Sermon – March 31, 2019 – Fourth Sunday in Lent

 

Welcome Home

Those of us who have spent any time to time in church probably heard this story 100 times. It’s one of those tales that we could tell from beginning to end probably get most of the details right. But, like most things we’ve heard time and again there is the danger that familiarity can affect the impact of the depth of the parable. This teaching is one of the key, one of the fundamental stories that Jesus tells about the character of God. Now, we’ve heard this story told from the point of view of the wayward son, or from the point of view of the resentful older brother or maybe even from the point of view of the Pharisees who prompted the whole thing. But no matter how we hear or read or tell this story, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the most important character in it is the father. He is the hub around which the whole story turns.

So, we know the details. The father’s youngest son demands his inheritance, essentially wishing his father dead, so that he can go indulge whatever impulses have overcome him. And he does so with such great success that before too long he runs out of resources and finds himself in desperate straits. This good Jewish boy for whom pigs were ritually unclean has stooped to attending them and feeling jealous of their feed. So, the story says, he came to himself. He realized that the self that had defied and shamed and wounded his father, the self that sought his own indulgences, the selfish character was a fraud. Was inauthentic, and was costly. So, he resolved to return to his father with no expectations but the slim hope that he would be put to work in the fields with the hired hands. He even rehearsed his speech so that he would get it right, so he might not stumble out of fear or shame.  He wanted to come home.

And when he returned, before he could get a word out, he was embraced by his Dad.  It turns out that the whole time the boy was gone father had been waiting. Now, his culture, his standing, the prevailing wisdom would be that he would give up on the boy. That he would leave the kid to suffer the consequences of his defiance and greed. No one would’ve been surprised the father have proclaimed, “just as that son of mine treated as though I were dead, so he is dead to me.” And that would be the end of it. But no. Father defied convention, defied culture, defied his standing in the community, defied the impulse to give what he  got. Instead, he stood by the road looking down in the direction he had last seen his son, waiting against all expectations for the day that he would be reunited with his boy. There can’t be anything more agonizing or heartbreaking than to lose a child, and this child was lost. It would have been easier to turn from the road and go back about his business . But he waited.  He kept the home fires burning

I had a neighbor in Texas who had such a child. Jimmy had a great job out the chemical plant and made a more than decent living. He had a nice house and generous heart so his kid wanted for nothing. But his son turned his back on his father and lived the self-destructive defiant life. I sold my pick up to Jimmy for $1000 one day. Jimmy gave that pick up to his son who on the same day sold it for $35 for crack.. but instead of writing the kid off, Jimmy said that’s what drugs will do to. He will always have a home here when he is ready to come back. I don’t know if that kid ever came back, but if he did he would have found his father waiting.  He would have a home.

The father in our story waited because he was fueled and fired by hope, The hope that he had taught his son and was father enough to his son, despite what had transpired, that that hope would  rekindle in his son’s heart and bear him home. Hope that his waiting would not be in vain. The father waited because he was fueled by family, by all the implications of blood that keep us bound to one another no matter what. He waited because he was fueled by the expectation that his waiting sustained for him the love he felt for his son and would hopefully be affirmed by his return. But above all, he waited with the kind of love that can weather blows. The kind of love that sees beyond the horizon of this day. The kind of love that defiance, rejection, and his son’s self interest could not overcome. This above all, this love, is what made all else possible.  It was what awaited the boy when he returned home.

Each time that we hear this story we locate ourselves, usually alongside the journey of the youngest son whose impatience with the status quo, with the expectations of his relationships and with his own restlessness is reflected in our own lives. As always, this story speaks to us whether we are sitting in a pew or on a barstool. We, too, have taken the gifts of father and family and turned our backs to pursue our own. And as always, this parable is good news to us that no matter where we go, how unfeeling our flight, the father’s waiting.   There are those who have given up on us and those who will. We have heard that narrative that we will get what we deserve and that will be the end of it, time and again. It is a parallel story to the one out of which we live the gospel. Strong and compelling. If we never know anything else about God, and we know this, then we know as much as we know we need to know that God simply awaits our return home with love and expectation to restore us to his family. And it brings us peace to know that. And it brings us comfort to know that. And it affirms our own hope and faith to know that.

But oftentimes, don’t we, find ourselves identifying with the older brother… Or more accurately be identified by others like our pastor or our consciences, as the older brother. You see I get that. I get that the oldest son would be resentful and not interested in partying down because the one who had left, blew his father’s fortune and broken his heart was welcomed the robe and the ring and the fatted calf. Where is the justice in that? Why wasn’t this kid made to pay? Where I/we have been faithful and diligent and obedience.  He saw his home as a prison, a burden, but the Father reminded him that he belonged and was always welcome.  “All that I have is yours.”   Saw something the other day that said blowing out another’s candle does that make your own candle burn more brightly. The resentment and frustration we feel with the wideness of God’s mercy does not make our candle burn more brightly. That is my beef with the broader church these days. By ascending our self-righteous platforms and telling all these people that they don’t belong, that they are beyond the reach of God, but unless they conform to our standards our life our expectations they are irredeemable.   To do that is to fail to see our neighbor through the eyes of God, through the eyes of Christ and the church, like the prodigal son and the resentful brother finds its only hope in the patient waiting of the Father.  It is to close the door to homecoming.

You see, the payoff of God’s patience is our welcome back home. Our story began with the complaint of the Pharisees that Jesus was eating with sinners. He was gathered around the table, breaking bread, acting as though they were family, even though anyone looking at on the scene would know that they didn’t belong  there, that their prodigal lives rendered them ineligible for this fellowship. Period. The profile of the waiting father is one of the outstretched arms, and we see that welcome and embrace most clearly on the cross as we are welcomed into God’s family through all things, even death. All the reconciliation, all the forgiveness, all the restoration we need is accomplished in those open arms. It is as Paul wrote in our second lesson today, here is Christ reconciling the world to himself arms outstretched to gather us in and remind us that we belong.

Let me finally say this. What the prodigal son longed or, what the eldest son took for granted was that the Father was the face of home. I attended the Messiah performance at Smith Hall last night.  The oratorio opens with the words of Isaiah welcoming the exiled people home again, “Comfort, comfort, my people.  Your battle has ended.  Welcome home.”  Jesus in telling this story is reminding all of us that the love, the waiting, the expectation, even the suffering of the father is to welcome his children home again.

When the people were alienated and scattered, they were ever called home . . . to the place where they belonged.  Part of the struggle of the people in Jesus time was the passion to reclaim their homeland from the conquering Romans, and they hoped for a Messiah who would come to establish for them that home again, . . .  the place where they truly belonged.

Like the people of Israel, we find ourselves in exile or choose to separate ourselves from home by following other gods, grasping on to other truths.   And we discover, don’t we, that we are somewhere where we don’t feel we belong.

You see, home, maybe above all things is a place of belonging, and God says we belong. . . . you belong.

The church cannot get along without the story of the prodigal son, because it is confirmation of the Fathers promised home place.   The church cannot get along without the story of the prodigal son because it is the story of our own homecoming, our own welcome, of our belonging.  The story which reveals the outrageous, loving, forgiving mercy of God, who tends our home place.   The one with whom we are never not God’s children.

The prodigal son insulted his father by asking for his inheritance and then squandered those gifts from his generous father, forsook his heritage.  The elder son insulted his father over the wideness of his mercy toward his brother.   But the Father’s patient love transcended their self interest and they never stopped being the sons of their father, and they never lost their home.

We never cease being God’s children, though we run and we waste and we squander and seek other parents. . . . . but we never stop being the children of God.   The road home is never blocked against us.  And when that yearning and longing for home breaks into our hearts, we too, may turn toward home , knowing that if we humbly and repentantly seek our place again . . . the father will throw open his arms, kill the fatted calf, clothe us in honor. . . . and throw the party of celebration and remind us again that all he has is ours.

Some would have you believe that you can’t come home again.  That is a lie.  Because God says we can.

And when we do come stumbling back up that road. . . the road we travel back and forth, we will be met again by the familiar things. . .. . . those sounds and smells. . . . those of our land and of feast and fellowship . . . those familiar stories  .. . of God’s faithfulness, God’s promise, Christ’s sacrifice, our place. . .  and our future home forever with God.   And we will see those familiar family faces  . . . old friends like powerful David, and faithful Moses and obedient Abraham, and humble Ruth and loving Mary Magdalene . . . and big-mouthed Peter . . . and our loving Brother and savior, Jesus.   These are our stories. . .  told in our home . . . as God’s children gather.  It is where we belong . . . no matter where we’ve been.  Because we never cease being God’s children

For all of us gathered here together this morning,  whether the road was short or long, hear the words of this parable.  They are for you and me.   . . . . . the Father greets us, welcome Home!

Thanks be to God.  Amen