It's not the long walk home...
On Sunday 27th March, the fourth Sunday of Lent, Pete Stevenson gave us a homily on the story of the Prodigal Son, challenging us to consider if we are Rule Keepers or Rule Breakers, and what this means in our relationship with God and with others. He even provides links to songs for your entertainment!!
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive at the restart.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
I’ll give my usual caveat to my homily. An advantage of having an unqualified person give the homily is you have even more freedom than usual to disagree with the preacher! Feel free to disagree but I would love to hear what you disagree with.
The Prodigal Son, or the Lost Son, one of the most loved parables of the Gospels. I want to give it a different title, The Lost Sons, plural and forgive me if I take a moment to link it with the other ‘Lost’ parables, the lost coin and the lost sheep because I believe there is an important common theme but also important differences between them.
The common theme is… in the end, everything that was lost was found.
The differences… the coin didn’t know it belonged, didn’t know it was lost, didn’t know it had been found, had no awareness that it had any value at all. But it did belong, it was valued, it was going to be found. I believe there is a message here for those of no faith, the atheist, those suffering so much from mental ill health, those with low self-esteem, as we phrase it, that maybe they have lost almost all sense of self-worth. I think it’s worth letting them know, whatever you believe, don’t believe, are feeling right now… you are valued, you will be found. I read recently, students studying humanities are more likely to suffer from mental ill health issues. As they learn about some of the bad things the human race has done, they can grow to disdain the human race, and possibly in the end, themselves. We use phrases like self-esteem, mental well-being but I’m not sure that covers it very well. I think people sometimes lose, or have never been aware of, where they belong.
The sheep was different. It didn’t intend to get lost, it just kept nibbling the next juicy bit of grass then happened to notice, it’s gone awfully quiet. The shepherd searches and rescues it but there’s no guarantee that the same sheep might not do the same thing the following day… and need to be found all over again.
Only in the parable of the Lost Sons does one of them wilfully leave because he thinks life will be better without the constraints of his father, in the context of the story, better without faith, better without the belief in some God, some heavenly father. The story ends describing the resentment of the older brother; the younger brother was the rule breaker, the older was the rule keeper. The passage starts off ‘All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the Scribes were grumbling…’
There were both the rule breakers and the rule keepers wanting to hear Jesus. Maybe just as the Pharisees were hearing of the father’s forgiveness and grace toward the young son they were thinking, more fool him, but at least he’s not getting at us for a change. But then Jesus adds another character, a rule keeper, and shows he is also lost and needed to be found. The Father runs out to the younger brother to find him, later he leaves the party in full swing to find the older brother. Everything that was lost was found.
In evangelical parlance, especially in times past, being lost equates to being unsaved and bound for hell, being found equates to being saved and bound for heaven. Despite a most rigorous evangelical upbringing, I haven’t believed in hell for decades. So, when I say everything will be found, yes I find it’s something deep in my heart and soul to believe there will come a time when everything will come good. Given the suffering at any given time, I find any other option more bleak than I can cope with. But I wouldn’t frame this parable simply in terms of a good eternal future. I’ll come on to that, but first, the older brother.
In those times, the older brother would have been the first in line for the greater inheritance, out of the two sons, he was the more privileged and would be expected to take on the responsibility of family affairs, maybe it was a farm, a business. He was the rule keeper and took his responsibilities seriously. Let’s not knock it, we need people who take their responsibilities seriously. But he was just as lost as his younger brother enjoying wine, women and song. He failed to see what he had whereas it was the rule breaker knew when he had lost everything. The older brother resented what the father was doing for a profligate son who deserved punishment, not favour. In a word, the younger brother received grace. A word and message that would have been music to the ears of sinners and tax collectors but foreign, dangerous, an unfair idea to the Scribes and Pharisees. I was speaking to Julia yesterday and she said ‘Actually, I have some sympathy for the older brother’. Maybe we agree but, in the end, this is a story about grace, it’s not about parenting skills!
Did the older brother end up going to the party or did he stay in his room and sulk? We don’t know. The Father found him, but he possibly preferred his own company, enjoyed harboring a grudge, a refusal to forgive which in the end would do him no favours, in contrast to the lavish favours the younger son received from the father.
In a way, this is how I square the circle when I say I believe everything ends up being found. I can hear the voices of ex work colleagues interrupting me, ‘what on earth do you mean Pete, we will be found? You’re speaking trite’. It can’t mean everyone ends up being lifted from danger. There are those who will have been abused where the scars, hurt and injustice can never be forgotten. Maybe it will be forgiven but it cannot be forgotten. It’s probable that all of us here this morning knows someone personally who has died from a terminal illness. Being found obviously does not equate to physical healing. But some will show that life is more than physical health. I knew someone in our old church who didn’t have that long to live but she always made an effort to look smart and had a demeanor which cried out my life is more than my illness. I complimented her once on her smartness and went to give her a hug and immediately she cried ‘steady Pete!, Be gentle!’ I had momentarily forgotten just how physically frail she was because her life showed so much more. Interestingly she was something of a rule breaker. She knew she was found.
In contrast. I had a distant relative who grew old and frail and very bitter. She was not ill, just old and I couldn’t help stop and reflect so what were all those decades of religion about? Being a pillar of your local church alongside your husband, observing the sabbath, the T totalism, was it just rule keeping? I speak from experience, keeping the rules is actually quite easy.
In the Mumford And Sons song Roll Away Your Stone, there’s a verse:-
It seems that all my bridges have been burnt But you say that's exactly how this grace thing works. It's not the long walk home that will change this heart But the welcome I receive with the restart.
Marcus Mumford’s parents were leaders in the Vineyard Church. Although Marcus has not adopted the faith of his parents, I put it to you, it’s impossible to write those lyrics without having a good understanding of the parable of the Lost Son.
Long ago, we lived in a small village and we threw our weight behind the local parish church. About 5 miles either side of the village were two major towns with every style of church you could imagine. There were many Christians in the village and most of them chose to commute to one of the large town churches. In the end, I found supporting a small church just too difficult and we joined the rest, doing a Sunday commute to a more whizzy church. But, surprise surprise, that didn’t suit us either! It was not our town, not our community. After a while we returned to our village church, tail a little bit between my legs. I’ll never forget walking into the church porch, Iris was on the door, a fairly buxom lady of a certain age. She just cried ‘Peter!’ and gave me such a hug. It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive at the restart. Iris is in her 90s now, we’re still in touch a little. She has the heart of the Father God.
My point is, not to give a subtle, or not so subtle, dig to encourage you to support our small church, especially since many of us already commute a considerable distance each Sunday. My point is, find out where you belong. It’s not about whether you find circumstances enjoyable or frustrating or even infuriating. Where do you belong? I think you all know we’ll be returning to England soon, I asked God the other day ‘So how long will it be before I find the English church, we will be returning to, frustrating and annoying?’ I didn’t hear God say anything, but I think He smiled.
I want to end reading Psalm 32 again together. I don’t know about you, but I don’t always pay that much attention first time around.
Before we do, I’d like you to think, who are you most like? The younger or older brother? A rule breaker or a rule keeper? God will find you and offer his grace, favour we don’t deserve. It’s up to us whether we accept it and allow it to work through us. The world has no particular interest in what we believe, even if we think it should. But as Phillip Yancy writes, Visit the most dangerous and deprived parts of the planet and on the front lines you will find Christians establishing micro-credit banks, staffing hospitals, and schools, drilling wells, and housing refugees. Those who invest their hope in an unseen world prove it by their actions in this world. They strive not to be so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good and not so earthly minded as to be of no heavenly good. In other words, they are citizens of two different kingdoms, putting feet to Jesus’ prayer; God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Phillip Yancy, Rumours of Another World. p227). I think it starts with being honest with God (and de-facto, ourselves) which is what this Psalm is about.
1 Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!
2 Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3 While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long.
4 For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt.
6 I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
7 Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8 You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
9 "I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with my eye.
10 Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you."
11 Great are the tribulations of the wicked; but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.
12 Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.