I was standing in the narthex after worship last week, greeting you the way I normally do and trying to connect with visitors to make sure they sign the guest book, when I received a question from one of our visitors that was so perceptive and relevant to this morning’s scriptures that I want to share it with all of you. This person asked, “I notice that this morning we didn’t do the confession and forgiveness at the beginning of worship, and I was wondering why?”
I don’t know if you were here last Sunday, or if you remember the scriptures we used in worship. The Old Testament reading began, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…” and the psalm began, “Oh God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you.” Paul first letter to the Corinthians reminded them that their “ancestors were all under the same cloud, and passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” The gospel text was Jesus’ story of the gardener who intercedes with a landowner for the sake of a fig tree that was unproductive, and promises to care for and fertilize it. They were watery texts, full of baptismal imagery, and so we began our worship with a Thanksgiving for Baptism and felt the baptismal waters rain down on us during the gathering hymn as Heather and I flicked drops of water flung by an evergreen branch in a ritual called asperges.
I explained to our new friend that in our new hymnal, Lutherans have tried to make the connection between baptism and confession more visible. Many of us, including me, grew up with a Lutheran liturgy in which every service, like this morning’s service, began with the brief order for confession and forgiveness. In fact, the page number from our old green hymnals is burned on my brain, page 76. But open our new cranberry colored hymnals to page 116, and look under the word “gathering,” and there you’ll see a rubric that says, “the service may begin with confession and forgiveness or with thanksgiving for baptism.” And if you quickly scan the next couple of pages, you’ll see that there are a variety of forms for each.
The beauty of the liturgy is how, over time, it shapes our theological imaginations. While any one worship service may seem fairly mundane, the force of repetition over a childhood or across the span of a life shouldn’t be underestimated. Like the Grand Canyon, that was carved by the steady flow of water over thousands of years, the liturgy works slowly on us – channeling our thoughts by providing words and imagery for the powerful concepts of forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and justice that are at its core.
When we begin a service with a thanksgiving for baptism, I generally include a marginal note that reads,
This order of Thanksgiving for Baptism is used as a reminder of the gift of baptism— wherein we are named and claimed as children of God in a way that cannot be broken by our failings as individuals or groups. We begin our worship with this remembrance not so much as a way of claiming any special status for ourselves before God on account of our baptism, but to remind ourselves God has claimed us, along with all the people of the world, as beloved members of God’s own family!
Baptism is, for Lutherans, one of two sacraments – and of the two, it is the one that speaks to our need for unconditional belonging. It is the sacrament that replaces the birthing waters we experienced in the womb with universal waters that make brothers and sisters out of the whole world. They are the waters of adoption through which God reminds us that we are all already family to one another. They are waters that work all on their own, needing no help from us, which is why we sometimes give thanks for our baptisms at the beginning of worship – as a way of reminding ourselves that God is rushing out to meet us, regardless of our failings, because God has claimed us as daughters and sons!
And that was interesting enough for our guest to hear, but what he said next was equally powerful. He said, “thanks for explaining that, that helps me understand, but I was really looking forward to the confession. I look forward to that. I think it’s so important to have a chance to confess my failures.”
And that reminded me of the beginning verses of this morning’s psalm, Psalm 32
Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile!
While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD." Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
If you look at the inside cover of your bulletin this week, you’ll see the marginal note next to the rite of confession and forgiveness reads,
This brief order for Confession and Forgiveness is used as a reminder of the gift of baptism— wherein we are named and claimed as children of God in a way that cannot be broken by our failings as individuals or groups. We recite these words not in order to set ourselves right with God, which is beyond our power, but so that we can let go of anything standing between our burdened hearts and the good news of God’s mercy and love for all creation!
Confession and forgiveness and baptism, linked together over and over, in our worship and in our scriptures, because we are trying to internalize something that our souls seem to want to resist – the idea that ultimately, regardless of who you are or what you have done with your life, God loves you. Whether you have ever known that kind of love from your own parents or not, whether you have ever experienced that kind of forgiveness from your own family or not, in this house we have a parent who forgives freely and loves unconditionally, the way it was always supposed to be. We build these components into the beginning of each liturgy, each moment of worship, so that over time their truth might be carved deeply into our souls. Family and forgiveness, freely offered.
This is the truth that makes the parable of the prodigal son so powerful. It is the reason we love this story. The younger son, who selfishly collects his inheritance of grace and then squanders it in a foreign country, is so accessible to us. We know this child, we are this child. We, who have been created in freedom for freedom, know what it is like to waste our freedom on that which does not feed us, or sustain us, or bring us joy. The behavior of the younger son brings back to mind Isaiah’s question from last week, “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” That is precisely what this younge
r son has done, squandering his life on pursuits that cannot feed him, and when the economy crashes, and there is famine in the land, his wastefulness is exposed and he returns to the father ready to beg for a servant’s job in the house.
Let’s just notice that the younger son doesn’t return because he misses his father, or his brother. He returns because he is starving, and his father has what he needs to survive. He returns, ready to make confession for his bad behavior, not because it occurs to him that he requires reconciliation, but because he needs food to survive. Even his confession is not unselfish. In his moment of despair, he remains concerned first and foremost with himself.
The younger son prepares a rehearsed speech. He plans to say to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” But as he arrives at his father’s house, all he is able to get out of his mouth is, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Before he can even make his request, that he be treated like a hired laborer, the father has come running out to meet him with all the signs of honor, all the symbols of belonging, that come with being a beloved child – a robe and a ring and a celebration that the wayward some has come home.
Family and forgiveness. The father doesn’t greet the prodigal with a repayment plan, or second class citizenship in the household. The father reminds the younger son that he remains a part of the family unconditionally. There is no earning his way back to the dinner table, he is simply gathered up by arms of love and brought back into the house.
This is the good news our hearts long to hear, that there is a place for us here – not only in the church, but in the world, in our families and in our workplaces, there is mercy and forgiveness and belonging. Then this parable brings us to the rub.
There is the other brother. The one who stayed home and worked. The one who put in his time and expected his reward. The one who, sadly and mistakenly, thought he was buying his inheritance in advance with self-righteous self-sacrifice. He imagines himself to be the polar opposite of his younger brother, but cannot see how alike they are. Each is concerned with inheriting the riches their father has to give, neither wants to claim the other as family. Ultimately they are both focused on the rewards that come from being part of a family, but they are uninterested in the responsibilities that come with being family to one another. They have stopped relating to their father with love, replacing the idea of family with the concepts of entitlement (in the case of the younger son) or meritocracy (in the case of the elder).
The elder son is so disgusted by the father’s forgiving response to his younger brother that he cannot see how alike they are. They have both replaced the father’s loving attitude, which builds family, with attitudes of individualism that demand their due – whether inherited or earned. There is no need for family in the elder brother’s understanding of the world, and therefore no need for forgiveness. Just rules by which to live.
And there is no joy.
There is no joy in living when it is only entitlements to be collected or just rewards come due, because joy comes in the sharing, not in the taking and so each son loses out. But when the younger one comes to himself, the father goes rushing out to meet him before he can offer to give up his place in the household, because the father’s concern is not figuring out which of his children deserves an inheritance, but rather how to get all of his children to the table. Which is why the father also leaves the house to find the elder brother, to invite him in to share in the feast.
Any time I have ever read this parable, or heard it preached, I have felt the need to associate myself with one of the two sons. Am I more like the one who has squandered his life on unsustainable pursuits, and now stands in need of unmerited grace; or am I more like the one who has lived a life of quiet, rigid anger, waiting to be recognized for my sacrifices. It wasn’t until my own father gave me his copy of Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, this last Christmas that I considered that we are all actually called to become like the father of this parable – the one who forgives freely and leaves the house to call his family together. Nouwen writes,
But what of the father? Why pay so much attention to the sons when it is the father who is in the center and when it is the father with whom I am to identify? Why talk so much about being like the sons when the real question is: Are you interested in being like the father? It feels good somehow to be able to say: “These sons are like me.” It gives a sense of being understood. But how does it feel to say: “The father is like me”? Do I want to be like the father? Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receives compassion, but the one who offers it as well?
Isn’t there a subtle pressure in both the Church and society to remain a dependent child? Hasn’t the Church in the past stressed obedience in a fashion that made it hard to claim spiritual fatherhood, and hasn’t our consumer society encouraged us to indulge in childish self-gratification? Who has truly challenged us to liberate ourselves from immature dependencies and to accept the burden of being responsible adults?
I love those questions, and I love the idea that the burden of responsible adulthood looks like the father and not the elder son. Responsible adulthood is not bitter, self-righteous refusal to associate with wasteful siblings or forgiving parents. Responsible adulthood is putting the well being of the whole family above the need to be right, or to be rewarded. It is choosing forgiveness over and over, when anger and petty rivalry are so much easier.
That is our Lenten journey, and it is a journey we will be on throughout our lives. In this season of Lent, which the early church used as both a time of penitence and a period of preparation for baptism, we are reminded that the two are connected. Family and forgiveness. We are blessed with worship, with a way of being, that keeps us continually connected to both so that – over time – rigid walls of rock that keep us separated from one another might be worn down into channels carrying the waters of God’s amazing grace. Grace that is our inheritance, not our entitlement or reward, and grace we are called to share with all who, like us, are still finding their way home.
Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.