Now, I want to tell you a story
that will require each of you to use your imagination a little bit.
That’s because the story involves these ancient things called Pay Phones.
Back in the day before cell phones, you remember those days, maybe?
back in the day, when you needed to make a call
and you weren’t at home or the office
you might stop at one of those pay phones
that were at gas stations or on the side of the road.
Most of us here remember them, but maybe not all of us.
My children certainly will have no understanding of this concept.
They were quite useful, sometimes.
They had them at the airport, or at stores like K-Mart in the parking lot.
But you needed a quarter or two to use them, remember?
Tom Long tells this story about a father and his adult son,
jogging in a downtown neighborhood about fifteen years ago.[i]
They were both in the same profession,
and they were using this time to talk about their experiences
to catch up with each other a little bit,
because they didn’t get to spend a lot of time together.
And about halfway through their jog, they decided to phone ahead for pizza
to be delivered when they got home, so they could continue their talk.
So they headed for the phone at the nearest gas station,
and as they got closer, a homeless man approached them.
The man asked them for some spare change.
The father reached into the pockets of his sweat pants
and pulled out quite a few coins.
Tom Long says it was two HANDFULLS of coins,
though that seems to me to make for hard jogging… But whatever.
You know fathers, sometimes….
The father pulls out these coins and he says to the man
“here…take what you need…”
And the homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said,
“why, I’ll take it all!”
And he scooped the coins into his own hands and went on his way.
All this took place rather quickly, in a flash,
and it took a second or two for the father to realize that he had no change, now,
to make this phone call that they were going to make
at the gas station across the street…
So as the homeless man was walking off, the father called over to him…
“Hey, excuse me!
Hey, yes, you, hey, I need to make a call. Can you spare me some change?”
And the homeless man turned, and held out two handfuls of coins..
“Here” he said. “Take what you need….”
The journey of Lent takes us to some wonderful, confusing,
quite human places, I think.
I love this season, with its mystery and its paradox,
this affirmation of our human finitude
and God’s infinite mercy and love.
As we find ourselves walking along side Jesus on the way to Jerusalem,
we look at the many ways these stories
confront our common sensibilities
with something unique about the Christian Story
something unique about this Way that we learn from Christ.
And sometimes it comes through the stories
that are to many of us the most common.
It might seem that everyone has heard this story often called
the parable of the Prodigal Son.
I’m willing to argue that this is perhaps one of the top two or three best known
of Jesus’ stories,
but truth be told
it is just is not the case any longer in our culture
that even the most widely known stories of Jesus
are THAT widely known.
But whether you are new to this story,
or whether this story is so commonplace
that you think you know it inside out,
it is helpful for us to try to approach it again this season of Lent.
These parables of Jesus, these enigmatic stories of Jesus
are often his answer
to the pressing religious and social questions of his day,
they are Jesus’ way of giving us a vision of the Realm of God.
What is it that God is doing in our midst? Look at this story, Jesus says.
What do you think about the law, Jesus
or about hunger, or about taxation
or about the religious leaders? Well, there once was a man…
What does God want our world to be like?
How is God going to FIX this MESS?
See, look, once upon a time.
So it is helpful to note what it is Jesus is responding to.
And in this case, it is this grumbling by the religious leaders of his day,
the scribes and the Pharisees, those whose job it was
remember, to describe and to promote God’s realm too..
they’re grumbling…about Jesus.
Jesus was inviting all sorts of people to the party, as it were.
Not just people next door, but, you know, unsavory people: tax collectors, sinners.
And, even more, (whisper): he sat down at shared a meal or two with them…
Jesus ate with these folk. He broke bread and shared wine
and laughed at stories told over a dinner table.
And the scribes and the Pharisees grumbled at this.
“This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”
That is their complaint.
This story about a father and his two boys, the response,
the way that Jesus explains what it means
to be part of the realm of God, instead of the realm of this world….
In Paul’s Second letter to the church at Corinth,
that Sharon read this morning,
Paul talks about exploring various “Points of view”.
Our perspective matters.
And more to the point, our faith should shape how we see the world
how we experience things day to day.
Paul says “from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view,
for if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new…”
There are human points of view
and then there is the point of view of God’s realm.
And for those of us who have been captivated by the vision of God
that we are offered in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ,
who are called to pursue reconciliation and social justice because of Jesus,
who feel compelled to seek out God’s realm on earth,
then we are in the business of trying to understand
what in the world Jesus is trying to say in stories like this.
The Pharisees and the Scribes,
the protectors of their tradition,
were deeply concerned about who was appropriate, who was worthy.
It is important, they thought, to engage in relationships and activities
that demonstrated the holiness of God.
And that’s not a bad thing, in itself.
But often this concern over holiness and appropriate behavior
right action, good and righteous works
became a rigid system
that marked who was worthy, who was just
who was in
and who wasn’t, who was unclean
who was out.
And a major portion of that system coalesced around food:
What you ate, mattered.
Who you ate with, mattered.
When, where, why you ate, mattered.
The problem, it seems to me, is that for these religious leaders,
the rules began to matter more than the people behind them,
the living, breathing, walking, thinking, loving people
who lived difficult lives behind them.
And Jesus, more than anything else, is reminding them that
the people ALWAYS matter more than the concern for rules….
So we have this story of a father and his two sons.
In this familiar tale,
Jesus recounts the brazen, disrespectful demands of the younger son.
We’ll call him Roland.
One fine day Roland comes up and, out of the blue, basically says:
“Pops, I can’t wait until you’re dead.
I’ve had enough of this place and I want out now.
Gimme my money today!
I’m going off to find my fortune. Have a good life, sucker.
I’m outta here!”
And off Roland goes into the wider world.
There he’s surrounded by everything he found so attractive
but forbidden before.
In his new independence, he tries it all — all the world’s temptations,
all the world’s influence, all the world’s costly treasures.
And before he knows it, his pockets are empty,
his so called “friends” have disappeared and he’s a nobody.
All alone. No hope. Broken dreams. Practically nothing to live for.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch (as they say),
his father … still has the light on.
The candle is in the window.
He can hardly conduct business and worry about his son at the same time.
Each day is filled with agony wondering what’s going on with Roland.
What’s he up to?
Is he safe?
Where’s he staying?
Is he remembering who he is and where he belongs?
Older brother…lets call him Johnny
might also be worried, but he has lots to do to keep him busy.
He’s the “responsible one”, after all,
the one who feels obligated to make sure
everything gets done properly and on time.
He’s structured and dependable and
devoted to the welfare of his family business.
Not only does he do everything right,
but he seems to insist everyone else must do things his way
or they’d better shape up if they want to stay on his crew.
Quite organized, he is…
Back to Roland. He’s reached the end of his rope.
He’s lonely and hungry and hasn’t a good place to sleep.
So he signs on to work for a pig farmer. A PIG FARMER!
Is there anything lower for a good Jewish boy
than taking care of unclean swine?
The people who heard this story would not have missed this nuance.
My, how far he has fallen!
Not only is his belly empty,
but Roland finds himself hungry for what he gave up
the respectability and the dependability of his younger years.
He’s made HUGE mistakes, and he’s starving for any small scraps
he still might be able to scrape off his father’s floor.
Our scripture reading says Roland “came to himself.”
He came to his senses.
In his senselessness, he had given up every good thing
and traded it for all that was worthless and soul devouring in life.
Roland realizes his offense and he turns around — he repents
if you remember the importance of that word from last week.
Still, he knows life won’t be easy.
He has broken relationships and deeply hurt those who loved him.
You can be sure that the whole village knows about Roland’s contemptible behavior,
his wanton ways, his death wish for his father.
Running him out of town, or worse,
would be the appropriate consequence
if he DARED showed his face around that town again!
And even if everyone in town took mercy on Roland
because of his father’s good reputation,
he wouldn’t be able to show up again without great shame.
Backs would be turned, his name would be mud,
no one would be expected to treat him
with any kind of respect at all, ever again.
And Roland knew it.
Roland deserved all of it.
Here’s the thing, though:
Roland’s father, he kept watching for him on the horizon, day and night.
The father never gave up on Roland. Never lost hope.
Never took offense at his son’s treatment of him.
Never wrote him off.
Never condemned him for social or actual harm done by his son to him.
Luke says that, while Roland was still far off,
his father saw him and was filled with compassion;
can you imagine the look on the father’s face
when he saw him in the distance!
THIS ONE WHO WISHED HIM DEAD
He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
The one who was lost has been found.
This story is so human, and so challenging, at the same time.
It show the wonders and the endless limits of love,
and the challenge of human relationships.
In our bible study this week,
someone pointed out that this goes against every form of parenting in the book
where good behavior is rewarded and poor behavior discouraged.
And its true. The logic of this parable makes little sense:
The run away is met with forgiveness, grace, love from the father.
The one who plays by the rules, well, he is jealous of this boundless love…
And the father, well, the father is thankful to have his lost son back…
but not only that,
the father shows understanding and openness and love to Johnny too..
The reason this parable works so well for us,
the reason it is so human, in other words,
is that we can find ourselves in the shoes of either Roland or Johnny.
Sometimes we are judgmental. Sometimes we are rigid.
Sometimes we don’t want to offer forgiveness.
Sometimes we don’t want others to receive forgiveness…
Sometimes we don’t want to witness mercy….
And then, other times, we are the ones who have come seeking forgiveness.
Sometimes we are the ones who don’t see how WE can be forgiven.
And regardless of which character we relate most closely with,
God, the reconciling One offers grace to us.
That’s because, that’s precisely who God is.
The Pharisees in this story,
and brother Johnny, too, can’t understand the Father’s forgiveness.
Because, from a human point of view, its just not right.
It doesn’t make sense,
to welcome one back who wanted you dead
the ungrateful one who squandered your fortune.
But, and this is Jesus’ point, I think,
the point of view from God’s kingdom is different.
God’s realm is based on reconciliation, on forgiveness, on grace,
on what we eventually learn from Jesus on the cross….
It’s the kind of life where the tables are turned.
Where one minute we are giving of ourselves, and
another minute receiving from others…
Where all of us are loved in God’s eyes, regardless of our conformity to the rules,
regardless of our juvenile choices.
God is asking us to always keep the door open:
open to the ones who leave, coming back
open to the ones who harm us, having a change of heart
open to the possibility that our sins might not be the last word
open to the chance that the people we have hurt
might actually reconcile with us
open to the reality that God’s love might actually
give us a new way of seeing that is beautiful and healthy and true.
As we ponder, this season of Lent,
what it means for us to point to Jesus’s death AND RESURRECTION
as vitally important for our lives,
Our God is the one who eats with tax collectors, and sinners.
Our God is the one who tells stories of the most amazing grace
Our God is the one who challenges the human point of view
with this point of view from the Cross…
that those who are lost should be welcome back again.
that love and grace are FREE gifts, not dependent on
our failures or faults.
Tom Long tells us that after this Homeless man
remember him, from ten minutes ago,
after that homeless man offered back all that change,
the jogger knew, he KNEW,
that something unique was going on here…
that the lines of giver and receiver were being blurred
and that he needed something more…
So Long says the jogger called and had the pizza delivered there,
to the gas station,
and the three of them ate together.
Can you believe it?
It astonishes me to think about it, actually.
But then again, that’s me looking at it from a human point of view….
[i] Adapted from Tom Long, “Surprise Party” Christian Century, March 14, 2001, 10