Sunday’s sermon: There and Back Again

Last week, I ended up with a lovely case of strep throat. (Ahhhh … the joys of being a pastor whose husband is a teacher and whose kids go to daycare. Germs germs germs galore!) Anyway, as you know, we have been journeying through Lent with the parable of the prodigal son and looking at the story from all sorts of different character perspectives. We started with the father, then the older brother, then the mother. Last week was supposed to be the road, and this week, we were going to finish up with the prodigal son himself. However, since most people have heard at least one sermon on the prodigal son, I decided to finish up the series with our final installment this week ……..

Texts for this sermon: Ephesians 2:1-10 and Luke 15:11-32 (The Message)

Red Dirt Road

Of rocks
of gravel
of footprints
     & hoof prints,
     cart tracks
     & camel tracks.
The road goes ever on and on,
                   and the dust clings to our souls.

  • When I was in elementary school, there was a conference that I looked forward to attending every year. At the time, it was called the Young Writers Conference, and it was held at Mankato State University.
    • Googled the conference the other day → newest iteration: Young Writers and Artists Conference[1] held at Bethany Lutheran College
    • Basic format:
      • Keynote presentation
      • 2 sessions before lunch, 1 session after lunch
    • Now, it probably won’t surprise you much to learn that I loved to write as a child, so aside from Christmas and my birthday, the Young Writers Conference was probably my favorite day of the year! I loved going to the various sessions and learning new and different things about writing – how to develop characters, how to map out a plot line, poetry writing, and so on. I went every year for 4 years, and while I remember thoroughly enjoying every minute of every Young Writers Conference that I attended, there’s only one specific session that I vividly remember to this day.
      • Session on seeing the story from a different perspective – point of view of things you wouldn’t normally think of as having a voice → worked with fairy tales for familiarity’s sake
        • “Princess and the Pea” from the point of view of the pea
        • “Cinderella” from the point of view of the glass slipper
        • One story from the point of view of a dress (though I don’t remember which fairy tale that one went along with)
      • And that’s sort of what we’re going to do today. We’ve talked about most of the obvious characters in the parable of the prodigal son – the father and the older brother. We talked last week about a silent character in the story: the mother. This week, we’re going to consider the significance of an unexpected and slightly unorthodox character: that of the road itself.

Of rocks
of gravel
of footprints
     & hoof prints,
     cart tracks
     & camel tracks.
The road goes ever on and on,
                   and the dust clings to our souls. 

  • You see, throughout this parable, the road is itself a constant presence.
    • Parable begins on the road – prodigal son packing all his belongings and traveling to a “distant land”[2] → Think of what the road must have meant to the younger son at that moment.
      • Freedom – no longer under the control of his father or his relentlessly responsible older brother
      • Possibility – The younger son surely knew what kind of future awaited him if he stayed at home: farm work, predictability, more and more of the same. But out there … out on the road … who knows what awaits the younger son out there?
      • And from that possibility → adventure! – How many novels, poems, movies, and songs have been written about the call of the open road?
        • E.g. – first lines of “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman: Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road/Healthy, free, the world before me,/The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.[3]
        • E.g. – 80s classic one-hit-wonder by Scottish rock duo The Proclaimers[4]
        • Probably one of the most well-known stories: J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories from Middle Earth – The Hobbit[5] and The Lord of the Rings[6]
          • “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”[7]
  • But the thing about adventure is that it isn’t always what we’re looking for. At the beginning of his own adventure, Bilbo Baggins, the main character in The Hobbit, could easily be described as downright adverse to adventure when it shows up on his doorstep: “Adventures?” replied Bilbo. “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! … Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today.”[8] And even when we begin willingly and excitedly following the road to adventure, sometimes the road takes a turn we aren’t anticipating – a turn we don’t like, a turn we don’t want to take.
    • Text: About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him to feed his pigs.[9] → certainly not a turn that the younger son wanted to take – go from living the high life to begging for his life
      • Utter distress of situation = abundantly clear in Gr. – “signed on” = joined to/clung to → shows just how desperate the young man was
        • Clinging to this unknown farmer willing to give him a job
        • Clinging to the most unclean animals according to Jewish religion – pigs
        • Clinging to life: He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.[10]
    • And aren’t there are plenty of times when the road of life that we ourselves are traveling takes twists and turns we’d rather avoid?
      • Some resulting from our choices – Eph speaks to this: It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat.[11] → We all make decisions and choices that we’re not proud of. We make mistakes. We misunderstand. We judge. We think of ourselves instead of others.
        • Our working, theological definition of sin = consciously acting counter to God’s goodness and love → It could be as seemingly-simple as gossiping, passing on a rumor without getting accurate information from the source. Or it could be as harmful as violence against another person. Both of these actions mar the face of God’s creation and cause pain.
      • But there are plenty of other twists and turns in the road of life that nobody chooses. No one chooses to …
        • To be sick (cancer, Alzheimer’s, any other disease)
        • To suffer addiction
        • To lose a job, a home, a loved one
        • To battle depression, schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses
        • To find their home in the path of a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami, a flood, or an earthquake
      • And yet, these challenges and more are a part of our lives. The road goes up. The road goes down. And always, the road is there.

Of rocks
of gravel
of footprints
     & hoof prints,
     cart tracks
     & camel tracks.
The road goes ever on and on,
                   and the dust clings to our souls.

  • Ahhh, but for the younger son, the road turned again. That dusty, gravel-laden path that carried him away from his home and his family and everything else that he held dear (except, of course, his squandered inheritance) is the same path that provided him a way back home again. But first, he had to open his eyes and his heart to that way back home.
    • Prodigal son’s decision to take that road home = precipitated by sharp self-realization
      • The Message: “That brought him to his senses” (‘that’ being his predicament of destitution and starvation)
      • NRSV: “He came to himself”
      • Implies a revelation – more than a simple whim → scholar: He realizes the profound discontinuity between who he has become and who he truly is. He does not have it figured out, but he knows something is not the way it is supposed to be. … Something inside of him says, “You were not meant for this.” … So he decides to go home.[12]
        • Once the prodigal son “returned to himself” – once he turned away from the mistakes he’d made and the wayward path he’d strayed – the prodigal son’s feet found the road home again.
    • Road had always been available to him – always open, always there, always waiting → no different than the way back to God when we’ve found ourselves astray
      • Mercy is always there to bring us back again
      • Love is always there to bring us back again
      • The prodigal son didn’t create this way home. He didn’t forge a new path or anything like that. All he did was get his mind and his ego out of his heart’s way.
    • Hear this in Eph text, too: Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, [God] embraced us. [God] took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. [God] did all this on his own, with no help from us! … No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.[13] → God creates the way home for us – that road of forgiveness and mercy, of acknowledgment and

Of rocks
of gravel
of footprints
     & hoof prints,
     cart tracks
     & camel tracks.
The road goes ever on and on,
                   and the dust clings to our souls.

  • And the dust clings to our souls … Yes, the dust clings. I grew up on a farm at the end of a mile-long gravel road, so I’ve known my whole life how insidious and inescapable road dust is. When you walk in it, it clings to your shoes and your pant legs. When you drive in it, it clings to your car and everything in it. And if, God forbid, you happen to be walking when someone drives past you, the dust that gets kicked up will cling to your hair, your clothes, and your lungs. The road goes ever on and on, and the dust clings to our souls. But that’s not the only thing that clings to us. No matter what road we’re traveling, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in or how far away we feel, God’s grace clings to us – unshakable and abundant and permeating.
    • Turns and returns our hearts to God
    • Turns and returns our souls to God
    • Turns and returns our lives to God
    • Eph: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.[14]
    • In the stories of our lives, in the stories of our faith, the road goes ever on and on, and God’s grace clings to our souls. And friends, let me say: Thank God for that. Amen.

[1] http://mnscsc.org/Programs—Services/Student-Academic-Enrichment/Young-Writers—Artists-Conference.aspx.

[2] Lk 15:13.

[3] Walt Whitman. “Song of the Open Road” in Leaves of Grass, © 1856. Accessed via http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178711 on 12 Mar. 2015.

[4] “I’m Gonna Be” by The Proclaimers, found on Sunshine on Leith album, 1988.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. (London, England: George Allen & Unwin), 1937.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings triology (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King). (London, England: George Allen & Unwin), 1954, 1954, 1955.

[7] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. (London, England: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1954), 72.

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit. (London, England: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1937), 6, 7.

[9] Lk 15:14-15.

[10] Lk 15:16.

[11] Eph 2:1-3a.

[12] Michael B. Curry. “Fourth Sunday in Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119.

[13] Eph 2:4-5, 10.

[14] Eph 2:8-9 (NRSV) (emphasis added).

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