Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Prodigal Family Portrait: Love that Welcomes

A Shell Ridge Sermon by Rev. Greg Ledbetter, preached 3/18/2007
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Gifts in the Wilderness: The Prodigal Gift

Scripture: Luke 15

Kids say the darndest things. This was the name of a TV show started by Art Linkletter and kept alive by Bill Cosby. One boy said on the show: “A Christian should only have one spouse. This is called monotony.” At Shell Ridge, we could produce our very own “Kids say the darndest things” based on the children’s message, alone.

But, alas, not all of the things that children say are memorable for their cuteness. Some are memorable for the inner pain they cause (though I’m pretty confident that the pain kids are capable of causing is far out of proportion to the knowing intent of their words). How about this “darndest thing”, a far more difficult one: “I hate you! I wish you were dead!” I’d be surprised if any parent hasn’t heard one variation or another on these words from the fruit of their loins and wombs. Yesterday in the park at the peace march three of us stood in a circle and, as I looked at us and realized the challegnes we each faced and thinking that the two in front of me may not have been introduced, I said, including myself in the mock introduction: "troubled parent meet troubled parent meet troubled parent." If the child’s “I hate you” is the equivalent of being stabbed with a blunt, plastic Playskool knife, the words can hit us like a Samurai’s sword. It can feel like our guts are all splayed out on the sidewalk.

Sometimes a child will not only say “I hate you”, but may actually be angry enough to run away. I remember my brother ran away once. He didn’t get very far. Unfortunately, he came back and I had to give back his toys. But do you remember the little nine year old boy from Dallas, I believe it was, this past winter who drove a car and got on an airplane by himself just to get away?

We can probably all understand the desire to “get away” … as I look out at you, it’s hard for me to identify anyone here who isn’t an awfully long way away from where you started … Africa … Australia … England … El Salvador … Rhode Island … Connecticut … Philly … Nebraska … Georgia “Hot-lanta” … Oregon. While there are a few “born and bred” Californians in this room, there aren’t many. Most of us here left home at some time in our lives and so far, we haven’t gone back … at least to stay.

Paul Hardwick’s Lenten photo on the bulletin cover speaks of what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey” … and the hero in this instance isn’t someone who performs superhuman feats or a courageous soldier or someone who sinks the game-winning basket. The hero is one who willingly and fearlessly embarks on a journey of body and soul … a journey that does not have a clear path or intended outcome … except that the journey is necessary to “make” the person, to help the person flesh out and test and fulfill the person’s potential.

Alex spent the last several weeks working on his family’s genealogy and I was reminded of some of my ancestors’ journeys, including the Harris branch of my family from whom I take my middle name … the Harrises who came out in the 1850’s on the Oregon trail in covered wagons to Oregon and a new life. They separated from their family of upbringing and never went back.

The hearers of Jesus’ story understood that kind of journey even if they’d never made their own because their earliest faith ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, had heard God’s call come to them in the land of their upbringing which was a whole long way from where they finally ended up.

The hero’s journey is a journey of separation and self-discovery and fulfillment of one’s potential. We could even say that clear marks of that journey are present in Jesus’ own life and journey. Leaving his home … dwelling in the wilderness … ending, finally, in Jerusalem. And all along the way, a deepening sense of who he was and his purpose in the grander scheme of things.

Well, we can only get so far into the mind of the younger son in Jesus’ story. We don’t know all the reason for his desiring to leave, but we do know the implications. By demanding his inheritance, he declares his father symbolically dead, metaphorically dead. He’s not saying, “Dad, can I borrow a few bucks so I can go sow a few wild oats?” He’s saying, Dad, I’m gonna get my share when you die anyway, so let’s cut to the chase. I’m never planning to see you alive again, so give me what’s mine and let’s be done with it.”

If you think it hurts for a sputtering four year old to say: “I hate you. I wish you were dead,” try having a full-grown adult child say that to you. We are meant to understand that it probably would have wounded the father less if the son had died or if the son had killed the father.

We’re not completely clear on the father’s rights, but in the story, he complies with the younger child’s request. By the laws of that time, the older son got two-thirds of the inheritance, so the younger so takes his third and goes as far away as he can. And again, everything in the story is said in such a way as to help us understand that if the father is “dead” in the eyes of the son, so too, the son is “dead” and utterly forgotten in the eyes of the father … and of the family … and, indeed, in the eyes of the community in which the family lives. “Do you have any children?” someone might ask. “Just one son.” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” “No, I’m an only child.” Gone. Vanished. No trace. End of story.

The family enterprise has been hit hard by the loss of one-third of its capital, but it will survive … it will go on.

Try as they do, though, the family cannot help hearing bits and pieces of the exploits of the still very much alive younger brother. Bits of juicy gossip trickle back and are whispered around the edges of the community … the kid brother’s getting every bit of bang out of the old family buck that he can. One night he’s helping Britney shave her head … and the next night he’s denying being the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. Oh, it was a riotous time. If it was possible to be hurt more deeply by someone who no longer existed, I’m sure the family’s pain and dismay grew ever deeper.

Whether the family knows or not, we know that the younger son blows his wad in record time and great was his fall. The party’s over and there’s nothing to show for it but an empty coin-purse and an even deeper emptiness that comes from looking back at home and relationships from across an unbridgeable divide. It was as though he’d been thrown into a prison without bars.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent the last days of his life in a prison with very real bars … and barbed wire and machine guns with hair triggers. From the place of his confinement from which he would never escape except by death, Bonhoeffer wrote: I am “restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, … powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?”

Utterly destitute in body, mind and soul, the younger son “comes to himself”, Jesus’ story says. He comes to himself. Whatever had been separated and split and torn apart within finally comes together and finds union. Maybe the first major stage of the hero’s journey is complete.

British psychologist, R. D. Laing used to say “breakdown is breakthrough” … and perhaps this was the shattering event for the younger son that allowed him his wholeness. Perhaps we can think of our own shattering moments, our own breakdowns which have paradoxically led us more deeply into our own selves, our own truth, a new wholeness. We are, after all, at our best, cracked beings that let in the light of God.

The young hero turns … he turns away from the pen of swine, his filthy grunting brothers who had been the only ones to share their food with him , their fodder … he turns away and begins the hardest journey … the journey home, but not home, exactly.

He knows what he has done … for good or ill, for right reasons or wrong … he knows the implications of his actions. He knows that even if he can map a route back to the place of his upbringing, it will not be his home to which he returns. And you sense that for the younger son, that is OK. He seems to understand that he has effected changes that he cannot undo and his has a peace about accepting his new place in the scheme of things, a place without the old comforting privilege … a place of servanthood.

Do you see any of this journey, this pilgrimage in you? In your life and movement? Has there been a time of particular awareness that you really goofed … really blew it … but also a willingness to take full responsibility for your actions … for your journey no matter what far country it led you through?

At this point of the sermon, let’s pause and recall that Jesus’ story—the story of the so-called “prodigal son” is the third of three stories told in response to this: the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling … bellyaching because Jesus seemed to prefer the company of the impure and the outcast, the whores and pushers and petty thieves to the pious and proper scribes and Pharisees. Maybe their personal feelings were hurt … maybe they liked Jesus and wanted to be liked in return, but more at stake was that, on the one hand, Jesus seemed to pass himself off as a Rabbi who claimed an unusually close relationship with God, yet, on the other hand, how could anyone who was close to God have any kind of proximity to those whom God hated … whom God ignored … whom God cursed … because of the filthy, reprobate lives these human vermin lived. “Thank you, God, that I am not like these wretched … people” was a prayer a Pharisee might be heard praying.

Who gets to speak for the mind of God? Well, Jesus makes his case. But he doesn’t argue with them in a conventional manner, but sits down and tells a story … and then another story … and, finally, another.

The first story tells of a shepherd who should have been fired, if not executed, for leaving 99 of the 100 sheep under his care to go out and search for the one wandering lamb. Not even the best shepherd brings back all of his sheep alive … which shepherd would go in search of one lost sheep while leaving the 99 others untended? On earth or in heaven, what kind of economy is this? No matter, the shepherd finds the lamb, puts it over his shoulders and calls his neighbors together to celebrate. Ludicrous.

The second story is like the first … a lost coin instead of a lamb … a woman now instead of a man … the house is swept and searched carefully until the coin is found … and rather than privately expressing her thanks, the woman calls together a block party to celebrate her good news. Bizarre.

Strange behavior that gets even stranger in the third and final story. And if these were merely stories told in no particular context, Jesus would be thought of as an eccentric … an odd duck in a pond full of odd ducks.

The stories tell of things of seemingly nominal worth that aren’t worth a lot of risk or lost sleep if they cease to exist. But Jesus is helping to cast God in a new light—God who takes all of creation seriously, not just part … God who takes all of the human family seriously, not just some … God who takes riotously outrageous JOY when the disparate parts and pieces of God’s creation come back together in a unified whole.

It’s tempting to make the father in the story “God” … it’s an easy allegorical jump … and even if we stoutly resist turning Jesus’ parables into allegory, we can yet see that the father who runs out to greet his son who was lost and is now found hints in a fleshy way at the God of all creation whom Jesus thinks the elder son Pharisees and scribes have seriously misunderstood.

Let’s listen in on some of the language that is used in the story. Throughout the first two-thirds of the story, The story refers to a “father who had two sons” … the reference is always generationally vertical … father/son … son/father … it is only when the elder son comes back from the fields to find a wedding-like celebration going on that he is told: “Your BROTHER has come …”.

We know well the furious, raging response of the elder brother … his father’s other son, who insulted his family, declared them as good as dead, squandered his inheritance in disgusting ways has now come home to spend the elder brother’s inheritance. The fatted calf is the elder brother’s fatted calf. To the father who is seeking to placate him, the older son refers to “this son of yours”. He absolutely, steadfastly refuses to acknowledge kinship, brotherhood. “This son of yours!” ‘He may be your son, but he’s not my brother!’

The father will not bed dissuaded: “My son” he calls him, “my Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." ’

This brother of yours. Whoever is the son of the father is also your brother. Whoever is a child of God is also our sibling, our brother, our sister, a part of our common family.

This parable comes at the very center of Luke’s gospel. It is the final of three terse stories told in quick succession. It comes at a time when the very nature of God’s being and the nature God’s love is at stake. The stories, and in fact, all of Luke’s gospel, seem to being asking the question: which version, which image of God shall we take to be true: the God who nurses the elder son’s self-righteous anger, or the God who sprints into the desert to welcome his lost son. Jesus clearly stands over against all of the religious authorities of his faith and his day in declaring that God is the God of the loving welcome.

It is the elder son in us that makes us persist in naming the parable “The Prodigal Son” which is a reference to the younger son’s profligate behavior. But in fact, the “prodigality” in the story is far less in the younger son’s exploits than it is the father whose love is so deep, so boundless, so durable that against all reasonable behavior and all conventional culture and understanding declares that being in relationship trumps whatever it is anyone has done in their past.

But there is another part of our human nature … roots of bitterness that dig their way into us whenever we feel that God is too good to others and not good enough to us. Typically, we want mercy for ourselves and justice—hard justice—for others. But Jesus’ stories call for us to celebrate with God because God has been merciful not only to us, but to other as well, even to those we would not have otherwise accepted into our fellowship.

A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appear to this farmer and granted him three wishes, BUT with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he recieved a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God’s goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.

If God weeps when we are priggish and cold in our welcome, if God gasps and groans from the depths of God’s being when we are misers of mercy and pinchpennies of grace … if God weeps and groans at these, let us simply try and imagine God’s joy … God’s celebration … God’s divine elation … when we come to ourselves … when we experience a complete breakdown of the old attitudes and opinions that keep us from fellowship with the rest of the human family … when we realize that it is WE, YOU and ME, and not only the despised “other” that are the lost sheep that God so diligently seeks, that we, YOU and ME, are the lost coin that God, like a great cosmic homemaker, sweeps and cleans until we emerge from the dirt and brokenness of our tidy little lives … that we, YOU and ME, are the both the younger AND the elder son, each lost so nearly irretrievably in his own way, yet never quite beyond the joyous grasp of the galloping father who runs out to welcome and embrace us and welcome us back to FULL membership in the FULL family of God. It is when we come to ourselves and know ourselves to be brother and sister to each other and to all that we finally complete our hero’s journey, that we become, at last, whole. When we finally realize that “we are one”, that we ourselves become “one” as well.

And so, I invite you at last to enter the feast … to come out of the shadows or out of that far land where you have taken yourself or where any reluctance to embrace another or even your own self has taken you. Come from that place where you are to the feast that is, even now, being prepared for you. It is a feast of the land that God has given to us and to all. It is a feast and a land brimming with all of the good gifts—the produce of the land—that God seeks to give to God’s people.

And let us proclaim that the name of the one who prepares the feast is “amazing grace” and “wondrous Love” … it is that amazing grace and wondrous love that welcomes us … and welcomes all.

And so let us one and let us all say and sing with our lives and our decisions, our love and our ministry: “Let us build a house where love may dwell, and ALL may enter in” and let us all say and sing with our lives and our decisions, our love and our ministry: “… all are welcome … all are welcome … all are welcome in this place.”

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