We were delighted to welcome Dr. Keith White as our worship leader on Sunday. His family have owned Mill Grove in South Woodford since 1899 when they opened their doors as a safe place for people to stay within a Christian community.
It was an excellent service and, therefore, we asked Keith to share his sermon notes with us, which were based on the Parable of the Lost Son. Whether or not you were there on Sunday, we hope you enjoy recapping on the famous reading.
Exclusion and Embrace
Luke 15: 11-32
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his propertybetween them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The title of this sermon is taken from the harrowing experience of a Croat whose country and fellow-citizens were being attacked, raped, systematically murdered by Serbians. The burning question was put to him: “Can I, as a follower in Christ, embrace one who has done such evil to me and my people?” He wrestled with it in a book with exactly this title.
It is a question that is relevant to all of us all throughout our lives, but there are times when it becomes painfully acute. We are to love our neighour as ourselves. And that, according to Jesus, includes our enemies, Miroslav Volf turned to Jesus’ story of the Father with Two Sons, as the very heart of Christ’s calling and example. It is well known, but there is a feature that is little noticed: the father is never recorded as saying anything to the younger son, though he speaks to his servants and also the older son. Everything is conveyed in body language, actionsand instructions to others. And there is one action that so encapsulates the essence of the story that it has drawn people like Rembrandt and Henri Van Nouwen to it irresistably. It is the embrace. Here it is again: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Let’s ponder that in order to understand two things afresh:
Opening the Arms
I long for you. I am not content with being merely myself, without you. You are already in my heart though you have been away from me. So I am making space for you. There is room for you in my heart and life. I am not so cluttered, or so full of myself that every part of me is already occupied. And I invite you to respond. The open arms are rather like an open door. There is no need to knock. You are welcome. And this is risky. The nature of grace is that it is always a gamble! (Volf: 147 quoting Smedes)
The abiding image or picture we have of Jesus is on the Cross with his arms wide open. This is what opening His arms means, and costs. And this is what he calls us to do.
Embrace is not a taking hold, arresting, invasive or a one-way initiative. It’s not even a caress. Before it can proceed it needs the arms of the other to open. By opening our arms we have conveyed a message, but we will not force our way. It is the very opposite of violence. If embrace starts with the initiative of one person, it can never reach its fulfilment without reciprocity, the movement and response of the other. And there may be all sorts of reasons, experiences, traumas, fears, that require patient waiting.
Another abiding picture of Jesus is Holman Hunt’s picture The Light of the World. Jesus is knocking at the door of our hearts. And he has been standing outside and waiting for a long time…He is listening for a response.
Closing the Arms
This is where there is complete reciprocity. Each is holding the other; and each is held by the other. They are both active and both passive. It takes two pairs of arms for one embrace. In an embrace the host is a guest and the guest is a host. And this means a soft touch is necessary. Rembrandt gets this perfectly (worth looking at the picture again!). Not a bear-hug either way. An attuned response to each other, so that both feels comfortable, and understands that the other is comfortable too. And this requires the recognition that neither understands the other fully. There is an otherness about the person we close our arms around, a mystery. This is the beginning of a process of understanding and knowing that starts with the realisation that I do not fully know the other. In fact I have much I don’t know and much more to learn. This may be my enemy, but do I know her story?
Another picture of Jesus is as the Good Shepherd: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; He gently leads those that have young.” Isaiah 40:11
Opening the Arms Again
We cannot live in permanent embrace. We have not become one. This is not about the welding two others, so that they have become indissolubly one and can never be free of each other. Each is still “I” and “You” in relationship, and neither has ceased to be as a person, each with their own agency. This is where the real dance is in the relationship: we are not the same person, we are different, but we are open to each other. And the truth is that none of us in an island entire of itself: our identity is actually made up of our experiences and relationships with others. If we are to be and to develop, we need to be open to others, to realise we are strangers among our family and community, at home with “others” who we thought were our enemies. In embracing an other, outside can become part of our inside. Home and away are re-imagined. This is a journey of adventure, and who knows the outcome?! If broken relationships are to be restored, then the identitites of each must be rethought and reshaped.
The last words of Jesus to His chosen disciples are apt here: “Go into all the world…and I will never leave you nor forsake you”. This is the genuine opening of the arms! Any parent or teacher is not wanting the child or pupil to remain forever tied to the apron strings, or sitting in the classroom. There is always the desire to see the other explore in her own way. We know that this is risky, and safety or success are never assured.
All this is in the story, and much more. Not least the chilling self-exclusion of the older son, who misses out on the whole embrace. A total stranger at home. The silence of his response is perhaps the most deafening in recorded history. “All I have is yours…Come and celebrate the return of your brother, who was lost and is found, who was dead, but is alive again.” These tender and loving words echo in the stony silence which forms the end of the story.
Reflecting on embrace helps me to understand what Mill Grove is all about.
And surely this is what church is about?
This is how it is for all of us who are rooted in, inspired by, and ultimately redeemed and embraced by Jesus Christ.
On my first Saturday as an undergraduate at Oxford University, I played the piano to accompany the singing of the hymn, Jesus, the name high over all. For some reason the predominantly male sound coupled with the occasion meant that the words have been indelibly imprinted on my heart. They include these:
Oh, that the world might taste and see, The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me,
Would all mankind embrace.
Keith J. White
M.A. (Oxon.), M.Phil., PhD
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon