Luke 15:1-32 The three parables from our lesson are meant as a set. The Pharisees and Scribes, the religious leaders, charge Christ with this scandalous notion that he welcomes sinners and eats with them. In response to this charge, Christ tells three stories. Traditionally, we name these stories by what has been lost: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son. But since these are parables of the kingdom of heaven, and since the central figure is Christ himself, perhaps we should refer to them by the character who represents Christ: the searching shepherd, the diligent woman, the pursuing father.
The message in each of the stories is clear enough for the audience at the time. The shepherd, like Christ, is not satisfied with cutting his losses. Ninety-nine out of 100 isn’t good enough. He must leave those in the fold and go out searching for the one who is lost. The woman, like Christ, continues to look until that tenth coin is found. She calls together the village for a celebration they are likely to find a bit odd, wondering what all the hubbub is for one coin. And the father, like Christ, is willing to pronounce himself dead for the sake of his son by prematurely dividing his estate. And when the son squanders it all and comes back hoping to pay off the debt, the father runs to find him and embrace him, calling him “my son” and proclaiming that peace has been restored. Christ’s response to the Pharisees is as scandalous as their charge: “I not only welcomes sinners and eats with them, I am even willing to sit at table with those who have squandered their inheritance and brought shame upon their families.”
It is this third parable that has drawn my attention over the past few weeks. As you all know, I find myself in the midst of the duties of new parenthood, up to my knees in the overwhelming generosity of undeserved gifts and the endless multiplication of dirty diapers. Particularly today, as we celebrate Mother’s Day, I have been drawn toward the meaning of parenthood in our Christian walk.
So this morning, I ask your indulgence. I would like to read to you a letter written by this new parent to his newborn son. I intend it this morning as a fourth parable of sorts: that is, not a story that exists for its own sake, but as something that has universal meaning and points us beyond ourselves to the ultimately unfathomable mysteries of our faith. As I read these words, I invite you to imagine the father from our third parable writing these thoughts to his newborn children, either the one we call “prodigal” or the one who stayed at home. He takes the child into his arms, looks into his eyes, and quietly whispers to him the hope he holds for the life that lies before him:
My Dearest Ramsay,
As I write this letter to you, you are a little more than three weeks old. And yet, your pastor father is already using you as a sermon illustration. I promise not to do so often, both for your own sake and for the sake of the congregation. But this moment in time seems an appropriate one to write this rather public letter to you.
As soon as you were born, I immediately recognized the family resemblance, both for good and for bad. I have passed along my red hair, she her adorable ears. You have your father’s bowed legs, your mother’s furrowed brow. And though it may be projection, you seem to have inherited both the tenderness and the stubbornness of your parents.
You came to me a complete stranger. And yet, it has been the most natural thing in the world to open up my life to you. You have yet to do anything to deserve my affection. Even so, I have loved you more truly, more deeply, and more unconditionally than anyone I have ever known.
The gift at the heart of it all is that your arrival has brought me moments that are nothing short of pure holiness. As your parent, I have touched the divine. As I see myself reflected in your face, I know more fully what it means to be created in the image of God. As I welcome you, my little stranger, I recognize more clearly the warm hospitality that is at the heart of God’s character. And as I hold you and love you, I understand more truly the depth of God’s unconditional love for me, as undeserving as I am. To touch the divine in such a way is a glimpse of the purest grace.
Your life is so new, and so it holds more questions than answers. I am sure, though, that you will know both joy and anguish. You will likely know both love and heartache. I cannot protect you from the pain you will experience, and this will surely cause me pain. I cannot predict the delight you will know, but I do hope to share in it. But in all that you experience, it is my hope that you will know the mercy and wisdom of God, who loves you more perfectly than I ever can.
In your name, there is history. It is the Scottish spelling, ending with –ay, to remind you of your roots. Your ancestors came from Scotland. Many of them were even Presbyterians, as you are surely predestined to be.
In your name, there is connection. The Scottish name means, “wild garlic island,” which is surely a horrible name to give a child. But if you roll the r just right, it is pronounced Ramzi, the common Arabic name which means “my sign.” Before you were born, your mother and I lived and worked and served with the Arab church in the West Bank village of Zababdeh. For six years, the people of Zababdeh have prayed for your arrival. In your name, we honor their friendship and love. And so, I hope that your name will remind you of the world at large of which you are a citizen, and of your brothers and sisters in Christ around the world with whom you will share the richness of your faith.
And in your name, there is faith. When I call you Ramsay, Ramzi, “my sign,” I do so knowing that as much as I love you, you are more fully loved by the one who gave you being. As you face the life that lies in front of you, full of its uncertainties and pains, replete with its joys and mercies, it is God who names you and calls you and says to you, “I mark you with my sign, the sign of the cross, upon your very being.”
And as I read the last paragraph of this letter, my sisters and brothers in Christ, I want you to hear these words not only as those of a new parent to his newborn child, but also as those of a pastor to his flock:
My hope for you, my dear child, is that this sign, this holy sign of the cross, will bless you and mend you and uplift you and surround you all the days of your life. In this wondrous cross, I pray that you will come to know through your years that you are deeply loved, that you are wonderfully made, that you are truly broken, that you are perfectly forgiven, and that you are forever challenged to serve and to follow your Lord.
Friends, I am aware that I only stand at the beginning of this parenting journey. I know that there are many more sleepless nights ahead. I have no idea how my relationship with my son will change over the years. And I deeply aware that for far too many, these relationships of parent and child are fraught with difficulty and pain. There are those who stay at home and those who squander their inheritance. In short, children can disappoint, as can parents. Parents can abuse, as can children. Hopes go unfulfilled, dreams lie unrealized, expectations remain unmet. There is often a need for restoration and healing which we are incapable of bringing.
It is for this reason that I offer my words merely as a parable. For our stories this morning are not “how to” lessons. They are not meant to teach us about shepherding or housekeeping or parenting. Instead, they are parables of the kingdom of God, offering us a more profound insight, a glimpse into the nature of God’s very self. They allow us moments of pure holiness, whereby we can touch the divine and learn something of the character of Christ himself who welcomes sinners like us and eats with them, even at the risk of scandalizing the world and its wisdom.
My hope for you, my dear Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, is that this holy sign of the cross will bless us and mend us and uplift us and surround us all the days of our lives. In this wondrous cross, I pray that we will recognize the outstretched arms of our Lord and Savior. It is Christ who wanders the hills looking for us when we are lost. It is Christ who crawls the floor seeking us when we are hidden in darkness. And it is Christ who finds us when we have hit rock bottom, brings us to repentance, calls us his precious daughters and sons, and restores our place at the table.