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A Wideness in God’s Mercy

Lent 4C-16

Immanuel Chicago


The irresponsible son didn’t say anything yet. Before he get the words out, “…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.” (Luke 15:20)

The parables of Jesus are icons in story-form. We hold this short story up in our mind’s eye to get the whole picture about God and the world. From this story icon we learn God loves you so much it’s embarrassing.

In Jesus’ Middle Eastern world family patriarchs would be ashamed to act this way. First of all, patriarchs did not run. Patriarchs did not leave their places at the heads of table when guests were present. Patriarchs did not plead with their children. They told them what to do. Moreover, a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles as the young son did was singled out for special punishment.

The Talmud describes a special rite involving the whole community to deal with it—called a qetsatsah ceremony. (Barbara Brown Taylor) “Here’s how it works. If he ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people. After that, he will be a cosmic orphan, who might as well go back and live with the pigs.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)

It’s shameful, what this father does. It’s embarrassing. He doesn’t do what’s right. Out of love he sets everything aside. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” (ELW 587) In this story icon, Jesus announces God is not in the sin counting business anymore. Instead, God is in the reconciling business. “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians: 5:19)

Like the father in our gospel today, God stands searching the horizon day after day with arms wide open, ready to spring into action at the first chance to bring his long lost beloved Son back into the fold. But who will welcome Jesus’ embrace? Will everyone come in the divine household? In Jesus’ experience, those looked at as outsiders, freaks, flops, and failures are generally the first to except his invitation, while good religious folk cross their arms and grumble.

Somehow, it is easier for the younger, disobedient son to accept the Father’s invitation than it is for the elder, obedient son. Remember, Jesus told this parable sitting in the synagogue after listening to complaints that he surrounds himself with sinners and tax collectors.

Those good folks are in the temple but outside the living sanctuary of God’s embrace. They are estranged brothers and sisters but don’t even know it. God desires to welcome them all into the divine household. That’s what Jesus’ entire ministry has been about, beginning with his reading of Isaiah 61. He comes proclaiming Good News for those sons and daughters usually considered to be outsiders to God’s family: the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. In proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom, God’s household, Jesus is helping everyone to see that they are welcome. (Paul Nuechterlein and Friends, Girardian Lectionary, Lent 4C)

So even if the obedient children enter God’s house after the disobedient children have already gone in, Jesus’ icon story doesn’t give up on the elder children of the world. The invitation to them is always open. Just as he searched and waited for the younger son, so shall the father be ready to respond at the first opportunity to welcome the elder son as soon as he is ready to join the party. Then, the Father’s love will have reconciled both estranged sons. The parable ends with the hope that this will eventually happen.

We might be in the temple but we stand outside the living sanctuary of God’s embrace until the moment we finally realize we stand in the same need of grace as anybody else. God looked past our fault and saw our need. This is the spirit with which we are equipped to be ambassadors for Christ. We are repairers of the breach between neighbors, restorers of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12) beginning with reconciling ourselves to God.

Last week, Kari and I chanced upon the well-preserved ruins of Muckross Abbey, a Franciscan friary built in 1448 that now stands in Killarny National Park in southern Ireland. The building is long abandoned. There is no roof over the sanctuary, the dining room or living quarters. The only sign of the life that once flourished there is an enormous tree growing from the center of an inner courtyard enclosed on all four sides by open hallways or cloisters. For nearly 600 years and possibly a thousand more, that ancient tree –a Yew tree with its gnarled bark and evergreen limbs producing red berries—has stood faithfully proclaiming the message those early friars intended for it. For them, it was and is a tree of life—a symbol of grace and a sign of the life to which we are called marked by way the cross of Christ.

The tree is a symbol of life itself that literally surrounds and sustains us welling up from the very earth beneath our feet. Patiently, persistently, relentlessly inviting, waiting and longing for each and everyone one of you to turn and enter again into the creator’s embrace. Enter the living sanctuary of the blessed Trinity. Our salvation comes with receiving the dignity of the divine embrace, so our hands, our hearts, our minds may be opened to receive one another as brothers and sisters in united in true fellowship with all humanity.

This is what we see when we look into the icon-story of Jesus. Behold, we see there the whole story of God unfolding and our place in it.   There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. The love of God is broader than the measures of our mind. No place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven. Even before we can say anything, God stands ready to take us in. Here, with water, wine, bread and the Word, come be embraced again into the living sanctuary of God’s hope and grace.

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