Mr. Steve Gregory, Chandler United Methodist Church, June 18th, 2017
Let us pray. Dear God may the words I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you Lord our rock and Redeemer Amen.
As we gather here this morning on Father’s Day, God is placing on my heart to bring a message about our heavenly Father’s mercy, compassion and grace. Mercy is always surrounded by compassion and grace; they go together in a beautiful way. The message today comes from the parable of the lost son or the prodigal son. We often struggle with this parable because we see it as unfair; but mercy is not fair. We also struggle because sometimes we are the older son and sometimes we are the younger son in this parable.
Before we look at the parable, let’s take a look at what parables are and what mercy is. Parables are simple stories that Jesus used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. Parables use everyday situations to help the hearer better understand. Jesus used parables to teach his followers who God is; what God is like; and what God’s will is for us. These simple stories with everyday elements help the followers of Jesus understand his message. What is mercy? The online definition says: mercy is compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish. Mercy is compassion shown toward somebody that you could punish. Basically, mercy is: you don’t get what you do deserve and you get what you don’t deserve.
I like to share a story about mercy I received back in Junior High School. I lived in Three Points which is about 30 miles west of Tucson. It was summer break just like it is today. One of my Junior High friends and I had a really good idea. Or what seemed like a good idea at the time; but you know how those good ideas go with Junior High boys. That summer we had a lot of bees; there were bees everywhere. Sometimes those bees would move into our barn or other structures on the ten acres that my family owned. The week before we had the beekeeper out to remove the hive from the side of the house. Well, we discovered a new hive of bees under the camper. So what do Junior High boys do in this situation when their Dad is at work in their Mom is sleeping from working the overnight shift at the hospital? That’s right, we smoked out the bees. We smoked out the bees. That was our plan and with all bad plans it went from bad to worse in a hurry.
It went bad when I dropped that match into the four-inch tall dead grass on the property. The more we stomped on the flames the more it spread. My friend ran and grabbed the hose but the hose would not reach to where the fire was at. So we ran and we got shovels and we tried to stop the fire with shovels. The wind helped fuel the fire and it spread quickly throughout that four-inch grass on the property. Within minutes we had about two acres on fire. The fire was moving away from our house and our barns but it was headed right towards the neighbor’s house. My friend ran into my house as I continued that losing battle with my shovel. You see the problem is the nearest fire department was thirty miles away, so we were in trouble. My mother woke up to these words of my friend on the phone. My friend said: Dad come quick, the Gregory place is on fire. Not a good way to wake up your Mom who has just worked the overnight shift. To make a long bad story short, we burnt about ten acres of land that day before the neighbors were able to stop it at the roads. My neighbor’s five acres was completely blackened except for a ten-foot circle around their house. My neighbors were not home that day; they came home late that night. They said they could smell the smoke but they could not tell that their property was completely blackened. Not until the next morning when the neighbor was standing out on his front porch looking at his property, wondering what had happened. That’s when my dad sent me over there — alone — to explain to him what I had done.
It was a long walk of shame as I looked forward. I could see the neighbor watching me from his perch. I would look back and see my Dad watching me walk over there. The neighbor soon realized who was responsible for blackening his property. As I took that walk of shame to his front porch I was expecting the worse; I really was. He offered me mercy. I had burned down all of his property and he offered me mercy. He said accident happened and it will grow back. Now I was his favorite helper for about three years on his property as I helped him. [laughter] He was never mad at me. It was mercy from the start. I also expected my parents to come down hard on me but they didn’t. It was mercy from them too. It was a lesson on mercy that I will never forget and it has always stayed with me. Mercy, we don’t get what we do deserve. That day I didn’t get what I deserved.
Now let us take a look at the Parable of the Lost Son and see what it teaches us about mercy. First, who is Jesus telling the parable? Verse one and two says that the tax collectors and sinners were gathered around to hear Jesus, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered: this man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Jesus is there teaching to the group. He tells the parable to two groups; he tells it to the tax collectors and sinners. He tells it to the Pharisees out on the edge of the group watching, one parable with a message for both groups. The first part of the parable is for the tax collectors and sinners, the bottom people at the time, the lowest of the low. And the second part was for the Pharisees, the teachers of the law. How did the Pharisees operate? The Pharisees wanted to separate themselves from sinners. Their plan was to shame the sinners into correcting their ways and maybe maybe they would welcome them. But they had to clean up their act first and then they had to prove that they had cleaned up their act. Jesus, he didn’t separate himself from sinners, Jesus connected with them.
Jesus does not require us to clean up our act first. He welcomes us where we are at. He welcomes us to come to him and then the transformation begins. What is a better way to draw people to God? Is it to shame them or to welcome them where they are at? Jesus chooses to meet people where they’re at; connect with them; then he is able to teach and transform their lives. Let’s look at the first part of the parable, the message for the sinners and the tax collectors. In the parable the younger son asks for his inheritance. He says in verse 12: Father gave me my share of the inheritance. The father gave it to him. This was a very disrespectful thing to do at the time it was unheard-of. Just think, if your youngest son came to you and said Father, Mother give me my inheritance now; pull out my part of your 401(K), pull out my part of your retirement accounts, pull out half of the value of the house. I need my inheritance right now.
The Father in the parable gave his son his inheritance and then the youngest son set off to a foreign country – a distant country — where he wasted the money. He wasted the money on wild living. The youngest son lost it all. He wasted all that the father had earned and saved for his son’s future; it was just wasted and now he was in need. The youngest son was then forced to work at the lowest of jobs; he had to feed the pigs. Not only feed the pigs, verse 16 says he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating but no one gave him anything. He had hit rock bottom. Then he decided to try to go back to his father. Maybe he could be one of his father’s servants, not a son, but a servant. He thought he could never be a son again. But maybe, just maybe, he could be a servant. So he got up and he headed home to see if his father would take him back as a servant. The youngest son had hit rock bottom before returning. May we all turn back before hitting that low point in our lives.
The Bible says: while he was still a long ways off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The Father had been watching and hoping someday his son would return. How many times did the father, look out on the horizon to see if his son was returning? How many times had he hoped that his son would return? The Bible tells us that he was filled with compassion, filled with compassion. The Father teaches us that God never turns his back on us; he never turned his back on you or me. God is always watching for us to return; patiently waiting for us to return home; waiting for us to return to his open arms. Notice the father didn’t go looking for the son; he didn’t go to that faraway land to get him. He didn’t go after him, but he waited for him to come back. He waited for him with open arms, open compassionate arms. God does the same for us. He waits for us to return and he welcomes us and rejoices just like the Father did.
God is the God of second chances. For many of us, God is the God of third, fourth and fifth chances; God welcomes you back. Will you accept his mercy, his compassion and his grace? We have all been the younger son; we have. Different situations, different stories, but we have all been in need of God’s mercy and compassion. We have all been lost but God has been and will always be there, ready to welcome us home. And we have also been the older son; we have. In the parable the older son returns from the fields. He sees a celebration going on and he’s mad. He is mad, this is unfair. He doesn’t think the younger brother should be welcomed back like that. The older brother has been doing his part. He’s been honoring his father with his faithfulness, with his hard work. The situation is unfair in the brothers eyes. The Bible says that the father pleaded with the older son and tried to explain but the older son sees it as unfair. Remember, mercy is not fair.
The parable ends with these words, my son — the father said — you are always with me; everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found. Can you think of a time when you were the older son? I can. Do you ever judge others? Do you look down on other people or groups of people? I can say, I sometimes do. Do we ever question if people really repent and deserve forgiveness? In Matthew chapter 7 verses three through five, it says why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own? How can you say to your brother: take that speck out of your eye — when all the time — there is a plank in your own eye. You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Are there times when we need to remove the plank or the log from our own eye before we take the speck out of somebody else’s? Do we judge people at a higher standard than we judge ourselves? I can say I am guilty of that.
I think God wants every person that calls himself a Christian, every person that calls himself a follower of Jesus, to carefully consider these words from Matthew seven: when we take a long deep hard look at ourselves instead of looking at other’s first. I know and I hear many Christians that use words of hate towards other people. Many times those people are the most vocal and the loudest. The problem is the world is listening; the world is listening. Followers of God should be known for: loving, welcoming, accepting, forgiving, being compassionate and being merciful. Do those words describe every Christian you know? My answer is: sadly not always. Sometimes it’s me falling short of being a good follower of God. Those words describe Jesus and those words should describe his followers: loving, welcoming, accepting, forgiving, compassionate and merciful. I can see times when I was the older son in the parable and I can also remember times when I’ve been the younger son in the parable. May we all spent time this week rereading this parable of the lost son. May we allow God’s words to transform us. May we extend mercy like God extends mercy; may we extend compassion like God does; may we extend grace like God does.
Now I’d like to close with the story of something that happened at the church this week. As you know for two years Chandler United Methodist Church has been partnering with IHELP, that’s the Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program. We open the doors of our church to help people in our community break the cycle of homelessness. On Monday the IHOPE Director sent me an email; see one of the women in the program was moving into an apartment. She had no household items. She didn’t have any: sheets, towels, plates, cups, silverware; she did not have anything. So yeah, maybe some of the people from the partner churches could maybe donate some items. I sent that email to Penny and Lisa on the Mission Team here at the church. This is what happened next.
Penny then sent that request out to our regular IHOPE volunteers. Within 24 hours (was really probably less than 24 hours) people signed up for everything that she needed. Every item on the list was signed up for by someone here at the church. You see on SignUpGenius when people sign up for donations it sends me an email. Throughout the day, I kept getting these emails all day Monday: another person signed up, another person signed up. At the end of the day it was almost full. When I checked it the next morning everything was signed up. It was truly amazing. It was truly a blessing on how the people of this church responded.
I’d like to add that no one ever asked who it was for; no one asked what the story was; or how this person became homeless. It was compassion, it was love, it was mercy. It was the followers of Christ in action. It was the church in action. It was the people of this church sharing God’s mercy and compassion for the person in need right here in our community. Well done church, well done.
So on this Father’s Day and on every day, remember God is waiting for you and for me. His arms are wide open. My we accept his mercy and compassion, may we accept his grace and love. And may we extend that same mercy and compassion to the people around us. Sometimes we need to extend that mercy and compassion to ourselves. Our heavenly Father is welcoming you home with open arms. Go to him and let the celebration begin. Amen.