“The Straight Story”
The Prodigal: Week 2
Romans 5:3-10; Luke 15:20-32
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
May 12, 2019
Don’t you love a good, straight line? I know I do. I love a straight line. It’s so clean and tidy. When I make the bed, I shoot for straight lines. When I put on my slacks on a Sunday morning, I want a nice straight line running down the seam. When I go to a baseball game, there is almost nothing I like better than watching the grounds-crew chalk the baselines. Why? Because they are such beautiful, clean, straight lines. I remember one time when I had visited Big Bend National Park in Texas, way down in the southern part of the state. The drive in and out is great because it is full of long, straight highways. You can sit in the driver’s seat and see for miles. A straight line from your car, all the way to the horizon.
Straight lines are nice because they are orderly. They are predictable. There is no guessing about what is around the bend or over the hill, because there is no bend or hill. In our clothing they convey a certain level of order. Straight lines communicate organization, sophistication and competence. I know lots of you value straight lines because some of you iron the table clothes. I love a straight line but even I would not go that far, but I understand why you do it. That straight line of fabric draped across the table has an elegance that just can’t be explained. I mean, ironed table cloths are the reason Downton Abbey was a thing for so long, right? But I digress.
My point is this, most of us like a good straight line. Certainly our culture does. And most of us are presented with a straight line from an early age, and it goes like this. You will go to school. You will get good grades. You will graduate high school. You will choose a college where you will then select a major which will allow you to get a good job. You will graduate from said college. Along the way you will meet a girl/boy. When you graduate and once you have secured a job you will marry girl/boy. Once married for an appropriate period you and your girl/boy will procreate. Then you will wait again, while being promoted at work, and then you will have another child. But stop there. Then you will raise said children with appropriate straight lines while continuing to work. Then you will retire. Then you are free to die. See, a nice straight line right through life. No deviations. Decent and orderly. You know this straight line.
And it is quite clear this is a line that was familiar to the older brother. I mean, if ever there were a straight line guy it was him. I bet his furrows were all perfectly straight. I bet he made his bed every morning. I bet his pants were pleated. I bet he followed every rule, obeyed every command, ironed every table cloth. We can tell he was a straight line sort of fellow by how he talked about himself, “All these years I’ve worked as hard as I can, I’ve obeyed every command, and you’ve never given me a party.” He’s angry. All that straight line work, all that obedience, all that sweat, it was supposed to pay off.
So here is the thing about a straight line. They are supposed to lead us somewhere predictable. The attraction of it all, of the order, the attention to detail, the lack of discernable impediments, these are supposed to take us to a certain place. The straight lines, all of them, when stacked one on top of the other, are supposed to make our life predictable; to remove the chaos of uncertainty. Nature, of course, doesn’t work in straight lines, so if we introduce them it is a symbol of us bringing order out of chaos. The older brother had done this. He had taken all the uncertainty out of his life. He had a rich father. He was first in line to inherit it all. He knew this and he had likely dedicated his life to this singular truth, if I do what is expected of me then I will be the one dispensing robes and rings and sandals. It was a done deal. A foregone conclusion. The straight line had led to inevitability, one day all this would be his.
So if that were true and if that was the way things worked, if he had worked that straight line his whole life, why was he standing outside the party? That’s the problem. That’s why he’s angry. And let’s be honest, it’s not like he is wrong about it. He has every right to be angry. But you have learned the same thing I have learned. Life does not work in straight lines. No matter how hard we try we can’t bring the straight lines to all the areas of our lives. That older brother had done everything right and his fidelity to obedience was supposed to produce a certain outcome. Standing outside while his shiftless brother had a blowout party was not the outcome he was seeking.
Such is true for our straight lines. So many of us Presbyterians are rule followers, doing what we are supposed to do, and we know that has not always produced the outcome we expected. We exercise and still get sick. We work hard and still get passed over for the promotion. We marry the girl/boy and do everything right and they still leave us. We send our kids to college and they major in underwater basket weaving. All our plans, all our straight lines and we have chaos regardless. We can’t straight line our way into complete certainty and control, it doesn’t work that way and you know it and I know it and the older brother is learning it as we speak.
Let me tell you what we get wrong, theologically, with all these straight lines. We start them in the wrong place. We start them from our own point of view. We gaze out over the course of our lives and see a potentially mangled mess of obstacles and uncertainty and so we go about hacking our way through this jungle of doubt, creating a clear, straight path to follow. Creating certainty. But that’s the mistake, isn’t it? The certainty does not begin with us, it begins with the God we worship. What we fail to see with all this ordering of the chaos around us is that we end up at the same place no matter what.
The older brother could never see that. He could never see that his Father would love him if he worked like a slave or not; that his father would love his good-for-nothing younger brother no matter what. That’s what love is. That’s what God’s grace is. There is a straight line running through your life, it is there today and it has always been there, but it doesn’t start with you, it starts with God. Order and chaos. Following the rules or disobeying, we start from a singular truth, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And this in turn sets us free. We don’t have to try to control everything. We don’t have to be afraid of disorder. We start from the truth that God loves us and we don’t earn that love. That’s the heart of this parable, that what we do is not nearly as important as who God is. And God. Is. Love. So we are free, free to take a risk. Free to bend the path ahead. Free to step into a day and simply allow it to unfold. We are free because God carries us in his heart, and we can’t change that any more than the younger son’s profligacy or the older son’s anger could change it.
This of course does not mean that our lives will always be easy, or that God will do everything for us. You know that’s not true, and neither the parable nor the Bible make any such promises. But isn’t it nice to know that if you are suffering right now that doesn’t change God’s love for you. If you doubt today that doesn’t change God’s love for you. If you are struggling with sin, that doesn’t change God’s love for you. If you aren’t perfect, that doesn’t change God’s love for you. There is a straight line in this world. Just one. And it runs from the foot of the cross straight into your heart. It cannot be cut, severed or broken. It is the truth that God looks at us each day and says, “you are always with me, and what is mine is yours.” Amen.