Good To Have You Back, Son
Luke 15: 11-31
You could outline the experience of the younger son with this succinct description: sick of home, homesick, home!
We don’t know if harsh words were said between the boy and his father when the boy demanded his share of the inheritance. But we do that the younger boy was so hungry to be free from home and responsibility that he wished his father dead–at least symbolically–by asking for him to settle his estate early and give both brothers their share. So the younger brother takes off to a far country, and spends his substance in loose living, or as the KJV so deliciously puts it, “in riotous living”. And he began to be in want. And Jesus says, “He came to himself.” He came to himself.
I know a man who likes to swim in the ocean. One winter he Florida he was swimming in the Gulf, and was caught by a strong current. He suddenly realized he might not be able to get back to shore.
The younger son in this story had gone so far out that he might not ever been able to get back. It was a moment of crisis and a moment of awakening. There are two great days in our life–the day we are born and the day we discover why we were born. SO HE CAME TO HIMSELF. He began to realize who he was. He began to realize where he belonged. He began to realize where he had gone wrong.
So the prodigal makes the journey home. He comes with a carefully prepared speech, not so much expecting get back in the good graces with his father, for he knows that will never happen again. But at the very least he figures that he can have what his father’s hired hands have; three square meals a day and a roof over his head. But his father will have nothing of the speech making. He shushes him; he kisses and embraces him, and throws the party of all parties for him.
Now he comes home, you must remember, having spent all of his inheritance in loose living. He comes home–and remember this: now he has to live off his brother’s inheritance, what rightfully belongs to his older brother.
No wonder his brother was seething. You and I would be, too.
He has been out in the fields, hoeing corn. He’s dirty, the he’s hot, he’s tired, and he comes in from the fields to hear music and merrymaking inside.
”What’s going on?” he asks a servant.
When he gets the story, he refuses to go inside. He draws a line in the sand which he will not cross. So his father has to come outside to meet him, and he spews out his indictment:
“Here, all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed you command; yet you never pitched a party for me so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back…” (Note what he says–not, “My brother,” but “This son of yours” meaning “I want no part of him. He isn’t my brother.” “When this son of yours came back, you killed the fatted calf.”
So here he stands seething. He is angry because his own behavior has not been rewarded. He is a typical first-born: trustworthy, loyal, brave, and true. He is what family systems therapist call the “hero” child, the good boy, who is always praised for being responsible.
Those of us who are first borns know a little how he felt. It’s a heavy burden to carry being the first born in a family– always having to be the good little boy, the good little girl. There are times we hate that role. And part of the anger the elder brother felt, I am sure, is that his younger brother went off and did what he had often thought about, but never had the courage to do: to throw responsibility to the wind, to play, to be carefree, to have fun day and night.
And so when his younger brother comes back, all he can do is to hide behind a barricade of self-righteousness. All he can do is to point out to his father how dutiful he has been; how hard he has worked.
What a good boy am I–and now what does he have to show for it.
We know that Jesus chooses the elder brother in the story to challenge the Scribes and Pharisees who couldn’t understand why Jesus would rub shoulders with the riffraff of society, tax collectors and sinners. Theirs was a religion of loveless piety, loveless morality and loveless respectability. So Jesus takes pains to say that such an attitude is not only suffocating; it is downright dangerous. For when we, like the Scribes and Pharisees, feel that we are good little boys and girls, that we keep all the rule, that we lead respectable lives, then it is very hard to see ourselves as sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy. In fact, there is a correlation I have noticed in my ministry: the more decent and upright we are, the harder it is to understand and receive grace. The two verses in the Bible that every respectable person needs to carry in his heart are these: “There is none righteous; no not one;” “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
And then there is the main character of the story, the father. Jesus does not begin his tale by saying, “There once was a man who had a father and an elder brother” but “There was a man who had two sons,” letting us know whom the story is about–a father who loved two children and wanted them to love each other, as well.
The father in the story is transparently a figure of God. And notice what the father does. He goes out to meet both sons. In the case of the first boy, “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
In the case of the second son, who was sulking outside the house, “His father came out and began to plead with him.”
Here is the picture of the God who takes the initiative with us. In the first case, when we feel broken, sinful and ashamed of what we have done, the father has compassion. He runs and puts his arms around us and kisses us. He doesn’t expect us to come crawling on our belly.
In the second case, when we are feeling self-righteous and proud, God comes to us pleading with us, trying to melt our hearts of ice.
In thinking again about this parable I was wondering what happened a month or six months after the younger son came home. Was he so grateful for his father’s love that he had a change of heart? Did he have a conversion experience? Was he a finer and nobler human being because of his father’s forbearing love? Or was he the same ungrateful idiot that he was when the story opens?
Last week I talked about a search mission I was a part of on Mt. Hood in December, 1984. Our team from Portland Mountain Rescue headed out into a fierce storm to look for Hal Coghill Jr. Who had been missing for two nights. I got caught in a small avalanche while we were scouring the mountain in search of him. I felt lucky to be alive.
After a long day’s search we returned to the ski patrol hut at Timberline Lodge, all agreeing that we probably find his body when the spring thaw came.
Later that night, he was able to make his way down the mountain to safety. He had been holed up in a snow cave for two days. From his vantage point high on the mountain, he was able to see the lights of timberline Lodge when the storm broke, and he made his way back to safety.
When he was interviewed by the sheriffs’s department, he was unrepentant for climbing alone during the winter, a cardinal sin. And about those of us who were searching for us, he said, “They didn’t have to come to look for me. They knew the risks they were taking.”
At that point if I had been present, he would have had an ice exe permanently embedded in a prominent place in his body.
Well, that was it. We did go a nice letter of thanks from his parents , but nothing from him. But a few months later a cassette tape was mailed to our unit, and I listened to it. It was the missing climber, Hal Coghill, speadking before his home church in Burnt Hills, NY. He talked about his experience on the mountain, and he promised God, while holed up his snow cave, that if God would spare his life, he would make some many changes in his life. He told the congregating that he had accepted Christ in that snow cave, and was thinking about going to seminary to become a Methodist pastor.
I listened to that cassette tape in February or March, 1985. And then I told you all that story two weeks ago. But then I wondered. What really happened to Hal Coghill , Jr. Did he remain the same incurable jerk that he was in December, 1984, or did he follow through on his promise? So, a few years ago, I did what we all do when we want to know something. I googled “Hal Coghill, Jr.” and came up with a name of a man who is in the IT Department at Cornell University. I emailed him asking if he were the young climber lost on Mt. Hood in December 1984. He emailed back, “Yes.” I told him I was one of those searching for him.
Here was his email to me:
“As you know that frozen meeting with God was life changing! Exactly one year later, I was married to my wife (we met at church and are working on our 29th year) on 12/28/84 in my parents Methodist Church. And two years later the birth of our second daughter also occurred on that same day 12/28/86, so obviously that day is packed with significance in our family!
“God has blessed us with four kids in birth order: Serenity, Keren, Elizabeth, and Daniel (in USAF). I have been very active in every church I have attended. We moved from southern California to upstate NY in 1990 to be close to our NY based families. I currently lead the Men’s Sunday school class at the Owego Nazarene church I attend (owegonaz.org) and sing in their choir. Before moving to Owego almost 10 years ago, I was involved with Prison Fellowship prison ministry for many years (great blessing and ministry). I attended Talbot Theological Seminary (Biola University) for a couple years part time while we lived in California, but with a growing family, had to side-line that pursuit. My wife and I are currently members of our local fire department, she is an EMT and I am a firefighter and first responder, we have only been fire department members for a couple years, but enjoy helping others in their time of need. We live on a farm here in what is called NY’s southern tier which my wife inherited from her father. I work at Cornell University as an IT professional. Now that we are somewhat empty nest parents we are looking for ways to serve God, and are thinking about spending some time in Haiti next year.”
Well, not every story has such a satisfying ending as this one. But some do.
I’d like to think the prodigal turned out all right. As did Hal Coghill. As has lots of many of us here today who have known what it’s like to dead and then alive again, to be lost and then found.