1Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,"
and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
7You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
8I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
10Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
11Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Then Jesus said, 11b"There was a man who had two sons. 12The 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. 13A 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.
14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But 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! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22But 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. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for 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. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28Then he became angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But 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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.'"
Life is a journey, and the journey makes us who we are, while the community opens our eyes to fuller truth than we see on our own. We’ve got two sons in this story, this famous story Jesus tells the indignant Pharisees and the grateful but vulnerable tax collectors. The younger son took his money and left; the older stayed home with his dad to work the farm. When the younger son returns home, clothes tattered, body weakened from hunger and the road, face weather-beaten, his father sees him from far away and welcomes him home.
Probably he’s been looking down the road every day hoping his son might return. Do we dare to imagine the worry this father has felt every day waking up and every night going to sleep; wondering where his son could be; wondering if he’s ok? Every now and then a figure coming down the road to the farm will catch his eye and he stops what he’s doing to watch. As the figure gets closer he looks to see if it could be his lost son, but each time something isn’t right: too old, too tall, too short. Once or twice he’s even started to walk out to the gate only to be disappointed again, to feel the sting of rejection all over.
Then one day he sees a shape on the horizon and his heart begins to beat a little faster. As the shape comes closer it looks hauntingly familiar, but skinnier. Instead of the confident bounce in his step as he went off into the distance, there’s a slight stoop to the figure’s shoulders and he’s moving slowly. But the closer the figure gets the surer the father is that this must be his son. He runs out to the road and keeps running until his long lost son is in his arms again.
To the father, this loving, forgiving, kind father, the situation is simple: his lost son is found, so he celebrates with joy. To the older son things aren’t so simple. He’s been on the farm all his life, working for his father all the time and he feels unappreciated, especially when this rebellious second son comes home to a huge party after wasting all his father’s money.
This older son was trapped at home while his brother has been out seeing the world and living the high life. He’s gotten to see places his brother has only dreamed of; he’s eaten strange delicacies and had his fill of other exotic delights his brother can’t even imagine. And now after all that, he’s still welcomed back home with a party like the older brother has never had. It doesn’t seem fair.
Of course, things look pretty different from the younger brother’s perspective: his brother has no idea what real hunger feels like; he’s never had to wonder where his next meal will come from or worry about where he can find shelter if the rain comes or the mosquitoes swarm too heavily. His brother has never had to feel the shame of disappointing their father or of begging strangers for food. His brother has never thought he would die far from home and alone; he’s never had to degrade himself by tending pigs. He’s never felt the hopelessness of losing everything he had and having nowhere to turn.
The older son has never had the experience of being lost, so he doesn’t know that the life he’s complaining about is a blessing. He’s never been lost so he doesn’t know that the security of home and stability is a great comfort; instead it feels like a trap to him. He’s never been lost, so he doesn’t appreciate that the satisfaction of faithfulness and responsibility feels better than the hangover of a squandered inheritance and guilty pleasure.
He’s never been lost, so he doesn’t understand that his brother couldn’t care less about the party and the fatted calf; he doesn’t care about the fine robe and the shiny ring. All his younger brother cares about is his father’s arms around him; all he cares about is that he is finally found.
Some of us know that feeling, that amazing joy of being found after so much time wandering, suffering, cold and hungry, lost in the wilderness. Some of us know the joy of finally coming home to our father’s warm embrace, to the safety of our mother’s arms.
Some of us feel like we’re still wandering, still lost. We can feel far away from God, not sure if he’ll take us back. Sometimes we’re lost and don’t even know what we’re lost from. We have a vague sense that there’s something we’re missing, but without the strong memory of home that brought the younger son to his senses, we don’t know what it is. Maybe for us the house of God we grew up in wasn’t a home full of love and joy and abundance, so when we wander we don’t have a strong sense of what we’ve lost and we don’t know where to find that sense of home. Sometimes we just know we aren’t settled and we don’t feel quite right where we are.
Often our wanderings are so subtle that it’s hard to know if we’re lost or found. It can be hard to know who we are in the story because none of the characters quite fit or because we fit part way with several of them. Maybe part of us feels like the older brother: always working at home, not always feeling the appreciation of our father and the blessings of stability we’re so used to. Maybe part of us feels like the younger son still lost in a far away country, still worried about where his next meal is coming from with no idea he can go home or that he even wants to. Maybe part of us feels like the father: kids at home who don’t appreciate what they have and kids far away who we’re worried won’t make good choices and we don’t know how to get a hold of.
Take a moment: close your eyes. Who do you think you are in the story this morning? Do you feel lost or found? Are you the older brother, the younger brother, the father, or someone else in the story?
If you’re feeling lost, the amazing good news of our readings this morning is that our God is a father who doesn’t mind the embarrassment of running down the road to welcome his child home. Our God is a shepherd, who leaves his whole flock to seek out one lost sheep and bring it lovingly home on his shoulders.
If you’re feeling like the older brother who has never left home, hear the father’s words: “You are always with me and all that I have is yours.” Open your eyes to the amazing grace your brother now recognizes and realize that that incredible love is yours without ever having to suffer the horror of thinking you lost it forever. Let your father’s grace and your brother’s gratitude shine light on the blessings you’ve always had.
If you’re feeling like the child come home, feel that gratitude of acceptance, the joy of coming home. Feel your heart overflowing with love and let others see that love too. Help others see the incredible blessings of God’s home and heart, always open to them just like it’s been opened to you.
Whatever separates you from God right now, whatever you’re keeping bottled up inside; whatever makes you feel like God’s hand is heavy on you in judgment or that God’s face is turned away from you, you can turn back to God. Say to God what’s on your mind. Open your heart and your lips; pour out your hurt and guilt; pour out your frustration and resentment and disappointment. God can handle it. Confess your sins and your fears to God. Hear the psalmist’s words: “While I kept silent my body wasted away because of my groaning all day long. Then I acknowledged my sin to the Lord and you, O Lord, forgave the guilt of my sin…you are a hiding place for me; you preserve me in a time of trouble.”
God’s not just waiting for us; God is out in the mountains and hills searching for us. God is knocking at the door, hoping we’ll answer. God is sweeping the house clean, looking in every nook and corner for those lost coins. God is out in the neighborhood in the well -tended yards and the run down homes. God is walking up and down the city streets looking for lost sheep to bring home. God is wandering the dusty hills of Galilee and Judea and Samaria gathering in lost sheep. God is climbing the hill to Calvary so those who are lost far and wide can see that he is looking for them; that he’s looking for us to bring us home.
There is no length God won’t go to to welcome us home. And if we’re home already but we still feel like God’s not with us it might be because God’s letting us be for a moment while he’s looking for lost sheep. Don’t feel scared or abandoned: you’ve got a flock around you to keep you safe. There is grass and water to keep you nourished and there are brothers and sisters around you to comfort you and keep you warm. The shepherd isn’t gone; he hasn’t left you; he’s just bringing home the other sheep that are wandering.
Don’t worry; in the end there will be one flock and one shepherd. In the end the sheep will all be together and the shepherd will be right there with us. In the end all the wandering children will come home to the abundant life God’s house. In the end the father’s love will bring everyone home to safety and love and the most joyful welcome you can imagine.
Surely you know a wandering sheep you can help lead back to the fold. Surely you know someone who’s worried they won’t find welcome who you can make feel at home. There’s room in God’s house for everyone and everyone who arrives brings their stories and experiences to shed new light on the blessings of the home and joyful labor we share. Open your eyes and see God looking for you; open your heart and see those God wants you to help welcome home.
Thanks be to God.