Alma First Presbyterian Church
October 10, 2010
I am glad for the opportunity to join you this morning and grateful to Pastor Brackbill for the invitation.
Of course through the past 124 years, many Sundays have featured the sermons of Alma College presidents, since so many of them were also pastors of this congregation.
Not so, today. I’m an English professor by trade and a college president by, well, to make a long story short, accident.
As such, I’m more accustomed to the lectern than the pulpit, more adept at lecture than sermon.
But, so far, the walls seem to still be standing. So I’ll proceed, acknowledging as I begin my meager abilities.
This is, for our college, and, if I may, for this church that has for a century and a quarter fostered Alma College’s growth—Homecoming Weekend. A time for feasts and for great joy as those we have sent into the world return to us.
On a personal level, these are months of homecomings for our family: my wife Rebecca is finishing up a collection of poems back in Iowa. I hope to have the family here soon but for now they are making the long drive from Iowa almost every weekend. So it’s always an emotional moment when they return, as it was this past Friday. My baby, Maren, is not a clingy little girl: she’s never been given to letting us hold her for too long. But when she saw me this past Friday night at the end of their long drive, she just put her arms out and held me for a full minute without a word! Homecomings are often times when we acknowledge what means most in the world.
This weekend our Alma alumni have come back to their college home, and it has been for us all a time of great joy. What passion I’ve seen for this place! Many of our alumni have revisited their college experiences this weekend in tale after tale of years gone by, and some have also recreated them, if the revelry in my neighborhood until just a few short hours ago (!) is any measure.
More seriously, this homecoming weekend gives us opportunity to reflect on the nature of home. For many who return to our beautiful campus and this lovely town, they come back to a place they knew years or decades ago, a home only in the most distant sense, but, still, a home.
For college students, college becomes a home for a time, a place where they learn and grow, a place where they find passions that will stay with them, loves that will sustain them, throughout their lives.
College in this sense is a home not unlike a church home.
For this homecoming weekend, I’ve been thinking of two of my favorite stories of home from the Bible.
What ostensibly divergent views of home we see in the story in “1 Samuel” and that in “Luke.” In the first, Saul’s discovery of self comes not in his home but in the world, where in the second, the return to home enables transformation.
What is home for Saul? You’ll recall that Saul’s father sends this handsome lad—scripture tells us that ‘there was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he,’ that he stood ‘head and shoulders above everybody else’—out into the world for a lowly task indeed. The donkeys are lost and Saul must find them.
Saul wanders with his servant for days but cannot find them. He passes through Ephraim and Shalishah and Shaalim and Benjamin, but still he cannot find his donkeys.
Here I wonder: Could donkeys truly have wandered so far? Saul is nothing if not persistent: I might have given up at Ephraim!
When they reach the town of Zeph, though Saul begins to worry, saying to the servant: “Let us turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us.”
But the servant boy remembers that there is a seer, Samuel, a prophet of God, in Zeph, and the boy suggests they go to this man: “Whatever he says always comes true. Let us go there now; perhaps he will tell us about the journey on which we have set out.”
Now God has just come to Samuel to tell him that he is soon to meet the man who will be leader of the Israelites. But imagine what Samuel must have thought when he saw this handsome but humble young man, covered in dust and dirt from his journey! Can this be the man God means to be king? But Samuel sees divine purpose in Saul, and he puts the young man at the head of a great feast, telling the servants to “bring the portion I asked you to set aside.” Prepare the fatted calf.
Thus is Saul anointed as the leader of the Israelites, a warrior who will soon deliver them from the Philistines. God has changed Saul from what he was: “As he turned away to leave Samuel,” scripture tells us, “God gave him another heart.”
Saul went into the world to seek after his father’s donkeys; he returns to his father, and to his home, a king.
I’ve always thought of Saul’s story as one that illuminates a journey to college, or perhaps a faith journey in a church. Some who come to us will not have a profound sense of the aims of their journey. They may come to us seeking donkeys, thinking that these years and this journey will be primarily a transaction.
We, for our part, know that our great obligation is to give them their kingdom, to demonstrate for them that college is about not mere transaction but instead transformation.
Thus it is that we ask them not merely that important question ‘what do you want to do in life?’ We ask them, too, and more importantly, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Who do you want to be?’ We prepare them for lives of service and leadership in community, in which we hope they will attain their full potential and thus the rich gifts of God.
The writer Wendell Berry says that in a college, as in a church, the thing we make is humanity. That, for us at Alma College, is our sacred charge.
Often we help students to discover that the thing God calls them to is right before them: ‘God,’ the Franciscan Richard Rohr writes, ‘comes disguised as your life.’
Becoming a home for our students, at our best we send them off with a growing sense of their own divinity, of that work, or that life, to which God is calling them.
Parable of the Lost Son
The parable of the lost, or prodigal, son identifies home in a very different way. It is of course the third in a trilogy of parables, the first two of whichthe parables of the lost sheep and the lost coinaffirm that God is continually seeking us, not merely that we must seek him.
Remember Jesus’ affirmation from the first of these three parables:
There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent
The story of the lost son is sometimes taken as further affirmation that repentance earns God’s grace.
But it isn’t really that way as Jesus tells the story, is it? This third parable seems to go further, in suggesting that the son’s repentance is immaterial to the father, who is grace itself.
When, after all, does the father forgive his son? Does he wait to see the son begging his forgiveness? Does he wait for a single word from that wayward boy?
No. His forgiveness comes the moment he sees his son:
“[W]hile he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
Here, I think, is the message of the parable. Not that God forgives us if we ask him and are humble in our repentance. Surely he does that.
But our God is greater than that: God forgives us whether we ask or not.
Richard Rohr writes that ‘forgivenness isn’t something God does. It’s what God is.’
And that, I think, is the point of this story of God.
Our home, the home to which every one of us is called, is in the forgiveness that is God himself.
We know from the tale that if we are to be like this God, we, too, must be forgiveness itself.
Note the place of home in this familiar and familial tale: home is where we discover God’s grace. Sin in this Biblical tale isn’t defined through particular acts, though we do know that the lost son wasted his father’s money.
Sin, as Luke tells the story, is being apart from God.
Away from home.
The second brother’s inability to understand is of course our own. Like him, we’re forever comparing pieties, as if seeking to quantify God’s grace that is everlasting and without measure.
Thus we find home in the gaze of our God, who forgives all.
In both of these Biblical stories, home, of course, becomes metaphor for God. Finding home in both means finding that place to which God calls us.
On this homecoming weekend, I’m reminded by these stories of the opportunity we have at a college like Alma, where spiritual formation is a part of the growth we seek for our students.
On the one hand, we hope to open their eyes to the world, to challenge their understanding of themselves, as the seer challenges Saul’s self-knowledge, and thus to give them new opportunities to discover what God hopes for them.
As the philosopher Theodor Adorno writes that ‘it is a part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.’
On the other hand, we want to be to be that welcoming place that embraces them, loving first and forgiving always. Their alma mater, their nurturing mother, indeed.
In helping our students find their home, we seek to help them discover both the challenge of the Old Testament story and the embrace of the New.
These stories, I think, demonstrate for all of us what we hope at the college to help our students discover: that each of us is always becoming. Finding our sense of homeGod’s purpose for usis a lifelong, continually unfolding process.
God calls us forth to be something more than we thought possiblenot a gatherer of donkeys but a king!yet He does so with a loving and all forgiving embrace.
On this Homecoming weekend, these stories remind us that God calls to us wherever he finds us, intent on changing our hearts and helping us to find the ever familiar yet constantly changing space that is our home.
Luke 15:11-32 New International Version
“The Parable of the Lost Son”
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.
12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.
15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!
18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’
20 So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.[a]’
22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.
24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.
27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
1 Samuel 9 New International Version
“Samuel Anoints Saul”
1 There was a Benjamite, a man of standing, whose name was Kish son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah of Benjamin.
2 He had a son named Saul, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelitesa head taller than any of the others.
3 Now the donkeys belonging to Saul's father Kish were lost, and Kish said to his son Saul, “Take one of the servants with you and go and look for the donkeys.”
4 So he passed through the hill country of Ephraim and through the area around Shalisha, but they did not find them. They went on into the district of Shaalim, but the donkeys were not there. Then he passed through the territory of Benjamin, but they did not find them.
5 When they reached the district of Zuph, Saul said to the servant who was with him, “Come, let’s go back, or my father will stop thinking about the donkeys and start worrying about us.*#8221;
6 But the servant replied, “Look, in this town there is a man of God; he is highly respected, and everything he says comes true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps he will tell us what way to take.”
7 Saul said to his servant, “If we go, what can we give the man? The food in our sacks is gone. We have no gift to take to the man of God. What do we have?”
8 The servant answered him again. “Look,” he said, “I have a quarter of a shekel [a] of silver. I will give it to the man of God so that he will tell us what way to take.”
9 (Formerly in Israel, if a man went to inquire of God, he would say, “Come, let us go to the seer,” because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.)
10 “Good,” Saul said to his servant. “Come, let’s go.” So they set out for the town where the man of God was.
11 As they were going up the hill to the town, they met some girls coming out to draw water, and they asked them, “Is the seer here?”
12 “He is,” they answered. “He’s ahead of you. Hurry now; he has just come to our town today, for the people have a sacrifice at the high place.
13 As soon as you enter the town, you will find him before he goes up to the high place to eat. The people will not begin eating until he comes, because he must bless the sacrifice; afterward, those who are invited will eat. Go up now; you should find him about this time.”
14 They went up to the town, and as they were entering it, there was Samuel, coming toward them on his way up to the high place.
15 Now the day before Saul came, the LORD had revealed this to Samuel:
16 “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him leader over my people Israel; he will deliver my people from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked upon my people, for their cry has reached me.”
17 When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the LORD said to him, “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.”
18 Saul approached Samuel in the gateway and asked, “Would you please tell me where the seer’s house is?”
19 “I am the seer,” Samuel replied. “Go up ahead of me to the high place, for today you are to eat with me, and in the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is in your heart.
20 As for the donkeys you lost three days ago, do not worry about them; they have been found. And to whom is all the desire of Israel turned, if not to you and all your father’s family?"
21 Saul answered, “But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you say such a thing to me?”
22 Then Samuel brought Saul and his servant into the hall and seated them at the head of those who were invitedabout thirty in number.
23 Samuel said to the cook, “Bring the piece of meat I gave you, the one I told you to lay aside.”
24 So the cook took up the leg with what was on it and set it in front of Saul. Samuel said, “Here is what has been kept for you. Eat, because it was set aside for you for this occasion, from the time I said, ‘I have invited guests.’” And Saul dined with Samuel that day.
25 After they came down from the high place to the town, Samuel talked with Saul on the roof of his house.
26 They rose about daybreak and Samuel called to Saul on the roof, “Get ready, and I will send you on your way.” When Saul got ready, he and Samuel went outside together.
27 As they were going down to the edge of the town, Samuel said to Saul, “Tell the servant to go on ahead of us”and the servant did so“but you stay here awhile, so that I may give you a message from God.”
1 Samuel 10
1 Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the LORD anointed you leader over his inheritance? [a]
2 When you leave me today, you will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb, at Zelzah on the border of Benjamin. They will say to you, ’The donkeys you set out to look for have been found. And now your father has stopped thinking about them and is worried about you. He is asking, “What shall I do about my son?“’
3 Then you will go on from there until you reach the great tree of Tabor. Three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there. One will be carrying three young goats, another three loaves of bread, and another a skin of wine.
4 They will greet you and offer you two loaves of bread, which you will accept from them.
5 After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying.
6 The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person.
7 Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you. 8 Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, [b]ut you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do, Saul Made King
9 As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day.
10 When they arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he joined in their prophesying.
11 When all those who had formerly known him saw him prophesying with the prophets, they asked each other, “What is this that has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?”
12 A man who lived there answered, “And who is their father?” So it became a saying: “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
13 After Saul stopped prophesying, he went to the high place.
14 Now Saul’s uncle asked him and his servant, “Where have you been?” “Looking for the donkeys,” he said. “But when we saw they were not to be found, we went to Samuel.”
15 Saul's uncle said, “Tell me what Samuel said to you.”
16 Saul replied, “He assured us that the donkeys had been found.” But he did not tell his uncle what Samuel had said about the kingship.
17 Samuel summoned the people of Israel to the LORD at Mizpah
18 and said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I brought Israel up out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the power of Egypt and all the kingdoms that oppressed you.’
19 But you have now rejected your God, who saves you out of all your calamities and distresses. And you have said, ‘No, set a king over us.’ So now present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes and clans.”
20 When Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, the tribe of Benjamin was chosen.
21 Then he brought forward the tribe of Benjamin, clan by clan, and Matri’s clan was chosen. Finally Saul son of Kish was chosen. But when they looked for him, he was not to be found.
22 So they inquired further of the LORD, “Has the man come here yet?” And the LORD said, “Yes, he has hidden himself among the baggage.”
23 They ran and brought him out, and as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others.
24 Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the man the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.” Then the people shouted, “Long live the king!”
25 Samuel explained to the people the regulations of the kingship. He wrote them down on a scroll and deposited it before the LORD. Then Samuel dismissed the people, each to his own home.
26 Saul also went to his home in Gibeah, accompanied by valiant men whose hearts God had touched.
27 But some troublemakers said, “How can this fellow save us?” They despised him and brought him no gifts. But Saul kept silent.