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Good to Come Home

Sermon - 9/14/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 15:11-24

My son came home from school the other day all jazzed because one of the choirs that Nancy directs at Sheldon High School has a possible invitation to sing at the inauguration.  That started all kinds of conversation about who was going to be inaugurated J.  But let's hope that comes to fruition.

The text this morning for our reflection is a very familiar story from the 15th chapter of Luke's gospel: 

Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But 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. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.’
 

It is good to be home.  And let me first of all express some "thank you's" to so many who filled in while I was gone.  Our preachers, Dick and John, LeRoy, Joyce, and Cathy.  And the staff of the church, who I know all had to do extra duty, and especially Patty, as so much fell onto her shoulders.

I stopped in at one point during the summer and discovered my office was completely torn up, everything moved out, a complete mess -- folks were hard at work re-decorating.  What a surprise that was.  Karl, and Bill, and Nancy, and I'm not sure who all participated in that project, but what a surprise.  We should have an open house so you could come in and see, except that I've moved back in and messed it all back up again J.

Three and a half months.  As far as I can tell, you all did just fine without me.  So next week, I'm taking off for three and a half months!

We'll see if I still know how to preach, after so long gone.

Fortunately, not much has happened in the world while I was gone J.  There was the Olympics -- the World vs Michael Phelps, quite a show.  I was most impressed by that 41 year-old mother who got the silver, missed the gold my 1-hundredth of a second, the same fraction by which Phelps got one of his 8 gold medals.  That was incredible.

Brett Favre, Lance Armstrong, making a comeback, coming out of retirement.  Who knows, there might be a headline in the Register Guard:  "Preacher returns!  Makes Comeback!  Sets a World Record for Scaring the Hell Out of People!".  That'd be a good thing, right?

Then there are the Ducks -- 3-0.  There's preaching material right there.

Meanwhile in the rest of the world, the war in Iraq seems to be slowing down, while the war in Afghanistan is picking up.  Russia invades Georgia (I don't know why they didn't invade Florida J), Israel expands yet even more settlements, Libya welcomes in the United States, Venezuela kicks us out.  The polar ice-caps are melting faster than anyone imagined, hurricanes getting bigger and more frequent, mortgage crisis placing 6 million Americans at risk of losing their homes.

Democrats nominate an African-American for President, Republicans nominate a hockey mom.  Who'da thunk it?  It's a shame there's nothing happening that would be worth mentioning in a sermon.

Speaking of political positions and hurricanes, did you catch on the news that James Dobson suggested that his radio listeners pray for a storm on the last night of the Democratic convention, to rain on Obama's parade.  Didn't happen, of course, although there was a storm to open the Republican convention.  Prompted film-maker and former seminarian Michael Moore to quip that that only shows that not only does God answer prayer, but God has a sense of humor.

Fortunately for Republicans and Democrats alike, Jesus pretty much set that record straight when he said, on the Sermon on the Mount that God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.  And those who equate storms with acts of God make fools of themselves and reduce God into the role of a petty ruler with an anger management problem.  We need to be clear in the message we give, that's why we talk about 'Transforming Christianity' -- to be clear that God orchestrates neither storms nor elections.  And we should not associate the name of God with either.

With much of Galveston and Houston under water this morning, the only response that we as Christians should have is not blaming the victims, as more than a few religious nuts tried to do after Katrina, our response should be nothing but to show the love of God through acts of generosity with gifts of compassion.  Through Week of Compassion and other like organizations, we've already responded to that crisis.

So, other than the weather, climate change, economics, politics, war, and sports (did I mention the Ducks?), what's left to preach on?

It's good to be home.

After Dorothy completes her quest and returns to the Wizard of Oz only to discover the man behind the curtain -- not a bad man, just a very bad wizard.  She finds herself stranded in Oz, far away from the home back in Kansas.  Until Glenda, the good witch, reveals those magic words with the aid of those magic slippers that will take her back to the farm -- "There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home".

And when she opens her eyes, there's Auntie Em.  The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, all the people that care about her, love her.  All those that make home what it is -- that place where you are most loved and accepted no matter what.

Two big moments came for me this summer.  One was leaving home, and emotional moment.  After all those months of preparation and anticipation and excitement, and now the moment had finally come, locking up the house, getting in the car, going back and locking up the house again, making sure everything is ready, getting in the car, driving away. . . . . . I never dreamed I would have such an opportunity.  It wasn't about going overseas -- I'd been overseas many times.  But to take my family on a vacation to the Mediterranean.  I mean, it was literally a dream come true.  Thank you, church.  Thank you Lily Endowment, for the money to make it possible.  I thought I was going to cry, I was so happy. 

I did cry two weeks later.  After those incredible sunsets on the islands of Santorini, Lacatos, learning to windsurf with my kids on the Mediterranean, climbing the Acropolis, seeing the Parthenon up close, exploring ancient Delphi and modern Athens, having the adventure of our lives.  And then saying goodbye to my wife and kids there in the Athens airport, as they left me behind there in that strange land with a bunch of foreigners, all by myself for the next 3 weeks.  I'd like to tell you that it was MISERABLE!  Exploring alone the islands of Patmos and Mykconos and Delos, it was miserable!  The Pelopponese, Naples, Rome, visiting the site of the first Olympics, Pompei, the Vatican, all my myself.  Just miserable!

I'd be lying, of course.  I had a great time!  Once I got over saying goodbye to my family J.

Then there was the week in the beach-house in Yachats, camping right above the surf, Tillicum Beach, Elkhorn Lake in the Cascades, in the Hayner's RV they graciously lended to me.  The last 3 days of which in complete solitude, not a human soul or a cell phone signal for miles.  Miserable, miserable, miserable J.

It was so bad, I know you'll feel for me when I repeat parts of those experiences. 

And there came a moment toward the end, especially in the middle of the night up there by that lake when there was no human being or cell phone signal, when I said "It's time".  I'm ready to go home.

And that was, I suppose, the experience of the prodigal son.  Only not quite like that.  Leaving, apparently with no intention of coming back, he returned home not because he had finished his task, because he'd accomplished his quest, but because he ran out of money.  Well, that happened to me too J.  He was desperate, starving.  So he returned home with no expectation of being welcomed back as you have so graciously done for me.  Indeed, he expected nothing but a cold shoulder, as his older brother intended to give him.

But instead, his father opened his arms and his heart, and welcomed him back home.  True again, there's no place like home.

We tell the story from Jesus to show the incredible love and mercy of God, but we can also tell it to show the incredible love and joy and goodness and warmth of home.  Or at least what home should be.  And if that's not the home we have, it is certainly the home we desire.

I concluded my sabbatical with a pastor's conference in Chicago, the first ever for Disciples nationally, called by our General Minister and President, Dr. Sharon Watkins.  About 350 pastors responded to the call, and Wilt Willimon was one of the speakers, the Dean of the Chapel at Duke -- he's now accepted a new position as a Bishop in the United Methodist church.

And Willimon told the story of being invited to speak at one of the fraternities there at Duke.  Nothing surprising about that, Will is a greatly sought-out speaker all around the country.  He received the call asking him to come and speak, and Will said 'sure', and asked 'What would you like for the subject?'.  And they said 'Whatever you'd like to speak on'.  He thought that was a little odd, so he pressed for more information and discovered more than he wanted to know.  He said "Well, what's the occasion?".  And the students said:  "Well, our fraternity has gotten into a little trouble with the University, and we have to do 12 hours of remedial education.  And someone said that you would be good for 1 hour". 

So his ego sufficiently deflated, Will arrived at the appointed time and place at the fraternity, late on a Thursday evening, and he was met at the door of the fraternity by a young boy -- 10 or 11 years old.  He thought that was kind of odd, 9:00 p.m. on a weeknight.  The young boy said "You the preacher?".  He said "Yes".  "Well, come on in, they're all waiting for you".  He took him into a back room, the group was there gathered.  And the young by immediately climbed up on the lap of one of the students and went to sleep. 

Will proceeded with his lecture on civic duty, responsibility, Christian ethics, all the things he thought a troublesome fraternity needed to hear.  At the end, he asked if there are any questions . . .there were none.  They had put in their hour, they were finished, and off the students went.  And the student with that young boy sleeping on his lap, gently woke the child, told him to go to his room and he would come in in just a bit to read him his bedtime story.

Will walked outside with the student, the student thanked him for graciously coming to speak to them, for his fine words.  Took out his cigarette pack, took out a cigarette, offered Will one, Will declined.  Lit up.  Will, curious, said:  "Tell me, what's with the kid?".  The student, taking a deep draw on the cigarette, blew out some smoke, and said:  "Well, you know how we all have to do community service.  And I signed up for big brothers.  Billy there, he has a Mom, but just ain't doing too good.  So me and the guys at the house arranged for it where he could come anytime he needed a safe place.  Some weeks it's one night, most weeks, it's three or four". 

Took another draw on his cigarette and said:  "You know, preacher, God would have to be crazy to let a guy like me do something this good".

Will said that the lecture he gave that night was not half as good as the lesson he learned.

Disciple preacher Fred Craddock says he thinks he knows a place where all the Billy's of this world can find a place to call home, because of his own experience as a child growing up during the Depression in a family literally dirt poor.  One summer, they lost the family farm and had to move into town.  Fred had to go to a new school. The teacher invited the students to share stories of their summer vacations as a way of getting acquainted.  Fred remembers to this day the kid who went to Florida.  Another kid said they went to Washington D.C. and saw the national monuments.  Another one had gone up to Niagara Falls.  And all the while, Fred is sinking lower and lower into his seat.  What am I going to share?  I spent my summer digging potatoes and shucking beets.  Fortunately the bell rang, they didn't get to him, he went home, and his parents wanted to know how was his day.  "Terrible", said Fred.  "What's the matter?", asked his parents.  "We had to share stories of summer vacations -- what am I going to say?".  His father said "Well, Fred, just make something up".  Fred said:  "But Dad, that'd be lying".  "Well, Fred, you have to do what the teacher tells you to do.  Obviously, she wants you to make up a story".  "But Dad, how would I do that?".  His Dad said:  "Well, you just take a little bit from here, a little bit from there, and create a story". 

Fred has been doing that ever since -- he's a preacher, he learned his lesson well J.

Well, his horrifying moment came, and by the time his turn ended, his family had been to Florida, Niagara Falls, Washington D.C., and to top it all off, they stopped at the Statue of Liberty in New York City.  The teacher took him out in the hall, and said:  "You didn't really do all those things, did you?".  Fred said:  "No, teacher, I didn't".  "Why did you make that up?".  "I was embarrassed".  "Embarrassed, why?", asked the teacher.  "Because I did nothing but work on a farm".  The good teacher stopped the proceedings right then and there.

There was a Lady Aid society at the Christian Church there at Humboldt Tennessee that collected clothing for children in need.  And the box that came to the Craddock household had a pair of shiny Buster Brown shoes, just his size.  His Mom said "Good, now you can go to Sunday School".  Fred wasn't so sure he wanted to go to Sunday School, he figured it'd be just like school.  He'd have to share that embarrassing experience all over again.  But they went.  Fred says: "From the first day of wearing those charity shoes, I later discovered were really girls shoes, I never, ever, was embarrassed in church.  I don't remember ever being any different, any less, or any more, from anyone else in church.  And from the age of 9 until now, I had this little jubilee going on in my mind:  there's no place in the world like church.  There's no place like church".

After three and a half months gone, 2 countries, thousands of air miles, I come back, there's Dick -- he came out at 1:00 a.m. on a warm September night 10 years ago to stand beside me as we waited by the Sheriff's car as we waited confirmation of my mother's death.  There's Chuck and Mary Burrows, and Stephanie and Chris participating in that drum circle during my cancer surgery, drumming & praying for healing.  There's Eliza and Nancy and all those in the shawl ministry made so many of us prayer shawls for healing or blessing.  There's Ruth Ann and Cheryl and all of our quilters, quilting for the Helping Hand Ministry and for young mothers with their newborn babies.  There's Frank and Carol and Phyllis and Marie and Joyce, Lois, and so many other volunteers in the Helping Hand ministry to provide quality clothing to families with dignity.  There's Evelyn and Marie and Jerry and Bonita who counsel hundreds of people off the street, affirming their dignity and worth as they seek solutions to their hard lives in our Good Samaritan ministry.  There's John and Robin, Laura and Scott, Jamie, Eric, Elaine, putting in all of those hours for our youth.  I was in Chicago, and I heard about this incredible event held at First Christian Church in Eugene on Labor Day weekend called "River Rally".  The Menegets and Brandenfels', Marilyn, Patty, and Michelle, all those members of the children's ministry team who provide that Worship & Wonder program, and Christian Education, filled with such love for our children.  There's a painting in memory of Aida Lee's husband, Bill, and Francis Hyland's husband out in the foyer, Ansel.  There's Mildred working out on the landscaping.  There's our office volunteers, our choir members, our musicians, the vision builders, and so many more -- forgive me if I do not name them all.

All I can say is:  There's no place like church.

There's no place like church.

There is no place like church.

It's good to be home.

 


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