March 27th, 2022 homily on Luke 15:11-32 by Pastor Galen
My wife and I have different definitions of what it means to be lost. Frequently we’ll be driving in our car, and I’ll be unsure how to get to where we’re going. My wife will say, “so, we’re lost.” And I’ll say, “we’re not lost. I know where we are. I’m just not sure how to get to where we’re trying to go.”
You see, I am by nature an optimist, and I just sort of believe that if we just head in a particular direction, eventually we’ll get to where we’re trying to go. And this is often true not just when we’re driving in our car, but in life in general. My wife would prefer that we have a detailed plan of exactly where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there. She’s always wanted us to have a 5, or 10, or even 20 years plan, whereas I am much more comfortable experimenting and trying things without a long-term plan, because I tend to believe everything will just sort of work out the way I hoped.
Except that sometimes they don’t, and there have been several times when we’re found ourselves in places or situations in life that we probably could have avoided if I had just planned better. Like not too long ago on Valentine’s Day weekend, when I came home from seminary class at 2pm on Saturday afternoon and decided it was time to start planning for our date night which was starting in a few hours – only to find out that all of our favorite restaurants had no reservations. “That’s alright, I thought, I’ll just move down the list of our 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th-tier favorite restaurants as well.” But they were all booked as well. We did end up finding a place to eat, but it wasn’t the most romantic restaurant. And let’s just say that my wife was less than happy with my selection. So things don’t always work out when I don’t plan…
The Younger Son
And in that way, I feel like the younger son here in this parable is a bit like me. I think he was an optimist. And I think that when he first headed out from his father’s house he was just sort of hoping that things would work out. He had a bunch of money that he had just gotten from his dad, and he just sort of headed off in a particular direction, thinking that his money would last him for a very long time.
And so for most of this story, he probably didn’t think he was lost. He had a vague idea of where he was, he just didn’t know where he was going. And he probably thought, worst comes to worst, even if his money runs out, he’ll be okay as long as he has food to eat and a place to sleep. And if he runs out of food, then someone will probably give him some food to eat. So it will be Ok.
But then his money did run out. And at the same time, there also happened to be a famine. And although some people had stockpiled food in preparation for the famine, no one in that foreign land would give him any food to eat. And so he had to pick up a job feeding pigs, and when he found himself hungrily looking at the slop that the pigs were consuming and wishing he could eat that, I think that’s when he first realized that he might be lost. Not in the sense that he didn’t know where he was, but in the sense that he had no idea where he was going.
And then, the more he thought about it, he came to this realization that back home, even his father’s servants never had to worry about what they were going to eat. And it slowly dawned on him that he was probably going to have to go back home. And so he headed off for home. And as he was heading home, I imagine him rehearsing what he was going to say. He was going to say, dad, I know I’m not worthy to be called your son any more, but would you at least hire me to be one of your servants?
I mean, even that would be a stretch, because he had caused his father some pretty serious offense. He had asked his dad for his inheritance while his dad was still alive – which was unheard of. And not only that, but he had caused his father a whole lot of shame in front of the whole village, because there were tons of rumors circulating around about all of the things he supposedly did in that far country. (We don’t know if those rumors were true, but in some ways it didn’t matter, because even his older brother believed them to be true).
And so, even asking his father to let him be a servant was a bold request. But he was willing to try it, because he was desperate, and no one else would give him any food.
But when he gets close to his hometown, his father doesn’t force him to complete that long walk of shame. Rather, he runs out to meet him. He runs down the driveway and through the village. He hadn’t forgotten about his son, he hadn’t blotted him out of the family records. He was longing and waiting and hoping and dreaming that one day his son would come home.
So he runs to his son, he embraces him. He doesn’t even allow his son to finish his sentence. It’s like one of those scenes in the movies where where one person is trying to apologize, and the other person just puts their finger on the other person’s lips and says “I love you.” That’s what the father does to the son. He gives him a big old bear hug, and he calls to the servants and says “kill the fatted calf! bring a robe and put it on him. bring the best slippers, and ring. and put it on his finger.” He gives his son the royal treatment.
This is an amazing glimpse into the heart of God, who is longing and waiting and hoping for those who are lost to come home.
The Older Son
But the older son, who has been doing everything right, who in his mind has been slaving away, working hard for his father at home all these years, is not happy. Never once did his father throw a party like this for him! Never once did he give him the royal treatment. Never once did he kill the fatted calf. And he can’t believe it. He can’t believe his father would treat his younger brother like this.
But his father says “son, you are mine, and all that I have is yours. Yes, you have been with me, working hard every single day. And that is commendable, and there will be times to celebrate you in the future. But for right now, we have to celebrate this younger brother of yours, who was lost. We thought he was dead! but he’s alive, and now he’s home. And that is worth celebrating right now.”
Who Do You Identify with in this Story?
So, who do you identify with in this story? I don’t know about you, but I can sort of see things from both perspectives. I’ve been the younger son who’s made foolish decisions and unwise choices, and I know how embarrassing it is to have to admit that I’m wrong, or that I should have planned better. And I’ve been so blessed when people have extended grace and forgiveness to me – including my wife. And it’s helped me to see a little glimpse into the heart of God.
But I can also see things from the older brother’s perspective. Sometimes it’s hard to see people getting away with stuff when we’ve been working our hardest. It’s like when you’re in school and you stayed up all night to work on a paper or to study for an exam, and then you get to school the next morning and the teacher says “I’m going to give everyone an extension!” And all those classmates of yours who didn’t even start their assignments, they got away with it! You feel like you worked so hard for nothing. It’s not fair, and you don’t feel like celebrating that others are getting off without being punished or scolded or anything.
Invitation to experience the Heart of the Father
But here in this story, we’re also being invited to get a little glimpse into the heart of God. To see that people who were lost and are now found are worth celebrating. It’s worth rejoicing when anyone returns to God. And it doesn’t downplay the beauty and value of striving to live a life of faith every day. And it doesn’t downplay the reality that one day we will be rewarded. But we do need to realize that God rejoices over those who realize they were lost and that they need to be found.
Many of us have friends and relatives who are lost but don’t realize it. And I believe we’re being invited here in this passage to see a little glimpse into God’s heart for them, and to pray and long and hope and dream that someday they will come to their senses and return to God.
But I also want to zoom out here, because I think there’s also a level here for us as a congregation, as we think about our church and the community around us.
You see, right now we’re living in the midst of a time and place in our society where there are a lot of people who don’t want to go to church. Maybe they feel like they’re doing fine on their own and they don’t need God or a community of people. Maybe they don’t really feel like they’re lost. Or maybe they’ve been hurt by the Church and don’t want to ever set foot in a church again.
And because of this, we as a church have been realizing that if we’re going to reach the lost, we’re going to have to go out to them. Because many of them are not going to come to us.
And I can’t say that I’ve heard anyone complaining, but I know that sometimes it can feel frustrating to spend a lot of time and money and church resources on trying to reach out to people who don’t even know they’re lost. And we might think, what about the people who are coming to church? What about our own church members, the people who have been coming faithfully for years. Shouldn’t we spend our time and money and resources on caring for them?
And I get it. Sometimes I’ve felt the same way when it comes to denominational resources. There’s a big push right now in the United Methodist Church towards new styles of worship gatherings, “fresh expressions” of church, going out and reaching those who wouldn’t come to church. And sometimes, when I’m in a scarcity mentality, I can think, “But what about us? We have needs here, just keeping alive the programs that we’re already doing! Why can’t you give some of those resources towards sustaining our programs?”
But Jesus told this parable in response to religious people who were complaining that he was spending too much of his time and energy on non-religious people, some of whom probably didn’t even realize they were lost. The religious people of Jesus’s day thought he should be spending more time in the temple, or the synagogue, teaching and investing and healing people who were faithful attenders, rather than those outside.
But through this parable, and the ones before it about the women who searched for the lost coin, and the shepherd who searched for the lost sheep, Jesus is inviting us to experience the heart of the Father, who cares so much for each and every one of his children that he will go out and search for the lost, and meet them where they are, and welcome and invite them to come home.
Last week in our Lenten Bible study we talked about service, we were encouraged that each of us find ways to serve both within and outside of the church. And I want to issue that same challenge to us today. Some of us are heavily involved in the community, but I would encourage you to seek out one way to build up and encourage one of our existing programs within the church. On the other hand, those of us who are heavily involved in running our church’s programs have to realize that at least part of our role involves extending God’s love and grace outside of the walls of the church.
This morning, may we see and experience the heart of the Father, welcoming all who are lost back home. May we not grumble and complain like the religious people of Jesus’s day when we see resources flowing out to those in need, but rather, may we participate in going out to reach the lost, and welcome them home. Amen.