Sermon delivered at Wichita MCC on March 25, 1995.
“Home” — what an emotionally loaded word! It conjures up all kinds of subjective reactions in us, according to our experience. Ideally, home is the place of safety, where you count even if you feel like you don’t count anywhere else. Home is the the place of nurturing, growing, loving, giving. Home is a place of refuge and comfort.
There are many cliches about home, like “home is where the heart is,” “there’s no place like home,” etc. Robert Frost, in the poem, “Death of the Hired Man,” said “Home is the place where/ When you have to go there,/ They have to take you in.” It’s a definition that strikes people differently. But there is also the awful specter of homelessness, which brings unimaginable horror and emotional wreckage. There are no anchors, no sense of belonging, no support system. As dreadful as physical homelessness is, I believe spiritual homelessness is even more devastating.
The gospel story in Luke illustrates in parable form the way God sees us as persons of worth whom he wants to welcome home. The parable is a story of hard luck, stubborn willfulness, and jealousy. (Sounds like a ready-made country/western song, doesn’t it?) But even more importantly, the story has to do with forgiveness.
As Jesus tells the story, we see a man with two sons. Since these characters don’t have names, let’s call the oldest one George Jr. He was entitled to 2/3 of the inheritance, and the other son (let’s call him Ralph), was entitled to the remaining portion. We can read between the lines and see Ralph as a smart-mouthed young man who, of course, knew it all, as many of us did in our youth. He was bored with the lack of excitement around the ole homestead. He wanted desperately to get to the city. If he could only get out from under the thumb of the Ole Man, he’d be able to live, to be somebody, no just a second fiddle to his arrogant older brother. Familiar family dynamics, eh? So he went in to see his father, George, Sr.
“Dad,” he says, “I want my inheritance right now, if that’s okay. I have some great plans, and I just can’t wait to make my fortune. Besides, I need some excitement in my life.” Well, George, Sr. was no doubt disappointed with the attitude of his son, but he gave him his share of the estate, nevertheless. Ralph took his fortune and went to a far country and wasted his money on wild living.
It was customary for wealthier young men of the time to go to Rome or Antioch to kick up their heels. I wonder what was going through Ralph’s mind? “Go for the gusto.” “Life is short, play hard.” Where was his sense of responsibility? No doubt Ralph had a great time for awhile. This story is commonly called the Prodigal Son; prodigal means recklessly extravagant. His friends were many and his generosity was grand. Did he think of home? Probably not. But then the money ran out he had been recklessly extravagant. Ralph noticed that his friends he had wined and dined were also gone as soon as his money was gone. But he was stubbornly proud. He’d find a way. He looked for work, but even McDonald’s wasn’t hiring. The bad luck just continued in a great downward spiral; Ralph didn’t have any kind of welfare to depend on. A massive famine was widespread in the whole territory where Ralph was living, making things even worse. He was simply desperate and homeless. So he did something against his Jewish conscience. He hired on as a farm hand with, of all things, a pig farmer. His job was to feed the pigs. This was about as low as a Jew could get. And still yet no one would give him anything. Pretty soon, even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good. These were pods of the carob tree or locust tree that John the Baptist ate. They are long beans, sweet to the taste and were often the diet of the poorest of poor people.
He was barely alive, miserable and with plenty of time to think. Meanwhile back at George Sr.’s ranch, you can hear the talk: “Why, he’ll never see the kid again!” “Who in his right mind would do a thing like that?” “Serves him right for letting the kid out of the house, but he was such a brat.” George Jr. was probably thinking, “Well, I miss the little idiot, but heck, he was my brother, and I hope he’s okay. It sure is a lot calmer around here without him, though.” But let’s go back and check up on Ralph. The scripture says he came to his senses. Our lives all have those restoration of senses moments. Sometimes it’s a gradual dawning of the truth, and sometimes it’s a flash of reality. It’s not so easy to humbly admit that you’ve really lost control, that there isn’t anywhere to go, to have to admit you were wrong. Especially if you’re proud. So he got to thinking, “Even the hired men have food left over in my father’s house.” Hired employees were in more uncertain positions than slaves were because a slave could always count on having food and shelter. A hired man might not have the security of a job. Even yet, Ralph decided to go home and take a job as an employee. He rehearsed his speech. Remember when you were a kid and got into trouble, how you’d come up with just the right thing to say and practice it about a hundred times. He rehearsed his speech to his dad over and over.
“I’m sorry, Dad, I’ve really messed up. I’ve sinned against you and God, and I don’t deserve to be called your son, so please could I just be a hired man?” He was going home. Ralph’s heart was beating furiously, his anxiety made his feet drag and feel like they were anchored in cement. “I’m sorry, Dad. I don’t deserve.” His heart weighed a ton in his chest, his dread of facing the music, the ridicule, the blame, the “I told you so.” Meanwhile George Sr. had been watching, hoping, believing that his son would return home. When he saw Ralph way off in the distance, he raced out to meet his son, gave him an unconditional-love hug, and even before Ralph’s confession of failure was completely out of his mouth, he ordered the servants to start the party, rejoicing in his son’s homecoming. Naturally, Ralph was overwhelmed by this reception. It wasn’t what he was expecting at all. He was getting a robe that was reserved for special guests only and a ring that signified the restoration of his sonship and authority.
But all was not well. Sibling rivalry was coming into play. The scripture says that the eldest son was out there doing what he was supposed to do, and so had to ask a servant what the party was all about. When he was told his younger brother, the scoundrel, had returned and there was this massive celebration for him, it didn’t compute in his mind. In fact, he was more than just a little angry. In a huff, he stormed out to pout. When his Dad come looking for him to get him to join in the celebration, he said, “Look, Dad, I’ve stayed here all my life, working on the farm, doing everything you asked me to, and you’ve not so much as given me a big dinner, let alone a total blow-out like this. That son of your hasn’t even taken out the trash for two years. It’s just not fair.” Notice how he refers to his brother, that son of yours. He wouldn’t even acknowledge him as his brother. Jealously is an awful thing. Then George Sr. answered in such a way as to defuse his son’s anger. He said, “Son, you and I have been very close and you know everything I have is yours, but it is right to celebrate your brother’s return. He was lost and now is found.”
I find it interesting to notice that Jesus ends the story here, just short of how George Jr. reacted to his father’s statement. This is the story of the gospel in a nutshell. We’ve all wandered away from the grace of God, and after we’ve come to our senses, we’ve returned, chagrined, humbled. And God says, “Welcome home.”
Pride has a lot to do with this story. It is pride that makes us think we can make a go on our own; it is pride that keeps us from admitting that we have strayed away from what God wants us to do with our lives; it is pride that has us too wrapped up in our own little world that we can’t admit we’re wrong to cancel God our of our lives. Spiritual aloneness can be pretty scary in times of personal crisis. Jealousy has a lot to do with this story. As Christian siblings, we sometimes get all twisted out of shape over someone else getting it a bit better than we have it, because, after all, they don’t deserve it. They have really sinned, we say, self-righteously, and I’ve just made a few mistakes. Shame on us. We have all had to come to the Lord as failures, not deserving his grace, and yet receiving the right of inheritance and the robe of favor.
When George referred to Ralph as “that son of yours” rather than his brother, he was doing exactly what some Christian’s do, failing to recognize the relationship of a returned child of God. Grace has a lot to do with this story. Grace, by definition, is “unmerited favor.” God doesn’t owe us a welcome home; he doesn’t owe us forgiveness; we haven’t earned a bit of the favor he grants us. But it is his grace that says, “Welcome home, my child.” Joy has a lot to do with this story. The celebration God has planned for our homecoming includes being restored as his child with all the rights and privileges of an inheritance. I just know there are angels singing in celebration and putting on one big party every time there is a confession of faith.
Humility has a lot to do with this story. It’s a difficult thing to be humble when you’re as great as we are, you know. Sometimes we have to get a lesson in humility the hard way. I’ve done things that I knew I deserved to get yelled at for, but the person who should yet, didn’t. Forgiveness is so blessedly humbling.
God calls us back home, particularly important, I think, for gay and lesbians. Heaven knows there’s not a lot of welcoming in society, but God’s welcome, love, and grace is without any condition. All it takes is turning around and going home.