Picks from the Pews: “Welcome Home”

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, 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.

Luke 15:1-2; 11-32

There once was a father who lost two sons. Not one son, but two sons.

One son, labeled forever as the prodigal son goes to his father one day, asks for his inheritance” (and remember his Dad is not even dead yet!) so he can leave home and go out on his own. Strange to me, the father doesn’t do what many of us would have done: disown the son… this ungrateful son. Who of us would have put up with such narcissist, selfish behavior? Well, this father—maybe a foolish father does. In fact, he gives this brat what he wants: the father calculates how much his son will receive and divides up the estate and gives half to the prodigal and half to his responsible brother.

You can’t help but think that the Dad was hurt, confused and wondering: how did we raise a child that would turn out like this?! A son that would basically wish his father dead.

This is a lost son— no doubt about it – even before he leaves home. Feel the pathos in that story.

Now  I used to think that the only lost soul in this story was the prodigal.

But one of the things I have come to realize as I’ve lived with this story is that the older brother is lost too… as lost as those Pharisees.

The older son, doesn’t look lost. He is dutiful, faithful, he is by everyone’s judgment: the good son. The boy scout- eagle scout.  He does what is expected. Everything his Father asks. He goes to church every Sunday. He goes to Sunday School…  on mission trips… retreats… serves on committees. He goes to the fields every day to help his Dad out… from dawn to dusk… working and sweating. Hard worker.  Presbyterian material.

And yet, at the end of the story, we see how lost he is. Where do we find him at the end of the story? Sulking and brooding in the dark, alone. His father had pleaded with him to come join the party for his younger brother… after all, it was HIS brother who had come home safe and sound. But all the older brother could hear was the sound of music and dancing… and it must have worked on him… eaten at him… So there he is:  at the end of the story alone… and lost… lost to his anger, his resentment, and self righteousness. How could his father do this? Kill the fatted calf… How could he?

So, do you see, there are two lost sons in this story:

Peter Gomes helpful in describing them and the father:

 “The prodigal is willful, foolish… self-centered… and indulgent. He comes home only when he has nowhere else to go. The older brother is pettier, spiteful, jealous, self-righteous and rather lacking in imagination. I think we should pity the poor father (Gomes said) who has to live with this conspicuous vice and the even more conspicuous virtue; perhaps he should have run away and left the place for the two of them to fight it out.He didn’t though, because the story is about him and we know he won’t run away… We know of his character, his nature, because of what his sons say and do. The prodigal tells us the character of his father when he says at his lowest point, ‘I will arise and go to my father.’ He didn’t expect the fatted calf, but he knew enough to know that his father, by his very nature, by his very character, would not, could not, disavow him… and that his father would be there to receive him. He knew… that his father’s nature was love; and his knowledge was rewarded and returned…

So, too, did the older brother know this and it is on the basis of the father’s love and justice that he complains—for you complain only to someone in whose justice you have confidence. Both sons presume upon what they know to be there and what they know to be theirs: the unconditional love of the father for his own.

This is the heart of the gospel (says Gomes) and of Jesus’ message: no one is too far gone, too low, to abased, too bad to be removed from the unconditional love of God… and no one is too good, too dutiful, too full of rectitude for that love. It is the nature of the Father to love those to whom he has given life… Some will notice that the prodigal son acknowledges his sins, but it is not the confession that triggers the love but the father’s love that triggers the confession.”[1]

So, here is the gospel truth of this story that Jesus was trying to teach those Pharisees and older brother types:

The lost can come home now. All the lost are welcome home. No matter how selfish, self-centered, immoral or sinful you have been… led by your ego and pride into a far country…God is waiting for you to come home. No matter how good or dutiful or moralistic or legalistic you have become in your effort to please God or win God’s approval, led by your moral and spiritual pride… God also invites you to know you never had to earn his love in the first place… you were always loved first by God. God has always loved you… even, maybe especially when you were or are lost…God is always waiting for you to come home… come home… you’ll receive a welcome there.

Philip Yancey tells a version of this story that brought it home to me in a powerful way:

A young girl grows up in Traverse City, Michigan. Her old fashioned parents tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father after an argument. That night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away. She heads to Detroit. Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car—she calls him “Boss’- teaches her a few things that men like. She lives in a penthouse and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring and provincial that she can hardly believe she grew up there.

After a year, the first sickly signs of illness appear and it amazes her how fast the boss can turn mean. Before she knows it, she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on the metal grates outside the big department store.

One night as she lies wake, all of a sudden everything looks different. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to cry. She’s hungry. She needs a fix… All of a sudden an image comes to mind: May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of trees, chasing a tennis ball.

“God, why did I leave” she says to herself. “My dog back home eats better than I do now.” She’s sobbing, and she knows she wants to go home. She calls home and leaves this message on the answering machine:

“Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow.. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.’

It takes 7 hours for the bus to reach Traverse City… and she realizes that there is a flaw in her plan. What if her parents missed the message? And even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago.

Her thoughts bounce back and forth as she prepares a speech for her father:

 “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault. It’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?”

She rehearses those words over and over again.

When the bus finally rolls into the station, she pauses to check her hair and her make up. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips and wonders if her parents will notice. If they are there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepares her for what she sees.

There, in the concrete walls and plastic chairs bus terminal stands a group of forty: brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and a great grandmother to boot. They’re all wearing goofy (corny) party hats and blowing noise-makers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a banner that reads: “Welcome home!”

Out of the crowd of well wishers breaks her dad. She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech:

“Dad, I’m sorry. I know…”

He interrupts her. “Hush child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”

God is like that, says Jesus. God loves us like that and so wants us to know that love… a love that, even when we are lost, will never let us go… a love always, ready to welcome us all home.



[1] From sermon in Strength for the Journey

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