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The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell

The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC


The End of All Exploring

Luke 15:11-32

June 16, 1996

Well, a sermon on the prodigal son; it's like the preacher who dreamed he was preaching -- and when he woke up, he was. So familiar; the son squanders his living in the far-off land. Shakespeare captured this wanderlust: "Such wind as scatters young men through the world, to seek their fortunes further than at home where small experience grows." The parable is sort of Jesus' warning to all ne'er­-do-­wells, to all would-be hedonists. Turn! Repent before you wind up in the pig sty!

Images abound: Francis Thompson, in London in the l850's, brilliant, his talent frittered away in carousing, writing years later: "I fled him down nights/days, down arches of years, thru a mist of tears, and under running laughter I hid from him." Or James Weldon Johnson: "Every young man, everywhere, is one of these two sons -- there comes a time when every young man looks out from his father's house, longing for that far-off country. The young man said to himself as he traveled along. This sure is an easy road. Nothing like the rough furrows behind my father's plow. Young man, young man, smooth and easy is the road that leads to hell and destruction. Down grade all the way, the further you travel, the faster you go. Just slip and slide, slip and slide till you bang up against hell's iron gate." Or John Newton, slave­trader, scoundrel, who wrote, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see."

Here's the Good News, we can return, there is forgiveness! And we need, of course, to rap the knuckles of modern Pharisees, those self­-righteous churchgoers, who don't dance in the aisles just because somebody claims to have found God.

But these parables of Jesus are always sneaky. Clarence Jordan said a parable is like a Trojan Horse; looks harmless, you let it in, and then, Bam! It's got you. There are three special moments in the story.

(1) In verse 17, it says, "He came to himself." You may have heard that the boy repented, that he had some profound religious experience in pig­sty -- but this is to overrate the young man. He is simply hungry. He is thinking of one person only -- himself -- and if anything, he hatches a rather cynical plan to go home and use his father again. If there is any change in the boy, any real change, it comes not in the pig sty, but when he finds himself surprisingly swept off his feet by his father. He doesn't even get a chance to repent, he can hardly get a word in before his father swoops him up into the party. We don't on our own innately know about our sin. It's only in the light of God's love that we comprehend darkness in our lives.

Too often we think the problem is that our desires are just too strong. The church seems to take on this dreadful task of stamping out desire. But as C. S. Lewis pointed out on the radio back in 1948, the problem isn't that our desires are too strong, rather, our desires are too weak. We are far too easily pleased. We settle for mere trifles like money, sex, glory, when God wants to give us true wealth, genuine intimacy. We were not made for the far country, however enticing it may be. We aren't pigs. We are sons and daughters, and we dare not settle for less.

Wisdom is when we recognize the empty place inside for what it is. God calling us home. T. S. Eliot put it like this: "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." It was not unheard of for sons, younger sons especially, to try to make it big in the burgeoning mercantile economy of Greco­-Roman world. But you were supposed to invest, to save. The money this boy squandered was his father's, his family's social security. By wasting his inheritance, the son in effect says to his father, "You don't matter." Common wisdom said you don't tempt your son this way, they'll only take advantage of you. This father let himself be taken advantage of. George Balanchine got it wrong in his ballet, which debuted in 1929 in Paris; the son, groveling, the father, austere. No, Jesus says the father ran. Now running is regarded as cool in our culture, but in Jesus' day men just didn't run; to run was a sure sign you had lost all dignity. But this father, who let himself be taken advantage of, cares more for the boy than for his own dignity. He could have given the boy a thrashing, required heavy penance, sackcloth, fasting, ashes. But he ran.

I have a daughter named Sarah -- and I can tell you with absolutely no bias that she is beautiful, talented, bright, marvelous. When she was just four years old, she entered our church talent show. I accompanied her on the piano as she sang, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" -- sitting on the piano, cabaret style. Again, with no bias, I can tell you Judy Garland never sang it better. After the last note, the audience erupted in applause. We took a bow, then hurried side-stage where I swooped her up, twirled her around, hugged and kissed her, and said, "Oh Sarah, I love you." One of my church members was standing right there, looking at us. She said to me, "I wish my father had done that." A little slow to catch on, I said, "You wish your father had played the piano?" She said, "No, I wish my father had loved me."

Now I can't fashion a properly nuanced psychological explanation of this. But it seems to me that people struggle with their relationships with their dads. I hear it all the time. My dad just wasn't there. Or, when he was there, he just wasn't there. This goes on, long after we're grown, long after dad is buried and in the grave. And we look for substitutes, father-figures, teachers, coaches, bosses, spouses -- desperately seeking that blessing, that affirmation, something to fill that gap inside. And it just hurts so much.

Jesus tells this story, I think, for our healing. Your craving can be satisfied. Your seeking is over. God, even now, is running toward you, lifting you, twirling you, hugging you, saying "I love you."

(3) Then there's that older brother. Lincoln was once asked what he would do with the Confederates once the Civil War was over. He said, "I will treat them as if they had never gone away." Of course, there's always some carpetbagger, some spoilsport who leaps into the breach to say, "He's eaten his cake, shall he have it too?"

Harrumpphh!

The key word we so easily miss is right there in verse 11. The father divided his living between them. It's not that he gave the younger son some cash and hung on to the rest. He gave it all up to his two sons. What that means is, when the father kills the fatted calf, and gives the boy sandals, a ring, the best robe -- whose stuff is this anyway? It belongs to the older son! It's his! He deserves it! He's earned it, worked hard for it. This father just takes from the older son, who deserves what is his, and gives it to the brother who is lost.

The principle seems to be that this lost brother cannot be restored until some of the stuff that rightly belongs to the older brother is spent.

Most of us -- we've worked hard, we've earned what we have. We've got a lot of good stuff and we deserve it. It is ours! But we need to let go of what is rightly ours in order to restore that lost brother, that lost sister. We need to part with what is ours not just for them, but for our own joy!

A while back, we brought Millard Fuller to Charlotte. Millard Fuller, you may know, was a wealthy businessman who heard God's calling and started Habitat for Humanity. We decided that instead of having a professional, preacher type to introduce him, we would get a resident from a Habitat House. We asked Melissa Cornet -- tall, gangly, not an accomplished speaker. She was nervous. She poked around for words, but then suddenly began to speak to Fuller, who was sitting on the front row: "Millard Fuller, you are the answer to my prayer. I grew up in a tenement, a terrible place, full of drugs, violence. I wasn't nobody, knew I'd never be nobody. I grew up and had a little boy -- and there he was, in a terrible place, full of drugs, violence. I knew he wouldn't never be nobody either. So I got on my knees and I prayed, I prayed hard, I said, Lord, I will do anything, I will give up my life. But please, please, I just want my boy to have a chance to be somebody. Millard Fuller, when God told you to give away your money, you were the answer to my prayer. I heard about Habitat, and I got to build a house. I met President Jimmy Carter and Millard Fuller. We got a house, a nice house. Millard Fuller, you are the answer to my prayer. Before we moved in, my boy had started school, but his teacher said he was slow, he would probably never catch up. He never smiled. But then we moved into our new house. He had his own room. And he began to shine that day. He got to where he played, and had fun. And he started making good grades in school. Now he's in the third grade, and he's making straight As. The other day, my boy said to me, Momma, do you know what I want to be when I grow up? I said, No, what do you want to be? He said, I'm going to be a doctor. Millard Fuller, you're the answer to my prayer."

About this time, Melissa figured she had talked too long, and gotten off track -- so, a little bit embarrassed, she said, "Well, without any further ado, here's Millard Fuller."

Now, if you've ever been part of a standing ovation, you know how it goes -- one person rises, then another, finally everyone else. But once in a while, an entire body of people leap to their feet. That's what they did for this wonderful woman's speech. Now she walked off to the side, and turned to clap for Millard Fuller. I put my arm around her, pointed to the crowd, and said, "Look, Melissa. They're not clapping for him. They're clapping for you."

For this my child was lost, and is found.

Can you imagine anything better than looking up one day and discovering you were the answer to somebody's prayer?


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