Teaching Grace: The Whisper of God

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

April 2, 2000

Ephesians 2:1-10; Luke 15: 11-32

(Part five of seven in Sermon Series "God's Amazing Grace" )

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Strength and our Salvation. Amen.

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A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, old fashioned farming types, tend to overreact to her behaviors - loud music, nose ring, and short, short skirts. They ground her a few times and inwardly she seethes. One night her father comes to her door and knocks following an argument and she screams "I hate you!" That night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed many times. She runs away from home.

She has visited Detroit on a school bus trip and is aware from the nightly news in Traverse City that Detroit is the place of drugs, and violence and gangs. She concludes that here is a place in which her parents will never seek her. They might check California or Florida, but not Detroit. Off she runs. There she hooks up with a man who drives the biggest car she's ever seen and offers a ride, a meal, a place to stay. He gives her drugs and in no time she is working for him. For certain favors, he provides everything needs. She thinks very little of her parents and the farm back home. One time she sees her picture on a milk carton with the headline, "Have you seen this child?" But, no one will notice her. Her hair is now blond and she is unrecognizable to anyone who would have known her before.

A year goes by and she feels just a little pain, but then she begins to show the first sallow signs of illness. The big man with the big car turns her out on the street without a penny to her name. By winter time she is sleeping on street grates outside Detroit's downtown department stores. Sleeping in the wrong word - because a young girl on Detroit streets never sleeps for fear of letting down her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens. One night as she lies on a street grate listening for footsteps, no longer feeling like a woman of the world, but a lost girl in a cold and frightening city, she begins to whimper, then to cry. Her pockets are empty. She's hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls the newspapers which serve as her warmth closer to her body hoping to cover her pain.

Then something jolts a synapse in her memory and a single image fills her mind: May in Traverse City, when millions of cherry trees bloom at once. In her mind's eye she sees herself tossing a tennis ball to her golden retriever as he runs through the rows of blossomy trees. "My God," she wonders, "why did I leave? My dog back home eats better than I do now." Sobbing and shaking she knows more than anything else in the world she wants to go home. Three straight calls, three straight connections with an answering machine. She hangs up the first two times without leaving a message, but on the third attempt she says, "Mom and Dad, it's me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I'm catching a bus up your way and it'll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you're not there, well, I guess I'll stay on the bus until it hits Canada."

For seven hours the bus makes its way from Detroit to Traverse City. All the way she begins to focus on the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are away and missed the message? And even if they are home, they probably have written her off as dead. She should have given them more time to overcome their shock. Along with the worry, she is preparing a speech for her father, "Dad, I'm sorry. I know I was wrong. It's not your fault, it's mine. Can you forgive me?" This is really hard. She hasn't apologized to anyone in years. Maybe never.

When the bus finally rolls into the station, the air brakes hiss to announce their arrival, and driver mumbles over the microphone to a mostly sleeping crowd, "Traverse City. Fifteen minutes, folks. That's all we have here." The young girl thinks: "15 minutes to decide my life." She looks in her compact mirror, smooths her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She sees the tobacco stains on her fingertips and hopes her parents won't notice - if they are even there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one in the thousand scenes she has played out in her mind prepares her for what she sees. There in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal of Traverse City, Michigan stands a group of 40 brothers and sisters, great-aunts and uncles, cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot! In the center of them all stand her mother and father. They are all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise makers and taped across the wall of the terminal is a huge banner that reads "WELCOME HOME!"

From the center of the crowd of familial well-wishers steps her dad. She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins her memorized speech, "Dad, I'm sorry. I know . . . " He interrupts her, placing his finger gently upon her lips, "Hush, my child. We've no time for this. No time for apologies. You'll be late for your party. We have a banquet prepared for you at home." (This is based on a story by Phillip Yancey, in What's So Amazing About Grace?, Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervain Publishing, 1997, pp.49-51).

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound! We are so accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, a phrase which turns great news into qualified appreciation. Even within our families (or should I say especially within our families!) We are used to waiting for the sarcasm in the compliment. We are used to waiting for the other shoe to drop. "In the stories of extravagant grace given to us by Jesus, there are no loopholes disqualifying us from God's love. Each has at its core an ending too good to be true - or so good that it must be true." (Yancey, p. 52).

No solemn lectures. No words of reproach. No unkindness hidden behind the hugs. Simply, grace. In the parable which we falsely entitle "The Prodigal Son" rather than "The Loving Father of Two Sons," these words are spoken twice, "This, my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." And the buoyant phrase puts an exclamation mark on this belief, "It is fitting to make merry." Through these words we come to know that in God's eyes, there is a condition worse than death, to be lost; and a condition better than life, to be found.

In the pause between our protests, our rationalizations, our need to proclaim winners and losers, God whispers to us - grace upon grace. The Parable of the Loving Father teaches us that God becomes living grace in the power of incarnate love. God becomes real among persons through real acts of grace and love.

In this parable, the Loving Father loses and loves both sons. He loses the younger son to a life of recklessness, but he loses his older son to a more serious fate, to a life of angry, self-righteousness that takes him so far away from his father that he might as well be feeding pigs in a far country. As much as the younger son is selfish and arrogant in asking for his father's inheritance before his dad is dead, the older son demands love of his father for staying put, following orders, and doing the right thing. He wants his father to love him for all the things he does right (against the stark backdrop of all the things his brother does wrong).

But the Loving father simply loves both sons with unconditional love. His love of the younger son never signifies his rejection of the older son; just as Jesus' embrace of the tax collectors and sinners does not at all negate his love of the Pharisees and scribes. Such is God's love. It is a love which is powerless over the response to love. It is truly unconditional. It is pure grace.

In the midst of this powerful, yet paradoxically, powerless love, we need to remember that in a few weeks, or months, the storyteller, Jesus of Nazareth will hang on a cross, equally powerless, mocked by all: "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Luke 23:39). All his power resides in his loving heart, which, even unto death, invites others to God, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Although Jesus doesn't appear in the parable, without his ministry of grace, the parable cannot carry the power of his truth. (Reference to Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984, pp. 251-252).

The Parable of the Loving Father ends with the elder brother standing outside his father's house, listening to the party going on inside. Jesus leaves it this way, I believe, because it is up to each of us to finish the story. It is up to each of us to decide whether we will stand outside all alone being right, or give up our `rights' and go inside and take our place at a banquet table full of reckless and righteous saints and scoundrels, full of brothers and sisters, united only by our relationship to one loving father, a loving God who refuses to give us the love we deserve, but cannot and will not be prevented from giving us the love and grace we need ( reference to Barbra Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1993, p. 167). Listen and learn from the whisper of God, "Hush my child. We've no time for this. No time for apologies. You'll be late for your party." And yes, it's true, our God and our Christ have prepared a banquet for you, for me. Hush. Hush. Our God is whispering, "Come to the table of grace, prepared for you, by my son, for your salvation." Amen.

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