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Morning Worship: Parable with no conclusion invites readers to choose the ending

The end of the parable of the Prodigal Son presents a choice.

“What will the Elder Brother do — will he enter the celebration or nurse his anger?” asked the Rev. M. Craig Barnes at the 9:15 a.m. Friday morning worship service in the Amphitheater.

He concluded his week on “The Gospel for the Elder Brother.” His sermon title was “Completing the Parable,” and the Scripture reading was Luke 15:25-32.

Barnes began by retelling the story of the Prodigal Son, the Elder Brother and their Father.

“It is a story filled with pathos,” he said. “It ends with the Father pleading with the Elder Brother to come in to the party.”

The Elder Brother was angry because he had worked hard and he had been right while his brother had been wrong.

This is a story of choices, Barnes said. The Prodigal chose to demand his inheritance, chose to waste it, chose to return and beg forgiveness. The Father chose to give the son his inheritance, chose to let him make bad choices, and chose to forgive him.

“The Elder Brother chose to be responsible, careful and dutiful and he chose to be angry,” Barnes said. “Will he choose to go into the celebration and restore the relationship and forgive the Prodigal like his father? Will he make that choice or stay angry?”

There is no conclusion to the story, Barnes told the congregation.

“It is up to each of us to conclude the story with our own choices,” he said. “Will you choose to be dead right and angry, or will you work on the restoration of the relationship?”

When you enter into fellowship with people with whom you disagree, he said, you do not give up your convictions. You are called to hold conviction and compassion in tension.

“People who are all conviction isolate themselves and it makes them mean,” he said. “They become messianic and run over people. We don’t need any more mean Messiahs.”

In contrast, people who are all compassion end up being petty and codependent, he said. Intense conviction has to be in tension with intense compassion.

Barnes displayed a slide of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” on the screen over the pulpit. The Prodigal is on his knees in front of the Father, begging forgiveness.

“The Father leans over the Prodigal, pulling him into his embrace,” Barnes said. “Look at the Father’s hands — one masculine and one feminine, both aspects of God. Rembrandt inserts the mother into the story through the hands.”

The Elder Brother stands between the light and the darkness.

“All the light in the painting emanates from the embrace of the Father and the Prodigal,” Barnes said. “The Elder Brother stands back with his arms crossed. He can enter or he can turn back and face the darkness.”

This parable, Barnes said, has been cherished by church since the beginning. Barnes noted that St. Irenaeus, in the second century of the common era, formulated the first theology of the Trinity.

St. Irenaeus said that God embraces humans with two arms that represent the Son and Holy Spirit, and they draw humanity into the heart of the heavenly Father.

“That is the work of the Son and the Holy Spirit, to bring us back to God,” Barnes said. He quoted the Letter to the Ephesians that through Christ we have been given “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”

When Barnes was in graduate school in Chicago, there was a Korean exchange student in several of his seminars. The Korean student would bring in little gifts on almost every holiday and he would always give them to his classmates with both hands.

These were not much, sometimes origami, but he always gave them with two hands.

“When we asked him why, he told us that is was symbolic of giving all he had to give, not holding anything back,” Barnes said.

He said that most of his giving is one-handed.

“You need something? Here, you can have this and I can have that,” Barnes said. “The Son and the Spirit are all God has to give, all the virtues of the heavenly places are in them.”

Will the Elder Brother choose a life based on the heavenly virtues? Will he balance being right with being loving, conviction with compassion? Or will he continue to rely on his hard work and sense of duty to construct his life?

Barnes cited sociologist Robert Bellah, who said that for the past two generations Americans had been self-constructing their lives. At best, Bellah said, their lives are economically possible and psychologically tolerable.

“This is what you create without the heavenly virtues,” Barnes said. “Choices made on human effectiveness are not fulfilled, but tolerable.”

Barnes also noted that T.S. Eliot wrote that the literature of the 20th century no longer inspired or conflicted people, it was about characters with nervous reactions.

“You can be a nervous reactor, or you can live by the virtues found in the heart of God. Move into the light, into God’s tender embrace,” Barnes urged the congregation.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” is in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. One of the stories in Max De Pree’s book, Leading Without Power: Finding Hope in Serving Community, is about the curators in the Hermitage during World War II.

As the Nazi soldiers neared St. Petersburg, the curators took all the paintings out of their frames and rolled them up and took all the statues off their pedestals and boxed them up for transport to the center of Russia.

There are photos, Barnes said, of the docents giving tours of the Hermitage during the war, pointing to the empty frame or pedestal and describing what would have been there.

“That is what leadership is,” he said, “to be able to describe what should be there; to see, describe and inspire others to see.”

This sermon series was done in the context of what happened in Charlottesville and Barcelona, Barnes said.

“We are torn apart by violence,” he said. “There are people so furious with ‘them’ and what ‘they’ are taking away; life is out of control.”

We need people who can finish the parable so that people are restored to the Father, to point the way to what should be there, he said.

“You can complete the parable,” Barnes said. “You can do it if you have the vision. You can be a participant in creating the new kingdom of Christ, I pray that you will, in his name. Amen.”

The Rev. Robert Hagel presided. Grace Lipman read the Scripture. She and her husband, Steve, have spent their summers at Chautauqua since they retired in 2008. Very early every morning they can be found getting the backstage area of the Amphitheater ready for the day. They also take care of Norton Hall during opera season and are substitute ushers. She is a retired assistant principal and teacher. She is a member of the board of directors of the United Church of Christ house, an Olympian in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle and loves to knit or crochet for Knitting4Peace. The Youth Chamber Connection of Pittsburgh and the Motet Choir presented a world premiere of “Home” by Aleksandr Voinov. Voinov is a 19-year-old junior at Duke University studying neuroscience and pre-med. This was the fifth year that the Connection has premiered a new piece by Voinov at Chautauqua. For the anthem, the Connection and Motet Choir presented “The Lord Is My Shepherd” by Will Todd. Edward Leonard, conductor-in-residence for the Youth Chamber Connection this week, directed the orchestra and choir. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, introduced the premiere and played the organ. The Gladys R. Brasted and the Adair Brasted Gould Memorial Chaplaincy provided support for this week’s services.

Tags : Completing the Parablemorning worshipRev. M. Craig BarnesThe Gospel for the Elder BrotherWeek Eight
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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the Morning Worship column. A Presbyterian minister, she preaches at the Seneca Reservation in Irving. She is the deputy managing director of People Helping People International. Her latest book is Chautauqua’s Heart, the first full history of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. She lives in Chautauqua with her dog, Max, and is beginning her second term as a member of the Board of Education of Chautauqua Lake Central School District.