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Celebrating the return home

The following sermon was preached by Joy McDonald Coltvet, director for vocations and recruitment, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, March 18, 2010.


Luke 15

It was maybe two days after we had returned home, when jet lag was still very debilitating for all of us, when our little boy did something mean to his sister… I can’t quite remember what. And we said, “You need to say ‘I’m sorry.’” We repeated ourselves twice, then three times but he wouldn’t do it. We threatened a time out and suddenly I realized with a bit of shock, he would rather be punished than say “I’m sorry.” Who knows exactly what cultural or communication barriers might have been involved in that little scene but those possibilities aside, I probably shouldn’t have been shocked. It’s not just being 2 ½ going on three years old… it’s just being human.

It is so hard to say “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
It’s hard for the other to respond: “I forgive you.”

This was the ritual taught to me as a child—but that early imprinting didn’t/and doesn’t make it easier. “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
“I forgive you.”

Who wants to be vulnerable like that?
Who wants to expose their own weakness and show that they are not in control of the outcome? It goes against all our culturally conditioned ideas about saving face, maintaining your composure, being dignified, never letting them see you sweat.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal, which we’ve listened to throughout this week, with its picture of lavish grace—grace that exposes vulnerabilities, grace that is not the picture of composure… what shocks me this time around is how the sons don’t even really say “I’m sorry.” Just as the younger son demanded his inheritance with a high sense of entitlement in the beginning story—again later, when he “came to himself,” he thinks he has a plan. He can talk his way back into his father’s good graces… “I know what I’ll do, I’ll say that I’ve sinned. I’ll say I’m not worthy to be his son.” He rehearses the speech, says it word for word. He’s still trying to keep the upper hand in the power struggle. That’s not apologizing—I wonder if he’s even really repentant.

And yet the father runs to him—and brushes aside his attempt at control. Now, the son is back home, on his father’s turf and is reminded in the embarrassing flurry of robes and rings and the fatted calf—you belong to me. You don’t set all the terms of our relationship. I let you go so that you might come to yourself… but now I will set the terms of your homecoming. None of this “hired hand” stuff—I have much higher expectations for our relationship from here on out. You are my child. You were lost and now you are exposed. You are found. You are home.

But that’s not the end of the story because if we can’t identify with that dramatic leave-taking and home-coming… if we have never left home and are quick to grumble against those who have… the older brother speaks for us and names our truth, our particular read on reality.

“I never left. I’ve worked for you like a slave. I’ve always obeyed you.”

In other words, I’ve earned and I deserve your love and favor—and (here’s the accusation) you’re wasting it on the wrong person. Wow—if one son spoke out his sense of entitlement, the other harbored it secretly until this moment…and his deep judgments created a wall that prevented him from being home even at home.

And yet the father reaches out to him in his point of deep need—just brushing aside the rude accusations, letting the judgments pass—with the same word of love—you belong to me. You don’t set all the rules of our relationship. There is enough love in me for both of you, in  spite of your misguided sense of entitlement, your efforts to control me, in spite of your arrogant and judgmental hearts. You need not fear being displaced by the ones who are lost; you need not fear being exposed—you have worked too hard to keep up that “good son” image and now you resent it. In spite of all that mess, I love you. You can depend on my love. All that I have is yours—and has been all along. Leave all that behind, come inside, come celebrate.

There are no sisters or mother described in this parable but I can imagine them… shaking their heads with a word-- “Men!”; wondering what the future holds for them now that half the property is gone and yet working to get into the spirit of celebration because of the possibility that the family might be whole again. I can imagine this generous father speaking to them as well. I love you. I dream with you for the day when we might not be so obsessed with vying for power and position in this family that we might instead show grace--grace that permeates all that we are and say and do.

And I think that’s the dream of Jesus who told this parable in the face of grumbling religious people—Jesus who kept trying to paint pictures of the reign of God and what life could look like as that reign pervades and subverts “life as usual.” Jesus kept painting these pictures that are meant to get under our skin and mess with our minds and turn our hearts so that we might come to ourselves and come home… or so we might finally say to God those words we’ve been harboring that keep God at a comfortable distance … or so we might grow in trust that there will be enough love and grace, justice and mercy to go around. I think that Jesus still dreams that his living body, the church, the family of God might be whole… so keeps inviting the lost and the found, to come home.

An image from Holly’s preaching that has stayed with me all week is that of the big Alaska “break up”—the thick ice melting to slush and sludge, coming out from the crevices, and revealing all the winter’s garbage. I’ve noticed it around here too, on my walks to and from work each day… side by side with spring’s new growth, snowdrops and crocuses, is evidence of our garbage… garbage for which there’s no easy solution. An image from Ben’s preaching that I found especially compelling was the image of Patrick—who was doubly freed from slavery… first, freed from being a slave. Then, freed from having to be free. As Patrick followed his dreams, God called him back to a home he never would have expected…called him into service.

This seems to be how life is... that we are called home in ways we did not expect. There are both painful vulnerabilities exposed and unexpected joys in that homecoming. There is new growth that springs up right next to all the old garbage. We can’t escape the paradoxes of being sinner/saints, of living in the already/not yet, of longing for home and at the same time resisting it… and yet what is shocking, again and again, is that we are welcomed again and again with arms of unconditional love (even when we’re not good at saying we’re sorry).

Ironically, last night at my house was an example of just this kind of brokenness.
Here’s a few excerpts:

Why were you home so late? Why do you come in & leave your stuff all over the house? Do I have to clean up after you all the time? Why are you bugging me about this? I’m trying to spend time with our children. Why are you trying to shame me? Don’t you realize I have a sermon to write?

Somewhere in the midst of this heated ridiculousness, our daughter approached with her wooing grin and said something like: “Mommy, Daddy…I have an idea. Book. Read.” She prompted and her brother echoed, “I love you Mommy. I love you Daddy.” Still mad at each other, but maybe just embarrassed enough that our daughter felt the need to help us make peace, we listened… we went and read “Good Night Chicago,” our evening ritual. We sang, we prayed. We helped them go to sleep.

I’m not proud of that little scene and especially not proud that children should ever have to play the role of peacemaker with their parents… but maybe it does give a glimpse of how God is constantly working in us, among us, in spite of us—turning our heads and our hearts with a  quiet word from a daughter. Running to us like a father who has thrown all caution to the wind.  Wooing us whether we’ve come straight from the pigpen or are way too righteous for that kind of shenanigans. Working to make the family whole. Working  so that the lost and the found might be found, and might together express the extravagant welcome of God.

Even when we can’t quite bring ourselves to say it…“I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

There God is… “I love you. I forgive you. I love you.”
And even more… celebrating the return home.

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