September 11, 2016  Texts: Luke 15:1-32

As some of you may know, the Revised Common Lectionary is a listing of suggested Scripture readings for Sunday worship in a three-year cycle. I usually follow the lectionary in my preaching and worship planning, so every week, I look these selections over, and decide which two I’d like to include in the service. So I looked over the suggestions for this week, thinking ‘which readings shall I focus on for my first Sunday at Trinitarian Congregational Church ?’

Well, the first passage was from Jeremiah 4, and it starts with

“A hot wind is coming out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people”

I didn’t think that was quite the right message to start my preaching with.

The other Old Testament choice was from Exodus 32.  It begins,

“The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people have acted perversely”

That didn’t seem to sound the right note either.

Then I came to that marvelous Gospel from Luke 15 about lost sheep and lost coins and lost sons, and God’s lavish love for them all. And I thought “That I can preach!  That fits with a “Homecoming Sunday” theme.”

Over the past several years, there’s been frequent speculation in the scientific community about the possibility of life on other planets. Some years ago, there was an article in Newsweek about what clues scientists were looking for on Mars, which seemed to be made up of freeze-dried desert over most of its surface. One paragraph in that Newsweek article particularly caught my attention.  It said, it part: “Looking for life means looking for water. On Mars this means desiccated lakes and river beds, and “outflow channels” where torrents (…of water) once thundered. Life on Earth can make a go of it in the most unforgiving places –in cracks in rocks deep under the Columbia River basin, inside solid volcanic rock, and in searing-hot thermal vents bubbling up from the ocean floor…“Even in bizarre environments,” says NASA’s chief scientist Wes Huntress, “wherever there is liquid and energy, there is life.”

“Wherever there is liquid and energy, there is life.”

I saved that paragraph because it resonates with so many Biblical images:

– the Exodus story of water flowing from a rock in the desert  to save a people dying of thirst,

–  the prophet Isaiah’s promise that God can make streams of life-giving water flow even in the most arid and barren wilderness,

– and Jesus’ saying that the life he gives becomes a spring of living water within each of us, leaping up toward eternal life.

I think it also resonates with today’s Gospel, the well-loved story of the prodigal son. This too is a story where dried up hearts and dammed up emotions are set flowing with life and love again, even while other hearts are dried up and hardened to stone. I think we can all identify with this story, because we know this story – or some part of it – in our own time. Either directly, or in the lives of loved ones around us, or other people we know. we all know the experience of alienation, of hearts becoming hardened by some feeling of hurt or resentment or betrayal.  And we all know the experience of reconciliation, of hard hearts melting to repentance or compassion or forgiveness.  Some of us have lived in these stories. Some of us are living them even now.

I don’t usually tell stories about myself or my family in sermons, but today I want to share one episode from my family history.

I grew up on a farm in Minnesota, the firstborn of my parents’ five sons and four daughters. My father spent most of his life alienated from his own father, barely on speaking terms.  And he never had an easy time with his sons.  I left the farm when I was fifteen and went away to a seminary boarding school, with the agreement that I would come back in the summer and help with the farmwork. But my nearest brother, Teddy, 6 years younger than I, stayed on the farm.  And as he grew through his teenage years, he had an awful time with my father.  After high school, Ted was farming full-time with my father but Dad and Ted were constantly at war. They were both German-Dutch stubborn , and both proud, and both convinced they were right most of the time. My father was always criticizing and finding fault, And red-headed Ted was increasingly defiant – staying out all night, drinking a lot, pulling away from the family.

Then one day, I got a phone call from my nearest sister JoAnn: ‘Ted disappeared two days ago, Tony, and we don’t know where he’s gone. The police were chasing a carload of kids who’d vandalized a store, and we think he was in the car.  They’ve all disappeared.’  As we pieced the story together, it seems that one of the kids – these were all 18 and 19 year olds –  had felt he was badly treated by the local Goodyear Tire dealer, who didn’t honor the warrantee on his tires, so late one night after a party, he decided he’d pick up the replacement tires himself. Ted was one of the four kids in the car.

Of course, a neighbor reported that someone was breaking into the Goodyear shop, and when they saw the squad car come down the block, the kids took off – without the tires. They were sure that either the neighbor or the police had seen their license plate, and they panicked. They pulled away from the store, and they just kept driving. They drove for three days and three nights before they stopped. They went from Minnesota to Texas.  But we didn’t know that at the time. For weeks we heard nothing.  We didn’t know if they were dead or alive, safe or in jail. Then word trickled back through another family that my brother and his friends had rented an apartment in Texas and got work with a carpentry crew.  They were safe, but we were afraid Ted was gone for good.  The rift in the family had become too deep  and there was too little reason for my brother to return. My mother and sisters and brothers and I were concerned  that this would be the last straw for my father, and he would never let this wound heal, and never forgive my brother if he ever did come back.

But my father was mostly quiet about the whole incident. No raging or storming, no muttering or ‘I told you so.’  I was living out of state at the time, but I made a couple of visits to the farm during those months. When I tried to talk to Dad about Ted, all he’d say was “Ted’s got to figure this out for himself.  He’ll be in touch when he’s ready” Two months later, Ted called my father.  He wanted to come home.  My father asked if he needed money. No, he just wanted to know if it was OK to come home.  My father said yes. He’d talked to the police.  No one was pressing any charges against anyone. And Dad wanted him to come back home.  He told Ted he’d help him get back home.

Well, Ted did come back home, and back to the farm. And there were no recriminations, no accusations, no questions about it.  Ever. Something happened that fall. My father’s heart softened, and he clearly realized that his love for his second son, and his connection with him and concern for his well-being, were far more important than any battle of wills or opinions.  And my brother’s heart was changed that fall too. He came back a much more thoughtful, more mature young man. In fact, shortly after that Ted had a powerful religious conversion and became a fundamentalist Christian. For the next several years, he and I couldn’t agree about anything religious!

I wish I could say that everything was wonderful between Ted and Dad from then on.  It wasn’t of course.  They eventually figured out that they really couldn’t farm together, and Ted got his own place, and a different line of work. But he and his family lived only a few miles from my parents, and they still saw each other regularly.

I share that story, because it was something of a turning point in our family. For Ted’s life, certainly, but for my father and my brothers and me as well, I think. Before that incident, the metaphor of dry desert and hard rock       was pretty much an accurate description of the relationships between the men-folk in my family. If it hadn’t been for that very bleak, very hard time, when the family connection was at the very brink of drying up all together, I think the experience of desert and rock might have grown and dominated, and defined the whole future of our relationships.  But that didn’t happen.  Ted hit the wall.  Ted hit a rock — And so did my father.  And wonder of wonders, the rock softened.  It bubbled. There was water in that rock.  There was energy in that rock. And love  –  not cold, hard, dry animosity, not freeze-dried desert, but warm, fluid, nurturing love  –  came out. Love reaffirmed itself as the bond at my family’s foundation.

What did that NASA article say? “Even in bizarre environments, wherever there is liquid and energy, there is life.”

Of course, the parable of a father and his sons that Jesus tells is not just a family story. It is a theological story, a spiritual story. To an audience made up of outcast tax collectors and sinners, on the one hand, and self-righteous religious leaders and moral purists on the other, Jesus tells the story of a father’s unconditional, unstinting, unbounded love for both his sons, for all his children.  And Jesus reminds them, and us, that it is God’s love that is prodigal. It is lavish.   It is prodigious. God’s capacity for mercy and compassion and forgiveness is bottomless and unfathomable. No matter how dry our deserts, no matter how vast the chasms of built-up hurt and resentment between us, there is a heavenly parent there, waiting with open arms, aching, pleading to reconcile us.

It doesn’t always happen.  Even in Jesus story, we don’t know if the two brothers are ever reconciled.  And sometimes in life we have to live in the ache, in the hope, in the gap for a very long time.  But we do not wait alone.  That Divine father/mother God is watching and waiting and aching with us.  And we do not wait without resources.  That fount of living water, springing up toward life, is flowing within us, waiting for the floodgates to open.

There are times in all of our lives when we need living water to break through our defensive walls, and leap up unto eternal life. When we feel so hardened, so lacking in empathy for the other person that there seems to be no hope for any kind of reconciliation or new beginning, then we need living water to spring up, to restore the vital juices that once bonded our life together with that person’s, to prime the pump again.

The living waters still flow for us, sisters and brothers. They still leap and splash within you and through you and for you; The waters of hope, the waters that cleanse and renew and give life, the waters that wash away death and bring healing, the waters that plunge us into the salvation of God. They rush and leap through our souls and through our world’s soul,  bearing us on toward the promised land.

And it is here, in the church, where we continue to proclaim and celebrate  that Good News.  Amen.