Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lost and Found: Sermon on Luke 15:1-32


Scripture can be found here...

Ask my father. He’ll tell you. I’ve always gotten lost. From the time I could toddle away from my father or my mother or even my older brother. I’ve always felt in my heart the certainty that what was over there, or maybe even just out of sight, must be or bigger, better, or more interesting than what’s here. And so off I would go.

I don’t remember the first time it happened. I was not even two years old. Here’s what they tell me: I was napping in the shade of a tree in the garden while my mother sat nearby weaving. And she looked over at me and saw: there I was, lying on a little mat in that trusting position little children sleep in: on my back, arms flung wide, hands slightly open. She stepped over to the kitchen door to cool herself by taking some water, and when she returned a moment later I was gone. My mother’s panic in that moment is the stuff of family legend… or it was, until I became the family legend. They found me on the other side of the house, only five minutes later. My father tells me my mother aged a year in those five minutes. I was sitting near the sheepfold, clutching a silver coin in my hand that my mother had been fretting over. She kissed me and scolded me and thanked me and took my back to my mat. So they say.

Of course, when you’re lost, you don’t always know it. At least, that has been my experience. I feel sure that, that first time, I was following something supremely interesting… maybe a dragonfly. I’ve always loved dragonflies. I’m sure if I were following a dragonfly I would be entirely confident that I was not lost. You know what they say about sheep. They get lost one tasty blade of grass at a time. Once we nearly lost an entire herd because one tried to cross a ravine, and one by one, they all followed along, breaking one wooly neck after another, until the shepherds and their dogs found them, and led them in a more sensible direction. I never thought of myself as a sheep. But still…

My propensity for getting lost only followed me as I grew. When I was eight I was lost when we were traveling back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem because I stopped by the side of the road to find stones for my sling. My brother noticed I was missing from the group within a half hour, and, beaming, returned me, into my father’s care. Always the hero. Always the star. When I was thirteen I was lost the day before I was supposed to stand in the synagogue, to read from the prophet’s scroll for the first time. I had gone to find a field far away enough that no one would hear my undependable adolescent voice straining to chant the lesson without cracking. I was far away enough alright. I was so far away I missed dinner and showed up, hungry, thirsty, and dirty, only after being rounded up by my father’s field hands.

I am one with a tendency to wander. I am one who gets lost. Just ask my father.

My tendency to get lost worsened as I grew, and it changed. My sense that something bigger, better or more interesting lay just over the horizon curdled, soured, to include a sense that what was right in front of me was inferior, somehow wanting. I looked around at the home that nurtured me, the places I had explored as a child, always so spacious and welcoming… and I saw fields shrunken to tiny patches, and rooms too crowded with faces that ceased to please me, and now just irritated me. One night as we reclined at table with our wholesome but all-too-familiar food I realized it: I wanted to get away. Far away. I couldn’t wait to leave, not just this place, but these people. I wanted to put it all far behind me. My mother was already gone, to Abraham’s bosom, to rest with her ancestors. When I looked at my father all I could feel was annoyance that his was not my mother’s smiling face, just a busy, distracted old man I hardly knew any more. When I looked at my brother… I was consumed with something close to hatred for him. The firstborn, the one who would inherit the double portion of our father’s estate. Always the hero, always the star. I couldn’t stand him.

And then one day, like a tree branch under a weight of ice, I snapped, and I went to my father as he discussed the coming season’s planting with my brother.

The words tumbled out of my mouth. “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”

He and my brother looked at me, stunned into a long silence.

“My son…” he said, and I felt my face go dark with anger. Whatever it was he saw in me stopped his words. My brother looked at me with something like disgust. Then he turned his back. The two of them walked slowly away from the house with me trailing behind, like the child I always felt like in their presence. My father gestured to a parcel of land. “There. That is your third. The servants will draw up the contracts. So be it.” And then he took his tunic between his great hands, and for one terrible moment I thought he was going to tear it, that he was going to show all the world—but worst of all, my brother—that I was dead to him. But he did not tear his tunic. It fell from his hands, and hung limply about him. He shuffled back into the house.

The day I left is hazy in my memory. I remember my father, for some reason, decked out in a long blue robe… his best one. I attempted a smile, but my face wasn’t cooperating. A part of me was so elated. And another part of me… but I buried that part. Pushed it away, far down beneath the surface. I set out with a heart that was almost light. I disappeared over a hill, and my home disappeared behind me. I didn’t look back.

What shall I say about my time away? I went to one of the cities in the Decapolis region… I thought I’d increase my fortune there. But first, I thought I would just take some time to enjoy myself, to get the feel of the big city. Oh, how it sparkled at night, the beauty of candlelight in rooms draped with silks! And I sparkled too, with enough wine in me. Not the measured amounts we had at my father’s table, but enough wine to obliterate my memories of the days and nights of my childhood… and the days and nights that followed, too. Days and nights in which I met new companions eager to show me ways to spend my money on questionable investments, to gamble it away at drunken games, to use it to impress certain ladies whose company I wanted to keep.

In no time… no time at all… the money was gone. My fortune. My inheritance. My father’s work, his life’s labor. All gone. And still I kept drinking, until, one day, all at once, the parties and the gambling ended, because there was famine in the land, and everyone was terrified. I was evicted from the last in a long line of places where I’d found a casual, cold kind of hospitality. I wandered along the roads outside the city until I came to a farm, Gentile owned, where they were needed someone to slop their pigs. I was hungry enough and humiliated enough to take the work, to stop the growling in my stomach.

Sleeping in a kind of barn, up before dawn, to the sounds of grunting and foraging, throwing the smelly mess of leftovers from the farmhouse to the herd. Funny thing is, I came to love the pigs. They reminded me of myself. Living by instinct. Grateful for a nauseating mixture of leftovers. Sleeping when they were full. Not thinking.

One afternoon I sat watching them rustling and sighing and snorting as they settled in to nap. The sun beat down on me… I no longer had the pale skin of a city dweller, I looked again like the boy of the countryside I’d been raised to be. Only… my skin was cracked with wear. As I looked at my dirty hands, I realized they were the hands of a man thirty years my senior. And as I looked again at the peaceful swine, I realized that they were sleeping because they were full. Which I was not, and hadn’t been in months.

I yelled my notice to another worker as I walked back towards the road. I was formulating in my head what I would say…


I couldn’t imagine a sentence to go with that word. And then for the first time in months, his face came to me, loomed over me as I walked, and ran, and walked again towards the place I’d forsaken.


“Father…” I tried again, but all that came to me was, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry… for so many things. I’m sorry for leaving. I’m sorry for wanting your money more than I wanted you. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for looking at you and not really seeing you. I’m sorry for not knowing what abundance is when I am living in the midst of it. I’m sorry for taking good wholesome food for granted. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Eventually a sentence began to form in my head, one I could speak to my father’s stricken face.

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

That was it. I knew. I knew I couldn’t ask him to be my father again. I didn’t dare. But I could ask him, in his simple human decency, which I knew was real and deep, to save the life of a vagrant. To save me.

As I came over the hill to and the house rose into view, I saw him.

He was seated, in that same blue tunic, under a shade tree… the same tree under which my mother had placed me to nap, so many years ago. And then suddenly he was running… running toward me, his tunic flapping around him. As he grew near I started to speak, the words, tumbling from my mouth…

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son—” but before I could even complete my request I was being pulled into his arms, my face against his big heart, and I stopped. I couldn’t speak for weeping. He was weeping too. And then he was calling out to his workers.

“Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

And I tell you, never was there a feast so delicious, meat so tender, wine or figs or cakes so sweet, as in the celebration dinner we shared that night. Never, in any city of the Decapolis, did any company raise a toast with greater joy, or recline at table with a greater sense of well-being, than the joy or peace we shared. I will never forget it. My homecoming.

My father was gone, for a time, from the table… My brother, who did not disgrace his family, who did not take an inheritance and lose it, but who always, in every situation, did the right and honorable thing… my brother… well. I will leave him to my father. I tell you, no one can resist the heart of my father. No one can resist his compassion. Look at me.

And ask my father. He’ll tell you. I spent my life getting lost, but I have been found again, in the embrace of a love that brought me home, and clothed me like royalty, and welcomed be back to a table of abundance and joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.


  1. Wow, I really love this retelling of the story....beautiful and captivating, and moving.

    1. Terri, thanks so much! About 15 years ago I wrote a sermon from the perspective of the older brother.... I was finally ready to tackle it from the younger brother's perspective.

      Here's the other one:

      Thanks again!