A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, March 6, 2016
Luke 15:11-24 ESV
I love traveling by automobile. And I love seeing the country—new cities, small towns, and diverse landscapes. Consequently, I have traveled a lot of roads in my years of driving. I wish I had an estimate of how many miles I personally have driven over the past 45 years. I am betting it would approach one million miles.
I have driven in all 48 contiguous United States, and in some of them quite extensively. Thus, I have traveled wide roads and narrow roads; crowded roads and desolate roads; smooth roads and rough roads.
But traveling roads can also be a powerful metaphor for the “roads of life” that we may travel—some by choice, some by chance, and some by coercion. One of those common roads of life is the road to and from Rock Bottom.
The roads from Rock Bottom are many and varied. And I have traveled one or two roads from Rock Bottom in my lifetime; perhaps you have as well.
For instance, there is the road from the Rock Bottom of the dregs of human existence; or from a life of “riotous, reckless living,” as Jesus says of the Prodigal. The Prodigal reached the end of the road, so to speak. He felt that he had sunk as low as he could possibly sink, living with the pigs and hungering for the pods that the pigs ate. But the road to Rock Bottom had been a course of his own making. The bad choices he had made had gotten him there—hard liquor, wild women, and the wrong crowd that was more than happy to lead him astray and help him squander his money.
The road from the Rock Bottom of careless living is crowded today, as you well know. Addiction to drugs, especially illegal, meth lab- manufactured drugs has become an epidemic. And Anderson County is one of the worst counties in the nation, they say. Yet, as you know, “Addiction” can wear many different faces, and not just drug addiction. As Henri Nouwen puts it in his work, The Return of the Prodigal Son, “’Addiction’ might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates society. . . These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in ‘the distant country,’ . . . In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in ‘a distant country.’” And the road from addiction is one of the hardest roads to travel. It can be done, but it is difficult.
There is the road from Rock Bottom of financial ruin, which also applied to the Prodigal. The Prodigal quickly ran through his father’s money. But financial ruin doesn’t have to be the result of careless living. Financial ruin can sometimes come due to no fault of our own—a prolonged illness that drains one’s savings and leads to financial disaster; company down-sizing and the elimination of a position; an unexpected accident or household expense that devastates family stability. And there you have the long road back from the Rock Bottom of financial ruin.
There is the road from Rock Bottom of a serious or life-threatening illness. A diagnosis of cancer and the accompanying surgery and treatments; a serious fall; a stroke; a ruptured disk and accompanying unbearable pain (I have been on that road); an aneurysm and months of rehab. And when you are suffering the worst, you feel like you have hit Rock Bottom.
And there is the long road from the Rock Bottom of great loss, as in the death of a spouse or other close loved one. Many of us have been down some of these roads.
Whatever the experience, the road from Rock Bottom is always a rough, difficult, and sometimes lonesome road to travel.
But I also have learned that the Road from Rock Bottom is a road paved with grace. Sometimes sheer grace is the only thing that enables one to muster the strength, courage, and fortitude to get out of Rock Bottom and start climbing the road back home.
For the Prodigal, it was hope and trust in his father’s love that gave him the courage and determination he needed to start back home. “Grace is always greater,” to use Nouwen’s phrase. It was that “Amazing Grace” of John Newton that has had universal appeal:
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
And I have learned that the Road from Rock Bottom is facilitated by a community of those who care. Rarely, if ever, are we able to complete the journey from Rock Bottom successfully apart from the aid of others who are encouraging and helping us along the way and who are ready to welcome us back to the land of the living, as the father, friends, and neighbors of the Prodigal were ready to welcome him back home. None of us is a self-made person. All of us depend upon others for our happiness and success. At times, we need others to walk with us and support, encourage, and lift us up when we fall. All of us need a compassionate community to journey with us.
And all of us are called to be such a community of compassion. That is what the local church is all about. Sometimes it falls to us to walk with others on that road from Rock Bottom; to support them, encourage them, and to lift them up when they fall along the way. To quote Nouwen again, “I now see that the hands that forgive, console, heal, and offer a festive meal must become my own.”
Yes, I have been on some lonely, desolate roads over the years. I remember a time not long after Mary Lou and I were married when we had accompanied a friend and neighbor who wanted us to go with her for a weekend visit with her husband who was in the Army and stationed at Ft. Bragg near Fayetteville, NC. We picked him up late in the day, and then the four of us set off for the North Carolina coast to spend a couple of nights. At midnight we were driving dark, desolate roads looking for a place to stay. We finally arrived at the coast, and our friends wanted to walk down to the beach. Remember, it was about midnight. I recall the sound of the waves crashing on the shore of that dark, desolate beach and never having been so homesick in all my life.
I remember another instance when we were on a family vacation with our kids and traveling from the Texas hill country to Austin, and we decided to take a cross-country, back roads shortcut. We ended up in the middle of nowhere, where the road kept getting narrower by the mile, until the asphalt ran out and we ended up on a gravel road. We drove for miles, and finally came upon a house where someone was out in the yard. I stopped the car, rolled down the window and said, “We’re lost. Can you tell us how to get back on the road to Austin?” And the reply was, “You can’t get there from here.”
One other time we were vacationing across the state of New York near Niagara Falls. We kept looking for a place to spend the night, but couldn’t find a motel that had any vacancies. Again, midnight was upon us and we were dead tired and beginning to be a bit anxious that we were going to be spending the night in the car driving. Finally we came upon this motel out in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. It might have been a one-star motel, if that . All they had was a room where we could bring in a cot for one of the kids. The cot had mold and mildew on it. Yes, the roads we travel can often take us to places we would rather not go.
Such can be a metaphor for life. Life can often take us down dark, desolate, out-of-the-way, lonesome, uncomfortable roads we would have never made a conscious choice to travel. Sometimes in life, as we think about the journey back “home,” we may feel like we can’t get there from here. But how marvelous it is when grace—be it God’s grace, the grace of the universe smiling down upon us, or the grace exhibited by others who lend us a hand and journey with us—when “amazing grace” leads us on the road back home. And what a blessing when a compassionate community is waiting to welcome us back to the land of the living and celebrate with us. Amen.
Cited: Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.