Sermon Archives

Sunday, March 6, 2016
The 4th Sunday of Lent, Year C
The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
Lost and Found

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

I did not know that I was lost.  I did not know that I was lost.  Not until I hit bottom through a complicated season in my life –at the confluence of addictions, grief, transition, and employment layoff.  I must say, sitting in that place in my life that seemed to be a pigsty was truly a deep low.  I did not know that I was lost. 

Every time I hear today’s gospel story, the parable of the prodigal son, I relate closely with the son.  The son, who rejected his father, partied away his inheritance, lost everything, and hit bottom.  I relate to the son who realized, as he was sitting with the pigs, that he needed restoration and reconciliation.  I relate to the son who is welcomed, despite what he did. 

The familiar parable of the prodigal son begins with context: the people crowding near Jesus were tax collectors and sinners.  This bothered the Pharisees and scribes. They discounted Jesus’ legitimacy as a teacher by criticizing his relationships with people who had sinned. In response, Jesus tells 3 parables, revealing that the God of whom he speaks is a God of compassion, joyously welcoming repentant sinners into God’s house.  Well, that is the simple and short version.  We know it’s more complicated when humans get involved. 

Rembrandt’s seventeenth-century painting provides rich depth to the story, about which Henri Nouwen[1] wrote during a particular struggle in his life.  From the first viewing until six years later, Nouwen wrestled with God about his journey of being lost and found. He saw himself first in the son, then in the brother and finally in the father. As we gaze on the image, we, too, can see ourselves in three ways reflected in this profound painting.

First the painting draws us toward the son at the moment of The Return. But from what has the son returned?  In one short sentence, the gospel tell us that the son had asked from his father his share of the inheritance even before the father had died. It is easy to gloss over what that meant, which was hurtful, offensive, and “tantamount to wishing his father was dead.”[2]  Although Rembrandt did not paint that precursor scene of the parable, the depth of the pain and conviction of the son is palpable; it is reflected in the depth of the compassion and conviction the father expresses; the depth of a father’s love shown in the embrace. 

Rembrandt’s portrayal wonderfully captures the extent of the son’s poverty. His shaven head, as a prisoner. His ragged clothes, barely covering his body. His torn shoes so worn, exposing feet of suffering and misery. The only shred of dignity is his sword – the sword of truth that linked him to the father during his Away – and gave him permission to return.

God wants to restore us to our full dignity so God plants this sword of truth in our souls at our birth, at our baptism, or even before we are born, as we are knitted together in the womb. 

Second, the painting draws our eyes toward the tall, stern elder who dominates the right side of the painting.  The brother and his father have a similar look: both bearded, wearing large red cloaks, light their faces.  But what differences! the brother’s facial expression reflects his resentment for having lived his dutiful and obedient life without fanfare.

We all know many elder sons and elder daughters who are lost while still at home – filled with judgment and condemnation, anger and bitterness, where joy cannot exist.  Although light reflects the joy of the house, the elder son cannot accept it. By his erect stance, we see how lost he is. This portrayal of the elder is not lost on me; my choice to compare, to be resentful, to despair while desiring love yet not able to let go of resentment.

How can the elder son also be found?  Only by God who does not force love, -but goes out to the elder son. “You are with me always.”  We, too, have the choice to stay in the darkness or to step into the light and invoke the spiritual disciplines of trust and gratitude, accepting God’s gift. Without trust, we cannot be found.  Without gratitude, we cannot walk in light.

Third, the painting draws our eyes toward the father, whom Rembrandt captured physically:(half-blind, mustached & bearded, dressed in gold-embroidered deep red cloak, a cloak spread out like wings, with large hands on the shoulders of the son.)  And, whom Rembrandt captured spiritually:

With infinite compassion, unconditional love and everlasting forgiveness. 

At once, human and divine natures fuse. At once, the wholeness of the father represents the God that I want to believe in: one who is present and tactile, one who stretches out arms of blessing, one who always waits and does not push, one who keeps approaching us, offering strong love and belonging.

Look closely at the hands of the father, they are markedly different. [Nouwen writes [3] ]

“The father’s left hand is strong and muscular, fingers spread out, covering a large part of the son’s shoulder and back.  The hand not only touches, but also it holds. The right hand is refined, soft, and tender.  The fingers are close to each other and elegant.  This hand caresses, strokes, and offers consolation. This is a mother’s hand. Rembrandt invites us, through these hands to see God as both Father and Mother, one who is strong and encouraging as well as soft and caring.  He confirms and she consoles.”

In this image, we are challenged: Are we not called to be this father to ourselves, our neighbors and our creation?  Are we not called to accept, to welcome, and to love others with trust and gratitude for the differences they bring into our lives? 

I did not know that I was lost, but in my lostness, God found me.  In my elder brother resentment and bitter heart, God softened me. In the image of the father, I am confronted as a mature person in faith and wisdom, to be that person, too. God calls us to welcome returning people into our lives, in our community, in our world. 

It is a spiritual discipline to choose life and choose joy, not death and cynicism. In the image of the father, God calls us “To be not just the one who is forgiven, but to forgive.  Not just the one who is welcomed home, but the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receives compassion, but the one who offers it as well.”[4] Rembrandt’s painting offers so much. The textures, the colors, the hues, the message beneath the message – all this invites us to see ourselves. 

Are you lost? 

Because today’s good news, captured by Rembrandt, is that God’s love is greater than we can ever know.  Our compassionate God welcomes us home, blesses us with strong and caressing hands, comes out and calls us to share in love and invites us, too, to welcome, bless and love just as God first loved us.

Welcome home.


[1] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (Doubleday Publishing, 1992)

[2] Henri Nouwen, Return of The Prodigal Son, (xxx,xxx, 1983), p. 35

[3] Nouwen, p. 99

[4] Nouwen, p. 122