Saturday, September 10, 2016

Welcome Back -- Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

There are some movies I love to watch over and over and over and over.  My wife often wonders just how many times can a man watch “Shawshank Redemption,” or “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 been down that yellow brick road one too many times.
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, a murder mystery that has 4 or 5 suspects in which it is not revealed until the end who done it, the studio might film 4 or 5 alternative endings and only one will be shown in the theaters.  That way, no one who works in the studio can reveal the ending. But when the DVD comes out, those alternate endings become one of the extra scenes you can watch.

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

          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.
          Tin Man was one such fellow.  Most of these guys had street names like Tin Man, Kick Stand, Cowboy, and such.  Tin Man 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 Tin Man, I don’t think he ever held any other job.  Unlike others who would sometimes work on fishing boats in season, or do yard work, collecting trash was about all he could handle. 

          From time to time he would show up 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.

          In December, Tin Man would come to the church for our Christmas party and the church would give him and everyone else a gift.  One 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.

          Tin Man was a man who wasted his life away. 
          And that is actually what the word prodigal means – something that is of value that is wasted.  We think of it as repentant or someone who returns or restores a relationship – no prodigal means wasted.
          And Tin Man wasted his life.

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

          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 Tin Man’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 everyone would get up and speak.  And the stories were great.  People would laugh and smile as they remembered the deceased. 

          And Tin Man’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 Tin Man by a different name.  One we had never heard before.


          Keith was a straight A student.  He was the quarterback for his football team in high school.  He was a student at Purdue University

          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.

          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, and by the time she got to this part, she was in tears.

          She had become the father in the Parable who had to let his son go his way – for nothing he could do, or she could do, would change the lost son.

          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 the next16 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.

          And he never did.

          And one day, it was too late. 

          Keith Ingle, AKA Tin Man, got drunk on September 28th, 2012, and fell asleep on the beach.  The tide came in, and Keith was too drunk to realize he was being drowned.  He died 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. Here we are - 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.

I grew up at a time when everyone went to church.  It was expected.  On Sunday it was not just Chick 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.  Not one, but three.

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.

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.  I’ve lost my car keys, wallet, credit cards, shoes!  50% a a pair of socks!  Big deal.  It’ll show up.  But no – this woman turns the house upside down until she finds it.

Then there is this story of the lost son who comes back and is found.

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 came to the church and few Sundays later, she was baptized. 

She is now employed as an assistant manager in a restaurant.  Been doing that for several years now.  And -- she is now an ordained elder.

Do you know how people responded the day she was baptized and joined the church?

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

Hardly anyone rejoiced. 

Like the older son who looks at the returning son with contempt, we think – who is she who does not speak our language, eat the kind of foods we eat, who is she who is so different?  We are the “righteous.” 

It’s time for us to welcome those who are out there.  It’s time for us to go out and find them.  Not just the ones who look like us, talk like us, smell like us. 

It’s time for us to become reckless with our love for the lost.

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 abundance.

And 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’ve been waiting for you!  We have to celebrate and rejoice, because you were lost, and now you have been found.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2016. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.