Sermon January 24th, 2010

The Prodigal Sons, Luke 15:1-2,11-32, Romans 8:31-39, Psalm 139

Can people change?

The story we are marinating ourselves in this month (The Prodigal Sons from Luke 15:1-2,11-32) is on one level the story of a sons desire to change. First he desires independence, and then he desires rescue. When he finds himself without a home, he is also without a base, without a sense of balance. He’s ashamed and lost, he feels judged (by his own self and others), he’s uncomfortable, he’s vulnerable, he has no confidence, no dignity, no sense of self anymore! Who is he? He is the playboy immigrant loser that everybody knows but only because nobody cares. I imagine him being jittery, defensive, closed up. He’s fighting for survival, and unable to trust anyone.

I imagine his homeless pysch profile to match those of homeless men and woman today, or perhaps recent immigrants. The long term health of most immigrants depends on their ability to re-form the customs, cultures and practices of their native land. Food plays a key role. Alone and ostracized, he has nothing! And the food he longs for is precisely that food which his native country has deemed abominable.

And so, what to do? His inner dialogue with that question centers on one goal: survival. Clearly, his dialogue was not a dialogue of transformation, but of survival. He’s not concerned with reconnecting with his culture or family, but merely putting food on his plate. He tells himself, “I can’t be a son anymore – I’ve blown my one opportunity – but I can be a hired servant.” With that, the prodigal decides to return home with his ego tucked between his legs.

And isn’t that just like us? Don’t we also just want to survive! We want to do just enough to make it, just enough to stay afloat. And so we pray just enough. We go to church just enough. We give just enough. We love just enough. Just enough to survive, just enough to feel good, just enough to be good enough, or better perhaps, than them. Let’s leave the radical stuff for the radicals! Transformation? Seems kind of pricey. Transformation is something this guy can’t even fathom, perhaps doesn’t even want! Survival. Enough. Being the hired servant. These are his goals.

Our goals are all too familiar. And so we dismiss as craziness thoughts of quitting our job to volunteer fulltime for disaster relief: trading deep transformation for survival. We dismiss as absurd Jesus call to sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor: trading trust in God for survival. We dismiss as weak the notion that we need to put to death our own rights and anger, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with our wife or kids, friends or father: trading true love for survival. We dismiss as being radical the idea of sharing our faith with people or, inviting them to church: trading faithfulnessfor security.

Survival. Enough. Being the hired servant. Do we genuinely want transformation? Jesus knew our incredible ability to want less than the best for ourselves. At one point he asks a seemingly ridiculous question of a man who’d been sick his entire life: do you want to be made well?

Perhaps it’s appropriate to pause and ask ourselves again, do we genuinely want transformation? Henri Nouwen pointedly answers, “While God wants to restore me to the full dignity of sonship, I keep insisting that I will settle for being a hired servant (The Return of the Prodigal Son, pg 53).”

Can people change? On the hit new TV show Modern Family Wednesday January 20th, 2010, this was the key question. And the shows’ narrator answered the question with these poignant words, “I don’t know. People are who they are. Give or take 15%. That’s how much they can change if they really want to.”

And so it was with his 15% in his hand, that the son approaches the father, that we approach our God: looking for just enough.

But while he was still far off, the father catches sight of him walking down the lane and runs out to him. The Father is of course completely unaware about this inner dialogue. He has no idea the kid is willing to settle, willing just to survive. And, thankfully, he doesn’t care! All he wants is his kid to come home! While the son has one goal in mind, the Father has something else entirely in mind. And so with gracious indifference, the Father sweeps aside the sons’ ridiculous proposal of a non-transformed servants’ life, embraces him, kisses him, and instantly – jarringly – gives the boy what he could not fathom and was not prepared to receive. He gives him his life back.

“Welcome Home my son!” he shouts for all to hear! And in so doing, he conjures a long tradition of images associated with God’s love as parental and domestic. Here’s a sample:

  • Psalm 90:1  “Lord, you have been our dwelling place  in all generations.”
  • Galatians: “God sent his Son … so that we might receive adoption as children. 
    And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
  • John 14: “In my father’s house there are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you!”
  • Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your spirit? Wherever I go, you are there.”
  • Psalm 91: “You who live in the shelter of the Most High,  who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress;  my God, in whom I trust.”

This was not a boy who had to prove himself, defend his actions, repent with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. No public displays of humility necessary, no period of probation. None of that! The kid wants survival. But the Father? The Father gives instant and unreserved transformation: “You are my son, the Beloved!” he seems to say as he showers him with a ring for his finger, sandals for his feet, a robe, and kills the fatted calf for the celebration at hand.

Can people change? No, to be honest with you, I don’t think we can change. Maybe 15%, give or take.

However, I do believe with all my heart that we can be changed. We are changed by the welcome of the father.

My own story has played this out many times. Whenever I am down in the valley, God has responded with the gift of Home and transformation.

How does Home feel? Let me tell you one story of when I felt at home. I remember when I proposed to Hannah this overwhelming sensation that I could finally rest. I could stop. I was suddenly and graciously removed from the need and desire to play the dating game. I had been accepted, enjoyed and appreciated for who I was. And I had found someone I accepted, enjoyed and appreciated exactly as she was. No more searching. No more trying. No more proving. Just being. Relax. Home is acceptance, being ok with yourself to the point of being able to relax, and rest. Home is the place you can stop.

Above all, home is a celebration! We see this throughout scripture, Old and New. That God and God’s people celebrate the goodness of the Lord. We see it over and again, God celebrating his relationship with us, and our desire to be welcomed into his family at the deepest, most intimate and responsible levels. In all three of the stories Jesus tells in response to the religious leaders exclusivist posture in Luke 15:1-2, Jesus highlights the joy in heaven over even one repentant sinner.

Let us celebrate the love of God for us, a love that welcomes us home, relieves our fears, calms our doubts, quiets our worries. It is a love that is purely unconditional. A love that, upon our creation shouted into the cosmos, “It is very good!!!”

My friends: Welcome Home. Welcome home.

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