This sermon was preached on March 10, 2013, at Wallace UMC.
15Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 So he told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
8 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve preached on this passage. No doubt I will preach it many more times. It was one of my first sermons, and when I did it, I did that on a mission trip in front of about 50 youths. I don’t know if there’s a group of people that need to hear this message than the youth. It’s the youth of the world that are most at risk of being lost, of walking down a road of thorns and suffering, of fear, doubt, shame, and pain, all of which they would never have experienced if they had stayed at the farm. The worst part about that road though, is that it’s just as painful to walk back home on it. This is not to say that it’s not relevant to people of all ages, but it’s not the people of all ages that people of faith have a hard time reaching. The youth are the ones who are the future of the church, and it’s the youth who are leaving us.
It’s been well documented, especially by the Barna group and the Pew forum, that the youth of the United States are leaving the church in droves. According to the Pew forum, only 68% of people aged 18-29 are affiliated with Christianity.  Only 6% of that age group are affiliated with other religions, like Judaism, Islam, and the like. That leaves 25% unaffiliated, and 1% abstaining. Fully ¼ of that age group is not affiliated with any religion. Of course, this also needs to take into account the number of people who come from unaffiliated households, raised by people from their parents’ generation that were unaffiliated. But the number from their parent’s generation is far smaller, only 15% of people aged 40-49 are unaffiliated. Assuming that their children remain unaffiliated, this means the other 10% of unaffiliated young adults come from churched households. If Jesus were to re-tell his parable of the lost sheep in this context, that means he would have to change the number from 1 sheep to 10 sheep out of a hundred. (Naturally, he wouldn’t have to change the number in the lost coin parable. He is a prophet, after all. He has his bases covered.)
The Barna group, in their most recent book called You Lost Me, outlines 6 reasons why the youth and young adults of today leave the church. The first of which is that they feel that the church is overprotective.
Youth feel that they are being stifled, that the church demonizes everything that is outside of its walls. Not only that they feel that the church is not concerned enough with the world’s problems, and that the church places too much emphasis on the idea that movies, music and video games are harmful.
The second reason they leave is that they feel that Christianity is shallow. They say that “church is boring,” “faith is not relevant to my career or interests,” that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” and even that “God seems missing from my experience of church”.
The third reason? Churches come across as anti-science. They feel that we are overconfident in our own opinions, and in all honesty, they are turned off by the evolution debate.
The fourth? Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. That one seems fairly self-explanatory to me.
The 5th? They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. They feel that the church is too afraid of other beliefs, and even that more often than not, they feel pressured to choose their faith over their friends.
Finally, the sixth reason is that the church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. They feel that the church is inattentive or dismissive to serious questions of faith and doubt.
These are not small potatoes, brothers and sisters. These are the things that cause our children to leave the church. Believe me, as someone who has struggled with almost every single one of those issues, it’s no wonder that they leave. I was blessed to have people who were willing to talk frankly and honestly with me about these issues, and to have the patience to seek them out on my own. Most people are not so lucky. This is a problem in the church. The father’s house, as it were, has proven to be a home with far too many restrictions, far too much judgment, and far too many antagonistic behaviors for them to feel welcome, or even safe, at home. In disaffection and anger, they leave the house, take with them what they have inherited from their father, and set off in hopes that the devil they don’t know treats them better than the father they do.
So they leave. They leave the church in hopes of greener pastures, of a more fulfilling life away from the restrictions and the judgments of home and in search of meaning elsewhere. They seek their passions unrestrained, and in many ways they are happy, for a time. But at the same time, there’s a great deal of regret there. They miss their homes. They miss what they left behind, in some ways, because they see what it was meant to be, but can now only see the brokenness of the home they left behind.
In the end, though, some might find some comfort away from home. They may not squander it all. They might even be successful. However, for those who do squander it all, the story is not so good. The rest hit rock bottom. They find themselves in the slop trough with the pigs, haunted by their own choices, their sins piling up all around them without any signs of hope. As they gaze into the past, they see the home that they left, and they remember that though it was flawed, it was better than where they have wound up. They decide to go home, and ask for forgiveness.
However, they do so fearing that our repentance will go badly. Slowly they trudge on to the home they used to know, recalling every judgmental word, every ignorant aphorism or sentiment that we throw out, unthinking of the damage that those at home have done. The insults that hurt the most are from the ones we love, and they are the ones they fear as they come back on the long, thorny road home. Feet blistered and tired, they come upon the familiar entrance to the family home. There, our prodigals are met by two reactions, one positive, and one negative. The one Jesus would have us learn is one of them, the one he wants us to avoid is the other.
The story of the prodigal son is usually told by itself, without the other parables that come before it, but I think we miss out on two thirds of the story if we do that. Jesus told these parables as a sort of a trilogy. Each informs the other. Each reinforces the main point that Jesus wants us to learn: God is forgiving. This forgiveness is offered to the sinner. This is all true. While we might fear that God can’t forgive us, the truth is God is one who is merciful, and loving, and willing to accept anyone and everyone into God’s arms.
Jesus paints God as a shepherd who will drop everything to find a lost sheep, a woman who would drop everything to search for a lost coin, and a father who, upon seeing his lost child coming home in the spirit of repentance, drops everything to welcome the child home, and even throws an expensive party to express the joy that he feels now that the child has come home. However, the object of these stories is not that God’s forgiveness is in question, but ours is.
The one we should concern ourselves with is the reaction of the older brother. This is the reaction of jealousy, of negativity, of judgmentalism, ignorance and shame—and it’s the one reaction that Jesus singles out against all the other actions taken in this trilogy of parables. It’s everything the prodigal child left home to get away from. It’s all the reasons they left for, and it’s the response the older brother gives them. The older brother sees the joy of their father, the extravagant welcome that the prodigal receives, and resents them. He resents the brother for leaving, and then having the gall to come back, of course, but not near as much as he resents the father for welcoming him back.
He resents the Father because he is forgiving the one who messed him over royally, who took his grace and wasted it on himself. He resents him for the apparent extravagance of the rejoicing that is taking place now that the prodigal has returned. He gives into the worst aspects of the church today by being judgmental, close-minded, and over-protective and overly-exclusive. The older brother is then scolded by the father. He had been the benefactor of the goodness and grace of God, but he is not grateful, nor is he happy for the one who was lost and was found again. It’s an attitude of ungraciousness and inhospitality that drove the prodigal away, and it is the one thing keeping him from returning.
So we must now learn from these parables. For those who are lost, who feel rejected and ostracized, stigmatized and disenfranchised, know that God will always love you, and will never fail to receive you into the gracious and loving arms that are offered to those who wish to come home. Like a loving parent, a good shepherd, a wise woman, God loves you and is searching for you.
As for the rest of us, who remain in the church, who remain in the house of the father, it’s up to learn to be gracious and forgiving, open and hospitable. We need to be able to handle the tough questions, and take seriously our faith enough so that when a young person calls us on whatever they call us on, we’ll be able to answer them and not just shrug it off and give them a pat cliché answer. We need to be able to be as forgiving as God is. No, it’s not easy. But we pray that we can forgive as God has forgiven us. We need to take that seriously.
Our God is a forgiving God. We should be a forgiving people. People who are in need of repentance are in need of a home. It’s hard enough to make the journey on the road back home. Let’s give the prodigals a good home worth come back to. Amen.