Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Traveling to a Distant Country (Luke 15:11-24) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Former Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Bob Patterson described his pitch to Cincinnati Reds' Barry Larkin, who hit it for a game-winning home run, in this way: "It was a cross between a screwball and a change-up. It was a screw-up."

Celebrity chef and former Food Network television star Paula Deen is now the tarnished chef.  She was fired from the Food Network for admitting to using racial slurs years ago.  In the eyes of some Americans, Paula Deen's use of racial slurs is unforgivable.  But in the eyes of an African-American group known as Black People for Paula, the lady should be forgiven.

The members have even organized a rally set for next month outside the "Good Morning America" studio in New York in hopes of making it on air.  According to a screed on the coalition's website, "The Black community has forgiven Paula, it's time for us all to open our hearts and give this good woman a second chance."   What do you think?

Yes, there are moments, there are days, there are times, when we are not at our best.  Do you know what I’m talking about?   Times when our best is not enough, times of personal failure, of not fulfilling our honest intentions or meeting our expectations, of disappointing ourselves or others, of regrets, of mistakes that hurt others, of shame and embarrassment, of guilt over something we did or forgot to do, of feelings of hopelessness and helplessness when we can’t seem to get control over a bad attitude or bad behavior. 

Yes, we all mess up at times.  Theologically, it is an expression of human sinfulness.  And sometimes we carry the heavy burden of guilt or regret or shame like an albatross around our neck.  Often forgiving yourself is more difficult, than forgiving others.  Why is that? 

Have you ever thought - what was I thinking?  “If only I could turn back the clock; if only I had asked for help; if only I had not spent so much money; if only I had thought it through; if only I had been there for my friend; if only I had told the truth; if only I hadn’t been so desperate; if only I had communicated better with my children; if only I had been there for my family or worked harder at my marriage.”  Millions of Americans participate in support and recovery groups to deal with just such issues.

We live in a culture which worships success and shuns failure.  Americans are generally forgiving if you tell the truth and come clean and don’t lie or try to cover up the truth.  We hear the word redemption; the chance to make amends, to make something right frequently through the media today.  Whether it’s relating to people in sports or politics or acting or music, we hear: “Now he or she has a chance for redemption.”  

We strive to hide or deny our failures and regrets.  Memories of personal failures are some of the hardest things to deal with in life.  If we allow them too, they can consume our thoughts, attitudes, and emotions.  Dwelling on them can invade our nights with sleeplessness and adversely affect our health.  At some time in our lives we all need a second chance. 

Which takes us to our story from the Gospel of Luke.   We have nicknamed him the Prodigal Son, but Jesus in telling this parable, never called him that.  Jesus just referred to him as the Younger Son.  So who gets in trouble most I wonder, the first born or the second born?  As a first born son I of course know the answer to that question.

This young man takes an advance on his inheritance, says – “See Ya,” and sets out to travel the world.  He traveled to a distant country.  That was his downfall.  He traveled away from his family’s supervision and traditions and follows his own desires and impulses.  His goals were wild living or loose living the scripture tells us. 

Now, alone, broke and hungry, he comes to his senses and hires himself out to work with pigs; that is pretty low for a Jew.  He knew he had brought shame upon the family name.  He believed that his place and future in the family was over.  That’s when he repents:  “I will go to my father and say:  Father I have sinned against heaven and you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands.”     Yes, in one form or another, we have all traveled to a distant country.

What lessons can we discern from this story?  First, remember that everyone fails!  You do, I do.  You are not perfect and neither am I.  You and I are human beings; to err is human.  One of the things that unites human beings is failure.  Nothing links us like our shortcomings and foibles and imperfections, no matter who we are. 

One of the persons I have always admired is evangelist Rev. Billy Graham.  But even Billy, whose has preached the gospel to more people than anyone in history, knew what it meant to fail.  The story is that in 1950 he arranged an audience with President Harry Truman.  President Truman gave him 20 minutes.  Billy showed up at the White House on July 14 wearing a pistachio-green suit, red socks, a hand-painted tie and white–buck shoes.  Graham met with Truman in the Oval Office.  As his time came to an end, he asked the President if he could pray.  Truman said Yes, and Billy Graham prayed for an additional five minutes.

As Graham left the Oval Office, reporters asked him all the details of the meeting and Graham told them everything - everything he said and everything Truman said.  Then Billy and his evangelistic team re-enacted the Oval office prayer on the White House lawn, while photographers snapped pictures.
President Truman was annoyed, to say the least.  He was annoyed at Graham’s attire; he was annoyed at Graham’s questions.  He was annoyed that Graham overstayed his allotted time; he was annoyed that Graham had quoted the president without White House authorization.  He was annoyed that this evangelist had tried to use the entire event for publicity.  And Truman made it known that Rev. Graham would never be invited back.  Billy Graham soon realized that he had made a big mistake.  He later referred to the incident as the “Truman Fiasco.”  Graham realized he had the opportunity to influence spiritually, the most powerful man in the world, but instead of influencing him he had alienated him.  He had great opportunity and failed miserably. 

Second, the story reminds us that failure is not final.  It is not fatal.  God gave Billy a second chance.  Graham was able to rebuild trust with future political leaders and ultimately became a respected and sought after spiritual advisor to several future presidents.   It takes courage to admit your failings and humility to ask God to forgive you.  The Bible says: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
In the Bible, King David failed when he committed adultery with Bathsheba.  Paul before he became a missionary to the Gentiles was Saul, who persecuted the followers of Jesus known as “The Way.” The prophet Jonah failed when he ran away when God called him to go and preach repentance to the people of Nineveh.

These men also became some of the greatest leaders in Israel and the Church.   Like the Younger Son, they had regrets, they had to deal with guilt, they knew what it felt like to let themselves down, to let others down and to let God down. But you can also see from the success they had in life, that their failure did not get the best of them.   Neither did it thwart the purposes and plans God had for their lives.  That is something to always remember.   Your failures won’t stop God’s plans and purposes for you.  Whatever your problem may be today, it’s not as hopeless as it appears.  Maybe you believe your life can never be put back on track because of something you did in the past, but that’s not what God believes about you. 

We must never allow other people to define us by our decisions or circumstances.  Former first lady Barbara Bush's press secretary, Anna Perez said there was a time when she dreamed not of having a White House office, but simply of having a roof over her head.  When Perez was in the fifth grade she came home from school one day and found her mother, two brothers and two sisters sitting on the street.  They had been evicted.  She writes: "Mom had to split up the family."  "I lived with my fifth-grade teacher for a while. But no matter how bad things got, I remember what my mother kept telling us:  We are not defined by our circumstances.  We are defined by our ability to overcome our circumstances.”

Yes, we can change.  The sun’s temperature can’t be changed.  The pull of the moon on the oceans can’t be changed.  But we can change and be changed.  Your tomorrows do not have to be carbon copies of your yesterdays.   We are not stuck being the way we are today forever.  What do you want to change in your life? 

Third, remember, God forgives, forgets and restores.  God gives us second chances.  No one word describes the character and personality of God like the word Grace.  Grace reveals God’s heart at its core.   Even though the Younger Son rejected God, as represented by the father, God didn’t reject him.   The God we worship is merciful and forgiving.  

Grace means failure is written in pencil.  Grace means we can be forgiven.  Grace means we can start again.   Grace means that we can learn and change and grow from failures, regrets, and personal disappointments.  Yes, failure is neither final nor fatal.  We can choose to dwell on them, to wallow in them or choose, trusting in God’s help and the help of others, to overcome them.

Recall these promises of the Bible: “Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will not be angry forever.” “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.  But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” 

The heart of God is pictured in the father in our parable who saw his wayward son far in the distance, and filled with compassion, ran and put his arms around him and kissed him and threw a party for him with the words –“For my son was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”

A final lesson of this story is that we need to learn to forgive ourselves.   Forgiving yourself is essential.  We have a tendency to hold ourselves more accountable than we do others, to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold others.   Dwelling on regrets robs you of the energy you need to become the person God wants you to be and to be the person others want you to be. There is a difference between forgiving what you did and forgetting what you did.   Forgiving is learning to honestly accept what you did, in spite of remembering it. 

Like the younger son, repent before God and ask God to help you make needed changes in your life.   Ask for forgiveness from others that you hurt intentionally or unintentionally, strive to make amends.  Ask for God’s power and grace to help you find the capacity to forgive yourself.  Ask God to help you believe in yourself again, to restore your sense of value, worth and confidence.   Give yourself time, forgiveness takes time, it doesn’t happen instantaneously.  For until you are able to forgive yourself, you will never know, you will never experience the peace of God.

We cannot turn back the clock and undo those moments we deeply regret, but we can stand fast in our resolve to open our hearts to the Lord.  And by doing this, you will discover God’s forgiving power to help you let go of the past and experience spiritual renewal for today.

As someone said:  “Failure is written in pencil, God’s grace is written in permanent ink.  God can erase your failures and take them and make them into something good.”  God is ready to forgive and to help you get a fresh start.  What will you do with this opportunity?

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