SERMON from 9-18-11: “He Will Gladly Meet You Half-Way” B2CS Sermon

Luke 15.18-23

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. 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;

He Will Gladly Meet You Half-Way

Sometimes, it can feel just plain uncomfortable to be in church. First off, it is a place full of people who–for the most part–already know each other. It can feel like you are intruding on the meeting of some sort of club. They have their own gestures, songs, their own pledges. They know exactly what to do and when to do it. So much so, that they could do it in their sleep–and some do.

Their are other times when it can feel uncomfortable. If you are called upon to read something in front of the congregation, you can certainly feel nervous. If you accidentally start to sing the wrong verse of a well-known song, you feel that pit in the middle of your stomach that makes you wish you could just curl up and disappear. Or, say, your child begins to make some ill-timed sounds and you wish you had a magic wand which would install a zipper or metal trap over the offending dental cavity. Let me assure, their are plenty of people around here that are encouraged to hear that kind of sound in the middle of the service.

As the pastor, I know–or hope–that there are times you feel uncomfortable in church because there is something in your life which needs addressed. Maybe that’s why you are here this morning. Maybe you were invited–and you came as a courtesy to a friend or family member–but maybe you came because there is just something in your life that you feel needs fixing. Maybe there is something you have heard this morning, or will hear this morning that will make you uncomfortable. Not to the point that you want to leave, but to the point that you are convinced that there is a God out there who can and wants to help you. A God that can transform you into the person you–and more importantly He–wants you to be.

You could be uncomfortable because you don’t believe you belong or deserve to be here. Maybe you think you have just been gone from the church so long that there is no hope for you. Maybe you think the thing which makes you uncomfortable is so bad that there is no way you deserve to be here. Maybe you think there is no way that you could ever belong to a church–a community or faith–because God could never love or accept the person you are right now. Well, I hate to make you uncomfortable or otherwise disagree with you, but you are wrong.

That’s how the world operates, but not God. The world looks at sins and says “I can forgive shoplifting, but not murder.” The world looks at people and says “I can be okay with that persons sins, but not that one.” That’s the way the world works. God works in different ways. And because his ways are different from ours, we say his ways are “mysterious.” The only mystery about the ways of God is why more people subscribe to them.

A man by the name of Barry Miller is credited with this story: There is a story in the Talmud about a king who had a son who went astray. The son was told, ‘Return to your father.’ The son replied that he could not. The king then sent a messenger to the son with the message…’Come back to me as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.

We are humanity. We are the creatures made by the hand of the creator. He could make a million more of us just like that, but he made us each individually. As individuals, we have flaws. Those flaws express themselves in our lives as sin. For the most part, that sin shames us in one way or another. We would rather people–and/or God–not know or acknowledge that sin. And it is that stuff in our lives which makes us uncomfortable to be in church. How could God love or accept us when we have done this or that?

What you may not know or realize is that God–ever since the first person sinned–has spent his time attempting to reconcile his creation to himself. That is his goal. He guided the Israelites thorough the desert for forty years–even while they were worshipping other Gods (for which they were reprimanded)–he stuck it through with them. He sent his son, Jesus, to show his people how to live. Jesus taught us how to pray, how to treat those around us and that there are good ways act and wrong ways to act. Jesus, then, died to show us how great the sacrificial love God has for us truly is.

In short, God has–for centuries–been sending us messages that that we are welcome to come to him. As hard as he has been working at it, one could say that he has been sending us messages that we should come as far as we can–and he will meet us where we’re at. That’s what he does, he meets us where we are at.

So often, we have the idea of God as the “fire and brimstone” God. There has been at least one time in each of our lives where we have seen in person or on TV a preacher who is raising the roof to the idea that if you do not turn, you will burn. Now, that imagery certainly exists in the history of the church and in scripture. However, let me ask you this: is that the God you have experienced in your life? Sure, there are times that you could look at your life and say that God is correcting me for a behavior I need to change, but have you personally experienced the “fire and brimstone” guy?

The God who has dealt with me in my personal. spiritual life has never struck me with lightening or any other malady because I had done something wrong. Now, maybe he has and I have been too obtuse to recognize it. This is entirely possible. But, I don’t know the vindictive and wrathful being that so many pastors preach. The God who has brought me to where I am at has been with me and loved me through some pretty nasty sins. The God who has been with me to this day has been with me, even though I walk through some pretty dark and treacherous valleys. That is the God I know.

The Prodigal Son–subject of our scripture this morning–was expecting the “fire and brimstone” father-figure when he decided to go back to his family. This was for good reason, because he had abandoned his family and his responsibilities. He had things for which he needed to be forgiven. He made his mind up to go back home and apologize. His expectation was that he would be remanded to the menial and disgusting work on the farm, but at least he was at home.

That’s not quite true. This prodigal decided that the nasty, feces-infested pens on his father’s farm would be better than living life as he had been. He would rather eat like the animals he once owned than live life as he was. He decided to go back home. He went with a heart ready to apologize. He went back home with the heart of someone who truly knew he had done something for which his father had every right to be upset.

I have always wanted to know what Jesus would have said had he been asked what the conversation was like after the party was over–the father threw the prodigal son a party upon his arrival. What were the conditions put on the son once all the guests went home? Yeah, he was happy to see his son again–he was his son–but he had done something wrong. Our thought process immediately goes to something like “yeah, but what did he have to do when all that was over.” The fact is that nothing was said about that.

What we do know is the reaction the father had to his son returning home. It wasn’t just a forgive-and-forget moment. The father ordered his servant to dress him in the finest robes, put sandals on his feet and adorn his hands with rings. The fatted calf–an important and celebratory feature at a feast–was prepared to be consumed at a party held in honor of this prodigal son which has returned. Amen?

If this were an isolated theme within a study of the parable’s of Jesus, I wouldn’t put so much stock in it as something we can live by–but it’s not. The parable of the lost sheep. The parable of the lost coin. These are both stories about people rejoicing after having recovered something that was lost. The parable of the great dinner tells us that God continues to actively search out those whom he wishes to have in his fold. And the answer is everyone. Not only is God willing to meet you half-way, he is actively seeking you out–until you are found once more.

There is a story much like the story of the prodigal son that I want to close with. This son stole money from his father and took it to live in the city. He made friends and hung out at all the hippest bars and lounges. Life was great until his money ran out. Once that happened, he quickly found himself kicked out of his apartment and forced to eat at soup kitchens and sleep in cardboard boxes–all of his new friends had abandoned him.

At that point, he made up his mind to go back home and ask for his father’s forgiveness–but he was nervous. So, he wrote his father a letter asking for forgiveness and permission to come home. His letter said that if it would be alright for him to come home, his father should tie a white towel to the tree in their back yard. The train the son was planning to take went right past it. If he saw no towel, the son would continue on to the end of the line.

After scratching together enough money for a one-way train ticket, the son gathered what was left of his things and boarded the train. To get to his seat, he had to sheepishly excuse himself past a older woman who would be his seat mate for the journey. As the train began moving, the woman noticed that man clutching his bag nervously the whole way. Upon inquiring of him if there was anything she could do, the son began to talk and told her everything. The woman, being sympathetic to his plight, took the man into her arms until they got close to his house.

All of the sudden, he placed his head down into his lap–unable to look out of nervousness. The woman placed her hand on the man’s back and took a small, but sharp breath in. She told the man that there was not one towel on that tree. The man looked up to see that the tree in his backyard was covered with towels. Under the tree stood the man’s father, waving two more in his hands. He was jumping up and down; wildly welcoming his child back home.

Thanks be to God for that! AMEN.

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