Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas.
Donna couldn’t sleep. Even though she had had an extremely long day at work, even though she had spent the evening driving around town, asking people about her son, even though she had been up late, reassuring her mother over the phone that she was doing everything she could, Donna couldn’t sleep. Donna couldn’t sleep because it had been three weeks since Sam had left, three weeks since the fight that had brought the police to the door, three weeks since Sam had said those words she didn’t think it was possible for a son to say to his mother, three weeks since she had seen the young man she still thought of as a boy in a Little League uniform. Donna couldn’t sleep because she was searching her recollections, trying to recall something she had done, something she had said to make Sam act the way he had been acting. Donna couldn’t sleep because she was trying not to imagine where Sam was, trying not to imagine what he might be doing. She sat up, put on her glasses, and watched as the square numbers of her alarm clock changed from 3:59 to 4:00. As her husband snored quietly next to her, Donna tried to push frightening images from her mind: images of Sam’s bedroom floor covered in vodka bottles, images of Sam’s face contorted in rage as he screamed at her, images of the twisted wreckage of a white pickup truck. As she watched the clock march forward slowly, Donna tried to push frightening words from her mind, words like “emergency room” and “overdose.” Just as she was about to remove her glasses and try to sleep for a few hours, the screen on her cell phone began to glow. Her heart pounding, she reached for the phone and brought it close to her face. She didn’t recognize the number. Glancing at the clock, she noticed that it was 4:28 A.M. People don’t call with good news at 4:28 A.M. After waiting another moment that felt like an eternity, Donna pressed the button to answer the phone. Bringing it to her ear, she held her breath and waited.
Today we hear an incredible story from Scripture about a parent waiting for his child to come home. The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most familiar and probably one of the most misunderstood stories from Scripture. It is a challenging tale of grace, restoration, and an unconditional love that is far more powerful than we can imagine. The story goes like this. There is a man who has two sons. One day, the younger son goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance. This would have been just as shocking to Jesus’ hearers as it is to us. This younger son essentially says to his father, “I wish you were dead so that I could have the money that is coming to me.” Surprisingly, the father grants the request, and the younger son leaves town and spends his money wastefully. After a severe famine strikes the land, the young man, who is working as a pig farmer, realizes the error of his ways and determines to repent and live as one of his father’s servants. As he returns home, ready to grovel and beg for his father’s mercy, the father runs to his son and embraces him, proclaiming that his son “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found!” To welcome the lost son home, the father dresses him in finery and throws a big party. The older son, however, is miffed at the welcome his brother has received. He goes up to his father and says, “Dad, I’ve been here, working my butt off for you and you have never thrown me a party!” I imagine he might also have said, “You didn’t even invite me to this one!” The father patiently explains how extraordinary this situation is, saying “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
One of the elements in this story that I find very poignant is the moment that the younger son comes to his senses. He realizes that he has made a huge mistake and after he decides to return home he begins to plan what he will say to his father. This is something that we all do. Before we go on a job interview or make a phone call to someone we’ve never met or apologize for missing an appointment, we tend to rehearse what we might say. I like to imagine the younger son revising and editing his speech as he began his long journey home. He probably thought very carefully about what he would say and considered how he would say it. He probably imagined how his father would look: arms folded, stern look on his face as his son kneeled before him. The younger son probably polished the language and practiced the speech until he entered the city limits, when he finally settled on saying, “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.” His father, however, takes him by surprise. Instead of having to walk all the way to his father’s house to sheepishly knock on the door, the wayward son is spotted by his father, who is waiting on the front porch. When the father spots his son, he picks up the hem of his robe and sprints out to meet his boy, which is not something that a man of means would be caught doing in the first century. The father embraces and kisses his son, refusing to let him go even as he tries recite his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” But the father interrupts and begins organizing a celebration for the son who was once dead but is now alive.
The love and the forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal Son are obvious and palpable. This story teaches us an important lesson about the expansiveness and transcendence of God’s grace. There is, however, a subtler message embedded within this extraordinary parable. Twice the father proclaims that his son was dead and is now alive, once when the son arrives from his journey and once when the father is explaining to his oldest child why he welcomed his wayward son with open arms. “He was dead and has come back to life.” While I think Jesus is using symbolic language, I also think it’s important to remember that for all he knew, this father thought his son was dead. He never imagined that he would see his son again. We only get the younger son’s perspective when he is away; we don’t know what things were like back home. But what we do know, what Jesus implies in this parable is that the father waited for his son to return. We know this because Jesus tells us that the father knew his son had returned while he was still far away. This means that the father was standing in front of his house, scanning the horizon, hoping against hope that his son would return to him. This means that the father trusted that he would see his son again even though he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead. This means that the father knew in his heart of hearts that no matter what happened, his son belonged to God.
In our funeral liturgy, as the body is carried into the church, we hear that wonderful anthem: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” At one point, the anthem quotes Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” It is in this reality that the father trusts. He understands that even if he never sees his son again, his son is the Lord’s possession. Even if the son wastes his life and winds up destitute, he still belongs to the God who created and redeemed him. This affirms the deep and powerful truth that whether we live or die, we belong to God. This may seem like a small comfort to the father waiting on the front porch or the mother waiting to hear news in the middle of the night or the parent who has lost a child, but I think that it is crucial. In our human understanding of the world, we often imagine that there are things we can do that are completely unforgiveable, that we are capable of running so far away from God that God has no claim on us. But the message of this parable is that even when we have completely turned away from God, even when we have run away from those who love us, we still belong to God. The season of Lent is meant to be an opportunity for us to trust that we are the Lord’s possession. Our Lenten disciplines are daily reminders that God is present in our lives and will be with us no matter where we go or how much we refuse God’s abundant love. During Lent, we are called to remember that even if we push our families away, even if we forget who we are, even if we die, we belong to the Lord who embraces us and refuses to let us go.