I preached for one of my classmates at Grace UMC in Newburgh, NY today. It was fun; they are smaller than Ann Street and it was an off Sunday for them (5th Sunday and all) but I was very well received. And they had chocolate cheesecake for their coffee hour after the service. That was good!
A wonderful and talented high school student sang for their special music. Show tunes, of all things, and yet they worked: "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha and "Seasons of Love" from Rent. A kindly gentleman brought us flowers--just a few carnations--as the ushers brought up the offering. All in all, a very good day! So here's my sermon:
a sermon on Luke 15:11-32
Some stories are so good, they need to be told again. I’m a storyteller by inclination; I love to read Scripture, and I read it in hopes that it will come alive for you. But I’m also cautious by nature, and in case you didn’t hear it the first time, I’m going to tell it again. But this time, I’ll tell it my way.
Once upon a time, there was a young man who just couldn’t wait to be a grown-up, to go out and make his way in the world, to get out of his father’s house and live on his own. He longed for the day when he would inherit his share of his father’s estate and told himself, “Then I’ll finally be free!” One day, he had an epiphany. The lights went on in his head and “What are you waiting for?” he said to himself. “Go and ask Dad not to wait until he’s dead…he can give you the dough now!”
So he did, although this was very bad manners, and was not much different from the son just saying, “I wish you were dead”. And then his dad did: with a heavy heart and great love for his son, the father divided his estate, and gave his son his share. Off the young man went to seek his fortune, with his money burning a hole in his pocket, while his older brother stayed home, faithfully tending their father’s lands and his own inheritance. And eventually our young man fell into some trouble. He had a great time partying with his friends, but whenever it came time to pay, his friends all said, “What are you waiting for? You’ve already got your inheritance. You pay the check.” And so he paid for all the fun, until the money ran out.
By this time, he was far from home and feeling really sorry for himself. The only work he could find was dirty, smelly work in the worst place he could imagine, and he’d never felt so alone. He couldn’t even get food to eat, and no one would help him. He began to regret leaving his father’s home, and to plan to return. After all, he thought, he couldn’t live as his father’s son anymore, but being his father’s hired hand was much better than what he was doing now.
So he worked out a little speech: “Dad, I have sinned before heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.” Did you notice there’s no please in there? And so he practiced and practiced his speech, “Dad, I have sinned before heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands. Dad, I have sinned before heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.” And after he’d gotten it down, he said to himself, “what are you waiting for? Let’s get out of this place.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there was his father, spending hours every day staring off down the road. “What are you waiting for?” the servants and his family asked him, and each time he just sighed, and shook his head, and went on staring. But one day he saw a figure, far off in the distance, trudging through the dust. When the father saw him, he realized what it was he’d been waiting for so long and flew down the road to meet his son.
“Dad, I have sinned before heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” the younger son started his speech, but his father wouldn’t wait for the rest. Instead he embraced him, and called to the servants, “What are you waiting for? Prepare a feast! My son was dead to me, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!”
The festivities began, with music and laughter and good smells from the kitchen and from the freshly bathed and scrubbed son. As the older brother heard the commotion, he called a servant to find out what was going on. He heard that his brother had returned home and was being treated as an honored son instead of the boy who had wished for an early inheritance…and then wasted it. The older brother paced and he fumed, and he refused to go in to the party, until his father came out and asked, “Son, what are you waiting for? We thought your brother was dead and gone from us forever, but he is alive…what’s not to celebrate?”
“My brother wished you dead so he could go off and squander your money like a fool, while I have worked like a slave for you. I have loved you and served you and honored you and been obedient to you, and I’ve never had even a little party for my friends. How could you give him such a feast, when I’ve had nothing?” The older brother was furious!
“Nothing?” the father asked. “Son, everything I have is yours…all my land, my house, what’s in the bank, all of it. Even the coffee cans full of change buried in the back yard are yours. You are faithful, and I love you for it. But come, share my joy, because our lost one is not dead, but has come home. It’s a good party…come have some fun. What are you waiting for?”
This story is traditionally called the parable of the prodigal son. You have no doubt heard it before. Many of us have known a prodigal or two in our time: black sheep, free spirits, loved ones who are lost. And some of us have been a prodigal child, ourselves. I won’t ask for a show of hands on that one…but some of us know what it’s like to have been lost for a while, and to return to family and friends with changed and new lives, and to be received well or poorly, to be welcomes, resented, or turned away.
There is a dual meaning to the word “prodigal” that we’ve got to understand here. Prodigal, according to the dictionary, means recklessly wasteful, and the younger son certainly fits the bill there. But the second meaning is more interesting: prodigal also means extravagantly generous, and in this story, I think it’s fair to call the father a prodigal, too. And even the older son is prodigal in his own way; he is recklessly wasteful of his good father’s love when he sulks, and won’t join his brother’s coming home celebration.
We have it in all of us, don’t we? We have it in us to be prodigal too, even now. Inside each of us, like it or not, is the ability to cast aside God’s grace and throw away the trust others have in us. It’s too easy to fail, to hurt someone, to break faith with our friends and family. And yet perhaps in even greater measure we have in us the ability to receive God’s prodigal love and grace, to embrace for ourselves the love of God and to open our arms to receive one who is lost, lonely, hurting…and to be received by God ourselves in turn.
The beauty of a parable is that it gives us the freedom (or maybe it’s the rope to hang ourselves with) to see ourselves as each of the major players. Have we been impulsive, foolish, hurtful like the younger, prodigal son? Have we thrown away the riches of our lives, our friends’ trust, our families’ faith? Have you ever been lost, alone and afraid? Have you ever been repentant, but still frightened and unsure of how you would be received? Have you ever been given a far better reception than you deserved? Many of us have stories to tell of a time when we have wandered off from home to make our own way—and yet God still calls us, still loves us, still forgives us.
Have we, like the prodigal’s prodigal father, been hurt by one we loved and trusted? Living with a broken heart, waiting for some good to come back into our lives? Ready to offer grace with joy when the lost has returned to us? Waiting, waiting, waiting, for the day when our prodigal would return? And then questioned for “wasting” our time and energy, our love and grace on a prodigal child? Some of us can tell this story, too, and know how a life is forever changed both in the leaving and in the coming home—and yet we love, because God loves.
Have we, like the older, prodigal son, wasted the opportunity to show love and mercy and compassion? Have you ever been too convinced of your own merit and rightness to see someone else? Have you ever felt unable to receive grace that was offered to you? Have you ever felt unable to offer grace and forgiveness and mercy to someone else? This is also our story—of honoring rightness over grace, and sometimes hardening our hearts against love.
There are many ways to be a prodigal, to be recklessly wasteful or extravagantly generous, and we’ve all had the opportunity to try it at least once in our lives. We take for granted the good in our lives, and unwittingly abuse those who love us. We throw away our love on those who do not return it, or do not care well for our hearts. We sometimes find it hard to offer grace and forgiveness when we have been hurt, or neglected. But I suggest to you today that it’s time, time to be prodigal in your love and in your forgiveness. Forget recklessly wasteful; it’s time for the Church to be extravagantly generous.
And just as we have it in us to be the lost and wandering prodigal son, we have it in us to be generous, to reach out for the lost, to offer grace and love and forgiveness to one another and to those who aren’t a part of our faith family. We have it in us to look at every person as a beloved child of our Prodigal Father, and that means that we look at them as our own brothers and sisters, whom we too love.
What are we waiting for? God is always waiting, like the prodigal father, to lavish grace and love on his repentant children. We don’t even have to memorize the speech: “Father, I have sinned before heaven and against you. I am not worthy to be called your child.” God is waiting for us, and for us to share his love with others with the same reckless abandon he has in his love for us. Joachim Jeremias said, “Repentance means learning to say, ‘Abba’ (Father) again, putting one’s whole trust in the heavenly Father, returning to the Father’s house and to the Father’s arms.”
And returning in repentance means that everything changes. The young prodigal son’s heart changed toward his father. In his repentant return, and with his father’s loving acceptance, his heart grew (2 sizes too large, perhaps), softened, and knew the true love of caring for another more than yourself. His relationship with his father forever changed. And we are left to hope and pray that the older prodigal brother would repent of his own hardness of heart, his own blindness, his own resentment and fear and pride, and turn to his father and his brother in love and openness. Just as one brother wasted the father’s love and wealth, just as the other brother wasted the opportunity to share in that love at the homecoming feast, we sometimes turn away from family, friends, and God. But we can turn again, and know that God’s love is even more prodigal, more extravagant, more generous, than any we’ve ever known. So what are we waiting for?
Once upon a time, God’s children, on whom the Father had radically, prodigally, recklessly poured out love and favor and a garden of unending goodness and blessing, recklessly wasted that love by disobeying God, and wandered from the home the Father had given them to roam the world.
Out of the Father’s great love for all his children, he sent his own Prodigal Son to lavishly and extravagantly and literally share his life with others, so that they might again see and know the extravagant and prodigal love of the Father. The Son lived and loved and laughed with the children of the Father, and taught some of them about the endless goodness and grace of God, so that they, and we, could teach others.
In the end, to make possible the redemption of all God’s children and to make a way for them to return home to the Father they’d left, the Son gave his life on a cross, was buried, and was resurrected. He has shown the way, and now waits for us to follow him home to the Father and the endless, reckless, abundant, extravagant love and mercy and grace waiting for us. What are you waiting for?