Reset: Gear Up Your Attitude for Change
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
September 13, 2015
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-24 (CEB)
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3Jesus told them this parable:
11Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
14“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20So 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. 21Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22But 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! 23Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
I don’t know if there’s another story in the Bible that tells of such radical change as this story of the Prodigal Son. We will unpack the story more as we go along today, but here is this young man who, in the height of selfishness and stupidity, essentially steals his inheritance, runs off to a foreign land where he squanders what he has been given until there is nothing left, and ends up in a pig pen. He goes from riches to rags, just like that. Then, when he realizes just how bad off he is and that he would be better off working as a hired hand on his father’s land, he heads back home. And just like that, rags to riches. It is a story about the amazing, generous, forgiving, undeserved grace of the Father, and how that grace changes the life of his child. And I must admit to you that this parable intimidates me more than any other story in the Bible. It’s almost impossible to preach this story because it preaches itself. But no story better tells of the change in our lives when we enter into a relationship with the Father than this one.
We continue this week our look at the subject of change, how we approach change, how we are affected by change, and what the Bible tells us about change. When we, as Christians, talk about change, the first thing we need to acknowledge is the very fundamental change we undergo when we become Christ followers. This parable of the Prodigal Son is a perfect example of that change. Listen again to those beautiful words from the end of this morning’s reading, “[T]his son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!”
To more fully understand the transformation of the Prodigal, we need to understand the family dynamics at play at this time. To begin with, to ask for your inheritance from your Father while he is still living implies that you wish your Father were dead. You’d rather have his goods, his property than him. And secondly, the inheritance would not have been liquid assets, it would have been property. So, in order for the son to be able to go off and live licentiously in some foreign land, he would have had to sell the property he just inherited so that he would have some cash. A family’s status in this time was measured in great part by the amount of property it owned or controlled. For the son to go and immediately sell half of the family’s property would have brought a great deal of shame on the whole family. Quite simply, he was doing very evil things, and it was against his own family!
But it didn’t end there. The son’s actions furthered shamed his name and that of his family. He squandered all the money he had gotten from selling his family’s property to the point that he had nothing left. So he hires himself out to one of the locals who sends him out into the fields to feed the pigs. Here again, we need to understand the level to which this young man has stooped. As you know, Jewish dietary laws forbid the eating of any animal with cloven hooves. In fact, it was really looked down upon for Jewish people to have anything to do with such animals, much less to feed them. And not only is this man feeding the pigs, he longs to eat from their slop. I think it’s fair to say this young man had hit “rock bottom.”
But that’s not where this story ends. Eventually, as Luke tells us, the son came to his senses. He realized just how far he had fallen, just how desperate his situation really was, and he thought to himself that at least he would have food and shelter if he worked as a hired hand for his Father. So he began the long journey back to his home, and I image it was an incredibly long journey, with plenty of time to consider his hurtful and careless actions and to wonder if his Father would even speak to him, much less hire him to work on the family land. Then, as he trudges over the horizon, his Father sees him, and he is moved with compassion. The elder runs toward his defeated son, hugging and kissing him. The son doesn’t have to say anything, but he does anyway. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But in all his infinite grace, the Father doesn’t dwell on his Son’s mistakes, he calls for the fattened calf to be prepared and for all the people to gather to celebrate, for his lost son has returned home again, he was dead, but now he is alive.
We know, of course, that the grace and compassion of the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son represent the grace and compassion of our God. But how often do we let soak in what it means to be loved so unconditionally by God. I mean, just give this some thought for a minute. We may not have literally been in the pig pen like the Prodigal Son, but we’ve hit “rock bottom” plenty of times, I’m sure. Like the Prodigal Son, we have acted foolishly and selfishly probably more times than we can count. We have done things that have shamed our family, or our friends, even ourselves, not to mention God…There have been times when we have “run away” from everything good that has been given to us. We have squandered the richness of God’s blessings in our lives, we have sinned. But what happened when we were so lost? Did we stay there, wallowing in the messes of our own careless behaviors? I don’t think so. We wouldn’t be here together today if that were the case.
No, it was even when we were at our worst, that somehow God still saw in us the best. It was precisely when we thought things could not possibly turn around that God the Father sees us on the horizon, and he runs to us. We were lost, but now we are found. Just when all we deserved was judgment, God in Christ Jesus offered us a hand of compassion and an embrace of love. Just when we thought we were dead, God gave us new life. Quite simply, we were changed. And I think it’s fair to say it was probably ranks right up there as one of the most profound changes we have experienced in our lives.
So here’s the thing. God wants to see our lives changed and transformed as we come into relationship with God. But God doesn’t desire that only for us. This is God’s desire for the whole world. And do you know how God is going to do this? How God is going to be the compassionate, loving Father who runs to his long-lost child? Do you know how God is going to reach the people living at the margins? Through the church. God in Jesus Christ established the church so that we could continue the life-transforming work begun by Jesus. But the institutionalized church, quite simply, isn’t really having much of a transforming impact anymore, which probably means we need to look at a bit of transformation ourselves, in the church.
Have you all heard of a little company called Blockbuster? Less than a decade ago, Blockbuster was one of the biggest names in the movie industry. If you wanted to see a movie, where did you go? To Blockbuster to rent it, right? Back in 2002 and 2003, I was teaching high school band the Lowcountry of South Carolina. I had never lived in the area before, no family around, and my friends consisted of some colleagues and a few young adults from the church I attended. There were many weekends when I would get off work with no plans, so I would stop at Blockbuster on the way home to rent a movie or two to watch over the weekend. This was how people watched movies at home, and Blockbuster nearly had a monopoly on the industry, there were Blockbuster stores everywhere. And now? Nowhere. Since its high point in the early 2000s, Blockbuster has dwindled away to nothing. And yet, what happened to the video industry during that same time? It kept growing, right? So why did Blockbuster close? Because they stopped delivering movies the way people were watching them.
My friends, to say it quite bluntly, the church faces the same fate if it doesn’t change. There are still people out there who’s lives need to be transformed, people who need to be touched with the good news of Christ’s salvation, and the church is the one to share this message. But the entry point is no longer Sunday worship or Sunday School. Churches everywhere have to stop trying to improve on what they’ve been doing for the last five decades, and instead we need to look out into the world, see the broken people longing for life, and we need to run to them. People today are longing for relationships. They want to connect with others in meaningful ways for support, fellowship, and service. These are all things the church does well, but now it’s time for us to focus on taking our ministries outside our doors. Maybe “church” happens with some lunch patrons across the road at Greg’s. Or maybe church happens by going door-to-door with members of the Brainerd Hills community, collecting food for the food pantry. Maybe church happens when we show up to support the CSLA Basketball Team in their first home game after they begin practicing in our gym next month. These are all places where people’s lives can be transformed simply by being in relationship with people who show the love and compassion of God the Father.
I saw church happen this week when the teachers at Spring Creek Elementary School called Ken and begged him to set up a temporary shelter at East Ridge UMC for the folks forced out of the Superior Creek Lodge. Ken had thought about open a shelter before that, but he had decided not to do it. We were to leave Thursday afternoon for a few days to go visit his ailing parents. But the teachers had an important reason for reaching out to the folks at East Ridge UMC. Their concern was that their young students would be able to have as normal a day as possible, despite the fact that they were being kicked out of the only home many of them had ever known.
They may not realize it now, they may not realize it for many years, but the lives of those children and their families will be greatly impacted because of the concern shown for them by their teachers and the churches in their community. Someday, they will remember the love that was shown to them, and they will think of the church, and they will know that they have a place to go. This is transformation. This is the life that comes in a relationship with Jesus Christ. And we can offer it to the people who need it the most. But we can’t do it just sitting in these pews. We have to search for the people longing for relationship, and as soon as we see them in the distance, we must run to them.