Mark was a functioning alcoholic who I met when I was doing my student chaplaincy at a treatment center in the Twin Cities. A “functioning alcoholic” is someone who is addicted to alcohol, but is able to maintain, at least for awhile, their jobs, their families and their lives. Their addiction often does great damage in these relationships, but the relationships continue. Almost always, over time, things do fall apart and the alcoholic will eventually bottom out. Mark hadn’t bottomed out, but he had been sent to treatment after multiple DUI’s.
In one of my conversations with Mark, I made some general reference to the destructive nature of Mark’s alcoholism. Mark interrupted me and said “I don’t think so.” “What?” I said. “I don’t think it’s destructive. I think I’ve got it under control.” “Really?” I asked. “I don’t think that’s true. I’ve heard your wife and your kids talk about the effects of your drinking.” And then Mark said something that really caught me off guard. He said “I don’t think what’s true for you, has to be true for me.” “Really?”
Over the years, I’ve thought about Mark’s comment…a lot.
We live in a world of moral relativism, and it seems like truth has become kind of slippery. Two people can have completely different truths, just based on what news network they watch. Truth is true until we don’t like it anymore. Then we can simply find a new truth, one that we like better.
But as people of faith…as people who follow Jesus, we do believe that there are truths. Truths we put our faith in. Truths that we build our lives on. Truths that Jesus taught. To teach these truths, Jesus often used parables, which were very short little stories, that almost always had a surprise ending, to make a point, or to teach a truth.
This summer, we are going to explore these truths that Jesus taught through his parables. We will do so in an 8-week sermon series we are calling “Truths Along the Way.” And we will look at 8 of Jesus’ truths. One each week. I’ll give you a sneak preview. These are the 8 truths that we are going to dig into this summer:
- First, God waits for us
- Next week, God looks for us
- Then, God gives us each other
- God gives us more than enough
- God’s way is our foundation
- Jesus is our example
- God asks us to share, and
- God welcomes all
These truths sound so simple. And they are. But when we dig into them. When we strive to understand them, well, they become life-changing.
Our series begins right now, with a parable; one of Jesus’ most famous: The parable of the Prodigal Son.
Maybe a quick review would be helpful for those of us who might have forgotten some of the details.
Jesus was sitting and talking with sinners, and tax collectors; the socially undesirable. He did this a lot. Meanwhile, the religious leaders, the pharisees, were over in the corner muttering about Jesus’ obvious impropriety. So Jesus turns to the pharisees, and he tells them a story about a man and his two sons. The man was apparently wealthy. He had resources. And his two sons were living at home, working the farm.
According to tradition, someday, when the father died, his assets would be divided between his two sons, but the oldest son would inherit the actual farm. He would get to stay, while the youngest would then take his inheritance and go somewhere and start over.
So, when the youngest son told his Father that he didn’t want to wait, that he wanted his share of the inheritance now…today…it must have come as a shock to the Father. To make this work, the Father would have had to literally liquidate half of his assets…sell half of what he had…in order to give his son what he wanted.
But the Father loved his son, and so he did as he asked.
And then the son takes off. And we heard in the Gospel text what happens next. The youngest son blows his fortune. For what must have been a long time, he is living fast and loose. That is, until he’s spent all his Father’s inheritance; until he bottoms out.
But don’t you wonder, just a little bit, what the Father was doing during this time? Can you imagine his pain? I mean his son has literally asked him to disassemble all that he had built, give him half of what he had, and then the son just left. I wonder what had happened in their relationship that caused his son to take such drastic measures?
- Was the Dad too strict?
- Did the son have some kind of “oppositional defiant disorder”?
- Had there been a big fight? A blow up?
As much as I’d like an explanation, we’ll never know. We can just assume, safely I think, that the Father had to be in deep pain.
After the son finally comes to his senses…and he realizes that back at home, if he could just face his shame, he’d at least be safe…and he could maybe even earn a living as a laborer for minimum wage, working for his Father. And so, he returns to the farm.
And the scripture says something that I think is really important. It says that “while <the son> was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
“While the son was still a long way off… his father saw him.“
That means that the father was looking for him. He was watching for him. He was wondering…worrying…wishing that the son was home. Every single day, the Father would go outside and look over the horizon for a glimpse of his son.
And when the son appeared on the horizon, the Father ran to him. The Father hugged him.,.kissed him. And the father threw a big party to welcome him back, much to the annoyance of the older brother.
How long was the Father waiting? How long had he been patiently watching? We don’t know. The scriptures don’t say. I have to assume that it was a long time.
Buried in the midst of this story is a truth. It is a simple truth. It was a truth important enough that Jesus wanted to make sure those Pharisees, and his disciples, and we, heard it.
This is the truth: God waits for us. God is patient. God waits for us.
Have you ever done something wrong and been waited out? Have you ever came home after curfew, to find a parent sitting up in the kitchen, waiting for you to walk in the door? Have you ever done something wrong, and tried to hide it? When I was a kid, I did. I was out playing with friends, and I broke a window with a baseball. It was an accident, but I panicked. And I ran home. And I didn’t say anything about it.
And the guilt ate away at me. I felt so bad. But the longer I waited, the harder it would be to come clean, and then the worse I felt. And so I waited longer, and felt worse, and waited…I was caught in a guilt spiral. So I gave in. When I finally couldn’t take the guilt anymore, when I finally went to my Mom (because Mom was easier on me) and when I finally admitted what I’d done, what does my Mom do? She smiles at me and says, “yes, I know.”
“What? You know? How do you know?” “Because neighbors talk.” “Ohhhhhh…. Ok, but why didn’t you yell at me when you found out?” Mom said “Because I knew that sooner or later you’d come and tell me.” “I’m so sorry Mom!” And she said “I know. And I forgive you. You’re grounded. But I forgive you.” Fair enough. And my guilt was lifted.
The Father in our parable was patient. He stood there and waited. He waited to welcome home his son. He waited to restore him. He waited…he waited to forgive him.
Here’s what this truth means: When we wander away from God, and we do wander, God is waiting for us…God is waiting to welcome us home. God is waiting to forgive us. He’s right there…staring over the horizon…looking for us. It doesn’t matter if it’s a couple of days, or if it’s a lifetime. This is a promise God has made. And Jesus is using this parable to demonstrate this simple truth: God waits, and God forgives.
We tend to want to put conditions on forgiveness. That’s a human thing. We say, “I’ll forgive you if…or I’ll forgive you when…” But that is not how God works.
Desmund Tutu, wrote that “in order for real forgiveness to happen, something has to die.” “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die.” He is saying that to forgive, we need to let go of these conditions that we sometimes put on forgiveness, these things that get in the way of forgiveness. We need to forgive like the Father in Jesus’ parable forgives.
The father in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son forgave with no conditions. Any (justifiable) frustration, or anger, or sorrow or grief that he felt, he’d let go…he’d let die. He was patient. He just waited.
In telling this parable, Jesus is describing the kind of unconditional, grace-filled, complete and expansive love that God has for all of God’s people. God, he is saying, is patient. God will wait for us.
My friends, the first of our eight truths is so simple. God will wait. When you wander, God will wait for you. In fact, God will be looking for you…watching over the horizon. And when you return, God will come running, and God will embrace you. God will forgive you…in fact, God has already forgiven you! And God will celebrate.
Know and have faith in this truth. Because as God’s children, we wander often. And Jesus’ truth today reminds you that when you are ready, when you realize that life on your own isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, knowing this truth makes it easier for you to turn your face…towards home, where the God who loves you unconditionally, is waiting…for you.
Thanks be to God!