By David Sivecz
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, “A Story that Changes Ours”
We know this story. Including the Good Samaritan, these two parables are probably the most well known stories through the Christian faith. Story telling has been around for a long time. They have been around since before the Internet, before television, and yes even before movies, so I have been told. We love stories. Personally, growing up at Zion, I always looked forward to hearing stories during the sermons, in my Sunday school classes, or even at confirmation. Let me share with you a few stories that I remember. Like the one about an elderly woman who saved her fork after every meal because she believed something better was going to come - the dessert. I remember Pastor Randy acting out the story of the Mr. Rodgers television show and asking us “Won’t you be my neighbor?” I remember coming to see Zion’s new sanctuary consecration and hearing one of the former pastors tell the story about this church being a little country parish. One story that will forever stick with me is the story of my fifth grade Sunday schoolteacher John Fauhnestock. We love stories. But as the years have gone by my studies have caused me to drift away from Zion. Because of the foundation I received from this place, I have made it an effort to come back and hear some stories. In the recent past, there is one story that I will never forget. I remember Pastor Steve climbing up and sitting at the top of an eight-foot ladder to tell the story of Zacchaeus. I remember being on the edge of my pew looking up and wondering, “What’s the view like from up there?” Have you ever wondered what a story would look like if we were sitting on the ladder viewing it from a different angle?
I feel that the story, or parable, that we hear Jesus telling us today asks us to view it from a different angle of the ladder. See, maybe the story has been referred to you by the name “Prodigal Son and his elder brother”. But something doesn’t add up. Why do we refer to it as the “Prodigal Son and his elder brother”? I mean the father is the one who is faithful in the relationship. The father continues to recognize both as his sons even though they insult him and break the relationship. The father maintains the relationship with them by going to them. Right before this parable Jesus tells us about a shepherd who loses a sheep and a woman who loses three coins. The only way for the sheep and coins to be found is that the shepherd and woman have to search for them. The sheep just don’t wander back. The coins don’t just appear in her hand. But they had to search for them. The father, in our parable today, seeks and finds both of his sons. So, why do we call the story the “Prodigal Son and his elder brother”?
As I have read through this story numerous times, I hear Jesus asking us to view this story from the “Faithful Father”. Now I am aware that not all of us have great relationships with our fathers. So maybe we could call it the “Faithful Parent”, or the “Faithful Guardian”, or even the “Faithful Mentor”. This is a story that we might not be used to hearing. There is more to this parable, this story, then what meets our eyes. See, we do not know why the younger of the two sons asks for his inheritance. However, when the son asked for his inheritance he was telling his father that he doesn’t want any thing to do with him. As we know the story, the son took off, wasted his inheritance, and then a famine hit the region. Because he had nothing, the son truly became desperate. The son is in such despair that he hires himself out, not just to a Gentile, but hires himself out to work with swine, pigs, or unclean animals. Just when he thinks things cannot get worse he was tempted to eat what the pigs were eating. Talk about being despair! So then all of a sudden, as we read, “He came to himself”. Sometimes we tend to gloss over this part. See, this did not actually mean that he felt remorse; rather he remembered where he could go to survive. The son was in such deep despair that he did not even know it was despair. He didn’t know how far gone he was. Sometimes despair causes us to move into survival mode and do things that we would not otherwise do. We even hear the younger son develop a prepared speech before he goes home. If you have ever been trouble before you know the purpose of a prepared speech. His purpose was to try to influence his father into hiring him. So, as the story goes, he set off and went to his father. But this is where our view of the story changes. The father sees his son off in the distance, runs to him, and embraces him. Before the younger son can get his speech out, the father embraces him and throws him the biggest party. The father remained patient, faithful, meet him where he was, and found him. What makes this a powerful parable is that the father acts even without the son repenting. There was no work on the son’s part.
Maybe in our lives we might have seen God running to meet us where we are. Maybe you have heard someone’s story and seen God embrace them before they could even speak. Maybe you know someone who is like Stephen Colbert. Some of you might know him as the host of the popular comedic news show, called “The Colbert Report”. He is well known for his humorous play on politics and other world issues. While we see this wittiness on his show, his early childhood tells a different story. Colbert, who is of Irish decent, was born in Washington, D.C., grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and was the youngest of 11 children in a Catholic family. His father, who was the vice president for academic affairs at the Medical University of South Carolina, and his mother, who was a homemaker, placed a strong emphasis intellectualism. Through most of his young life, his parents taught him that he could question the Church and still be a devout Catholic. But in 1974, when Colbert was ten years old, his father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash when the it failed to land in Charlotte, North Carolina. After this tragic event, his mother picked up their family and relocated to a new city. Stephen Colbert did not respond well to the changes that occurred in his life. By the time he went to college, Colbert was deeply skeptical about his faith. But while he was in college he came across a Gideon who was handing bibles out on the street. Thinking nothing of it, Colbert grabbed one of the bibles. After he took the bible, he opened it right away to Matthew chapter 5, which is the opening of the “Sermon on the Mount”. As he put it, “That whole chapter is essentially about not worrying. I didn’t read it – it spoke to me, and it was an effortless absorption of the idea. Nothing came to me in a thunderbolt, but I thought to myself, ‘I’d be dumb not to reexamine this”.
Maybe the way in which God acted in Stephan Colbert’s life is not all that dissimilar to the father in our parable. Maybe if we reexamine our story we will see how God acts even when we don’t. Sometimes there are things in our lives that push us away from God, which are not simply because of some choice that we have made. When we look at the whole story, we see those times that God remained faithful to us. But do our actions having a barring on God loving us? As the parable continues, the elder son found out his younger brother had returned and was filled with jealousy. He thought that he was always there following the rules. He thought he didn’t step out of line. He thought that he earned the least of what the father had… He thought wrong. The eldest son didn’t want to come in to join the party because of his pride. So maybe there are two lost sons. Still the father left the party, came out, and pleaded with his son. Even when we think we are in line with God, when we feel we have it right, or when we believe we can work our way up, God comes to us.
A friend of mine discovered this same truth in one of his seminary classes, and as the story goes, on a Tuesday afternoon the students gathered together in one of the classrooms ready and prepared for another lecture. Like every class, they took their seats and waited for the professor. When the professor walked into the classroom, he pulled the notes out of his book, and set up for his lecture. All the students took their seats and were ready to listen for the next three hours. But about an hour into the lecture, some of the students became restless. A couple of them began a conversation. In another part of the classroom, a few more students started talking. Before you knew it, the entire class was having side discussions and was no longer paying attention to the professor. Now the professor saw what was happening. Like any person who stands in front of a large group of people, he saw everything. In the middle of his sentence, he stopped talking and no one noticed. The professor just paused for a second. He took the notes he had out on the desk, placed them in his book, and closed the book. Then he turned around, took the chalk from the chalk tray, and drew a huge arrow pointed down on the blackboard. He gathered his belongs, walked out the classroom door and let the door slam behind him. All of sudden the conversations stopped. The students looked confused and dazed. They had no idea what just happened. A few students were wondering what the arrow meant. Some of the student tried figuring it out. “Does that mean our grades are going down?” “Should we drop the class?” “Or is he telling us where to go?”
Over the next two days, the students tried to decipher what their professor was telling them. When Thursday came, the student gathered in the classroom and did not make a sound. As they anxiously waited, the professor walked in and did not look at the class. He put his books down on the desk, turned around, and again drew a large arrow on the blackboard that pointed down. He turned around, grabbed his coffee cup, took a drink, and set it back down on the desk. The professor looked at the class and everyone was starring right at him. He then said, “Does anyone know what this means?” Not a word came from the class. “Does anyone want to try to explain this arrow?” Again, not a word. “Anyone?” There was nothing but silence. “If there is anything you take away from this, or even from seminary remember this… God comes down.” “The arrow does not go the other way.” “God comes down to us and meets us where we are, we cannot work our way up.”
Like how the stories of Zion keep pulling me back here, no matter how far we go, God brings us back. My friends this story is the Gospel; this is the Good News. But the story I am talking about is not the “Faithful Father”, or the “Woman with the Lost Coins”, or the Shepherd with Lost Sheep”, or even the “Good Samaritan”. The story I am talking about is the one about God being faithful, in seeking and finding us, and bringing us home. God comes down to meet us where we are. We don’t have to climb up to meet God. No… we can’t climb up to meet God. Rather God searches for us when we are lost. God comes down to us, in the brokenness of our lives. God comes to us when we are stubborn. God’s faithfulness to us gives us life. This story is the story that changes ours.
David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church-- and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2011), pg 59.