sermon last Sunday. They know how it works. Something happens they don't like and what's the first thing you hear? "That's not fair!" The Fairness Doctrine. Which, by the way, is different from the Equal Time rule. The Equal Time rule applies to politicians on TV. Politicians have nothing to do with fairness.

Fairness is another basic, hardwired part of our brains. We understand fairness and unfairness instinctively. Little Brother gets to squander his inheritance while I work the farm. Little Brother gets a party and the fatted calf; I never even get a goat. Little Brother gets an iPad Mini. All I have is a dumb old Nintendo DS with Mario Kart. It's not fair.

She gets to wear short skirts and makeup when she's fifteen. I'm 27 and you still won't let me date. (Darn straight.)

She gets the corner office with the window. I have to share a cubicle with Lord Gas-n-snort. It's not fair.

Hey, what goes around comes around. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. It's in the Bible. Galatians 6:7: As ye sow, so shall ye reap. If you're Buddhist, you call it Karma. Instant Karma's gonna get you. At least it should. Right? We don't forgive because it's not fair. It's not fair to forgive. Unless there's some sort of compensation. Visible, tangible, maybe even spendable compensation. In which case, it's OK to give your lawyer a percentage. That's fair.

We don't forgive because the cost is too high. Forgiveness runs counter to very basic human instincts. Instincts of survival so we won't get fooled again. Instincts of fairness. We'll endure a lot of stuff if it's slung fairly.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain, unalienable rights." Your rights are threatened? You fight. You think you're treated unfairly? Fight.

This is the natural order.

And then, along comes Jesus. And Jesus tells us in this parable to do something unnatural. Jesus tells us to do something disordered and unfair. Jesus tells us to forgive.


"But while he (the Little Brother) was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him."

Back in the first week of this series, Sharon talked about how shamefully the Father behaved. Back in Jesus' time, family fathers did not run. It was undignified. They especially didn't hike up their robes and run like little boys. Exposing their bare legs and their feet. Shameful. Embarrassing. Hopefully the hired hands hid their eyes. And then, there's that whole, male kissing thing. Really. If he was Presbyterian, the Father would have just shook his hand and said, "The peace of Christ be with you."

(You know the Bible says in 4 places that we're supposed to greet each other with a "holy kiss"? (Who were the greeters today?) I'm not exactly sure what a "holy kiss" is. It's flu season, so we probably should just tap elbows.)

Anyway, the Father behaves in ways that are shameful, embarrassing, and - the Pharisees and teachers of the law would have said - unnatural.

Unnatural, disorderly acts were what got Jesus in trouble and what prompted this parable in the first place. Remember how this started out in verse 1.

1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

The Pharisees and law-teachers had the same hangup as the Big Brother. Big Brother's "flaw was in his feeling about the fairness of the festival for the found fugitive." "His fundamental fallacy was a fixation on favoritism (and fairness), not forgiveness."

And if that doesn't blow your mind enough, let me say it this way.

If the Father in the story represents the Heavenly Father, if the Father in the parable represents God, then God doesn't care if God's unfair. In fact, if the Father in the story represents God, then God is fundamentally unfair.

If the Father in the story represents God, then God is fundamentally unfair.

Accepting this was just too much for the Pharisees. Maybe it's too much for you. I would not be surprised because it goes against doctrines of fairness. It goes against inborn, instinctive behavior. Forgiveness freaks people out. The cost of forgiveness is just too high.

It makes you wonder how God's mind works.


Some of you have had an MRI. You know. It's that procedure where they inject you with radioactive dye and then slide you into a torpedo tube just slightly less roomy than a coffin. A lot less comfortable, too. And then magnets big enough to lift a truck knock around and somehow take of the inside of your brain.

Wouldn't it be great if we could give God an MRI? Wouldn't it be awesome if we could see inside God's head and understand what makes that senior, senior citizen's head work?

Well, the parable kind of does that. After the Big Brother points his bony finger at the Father and accuses him of fundamental failure, the father says, (verse 31)

31 "'My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. '"

Did you catch what the Father said? Let me read it again because it's absolutely crucial. He says, "We HAD TO celebrate and be glad." We HAD TO.

Here's the God MRI. The Father HAS TO rejoice and be glad when the Little Brother comes home. He has to. He didn't say, I decided to, after carefully weighing the facts. He didn't say, I figured, hey, we just needed a good party. He didn't even say - and again, this is absolutely crucial - he didn't even say, "Because I forgive him." The Father never even mentions forgiveness.

The Father HAD TO celebrate and be glad because this is the basic and fundamental nature of the Father. This is how his head works. This is God's DNA. God HAS TO celebrate and be glad when these brothers (and sisters) of whom? Of yours are dead but alive again, are lost but are found.

Again, it's not even about forgiveness at the first. Forgiveness isn't really the issue. The Father didn't even let the Little Brother finish his prayer of confession. He jumped ahead to joy. He jumped for joy. Why? Because that's what makes him, him.

The loving Father does some pretty amazing and embarrassingly scary things. He hikes up his robes and runs like a little boy. He smothers his son with public displays of affection. He spends years of wealth on a frivolous party. What will the neighbors think? What will the townsfolk say? What's going to happen to his reputation?

He. Doesn't. Care.

He puts everything on the line. His respect, his dignity, his wealth, his standing. He puts it all on the line. He runs to his child and says, "I love you," and he says it first. The Father makes himself vulnerable.

And that - friends - is God's MRI.

God is makes himself vulnerable.

If you're looking at the MRI, vulnerability is the core.

Vulnerability has to come first. Forgiveness is the by-product of being vulnerable. You can't forgive anyone until you make yourself vulnerable, until you set aside your defensive instincts, until you give up your need for fairness. You can't forgive anyone until you allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Like the Father.

And, for that matter, like the Son.

Jesus, the Son. Jesus, the one who's God's living picture. Jesus, who showed us that the true path to God's mind and heart always, always, always leads down the road of vulnerability. Even when that road ends at a cross.

So, back to our original question: Are you willing to pay the price of forgiveness? Is it too high?

Consider this:

Would you rather pay the price of un-forgiveness?


We had some fun earlier with the Prodigal Son parable by interpreting it in the Key of F. I'm not sure who first formulated this fabulous forwarding. It's interesting that the rewrite features the letter, F. F is a letter that gets some bad press. Starts some bad words. Brings some of us unpleasant school memories. F means Failure. Quantifiable, visible failure. F is ugly. Interesting, then, that it's the featured letter in the rewrite of this particular parable.

Brene Brown is a researcher and writer. She's done years of scientific study of forgiveness, trying to figure out why people forgive, even when it's not in their best interests. Brown has this lovely saying. She says, "What makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful."

What makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful.

Older Brother thought his Father was being ugly. Pharisees and religious leaders thought Jesus was being ugly. He was hanging out and eating with ugly people.

Kind of amazing how risking the chance of failure, an F, how being vulnerable, takes what looks ugly and makes it beautiful.

The truth is, we live in a very vulnerable world. The truth is that we're all vulnerable. We hide from that. We pretend it's not there. Like the Big Brother, we think we can earn our way out of it. But that's not the truth.

The truth is that even God, even God, becomes vulnerable. Jesus reaches out to us with wounded hands. And by his ugly wounds we are healed. The sign of failure is wiped out. God's forgiveness makes us beautiful.

Jesus reaches out to us in forgiveness with wounded hands. Take his hand. Celebrate. And be glad.