Sermon transcript for March 17, 2013
Bishop Bill McAlilly preaching
Belmont UMC—March 17, 2013
Sermon transcript for March 10, 2013
Another Prodigal Child, Turning Toward Home
Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32
Belmont UMC—March 10, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
I’ve often said that if we only had the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Prodigal Son as sacred texts, we would have a lot. We would enough to keep us engaged in our faith for a life time.
The Parable is a simple and beautiful story of two sons. The youngest son foolishly asks for his share of the estate and heads off to a far land, where he squanders the money on reckless living. “Prodigal” means “wasteful or reckless.” So he hires himself to a pig farm where he spends the day feeding hogs. He is poor and hungry and he comes to that “turning home” moment when he realizes that the servants on his father’s land have it better. In fact, even the pigs are eating better than he is. So he decides to go home, and tell his father how sorry he is and ask to be a hired hand on his father’s farm.
He makes his way home and to his surprise, his father sees him in the distance and runs to him and put his arms around him and kisses him. This is such a beautiful scene. There is a big party for the son who has returned. No expense is spared. He gets a new ring, new shoes, and they kill the fatted calf and celebrate.
The older son, the one who has stayed home and worked on the farm and been faithful to his father, comes home from the fields to hear the sound of music and laughter coming from the house. He asks a servant, “What’s going on?” The servant tells him about his brother’s return and the party to celebrate his homecoming. This makes him furious with resentment and he refuses to go in the house. So the father goes out to meet the older son and the father says to the son, “You are always with me and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate the return of your younger brother, whom we feared was dead but now he is alive and home again.”
Reading this parable again took me down a new path and one that I traveled with some reluctance. As this sermon played out in my head over the last two weeks, it convicted me of some things that I would have rather avoided.
I kept remembering a conversation I had one night at Room in the Inn. Room in the Inn is a ministry of churches in the Nashville area to homeless folks in our community. During the coldest nights, from November to March, these guests are welcomed into churches to be fed and housed for a night. They are given dinner and breakfast and sack lunch to take with him. In most settings they have an opportunity to get a shower and to sleep on clean sheets on mattresses and cots. We share in this ministry every Friday night at Belmont.
Jimmy was a frequent guest at Room in the Inn and I talked with him several times. He was a young man with a gentle spirit and a big smile and I couldn’t imagine how he could have become homeless. So one night I asked him to tell me his story. He said he graduated from High School and his parents offered him money to go a state college, but he wanted to wait a year. During that year he floundered around, wound up in some bad company, drank too much and wound up owing some questionable characters a lot of money. He was afraid and confused so one day he stole a check from his parents’ checkbook, wrote himself a check for several thousand dollars and forged his father’s signature on it. He packed a bag, loaded it into his old car and cashed the check on the way out of town.
He wound up in St. Louis, where he quickly went through the money he brought with him. He worked a little but never made enough to keep up. After his car died, and he couldn’t afford to have it fixed, he abandoned it and wound up on the streets with a few belongings and a sleeping bag. He was a miserable but he didn’t know what else to do. One night several men attacked him while he was sleeping. They beat him and took his belongings. A police officer found Jimmy and took him to the emergency room. He stayed in the hospital for several days.
While in the hospital, he was visited by an advocate for the homeless. The advocate convinced him to call home, ask for forgiveness and hope to be welcomed back. He would make that call and offer to come home, go to work, pay back the money he stole, and try to start over. He said, “I still recall that night of the phone call. My Dad picked up the phone but I was sure my mother was listening in. I cried and told him I was sorry and I wanted to come home. There was a long pause and then my Dad, ‘No, Son. We can’t welcome you home. After what you did to us, which was such a betrayal of trust, you can not come home.’” His father hung up the phone. There would be no homecoming, no celebration, no fatted calf, and no happy ending. What if you can’t go home? Where do you go if you cannot go home?
I was asked to preside at a funeral several years ago. I did not know the man who had died--he was an inactive church member. So I met with his 3 children, 2 sons and a daughter, to plan the funeral. After the service that Saturday I went out to my car to get in the line of cars heading to the gravesite. A young man, whose face was red from tears, came up to me, touched my arm to get my attention and said, “Pastor, did they tell you about me? Did they even mention me?” I did not understand what he meant and I responded, “I’m at a disadvantage here. What do you mean?” He replied, “I was his son, too. Did they tell you about me? I’m the son who was disowned and disinherited?” I asked him if he was going to the gravesite and he indicated that he was. I offered to talk with him after the burial.
After the burial the young man and I walked over to a shade tree and he began to share this story, “I’ve always known I was a gay, but in my mid twenties I finally got up the courage to go home and tell my Father this truth about myself. I knew this would be difficult news for him, but I did not realize how hard it would be and I did not anticipate his anger.” His response was this, ‘If you are going to do this, you are not going to be my son. And he asked to leave and never come back.’ I haven’t seen my father or any of my family since that time—until today.” After the story he told, I was surprised he came to the funeral at all. Where do you go when you cannot go home?
He continued by telling me that he was an architect and lived on the east coast. He said, “I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was sitting in Belmont UMC on Sunday mornings. Bored with the sermon, I would draw pictures of the columns and arches and coffered ceiling on the back of my bulletin. I would love to come to church tomorrow if we have time, but I understand Methodists don’t welcome people like me.”
I assured him that he would be welcomed at our church. I told him about our new building that won an architectural award. “Come and look for me. I’ll give you a tour.” He did not come to church the next day and I never heard from him again.
Imagine you have been living in a refugee camp in Burma for 3 years and now you are on a plane to a place called Nashville, Tennessee, a place where everything will be new and different—the language, the food, the housing, the schools, everything. But all you can think about is this, “I’m leaving my country and I’ll probably never be able to go home again.”
Where do you go when you can not go home? When I was younger, people would ask, “Where is your church home?” That may be a Southernism, and I don’t hear that much anymore. But I like the idea of home being a metaphor for church. Where do you go when you can’t go home? Is it possible that you might make your home here with us, among the people of God at Belmont?
When I read this story this week, I read it through the lens of hospitality. We use the term “Radical Hospitality” around here. This has emerged as a major theme in our discernment process, sometimes by those who think we do this well, sometimes by others who are concerned that we are not doing well enough. I prefer the words “genuine hospitality” or “authentic hospitality,” and this kind of hospitality always looks radical to the world, but to Jesus it just looks normal. And we are the Jesus People so it should look normal to us as well.
Looking at this story through the lens of hospitality we ask the question, “Who are we in this story?” Are we the older brother? If you call home in the middle of the night and want a bus ticket back to Nashville and the older brother picks up, you’re not coming home. He’ll tell you that you are no longer welcomed.
Are we the father in this story? Are we willing to be on the watch for those who need a home, are we willing to love them and run out to them with open our arms, embrace them and welcome them in? This kind of hospitality means more than a word of welcome, mixed with a little suspicion or resentment; it means an all embracing, glad hearted welcome, the kind that makes us want to throw a party.
Where do you go when you can no longer go home? You can come and make your home with us! May it be so!
Today, I invite you to a time of quiet reflection. Pray for Belmont’s ministry of hospitality. Pray for someone who needs the church to be a home for her/him.