Scripture: Luke 15:11-32 (the Prodigal Son)
I want to tell you the story of two young women who lived their lives in very different ways.
Both were raised in good homes with good parents. Both grew up going to and participating in a church. Both of them went off to college with dreams of growing up to be someone successful.
But one of them got caught up in life away from home. Let’s call her Debbie. She was on her own, and she was caught up in the new world around her: new people, new surroundings, new ideas, and new values. Debbie partied with her friends on Saturday night, so she slept in on Sunday mornings. She still claimed to be a Christian, but she wasn’t sure if it really mattered anymore, now that she was all grown up. The only times she thought about God, she felt guilty. Or maybe when she felt guilty, she thought about God. Either way, God and guilty started to go together in her mind, and she tried her best to leave both of them behind. When she’d come home to visit, her parents could convince her to go to church with them, but her life was so full of new people that she struggled to put names with the faces of these “old people” of her life who seemed so marginal now. As doors opened for her in the world away from home, she gently (and sometimes not so gently) closed the old doors behind her as she made a new way with a new life.
Slowly but surely, her old values slipped away, until she was only a reflection or maybe a shadow of the person that had left home years before. She began arguing with her parents because they and their life was fine, but it wasn’t “the real world.” She didn’t squander their fortune; she squandered her upbringing, a different kind of fortune, until the day she really found herself at the bottom of a barrel, and she found that the only arms reaching in to pick her up were those of her parents. They put her back on her feet, they accepted her for who she wanted to be, whether it was the old or new version of her, and they pointed her to God. God, was, like the father in the story today, waiting with arms just as wide open as Debbie’s parents’ had been. She made a new life, surrounded by the love of her parents and a new appreciation for a grace-giving God.
The other girl, let’s call her Jenny… she had a different story. She was a good church-going girl. If the door to the church was open, she was there. Even in college. She taught children’s Sunday School, she sang in the choir, and she was a leader of the youth group. When the confirmation class took a trip, they didn’t have to worry about finding a chaperone because Jenny was going. She was faithful. She was everything her parents had brought her up to be.
Outside of church, however, Jenny’s story was another story. She was judgmental. She was resentful. She looked at the people around her, squandering their fortunes or squandering their upbringings, people like Debbie, and she secretly hated them. She didn’t understand how the kids who partied all weekend could find a place in the pew on Sundays. She didn’t understand why people who always did wrong never got what they deserved. She spent a lot of time thinking about what people deserved and what they got. On Sundays, she loved God, but Monday – Saturday, she offered grace to no one.
Eventually, God was able to show her that even she was a sinner and even she was loved. And that undeserved forgiveness – that experience of God as grace, it changed her life. No longer was she the other son in today’s story, resentful that she had done right and no one had thrown her a party. Now she was actually a disciple of Jesus Christ, trying to offer others the experience of grace that she had been given. She wasn’t perfect at it, but she was willing to walk with God through a lifetime to figure it out, to be, as Methodism’s founder John Wesley put it, “perfected in love.”
When confirmation came around this time, I looked at all the books I had, even ordered a new confirmation curriculum, and then I looked at the kids. And I decided that the number one thing these kids needed to know about was the grace of God. We talked about Judaism and Catholicism, the roots of our faith. We went to synagogue and to mass to experience the roots of our worship experiences. But mostly we talked about what makes us Methodist: our understanding of grace. That’s what sets us apart.
We’re not the church of “once saved, always saved.” We’re about free will and the offering of grace. Following Jesus is a choice, a daily choice until it becomes a lifestyle. We’re not the church of an “elect.” Again, we’re about free will and grace, and we don’t believe our lives or our choices or our salvation is pre-determined. We’re not the church of unbreakable tradition. We’re the church that welcomes a moving spirit, the Spirit of God, and we find God in action, not in a recipe. We’re also not the church of religious practice smorgasbord. There’s a method to our madness, means to find God’s grace that have been tested and tried. When it comes to the bottom line, we’re the church of grace. That’s why our slogan as a denomination is “open minds, open hearts, open doors” because that’s what we represent in the realm of Christian denominations. We’re about grace. (In other parts of the country, we’re not even known for our cooking.)
The best description of grace I have ever heard came from my friend John. He demonstrated grace by letting the children eat fresh donuts in front of the congregation during children’s moments. Think about that. Getting what you don’t deserve when and where you don’t deserve it. It’s just like grace. God is graceful. God gives us what we need, what we don’t deserve, whenever and wherever we don’t deserve it. We don’t have to be perfect. We can totally wreck it, and God will take us back. We can take our freewill and run as far away as possible, and God will be there too. We can take what we’ve been given and shatter it into a million pieces, and God will be there, putting those pieces together without us even realizing it. We can be at the bottom of the deepest pit, and God is there reaching down to lift us out.
That’s what today’s Bible story is about: grace. But which character are we called to be? This story is about how we, like the prodigal son, like Debbie in my modern retelling of it, it’s how we receive God’s grace when we have gone astray. But it’s also about the other son and how we who have received God’s grace handle offering it to others.
So many times, reception of God’s grace fades over time, and we can be found resenting, hating, judging others for real or perceived faults or mistakes. We can be critical like no others before us because we have God on our side. This story shows us that the next step after receiving God’s grace is to give it to others. The character we are called to emulate is the father. We are called to be constantly more like God, more forgiving, more loving, more grace-filled, more graceful.
Our confirmands may grow up to be prodigal children, like Debbie, walking away from what they learned here while a church prays that they’ll come home again. And when they come home, it won’t be in disgrace, because there will always be grace waiting for them here, like there was in my church… I mean, Debbie’s church.
Our confirmands may grow up to be the like the son who stayed home, like Jenny, accepting God and church but not accepting and offering grace to others. And we’ll just have to pray that they’ll walk far enough down that road that they learn that the path of Christ has no room for resentment, hatred, or judgment. Because that realization is the true message of Methodist discipleship of Jesus Christ, and it changed my life, I mean Jenny’s life, to realize that receiving grace means offering it to others.
“Debbie” and “Jenny” aren’t real people. Both of these young women were simply me at various points in my journey on this road to being perfected in love. I speak as one hungry person telling others where I found bread when I say, the best bread of all, the bread that you eat and never hunger again… it’s the grace of God. It’s in accepting and offering undeserved forgiveness that I have found peace, I have found love, and I have found an understanding of God that stands up to all other ideas that may come my way.
My mission here, whether with the confirmands or with the congregation as a whole, is to help you see that this choice of church, this choice of faith, this path of Methodist discipleship, it’s not a choice. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a journey. Life will still be filled with dangers, ups and downs, successes and failures, comings and goings, but following Christ means accepting the beautiful, marvelous grace of God and learning to offer it a little more each day to others.
Bottom line: God’s grace is life-changingly awesome. What God wants from all of us and for all of us is for us to leave behind our prodigal ways, to leave behind the ways of the resentful son, to accept the grace God offers and reflect it back to a graceless world.
May our confirmands, as they take the vows today to become members of our church, become members of God’s lifestyle of grace. May they live lives full of peace, full of love, graceful lives. May we all. Amen.