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A child’s magic-marker drawing of the Prodigal Son graced the bulletin cover for Sunday’s service at Calvary Lutheran: a hungry man sitting in a muddy pigsty. “And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.”

The church was a long way from that pigsty: outside, the courtyard looked out over the Del Mar Fairgrounds, and the church held its own against the secular glories that surrounded it. Inside, layers of clean, off-white edges and warm, substantial woodwork surrounded the congregation in their gently curving pews. Also gently curving: the maple bases of both lecterns and the altar, and the gleaming black of the grand piano in front of the choir. After the Gospel, music minister Stan Beard did a fair impression of Elton John as he sang Wayne Watson’s “The Long Way Home.” It felt like the right song, the right sound for the place:

“You know I never intended to get off the track so far/ The lights that turned my head are looking quite bizarre...I took the long way home/ Back to what I believe/ I took the long way home/ You were waiting there for me...” And to bring the point home, the choir cut in with a couple of lines from “Amazing Grace.”

Nearly the entire service was about straying, turning back, and finding forgiveness. It started with the opening Confession, which echoed the Prodigal’s confession to His father: “We have sinned against You...and are not worthy to be called Your children.... Bring us back to You as those who once were dead but now have life.” “Let us have a feast...for this Son of mine was dead and is alive again.”

In the first reading, God welcomed the Israelites out of their exile in the desert (after their enslavement by the Egyptians). Next, the Psalm proclaimed, “For Your hand was heavy upon me day and night.... I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord. Then You forgave me the guilt of my sin.” In the second reading — well, the lector spelled it out in the preface: “Paul’s strong message...is the promise of the Gospel.... All our mistakes, all our deliberate sins, all our old history is reconciled with Christ’s resurrection.”

Then the famous story itself: the son who asks for his inheritance early and spends it on prostitutes before winding up a starving swineherd. Who comes to himself and decides to go home and live as a servant to his father just to get fed. Who is welcomed by his father anyway, dressed in finery, and feted. Who is resented by his faithful older brother.

Pastor Lubs’s sermon started by stressing the occasion for the parable. “The Pharisees and the Scribes — the upstanding...churchgoing folks — they were grumbling and saying, ‘This guy is welcoming sinners, and he’s eating with them.’ That was over the top, and that’s what prompted the story.” They were the older brother: faithful, but still distant from “the true nature of his father’s forgiving ways” — unable to understand both his mercy and his joy at recovering a lost child. As for the Prodigal, Lubs quoted Henri Nouwen saying that his “return begins the moment he realizes...the one thing that remains” after all else is lost: “I’m still a child of my father.”

“In our lives, too,” said Lubs, “even if we’ve done everything we can to destroy ourselves, we have never lost our true identity as beloved daughters and sons.... That moment of realization is important beyond belief. In the end, the invitation is for us to imitate the father with mercy, pardon, and love.”

Toward the end, the service looked toward that loving imitation — next Sunday’s “Leave Your Soles at the Altar” event on behalf of Share Your Soles. (The organization provides shoes to the shoeless worldwide; these shoes will be going to Haiti.) A woman asked for those who were able “to wear the shoes you’re going to donate as you come up to Communion. We’re going to walk to the altar, take them off, and leave them there — and then, barefoot, have Communion and return to our seats. For those of you who are able — as we are thinking about this Lenten time, giving up because of what was given up for us — I challenge you not to have another pair of shoes at your seat. To stay uncomfortable and barefoot for the time it takes us to get back to our cars, and to think about those children who have no choice.”

What happens when we die?

“I think we are reunited, or restored, in our full and complete relationship with our creator,” said Lubs. “And if you want details on that, you’ll have to die. But there are ways in which God, who has given us life, brings us home.”

Calvary Lutheran Church

424 Via De La Valle, Solana Beach

Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Founded locally: 1965
Senior pastor: Frederick Lubs
Congregation size: about 800
Staff size: 8
Sunday school enrollment: 200
Annual budget: $1.1 million
Weekly giving: about $20,000
Singles program: yes
Dress: semi-formal to formal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Website: calvarylutheranchurch.org

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