Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
March 25, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz

I was 11 years old when I ran away from home. As the oldest of four children I felt the burden of being the good girl, the helper, the responsible one. Although the exact precipitating incident for this leaving has since slipped my mind, my vague remembrance is that I wanted to go play and had to do yet another chore. For some reason at that moment I had simply had enough.

I went to my dresser drawer and took out some bus tokens I used weekly to ride the bus to my piano lesson. It was late morning and my brothers and sister were out running around in the neighborhood with friends.

I walked out the back door, across the yard and down the alley to where I would catch the bus. My mother was busy elsewhere in the house and so I made my escape undetected. I remember how bold and daring I felt. I also remember the anxious fluttering in my stomach.

The bus ride was short and 15 minutes later I got off at the only stop I knew. My first thought was "now what?" I had only planned the leaving.

I saw the corner store a few houses away from where I would go for my piano lessons. I had a few coins in my pocket and decided to go in the store and get something to eat. A few minutes later I walked out with my roll of lifesavers.

There was a park at the end of the block. I walked to it and sat down leaning on a tree. As I popped the first lifesaver into my mouth I went over and over all the wrongs that had been done to me and how unfair life was. I was tired of feeling responsible; I was tired of sharing a room with my sister, I was tired of having to wear glasses. I didn't want to clean up after the dog anymore. I hated the liver and onions we had had for dinner last night.

As I put the second lifesaver in my mouth I began to notice people around me in the park. There was a mother with a toddler; a couple of teenagers kicking a soccer ball around and kids riding by on their bikes. I was pulled out of my own recital of woes as I watched and wondered about these other people. I continued to eat my lifesavers.

After a bit I began to wonder what everyone was doing at home. I imagined they were getting quite worried about me. I knew I had been gone quite a long time for I had eaten through an entire roll of lifesavers. I began to miss my family and question my decision to run away.

I had to confront some harsh realities, most noticeably that I hadn't brought anything with me beyond my jacket and additional bus tokens. I decided that my family had probably learned their lesson by now. I knew they would be very worried about me. I caught the next bus home.

I walked through the back yard toward the house and felt an unexpected sense of joy as I saw my home. I imagined my anxious mother flying out of the house any minute to greet me with loving arms. I heard her voice, "Diane, where have you been? You need to go clean your room right now. I told you that needed to be done before you could go play!"

I was crushed; she didn't even realize I had run away. Too embarrassed to admit my folly I went up to my room to clean it without sharing my adventure. It would be years later before my mother would know what had really happened that day.

Leaving home, coming home. Being responsible, being irresponsible. Rejoicing and resentment. These are just a few of the themes that dance back and forth throughout the story of the father and two sons we heard this morning and many of our own stories having to do with home.

I suspect we all have some of the younger son and older son in us. Who has not wanted to take what they feel is owed them and set out for a new adventure of life? And we all know outcomes that have disappointed us or left us in worse shape than when we began.

We know, too, the decisions to stay where we are out of a sense of responsibility, the resentment that can build up when we feel we are not appreciated or rewarded for our choices. We know how life can become listless because our dull, daily routine has deadened our spirit.

But few of us, I suspect, really know a love that is forgiving and all encompassing no matter where we have traveled or how we have returned. A love that accepts us no matter how caught we've become in our safe places or how unable we've been to move to make the changes we would like to make.

Jesus tells this parable so we can see a father who loves both of his sons even though their paths are different, even though there is shame and judgment attached to the younger one's actions, even though the older son is filled with anger and resentment. The beginning of this passage where Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees and scribes for welcoming and eating with the sinners reinforces the same message: God's love does not play favorites; God's love is not predicated on what we do or even on how we act. God's love is a freely given gift to all.

Life is a challenging thing - whether you are an 11-year old trying to figure out what it all means or a 70-year-old trying to figure out what it all means. We all seek a home - a place of belonging that is safe and loving.

Sometimes we do not find that in our family or home life and we have to leave and find it elsewhere. Sometimes it is there but we do not see it and we have to leave to recognize it for what it is.

Although we may be blessed with people and places that provide home for us our truest and most reliable home is in our relationship with God.

The parable this morning tells how the younger son, after he had spent all his money and ended up slopping the hogs, "came to himself." After hitting bottom he reevaluates his choices, sees his mistakes, and returns home.

When we "come to ourselves" we see more clearly and can recover our desire for God. We understand the distance we have put between God and ourselves. We experience a greater openness to hearing and seeing the way home to the One who loves us.

In a sense we are all homeward bound even when we are staying in one place. The elder son in this parable was lost even though he stayed at home. His spirit, bitter and self-righteous, was as distant as his brother's body had been. Through the love and invitation of his father, has the opportunity to "come to himself" and see things differently. The parable does not tell us his response.

Closing the distance we have created between God and ourselves is an ongoing journey. It would be helpful if we could just take one of those Global Positioning Systems - commonly known as a GPS - and enter in "God" and have it point us in the right direction. Or how lovely it would be to enter God's address into a Yahoo map finder on the Internet and get a printout with the roads clearly marked.

It's easy to lose our way home to God. There are plenty of distractions provided by our culture and personal history: service to the gods of money and consumerism, self-righteousness, frantic busyness, an out-of-control work ethic, not feeling worthy.

But, the Bible and the life of Jesus give us plenty of landmarks to watch for to move from a place of exile to home. "Have no other Gods before me." "Be Still and Know That I am God" Pray, listen, be awake. Live simply, travel lightly. Risk. Trust. Know you are loved. Love one another. Love God.

The invitation of Lent is to let go and give up the distractions that block us from encountering God in meaningful ways.

The radical response we are called to make is to believe that there truly is a God who loves us no matter what. To act on that belief everyday, in all the journeys we take and in all the places in which we stay, will change our lives in unimagined ways.

Listen to these words written by Henri Nouwen; listen to what God is saying to us:

You are my child.
You are written in the palms of my hand.
You are hidden in the shadow of my hand.
I have molded you in the secret of the earth.
I have knitted you together in your mother's womb.
You belong to me.
I am yours. You are mine.
I have called you from eternity and you are the one who is held safe
And embraced in love from eternity to eternity.
You belong to me. And I am holding you safe
And I want you to know that whatever happens to you,
I am always there.
I was always there; I am always there;
I always will be there and hold you in my embrace.
You are mine. You are my child. You belong to my home.
You belong to my intimate life and I will never let you go.
I will be faithful to you.

We belong to God. God calls us with open and loving arms. Let us go home. Amen.