God Moves In Grace

Steve Lindsley
(Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32)

We continue our Lenten sermon series, “God Moves,” looking this morning at the 15th chapter of Luke, verses 1-3 and 11b-32. When you say it like that, it probably doesn‘t ring much of a bell. But when you call it by it’s more familiar name, “the parable of the prodigal son,” you know exactly what you’re talking about.

As we know, there are three main characters in the story – the younger brother (or prodigal son), the older brother, and the father. Perhaps we are inclined to believe that the main focus of the story is the prodigal son – that’s what it’s called, after all, and he does gets most of the “press time.” But we really see the richness of this parable when we view it through different eyes. A few years ago I preached a sermon from the perspective of the older brother.

Today, I’m going to look at things through the eyes – and with the voice – of the father; a father who is being father to two different sons in their unique yet intertwined situations. What might we hear from the father when he speaks to us? What might rise to the surface in that conversation?

Keep that in mind as Elizabeth and William read the stories of the two brothers and the father takes time to respond. Listen now, friends, to the word of God:


Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable:

Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father.

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

I can still remember that day, everything about it. You know how it is when something profound in your life happens – you remember the small details surrounding it, things you normally wouldn’t pay attention to, much less remember years later. I vividly remember how the sun was shining brightly that day, cutting through the clouds that had lingered over the week. It was almost as if the heavens themselves were celebrating the fact that my son had come home.

The journey my son took before he returned home to me was not an easy one for him – you already know that. What you may not know, what you don’t read about, is what it was like for me. And all I’ll say is that parenting is hard work, people! It is so hard.

I would be lying if I told you it didn’t bother me when he came and asked for his inheritance. Honestly, it was soul-crushing. You have to understand the ways of the world in my time; it was perfectly normal for a son of a certain age to receive his family’s inheritance. But what my younger son did was a breach of protocol – he made a premature request, well before it was appropriate for him to do so. It was devastating – and it had nothing to do with the money. See, by making his inheritance request prematurely, he was essentially saying that he was leaving the family and wanted nothing to do with me or his mother or his brother. He was cutting us loose. And I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how much that broke my heart.

Could I have just told him no? Of course. It’s not time yet, son, ask me in a few years. Sure, I could’ve said that. But this is the rub, right? You raise your kids the best you can, and at some point they get to make their own decisions and choices, because it is their life, not yours. A baby bird falls out of the nest high up in the tree and learns to fly on the way down. My son was ready to leave the nest. It would be up to him to figure out the flying.

All that time he was gone, it was like my heart was sectioned in two; one half with me and the other half with him, wherever he was, whatever he was doing. I never heard from him during that time. I worried a fair amount. I prayed even more. I questioned my decision to grant the inheritance request. And I held onto words someone shared with me in those difficult days: Your words sow seeds in your children’s hearts and create the beginning of their life stories, stories they will carry with them always.

And so it was on that sunny day when days before had not been sunny that I knew it was him walking over the horizon – even though he was just a tiny figure off in the distance I could barely see with my aged eyes, even though I couldn’t make out any of his wonderful, beautiful distinguishing features. My heart knew it was him long before my eyes recognized his face or my ears heard his voice. It was him. And I ran to him because all I cared about in that moment was lessening the distance between him and myself as quickly as I could.

He launched into his mea culpa – I could tell he’d rehearsed it. I also knew he meant it. I let him finish because speaking confession is the first step in learning to let go and move forward. So I let him finish. And no sooner had he finished that, with a snap of my fingers, I set into motion the plan I arranged long before in anticipation of this very moment – a celebration for the ages with all the fixings, a long invite list, the best band playing, the finest clothes to put on my son – because this is what you do when joy, pure joy is unleashed in your midst.

There’s a great painting of this moment that you may have seen before Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. There I am, holding my now-home son in a loving embrace. One of your well-known theologians Henri Nouwen makes note that expression on my face seems to say: “Son, I’m not going to ask any questions. Wherever you have gone, whatever you have done, you’re my beloved child. I hold you safe in my embrace. I hug you. I gather you under my wings. You can come home to me.”

Your words sow seeds in your children’s hearts and create the beginning of their life stories, stories they will carry with them always. That story has a gravitational pull to it, friends. This tug that won’t let you go, no matter how hard you try to shake it loose. It won’t let you go. That story is one that longs to be fulfilled in its proper place and time. And I have no doubt that it was that story, coursing through my son’s veins and breathed in and out of his lungs, that brought him back home.


Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

Ah, my oldest son. I once had someone say to me, You knew this would happen, right? And my answer was, and is, yes. Yes, I knew. All that time I was waiting for my younger son’s return, all that time I had a pre-planned party ready to drop on a moment’s notice, the thought did occur to me: how do you think the older son’s gonna take this?

And the thing is, I cannot fault him in the least for that. I can’t. If I put myself in his shoes – and believe me, I have – if I put myself in his shoes, I wind up right where he was. It is true, he did exactly what he was supposed to do all those years. He was a hard worker, a loyal son. He never asked for special favors, he was everything a father could hope for.

So yeah, if I were in his shoes, I would’ve done the same thing. Because as much as we like to think we understand and comprehend the inner workings of this thing called grace, we so don’t get it. It is simply not in our human DNA to naturally embody the kind of radical grace that comes from God. Grace that holds in tension a love is extended to both a loyal son and a prodigal one at the same time.

I’ve been asked another interesting question over the years, and that is who was the harder son to love. Was it the one who disowned his father and family and was welcomed home with a party, or the one already home who resisted joining the celebration? I guess I get the temptation to wonder about that sort of thing, but for me it’s a flawed question from the start. Because it presumes something about love – it presumes that real, radical love could be anything but hard.

Love is messy stuff, folks. It is! Love, and the grace that comes from it, it is all about making yourself vulnerable, putting yourself out there in the context of relationship with another human being, someone who could please you as much as disappoint you. The simple truth of it all is that both of my sons are deserving of my love precisely because they are my sons. They might need it for different reasons, they might need it in different ways. But they still need it. We all need it.

And as love leads to grace, that grace leads us to hope. It is the hope of a father that a wayward son maybe, just maybe is home to stay and live anew; and that an elder son can somehow step out of their hurt to see the great, great love that surrounds them. This hope is everything, my friends. Through it, no breach is too big to mend, no pain beyond healing.

Which leads me to the other question I get asked: Did the older brother go to the party? Everyone asks it. And I get it, I do. It makes sense that people want to know, because it really would make for the perfect ending, the final scene of the movie as the credits roll and everything fades to black – this image of the older brother walking through the door, and finding the brother he hadn’t seen in forever, and rushing to embrace him just as I had….

Did he go to the party? It’s a good question, but I’ll tell you a better one: will you? Because that’s the real question, right? Will you? You who have seen God’s amazing grace in some pretty amazing places in pretty amazing ways; you who know in your head, if not quite your heart, that God’s love is truly – truly – for everyone, despite how terrifically scandalous that actually is.

Will you go to the party? I can assure you, your name is on the invitation list. I should know. I put it there. I hope you’ll come.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.