Sunday, March 10, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "...And Was Moved"

Luke 15:20-24

20 So he got up and went to his father. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (CEB)

“Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables,” Week Four

The only spot on her body not covered by either bruises or medical equipment was her cheek, and so that is what the young woman reached out for as she sat beside her cousin, who, despite two double lung transplants, was now slowly dying of cystic fibrosis at the age of 24.

Among those stories was also a promise: to continue traveling the world, to Africa and to Europe, and all points in between.

And as the young woman wrote, her cousin “opened her eyes and smiled at me, and then closed them again.  It was the last time I saw her awake and alive.  She died a few days later; she got the second transplant, and never woke up.  She loved butterflies, and since she died, I’ve had them land on me with strange regularity all over the world.  She’s going with me because I’m living for both of us, or so I’m going to keep telling myself.”

But what prompted her sharing of this story was that others were also doing so, sharing the stories of people they said goodbye to, who made final words, conversations, or confessions to them from their deathbeds.  She was moved to tell her story simply because other people had also been so moved.

For when we are so moved from the ruts of ordinary life, the results are anything but ordinary.

With Lent as a new season in the church’s worship calendar, you may notice a few things different—we hang purple, we draw the curtains on our baptistry’s portrait of Jesus, and, naturally, we begin another sermon series.  This sermon series takes us through the 40 days of Lent to Holy Week—the week of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday that is the most important time in the Christian calendar (yes, I dare say, more important than Christmas!).  And Lent traditionally is meant to be a time of reflection and repentance as we do some even more intensive-than-usual soul-searching in preparation for what will eventually be the empty tomb.  And so we’ll be using this year’s Lenten season to walk verse-by-verse through the three parables that make up the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  These stories all have a common theme of being “lost and found,” so to speak, but there is a much larger dimension at work here—Jesus is telling these parables to the scribes and Pharisees—as Luke writes, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.””  And what Jesus is responding with, in so many words is, “Yes, because it isn’t just about you!”

In case you missed last week when we kicked off our three-week sojourn through the parable of the prodigal son, here is a little more background from last week’s message:

This is one of the most famous, well-loved, well-known, well-everythinged parables that Jesus ever tells, and yet you’ll only find it here, in Luke 15!  It’s one of those things that I have no idea why the other Gospel writers didn’t include, like John’s account of the raising of Lazarus.

Because the parable of the prodigal son does, I think, speak to the worst in each of us, that which we are perhaps not willing to admit we ever possess, but which, for some of us, we likely act on at one time or another—and that is, quite simply, taking those whom we love for granted, to the point of no longer seeing any need for them in our lives.

It is what this son does by asking his father for his inheritance.  In doing this, he is saying that his father has no worth to him aside from his inheritance and that he would, in fact, rather have the inheritance than have his father.  He is, in a sentence, saying he wishes his father were dead.

And here’s our first hint of grace—the father, instead of taking this for the horrific insult that it is and throwing his son out, actually accedes to his son’s wish, gives him his inheritance, and sends him on his way.  You have to think it’s one of the hardest things this father has ever done.

And here is where the story diverges.  The prodigal goes his way, and we lose track of the father and what his life is like in the meanwhile.  But we can probably imagine that his world goes on—he keeps on working the land, keeps on running the family, keeps on adhering to his faith.

Except that he does so with a huge part of him now missing, which he is resigned to missing for the rest of his life.  And for that, you can imagine the huge sense of bitterness, of betrayal, of hurt that the father probably feels.  You can imagine him asking himself, “How did I mess up this badly with my younger son?!”

In other words, when trying to examine the father’s situation, and the father’s feelings, we may be too caught up in one consequence of his son’s departure—the hurt feelings incurred—and less on another, potentially more long-lasting consequence: the sense that he had failed his son.

Now, if you have sat through one of the previous three sermons of this series so far, you know I have been big on discerning which characters in these various parables represent the people present at their telling—Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees, or the tax collectors and other sinners present.  And the obvious answer to the question of who the father of the prodigal is would be none of the above.  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  The father represents God Himself.

And harkening all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve, our collective story as humanity has been littered full of instances where we do things to one another and to God to which I have to think God wonders, “where did I go wrong with them?  Where did I fail them?”

In fact, God reaches that conclusion once—in Genesis, when He decides to press the big red button, call a mulligan, and flood the entire world and start from scratch with the help of Noah and his floating menagerie.  God even says to Himself, “I am sorry that I have made them.”

That is the sort of hurt and failure and shame that this father is feeling because of his son.

But seeing his son moves him beyond the hurt and failure and shame.  Indeed, it catapults him beyond it.  As Bible scholar Sharon Ringe put it, “the father’s compassion outruns the son’s penitence.”  And, I have to imagine, it outruns the father’s sense of failure as well.

Precisely because he was moved.

Think of all of the things God has done because He, too, was so moved.  He made the covenant with Noah, declaring never again to destroy the land for our sakes, and He was moved from regret into hope.  He was reminded of this covenant by Moses after the Israelites began worshiping the Golden Calf, and He was moved from anger into mercy.

And here, Jesus is saying that with our returning to Him, God is moved from a sense of failure in us to rejoicing in our presence before Him.

It’s a remarkable thing, that we could somehow move God…after all, God is this great, big thing that is WAY up there, and we’re way the heck down here, and that’s the way it is.

But if God loves us…and we know this is so—for God so loved the world, He gave His only Son…if God loves us, part of loving something is allowing yourself to be moved by it.

And that’s a remarkable thing, that our faith and repentance could actually move that great, big deity who lives in the heavens.  But that shouldn’t be so scary.  This isn’t us trying to manipulate God.  God is too smart to allow it to work like that.

It’s God about allowing us in to begin with.

It’s about God allowing us to redeem ourselves for Eden, and for the tower of Babel, and for the Golden Calf, and for the Ba’als and the injustice, for the lack of faith in Him or in each other, for all of these things that have marked our entire flawed existence upon this creation.

It’s about us, like the prodigal, traveling to a faraway land of putting faith in our egos and our Ba’als rather than in the God who made us what we are.

Until we, like the prodigal, remember from whence we came, and return with humbleness and with new understanding that His creation is not our plaything.

And then…well, we all know what happens next.

God is moved.  And, by His grace, so too are we.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 10, 2013


  1. I love this... this is such a rich parable. I loved Tim Keller's analysis in "The Prodigal God." Everytime I read thoughts on this, I'm reminded that God is the best writer. He can tell a story so short and yet so rich...

  2. Indeed--there's something truly remarkable about the parable as a teaching mechanism inspired by God. I love how the commentary in The Voice translation of the Bible puts it: "They are intricately constructed and complex in their intent. In some ways, they are intended to hide the truth; they don't reduce truth to simple statements or formulae. Instead, they force the reader to take things to a deeper level."

    Thanks for commenting!