Many years ago I heard an Evangelist share a story in a sermon that has stuck with me. Let me share it with you as I remember it. It seems that a minster was riding on a train one time and was trying to study for his Sunday sermon. He noticed a young man who seemed exceedingly nervous. The pastor was trying to find an opportunity to encourage this young man, and he said, “Son, you seem so troubled. Is there something I can do to help you?”
The fellow passenger said, “Mister, may I tell you my story?” He said, “I had a terrible argument with my parents many years ago and I left home. I swore and declared that I would never ever come home again.” He continued, “I have not written my parents nor seen them in many years. They are getting on in years now. I realize I have been such a fool, and I want to see them before they die.”
He said, “I wrote them a letter and asked them if I could come home. I told them I would be on this particular train. The tracks run right past our house. I told my Mom and Dad that if I could come home, if they would just take me back, just hang a white cloth on the old tree out there by the railroad tracks. If I see it I’m going to get off when the train comes into the station. But if I don’t see it there, Mister, I’m going to keep on riding and will not trouble them again.”
The preacher said, “Why are you so anxious?” He said, “Well, I don’t know whether the cloth will be there or not. I am so afraid it will not be, but I just hate to look.” The preacher said, “Son, when we get close to that tree, you just close your eyes and I’ll watch for you and I’ll let you know what I see.”
The young man closed his eyes and laid his head back, and the preacher sat there with a prayer in his heart, and said, “Oh God, let there be a cloth on that tree. Dear God, for the sake of this young man, please let there be at least one white handkerchief on that tree.”
As the train rounded the bend, the pastor looked with eyes wide open and a smile spread across his faith. He shook the young man joyously and said, “Look, young man, look.” On that tree those parents had tied every pillow case, every sheet, every piece of white cloth, every handkerchief, everything they had that was white from the top of that tree down to the bottom!What a welcoming invitation! You really can come home again!
For the past few weeks I have been sharing a sermon series on the Parable of the Prodigal Sons from the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. We have focused on the famous younger brother who took his inheritance, traveled to a far country, and squandered everything he had. Sitting in a pig pen he comes to his senses and determines to go home. Once he arrives, expecting to find an angry father waiting with guilt and condemnation, he is greeted instead with a hero’s welcome! All is forgiven and his father throws a lavish party in his honor.
But here is where the parable takes a dramatic turn. This father has an older son who refuses to join the party. He accords his younger sibling with the guilt and condemnation that had been expected of the father! After being begged to welcome his long, lost bother, he rejects the offer and insults his father’s generosity. What is his problem? Why is he so resentful of redemption?
This coming Sunday our focus will be on the “other prodigal” – the elder brother. For the next two Sundays we will see what Jesus is telling us about God and about ourselves in the gripping conclusion to this famous parable.
In the meantime, as we prayerfully prepare to hear a word from the Lord, meditate on these three overarching lessons Jesus intended to teach all of us in this parable:
- No matter how far away you have gone, you can come back.
- No matter how far out you have gone, you can come in.
- No matter how far down you have gone, you can come up again.
- When you do, God will be waiting with open arms, for the door is always open.
Bring your friends and family and join me in worship this Sunday! I can’t wait to see you!
P.S. More than 100 people have already signed up for Rediscovering the Apostle Paul, the Summer Institute of Religious Studies I’ll be leading this July and August. Don’t wait to sign up if you want to participate in this class! Several people have asked if they can still attend if they have summer plans and will miss a week—the answer is yes. We hope to have the sessions available on demand so you can catch up on anything you’ve missed. Also, if you decide to read Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright which I highly recommend, you’ll have a terrific sense of clarity and cohesion throughout the entire course. Copies of the book will be available in the church office next week for $15. Or, feel free to order your own copy (including audio and eReader versions) on smile.amazon.com. Be sure to select Asbury UMC (Birmingham) as your charity of choice. Finally, Chef Bill Marcie has just released his terrific Wednesday Night Dinner menu for each evening before the class begins (served from 5:00 to 6:16 p.m.) and you will be able to sign up for those later today at asburyonline.org/institute or asburyonline.org/wednightdinner.