Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Unconditional Welcome


11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’”

I love the movie, “Shawshank Redemption.”  I could watch that over and over.  And in fact, if you ask my wife, she says that I do indeed watch that movie over and over.

The same is true with “Casablanca.”  Or “Star Wars.’ Or any of the “Star Trek” movies – well, at least the ones that have even numbers.  Or is it the ones that are odd numbers?

Whatever.  I like to hear stories over and over.

But once in a while, even I watch a movie and think, “I’ve seen this one enough.”

Having worn out a video tape of the old movie, “Wizard of Oz,” there came a moment when I thought – I’m done.  I’ve seen too much of the yellow brick road.

I think the New Testament lesson is at risk of becoming such an experience.

The prodigal son – becomes like one of those movies that is on every channel for weeks on end. 

Yes – we know all about it. 

Like watching the Star Wars movies over and over, at some point there is no surprise at hearing the evil Darth Vader tell the young hero, Luke Skywalker, “I am your father.”

And at some point, the words become not just expected, but boring.

The shock value has worn off. Just say the opening line, "There was a man who had two sons," and we know where this one is going.

The story has all the bland predictability of an old black and white movie that is shown every single Christmas Eve. 

There is, in this story, a horrible moment in which the son says to his loving father, "Give me my share of the inheritance.”

But those words, that essentially mean, “I’m tired of waiting for you to die, I want your money now” leave us unruffled because we’ve heard the story soooo many times.

Fear not; the boy is coming home. He always does. The road back from the far country is paved and well lit, and we have traveled it many times.
 What would have happened if he had not come back home?
            Have you noticed that in recent years movie DVDs have offered alternative endings?
            Many studios now produce and film more than one ending to a movie because they don’t want the word to leak out and for the movie to be spoiled by everyone knowing the ending before the movie is released.  For example, in a murder mystery that has 4 or 5 suspects in which it is not revealed until the end who done it, the DVD will have 4 or 5 alternative endings and only one will be shown in the theaters.

            What would it have been like if the Prodigal Son story had ended differently?

            What would have happened had the Prodigal Son never returned home?

            Actually, I saw that alternative ending lived out once.

            Before coming to Grace Covenant, I was the pastor of a church that did a lot of work with the homeless.  Every day they would come to the church where they could get a breakfast and a bag lunch.   There were showers, and hair cuts, and doctors and nurses.  We offered occasional job training and drug and alcohol recovery. 

            Occasionally, I would do funerals for these folks.
            Tincan was one such fellow.  Most of these homeless guys had street names like Tincan, Kick Stand, Cowboy, and such.  Tincan walked the streets picking up aluminum cans and bottles which he would then sell for a few pennies at a recycling center. 

            In the 4 or 5 years I knew Tincan, I don’t think he ever held any other job.  Unlike others who would sometimes work on fishing boats in season, or do occasional yard work, collecting trash was about all Tincan could handle. 

            From time to time he would show up for breakfast at the church drunk, which meant we would ban him from the program for a few days.  He’d get sober, and then not too many weeks, get drunk.

            He didn’t own a stitch of clothing.  He’d come to the church and pick up some clothing and then, a week or so later, come to the church to trade those dirty clothes in for another set of shirt, pants, and underwear. 

            In December, he would come to the church for our Christmas party and the church would give him and everyone else a gift.  Last year it was a pair of shoes.  Brand new shoes.  He kept his for a day or two and then sold them for a bottle of booze.

            Tincan was a man who wasted his life away. 

            Every opportunity that came along that might have offered a hope of something better, he wasted.

            And one day, he died.

            On the day I did his funeral, the church was full of humble looking folks – mostly homeless men and women, or at best, fishermen and part time motel workers struggling with poor paying jobs.         

            There were two people who seemed out of character with the rest of the group.  A man and a woman.  They were both dressed very stylishly. 
            This was Tincan’s family.

            His Mom and Dad.

            At most funerals, you might have one or two friends get up and share some stories about the deceased, and usually they were funny stories or heart warming stories.  And at these funerals I did for the homeless, pretty much every single person there would get up and speak.  And the stories were great.  People would laugh and smile as they remembered the deceased. 

            And Tincan’s funeral was no different.  People stood up to remember his jokes, or how he often helped others. 

            Then his mother got up.

            She called Tincan by a different name.


            Keith was a straight A student.  He was the quarterback for his football team in high school.  He was a student at Purdue.  Earned a degree – with honors. 

            Who would have thought.

            We had no idea.

            Mom shared her experience the first time her son came home drunk.  She talked about how he would go through her purse to steal money for drugs.  She shared about having to hide her credit cards and money. 

            She talked about bailing him out of jail. 

            And about bailing him out again.

            And again.

            When she told us how hard it was to eventually leave him in jail overnight so he could wake up sober behind bars instead of in his own bed, she was in tears.

            She was telling the story almost in a whisper when she got to the point about seeing Keith leave home for the last time.

            For 16 years she waited for him to return. 

But he never did. 

            From time to time she would get a note or a phone call from Keith, letting his parents know where he was living, and that he was working, making money collecting cans and bottles for recycling.  He talked about the great friendships he had at the church where he ate breakfast.

            Mom would often look out the window, waiting, hoping, for Keith to come home.

            But he never did.

            And one day, it was too late. 

            Keith Ingle, AKA Tin Man, died on September 28, 2012 at the age of 44.

The alternative ending of the Prodigal Son is not a happy ending.

We know how it ends in the Bible, but this is how it so often ends in real life.

The lost all too often stay lost, while we are the righteous children, safe in our Father’s house, singing our familiar hymns, greeting our friends in church, enjoying our cookies in fellowship hall.

And outside this church are the brothers and sisters who have wasted the love of God and traded it for something less.  They are lost and they are hurting.

And what do we do?

We keep gathering here, safe in our Father’s house, singing our familiar hymns, greeting our friends in church, enjoying our cookies in fellowship hall.

The story of the Prodigal Son is about a son who is prodigal –  do you know what that word means?

How would you use the word prodigal today, other than using it about this story, this parable?

I’ve been asking people all week what they think that word means and I’ve gotten answers like, “repentant,” “lost,” “sinful,” “unloving,” all of which is true – but if you look in the dictionary, the word prodigal is defined in this way:

Prodigal.  Noun.  Recklessly wasteful.

And that is certainly true of the son in the parable.  He is wasteful of his inheritance.  Wasteful of his life.  And most of all, wasteful of his father’s love.

I grew up at a time when everyone went to church.  It was expected.  On Sunday it was not just Chic Fil A that was closed.  The library, the grocery stores, the gas stations, they were all closed. 

If you needed a prescription filed, you had to call the pharmacist at home and he or she would meet you at the drug store.

Everyone was at church.

Now, look around your neighborhoods.  People are staying home.  They are not seeking God.

Our brothers and sisters have asked for their inheritance early, and they have left for a far country.

This parable may have become so familiar that we are bored by it, but stop and think about the context in which it is found.  Luke chapter 15 tells three parables. 

There is the parable of the lost sheep.  The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in order to look for the lost sheep.  I’m not shepherd, but that always struck me as a sign of a dumb shepherd.  You have 99 good sheep right there --- stick with them.  Don’t lose them.  But no.  In the parable, the shepherd leaves the 99 all alone, while he searches for the one lost lamb.  He finds it, and he is filled with joy.

Then there is the story of the lost coin.  The woman turns the house upside down looking high and low for the lost coin. Look, I’ve lost coins in my house.  Big deal.  It’ll show up.  But no – this woman turns the house upside down until she finds it.  And when she finds it, she is filled with joy and throws a party.

Then there is this story of the lost son who comes back and is found.  And the father is filled with joy!

In each story, there is joy when the lost is found.

You know how we react when the lost is found?  Do you know how we react when a sinner comes back to God?

It’s hard to say.  It doesn’t happen often enough.  In fact, when was the last time someone who was not raised in the church came for a baptism?

Regina joined my church many years ago.  She was homeless and jobless.  When she did work, it was at a local strip club.  She had been arrested for prostitution.  Then one day, she joined the church and was baptized.  She is now employed as an assistant manager in a restaurant.  Been doing that for almost 5 years now.  She is no longer a member of the church where I used to serve – she moved in order to get a job but one of the first things she did when she moved was join a church.  She is now an ordained elder.

Do you know how people responded when she joined?

People whispered.  They murmured.  She’s immoral.  We can’t have her near our children – and certainly not near our men!

No one rejoiced.

It’s time for us to welcome those who are out there. 

To welcome unconditionally.

It’s time for us to go out and find “them,” whoever that word “them” may define.  Not just the ones who look like us, talk like us, smell like us. 

It’s time for us to become prodigal with our love for the lost – prodigal.  You remember what the dictionary says that word means?

“Recklessly wasteful. Abundantly generous.”

We’ve been too stingy with our invitations to others to come back to God.  Let’s get reckless.  Let’s invite to the point of abundant generosity with God’s love and with our invitations to people to come to Christ.

At a recent presbytery meeting, the preacher for the day was the new president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Stephen Hayner.  He is also the professor for evangelism at the seminary there. 

He says he is a shy person, so it is ironic that he should be called by God to be the professor of evangelism, but he is.

He says it is time for us to invite people back to Christ.  Even when it is uncomfortable.

Hayner talks about this fellow he saw at the health club – every Monday, Wednesday and Friday they worked out at the same time.  They dressed out in the same locker room at the same time, right side by side. 

As Hayner put it, one day he realized he had seen this man naked three times a week for 4 years and didn’t even know his name.  So he introduced himself and invited him to church. 

It happened that the invitation came at a time when this man’s life was falling apart.  He was ready to come to Christ.  And he did.

You see people every day.  When was the last time you invited them to come to Christ?

And if you invite people – are you just inviting the person who looks like you, talks like you, dresses like you – or are you inviting people with reckless abundance?  Are you inviting anyone and everyone?

It is time for us to not only SEEK the lost, but to unconditionally welcome them back with joy and thanksgiving. 

When people come into this church who look like they don’t belong, let’s say to them, “Thank God, you’ve come back. We have to celebrate and rejoice, because you were lost, and now you have been found.”

Copyright 2013
Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.
Ministers may use all or part of this sermon in their own ministries.