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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Why Is This So Hard To Believe?

Luke 15: 11-17

Why Is This So Hard To Believe?

Sunday February 26, 2017

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Pilgrim Congregational Church, Harwich Port

This is the last in a series of sermons about God. Throughout this series, we have talked about the different aspects and qualities of God. In the Bible, there is no one depiction of God. The various stories depict God as a warrior, a seamstress, a jealous husband, a nursing mother, a potter, a mother hen, a woman in labor, an eagle, a nervous parent. For all the variety in scripture most of us have been influences by Michelangelo’s depiction of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We think of God as a white-haired man with muscles reaching out to touch Adam’s finger. That image has crowded out the others in our collective Western consciousness.

            But this is a sermon series that started with your questions, and I have tried to respond to them. Today’s topic comes from a question about sin and the nature of God. It takes us beneath our platitudes about God but invites us to examine our doubts and worries about God, and our deep fears about God.

            It addresses questions like, “God sees our faults, then God must keep track of our iniquity. What does God do with that information? Does God keep score?  If we sin or turn from God, then how much slack will God cut us and how much patience will God have?  These are the age-old questions, the ones Jesus came to answer. For thousands of years people assumed that God needed our respect but not our affection. Jesus came to change all that. He talked to God like a friend talks to a trusted ally. He prayed using the word Abba- which really means Papa. It should be translated “my daddy” not “our father”. That word Abba got folks attention, but then it was the stories Jesus told that revolutionized the way people thought about God.


The story we read today still challenges us to really re-think who God is. It helps us to answer our deep questions about God’s true nature. Let’s take a closer look.

In the first place the story of the Prodigal Son says that God is like a terrific parent, the best father you could imagine. The Prodigal Son wants to get away from home so he asks for his father’s inheritance. This kid is a smug know-it all. He has no use for his father, thinks he knows everything. He is spoiled and sees his father as a cash cow. So he asks his father for the money he has coming. It is a height of entitlement to ask you father for the estate so you can take your inheritance and leave town. He is a nasty cruel piece of work, but the father agrees. Maybe he knows the kid won’t listen to him and he need to grow up in the school of hard knocks.

But he gives the Prodigal Son half of the estate. The young man takes it and wastes it all, losing it at gambling tables, snorts cocaine, hires prostitutes; you can imagine. This is not like you waiting to get help for your down payment after waiting and working but coming up short and asking for help. This is you going to your father and telling him you don’t want to stay home and end up like him. You know better and were just prefer if he did not exist and got out of your way.

But the Prodigal Son loses everything and then must find work, and learning to survive gives him a new perspective and wisdom. He has run through his friends and takes a job feeding pigs; for a Jew this is the rock bottom, because they avoid pigs, so living with them is the worst fate. Sitting in a pigpen this young man decides to swallow his pride and go home to beg his father for a job working as a laborer on his dad’s land. It is a huge comedown, but nothing about his parting would guarantee that he would be welcome.  Still the son fantasizes about serving his father and brother on his old farm. He would have done it but his father won’t allow it. He has learned and changed so he is ready to restore the relationship. 

This week I spent a few days with my grandchildren and most of my time I walked beside a little boy who was desperate to learn how to ride a big boy bike. Now he was too big for his tricycle but nowhere near ready to ride without training wheels, so it was an experiment when we bought him a new vehicle. My son and I were not sure if he would have the initiative or persistence to make the transition and it was a little nerve-wracking to think of him on a hill, because he did not know how to use brakes. But he was highly motivated and from the moment he woke up and until dinner he had one purpose in mind – learning to ride that bike. So I ran along side of him, testing him on the flat terrain, encouraging him on the hills, and coaching him on when he needed to brake because he was getting up speed.

I let Jed fall a few times because the alternative was to hover and make him scared of his bike. I tried to arrange things so he’d fall on the grass. Mostly, I tried to be available with encouragement and comfort when he needed it in turns. Maybe it was because I had this sermon in my mind, but I started to wonder about this new image for God. Maybe more than we know God runs along beside us sort of like that each day. God pushes us up the hills from time to time and reaches out to hold us when we get going too fast to keep us from tripping over ourselves. God cannot protect us from all the falls, and does not want to but God is on our side. God smiles when we are proud of what we have accomplished, and does not need credit for helping us. It is enough to watch and enjoy our genuine sense of self-esteem when we learn something new. 

If I could be this proud of this child, imagine how God feels about us.  Most of us have nice memories of our fathers, but our fathers were human. They could be tender and affectionate, but they could also be stubborn, too tired for us, judgmental, distracted or so limited by what the world needed from them that they did not know what we needed, and could not supply it.  So when we say that God is like a father it is a mixed message. But Jesus says that God is like your best days with your father in our story.  God is better than you can imagine.

Secondly, the story says at our fundamental core, we need God.

To make it all worse, the kid’s selfishness takes him to its logical conclusion; he wastes all that his father has entrusted to him. He throws away the gifts, so costly and lovingly bestowed. No one prevents him from failing, or cushions the blow of his fall, because that is not love. He ends up disgraced, a Jew who could only find a job feeding pigs, an animal he should not even be touching. But he has to sleep with them. There in the pigpen, the Bible says that the Prodigal Son “came to himself”.  He had to hit rock bottom, but there in that moment he recognized his own folly, but refused to be defeated by his decisions.

At the core of his being he knew he was made in his father’s image, and it would be better to try to find his way back to his father. When he came to himself he realized that nothing could ultimately separate him from his father. He would rather be home living as a servant than out with strangers.

The question that I always wonder about is. Why is this so hard to believe?  The truth is most of us worry that God is aloof like a Lord of the manor, or God is disdainful of our weakness. We worry that God is strict like a Victorian papa or cruel like an abusive master. We wonder if our transgressions have broken the covenant, like we are that powerful, or that evil.

            Do you know what the root is for the words that we translate for “sin” in the Bible? The word in Hebrew means missing the mark in archery. The word we translate as sin in the New Testament comes from the Greek word for missing the mark in spear throwing. The meaning in Bible times was virtually the same; different sports but the same connotation. It means you tried but you did not hit the bullseye. You made an effort but you could improve. It means you were a contender but not a champion, at least not yet. There is no implication that if you sinned you are flawed, or reprobate or beyond the pale. That is not even on the table.

            Jesus tell this story to convey to us that even if you insult your father, and act like a fool, squander the gifts you have been given, and act in ways that are humiliating to you and everyone who loves you, still God keep the light on for you. God keeps looking out the window for you. God never gives up on you.  When he came to himself, he wanted to go home.

            Finally, Jesus says you need to decide. The Prodigal Son might have decided his deeds were too bad to forgive. He might have decided that his father hated him. He might have clung to his wounded pride and decided he could not face his family. He might have decided he did not need his father.

            The father kept the door open but this young man had to turn around and come back home to see that. The son had to decide whether to take a chance on the father’s love. We project our worst fears onto God and then we believe in our projections. At the end of this sermon series on God you need to decide what kind of God you believe in.

            Why does it matter?  It changes the world. The way you think changes the way you think about life and whether there is hope for us all. If God is intractable and vengeful then when mistakes happen, which they do, you wait cringing for the punishment, or figuring out how to beg for forgiveness. But if God is a father waiting at the gate, or a shepherd searching for us ever more eagerly than we search for God, then life has hope.

Today’s hymns depict two very different images of God. The first hymn describes a deity –Immortal invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes. We blossom and flourish like leaves on a tree and wither and perish but nought changeth thee. This is a God impervious to our short span of time. The second hymn depicts a different God – Father like he tends and spares us, well our feeble frame he knows; in his hands he gently bears us, rescues us from all our foes.

You decide.

Posted: Sunday February 26, 2017