Sacred Soil

What’s my line?
March 10, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , ,

Sermon Lent 4C

Joshua 5:9–12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16–21
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32

I think this is a dangerous parable. Difficult. And beautiful.

Jesus precedes the telling of this parable with the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. He explains how far God is willing to go to find that sheep, that coin. Explains how God rejoices when it is found.

And when these lost items are simply animals and change, I find the parables a delightful metaphor for God’s overwhelming love. A great answer to the charge the Pharisees lay on him, an answer to this frustrating accusation that somehow eating with tax collectors and sinners is a problem.

But, when we get to this parable, where the one lost is a son, where the one finding is a father—then things get complicated. Dangerous. No longer is it a simple story of finding the lost, but it’s a whole mess of a tale about how we go astray; how we long for our family members to come to themselves; how we long, some days, to come to our own selves. It’s a story of an impossibly generous father, a story of a predictable brother.

There are layers and layers of complexity and possibility in this story, and they quickly get wrapped in our own stories of wandering, of forgiveness, and our longing for forgiveness. I believe this is such a well known story because for so many of us, it is our own story. Or we wish it were.

But the dangerous thing, the problem for us, is that this parable, when played in our own lives is never so simple. Who gets the part of the son? The father? The brother? How do we divvy up the roles? Because, in our own lived experience, the lines are rarely so clear and bold. We have this way of being multiple people at once—and at times we screw up discerning who we are.

Here’s an example of that:

In the early 1990’s, a high school friend of mine, we’ll call her Stephanie, came out to her parents. She mustered up all the courage she could find, and told them about her girlfriend. She knew it would be dangerous—they weren’t especially accepting of such things. But she wasn’t prepared for the argument and yelling that followed. And then the silence. Her parents sent her to her room, so that they could talk. And as she sat on her bed, she could hear them argue in hushed tones. And then more silence.

Soon, her mother’s footsteps fell on the stairs, and she heard the soft monotone. “We need you to leave. We cannot have this in our house.”

Stephanie spent the next several weeks living with friends, crashing on couches while she and her parents tried to work things out.

They all longed to have this prodigal story be their own. Stephanie longed for the welcome and warmth of her father’s arms, of her mother’s arms. And her parents longed to welcome her home. But they had different conditions on this.

Stephanie needed them to accept her as she was. Her parents needed her to “come to herself,” as the had perceived it. They needed her to not be gay.

It turns out that this is a major cause of homelessness among youth. Her’s isn’t an isolated story. Daily children are kicked out of their home because they are gay or lesbian. And the story is so often the same—the parents believe that the child has been as the prodigal son, asking for their inheritance so that they can go off and squander it. And so they send the child on their way. The days that follow are filled with longing for that triumphant scene, when the father’s arms open wide to receive the one who had wandered. The scene where the fatted calf is cooked up for a joyful celebration.

But, it may just as well be that the parents have become the prodigal son in this story, choosing to walk away from their child. Losing themselves in the fear of difference and worry for this future they had not imagined.

It turns out that the nature of our broken selves means that it is so often difficult, if not impossible, to divide ourselves into the neat categories of prodigal and father. We don’t always recognize the forces at work in ourselves, the way fear gets in the way of understanding each other. The way our preconceptions block our capacity to fully receive, to know when we should open our arms wide for embrace, or to long for the other to repent. (because it’s just as true that we too often believe that one has repented, when all they have done is wished for repentance).

It was several years later, when Stephanie was in college, that I ran into her and her parents again. There was a new formality to their relationship. An awkwardness that spoke of real tension. But they were clearly trying, trying to find their way toward embrace. Taking on the multiplicity of their roles—walking toward each other. Not so swiftly, as in the parable—I suppose it’s hard to move very fast when you run as both the prodigal son and the father wrapped into one.

I think that his is what makes the parable so extraordinary. That our God is the father in this story. Our God is the one, who without question or ambiguity, without requirement or hesitation, our God is the one who gives up all propriety, and runs. Hits a full sprint, wrapping loving arms around us, and says welcome home. Just as we are. Coin, sheep, daughter, son.

It’s extraordinary because it’s something we can’t really do. Our egos, our fears, our pride, our confusion, they all get in the way. We don’t know our role. We can’t have that purity. The mess of human relationships, our own need to be self-righteous, and our own sinfulness get in the way.

The open arms of welcome are here. For all of us. Without cost, without price. It does not matter what pig slop you have rolled in. It does not matter how you have squandered your gifts. It does not matter how far you have wandered. God’s arms are wide. Welcoming us as no other can. Wholly, and holy. Just as we are. It truly is extraordinary.

And it isn’t just a one time thing. A single moment. It’s a daily reality. Over and over, God is ready to receive. And look here, at this table is the feast. The bread of life, the cup of hope, given for each of us. This feast is our own prodigal feast, welcoming everyone into God’s wide open arms of mercy and love. Today. In this hour.

Which is good for us, as we mere mortals figure out how to deal with the mess of our own lives. The need to forgive, the need to be forgiven. To understand how we have hurt each other, to understand what is good. We will mess up on these accounts. We just do. But God’s arms are there, ready to receive always. Every single time.