Reflections...

Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

“The Lost and Found”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 31 March 2019, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, by the Rev. Dr. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 32, Luke 15:11-32.


Good morning. Let me begin with a story. There was a lawyer who worked in a large office building. He had recently lost one of his cuff-links, a piece of jewelry that men use to secure the cuffs of their shirts. This link was one of a pair that the lawyer greatly prized. He was absolutely sure he’d dropped it somewhere in the building. So he posted a notice: "Lost. A gold cuff-link. The owner, William Ward, will deeply appreciate its immediate return." That afternoon, he passed by the door where the notice had been posted. Someone had written a note. Oh, great, he thought. And this is what it said: “The finder of the missing cuff-link would deem it a great favor if the owner would kindly lose the other link.”

I thought of that joke when I started writing this sermon. Because that’s what happens in Luke 15 to a Father who starts out with two sons. He loses one, finds him, only to be at risk of losing the other son. It’s as if fate’s working against him having both sons where they belong – together with him.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is of course one of the most famous stories in the New Testament, the 3rd of a trilogy of lost and found tales. Actually, I realized I wasn’t sure what the word “prodigal” meant. Do you know? I had to look it up. It means wasteful or extravagant. Now the word “prodigal” is not actually in the scripture lesson itself. But around the 4th century, the story was given the name the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and it’s stuck pretty much until this day. In the NRSV you see a more accurate heading, The Prodigal and His Brother. That reminds us there are two sons in the story, each with something to learn.

Why did Jesus tell this parable in the first place? It was a response to the Pharisees and scribes criticizing Jesus for the company he kept. If this rabbi is so holy, why does he hang out with the worst kinds of people? Tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman Empire and cheated their own people by charging whatever amount they could get away with. And sinners? Those were the immoral lowlife in Jewish society like thieves, loan sharks and prostitutes. Good Jews had nothing to do with tax collectors or sinners, but Jesus seemed to spend a lot of time among them. He even eats with them!

So, in response to this criticism, Jesus tells a parable about a prodigal son who wasted his inheritance on wine, women and who knows what else.

Scholars have pointed out that the younger son’s request for his share of the inheritance wasn’t just unusual. It was unheard of. It’s not like today where parents might give some money to their children early. Maybe the children need to pay school fees or buy a bigger house. Maybe they want to avoid inheritance tax. But that’s not the case here. The sons are well taken care of, and besides, the family property should have been kept intact. So, when this prodigal son asks for his inheritance now, it’s like saying he wished his father were already dead. Then to add more insult to injury, the son sells his share of the property, which would be 1/3 of the estate. Not for investment, not to start a business, but to fund his adventures in a far off country. A prodigal son indeed.

So it seems Jesus purposely created a story with the worst kind of son you could have. How is he going to be redeemed? Is he even worth redeeming?

For this son, things have to get worse before they get better. Junior burns through his money, then gets caught in a famine and has to take a job feeding pigs. He’s hit rock bottom. Broke and starving, he realizes he can’t make it on his own. The only thing left to do is to go home and throw himself at the mercy of his Father.

For the Pharisees and scribes listening to this parable, it’s obvious what the Father should do in response. He’s your son, after all, so you can’t totally reject him. But there’s no way you just welcome him back as if nothing had ever happened. This son has to face the consequences of all the pain and suffering he’s caused. He has to pay back in some way all the money that he lost. We can forgive but we’re not going to let him forget. And that’s exactly what the Father does, right? Wrong!

The younger son is just a dot in the distance, when the Father spots him. And he’s so excited, he can’t even wait for his son to arrive. He hikes up his robe and runs to meet him with hugs and kisses. The son stammers out an apology, but his dad doesn’t even need to hear it. The only thing that matters is his child has come home. Bring out the best robe! Give him the family ring! Put some new shoes on this boy! And kill the fatted calf – we’re having the biggest party you’ve ever seen!

Now the parable could have ended right here . . . with a postscript about joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. But Jesus isn’t finished yet.

There’s the matter of the older brother. The one who didn’t ask for his inheritance early. The one who was obedient and hard-working and everything you could ask of a good son. He’s coming back from the field. He hears all the noise from the house. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked the servant. ‘Haven’t you heard, sir? Your lost brother has come back safe and sound. Master is giving a feast to celebrate.’ Well, no surprise that Big Brother is furious. So mad that he won’t even go into the house. So, the Father goes outside to plead with him to join the party. And that’s when Big Brother lets it all out. “I’ve worked my tail off for you all these years, never gave you a moment’s trouble. But have you ever even given me a tea party for my friends? No. Then this stupid son of yours comes back after wasting all your money. And you throw him a feast with the whole neighborhood. I don’t want any part of it!”

In some ways, we can sympathize with the older son. He has gotten a raw deal, hasn’t he? Or has he? If we see it from the Father’s point of view, this son’s actions are just as heartbreaking as the other son’s actions. For he too rejects his father and his family. He too wants his reward right now. He too shames his Father in front of the whole community. What a waste of his inheritance. Another prodigal son in a way.

For the Pharisees and scribes listening, it’s obvious what the Father should do this time too. Tell this ungrateful, disrespectful elder son to march inside right now and greet your brother. Because if you don’t, I’ve only got one son tonight! And that’s exactly what the Father does, right? Wrong!

Instead of telling off his older son, the Father responds just as tenderly as he did with the younger one. “Dear child,” he says. “Nothing has changed between you and me. You will always be my firstborn, the one who never left my side. Your inheritance is safe. But how can we not rejoice when your little brother has come back? It’s a miracle! We thought he was dead! Let’s just celebrate that he’s safe and sound and home. Won’t you come in?”

We don’t know what happens after this heart-to-heart talk between father and son. All we know is this father is willing to do whatever it takes to bring all his children home. Even if it means sacrificing his power and dignity and reputation. For no proper Middle East patriarch would have allowed his son to take off with part of the estate while the father was still alive. Neither would he have run out to the road to meet his rebellious child, who should have come back crawling on his hands and knees to kiss his father’s feet. And certainly he would not have abandoned the guests at his own party looking for another son who should have been there already. But this is not an ordinary father. In fact, in many ways, he takes a role more like a mother. People sometimes ask “where is the mother in the story, anyway?” I think she’s right there in this sacrificial Parent who will do anything to let her children know they are unconditionally loved. No matter what. “Return as far as you can,” she says, “And I will come the rest of the way to you.”

It’s almost too good to be true, isn’t it? But that’s the message of the Prodigal and His Brother. That no matter how far away you go from God, God will never stop looking for you … waiting for you … praying for you. No matter how mad you may be at God, not understanding divine way or will, God will go out of the way to make peace with you. Because nothing is more important than having you home together safe and sound.

John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, once said if he could know only one thing about Jesus other than his death on the cross, he would want to know the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The story Jesus told one day about the amazing grace of God that comes to wherever we are, on whatever road we walk, in whatever field we till, and invites us to come home to a banquet.

You know, I think it’s no accident that Jesus doesn’t finish the story. The parable ends with the older brother still outside. Does he come in or not? Perhaps Jesus leaves it that way because it’s up to each one of us to finish the story. To decide whether we will allow ourselves to be found and forgiven and loved by God, over and over again.

“The Lost and Found”: that’s our sermon title. It’s also the name of the place where lost things go to be claimed by their rightful owner. If you think about it, then, that’s the reason Jesus spends so much time with tax collectors and sinners. He’s running a Lost and Found, the biggest Lost and Found department in the universe – running it for God – with his own blood, sweat and tears. And it’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the past 2000 years.

Let me close with words from a song from a movie my family watched during Chinese New Year: Mary Poppins Returns. It’s set 25 years after the original Mary Poppins story. The young children in the story tragically have lost their mother. So, their nanny Mary Poppins sings a song to comfort them. It’s called “The Place Where the Lost Things Go”. It is a Disney song, but more than that. An Oscar-nominated Disney song. And more than that, maybe even a song for all the prodigals out there during the season of Lent. Because, remember, when we lose God, it’s not God who is lost.

1 Do you ever lie
Awake at night?
Just between the dark
And the morning light
Searching for the things
You used to know
Looking for the place
Where the lost things go
2 Do you ever dream
Or reminisce?
Wondering where to find
What you truly miss
Well maybe all those things
That you love so
Are waiting in the place
Where the lost things go

3 Memories you've shed
Gone for good you feared
They're all around you still
Though they've disappeared
Nothing's really left
Or lost without a trace
Nothing's gone forever
Only out of place

4 So when you need her touch
And loving gaze
Gone but not forgotten
Is the perfect phrase
Smiling from a star
That she makes glow
Trust she's always there
Watching as you grow
Find her in the place
Where the lost things go


# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, March 31, 2019

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