A message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church – UCC
based on the theme: Where Your Journey Meets Jesus
March 27, 2022
LUKE 15: 11-32 NRSV
11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 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. 21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”
They say you can’t go home again. I think what they mean is when you do, the reception you expect is never the reception you get. And mostly I think they mean it is worse, much, much worse than you were hoping. Everyone wants to go home as the “conquering hero.” But if you are coming home and you have been, well, over to the rougher side of life, you may expect the reception to be a little less triumphant. Our story this morning is about a homecoming. Have you ever gone home and found the reception different than you expected? As you look back is there maybe a sense that right there in that unexpected reception might have been the very time on your journey when you met Jesus?
This morning’s story is the quintessential coming home story. We call it the story of the Prodigal Son. It is probably one of the most well-known Bible stories. I almost didn’t bother to read it to you. But here’s the question I have: can we still learn from this story? Can we find something that helps us on our life journey? The truth is we are all at some point on our journey home.
As familiar as I am with this story I learned a thing or two as I reread it again. One of the things I learned came as I thought about the very name of this story. The “Prodigal” Son: the word prodigal doesn’t even appear in the story. It is a title given after the fact. You probably know that the word “prodigal” means “wasteful.” As I thought about this story once again the question came to me, which character was the most wasteful? Was the younger son really the most “prodigal?” Or was the Father for wasting his love and forgiveness on this younger son? Or – and this is one I hadn’t really thought about before: was the older son really the most prodigal?
You may say, “phhht, Bruce, of course it was the younger son.” Now, I know that the younger son is obviously wasteful of his father’s money and love, but let me ask you this: doesn’t the older son waste that love and money just as much, even though he didn’t go anywhere to waste it? Think about it – the older son is really no more appreciative of his father than the younger son. He resents his father’s actions more overtly than the younger son. He refuses to come in to the house when the younger son is dying to come back and is willing to settle for camping in the servants quarters, let alone get back his bedroom in his father’s mansion.
And remember this, the father treats both sons equally. He goes out to meet both, an act that was seen as shameful, a profound dishonor according to the customs of the day. He loves both these sons even though neither of them seems to exhibit a bit of real gratitude for their lives or their father’s love and generosity. Nobody but a father would waste his love on these two ingrates.
Some would say, “Oh, the younger son had a change of heart! He “came to himself,” he “repented” of his behavior. Well, actually, that’s an assumption. The Scripture does not say that explicitly. I know a lot of us feel his return home speech was little more than another manipulative act of a selfish, narcissistic personality. And we are left hanging, wondering if the older son has a change of heart. He makes it clear he won’t even claim this wandering soul as a brother. He speaks of him to his father as “this son of yours.”
Jesus really knows how to nail real family relationships doesn’t he? What family doesn’t have someone who has the characteristics of a rebellious, self-absorbed younger son? And what family doesn’t have a corresponding “older brother” full of self-righteousness? And there is almost always a parent whose broken heart is willing to embarrass herself or himself, shame themselves really, in welcoming both back with equal hope for reconciliation.
Dr. Thomas Long writes, [“Is There Joy…,” day1.org, March 21, 2004], “Many years ago I read an essay in which a woman was reminiscing about her father. She said that when she was young, she was very close to her father. The time she experienced this closeness the most was when they would have big family gatherings with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. At some point, someone would pull out the old record player and put on polka records, and the family would dance. Eventually, someone would put on the ‘Beer Barrel Polka;’ and before long, her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘I believe this is our dance’ and they would dance. One time, though, when she was a teenager and in one of those teenaged moods and the ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ began to play and her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘I believe this is our dance,’ she snapped at him, ‘Don't touch me! Leave me alone!’ And her father turned away and never asked her to dance again.”
The daughter admitted that her relationship with her father was “difficult” all through [her] teen years. When she would come home late from a date, her father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep, wearing an old bathrobe, and she would snarl at him, “What do you think you're doing?” He would look at me with sad eyes and say, “I was just waiting on you.”
When she went away to college she said she was “so glad to get out of his house and away from him and for years I never communicated with him, but as I grew older, I began to miss him.”
Some years later she heard about the annual family gathering and she decided to take that journey home. Of course, at some point somebody put the records on and before long, someone put on the “Beer Barrel Polka.” She drew a deep breath, walked over to her father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I believe this is our dance.” He looked up at her and said, “I’ve been waiting on you.”
Look down that road. On your journey right now, do you see that figure coming your way? That is the God who comes to us even when we are still far away, runs to us even, and says to us, “I’ve just been waiting on you… everything I have is yours.”
And another thing I learned as I thought about this story, and the many observations and interpretations and understandings and misunderstandings of this story, I find myself asking the questions the story doesn’t answer… did the older son come back in? Did the younger brother and the older brother ever reconcile? Because whatever the story tells us it leaves a lot for us to decide for ourselves.
We are living in a time when both religiously and socially there are deep rifts among us as sisters and brothers. Resentments run deep. Misunderstandings, assumptions about intentions abound. We watch each other’s actions and call each other names and refuse to refer to each other as family. But, much as each of us might want to claim “injustices,” and as much as Jesus spoke and acted to call out the injustices in his day, this story reminds us that our religion, our politics, our nationalities, our races, our genders don’t keep God from loving us, wanting us to be aware of our common denominator: humans.
But more than ever it seems we are divided into “us” versus “them.” For most of “us” we are willing to be ok with differences and individuality. It seems to most of “us” that “they” want everyone to be like “them.” In a funny way that is what we want too, isn’t it? I have to admit, to me, most of “us” are ok with differences, where it feels like “they” aren’t. We don’t like it when others call us names or reject us because they don’t approve of who we approve of. But we generally don’t become violent or unforgiving. Generally. So the challenge is what can we do about those who reject our vision for life? What can we do about those who react violently, negatively to the hope we have for the future, for our world, for our lives? This story doesn’t answer it totally. But it reminds us, whether we, or others, see us as prodigals, or fools, or worse – and whether we believe others are prodigal “older bro-types,” God continues to beg us to complete our journey home. Come in, come home, join the party that God is throwing for us with the finest beef, the best wines and beverages, the freshest produce and the desserts, oh, my the desserts, flan and key lime pie, chocolate souffle and baked Alaska, chocolate chip cookies the size of a dinner plate, and ice cream, oh, my, ice cream in every flavor ever imagined, and some you never imagined.
The party is on my friends. The Eternal Parent has always had an open-door policy when it comes to celebrating! And all She has is ours, always has been. So maybe the best choice is whatever our brother or sister decides, we decide to celebrate. We decide to party. And if that brother or sister shows up, hand him or her a glass, toast them, hug them, and laugh at how foolish we have been when, after all… we are family. AMEN.