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I would like to share with you the sermon based on the parable of the Prodigal Son) delivered by our son, Justin, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 10, 2013) at Centennial Lutheran Church in Centennial, Colorado, where he serves as pastor. On March 18, 2006, our daughter Erin was in a terrible car accident in the St. Vrain Canyon. Thankfully, she survived and recuperated from her injuries. Her story is the basis for Justin’s sermon.

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. The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.Luke 15:20–24

It was a gray March day, and we woke to dark omens. Scattered flakes of snow wandered across a flat Rocky Mountain sky. It was one those days in which winter was emptied of its romance, but spring had not yet consented to arriving. Somehow we were in a space between seasons, and it is difficult to trust a season you cannot name.

My mother was startled out of her sleep by vague and terrible feelings. Something, we knew not what, was wrong. And then the phone rang. My sister, diligent and punctual, had not yet shown up for work. She was late for the first time in five years. Her shift at the local restaurant started at 8:00 AM, and it was now 8:15 AM. And then 8:30 … and then 8:45. And so phone calls were made. Inquiries conducted. Friends consulted. Out of all this, a basic timeline came into view. My sister had been out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with some girlfriends in Boulder, and had told them, as the night’s revelry finally ran down, that she would be driving up to Estes Park that night so that she could get a few hours of sleep at her boss’ house before she went in to work. And she never showed.

My parents’ condo was now brimming with her absence. Her late-night friends offered to drive up from Boulder to, well, to do what exactly? That was the next question. We called the cops. We were told in that cold bureaucratic language that people, particularly adults, were permitted to go missing. The police officer’s tone was somehow suspicious of our intentions and dismissive of our concern. Call again in 48 hours if she had not showed, and what are you so worried about, anyhow? All this rational talk somehow floating above the increasingly urgent fears, ne’er the twain shall meet.

My sister’s friend arrived and hugged my mother. After getting more details about last night, my father and I came to the same sinking conclusion: if my sister were to be found, it was now up to us to do so. We outlined a plan, deciding that we would drive from Estes Park down to Boulder in search of her. With all the knowledge of a couple of Law and Order episodes, we would now go in search of a missing person, trying as we were to ignore the more gruesome scenarios that attach themselves to words and phrases like “foul-play,” “attractive young woman goes missing,” “last seen coming out of a bar on Pearl Street.”

My knees were weak and my stomach churned as we made our way to the car. I couldn’t stand the tension. I suspected the worst and thought about what it would mean to eulogize my sister at such a young age. I thought about her favorite songs and my favorite Scripture passages. I pondered what it would mean to comfort my mother as she mourned the death of her only daughter. So we drove in silence down that canyon road in search of anything that would appease this painful unknown and unknowing abyss we were all in.

And then, around mile marker ten, I saw something out of my window. Two snapped power lines. Tree branches broken with great and violent force, and at the bottom of a very deep ravine, a car so mangled it looked as though it had been chewed up by some malevolent, otherworldly force. I told my dad to pull over. He immediately saw the same thing I did. “Take it easy, now, Holmes,” he said with a voice already impacted by what this might mean, and I have never loved him more. Even in that moment, he was concerned about me—“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” So we shouted down this cliff to my sister, hoping that she could still hear us. That there was still time. “Erin,” my dad not so much said as pleaded with a loving ferocity that I will be lucky to ever see again in this life, and finally, after that gaping eternity between the seconds, we heard her call back. My dad bounded down that mountain side with the purity of the angels and unfettered purpose. For this daughter of his who was once dead was now alive. She who was once lost was now found.

There were moments of peril, certainly, as my sister recovered. Snapped femurs, polluted lungs, gnarled psyches. Much trauma from which to emerge. I heard my dad’s cry of my sister’s name for weeks as I tried to fall asleep. My father and I had the same experience in the car, that somehow, God’s own presence was with us. We weren’t so much searching as we were being led by a force much more powerful than either of us. And all of this, because life is precious. Because in the sight and heart and even guts of God, we matter more than we could begin to even imagine.

And I don’t really know to whom you most relate in this much beloved parable. Perhaps you see yourself as something of the lost son, as one who has strayed far from the grace and love of God and now questions whether your return will be met by open arms, or whether there will be some grumbling from the other pews wondering just how someone like that could have the nerve to return to a church.

Or maybe you see yourself as the faithful older brother type. The one who has diligently and silently remained loyal in the midst of change, turmoil, and strife. You, day-in and day-out, doing all those small things that merit not one iota of recognition by anyone else. One who has watched others come and go, and let’s be honest, resents these wayfaring strangers just a bit, resents that they are treated with the same love and grace as those of us who have put in our time, thank you very much.

Or it could be that you see yourself in this strange Father figure—this one who endures insult and absence from his youngest son, and yet continues to scan the horizon for just one glimpse that his son may be alive. And upon receiving this glimpse, rushes, does not wait, but rushes out to greet this wayward child and celebrates, well, celebrates his very existence. Yes, it might be that, in all the ways you are vulnerable to those whom you love, children and grandchildren, nieces, nephews, husbands and wives, yes, that in this father you see your own concern and care for your beloved, your own exposure to the choices they make.

Or, in the most likely of scenarios, my hunch is that we can see something of ourselves in all three of these characters. Part loyal and dutiful, part reckless and frightened of what our lives have become, part waiting and anxious parent who just wants your loved one to be alright.

But in all of these roles, in all the tumult of what it is to love and be loved, know this: God’s love for you is a reality so intense, so all-consuming, that we can barely register it in the small frames of our minds. This God, to be as frank about it as possible, adores you, watches the horizon closely for your presence, and in a very real sense, refuses to ever live without you. This God, like a father bounding down a mountain hill to hear again his daughter’s voice, to smell again her hair, to feel her breath and know that she is alive, yes, this God will seek and search for you until you have been brought safely back home. Yes, in point of fact, this God will not just bound down a hill, but will rather climb up one—we called it Golgatha—and there will die a cosmic death so that you may become the righteousness of God. And fear not, that this God loves others with the same fervor does not dissipate the intensity of love for you. And knowing that, perhaps we can again become a place where the waiting Father’s presence is made known for the whole of creation. A place where all who wish for a home may be greeted with open arms. For really, the banquet is not complete if but one is missing.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Rev. Ron Nickel is Vacancy Pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran Church. You can reach him in the church office, by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at 970-482-5316.