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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

I Recognize Myself in the Lost Son - 03/06/2016

I recognize myself in the lost son in this story.

A couple of weeks ago we had a visitor here. He was a man down on his luck and he was quite open about it with me and  others he encountered here. He had fallen off the wagon and had been out at the bars here in Munising for a couple of nights – after a couple of similar nights in Marquette. He was trying to catch rides with people going in a generally southerly direction and make his way from our wintery part of the country down to Kentucky where, I can only guess, there was something or someone waiting for him.

But his trip had taken a bad turn of sorts when he wasn't able to maintain his sobriety. It happened in Marquette, apparently, and when he lost control over his addiction, he also lost his backpack and everything he had with him. He made his way to Munising and after a couple of nights partying here, he ended up sleeping in the outer vestibule of a local motel. It got down to 7 degrees that night. He had no blanket and not even his backpack to lay his head on.

He came to himself.

The next morning he started seeking out some help and ended up here at Eden. He was extremely repentant and seemed pretty sincere about getting back on the wagon and back on the road to whatever was waiting for him in Kentucky.  We helped him out as best we could. He needed some food and some coffee. He was happy to get a bible to replace the one he said was lost when he lost his backpack. He was thankful for the soap and toothpaste we were able to scrounge up for him. He also needed a safe and warm place to get a good night's sleep and shower before he started thumbing his way south again. So we arranged for a room for him that night. He said he would be happy to stay and worship with us, especially in light of how we were trying to help him. In my mind I ran over the sermon I had prepared and wondered if it would speak to him in anyway. I hoped so.  I thought maybe Eden's hospitality might help nurture the courage and perseverance he was going to need to get himself into a healthier and safer place in his life.

But, he was gone before worship started. As soon as a critical mass of worshipers started coming in that morning, he watched and snagged someone to give him a ride downtown. He slipped out without saying anything to me. Part of him just needed to escape, I guess.  I chuckled to myself a little bit when I realized what he had done and that the person he snagged was Larry. I admit I found it a little satisfying thinking about how uncomfortable he must have felt when he realized the random person he picked out of all the people coming across the parking lot at that moment was the pastor's spouse.

And I admit that I was a little miffed. Here was this guy who came into this busy Sunday morning time – people buzzing around getting ready for worship, but still willing to take the time to help him and listen to him and then he just left. It seemed an ungrateful thing to do, to sneak off like that.

I was a lot like the elder brother in that moment, lost in my anger, rather astonished at the ease with which this other came into my world, and was welcomed with open arms. Experiences like this can feel quite dismissive of the Christ and neighbor-centered lives so many of us strive to maintain. That's hard sometimes. It can make reaching out to help someone like this man end up feeling like we've been manipulated and bamboozled.

I think that is what the elder son likely felt. Here he is, the responsible one coming home tired and probably hungry after another day of hard work in the family business. We find out that he isn't really passionate about his work either. That's something many of us can relate to … coming home from work feeling bitter in some way. And this is what he finds? Was this for real? In taking his inheritance early, the younger son said to the world that his father was dead to him. And now, on top of that, after all that time of living irresponsibly and letting everything he had slip through his fingers, the younger son comes home, desperate and repentant? Does he expect everyone to forget and just plug him back into the day-to-day life in the family like nothing ever happened? That's a hard and jagged pill for someone like the lost elder son to swallow.

***

I recognize myself in the lost son in this story.

For years of my adult life I was not associated with any faith community. I call these years my time in the wilderness. They are the years between my separation from my Roman Catholic upbringing and my life now in the Lutheran church.

It took place over the course of about 20 years and happened, I can now see in retrospect, for a variety of reasons. But one of the big reasons was that I was young and hungry for adventure and experiencing the world with my newly found adult access to it. So I chose, for awhile, a very secular life instead of one centered on my beliefs as a Christian. The center of my life became my career and climbing corporate ladders while simultaneously managing a household and raising the kids with Larry. A lot of that life was rewarding and all of it very important to forming the person I am today. But the more I sought out ways to experience and learn from this world, the more I realized that my hunger for truth and purpose in my life was not being completely satisfied.

For about two years in there, we had started going to a Lutheran Church. We loved it. But then more life happened, we moved away and didn't join another faith community. The wilderness continued.

Two things in particular from that time in my life consistently rise to the surface in my memories. One was the the celebration of Easter. We had young kids at home and so we did the egg dying and Easter baskets and candy every year. But as each Easter passed, I was bothered more and more by feeling that I was being a hypocrite. Without the faith community, without the remembrance of Christ's death and resurrection, Easter seemed so hollow. It just didn't sit right to be celebrating this religious holiday with our kids when the story behind it was so detached. So it got to the point where I stopped calling it Easter. Instead I called it our Rites of Spring and for a little while it made it easier to justify our annual celebration of hard boiled eggs and chocolate bunnies and new underwear and socks.

The other memory that has left a strong impression on me was my awareness of how long it had been since I confessed my sins and asked for forgiveness. Now remember that I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, so for me the norm was to go to confession regularly, to sit in that dark, curtained box with a priest in the adjoining box and actually make my personal confession of sins. We would begin by saying “Bless me father, for I have sinned. My last confession was ….” and it would continue from there with a list of transgressions, a blessing of forgiveness and direction for prayers of penitence.

During my wilderness time, that would run through my head … “Bless me father, for I have sinned. My last confession was June 11, 1978.”  I felt the burden of carrying all of those missteps and mistakes on my heart.

It was in my renaming of Easter and feeling the burden of sin that …

I came to myself.

We moved back to the U.P. again and we returned to that Lutheran faith community. About 10 years had passed. I was a little nervous about returning after such a long absence. We didn't even let anyone know we were coming. We just showed up one busy Sunday morning while everyone was buzzing around getting ready for worship, looking to be welcomed and fed.

We were welcomed with open arms. As I stood there with all those people and spoke those words of confession and heard those words of forgiveness I felt like I was home at last, safe and, for the first time in a very long time, that hunger I'd been trying to answer was being fed. Before I knew it, I was getting more and more involved in the community, to the point that when my old call to a life of ordained ministry came bubbling back up, I had a whole faith community encouraging and supporting me.

Did I deserve it? No. Had I been as faithful of a Christian as others sitting in those pews with me? Absolutely not. But there I was.

I think that is where the younger son is in our story today. All the evidence suggests that this younger son will mess it all up again ... that he will break his father's heart again … that he will continue to infuriate his older sibling.

And all that may happen.

But our lesson from Jesus today urges us to push ourselves beyond our worldly way of seeing things – our worldly ways of negotiating our relationships with the elder and younger brothers in our lives and all the siblings in between. Jesus is trying to give us a glimpse of how God sees us when this younger child of missteps and mistakes is profusely welcomed home and when this older child of responsibility and bitterness is profusely reminded “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.” (v 31)

That is the agility of this parable before us today – at various times in our lives we can enter into it from different perspectives. One day we are a lost son, another day we are the father. Other days we may relate more to the servants witnessing all of this, or the pharisees and scribes worrying over the wideness of Jesus' welcome. Some days we are the sinners and tax collectors eating with Jesus, wondering if this could really be true, that even sinners are welcomed with open arms into this Kingdom of God Jesus brings us.

And no matter which perspective we enter this story through, we are pointed to the same truth. It's the truth that washed us as we confessed our sins and received God's forgiveness at the beginning of our worship. It will feed us at the very central point of our worship as we share the body and blood of Christ and it will emanate from us when we are sent from here back into world. 

First borns and babies, siblings and parents, servants and priests, sinners and all of us … God celebrates and rejoices because once dead, we now have life in Jesus, once lost we are now found, over and over again if necessary.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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