by Interim Pastor Dog Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Nobody deserves anything, good or bad. It’s all grace. If you accepted that, you might be able to relax a little.
Robert Boughton to his prodigal son, Jack, in Home, Marilynne Robinson p27
A Parable in "F"
Our second reading this morning continues the story of the Prodigal Son. This is such a familiar story and we may assume that we “know” the message and miss what God wants to say to us. I invite you to listen with open ears, open hearts, and open minds. The younger son, the prodigal son, left home with his inheritance, wasted it and now has returned home and his father has thrown him a party. Luke 15:25-32
Most of you probably know this story. However, I’d like to share with you a version that you probably haven’t heard. W.O. Taylor, a retired Baptist preacher, wrote his own variation of the story, called The Final Fixing of the Foolish Fugitive.
Feeling footloose, fancy-free and frisky, this feather-brained fellow finagled his fond father into forking over his fortune. Forthwith, he fled for foreign fields and frittered his farthings feasting fabulously with fair-weather friends. Finally, facing famine, and fleeced by his fellows in folly, he found himself a feed flinger in a filthy farmlot. He fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from the fodder fragments.
“Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare far fancier,” the frazzled fugitive fumed feverishly, frankly facing fact.
Frustrated from failure and filled with forebodings, he fled for his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he floundered forlornly. “Father, I have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited further family favors…”
But the faithful father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged his flunkies to fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a feast.
But the fugitive’s fault-finding frater, faithfully farming his father’s field for free, frowned at this fickle forgiveness of former falderal. His fury flashed, but fussing was futile.
His foresighted father figured, “Such filial fidelity is fine, but what forbids fervent festivities? The fugitive is found! Unfurl the flags! With fanfare flaring, let fun, frolic and frivolity flow freely, former failures forgotten and folly forsaken. Forgiveness forms a firm foundation for future fortitude.
“More Holy Humor” Samra p64-65
Let me share with you a few details about this story. A young man asked his father for his share of the inheritance. According to Deuteronomy that would be 1/3 of everything the father owned. This request is the same as saying “Dad, I wish you were dead so I could get my money.” The normal response of a father would be to punish his son until he got back in line. Instead, the father gave his son what he asked for. The son broke his father’s heart. He broke the relationship.
After the younger son spent all his money and became desperate, he got a job taking care of pigs. Remember that Jews detest pigs. They won’t have anything to do with them. In other words, this young man was as low as he could get, barely surviving by feeding pigs. He realized that his father’s hired hands, the lowest of the servants, were better off than he was. He decided to go home, hoping to get a job as a slave and a decent meal, dreaming that maybe someday he could work his way back into the good graces of his dad.
As the boy approached his home the father heard about it. Normally, in a situation like this, the father would hold back. He’d make his son walk through the village where all the people would treat him with scorn. The boy would get to the house and knock on the gate. A servant would come out to see who it was. The servant would go talk to the father, who’d make the boy wait a little bit longer. Eventually the boy would be let into the house where he would be punished.
In the parable the father did something completely unexpected. As soon as he heard about his son coming home he ran to meet him. In that culture men over the age of 30 do not run. They walk in a slow and dignified manner. The father in our parable lifted up his robe, showing his underwear to everyone, and raced to meet his son. He hugged him and kissed him. He didn’t worry about the shame or loss of honor that he would experience. He gave his son a robe which was a symbol of honor. He gave him a ring which was a symbol of authority. He gave him shoes which meant that he was still part of the family. He welcomed his son home and threw him a party. Not at all what was expected.
More often than not, when I’ve heard this story preached, the focus has been on the younger son. The message is one we all need to hear: No matter how much we rebel against God, we are always loved and welcomed back. There is nothing you can do that will make God give up on you. Some of you may feel like the prodigal son or a prodigal daughter. Maybe you did something that brings you shame, something that hurt someone else and maybe even destroyed a life. The world is filled with prodigals. We must remember that God welcomes them home and loves them just as they are. God wants a relationship with you.
I have a sense, though, that more of us are like the older brother. We have our Scouts here today. They are good kids – Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. We are good Christians here. We are nice people. Most of us are a lot like the older brother. At least I know that I am.
When the older brother heard about the party he got angry and refused to go in. At a party like this the father would sit with his guests, with the guest of honor sitting beside him. The oldest son was expected to stand behind the father and act as the head waiter. He made sure that everyone had enough food or whatever they needed. He would offer the guest of honor the best pieces of meat, saying “Eat this for my sake.” But the guest of honor at this party was his younger brother. After everything he had done there was no way the older brother was going to serve his younger brother. It’s one thing to let him come home – but throwing a party for him! That was too much.
Not going in to the party and serving was an insult to the father. The younger son insulted his father by asking for the inheritance and squandering it. The older son also insulted his father. Usually the father would be expected to punish the older son. Instead he went out to the older son and begged for him to come in. Just as the father had endured shame by running out to greet his prodigal son, he was willing to endure the shame and the loss of honor with the older son because above all else, his greatest desire was for a relationship with his sons.
About 20 years ago I was on a spiritual retreat that was led by Brennan Manning. Brennan was a Franciscan priest, as well as a speaker and author. His best known book is called “The Ragamuffin Gospel.” Brennan used this parable as the basis for his talks and he focused on God’s love for the rebellious younger son. Brennan had been the prodigal son who had come home. As the retreat went on I got more and more frustrated because I can relate so much more to the older brother. At one point we had an hour of silence – to pray, to listen to God and to reflect on the story. At first I was filled with turmoil. I couldn’t concentrate or relax. I wasn’t hearing anything from God. Then I reread this story one more time and a phrase jumped out at me. Notice what the father says after the older brother complains. “Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours’” (Luke 15:31). All that is mine is yours. All the blessings of God are yours. All the love of God is yours. All the power of God is yours. All the joy of God is yours. All the peace of God is yours.
Most of us are probably a combination of younger and older son. We’ve all done things that are wrong, that are sinful. We’ve all turned away from God at times. God’s reckless grace has been freely given to us no matter who we are or what we have done. We also have been good people in many ways. We’ve been obedient and faithful. God loves us, not because of what we have done, or not done. God just chooses to love us. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. There nothing we can do to earn God’s love. It is already ours. God says to you and to me, “All that is mine is yours.”
This story really isn’t about the Prodigal Son, or the older brother. It is a story of a father who loved both of his sons, a father who reached out to both of them, a father who was generous to both of them. Both sons spent time in a pigpen. The younger son spent time in the pigpen of rebellion and sin. The older son spent time in the pigpen of bitterness, legalism and pride. Both were lost, but both were invited into their father’s love. Both were given the call “Come home!”
Jesus doesn’t end the story. We don’t know if the older brother came in to the party. We don't know if the younger brother turned his life around. Neither do we know how we will respond to God’s grace. May God move in our lives in such a powerful way that we will accept the outlandish grace of God and live in the relentless love of God. May we join in the celebration of the good news that we were dead, but have been brought to life, that we were lost and now we are found. May we respond to the call of Jesus; Come home, come home! Jesus is calling, “O sinner, come home!”
by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
For as long as we hold on to any pretense of having it all together we are prevented from deepening and maturing in the Christian faith. For as long as we avoid recognition of our lostness we are prevented from experiencing the elegant profundities of foundness. For as long as we insist on maintaining safe moral grids in which we always know where we stand (and where everyone else stands!), these poses of self-sufficiency, we disenfranchise ourselves from the company of the found sheep, the found coin, the two found brothers, and the celebrating angels. E. Peterson Tell It Slant p9
A Passion for the Lost
My trip over to the Holy Land was an amazing experience. One event that I remember was the first time we drove into Jerusalem. We had been in Jericho and drove up the highway toward the city. It is a hilly area, without many trees. As we got close to Jerusalem the bus driver played a song called “The Holy City.” We drove into a tunnel. Part way through the tunnel the chorus started. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing.” Right about then we came out of the tunnel and into the city of Jerusalem. It was a spectacular sight. We actually did it twice.
Later I told our group that I get to come out on a sight like that almost every day, driving through the Fort Pitt tunnel into Pittsburgh. Every time I go through the tunnel I am stunned by the beauty of the city. It is especially moving at night, with all the lights on. Part of what moves me is the realization that for every light that I see, I am aware that there are probably ten, twenty, or a hundred people who are lost, people who have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ, or people who have heard it yet somehow missed the truth of the gospel for their own lives. They have never experienced the grace of God. They don't know the love and support of the community of faith. It breaks my heart.
It also breaks Jesus’ heart. Jesus had a passionate love for people who are lost. It got him into trouble. He spent lots of time with people who were lost – tax collectors, sinners and outcasts. The religious leaders did not approve. In response to them Jesus told three parables about being lost. The third one we are going to look at next week, the parable of the Prodigal Son. Today I want us to look at the first two that I just read, the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.
The Greek word for lost is apolumy (apolumy). It can be translated two different ways. Sometimes it is translated as “lost.” Something can't be found. My suitcase got lost somewhere between Tel Aviv and Pittsburgh. The airlines couldn’t find it. It finally got home yesterday morning. At least several times a week I lose my glasses or my car keys. In Western Pensylvania it is easy to get lost. There are no street signs or the name of a street changes. You make a couple of turns, hoping you are supposed to go that way. After a while nothing looks familiar and you realize you have no idea where you are, or how to get where you’re going. You are lost.
Apolumy can also be translated “to destroy or to kill.” In the gospel of Mark there is a story of a father who brings his son to Jesus to be healed. The father describes his son as having an evil spirit that throws him into the fire, or into water so that the son might be destroyed, apolumy. Being lost is more than not knowing where you are. To be lost means being in danger of being destroyed or ruined.
Suzy, a seven year-old girl, went shopping with her mom. They went to a mall and started wandering through it, looking for a clothes, shampoo, hair color and a variety of other items. Suzy got bored and started wandering, looking at toys and coloring books. After about thirty minutes she looked around and didn’t see her mom anywhere. She panicked and started to cry. About the same time Mom realized that she has no idea where Suzy was. Suzy was lost. Mom forgot everything else she was shopping for and frantically looked for Suzy. Nothing else mattered.
In our parables the owner seeks out that which is lost. The shepherd went out and looked for the sheep until he found it. The woman thoroughly cleaned her house until she found her coin. In the same way, God seeks out those who are lost. Jesus has a passion for the lost. God desperately wants a relationship with all people. That is why Jesus came. Jesus became one of us so that we might be with God.
Notice what happened when that which is lost is found. There is a celebration. The shepherd and the woman both have a party to celebrate. The same thing happens in the story of the Prodigal Son. That father throws a party. Heaven celebrates every time someone who is lost is found.
I believe the message for us is very simple. Let me share with you two ideas. First, we are invited to have the same passion for the lost that Jesus has. We are invited to love people with the same love that God has, a love that desperately wants people to know God’s love in Jesus Christ. One of the characteristics of a healthy church is that it has the same passion that God has, a passion for people in our world who are lost. A healthy church is one that loves people enough to do everything it can to help them to know the good news of Jesus Christ and to live in God’s grace.
I’m not sure what the demographic numbers are for this community, how many people live within a ten mile radius and how many of those people have no church affiliation. Probably there are hundreds, if not thousands of people in our area who are spiritually hungry? They long to for something in their lives that gives them meaning, for some conection to God. They are lost and God has a passionate love for them. If we are to be a healthy church we must reach outside ourselves and try to help those who are lost so that they might be connected to God. We must do everything in our power to help people experience the love of God in Jesus Christ.
In the year and a half that I’ve been here I’ve heard many comments that people would like to see this church grow. They would like to see more people coming to worship, more children and youth participating in our programs, more people giving to support the ministries of the church. There is nothing wrong with that desire, but for the most part people in our world are not going to respond when we tell them that we want more people to participate in worship and programs and giving to the church. The primary goal must always be the desire for people to know the love of God in Jesus Christ. Our passion must be to help those who are lost to know God’s love, to experience the peace of Christ.
The second message for us is that we are invited to join in the heavenly celebration that happens when the lost are found. Our lives can be filled with joy when we help people become connected to God. When we help those who are lost to find God we will be able to join the heavenly celebration that happens whenever those who are lost are found. As Jesus said, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” I wonder, how well do we celebrate? Do we truly celebrate when someone who is lost experiences God’s love in Christ?
Tony Campolo was a professor of sociology at Eastern University, near Philadelphia. Several years ago he wrote a book called "The Kingdom of God is a Party." He starts the book with a story of a time he was giving a talk in Honolulu. Pennsylvania and Hawaii are 6 hours different. At 3:00 AM Tony was wide awake, ready for breakfast. He went out to look for a restaurant that was open. He found a little greasy spoon on a side street. He sat on a stool and had coffee and a donut.
At 3:30 AM the door to the diner opened, and 8 or 9 prostitutes came in. The place was small, so they sat all around Tony. They were loud and crude. One of them, named Agnes, was sitting next to Tony, talking to her friend. Agnes told her friend that tomorrow was her birthday. Her friend was rather snide. "What do you want, a birthday party? Do you expect us to get you a cake and sing happy birthday." Agnes was obviously hurt. She said to her friend, "Be nice. I don't expect anything from you. I just wanted to tell someone. I never had a birthday party."
After a while all the ladies left. Tony asked Harry, the man behind the counter, if the ladies came in every night. "Ya, every night after they get off work they come in." Then Tony and Harry planned a surprise birthday party for Agnes. Harry made a cake. Tony bought crepe paper to decorate the place. They even made a big sign that said, "Happy Birthday Agnes!"
The word got out on the street what was going on. By 3:00 AM every prostitute in Honolulu was packed in this little diner. At 3:30 Agnes walked in. Everyone shouted "Happy Birthday." As they brought out the cake they sang to her. She was stunned. Tears streamed down her face. Harry had to blow out the candles. He told Agnes to cut the cake so that everyone could have some. Let me read to you what happened.
Read "The Kingdom of God is a Party" p 7-9.
You and I are called to have the same passion for the lost that Jesus has. We are called to have a passion that causes us to seek out those who are lost, to tell them about Jesus and to invite them to church. We are also invited to the heavenly party that happens whenever someone who is lost is found. We are invited to join the joyful celebration that happens every time someone experiences the love of God in Jesus Christ. It will change our lives It will change our church. When we do that, our lives and our church will be overflowing with joy.