Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Whitewood/Lead, March 27, 2022
I love this poem called; The Hound of Heaven, by Francis Thompson. It goes like this: “I fled from God, down the nights and down the days; I fled from God, down the arches of the years; I fled from God, down the labyrinth of my own mind. In the midst of tears, I hid. Under running laughter, I hid from God. Up visited slopes, I sped, and shot precipitated over chasmed fears. But those strong feet of God came after, with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace; with constant speed and divine instancy. And a voice, more persistent than the feet, spoke and said: You are my precious one. I will not let you go.”
It seems that when we hear the story of the prodigal son, our focus is always on the son. (I supposed that’s why this parable is called “the prodigal son”.) And yet every time I preach a sermon on it, the underlying Christian emphasis is about God’s mercy and love – and how joyous the Father is when a wayward son (or daughter) repents, and comes home. Isn’t it true, that the central character to the story is the merciful father who is the “glue” (so to speak), or link with the other two characters of this story; the one who “holds everything together”? Without the father, there is no forgiveness or banquet or joy. And without the father’s expressed joy over the return of his son, there would be no reaction from the eldest son and the lesson that follows in his father’s sublime response to him.
As we continue our journey, this 4th Sunday in Lent; I would like us to see God, our Father as depicted in this parable. A merciful God who plays an active role in our lives – and offers us grace in our wilderness experiences. Grace to all of us “prodigal’s” who long to come home.
The parable begins with the son demanding, (not asking), that he get his share of the inheritance – right now, up front. As most parents know, a kid with his hand out isn’t unusual; but in this case, given the cultural conventions of that time, (when Jewish law dictated that only when the father passed away, the eldest son would get 2/3’s of the estate; (or “a double portion”) and the next youngest son; would receive 1/3rd). This younger son commits an egregious offense by basically saying, “Pop, I wish you were already dead. Forget the family business and, for that matter, the family. I’m outta here.” Well, after offending his loving Father, he moves to some foreign Gentile country and squanders his inheritance, living (you might say), “high on the hog.” Sticking with that metaphor; after he’s blown it all and is flat broke, in order to survive he hires himself out to a Gentile pig farmer, which is about as un-Jewish as he can get. Yet, it was in the pigsty of his life; where he received his revelation. In verse 17 Luke tells us; “he came to himself.” Interesting choice of words. It makes it sound like this rebellious act was nothing short of “losing his mind.” He came to himself. This is what repentance looks like; “coming to one’s senses.” Remembering who (and whose) you are. In our Christian faith we talk about conversion. Think about the word convert – like a convertible. When I put the lid back up on my convertible it just goes back to its natural state. Such is repentance. We return to our innocence as God’s beloved child. Thank God he “came to himself” and began the process of realizing and accepting the love of his father and the need to return home – which was far better than “freedom” in this far country. You see, it is God’s goodness, not just humanity’s badness that leads us to “coming to our senses” – or repentance. (So says Paul in Romans 2:4).
This Prodigal reminds me of the story of a kite that was flying high and the kite began to talk to itself. “If only I could get rid of this string, then I could fly even higher – above the clouds – and as high as I wanted to. If I could get rid of this string there would be nothing holding me back. I’m limited by this string.” One day the kite got its wish. The string broke and the kite came crashing down. What the kite did not realize was the same string that kept it down, also kept it up. Cutting the string did not make it freer. The Prodigal too realized in the pigpen that when we cut the string of dependence upon God in search of more pleasure, the same string that seems to hold you down also, kept you flying high.
We all have our “lost and found” stories. Perhaps you can think of a time in your life – when you have turned from God – or perhaps you lost something of great value or sentiment. Think about it. How did you feel when that happened? I wonder if that father – felt like most human parents when their children – turn away from them and won’t talk to them – if the father asked himself “where did I go wrong?” And when the son finally returns – if that father felt relieved and restored himself. (I wonder how God must feel when we turn our backs on him – don’t take time to reach out to him – talk to him – listen to him?)
Luke tells us that; “while the son was still far off” – down the road quite a way; the father catches a glimpse of him approaching, he probably knew it was him by the gait in his walk. (People have told me I walk like my dad – leading with my right foot). Then the Parable tells us that the Father (God), “was filled with compassion; and he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” God ran to meet his son, which shows us that when we convert – and return to our senses – our original nature, God runs to us and meets us right where we are.
Did you know, that in Eastern culture, old men do not run; yet the father ran to meet his son. One of the obvious reasons was his love for him, but there is something else. This wayward son had brought disgrace to his family, and the village. and according to Old Testament law; Deuteronomy 21:18-21, says he should have been stoned to death. If the neighbors saw him on the road and started to throw stones at him, they would have hit the father who in his embrace was his shield. Doesn’t this demonstrate the lengths that a loving Father will go to – to protect – to sacrifice themselves – throw themselves in front of the bus, the stone, the bullet, in order to save. I don’t know about you – but I have always been a mama bear who protects her cubs. And just think of it – that is only human love. “How much more” does your Father in heaven love you? That’s just the way God is. Diligent, persistent and untiring in his pursuit of us when we are lost.
The son, who left home by demanding; “give me” – is now at the beck and call of the Father and in full submission to him asking; “make me.” He says, “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.” Like a servant. This too should be our posture in this Lenten season. As Psalm 51:1 tells us, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving kindness; according to the multitude of your tender mercies.” It was in the far off country, the prodigal learned the meaning of misery, and once back home he discovered the meaning of mercy.
From madness to mercy. I am glad on this 4th Sunday in Lent we get to hear about how God runs to meet us when we are lost. It’s appropriate today, when it seems that all of humanity is in a vortex of despair, hate, division and fear. For it is when we feel we are in the stickiest pigpen – our heavenly Father with a heart full of compassion runs to us and restores us, meeting us right where we are – and protects us.
Now remember; today’s reading begins by telling us that this parable was addressed to the Scribes and Pharisees. Those who were considered the most religious of people of their day: attending church every Friday night; tithing and being big financial supporters of the synagogue; they didn’t eat pork; they didn’t use four letter words when they hit their thumbs with hammers; and, they just knew- they were the “found;” and the others, outside the synagogue, they were the “lost.” The insiders of the church were the found; and the outsiders were the lost. So, they thought. We hear they were grumbling in verse 2 because Jesus “welcomed sinners and ate with them.” Jesus welcomed those outside the synagogue, the tax collectors, the camel and donkey drivers, the tanners, lepers and prostitutes.
The Pharisees who thought that they were “found” were in reality, a part of those who (in the kingdom of God) were lost. The question is: can you come to church every week, be generous in your offerings, say all the right prayers, and still be lost? According to Jesus’ parable, t you can. Jesus, knowing the Scribes and Pharisee’s attitude towards the outsiders, told them this story. Ironic, isn’t it? As soon as you know you are in – you better be careful – you are probably out.
This morning, our lectionary focuses on just 1 of the 3 parables which should be read together; the parables of the shepherd and the sheep; the woman with the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son. And the most common interpretation for all 3 parables is that Jesus, Emmanuel; God with us; came to seek and to save the lost. And the finding and restoring of even one; lost sheep or coin, or son, is cause for joyous celebration. These stories reassure us, that in our times of greatest need, God seeks us out and runs to embrace us – when he finds us.
Before I conclude – I think I have time for this story – which reminds me of the prodigal son. One day this police officer sees this fella walking down the street hand in hand with a penguin. So as he approaches him he has to ask what he is doing walking down the street with a penguin. And the guy answers – he must be lost – so I took his hand and now – I don’t know what to do with him! Well, said the police man – why don’t you take him to the zoo! Oh great idea – said the man and off they went in the direction of the zoo. The next day however the same police man sees this same man – walking hand in hand down the street with that penguin. So the police man asks – what happened? I thought I told you to take him to the zoo yesterday. Oh I did! And it was wonderful! Today I am taking him to the cinema!
I think we all wince just a little at the selfish behavior of this young man and how quick the father was to forgive him. I mean – “how could he”? And how easy it is to feel sorry for the elder brother who, much like the Pharisees stayed at home and did what he was expected. It’s not fair! It’s not right! But Jesus, again, turns our understanding upside down! Isn’t it ironic? That God is the God of the one who strays – God runs to meet the one who is an outsider. According to Jesus, in the eyes of God, we respectable church members are the ones who think we are found, so Jesus goes out of his way to seek and welcome those who don’t know that already. Luke is encouraging us to shift our understanding of God’s love. We say we believe that God loves unconditionally – and yet somehow, we make conditions for everyone else, based on whether or not they followed our rules. Compliance seems to be the word of the day. We like fitting in and being one of the crowd. (Like the Pharisees) we are good rule followers. Our sense of conditional love allows us to live with ourselves, and yet have a mindset of disapproval of others who are different. But we need to remember that we all get lost at times in our lives. So, our challenge this morning is to be more like that Father, our God, who ran and opened His arms to the lost. It is the mission of this church, like the eldest son who has done it all right – to be more like the Father, filled with Christs love and jump with joy at the sight of the lost journeying in our direction. To not only open its doors – but to be willing to race out to the sidewalk, into the neighborhoods, and up the street proclaiming the promise of the God who runs to meet all the lost souls and embrace and welcome them just as they are.
Let us pray: We are thankful to you – God of the lost, and the least, and all who long for home. We are grateful that when we wander from your ways and waste the gifts you have given us, you seek us out and in your great mercy you run to us and embrace us. We celebrate and rejoice in your presence always with us, your grace, and for the many evidences of your love. We thank you for this beautiful spring season. The colors and the smells, for our ability to think and to see and hear and feel. We are grateful for people who support us, individually and our church. Those who pray for us, encourage us, and love us just the way we are. We are grateful for your son Jesus, for the forgiveness of our sins, restoration for those who have wandered, strength for each new day and a sure promise of a bright tomorrow. We thank you for your word, for the good news that you bring to us in the scriptures, and for the Holy Spirit who continues to move among us throughout the week urging us to share this news with others by actions, words and deeds. We pray for those who are lost and for those who are grieving, who have strayed from the fold, for those who need to be restored to health and to those who are afraid. We lift up these names for healing and restoration,
Invocation: Help us in this hour of worship to become more human, to become more responsible, to become more joyful, to become more loveable, and grateful – in short, to become more like the sons and daughters of God you have already declared us to be. In your great mercy we pray in Jesus name….
Benediction: If you feel lost in any way – stand still, open your heart and arms and be ready for God to run to you and embrace you and assure and restore you to your rightful inheritance as his beloved child. Keep the faith so that you might be able to help someone who also may need God’s loving embrace. Love, Faith, Fellowship