Saturday, March 20, 2010

From Pig's Pods to a Fatted Calf...

 Sermon for Lent 4, preached Sunday, March 14, 2010.

What’s in a name?  Well, when you name something, you decide who is emphasized.  In this case we decide who  stars in the parable by the way we name it.  If we call it the parable of the Prodigal Son, then the focus is on him.  If we call it the parable of the Bitter Older Son, then the focus is on him. But if we call it the parable of the Waiting Father, as Helmut Thelicke has named it, then the focus is on the loving Father.  He is the story.  So despite what you have been taught, let us not name this parable after either of the sons but after the Father whose loves brings it all together.

Often we approach a parable by figuring out which character we identify with in Jesus’ story.  Which of the characters comes closest to you – is it the rebellious son who takes the gift of his father and runs... or is it the dutiful son who daily did his father’s bidding but with a bitter and empty heart.  There may be great fun in figuring out which one of these two sons the person sitting next to you is like – but it is only fun and does not lead us to the point of this parable.

The younger son is the one we love to hate.  He sounds to selfish and spoiled.  Gimme, gimme, gimme.  He is not even content to wait until his father dies.  He wants his inheritance now.  He wants the freedom to do with this money as he pleases.  In other words, he wants it all.  Who could love such a selfish, self-centered, childish person?  Who indeed.

This son was running from something and he thought if he got the money he demanded and spent it however he wanted, he might find what he was looking for.  Instead he discovered that what he was running from someting still inside of him.  His heart was empty of the contentment and happiness he thought the money would buy.  His longing for pleasure became the dull ache of regret as he surveyed what his life had become.

Alone with his guilt over the waste of all the money and time, alone with the regret of having burned his bridges with his father and home, and alone with all the shame of his failures, what could he do?  When this Jew founding himself slopping hogs, his failure screamed out in words he could not ignore. 

But, could he go home again?  He knew he would find a better life at home as the least of all his father’s servants than he had slopping hogs.  But could he go home again?  What kind of welcome waited for him at home?

So I ask you.  Is this a description of you and your life?  Do you want it all now and refuse to wait for anything?  Do you see the world through the lens of self so much that you look at everything in terms of what is in it for you?  Are you running from an emptiness that is within you, that you cannot run away from.  Do you wonder if you can go home, if you can ever go home again?

Or maybe that is not you at all.  Maybe you are more like the older son.  A lot of church folk identify with the older son.  These are the folks who try to do the right thing even when they don’t want to.  Their lives are governed by a sense of duty but their heart is not in it.  These are the responsible people who do what must be done and all they want is a little credit at the end of the day.  Is this you?  You work hard and you just want somebody to notice?

Are you resentful of the big deal made of the guilty slob who made a turn around?  Does it bug you that folks waste their lives and money and then get bailed out when they run out of it all?  Do you secretly wish that everyone got what they deserved – because down deep you know you deserve better than this ne’er do well who blew his wad of cash and nothing to show for it?

A lot of us are like the older son.  We resent the special treatment some of the bad folks get when show a little humility.  In comparison, we cannot for the life of us figure out why nobody pays attention to how hard we work or how often we do what we are supposed to.... Underneath it all we have long wanted to run away and live it up – but we talk ourselves out of it.  We come to our senses even if our hearts still would rather do what is fun, what pleases us.  Is this you?

No matter which one is you – the spoiled son who wasted His father’s gift or the dutiful son who gave up happiness for holiness and then thought he got a raw deal – no matter which one is you, the focus is not on YOU but on the Waiting Father.  He is the key.

It is the Father who is the star of this story.  He is one who loves his sons equally yet treats them differently as they are different.  He is the one who loves his sons so much that it is hard for him to say no to anything.  He is the one who shows love and mercy even though his love and mercy is mistaken for weakness and he is falsely thought a pushover.  The father is the key to this story.  He is the one who loves, who forgives, who gives... but we misunderstand his love, we begrudge His forgiveness, and we try to frame Christianity in terms of what is fair and equitable.

It is the Father who is the start of this story.  He forgives every day the little things that we shrug off.  He restores us when we screw up – whether the big screw up of a lifetime or the daily little screw ups.  He rejoices over every little good we do, over the repentance that transforms our hearts, and over the guilt and regret that may us run toward home whenever we are in trouble.  He loves us over and over again – waiting and watching for some small sign that understand what His grace has bought and what His mercy has purchased and won for us.  The sign we call faith.

A few of us are the rebellious types who seek our own way and then want somebody else to pay the bill of our independence.  More of us are the dutiful  types who do we are supposed to but our hearts are not in it and we don’t seem to get any credit for it anyhow.  But both of us find the surprise of grace in this story of the Father whose heroic and redemptive love reclaims the lost for the family.  We celebrate today the Father whose grace surrounds our every day lives, who knows the desire of our hearts and forgives us, and who welcomes us home in mercy no matter how far we have strayed.  Jesus is the one whom the Father has sent to make it possible for us to come home.  He is the voice of welcome to the lost, the voice of forgiveness to the sinner, and the voice of celebration when repentance turns the hearts of the fallen. Jesus is come to make known to us this loving, waiting Father.  To bridge sin’s gap, to pay sins’s price, and to speak forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption to us – no matter what our plight...

Whether our lives were buried in selfishness or self-pity, the star of the story is the waiting Father who loves and forgives and restores us all through His Son.  This loving Father has provided forgiveness, redemption and restoration for all our sins by the cross of Jesus and His empty tomb... Jesus has come to direct us into the waiting arms of this Father, to trust in Him for all things, and to delight in His mercy and grace...  Jesus chronicles a journey from one content to eat pig food but who finds the feast of the  fatted calf awaiting him in the surprise of grace.  This is not A story... this is OUR story... and the hero of this story is the Father whose love redeems us all and the Savior who shows this love to us.  Amen

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