Going Home, Going Home, I’m Just Going Home

Small rural congregations served by retired clergy often find themselves without one on Sunday mornings.  Then it’s up to the congregation to worship in Morning Prayer, hearing a sermon delivered by one of their members.  This coming Sunday is one of them, so I wrote a homily that may suffice.  It contains little original material.  The Tuesday morning ecumenical lectionary study group I belong to had a lot to say about the prodigal son, and the homily reflects more than a little of their conversation.
It begins with the observation that there may be no parable more familiar than the story of the prodigal son, which is a problem because familiarity ceases to surprise, and this is a very surprising lesson.  Maybe there will be a few surprises for the congregation to consider.
As Luke tells it, the driving question for Jesus’ listeners was: Is there a limit to how far God will go to forgive and embrace sinners?  So Jesus told three stories.  The first was about a hundred sheep.  One was lost and the shepherd dropped everything to go find it.  The second was about a woman who had ten coins, but one was lost, and she turned the house upside down to find it.  Neither of them are in the lessons for Sunday, but they should be because they set the agenda for the third parable about the prodigal son.
The shepherd and the woman in first two stories did all the work to find and restore the lost sheep and coin to their proper places, and that says a lot about how God works.  But neither the sheep nor the coin could do anything to help, nor could they be held accountable for their lostness or repent of the difficulty they caused their owners.
But the prodigal son?  That’s another thing altogether.  We humans have at least some free will, are said to be accountable for our behavior, and expected to show some responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.
The prodigal son failed at all of it.  He was a self centered, entitled kid from a rich family who had no intention of doing honest work for living.  His indulgent father set him up with more than everything he needed to make a life for himself, and he blew it – in every way possible.  He left home as a rich young man, squandered the whole fortune, and ended up hungry, homeless and destitute.  
The well rehearsed American creed declares that he should have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and made something of himself the old fashioned way, but he didn’t.  A little hard work never hurt anybody, and if he had a mind to he could have worked his way into a decent life.  Instead, he crawled back to his father’s estate, begging for a job.  Why?  Why endure the humiliation of going home?
There is something deep in each of us that hungers for home.  It’s like a magnet.  No  matter how self sufficient we make ourselves out to be, no matter how wonderful every other place can seem, home calls – it’s where the heart is, and that’s where we yearn to be, even in humiliation.  There is a hole in our hearts that can be filled only by knowing where home is, and finding a way to get there.  And so he went home.
Where is home?  There’s a gospel song that begins: “This world is not my home I’m just a passing through.  My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door.”  I’m not keen on the theology, but the point is well made.  There is a home calling us that is deeper and more compelling than anything on earth.  One of my most important spiritual mentors, Phil Lane, called it the other side camp.  It’s just over the ridge, and everyone is there waiting for us to come.
A poem by William Fisher has been set to music from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”  It goes:
Going home, going home
I’m just going home
Quiet like, some still day
I’m just going home
It’s not far just close by
Through an open door
Work all done, care laid by
Going to fear no more
Mother’s there expecting me
Father’s waiting too
Lots of folks gathered there
All the friends I knew

Our hearts know where home is.

Unlike the lost sheep and coin, the prodigal son could participate in his own salvation simply by going home.  He could make the choice and take the journey.  It’s hard to know how repentant he was of his moral shortcomings.  Did he really change?  We’re never told.  We’re only told he went home.

And his father ran to greet him, embrace him, clothe him and celebrate his return.  
Let that sink in.  The father ran to greet him.  The father embraced him.  The father clothed him.  The father celebrated his return.  
Is there a  limit to how far God will go to forgive and embrace sinners?
Not far a way was the prodigal’s elder brother.  He was the good son: worked hard, helped run the estate, didn’t get into trouble, kept his nose to the grindstone, and obeyed his father’s rules.
Boy was he ticked off.  
To help the deserving poor is one thing, but his younger brother was anything but deserving.  What he deserved was everything he got from being a lazy, self centered, entitled brat.  Why is he the center of attention?  How come he gets a party and I don’t?  It’s hard for us to understand.  Our ideas about what’s fair and right are not wrong, but they’re not God’s ways.  The mystery that is God’s abounding and steadfast love is deeper than we can imagine.  Try as we might to make God play by our rules, God has other ideas and other plans.
Is there a limit to how far God will go to forgive and embrace sinners?
In Luke’s telling of the crucifixion, Jesus, hanging on the cross, said: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Of whom was he speaking?  The soldiers who drove the nails, the jeering bystanders, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Judas, who?  Could he have meant each and all of them?
One of the two criminals being crucified at the same time admitted his guilt, his well deserved punishment, and asked Jesus to remember him, to which Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Think about it.
Not many of us are the prodigal son.  If we’re honest, we may not be as bad as the younger son, but we’re not the obedient elder brother either, even if we act like it when we rudely judge those who don’t live up to our standards.  Too often we want it both ways.  We want God’s forgiving grace for us, but think other sinners only get what they deserve for their sinful ways.

Jesus, we are told, ate with sinners (the prodigal poor) and tax collectors (the prodigal rich).  It turns out that Jesus is the welcoming outstretched arms of the father.  Jesus is a sinless elder brother who not only celebrates the return of all who had been lost, he went out to find them, point toward home, and walk with them on the way.  God knows no limit to how far he will go to forgive and embrace sinners.  And, like the prodigal son, we can turn to head in his direction.  Jesus will point the way.  We can go home; he’ll go with us.

1 thought on “Going Home, Going Home, I’m Just Going Home”

  1. I really miss my AWOL editor, but think I finally found all the errors the eluded me before I pushed the publish button. Sorry for those who get the first version via email, but not the updated one.

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