March 25, 2019
O Lord of all the living,
both banished and restored,
compassionate, forgiving,
and ever-caring Lord,
grant now that our transgressing,
our faithlessness may cease.
Stretch out your hand in blessing,
in pardon, and in peace.
[Evangelical Lutheran Worship #606, 3rd Stanza]
The lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, March 31, 2019, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, are as follows:
When I was sixteen, I ran away from home. I had grown dreadfully tired of what I thought to be my mother's unbearably confining rules. So I went to the bank and withdrew what little money I had saved from my paper route earnings. I travelled to the Greyhound station in downtown Pittsburgh and bought a bus ticket - to Cleveland.
I didn't know anybody in Cleveland. The rest of my relatives lived either in New York or Puerto Rico. I simply thought that if I were going to go anyplace where nobody knew me, it would have to be somewhere I had heard of before. Cleveland seemed to be far enough away and in a different state, yet close enough that I could afford the round-trip fare.
I lasted about a day and a half. During the day I walked around the city and I slept in the station that one night. Chester Avenue was a lot different than it is now. Finally, after seeing the foolishness of my ill-conceived plan, I boarded a bus for home.
My mother was beside herself. She had been searching desperately for me. Luckily for me she hadn't called the police. She knew me better than I knew myself. I believe she understood my frustration and knew I would eventually come back. She probably figured I was hiding out at some friend's house because when I contacted a couple of them the first thing out of their mouths was, "Where are you? Your mother's looking for you!"
I recall this story every time we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Gospel reading for this coming Fourth Sunday in Lent.
I don't believe my story is unique. I think every one of us has either run away or at least thought of running away from home. It may be because we want to get away from the rules and restrictions that our parents put upon us, or simply the attraction of adventure and seeing the unknown. In most cases, we return; although we can't always say that the reception is as joyous as the one that we hear about in Luke's Gospel. And trust me, I did not receive one! In my story, if anyone were to be killed, it wasn't the fatted calf.
A few years ago, however, I started to look at this parable from a different perspective - that of the older brother. Because all this happiness over the return of the younger son doesn't sit well with everyone, least of all the older brother.
So this story is just as much about resentment as it is about redemption.
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661-1669. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
I have the late Henri Nouwen to thank for that insight. In his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which I picked up to read during Lent several years ago. Nouwen reflects on a painting by Rembrandt, a poster of which he saw in a friend's office in France. (It's a quick read, by the way, but worth re-reading and meditating on periodically).
Nouwen made this observation:
"The seated man beating his breast and looking at the returning son is a steward representing the sinners and tax collectors, while the standing man looking at the father in a somewhat enigmatic way is the elder son, representing the Pharisees and scribes." [1]
As a society, we tend to look at things from a very inward-looking perspective - not only on an individual basis but collectively as well. We are divided by race, by nationality, by language, by class, by economic status, by political party and by religious differences. You name it, we'll build a wall in its honor to further divide us.
Sadly, these attitudes are also quite rampant in the church. Not all congregational members, for example, rejoice over the influx of new members, especially if the newcomers are somehow different from the mainstream members.
It's easy to overlook the reason Jesus tells this story in the first place. The Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling because Jesus welcomed sinners and tax collectors and (heaven forbid) ate with them!
Like the Pharisees, the church of today has fallen prey to judgmental, exclusivist practices. In the lifetime of many of us, most denominations have found means to exclude people who were not "our kind."
So this parable is told for both those of us who are seeking forgiveness and those of us who refuse to give it. Jesus welcomes everyone, we are all part of the communion of saints.  
During this time of Lent we prepare ourselves spiritually for reliving the story of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection. It is through that one astounding act of self-sacrificing love, to put it in the words of Paul, that "God was reconciling the world to himself." And that includes everyone, the whole world, once for all time.
So, this week, it might be worth imitating Nouwen and taking some time to reflect on the image and the Gospel reading and pondering with whom you most identify in the story. Most likely we'll find a little bit of each of the characters in ourselves. Each one, that is, except the father.
For it is the father who, with all our shortcomings and failures, possesses a love great enough to accept even us.
This coming Sunday evening, I will be going off to Angola, Indiana, to be with the first-call rostered ministers of Region Six at our annual First Call Theological Education Retreat. We will hear from the Rev. Dave Daubert, who will guide us through several discussions on evangelism. I'll return to the office on Wednesday, April 3.
This week and always, may you be reconciled to God and become ambassadors of God, who has entrusted that message of reconciliation to us. [2 Corinthians 5:19-20]
+Bishop Abraham Allende

[1] Nouwen, Henri J. M.. The Return of the Prodigal Son (p. 63). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.