A Wideness in God’s Mercy

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Fourth Sunday in Lent
First Lesson: Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
Second Lesson: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

300px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectOne of my absolute favorite hymns that we sing in the Episcopal Church is the one that we sang just a few moments ago before the reading of the Gospel, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” which was based on a poem by the nineteenth-century poet, Frederick William Faber. The hymn begins with the words, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.” The hymn continues on and speaks of “welcome for the sinner” and “mercy with the Savior.” It speaks of “plentiful redemption” and “the goodness of the Lord.” The version of the hymn that we sing in our hymnal includes many of the stanzas from the original poem, but if you were to read the original, you would notice that the final two were left out.

If we were to sing them, it would sound something like this:

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own. 

Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
Come and gather at his feet?

Frederick Faber’s hymn offers us a glimpse into the deep, unyielding love of God, a love that knows no boundaries or limits. Through his beautiful and captivating words, he paints us a picture of a God who defies our expectations with a love so strong and so overwhelming that it goes beyond what we could ever hope for or imagine. This is the same kind of love that Jesus illustrates for us in his Parable of the Prodigal Son.

In Jesus’ parable, we’re reminded that there’s nothing we can say or do that will ever separate us from the love of God. There’s nothing we can say or do that will ever prevent us from being completely and perfectly loved by our Father in heaven. “If anyone is in Christ,” St. Paul writes, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” God’s deepest longing, God’s greatest desire is for all of God’s children to be made new, and there’s no limit to what God will do to welcome us back home.

Most of us are already familiar with the story, but like with any parable of Jesus, there are layers of details to uncover before you can really begin to understand and appreciate its significance.

At the beginning of the story, a man had two sons, each with his own share of the inheritance. One day, the younger of the two sons says to his father, “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” The father does as the son requests and gives him his share of the inheritance. After that, things go downhill pretty quickly for the younger son. He travels to a far-off land and quickly spends all that his father had given him. Completely broke, hungry, and far from home, the son goes to work for a pig farmer. Jesus uses this detail in the story to emphasize how far the son was from his home. He was now in Gentile territory. No Palestinian Jew would have owned a pig farm since swine were considered unclean. Not only does this detail indicate how far the son was from home, but it also describes just how low he was willing to go in order to survive.

Soon, the younger son comes to his senses. He realizes how profoundly lost he’s become, and he knows that this isn’t the life that he was meant to live. He says to himself, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.’” The younger son feels remorse about the way his life has turned out and the pain that he’s caused his family. So, he decides to return home, and he already knows what he’s going to say to his father when he gets there.

Now, this is point in the story where something truly remarkable and unexpected happens. This is where the grace comes in. The father sees the younger son from a distance and is immediately filled with compassion. According to one author, “He shakes off the normal restraint of a Palestinian male and breaks with the social customs defining the roles of fathers and sons.” While the prodigal son is still far off, his father runs to him and embraces him. The father is filled with so much love for his son that he defies the cultural expectations of the time and welcomes his son home without any hesitation.

Then, the long-lost son begins the speech he’s prepared. He knows the rules. Once you leave and squander your inheritance among the Gentiles, you risk being completely exiled from the community. He says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Before the son can even finish his speech, the father says to his servants, “Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

Don’t you see? This parable is about much more than the prodigal son and his decision to return home. It’s about the deep, unyielding love of the father. There’s nothing that the son can say or do that will ever prevent the father from loving him, and there’s nothing that the father won’t do in order to welcome his son back home. He’ll break all the rules if he has to. He’ll defy what society expects him to do. In the end, none of that matters. All that matters is that his son was once lost but is now found. The father’s joy is complete in knowing that his long-lost son is home again.

The same is true for us, my friends. In the end, all that our loving God desires is to embrace us and welcome us back home and for us to share that same love and mercy with the rest of the world.

In his book, God Has a Dream, Archbishop Desmond Tutu once wrote, “I have a dream, God says. Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that My children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, My family.”

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” the old hymn says, “like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.” May we always remember that the love of God is stronger and more perfect than anything we could ever hope for or imagine. May we always remember that our Father longs to welcome us back home, no matter the circumstance. There is nothing we can do or say that will ever change that. Amen.

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