Sermon: “Filled with Compassion” (March 6, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Filled with Compassion” (Luke 15:20)
March 6, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The fifteenth chapter of the Gospel According to Luke is one of the highest summits in all scripture—Mt. Everest, K-2, Mt. McKinley all rolled into one.  Jesus was enjoying a meal with notorious sinners, and some Pharisees and tax collectors had gathered around, and as they were wont to do, they began grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  In response Jesus tells three parables in a row that all communicate the immeasurable grace of God.

First, Jesus tells about a shepherd who owns one hundred sheep and leaves the ninety-nine safe sheep to find the one that was lost.  After finding the lost sheep, the shepherd carries it home and throws a party to celebrate.  Then Jesus tells about a woman who owns ten coins but loses one, and how she searches and sweeps the house until she finds it, and then throws a party to celebrate.  Jesus goes on to say that each of these parties celebrating the finding of what was lost pales in comparison to the heavenly celebration of the angels when a sinner repents.

Then Jesus tells a third parable about a sinner who repents, the parable of the prodigal son, the parable that perhaps more than any other, reveals the immeasurable grace of God.  In the three parables the stakes of what are lost increases greatly, from one of a hundred sheep, to one of ten coins, to one of two sons.  In his 1992 book about this parable entitled The Return of the Prodigal, the late Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen observes that each of these three parables demonstrates God’s initiative in saving sinners:

In all three parables Jesus tells in response to the question of why he eats with sinners, he puts the emphasis on God’s initiative.  God is the shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep.  God is the woman who lights a lamp, sweeps out the house, and searches everywhere for her lost coin until she has found it.  God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meets them, embraces them, pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home (106).

You know how stressful it feels to lose something—perhaps your car keys or wallet or cell phone—and the relief you feel when that item is found.  But of course when it comes to losing a person, that stress is magnified exponentially.

In the summer of 1996 I spent a couple weeks leading a high school camp at the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming’s camp in Medicine Bow National Forest in the Laramie Mountains—a spectacularly beautiful setting.  But one afternoon one of the campers wandered off.  It took several of us over two hours hiking through the mountains and thankfully we found him.  He had just decided he needed some “me time.”  Those were two of the longest hours of my life.  I remember hiking up and down the ridges, looking and looking, praying and praying, trying unsuccessfully not to dwell on the worse-case scenarios spinning in my mind.

But all that stress immediately evaporated when we found him.  That evening we had a wonderful barbecue dinner and drove into town to Dairy Queen.   As I enjoyed a Cappuccino-Heath Blizzard I told him that during the rest of the week he could enjoy as much “me time” as he wanted, but that I would be right next to him.

In the parable of the prodigal son the younger of two sons asks his father for his part of his inheritance now, rather than at his father’s death, in and of itself an audacious request.  The father simply gives his son what he asked for—no disclaimers, no restrictions, no advice.  Luke writes, “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living” until “he had spent everything”—so much for “me time.”  He was broke, filthy, and so desperate he resorted to feeding pigs.  Since pigs were deemed unclean by Jews, he had sunk about as low as possible.

Yet, it was at that low point that Luke tells us “he came to himself.”  In other words, he came to his senses, he repented.  He decided to go back to his father, not as a son, but as a servant.  He even had a speech prepared: “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.”  Smelling like the pigs he had been feeding, he begins trudging home.

One of the reasons this parable resonates on a deep level is that it is so relatable.  Many of us understand what it is like to squander something that was given to us, or to run out of money and run out of options, only to resort to coming home.

On his 1982 album The Distance—which incidentally was the final release by a major American recording artist to be available on 8-track tape—a little free trivia for you—Bob Seger sings about this in a moving song called “Comin’ Home”:

You left your hometown for the city lights
You were young and you were strong
Lots of traffic, lots of sleepless nights
Lots of dreams that all went wrong
You’ll just tell them what they want to hear
How you took the place by storm
You won’t tell them how you lost it all
You’ll just say you’re comin’ home

What happened when the prodigal returned home?  In one of the most moving verses in scripture Luke writes, “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” (Luke 15:20).  At that time it was considered shameful and undignified for an elderly man to hike up his robe and run in public, but that did not matter to the father who had been glancing longingly down that road so many times, hoping beyond hope to see what at last he saw, his son returning home.

This was the absolute last thing the son probably expected from his father.  No lecture, no family meeting, no sitting down to discuss his actions, no mention of punishment, no conditions.  Perhaps he had expected a furious outburst, or disgust and indignation, or rejection, or the silent treatment.  Maybe some of you have experienced those things; maybe some of you expect those things from God.

But instead of being filled with judgment, or filled with anger, the father was “filled with compassion.”  While his father is hugging and kissing him the son begins his rehearsed speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” but his father will hear none of it.  His father does not even let his filthy son finish his speech before he begins ordering his servants to begin preparing a party to end all parties.

“Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one,” the father yells “and put it on him.”  Then the joyful father continues, “Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.”  Each of these items represented something.  The robe was a ceremonial gift for the guest of honor, the ring signified authority, and the sandals signified sonship—so much for the son’s plans to return as a servant rather than a son.

And the father was not done.  “Get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate,” he goes on, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”  Instead of being judged and rejected by his father, the prodigal son was forgiven and accepted and referred to as “this son of mine.”  The fatted calf was for special occasions, so the father was sparing no effort, sparing no expense.  In fact, some recently discovered manuscripts reveal that at this party they not only enjoyed the best food and the finest wine, they also enjoyed live performances by Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and Taylor Swift.

Scripture tells us that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6).  In our own way each of us has run away from God or squandered his gifts or spent our time, money and effort on various forms of “dissolute living.”  And yet, scripture tells us that in the same way the joyful father was “filled with compassion” for his returning son, Jesus is filled with compassion for you—as Matthew put it, “When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).  It’s the same Greek word for “compassion.”

Back to The Return of the Prodigal by Henri Nouwen for a moment…listen:

For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself.  I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair….Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?”  And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?”  God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.  (106).

And in order to bring you home, God sent Jesus his Son, who was so filled with compassion for you that he became the returning Prodigal Son on your behalf.

When Jesus died on the cross, a most shameful and undignified death, Jesus took upon himself all the times you have squandered God’s gifts on dissolute living.  Scriptures tells us, “Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

Not only is Luke the gospel writer who recounts the parable of the prodigal son, he is the gospel writer who records what Jesus said after being nailed to the cross—“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34)—and he is the gospel writer who records Jesus’ final words as “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23:46).

Along these lines, in the late Brennan Manning’s 2009 book The Furious Longing of God he connects the death of Jesus on the cross with the returning prodigal son this way:

The Abba of Jesus spoke to His Son as He hung naked, nailed to the wood with spit dripping down His face, His body bathed in blood…Abba was calling Jesus home to an intimacy of life and love that defied description, a home where every tear is wiped away, where there is no mourning, no more sadness.  And Jesus seems to hear the voice of His Abba because His last word on the cross is a response from the powerful profound intimacy of His own heart.  Jesus cries: “Abba.  Abba, I’m coming.  I’m coming home.  Into Your hands I commend My spirit; into Your heart I commend My heart.  Abba, it’s finished, consummated.  I’m coming home.”  And the torn, broken lacerated body of Jesus the Son is swept up into the reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God (52).

So in this season of Lent if you can relate in any way to the prodigal, you may find the gospel to be exceptionally good news.  In the same way the joyful father was filled with compassion for his returning son, God is filled with compassion for you.

This means that if you come to your senses, repent, and return home you will find that you are fully loved, fully forgiven, and that the celebration is just beginning.

Amen.