The Return Journey
Scripture: Luke 15:11-24
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
The year’s Lenten sermon series is called “The Journey.” As you have often heard me say, it’s important for us to remember that Christianity is not so much a belief system as it is a relationship. Jesus didn’t come simply to give us more information about God. The Hebrew Scriptures have a wealth of information about God. But, beyond his teaching, the coming of Jesus made available to us a unique intimacy; an up close and personal experience of God; an intimate fellowship with our heavenly Father. And so, being a Christian is, fundamentally, about our relationship with God through Christ. But, as any of us know, relationships require ongoing work. Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t like checking a box – male or female; adult or minor; Republican or Democrat. Being a disciple of Jesus involves a lifelong, continually dynamic and growing relationship with God through Christ; a relationship that needs to be nurtured through purposeful actions, priorities and decisions.
And so, we are on a lifelong journey. But sometimes we drift off course. Sometimes we discover that our journey is not drawing us closer to God; but we are being drawn away. It is, in fact, quite easy to drift slowly off course over time. Sometimes we fail to recognize that the world has lured us away with its many distractions. We have slowly become prodigals; wasting our time, our energy, our resources on things that cannot feed our hunger and our deepest longings.
I have friends back in Dayton, Tom and Sandy. Tom has absolutely no sense of direction. Nowadays, it’s pretty tough for anyone to get lost since most of our phones and/or cars come with navigational programs. But years ago, finding our way wasn’t that easy. And so, years back, Tom and Sandy were going on vacation. As is often the case with vacations, preparations to head out of town are exhausting and so, as the journey began, Tom volunteered to drive so Sandy could take a nap. But before Sandy closed her eyes, she made Tom promise: if, at any point, he needed her for directions, he shouldn’t hesitate to awaken her. And so Sandy drifted off to sleep while Tom, for his part, drove the course. Sandy slept longer than she’d anticipated and when she woke up, it was only a matter of seconds before she saw an interstate sign. Somehow – without Tom even being able to explain how – they were on the wrong interstate traveling the opposite geographical direction from their destination. And that is how it goes for us, sometimes, in our spiritual journey.
This morning’s scripture is the well-known parable known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the last in a trilogy of parables Jesus tells to a diverse audience. By this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is well into his ministry and drawing large crowds wherever he goes. Among the crowds are those who are notorious sinners: tax collectors and prostitutes. But there were others and I’d guess they were likely to be hanging around the fringes of the crowd lest they sully themselves by close proximity to these other dubious characters. They were the good religious folk. So, as I say, Jesus tells this parable to a mixed audience.
Now I suspect we most often think of this parable as intended for the worst of the worst; those who, in our vernacular, have “hit rock bottom.” But here is the thing: research tells us that, in our post-modern American culture, those folks who hit rock bottom will rarely look to the church to toss them a rope and pull them back up. They are far more likely to go to AA or a similar group to find that lifeline of support, compassion, availability and accountability. So, lucky for us, those tax collectors and prostitutes weren’t the only ones in the crowd that day that Jesus told this parable. Lucky for us, there were good religious folk, folks like us.
Jesus’ parable is the story of a young man who, foolishly, scorns the blessings of home and family and wanders off to a foreign place where he wastes his best resources on things that offer no more than a fleeting sense of fun. He has terribly dishonored and brought pain to his father. By demanding his inheritance ante-mortem, it is as if he has told his father he wished he were dead. It is as if he has announced that the money is worth more to him than his father’s life. Furthermore, it is likely the “inheritance” is, at least primarily, property, land; land that would have been in the family for generations. It is a sacred blessing; but one that is despised by this son who cashes it in so he can go to some exotic, foreign land and waste it on just having fun. But he has poor timing because right about the time his money runs out, the bottom drops out of things. There is a famine in the land. Probably the closest comparison we can make to this man’s situation is to imagine that you quit your job and were living recklessly spending all your money and it ran out at the same time the economy collapsed with the banking crisis in 2008.
This wayward, reckless son, finds himself in desperate straits; he reconsiders, comes to himself, and returns home. He realizes he has so badly dishonored his father that he doesn’t – or at least he shouldn’t – stand a chance at receiving forgiveness from his father… yet alone to be restored to his former position as son and heir. But he comes to himself and realizes even his father’s slaves are in better shape than he is right now. So, he repents; rehearsing his confession of sin and changing the direction of his life; choosing to leave that meaningless, hopeless place and return to his home and his father.
Now, as I say, we often hear this parable speaking to the worst of the worst and yet, I’d suggest that, through the course of our life’s journey, many of us have had a time or two when we have drifted off course. Maybe we are off course right now. There is or was something out there that captured our attention and we began to pursue it with the greatest diligence. Unlike the son in our parable who wasted his inheritance to fund a dissolute, immoral lifestyle; I suspect many of us get drawn off course by distractions that are not inherently sinful: demanding jobs and careers, our children’s athletic or artistic pursuits, advanced education, even those volunteer things we do that garner the praise of others. That praise and appreciation can be intoxicating. None of those things is sinful; not bad or sketchy. All are good, in fact… unless they begin to consume us. It is easy to drift off course. And then one day, perhaps even this day, we realize that we are spiritually hungry and that there is nothing around us to eat. We are spiritually starving. And all those hours of over-time, all those games and projects, all those special events; all that running here and there has worn us out and left us wanting. Suddenly we realize that worship, prayer, reading scripture, quiet times of reflection have all been pushed aside and that, most sadly of all, we have pushed God to the side. We find we just don’t think about God much anymore. He is no longer at the center of our lives; but he has been pushed to the outer edges by something else that has taken center stage. Now please don’t misunderstand me. As I say, none of those things I’ve named are sinful or wrong or bad. And attending worship – or praying and reading the bible – are not something magical. Simply going through the motions, engaging in the activities, doesn’t necessarily reorient or mind and heart any more than a weekly date with your spouse guarantees a healthy marriage. Worship and the Lord’s Prayer, for example, aren’t talismans that ward off spiritual malaise. And I hardly think God has some heavenly abacus he uses to track our church attendance.
But, at least from my experience, here is how we will know if we’ve drifted off course: if, like that prodigal son, we find ourselves hungry and look around and realize that there is nothing around us that can satisfy that hunger. There is a famine in this land where we now abide and we have come up dry and empty. But we may, like the prodigal, come to ourselves and realize that there is a profound discontinuity between who we have become and who we truly are. To truly live, we must go back home to the Father.
You know, the word prodigal is often misused in the vernacular. Its actual meaning is one who is lavish to the point of being wasteful. The prodigal son wasted the best of his resources; the wealth the father had given him, on things that had no enduring value. Likewise, sometimes we waste the best of our time, our skills, our attention, our money and especially our energy on things that have no enduring value.
You know, the New Testament word for repentance means to turn around and change direction; make a course correction, we might say. It means to reorient our lives; to move in a direction that draws us into the arms of our heavenly Father; it is about whole hearted devotion to God.
And that is what the season of Lent is about. Lent is time set aside to fine tune the course of our Christian journey. Across a vast array of Christian denominations, we hear that common Ash Wednesday invitation to “observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; by reading and meditating on the Word of God.”[i]
Friends, God loves you deeply and longs for you to be close to him. If this morning you realize you’ve drifted away from home and drifted off course; if you realize that God is not at the center of your life but somewhere out there on the margins; if you realize that you are no longer particularly aware of God’s presence and that you have a hunger the things around you cannot fill; then today is a great day to come back home. To correct the course of your life’s journey so each step brings you closer to the heavenly Father. To re-engage with those basic spiritual practices like prayer, study and meditation on scripture, worship (both here and at home throughout your week), and simply taking a little time each day to reflect on God’s presence in your life. Let us all come to ourselves and know with renewed joy that there is no place better to be than in the presence of our heavenly Father. Amen.
[i] The New Handbook of the Christian Year; Hickman, Saliers, Stookey and White. Abingdon Press; 1992. Page 112.
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