When the Road Leads Away from Home

Sunday, July 23, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Luke 15:11-24

Let’s pray together.

We are winding our way along various road trips in the Bible this month. It’s a reminder that God doesn’t just meet us at church but shows up all along the journey of life. We often think of road trips today as planned fun, escapes from the regular routine of daily life. For those in the Bible, I’m not so sure how much fun was involved, but in these trips, we see how God is revealed to us through exodus, exile, pilgrimage, and mission.

Today’s Scripture brings elements of just about all of these kinds of journeys. Jesus tells a story about leaving home and returning by another way. Because the story of the prodigal may be familiar to many of us from childhood, we’ve likely come to see the characters in this story in a fixed way. The younger son as an irresponsible, arrogant, self-centered character who narrowly makes it out of his poor decision making by an extravagantly benevolent father. This undoubtedly is the message of God’s grace and unconditional love. It’s one of the reasons Jesus tells this story. But like all parables that Jesus tells, there’s always more layers to the parable, more to learn, more ways to see the characters.

Today’s sermon is for those of us who know what it’s like when the road leads away from home. Let’s unpack what we mean about home and what is clear from Jesus that home is and what it isn’t. First of all, home is often messy, and imperfect, with complex relationships and expectations to navigate. At its best home offers some physical security and comfort to weather the daily challenges of life; but home is also about being able to live comfortably in our own skin – knowing who we are and what we believe. It is belonging to a community, even beyond our household; people who will love us through thick or thin.

The journey away from home, in the best cases, is a necessary step on the road to maturity. Lessons are learned and the relationship to home changes, but remains intact, and the one who goes out comes through the journey stronger.

You likely know what it’s like to live away from home and send others out from home in these terms.

You may also know what it feels like when the road away from home is more painful, when opportunities are squandered, when you can’t catch a break or have felt the desperation of isolation and loneliness. This is the kind of story Jesus is telling today, one that speaks to the hard reality that exists for those who are on this road and ask, “What happens now? Where is home when I’d do anything in the world to just feel like I belong to something or someone?”

Considering all this, maybe all of us can identify with the younger son in Jesus’ parable today. Odds are there is a time in your life when the road led away from home for you – when you were certain that more money, more adventure, more independence would scratch that itch you had, or alleviate the constraints that “home” put upon you. Yet found all these things eventually come up short on the quest to find home again. Maybe that road led you away from home for a long time, or it was just a short season. Maybe you feel like the road has always led away from home and you’re not sure if it will ever lead back, or if it did, that you’d know how to get there.

Authors Chip and Dan Heath, in their book, The Power of Moments, make the case that there are defining moments in our lives that can rewire our understanding of our ourselves and the world. These moments may seem serendipitous, fateful even, like the moment you know what kind of career you want to pursue or when you realize that the person you are with is the person you will marry. Or conversely, the moment you see the situation you are in as it really is, like when a relationship is toxic or harmful or a medical diagnosis confronts you and realize you need to make a drastic change in order to be healthy and whole. These defining moments change the trajectory of our lives, our relationships, our sense of self, and where we physically, emotionally, and spiritually live in the world.

The Heaths write that the most powerful defining moments in our lives lead to meaningful change, and deeper happiness. They involve events in our lives that rise above the everyday. These moments provide insight that help us reorient our problems into opportunities. Defining moments inspire courage to do things we might think are impossible. They are impacted by relationships and connection to other people.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal is a story of defining moments shaped by the effects of leaving home. The younger son likely didn’t just hatch the idea of seeking an advance on his inheritance one minute and ask his dad for it the next. It’s likely the road away from home started long before he physically left. Somewhere along the line there was a moment that triggered his plan to take this road from home. Maybe it was his youthful ignorance at what the world was really like, or the constraints of increasing responsibility he saw coming his way as he was getting older, or maybe it was his hyper-responsible older brother, whose expectations he felt he would never live up to.

Despite what may have been behind his decision, each event on his journey away from home set the initial course. He disgraced his father, turned his back on the customs of his community, and left his brother in the lurch with all the responsibility at home. He was defining himself by what he wasn’t – rather than realizing who and whose he was. By the time he was slopping the pigs he’d been unrooted from everything that home had been for him. He couldn’t really be further from “home” than he was. If he were to find his way home again, it would have to be by another road.

While the younger son was away from home, the father in Jesus’ parable, out of love for his son, chooses to take a road away from the home, too. Not to further the isolation and injury of what happened, but to restore it. What his son did to him was nothing short of wishing his dad to be dead. In Jesus’ culture and time, those who heard this parable would have expected the father to disown the son, revoke any blessing he had given, and cut him off from every being able to return home. But that’s not the story Jesus tells. It’s not the God Jesus embodies. No, this father in the parable leaves the home of custom and social norms, of what is justified and his right to punish and instead walks the road of compassion and inclusion.

I can’t help but think when the son “came to himself” out on the road, that he also remembered to whom he belonged. He remembered the character of his father, the one who showed him affection and love, who accepted him for who he was. The father’s love is the defining moment that changes everything. This kind of love doesn’t just restore relationship, it throws a party. It doesn’t just reset things to how they were before, it redeems what we cannot redeem on our own. When the road turns us home by another way, God makes a way for us when we least expect it, and don’t deserve by running to us. The God embodied in Jesus, isn’t looking for whether we deserve it or not. This God of ours isn’t accounting for all the past misdeeds or broken promises, weighing whether we are worthy or penitent enough to return. God in Christ simply runs to us, while we’re still far off, and welcomes us to be part of the ongoing mess and beautiful imperfection of being home together. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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