Runaways

Mar. 05, 2016

Joshua 5.9-12; 2 Cor. 5.16-21; Lk 15.1-3, 11b-32

The 15th chapter of Luke's gospel that we just heard is often called the "lost" chapter of the NT because it tells the story of a lost child and is followed by the story of a lost coin and it concludes with the story of a lost sheep. So, today's sermon could be called "God's lost and found". The first story is the oft told story of the lost or prodigal son.


I, like you, many times have heard this story of a seemingly selfish and self-centered young man who coldly asks, "Dad, give me my share of the farm...I wanna get outta here". Incredibly, the old man enables the kid's wildest fantasy by bankrolling the child's outrageous request. And then he was gone.


I started asking myself, "How is this child any different from the typical runaway of today?" There are in the USA each year between 1.5 to almost 3 million children that run away. According to current research, these kids run away from home for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's either physical, emotional, or sexual abuse that's going on at home or some times their parents just throw them out because they've had it and can't cope with their substance abuse or sexual orientation or disruptive behavior anymore. Social workers refer to these kids as, "throwaways" because they are tossed out.


The irony is that although they may actually leave home trying to find safety, or independence, or a more free environment...instead they find the opposite. They're more likely to be re-victimized on the streets. They experience exploitation at the hands of friends as well as strangers. On the street they find hunger, and violence, and the risky behaviors that could actually cost them their lives. Dr. Randy Christensen who practices medicine at Children's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona has helped hundreds of such runaways. And he says, "One of the biggest fallacies about homeless adolescents is to say, "Oh, what lazy bums" they are...but these kids have survived so much that most of us" could even imagine. 1


They may leave home impulsively...but most...about half return home in a week. A quarter of them are gone for a month, and about 3% are gone for six months or longer. A small, but significant number never get home again. Often when they leave, they land on the couch of friends. The kids call it "couch surfing". But many also wind up sleeping on park benches, or under a bridge or on a rooftop. 2


When you look at the "prodigal" as a victimized and unfortunate child, it completely changes the meaning of the word "prodigal". Prodigal means "wasteful, reckless, and extravagant". 3 But this prodigal soon landed in a world of abuse. You can understand why the father's open arms would be such a welcome sight upon returning home.


A friend of mine has a young middle schooler who likes to snuggle up next to his Daddy in the church pew. (I told him...you better enjoy it because it won't last much longer.) On a particular Sunday their minister was giving a sermon based on this story of the prodigal son. The youngster perked up his ears and leaned forward to catch every word of the story. When the minister got to the point where the father sees his son coming back, and he races out to meet his son, as the minister told the story, he said, "And then throwing wide his arms, the father said..." and at this point the child pulled on his Dad's arm and wide-eyed looked up at his Dad and said, "The father said, "YOU'RE GROUNDED!"


If only it were that simple...but life can be far more cruel than that. What if the father had locked the door of the house and excluded the desperate young man from his life...as his older brother wanted him to do? But, no, the parable reveals a loving father who despite all the shenanigans that his son had pulled...receives him back not grudgingly, or spitefully, or even self-righteously, but tenderly and patiently.


The Dutch master painter Rembrandt turned this parable into a picture. It shows the young man, barefooted, his body wasted away, and wearing rags, his head bald and looking like a cancer patient in treatment. He is kneeling before the old man, but he doesn't presume to hug the old man's legs...instead he just leans his battered body into the gentle embrace of his father and this moment of ecstasy is truly a home coming. The older son looks on from behind and his look shows shock and bewilderment that his father's love was being stolen away by this clever and conniving thief of a brother. It's cold comfort, but his father tells him, your poor brother was "dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found". There is a "lost" son in this story, but ironically it isn't the prodigal...it's the self-righteous and spiteful older brother who refuses to join the celebration.


And that's what this parable is about...it's about life, and celebration, and joy in the fact that even when we are at odds with each other...even in turmoil, we are still brothers and sisters in Christ. Life is not about winning or losing or triumphing over each other, but it's about loving and celebration. If only humanity could hear this message, we could lay down our guns, we would bind each other's wounds, we would nurture our children, we would save our selves and our planet from destruction. You cannot make yourself whole, by trampling on a brother or a sister. You cannot guarantee safety by having a bigger weapon than your adversary. Peacemaking is about finding the way ahead together to provide for our needs and guarantee justice and freedom for all.


It's a picture we can paint with the love of Christ. As we look for ways to walk together, to live together, and to love each other like this father who welcomes his runaway home. Let us find and make peace with each other! In fact, please stand up and let's greet each other with the kiss of peace...the Peace of the Lord be always with you! Amen.


The Reverend WA Ray
St Thomas Church
Diamondhead, MS 3/5/16

1 Ruby Martinez,

JCAPN Volume 19, Number 2, May, 2006

2 Ibid 3 Dictionary.com