I want to tell you a story about Elisabeth. She grew up in a Christian family, the granddaughter and niece of pastors, but during her teenage years she wandered into a spiritual wilderness. Now, her story isn’t that exciting. She didn't get addicted to drugs, engage in criminal activity, or even get arrested for her political activities. In fact, outwardly, she was the epitome of success. No, she went to college, got a good job, and climbed the corporate ladder. And yet, her journey away from God began in a familiar way. She met a young man in high school, fell in love, and in short order her beau displaced God. As their relationship deepened, her faith and her church got pushed further and further away from her heart. Instead, she focused on sports activities, parties, and school, and then on a successful career in the business world.
But then her world began to crumble. After building her life around this young man for thirteen years, even following him from the Bay Area to Southern California, he dumped her for someone else. Heartbroken, she remembered that God had once been the center of her life, and hope began to dawn. The next morning was a Sunday, and she wandered into a nearby Disciples church that I served as associate pastor. She didn't know anything about us, but it was a church, and so on that sunny Sunday Morning, nearly 20 years ago, she went to church again for the first time in many a year, and I had the privilege of representing the Welcoming Father in restoring her to the family of faith.
Of course, her story doesn't end there. She quickly became a significant leader in our church, and in time followed a long suppressed calling to missionary service. Giving up a successful career in business, she followed her heart first to Haiti and then to Taiwan, where she met another young missionary, whom she married. Together they continue to serve in Taiwan.
In spite of the significant differences between Elisabeth's story and the one Jesus tells about the Prodigal Son, but both stories illustrate God’s unconditional and welcoming love. As Don Sarton reminded us last week, it’s a matter of an open hand and not a closed fist. While the moral guardians complained that Jesus’s practice of dining with sinners and tax collectors eroded the moral fabric of his people, he saw it quite differently.
THE WILDERNESS ROUTE
Christians, like those moral guardians, sometimes have problems with things like sin and grace. We like things black and white, so that if you break the law, you should be punished. But again, Jesus has different ideas. He tells a story about a Dad and two brothers, the younger of whom is the lead character. The younger brother can’t wait to get his inheritance, because he wants to get on with his life and have some fun while he’s still young enough to enjoy his life. So, he asks his Dad to divide the inheritance now, before his Dad dies.
In many ways this was an unthinkable request, because first-century Jewish sons didn't ask their fathers for an early distribution of the estate. To do so meant telling your father: I wish you were dead. Sons just didn’t say those kinds of things, at least not without getting disinherited really quickly. But to our surprise, the father agrees to the request, and so, like a college student heading out on a spring break trip to Acapulco, this youngster headed off to a distant land to have the time of his life. He threw caution to the wind and quickly squandered everything. Unfortunately, famine hit that country, which isn't a good thing when you’re broke and homeless. With nowhere to go and too embarrassed to return home, he hired himself out to a pig farmer. Now, you might say, "good for him, he took the initiative and got a job." But, to a Jew, taking a job tending pigs was worse than death. And then things got even worse. Because the job didn’t pay well enough to put food on the table, he began to covet the pods the pigs ate.
He had finally hit bottom, and so, sitting there in the pig sty, with his stomach grumbling, he remembered that his father's hired help was better off than he was. So he decided to return home and ask for forgiveness and a place among the day laborers.
He’d struck out in search of his fortune, but he returned home like a dog with his tail between his legs. He’d humiliated himself, and now at best he could expect probation, so that if he worked hard for several years, his Dad might welcome back into the family. But that was a long shot. Still, what else could he do? So, he began to rehearse a great apology and a request that his father hire him as a day laborer.
If you were hearing this story for the first time, you might expect his father to make him grovel and beg for forgiveness. But to the son's utter amazement the father is standing at the gate waiting for his return. When he sees the son coming up the road, this father throws convention to the wind, picks up his robes, and sprints toward his son, and then throwing his arms around the startled young man, the father kisses the son. He doesn't wait for the apology or the request. He doesn’t ask where the son has been or what he’s been up to. Instead, he sends for his best robe, ring, and a pair of shoes, to place on this disreputable son. Then he ordered that the fatted calf be slaughtered and a party be held in honor of this son’s return.
Now this reception didn’t please everyone. Like the religious authorities who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors, the older son, who has been hard at work in the fields, is furious. You really can't fault him. It doesn’t seem fair or just. After all, he’d stayed home, worked hard, and devoted himself to his father, but now his father was restoring his brother to the family, which meant that his own inheritance would now be even more diminished. When he heard the music and smelled the food, he felt humiliated and used. He was so angry that he refused to go to the party, even after his father pleaded with him. In fact, he rebuked his father for his scandalous behavior. And wouldn’t you?
His father simply answered, "Everything I have is yours, but we have to rejoice now that my lost son has returned." Though it may seem unfair, God's grace is deep and wide. God loves the devoted ones, but as Jesus says in the parable of the lost sheep: "There is more joy in heaven over the sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Lk 15:7). This is the good news: God’s arms are always open wide and welcoming to all who would return!
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2007