Song of the Prodigal – March 27, 2022

Song of the Prodigal

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Psalm 32

March 27, 2022

Main Idea:  Forgiveness leads to life.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Our gospel reading for today is the beloved parable of the Prodigal Son.  It is a perfect story with compelling characters, deep themes,  and a perfect ending that leaves us hanging and makes us think.  It is a parable about love, about grace, about scandal, about joy, and about forgiveness. It is a parable about the nature of God and our relationship with God. It is a parable that we know well.   This Lent we are lifting up the Psalms as Songs of Faith and our psalm for the day was chosen to fit with this parable.  I imagine it as the Song of the Prodigal Son; wisdom that he learned in his extraordinary journey back to his family.  Psalm 32 tells us, and shows us that forgiveness leads to joy and life.

To talk about forgiveness requires us to talk about mistakes and shortcomings, about pain we have caused to others or pain others have caused to us.  This can be uncomfortable. To add to the challenge, talking about forgiveness requires us to talk about sin.  Talking about sin may make us uncomfortable, leading to visions of fire and brimstone sermons about eternal torment, where fingers will be wagged at us, and we will feel bad about ourselves.  To ease your minds a bit, no fire and brimstone today, I promise.  

But talking about sin and forgiveness is difficult because deep down, sometimes we fear that we are undeserving.  We can’t forgive ourselves.  We can’t forgive others. And we can’t really believe that God forgives us.  Sadly and ironically, this feeling of unworthiness can lead us to avoid facing our shortcomings and lead us to ignore the forgiveness and grace that God freely offered to us.  It leaves us stuck, isolated in unhealthy habits and patterns.   So as we begin this exploration of forgiveness, let me flat out tell you that God loves you unconditionally.  There is nothing in your life, nothing that you have done or neglected to do that can separate you from the love of God made known to us through Jesus our Christ.  Let me repeat that so we are clear.  God loves you unconditionally.  There is nothing in your life, nothing that you have done or neglected to do that can separate you from the love of God made known to us through Jesus our Christ. 

Does that mean that you are perfect and sinless, with nothing to learn and nothing to change?  Unfortunately no.  But it does mean, that secure in God’s love,  we are able to face our sins and shortcomings honestly and completely.  

Our psalm starts with reassurance. “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (v. 1).  “Of course those people are happy!  They have nothing to worry about.  Every bad thing they have ever done has been wiped away.”  Those are the jealous thoughts of those still stuck in their fear and sin.   A better way to think about it is that those who are forgiven are no longer controlled by sin, regrets, and fears.  So how do we get there?

The psalmist shows us what life is like when dominated by sin and fear.  “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” (v. 3-4).  The stress and the guilt of the psalmist’s sin caused him to be physically ill.  We know that stress and anxiety have a great impact on our health.  We know that when our relationships are contentious or unhealthy we may make unhealthy choices.  Sin and fear isolate us.  They cut us off from healthy supports and cause us to turn away from God.  Stuck in sin, the psalmist is miserable and alone.

But then he makes a choice to speak honestly to God and to himself.  He acknowledges his sin.  He takes responsibility for the harm he has caused. He faces that which he had feared.  This can be very difficult, yes?  To admit we were wrong, to admit that we have hurt ourselves or someone else?  This takes real courage and honesty.  The psalm takes three lines to make this point as if it takes this long for the psalmist to work up the courage.  “Then I acknowledged my sin to you,  and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ (v. 5).

And then, God forgives him!  Just like that!  Nothing more is required!  Just honesty and a desire for a relationship with God.   The psalmist tells us “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.” (v. 6).  In other words he says, “Everyone, avoid my mistake and just speak with God.  God will be with you in times of distress.  God will hear you and guide you, even or perhaps especially when you have fallen short or made a mistake.”  Those who remain close to God can avoid some of the dangers of sin and fear simply by trusting in God rather than in themselves or in that which might tempt them away.

The psalmist now can rest in God rather than fear God. He says “You are a hiding-place for me;  you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. (v. 7).   He accepts the forgiveness given by God and can be at peace.  He acknowledges the extraordinary truth that God rejoices in his redemption.  Let’s think about that for a minute.  Not only does God offer forgiveness to us but God rejoices at our redemption! “Surrounding us with glad cries of deliverance!”  As we said last week, God yearns for us and is, at all times, working for our well being.

Now no longer consumed by sin, guilt, and fear, the Psalmist speaks to us again, sharing from his experience about being forgiven.  He offers to walk with us on our journey of faith.  He encourages us to not be like he was, like a mule without understanding, requiring difficult circumstances in which to learn. We do not like to be compared to a mule, and yet how often does our stubbornness get us in trouble?  How often do we chafe at being led and yet still require firm and clear guidance?      

The psalm ends with wisdom, love, and joy.  Those who choose to remain separate from God remain in the torments of sin and fear but those who trust in God can rest surrounded by God’s steadfast love.   God’s love and forgiveness inspires us to rejoice and be glad and to shout for joy.  Thanks be to God.

So today, I encourage each of us to rest in the forgiveness of God.  To celebrate this great gift that allows us to learn and grow.  To give honor to this power which makes all of our relationships possible, not just our relationship with God but our relationships with our families, friends, coworkers, and others.

When we are secure in the forgiveness of God, we can look honestly at our sins and shortcomings and make positive changes in our lives.  We can take responsibility for the mistakes we have made.  We can see where, despite the best intentions, we have hurt others.  We can let go of our rationalizations that keep us stuck in unhealthy patterns.  

When we are secure in the forgiveness of God, we can reflect upon our actions and attitudes of the past and determine where and how we can be more aligned with God’s purposes.  We can see where we have been privileged when others have not and we can make amends.  This is hard in today’s society where we are encouraged to stick to our views no matter what!   In a polarized culture, it is hard to admit a change of thinking but as people of faith, we understand that we are always encouraged to grow and change.

When we are secure in the forgiveness of God, we can offer forgiveness to others.  We can be empathetic and try to see things from another person’s perspective, recognizing that most people are trying to do the best they can.  We can extend grace to those who have hurt us inadvertently. To be clear, this does not mean remaining in hurtful or abusive relationships.  But forgiving those who have wronged us allows us to let go of their negative power.

When we are secure in the forgiveness of God, we can forgive ourselves and know ourselves worthy of love.  For some of us, this is the hardest thing.  We know where we have fallen short and we all carry shame and guilt about actions from our past.   We are hard on others and even harder on ourselves.   Some of us have been told that we are not worthy!  Some by their families, some by society, some even by the church!   Let me repeat again what I said at the beginning of the sermon.  God loves you unconditionally.  There is nothing in your life, nothing that you have done or neglected to do that can separate you from the love of God made known to us through Jesus our Christ.   You are worthy of God’s love.

When we are secure in the forgiveness of God, we can move through our days with forgiveness and grace, sharing God’s love with those we meet.  At the end of today’s parable, the Father throws a huge party to celebrate the return of his son.   It is a celebration for the restoration of the family’s relationship.  A restoration made possible by forgiveness.  As we rest in the forgiveness of God, may we live our lives with joy and purpose.

Let us pray,

Forgiving God, we are in awe of your love for us.  We thank you for the power of your forgiveness and grace.  Help us to extend forgiveness with those in our lives so that we might increase the love and understanding in your world.  Amen.