The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
For as long as there have been wars, there have been war stories. I was raised on those stories, sitting on my grandfather’s lap and hearing about his service in postwar Germany. Listening to my uncle and father talk about Vietnam. Listening to you, in this church, telling me your war stories. And for as long as there have been war stories, there have been coming home stories.
Think back to your high school English class and reading “The Odyssey.” It’s really not that complex, it’s just a story about an old soldier trying to get home to see his family after the war. Only he has to fight off sea-monsters. Or, think of the 1946 movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a movie about three young men coming home after World War II and the ups and downs of trying to settle down. There was the 2008 movie, “Hurt Locker,” about coming home from Iraq and that final haunting scene, when the traumatized soldier can barely pick out cereal in the grocery store. I mean, even “Rambo” is just a story about a Vietnam veteran trying to come home. Did you see what I did there? A movie for every generation. Plus a book for nerds like me.
Anyway, why is it so hard to come home? Is it because we’ve changed or because home has changed? Why is the place that ought to be the most comfortable for us is sometimes the hardest place to live? Look, you don’t have to have gone through a war to know this. Going home is hard. Welcoming someone home is hard. Thanksgiving has got to be the most anxious holiday for Americans. Everybody is flying through busy airports and driving through traffic to eat a meal that never really tastes that good and to deal with your family that may or not be on speaking terms. Coming home. I remember having to move back home for the summer between college and seminary, and just that was challenging.
Set upon by the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus tells a story about a homecoming. It’s a beautifully rich parable with meaning and subtext, but it’s like trying to nail Jello to the wall. The parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable of the homecoming, asks more questions than it answers. Why do we leave home? Why do we stay at home? Why do some of us rebel against our parents and some of us don’t? Why are we outraged when someone is forgiven?
Many sermons have been preached about the younger son in this parable – about his repentance, his courage to come again, his honest confession, and his restoration. That’s all true. Many other sermons have been preached about the elder son – his hardness of heart, his anger, his self-righteousness, his entitlement. That’s all true, too.
But for whatever reason I am most drawn in by the father this time around. I am most drawn in by the father because the father knows just how hard it is to come home. See, coming home is hard for both the sons. The younger son has been living the good life. Wasting his days with leisure, spending what he has, until he has no more. He comes to his senses, hungry, forlorn, longing for home though he knows it will be difficult to come home. So he practices his lines of confession, but when he approaches home, his father rushes out of the house, his father runs to him, and welcomes the younger son home.
The elder son has stayed at home all these long years. While the prodigal brother was painting the town red, the dutiful brother stayed at home. When he’s coming in from the fields that day he can hear the celebrating, he can smell the roasting of the fatted calf, he senses that there is a party afoot. And can you believe it? This younger son has been partying on his father’s money for all this time, and now when he comes home broke, his father throws him another party. With a hardened heart, the dutiful son refuses to go home because going home is hard. Again, his father rushes out of the house to meet the elder son, pleading, begging him to come home again.
To come home again. For both his sons the father crosses the threshold of the home to go out meet the sons where they are. The father does not demand that the sons come to him, the father goes to the sons. It’s like he knows just as hard it is to come home so he goes out there, to where they are, so that they come home together.
This is how I have known the Lord Jesus in my own life. Jesus has always been walking with me, as my companion – he has never been waiting for me behind the threshold of the church, he has always been out there, with me, calling me to come home. When I have wasted my days in dissolute living, Jesus has run out to me and brought me home again. When my smugness has clouded my judgment, Jesus has come out to me and invited me to come home again. Sometimes I have wanted to return home to God, sometimes I haven’t, but Jesus has rushed out the front door and brought me home again all the same.
This, in a sense, is who God is. God has not stayed far off, waiting for us in some unassailable heavenly throne room. No, God became human, God became like one of us, God stooped down to the earth and came to us on Christmas. Then God lived like one of us, and died like one of us. And even at his death, we say that Jesus crossed the threshold of hell itself to bring those who were lost back home. Jesus is always going out the front door and bringing us home again with him.
Jesus is busting down the door and rushing out to meet you, wherever you are. Even all the day to death and hell itself. Whether you are sorrowful or smug, whether you’re a saint or a skeptic, Jesus is rushing out the door to meet you. Even you. When the door to door evangelist knocks on your door, asking if you have found Jesus, you can tell him, “no. Because Jesus found me.” That, my friends, is the gospel.
But when you have come home to God, expect things to be different. Because coming home is always hard. Veterans coming home will talk about how things here just don’t seem to matter much any more. I can’t blame them – because how could you care about all the little stuff we care about after having lived through that? That’s what all the coming home stories tell us. That when a soldier comes home some things just don’t matter anymore. Like the soldier overwhelmed by the choices of cereal in the grocery store.
And I believe that when God has brought us home again, we ought to expect that things are different. I mean, if Jesus has rushed out the front door and embraced you to bring you home again, you shouldn’t expect to live with that same old hardened heart. You shouldn’t expect to be as judgmental as you were before. You shouldn’t expect to be as scornful as you were before. You shouldn’t expect to be as smug as you were before. Because you will see that everyone, everyone has been welcomed home; even your brother whom you can barely stand. And if you do continue to live that scornful, judgmental, smug little life, it’s only because you have refused the gracious invitation from God to come home again.
My friends, this Lenten season is not a time to beat yourself up over your sins. No, in fact, it is because we are sinners that the Lord Jesus welcomes us home with God. Look back to that opening line from this gospel passage – Jesus is welcoming sinners and eating them. That is the grace of God; that no matter who you are, or what you’ve done or left undone, the Lord Jesus invites you, even you, to eat with him, to drink with him, and to come home.