A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
In John Steinbeck’s wonderful book, Travels with Charley, he tells about attending an old country church where the preacher told him he was a sinner and that he was going straight to hell and that he deserved to go there. Ironically, Steinbeck said he left feeling much better about it all because at least now he understood where he stood!
The truth of the matter is that most of us are as uncomfortable with this story as the Pharisees were. We want the father to punish the boy. We don’t want to hear a healing gospel. Our first assumption is that if this was our boy, we would need to lecture and punish him; running off and wasting the inheritance and we might write him off as “good as dead” and not merely lost as the Father in this story. Look at how we have labeled these parables:
- The Lost Sheep … not the wandering sheep that was found
- The Lost Coin … not the missing coin that was found
- The Prodigal Son … not the wayward son who realized he needed to go home
We’re all bookkeepers at heart and more at home with the sure denigration of the lostness of humanity than in seeing people who are lost and finding ways to love and show patience with them with the hope they may be found.
Somewhere in the middle of this experience, Jesus tells us the boy “came to his senses.” The hardness of his life forced him to see himself, and life, as it really existed and not the immature world he imagined it to be. He finally came to wisdom and recognized things with clarity he had never seen before.
In the Greek, the idea of “coming to himself” is a medical term that means to “wake up out of a coma.” And so he recognized he should go home. He recognized the wealthy status even his father’s servants enjoyed. He recognized what a pig’s life he was leading. He understood some things as a man now that he didn’t understand when he left home as a boy.
When Luke writes that the son “left for a distant country,” he’s telling us much more about the boy than his desire to see the world. Jesus is telling us about a drastic severing from the way of living, thinking, and acting that has been handed down to him from generation to generation as a sacred familial legacy. More than disrespect, it is a betrayal of the treasured values of family and community. The “distant country” is the world in which everything considered holy at home is cast aside as worthless baggage.
It’s usually at this point in the human story we lose our way as well. We lose our way because we join the Pharisees and Scribes and want to keep the boy lost. We are fully comfortable in the fact that he lost his own way so we let him stay lost. We become the older brother in righteous indignation when we realize there’s a party in the big house and don’t feel invited!
Where we lose our way is in not recognizing the true nature of the loving father who’s a thinly disguised God-figure. This is where the first theological explosion goes off in this parable. John Claypool tells us, “It comes down to this – purity and perfection are not the deepest truths about God. At bottom what you will find there is love and mercy and patience and hope.”
The younger son in this story could easily have been considered dead by the father. In this story, however, the father has a different concept of his lost son: he only thinks of his son as lost, or misplaced.
We want to paint the picture of God in this story in dark tones, not light and unendingly hopeful as Jesus does. That may be one clue as to why the church has such difficulty in sharing the good news in our world. In truth, we’re stewards of the story every time we refuse to write people off who are lost, but not forgotten by God.
My teaching partner Steve Graham wrote this week of his childhood experiences just after his widowed mother had remarried and their blended family moved to Alva, Oklahoma, just a few days before he began school as a second grader in this new town. The moving van was still being unloaded at their modest, little rent house, when Cleo Gruber, a neighbor from around the corner, called through the screen door to welcome them to the neighborhood. After a brief, but warm welcome, and before leaving, Mrs. Gruber invited the whole family to Sunday School the next morning. That alone may not seem like such a big deal, but remember so-called “blended families” were not always accepted in small towns.
Steve recalls the power of that simple act as he wrote this: “To this day, her joyful and winsome voice rather embodies the Gospel for me. It dates all the way back to that Sunday that the First Baptist Church of Alva, Oklahoma, became a place of warmth for our (new) family. Now all these years later, I realize it could have been otherwise in oh, so many ways. Think about it; how can any one of us explain his or her good fortune?”
“At just the right moment,” Mrs. Gruber voiced the welcome of God to a new family in her neighborhood. All she did was act, “neighborly.” Such little acts of faithfulness can explode open a life, giving out kindnesses where it’s needed in moments just such as those. Martin Marty calls it a theology of luck. His other word for it is grace.
In the end, we’re just stewards of the story. “A man had two sons,” is the story of all of us in some archetypal way. We might be the one who asks for what is not quite ours so we can wander off God-knows-where or we might be the lost child who stayed home.
The work of a deacon is to love the church and nurture it in its God-given task of sharing the story in kind and winsome ways. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.”
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).