Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Sermon: I Have Seen the Lord!

"I Have Seen the Lord!"
Easter Sunday
John 20:1-18 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 27, 2016

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.

They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’

When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
- John 20: 1-18

You and I – we just experienced her story. And it is a powerful one because at its very core it transcends the words on the page.

When she looked into the empty tomb she saw her ending. Everything that Mary Magdalene had put her faith into seemed to come undone. I can imagine her mind was racing a mile a minute as she reflected on the past: following in the steps of her Teacher and friend; learning how the world and faith were all tethered to God; breaking bread together in table fellowship.

Jesus and the band of disciples were a close family. The experience of authentic community was so very important back then. And it had all come to an abrupt end. She came to the tomb to look for the One they knew as the Messiah – the anointed One – the One who hung on the cross. The One she was looking for could not be found. She was overwhelmed.

The disciples had come and gone in disbelief. And she paced both inside and outside of that tomb looking for an answer. Maybe she was trying to reason out this impossible situation. Maybe she was trying to fix it. You know how women always have the right answer!

But within the moment she looked up into the eyes of the One mistaken to be the gardener everything changed. He said her name. She heard his voice. God’s presence swept over her and she saw the Lord. In that transcending moment, Mary experienced the Good News. In what seemed to be her ending she experienced a new beginning. She experienced the promise of resurrection.

It is hard to get our minds around that word resurrection. We cannot explain it. We can only experience it. A colleague of mine in ministry shared last week that the purpose of the gospel is not to save but to witness through the power of story. God’s story of sacrificial love and new life – death and resurrection – rewrites our own stories.

We all have a story to tell. And when we tell our story through the lens of faith we are empowered to bear words of God’s hope for ourselves and for one another. The power of our stories allows us to see God at work in the big picture of life.

Natalie Sleeth told her story through music. From the early age of four, Natalie was captivated by the way music transcended words. She learned how to play the piano and also learned how to professionally speak and write the language of music. She composed numerous hymns for the greater Church, particularly songs for children. She is well known in Methodist circles and one of her most powerful hymns is in our Presbyterian hymn book.

We experienced Natalie’s story this morning as we sang the second hymn, “In a Bulb There Is a Flower.” This song is also known as “Hymn of Promise.” Natalie wrote the song during a very difficult time in her life. Her husband, Rev. Ronald E. Sleeth, was a Methodist minister and he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. During this dark time, Natalie pondered questions about “life and death, spring and winter, Good Friday and Easter.” She looked into the bareness of her winter and reflected how the “whole world reawakens each spring.” [1]

Nature has a particular ebb and flow as all things have an ending and a new beginning. Natalie was reminded of T.S. Eilot’s words, “In our ending is our beginning.” This long conversation in Natalie’s heart led her to write the hymn we sang this morning. She essentially wrote it for her husband in 1985 and it was first sung when they celebrated the gift of his life.

In our end is our beginning; in our time infinity
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see

Resurrection transcends our human struggles and directs our spiritual eyes to focus on God’s presence sweeping over us. At the very core of our stories lie brokenness, hurt, questions, doubt, and grief. It takes a lot of courage to look into the tomb of what we have buried or what we would rather bury. It takes a lot of courage to look at the situations in our lives that seem to be our endings.

What is so miraculous about this day is that the Spirit gives us courage to do this – to walk around our unique landscapes of life. The Spirit gives us courage to lift up the messy parts of life that we get really good at hiding. The Spirit gives us courage to look into our endings in order to find the grace of God as our beginning. God is raising up the greater things of faith, hope, and love to give us the promise of new life.

And when we share our stories and really listen to one another then we have an opportunity to truly see the Risen Christ standing right here with us. When we look into our own stories and sense God’s presence embracing us, then Mary Magdalene’s words become our refrain. We too cannot help but proclaim the Good News, “I have seen the Lord!”

As we sit in the hospital room being held together by prayer warriors and finally hear that this medical condition is improving; we have seen the Lord.

When ultimate healing comes by standing in God’s eternal presence and suffering and death are no more; we have seen the Lord.

We learn that our beloved has broken even just one link in the long chain of addiction; we have seen the Lord.

We prayed for God’s wisdom and peace to claim our attitude and at that very moment we were able to let everything go; we have seen the Lord.

We look into the clouds of depression and see a light revealing that we have value and we are loved; we have seen the Lord.

Through many tear-filled prayers and conversations grace begins to heal that marriage that needs mending; we have seen the Lord.

When terror and violence claim lives but Love speaks louder and moves us to bear all things, endure all things, and hope all things for one another in the community and world; we have seen the Lord.

There are stories of resurrection all around us and the Spirit is on the move today on Easter Sunday to give us courage to lift up our voices.

Ann Weems shared her story through prayer-infused poetry. She happened to be Presbyterian and wrote a number of books on the mysteries of God’s grace. Ann entered the Church Triumphant during this Holy Week at the young age of 81. Certainly the saints of heaven welcomed her with applause.

Ann fashioned transcending words for the Church to tell her story on Easter Sunday, for we are an Easter people:

The Church is Easter
Out of Death: Life.
Out of darkness:
A lush green world
Flowers in the ice
Sunrays in the storm
Mustard seeds galore.
Our souls enter a spiritual springtime.
Our bodies given over to leaping and dancing.
Our shouting crashes in upon this world:
The Lord lives!
We live!
Resurrection resounds throughout our community.

Resurrection always has the last word. Resurrection moves the stone and the tomb is empty. Resurrection holds our ending in the very hands of God in order for a new beginning to take shape.

Friends consider your story. Look for Christ standing in the mess. And then let the Spirit give you courage to tell your story to those you love. In the beauty and brokenness of life, tell where you have experienced the Good News - Resurrection.

Tell where you have seen the Lord.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1] C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: In the Bulb There Is a Flower”

[2] Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013). Hymn No. 250 “In the Bulb There Is a Flower.”

[3] Ann Weems, “Kneeling in Bethlehem” (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980), p. 81.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Sermon: Palm Sunday - "I Will Follow You"

"I Will Follow You"
Palm Sunday
Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Luke 19: 28-40, by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 20, 2016

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
Let Israel say,
‘His steadfast love endures forever.’
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
- Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29

After he had said this [parable], he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’

So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’

Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
- Luke 19: 29-40

Tradition held the people’s expectations of Cesar’s kingdom. The people were to expect their king to parade into Jerusalem riding high and mighty on a war horse. This horse would have been so big that your neck would strain to look up into the eyes of its rider. When one sits in a position that high, that person can only look down. And that was the way authority was viewed back in the first century. Authority was held in such a way that it instilled fear and intimidation. People today still crave this type of power where authority is something to wield around and make others submissive and afraid.

And right after Jesus tells the parable of a nobleman who sought power for himself in ruthless ways, Jesus then prepares to parade into his own coronation in a very different way. As he approached Jerusalem, the city which would hail him king, he passed near Bethany.

You remember Bethany – the village of Jesus' dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Bethany literally means “House of Pain.” Jesus is passing through the place where he brought significant healing and new life out of pain and death. We remember it was in Bethany that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus looks beyond this house of pain to what lies ahead in God’s plan for salvation. He tells his disciples to go into the village and untie the colt because the Lord needs it.

The disciples follow Jesus’ directions to a “t” and lay their cloaks onto the colt. Then they set their Lord on it. And as this very different picture of royalty processed into Jerusalem, something powerful happened. The people began to throw down their cloaks onto the road like rolling out the red carpet.

These cloaks, however, are not anything like royal fabric or silky robes. They are tattered outer garments. They looked like old burlap. They were stained with sweat from long days of labor and tears of personal struggle. They were the humble garments of a humble people who were celebrating the entrance of their humble king.

This king, who sat on a beast of burden, did not look down upon the people. In fact he sat low and as he rode the colt along the road he could look straight into the people’s faces. This king reached out to touch the hands of the people that he knew through growing relationships. This was the king who was not born in a palace but in a threadbare feeding trough because there was no room in the inn. And before his birth this king caused his mother Mary to sing the most magnificent song of prophetic praise. Luke’s story begs us to remember:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
This Mighty One has done great things for me and for God’s people and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors
(Luke 1: 46-47, 49-50, 52-55).

Surely Mary and Joseph were standing in the crowds watching their son proudly. “Yeah, that’s my son – the Son of God! My son can do the God thing. What can your son do?”

This king lived in solidarity with the people and in doing so he touched their lives. Jesus Christ had brought healing to lepers and paralytics; he forgave women and men with painful pasts; he showed love to the outcasts; he calmed the storms of the seas and he calmed the chaos in people’s hearts; he fed thousands with 2 fish and 5 loaves; he taught the disciples how to fish for people. Over the course of Jesus’ 33 years of life and ministry he showed the people how a little child would grow up to lead us all into a different kind of kingdom - the kingdom of God. That child who was born in a manger grew into the redeeming revelation that God is with us every step of the way.

They threw down their cloaks in praise for what this king would certainly do next for them. The people and the disciples threw down their tattered garments in an effort to say, “I will follow you.”

The people thought this coronation would certainly lead to greater things. Jesus Christ – the King of Israel – was about the same age as when King David was crowned. As King David would lead the people of God to success, so Jesus Christ the King would certainly lead Israel back to world renown and respect. The people were expecting a political Messiah.

Throughout the years on this side of the cross many have wondered if the crowd truly knew what was at stake to follow Jesus. There was something very different about this king who could look you in the eyes and reach out to touch your heart and your hurts. We hear the Word come to life as the crowd cheered for the king’s arrival. But just as Jesus crests the hill of Jerusalem, he sat on the colt and looked at the expanse of the city. And he wept over Jerusalem, saying:

If you [you all], even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God. (Luke 19: 41-42, 44).

We too stand here today in the story of Scripture. We too are cheering as Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The long days of Lent are closing and Holy Week begins. Certainly Easter is just around the corner! Today is the first day of Spring. We can feel the climax building. We too are throwing down our cloaks – the symbols of our tattered lives where Christ has drawn near to our brokenness. And as we throw down our cloaks and wave our palm branches we too are saying, “I will follow you!”

But will we miss it like the crowd in Luke’s story? Luke’s Gospel begs us to ask the question: Why are you following the procession? Are you following the crowd in the secular traditions of all the Easter festivities of this culture’s kingdom? Or are you following the King – Immanuel – God’s coming kingdom - and expecting a visitation from God? Because God is drawing near to us in the flesh to look into our lives and reveal the greatest gift of grace... and that is God’s salvation.

Will we follow Christ from Palm Sunday and immediately skip to Easter to solely experience the hype our culture pushes or will we be brave enough to follow the path that lead Jesus from Jerusalem to the Valley of the Shadow of Death? Will we follow Jesus into the Passion story all the way to the cross? That is the hard part my friends. The cheers move quite quickly from today’s procession “Hosanna! Save Us! I will follow you” to the jeers of another procession on Good Friday “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Those words did not just fall from the lips of those standing in the first century crowds. Those cheers and jeers both fall from your lips and mine today.

Let us stand in the story of Scripture and follow our Lord to where our faith is challenged this week. May your words and mine be “I will follow you. I will follow you. I will follow my Lord and Savior, to the cross.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, "Luke: Volume 8" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), pp. 307-312.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Lent - Running the Race

Running the Race
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 43: 16-21; Philippians 3: 4b-14 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 13, 2016

Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
- Isaiah 43: 16-21

I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
- Philippians 3: 4b-14

McFarland, USA is a family movie which was released last year. It is a powerful film based on a true story. Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a running coach who is fired from his job. Coach White and his family relocate to Central Valley, California. It was a humbling move to a very poor area.

The majority of McFarland is made of Latino farmers who raise crops of avocados and almonds. The kids of these farming families were used to exhausting days. They would wake up long before the sunrise to work the fields before the school day began. After the school day, these teens would run back to the fields to work them again before the day ended. Their efforts were needed for their families to survive.

Coach White was in awe of how quickly these farming kids could run. He formed a cross country team and that not only began to transform the student runners, but also began to redefine the town of McFarland.

Aside from tough training regimens, Coach White took the kids on his team as his own. He paid for their running shoes and uniforms out of his own pocket. He sat with his students and their families around the dinner tables to experience their culture. He went as far as working the fields with his students before the school day to live in solidarity with them. As Coach White built up the team, he also began to help the students see something bigger happening.

Running became a venue to rewrite these runners’ past stories of no hope into that of becoming empowered. These runners and their families were empowered to see opportunities of an abundant future. They were empowered to move past the odds of an underprivileged high school to reach the goal of winning numerous championship titles. The town of McFarland started to gain respect.

These runners were also empowered to continue growing in their education beyond high school and to follow Coach White’s leadership to bring about positive change for others in their adult lives. McFarland, USA really captured a powerful image of running to press on towards greater things.

Paul is also captivated by the image of running. Can you imagine the Apostle Paul all geared up in 1st century running attire? He speaks of a sprinter pressing on to reach the goal. And the goal is to experience not just greater things but specifically the empowerment of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. There was nothing greater than knowing the power of Jesus Christ in his life. Paul takes some time to look back into his life to see how he got to this point. He looks back into his history but he has no desire to linger there for very long. He says he counts it all as loss because of Christ.

If you are a sprinter or a long distance runner you can’t look behind you for more than a glance. It will slow you down. It will cause you to lose focus and enter another runner’s lane or off the track completely to be disqualified. It will disrupt your running rhythm.

Paul says that the journey of faith is much like running a race. And as we run we do have to take some breaks to catch our breath and look behind us. There is something at stake for us to look to what lies behind us. We all need some time and space to think about how far we have come. I trust this season of Lent has been and will continue to be a meaningful space for you and I to see how far we have come along the track of time for these 40 days.

As we look back into our individual and shared histories, we have recognized a few things together on our Lenten journeys.

In order to run the race of faith well we need to run it without pretense. We need to run the race of faith with a growing sense of vulnerability with God. Like any good runner, we need to hone our disciplines and obedience to the sport. In our race of faith we need to follow in Christ’s obedience. As we take a pause before the next turn of the track, we need to refocus. In the race of faith that refocusing is to discern how God might be working behind the scenes of life to prepare us for the next growing opportunity. All runners want to finish the race strong. To do so it is important to let go of past missteps to move forward into the next turn. In the race of faith that is to let go of past regrets and grievances by forgiving others and ourselves as we have already been forgiven so that we might move forward.

What we have been learning this Lenten season about vulnerability, obedience, refocusing, and forgiving are all marks of the Christian faith. Growing stronger in these marks allows us to run the race of faith with perseverance.

But there is something else that is at stake if we take the time to breathe and look behind us. We cannot linger in the past. We cannot afford to stay there for too long. While it is good to see how far we moved past the obstacles that slow us down, if we focus on these things for too long then we risk getting stuck there. Looking back for too long will slow us down. It will cause us to lose focus on God’s guidance. It will disrupt our rhythm to press on towards the goal. You know how old patterns begin to take hold of us again.

N.T. Wright says the Christian goal is not solely to reach heaven or to focus on God’s promise of eternity. Rather the goal is to allow Christ to take hold of us in such a way that we experience the power of our Savior’s death and resurrection in our lives each day.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ rewrite our past, present, and future. Christ comes alongside us and accepts us for who we are. Christ makes us his own. Christ lives in solidarity with us and our human experience. Christ is our ultimate faith coach and trainer. Christ knows our greatest joys, toughest challenges, and deepest hurts. When we feel like giving up, giving in, or losing hope then Christ pushes us on. Christ says, “Run the race and follow me! Keep your eyes on me. Move past the odds of what holds you back and follow me!”

Christ speaks through others like Paul, like Coach White, like Sunday School teachers, like mentors and friends. These people support us in the race of faith and remind us of our God-given talents as well as the Christian marks and virtues that strengthen our running rhythms. Of course these God-given talents and virtues are not a means to an end. Instead they create opportunities for God to work through us that we might see this new thing that God is doing. God is working to reconnect the parts of our lives so that we might truly be a new creation. We hope to experience this on Easter Sunday.

As we continue to run the race of faith towards the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter, take some time to look back into your past. See how far you have come. As you take the next turn of the track of time, take a deep breath in and consider the transformation that Christ is bringing about in your life. Use this discipline of Lent to reflect into your past and consider how Christ is rewriting it.

The more we practice our time of reflection and understand ourselves, the more we will be able to run the race of faith with perseverance, focus on God’s guidance, and strengthen our rhythm. We are not meant to stumble and get stuck in the past. We are meant to grow in our stride and our confidence in Christ.

Let us run the race of faith with perseverance to tap into our ultimate source of empowerment – Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 123.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Lent - Forgive

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Psalm 32: 1-11; Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32, by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 6, 2016

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
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.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
– Psalm 32: 1-11

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable:

Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “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.’ ”

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then 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 slaves, “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!” And they began to celebrate.

‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
- Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

This weekend I was talking with a teenage friend. And the subject of forgiveness came up. She said, “I am really good at holding grudges. I can hold a grudge for a long time.” I said, “Oh really?” She said in jest, “Well, I just love to hate other people! It’s way more fun!”

Forgiveness is hard. We all struggle with it. We strive to make amends in a sibling rivalry, a misunderstanding with a coworker, a betrayal of trust with someone close to us. We search for forgiveness in the larger context of community. We search for ways to forgive our very selves.

We are not alone in thinking forgiveness is hard. Our ability to understand and practice forgiveness has challenged humanity since the beginning of the biblical narrative. Since Adam and Eve crossed God’s boundary in the Garden, the biggest obstacles to knowing forgiveness are shame and resentment. And yet God alone leads us on a pathway towards forgiveness – to receive God’s steadfast love which is new each morning and also to extend God’s mercy to one another. The pathway towards forgiveness leads us in God’s desire for restoring what has been broken.

In our text today, Jesus’ parable of the Father’s Forgiveness focuses on God’s forgiveness. It depicts a tender scene of the father forgiving his younger son who wasted his inheritance with bad decisions In doing so, the son brought shame upon himself and his family. It also depicts a tender scene of the father forgiving his older son who resents second chances.

Jesus’ Parable of the Forgiving Father made no sense to the Pharisees and the scribes. They were in earshot of hearing Jesus telling this scandalous story. You see the religious authorities would have immediately resonated with the older son in the parable. The father was foolish to first prematurely give his inheritance to the younger son. The father was just as foolish to take the younger son back without consequence. You and I know the old adage – fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. But Jesus was making a point that God’s ways are not our ways. We all have something to learn about the way in which God forgives.

The beginning point of forgiveness is to reframe our perception of it. Forgiveness has long been misunderstood as some power you or I have to either give or withhold from someone who has wronged us. But that is not the reality of forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s work. It is not something we are capable of doing on our own. Just read Psalm 32 again and the psalmist will tell you in a New York minute that as he held onto his dilemma in silence, the bondage of sin nearly ate him alive. We do not know if this sin stemmed from a grudge of resentment against another or if his sin brought shame and an inability to forgive himself.

Forgiveness is rooted in God’s unconditional love for us just as we see in the father of Luke’s parable. And true forgiveness is costly. It costs us to change our emotional stance from resentment or shame to that of a posture of humility. For the one who has been wronged it requires laying down our sense of pride much like releasing the offender of a debt. For the one who has committed the wrong it requires us to confess what we have done and left undone.

The father in the parable could have chosen to remain high-handed to teach his younger son the consequences of his actions. The father could have allowed the son’s shame to threaten his worth as the head of the household. But that is not how God responds to us. That is not how Jesus lived among us.

The costly grace of Jesus Christ is revealed in that God so loved this broken world with deep, deep compassion. It is the costly grace of the cross and empty tomb that proclaims we are all in need of God’s forgiveness and it is freely given to all God’s children. We are all sinners of God’s own redeeming and therefore we are called to live our lives in response to God’s amazing grace. A life well lived is to allow our hearts and minds to be shaped by God’s grace and to practice forgiveness. We have to practice forgiveness because of who God is.

So how does Jesus teach us to forgive?

Confession allows us to say that we have missed the mark. We look down into our reality so that we might look up to God’s help to make things right. As we take a look into our situations we also need to acknowledge and confess our different perceptions and realities.

The two sons are a text book example for us. The younger son held his guilt and shame. The older son held his resentment and blame. It just goes to show no one person holds the entire truth. We must communicate through our conflicts to learn what motivates our choices. We must communicate with one another to reveal our hurts, griefs, and misunderstandings.

The most effective way to speak is using what pastors and counselors call “I” language. “I have hurt you and myself more than I can bear,” the younger son confesses to his father (Luke 15:21). “I have worked beside you all these years and I have not felt your love and appreciation,” the older son confesses to his father (Luke 15:29). Commitment to speak in sentences like these creates spaces to find a shared understanding of the truth of the offense. And shared understandings make a way towards forgiveness.

Our commitment to confess and communicate creates an opportunity to slowly restore trust. Trust is one of the most fragile gifts another person allows us to hold. The words, “I’m sorry” can mend many frictions between friends. But when trust is broken it is hard to repair. While some relationships – whether friendships, marital, or professional – are not reconcilable, we can always place our hope in the ability to trust God’s faithfulness.

Luke’s parable shows that the father, who we understand to be God, is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Both sons brought the father great hardship and yet the father continues to show nothing but unconditional love to them both. When our trust is broken and if both parties are willing to pursue forgiveness then God’s faithfulness will help us to at least extend grace to one another. That grace, which is given and received, slowly begins to rebuild bridges.

Practicing forgiveness also means that we must unlearn habits that block pathways to healing. We need to unlearn shame and resentment because they are obstacles to experiencing forgiveness. When we listen to inner voices that imprison us with guilt or consume us with thoughts of revenge then our unwillingness to forgive will eat us alive. These inner voices destroy opportunities to find acceptance, peace, and healing.

Unlearning destructive patterns requires us to become more self-aware. It is remembering that God’s story of grace is more powerful than the story of our mistakes. The truth of grace is that we were created good and in God’s image. We have all fallen short of God’s glory, therefore our Redeemer lives to shape us as God’s forgiven people. Our unworthiness will never overshadow God’s unconditional love.

Let’s not forget that we cannot practice forgiveness without prayer. It reframes our understanding of forgiveness: it is God’s will and greatest desire to work through our hurts, failings, and betrayals into order to restore and heal us. To pray in search of forgiveness is to be drawn near to God’s grace and to be forever changed by it, one day at a time. The psalmist in today’s text says we are to pray in our times of distress and God will instruct us and teach us the way we should go (Psalm 32: 6-7).

Forgiveness is both a gift and a responsibility.

It is a gift of God’s unconditional love as a loving parent in Jesus’ parable.

Forgiveness is a responsibility because we are instructed to forgive others as we have already been forgiven (Matthew 6:12; Ephesians 4:32). C.S. Lewis once said “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has already forgiven the inexcusable in you.” What challenging words.

Even Jesus knew it would not be easy because it is an ongoing practice to learn. Jesus told Peter to forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22). We need to forgive and be forgiven over and over and over. And yet when we deny opportunities to receive and extend God’s mercy and grace then it compromises the integrity of the gospel.

Experiencing forgiveness is a life-long journey. It takes humility. It takes time. It takes practice. As you search for ways to either forgive another or to forgive yourself I encourage you to claim the keys.

Reframe forgiveness. It’s not our power but how God calls you and me to live as disciples.

Confess. Name where you are in this sticky situation and wait for God to show the next right step.

Communicate. Use “I” language to reveal hurts and motivations.

Trust. Remember how fragile it is and that God’s love helps to build bridges of grace.

Unlearn destructive patterns of shame or resentment. Become more self-aware.

Pray. God’s Spirit must be present to change the conditions of our hearts.

As we enter into this fourth week of Lent, let us turn towards God and recognize our need to forgive as we have already been forgiven.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume VIII, Luke and John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), pp. 247-253.
L. Gregory Jones, “Embodying Forgiveness” (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985).