Lost and Found

(A sermon for Lent 4, using the reading below, based on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.)

I once ran away from home. 

I was fed up with being the older sister of a little brother who could do no wrong, and so I decided it might be the best thing for everyone if I left. We lived in a neighborhood of sidewalks and cross streets, and I knew my way around for about six square blocks. I certainly knew the way to my godmother, Maggie’s house, just across the street from my church. 

I slipped quietly through the front door and walked to the corner where I touched my favorite tree. I carefully crossed North Street, then Glasgow Street. I walked right past the two townhouses thrown together that housed my Daddy’s law office, past the grey stone buildings that included a halfway house for recovering alcoholics, and reached Maggie’s front porch.

About that time I remembered she must be at work. 

Now what? 

I was afraid to stay there on the porch alone. Someone might see me and send me home! I opened the screen door and tried the front door, but it was locked. Could I fit in the gap between the two doors and make myself invisible? 

You can know exactly where you are and still be lost.

Like the Prodigal in today’s story, I was afraid to go home, but also like the Prodigal, at that point I didn’t have much choice. You see, I was only five years old.

In my own way, I was trying to sort out the tensions that arise in every family, really in every social group, including churches. I had a sense that I was down and a three-year-old was up, and it felt intolerable! So I bolted.

We all have our ways of responding to tension or disorder. We usually learn them in our families of origin. We may unconsciously adopt our parents’ ways or we may deliberately choose others, but the family rules influence us forever.

Jesus had a way of violating all the rules, especially in the eyes of the religious community.  For the Pharisees, he was in the same category as the prodigal son, because he spent his time hanging around with women of easy virtue, tax collectors who profited from a relationship with the invading Romans and people with diseases considered to be punishment from God. The Pharisees defined all of them as unclean; they were not allowed in the Temple and were therefore closed out from any chance to make amends for their “sins” in the officially accepted ways.  

Aware of those rumblings, Jesus told this story.

It begins with an offense against love and family honor.  

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. (Luke 15:11b-12)

The younger son in essence says:  “I wish you were dead so I could have your money and live my own life!!”  The father somehow loves enough to overlook the hurt and let his boy go.  He loves him enough to let him get lost.

And get lost he does, rather brilliantly.  He loses his family, his country, his religion and his money.  He hangs out with all sorts of disreputable people, and behaves in ways that would bring shame on his family.  He ends up so down and out that he is willing to take a job not only as a servant, which would have been bad enough, but as a swineherd, of all things, feeding and caring for animals considered unclean by the standards of his religion.  

You can know exactly where you are and still be lost. 

Luke writes,

But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' (Luke 15:17-19)

When “he came to himself,” he realized he wanted to be found, even if that meant living as one of his father’s servants.

Unlike many landowners in Jesus’ time, the father in this story is not an absentee landlord. He lives on his property, a property substantial enough that there was actually something significant left even after cashing in half to give money to the younger brother.  Of course not only is the father hurt by this, but the actual prospects of the elder son are as well.  In a situation where both sons were heirs, they would have been expected to work side-by-side and keep the family’s land together.  Not only did the extended family depend upon them, but so did the hired hands and their extended families and the residents of whatever village might have grown up near such a large estate.  

The elder brother would not have been the only person feeling angry; many lives were disrupted by these actions.  There would have been fewer fields on which to rotate crops, tiring the land out more quickly.  Whoever bought the younger son’s share would have become the competition!  As the owner of a large estate, the father would have been expected to look out for the good of all; he doesn’t seem to have done that.

This story, though we have come to know it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is really the Parable of the Loving Father.  We know from the way the father and sons use words with each other that how the words are used matters.  

Here’s the end of the story, after the older brother hears a party is going on:

Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" (Luke 15:28-32)

“This son,” says the older brother, as if he had no relationship to either his father or his brother.  “This brother,” says the father in reply, reminding the elder son that they are all related.  The first denies the family relationships, the second reopens them.  Remember that the story begins, “There was a man who had two sons,” not “There was a young man who left home,” or even, “there were two brothers who didn’t get along very well.”  

This story is about the father.  The father overlooks both offenses, against honor and against love, when he picks up his robes and runs to greet his son.  He “forgets” his own hurt feelings in his joy at this resurrection, and he risks his own honor by offering his protection to a son who shamed family and community.  He is running to greet his boy for all he is worth before he ever hears a word of the carefully rehearsed speech.

You can know exactly where you are and still be lost. 

Can we understand how the elder brother was feeling when he trudged home from work to find a party already going on without him?  I think faithful churchgoers often relate to the elder brother.  Surely our hard work and our faithfulness entitle us to some special treatment!  I was the older sister, and I was the good child, but my brother seemed to get away with everything, while I took the blame. Even as a little girl, I felt the bitterness of the obedient and the
well-behaved, felt it as I boldly crossed two streets all by my little self. 

And so did the Pharisees to whom Jesus told the story in the first place. People use this text to explain that no matter how devout they are, the Pharisees, the judgmental, the rigid, will be left out, not because God bars the door but because they refuse to come in themselves when invited.  

But I don’t think that’s the real conclusion Jesus wants us to reach. Jesus wants us to know that whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum of relationship– from resentful to appreciative or rebellious to repentant–God, the Relieved Father, the Forgiving Mother, loves us all. Whether we identify with the older or the younger sibling, God’s grace overflows in love big enough to embrace us all.

You can know exactly where you are and still be lost. I was, standing flat as I could make myself between the doors. And mad as I was, I couldn’t feel unloved when I saw my mother walking up the block, looking for me.

Here is the Good News: we are all loved and forgiven.  There is no magic formula, no incantation, no sacrifice that we need to make on some particular altar, and no words that must be spoken with our lips pursed just right.  You can know exactly where you are and still be lost. But however lost we have been, we are only a homeward turn away from being found. And God is the one waiting to run down the path and meet us on the way.  Amen.

5 thoughts on “Lost and Found”

  1. Oh lovely. I have always resonated with the older brother (my sermon’s up too). And… I love the script! May I borrow it in three years? ;-))

  2. “You can know exactly where you are and still be lost.”
    Great. Line.

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