Christ Church, New Haven
March 6, 2016
Sermon for Lent IV, 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
“'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!'”
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN
I grew up the only church-going member in my family. My great grandmother, Vesta had taken me to church a few times as a child. While at a Billy Graham convention in Denver, Colorado, I remember standing in the nosebleed section of the old Mile High Stadium when the altar call was made for those who desired to begin a relationship with Jesus.
The music was playing and I was watching folks file onto the field from my elevated perch. I had skooched my four-year-old self out of my row to the stairs so that I had a better vision of the field. I stood on my tiptoes to see the people as they shuffled out to the stage where Brother Graham was standing. I looked and looked and looked. There was just one thing missing…I turned to my Great Grandmother and in the most sincere way asked her, “Where is Jesus? When does he get here?”
I remember the experience vividly and I recall the disappointment I felt in my belly that the man I had heard about for the last few hours wasn’t there, and wasn’t gonna show up. I was a bit upset and to this day I wonder what would have happened if God-made-man in Jesus showed up in the flesh to greet my young question. I think it was there that the first seeds were planted in my heart.
I grew up quickly in an economically depressed section of western Colorado with my single mom and two other siblings. We scraped to make it by and though bruised and bumped by the experience, it was a period of growth for my family and myself. We made it through, and though I hadn’t darkened the door of a church since leaving Denver, there was still a wonder in my soul. I spent day after day scampering along the banks of the Colorado River jumping from rock to rock, flipping over stones in the eddies and slack water. I would study the macro-invertebrates and insect larvae. I carried a worn out copy of a book titled, Macro-invertebrates of the Lotic Ecosystems of the Upper Colorado Watershed.
I still wondered after God. I sought to understand how things like rivers persisted in their ancient ways. The water that was once snow and ice was now running over my feet cold and clear and like millions of years before, that water did what it was supposed to do. It ran ever seeking and would until it found the Pacific. I was awestruck that a poor country kid such as myself even had the opportunity to be there.
As I grew up, I fell into the wrong crowds, I developed a thick skin, and primarily due to what I now know as a lack of discipline, fought every authority in my life. I spent a lot of time in conversations with adults in positions of supervision and most of those conversations centered on why I was being punished for breaking the rules. I spent a lot of time in detention and paid a lot of dues to society for my being a stiff-necked kid. I fought a lot.
My disobedience became so bad that a school administrator asked me whether or not it would be good for me not to return to high school. I remember her asking me, “Mr. Challis, what are you doing here? Why would you keep coming if all you are going to do is disrupt and act out? Maybe it would be best if you didn’t come back to school?” Like the river, I was headed in an inertial seeking of lower and lower places.
I was on a mission then. It took one of the local pastors about a year to win my trust,
but as Peter would do everyday, he sat on a picnic table, as we were dismissed for lunch,
He would say hello to students in his Thursday night youth group. He would go out of his way each day to lean out from the table and say, “Hey Luke!” He’d smile and go back to talking with the "Jesusy" kids.
Sometimes rivers find a new path. It was at that same high school that I sat at the back of the auditorium, with my hoody pulled low over my head; in the darkest corner I could find that I asked Jesus to help me. I was tired of fighting things, I was more than okay with flipping stones over to see what treasures they bore, and really tired of those stones being hurled at others and me. Whatever it was that I was seeking at that Billy Graham revival I attended with Vesta, was there with me in the darkest corner of that room. I said the prayer they asked me to say, I accepted Christ as the person that would lead my life, and I prayed. I prayed that whatever it was that had a hold of my life would let go, and I prayed that I could be forgiven for the things I had done.
It was the feeling that though I stood in the middle of a raging river, the water stopped trying to sweep me away. Of course there wasn’t a sense that everything was perfect. There were still the harsh realities of my life and family that I had to face, and there were sections of my life that I would have to remediate so as to make carrying things a little easier. There was, however, a shift, something in my being had reoriented itself toward the good, and as I began to read the scriptures, I found that there was a lot to learn about this Jesus guy and how he has manifested in other’s lives as well. God became a person I could talk to and ask questions of and she would meet me there in the places I opened.
The prodigal son spent all his inheritance in dissolute living. He was in a foreign land working as a hired servant, and he was mingling with unclean animals. He was hungry and this desire in his belly made him think that if he had only the pods he fed the pigs, his hunger may be satiated. As I imagine, he had worn through the souls of his shoes walking away toward what he thought would save him, and when all had failed, he turns his face back to his father.
That walk back must have been a time of grief and doubt. He may have thought to himself, “what if dad doesn’t take me back?” “What if I have done too much to destroy my relationship with him such that he casts me out again to die in these barren hills?” “What can I say that will redeem me?” There must have been so many questions floating around in his head as the sting and burn of the desert sands reminded him with every step that he was headed back into yet another unknown.
Dying of hunger, he marched on toward his father’s house. We read that his father came to meet him though he was still far off. I can imagine this seen from my time in Colorado. There are sections of the high desert that are so flat and barren that a person can see another coming for miles. The heat rising from the desert floor obscures the image of the person in the distance, but I wonder if the father recognized the son’s gait, if he recognized the way his injury caused him to walk with a stutter. Maybe?
His father meets him, and filled with compassion, embraces him. Though his son is soiled and sweaty from his journey, soiled from working in the pig-wallows, he kisses him. Bare-footed at this point, his father places a robe around him, puts a ring to signify his being part of the father’s household on his finger, and newly-shod, prepares a feast for him at the father’s table.
Friends, there are those with no identity. There are people with no currency in the markets of our lives. They stand at the brink of turning toward their fathers and mothers, and yet still more of them stand without a direction to turn.
We heard in the beginning of Luke’s account of Jesus’ parable that the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This is the same Jesus that we meet here every Sunday for worship. It is the same Father that meets us at the table to feed us. It is we, the same sinners that are fed. That though we were still far off he sent Jesus to meet us, to take our fallen nature upon him and suffer death.
Though I would be arrogant to say that I do all I can to help find those that are still far off,
I argue that it is our duty as people of Christ to at the very least keep our eyes up to the horizon. There are those who seek to be embraced by their Mother at this table, to be enfolded in the robes of their Father’s compassion and to be kissed by the Spirit in their journey across their barren deserts. We never know if the prodigal daughter or son may walk through our doors seeking forgiveness, witness, or shelter.
May we be the ones to run to them in their need. “’Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!'”