A Place to Belong

A sermon based on Psalm 32 and Luke 15:11-32 preached on September 25th, 2016

Sermon audio

We all want a place to belong. Whether we realize it or not, even in our hyper-individualized world that celebrates the accomplishment of self-starters and self-doers—at heart, we human beings have been created for communion—to share life with others, to be a welcomed part of something bigger than ourselves. To belong to a family.

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At Montreat this last summer, Harper, Tatum, Andy, Karen, and I woke up way too early in the morning after going to bed way too late the night before, to make our way to worship. Each morning, we sang and danced, and prayed, and listened for another message from God.

That very first morning, the keynote preacher, Robert Alexander, hung a sign from around his neck—a big one that couldn’t be ignored. In giant, bold letters, it read Child of God. He wore it like a badge—like a gigantic nametag, each and every morning as he preached. He talked about how everywhere we go, you and I belong. We belong to a family of which everyone we see—neighbors, friends, strangers, enemies, all!—are beloved children of God.

After that first worship service, the five of us went our separate ways to gather together in our Small Groups, where among of things, we had a chance each morning to discuss what we had heard in Robert’s morning message. And I asked my small group what would it be like if everyone wore a sign around their necks that said Child of God?

Imagine that with me. What if, wherever you go, no matter in what direction you looked, everyone you encountered throughout your day wore a sign like that? How would it change things? Would we treat one another differently? How? Would we be kinder, more joyful? Would it open us up to one another more? Make us feel safer in each other’s company?

And if you were wearing the sign, too, how do you think others would treat you? Would it make you feel uncomfortable? Would it make you feel more vulnerable? Vulnerable in a bad way, or vulnerable in a good way? Would you wear the sign proudly and boldly, or would you want to tear it off or hide it somehow? Would it matter if everyone around you was wearing the same sign or if you were the only one wearing it?

The youth in my small group were quick to answer my question. They thought that if we walked around wearing a sign like that around our necks for everyone else to see, it would only cause problems. They thought that people would see the sign and ostracize them for declaring their faith so publicly. And if everyone wore the sign, then it would be just as good as if nobody at all wore one. Almost like all our Child of God signs would cancel each other out, or after a time, we would all easily overlook them, so they wouldn’t matter at all. I was disheartened by these answers. But, spoken by the mouths of teenagers, these answers hint at the honest truth about our humanity.

Being human means dealing with a host of complex and complicated relationships, sometimes—or even most of the time—within our own families. Relationships that are far from ideal. We all seem to know, at least in theory, that our relationships with others are supposed to be safe and whole and satisfying—that in a perfect world, they would be places where we would belong, exactly how we are, no exceptions. But, we all are very well aware of our imperfection and the scars in our relationships with one another, how far off from ideal things really are, both within our families and within the greater families of our friendships, our neighborhood, our community, certainly our world. We have hearts that often refuse to regard others as beloved. It’s almost as if we think that God’s love is a scarce commodity—there’s only so much of it to go around. That in order for some of us to belong, there have to be others who do not.

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I want you to find a pencil or a pen. Hopefully you find one or the other in the pew in front of you. Find the bulletin insert with this parable on it. At the top, it reads, Parable of the Lost Son. Cross out the words “Lost Son.” I want you to write this instead: “Dysfunctional Family.” Go ahead, write it: “Dysfunctional Family.” …There, that’s better. Religion Professor and Christian author, Barbara Brown Taylor, refers to this story as the Parable of the Dysfunctional Family. Thank God for that!

If ever we thought the people in the bible had it all together—or at least more together than we do—here’s a story where God’s Good News works through a family that seems to have no idea how to be in relationship with each other. The father has no backbone. For some inexplicable reason, he caves whenever his ungrateful younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, which basically means he’s wishing his father were dead. And whenever one son gets his inheritance, all the other sons in the family get their slice of the pie at the same time, too. Which leaves the father without any liquid assets at all. What was he thinking?

The older brother lives in silent resentment, perhaps long before the younger brother ever left, he had this notion that the only way to get the love of his father was to earn his way into it, as if love was ever something to earn. As if the only way to belong is to carve your own rightful spot in the family, to prove to your own father that you deserve a place in the family. The older son seems to think of family as some sort of business deal. There’s no understanding of love here at all. His relationship with his father is some sort of contractual agreement. Carl Jung would have a field day with that one!

And the younger son. How selfish and ungrateful could you be! He seems to answer that question in one fail swoop! If Jesus was right, that your heart is always where your treasure is, it’s clear where the younger son’s heart is. What a jerk! But then again, as far as that goes, isn’t his older brother giving him a run for his money?!

And where’s the mother in all this? Had she passed away? Was she upstairs completely oblivious to what’s happening here? Why didn’t she have a say in the matter? Since her husband just handed their two sons their inherence, when he dies, there’s nothing left for her to survive on. This is an astoundingly broken family! Secrets and schemes abound!

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In order to understand what Jesus is trying say by all this, we have to back up to the first 3 verses of Luke chapter 15. They serve as the context for last week’s two, small parables as well as this one.

Jesus was inviting to dinner all these folks of dubious and doubtful reputations. Prostitutes, tax collectors, who knows who else. Riff-raff. They were the scum of the earth. The Pharisees and Sadducees saw them hanging out with Jesus—he invited them to breakfast, lunch, and dinner—treating them with kindness and respect, as if they deserved such treatment. They saw this, and they were furious! Certainly God doesn’t approve of these sorts of people, the Pharisees and Sadducees believed! God loves the folks who make more of themselves, who at least make an effort to behave and live reasonably! God helps those who help themselves, does He not? Apparently it’s not that simple.

There are two different reactions to the grace of God. The first reaction is utter surprise and joy, because you have an acute sense that you’re completely unworthy of God’s favor. That happens when you’re down and out and you’re well-aware of it. The second reaction to the grace of God is resentment and bitterness. That happens when you’ve worked your tail off all your life, understanding that your hard work and devotion should earn you a leg-up with God. And whenever we witness another being welcomed so joyfully and thoroughly into God’s family despite living a life of questionable or downright offensive character, we come off looking a whole lot like the older brother. We throw up our hands and say, “What about me? Don’t I deserve more?” I wonder, Do we really want God’s grace to be amazing?

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The truth is, of course, both sons are lost. There’s one who strayed off for miles and miles and years and years, and then there’s the other who stayed close by but whose heart grew too bitter and resentful for him to ever feel like he still belonged.

This is the Parable of the Dysfunctional Family. Both sons, in drastically different way, had fallen out of relationship with their father. Both had burned their bridges in one way or another. But by the end of Jesus’ story, the father does something remarkable. He sees both of his sons in their brokenness. He comes running after both of them, across all of their burnt bridges. He embraces both of them, and reaffirms their place in the family. The father restores them both to full relationship. Calls them both “Son.”

See, friends, there are no burnt bridges in the Kingdom of God. Whether, like the younger son, we’ve wasted opportunity after opportunity or whether we’ve always played it safe (maybe all of us are both at different times), God’s arms are always outstretched to welcome us back into full relationship, restoring to us a place in the family of things, showing us that we belong. And it’s all—every bit of it—a gift. Entirely unearned. Completely undeserved.

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The opportunity for us, as we all stand unworthy but still completely immersed inside, of God’s gift of grace, is to turn outward. To spread out our arms in gratitude and openness in response to the grace of God, and in turn, welcome in the prodigal and the messy among us—those, who like the younger son, think they can do it all on their own, but are failing, dirty and tired, hungry and spent. And those out there who, like the older son, are also failing in their individual efforts to live impressive lives, who have no notion of grace. Who are lost in their own pride, unable to trust in anyone but themselves—and are exhausted, but can’t find a safe place to exhale, a place to be imperfect; who have no idea how loved they are by God, not for what they do, but simply for who they are: a child who belongs to a God who will always run out to welcome us home!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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