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The Return

Luke 15:11-32

The Rev. Jon Roberts

27 March

2022

Calvary Episcopal Church

Indian Rocks Beach, FL

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

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The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

If you love somebody, let them go.
For if they return, they were always yours.
And if they don't they never were.[1]

Somewhere in the country, on the back of a pickup truck, is a bumper sticker, that says, "If you love somebody, let 'em go. If they don't return, hunt 'em down and drag 'em back, kickin' and screaming."
It would be easy, if we had the power, to bring our loved ones back into our lives. Back from the moment when they suddenly decided to leave us. We begin to doubt. “I wish I could have changed their mind,” “I should have said things differently.” Now that they are gone, “I wonder if I will ever see them again.” Have you loved somebody and had to let them go? You probably prayed a lot. Letting go can be tough but when we are separated from the ones we love, we must pray God will protect them and look after them. We want to see their face once more, to what was shared but as the years pass and the memories fade, what do we have to help us hold on? Is it a photograph (or nowadays a ‘video’), the mirror or could it be the painting? One is a copy, another is a reflection, and one is an impression. In the New York Metropolitan Museum, is a portrait of the gregarious, poet Gertrude Stein painted in 1906 by her friend Pablo Picasso. During that time a critic commented that Gertrude didn't look anything like her portrait. Picasso replied, "She will". The photograph may capture a moment in the past. The mirror may reflect the present, but the painting is the impression of what should be. The artist brings the subject to life on canvas. In many cases, he hopes for the best with each brush stroke full of hopeful expectation. There are no mistakes and there is a special exchange between the artist and his work that is true and inherent to life. Hope. The artist paints not only for what was, but what is to be. The artist inspires life in His work and paints for what should be. He steps back and admires and sometimes steps back, frustrated.

In the Old Testament reading from the story of Joshua, we see an illustration of both accounts. God must be pleased that Joshua has led his people, Israel into Canaan.[3] They eat fruit for the first time since their nomadic sojourn in the wilderness for forty years where they were taught to follow and obey God. "Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven", says the psalmist.[4] On the other hand, God must be frustrated with Israel as they no longer need God’s supply of bread, the manna, that fell from the sky. It could not be preserved whereas the grain they can now harvest can be stored. They now have fruit. They have milk and honey because they are farming the land and raising livestock. They are fortifying their walls and standing guard. This all sounds good, but at this moment, they no longer turned to the true bread that gave them life anymore. They abandoned God before the exile, several hundred years ago in Egypt, they came back to God during the exodus through the wilderness and now they are about to turn away from God once that they can provide for themselves in the Promised Land. Back and forth, back, and forth. Lost and found, coming, and going, all the while the artist continues to paint.

Several years after this story, the Corinthian Christians in Greece, wanted to return to God. Upon seeing their open hearts and deep desire to be made new, St. Paul said, “We are reconciled, becoming a new creation in Christ.”[5] A new creation starts with a contrite spirit that wants to rise out of despair. True bread for nourishment begins with the crumbs that fall from the table. By virtue, we are called to return. In the early church of the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop and one of the “Church Fathers”, once said, “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” Is this our goal in life?

In the parable of The Prodigal Son, Jesus is reaching out to those who need to return to God’s grace and mercy. Prodigal means to be reckless, wasteful and imprudent. This is the central focus of this portrayal of the one who returns. It is remarkable that we see people like this in their spiritual poverty who wind up in a place that appears hopeless, isolated and lost. We look at such a soul and may wonder, “Why didn’t they don’t know any better,” but they did! We all do. We are created by an artist who hopes we will adapt and change, and yes, He makes room for some to leave and to return. In the painting, of the Father and his two sons how many of us would not want to be in good favor with our loving Father? With the one who loves us and the one who provides? The one who sacrifices daily for our needs and creature comforts? Who among us have that brother (or sister) who either follows all the rules and is condescending towards us or we have one who recklessly comes and goes as they please?

Who is quite happy eating the crap from the pigsty? Maybe the one who lives impulsively, who says, “If it feels good, then just do it” and “Why wouldn’t God want me to be happy?”, “Live a little.” These statements lead to decisions that can mislead us, make us addicts and fall into the snare of sin. The Devil certainly wants you to do it, and he knows how to use it, equally reversed as well. Like the famous Nike ad challenged you to, “Just do it” we begin to believe our achievements are our own doing. There is a difference between self-conscious determination that improves our life vs. a self-centered determination that reduces our life. Be forewarned. Do not elevate your achievements and status above others for your own prosperity. This is calculated and can be a prideful sin. On the other hand, you may care only for your self and clearly not concerned about how your decisions impact others. This is impetuous and irresponsible. This can be a slothful or lustful sin.

The painting of The Prodigal Son, could have easily been titled the The "Jealous Son" or even, "The Loving Father," but all three depend on the return for the purpose illustrated by the artist. It is an impression that expects you to be one of the two sons or like a merciful parent. Are you the one who ran away from your family obligation to eat with the pigs or are you the one who looks down your nose with malice to the returning prodigal? Perhaps you are like the father who will love the one who took from you and never thought to say, “Thank you” or further yet, “I love you?” Will you open your arms to that beloved member of your family and celebrate their return? If so, you are fulfilling the work of the artist and becoming like Him.

St. Thomas Aquinas goes further in describing this model of going out and coming in his poem about the Eucharist titled, "Adoro Te Devote." Within the prose he explains how all things come from God by using the Latin phrase, “exitus et reditus”.[6] It simply means, “going out and coming in” but a deeper understanding is, "the origin of the divine" (Theogeny). The greatest complement, they say, is imitation. What goes out, if it is truly divine, should return, from what is truly human. Are we not children of God? Are we not precious to God and a beloved piece of His wonderful creation? Even with blemishes and imperfections, God can stand back and enjoy the masterpiece.

I would argue, both sons left the father. Like them, we are presented with the same decision. Choose to return or choose to leave. Return by way of time well spent with the Father or leave Him, thinking you can do better. When during your week, do you carve out time to be with Him? When do you thank Him? How do you show your appreciation, your admiration or your adoration? Your soul will deepen into the vivid colors of God’s love, painted within your hearts. Your consciousness of the Holy Spirit will become more alive, if you remain near Him in worship, prayer and devotion. If God is the artist and you are His creation, right now, ask yourself, are you one who gives Him joy or frustration? He is not going to hunt you down, and drag you back kicking and screaming. He desires you to come back on your own accord. It takes a little sacrifice, a little discipline, and a lot of love. Spending time with the Father, who is in heaven can only be-gotten, if you spend the time with His Son, Jesus, who came into the world to show you… how to return.[7]

[1] Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)
[2] Adapted from Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
[3] Joshua 5:9-12
[4] Psalm 32:1
[5] 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
[6] “Why Thomism”, https://www.dominicanajournal.org/why-thomism/
[7] Sermon revised from original on March 14, 2010, Good Shepherd Episcopal, Venice, FL by Fr. Roberts.

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