Mary, Mother of our Redeemer Chapel
Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary
Js. 5:9-12; Ps. 32:2-7
2 Cor. 5:17-21; Lk 14:1-3, 11b-32
In the name of the Holy and Undivided +Trinity, One God. Amen.
Can I make a confession to you? Don’t tell the Bishop, but I’m a little tired of hearing about the Prodigal Son. Be sure not to tell Pope Francis either—it’s his favorite gospel story, especially so during this Year of Mercy.
(Not that the Pope has much say over Anglicans—we settled that a couple hundred years ago.)
But really. I’m tired of hearing about the loving father who welcomes back his reckless “prodigal” son, while his responsible “faithful” son stands by watching. It’s a tired Christian story—God is, of course, the generous Father and we, as Christians, are the prodigals, come back from a lifetime of sin and ready to be received into God the Father’s loving embrace.
I’m not saying that any of it is wrong. (I’m not completely a heretic.) I’m just saying that it is tired. We’ve gone there. We’ve done that. If we believe, as I think we do, that the Word of God is living and life-giving, then I think we should be able to come up with something a little more lively than our standard, our “orthodox” reading of this beloved—and ultimately quite powerful— parable.
Consider for a moment changing the rolls around—upsetting the fruit basket completely. Instead of sorrowful Christians coming back to a merciful God, what would it look like if a reckless, impetuous, rule-breaking God presented herself to us, looking to be taken in after acting exactly contrary to our wishes?
How does that feel? Different? “Minnesota Different”? (Which is absolutely code for wrong.)
I find that reading of Luke’s story extremely engaging and frankly life-giving.
Ours is a God who acts lavishly, who hangs around with the sort of people we turn our noses up at. This God of ours doesn’t fit into our boxes. This is a God who makes ridiculous demands. Settle our estate, divide our profits, trust him—just trust him. Our God sometimes shows up looking like the people we despise the most. Or the people who confuse us the most.
Looking like the sinner, the enemy, the unsavory, the unclean, the plain, ol’ wrong—God comes to us and makes an impossible request: “Welcome me.”
The Prodigal God says to us, “Go against everything you know, everything you believe, every expectation. And welcome me.”
And how do we as Church respond? Luke gives us two choices:
1)We respond as the faithful sibling did—we roll our eyes and wonder why in the world anybody would consider taking in this kind of God—this kind of God who sits down to eat with sinners, who encourages women, who preaches to filthy tax-collectors and heretical Gentiles?
2) We respond as the merciful Parent—despite our conflicting emotions and the chip off our block, we throw open our arms and say, “Welcome home! The One who was once dead has come to life! You were lost, but you’ve been found!”
That’s all well and good in theory. God loves those we don’t and we have to welcome God-through-them, right?
I think it’s more difficult than we readily admit.
How can I, as a thoughtful, loving, mostly conscientious human being, welcome the Prodigal God in the guise of somebody who is so different, so completely opposite than me? How can I throw open my arms and welcome somebody whose worldview is exactly opposite mine, whose very presence makes me uncomfortable? How could I put aside—if even for a moment—the “faithful ones,” those who are steady and true and faithful and loyal and compassionate?
It’s difficult, church, but it ain’t impossible. It happens all the time, but we usually aren’t aware. Reconciliation is uncomfortable and we are trained to reject discomfort. But look hard enough and you’ll see it all over the place.
It happened in South Africa during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After generations of colonial oppression on the basis of race, black South Africans were able to forgive and welcome in their white neighbors. The work of the Commission was rough and grueling and no doubt opened a few scabbed wounds, bringing up memory after memory of pure hatred on the part of their oppressors.
And it happened in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, when a group of mostly young, decidedly radical gays and lesbians collected money and waged their support for an unsuspecting group of Welsh miners-on-strike. Even though these miners initially acted out of fear and embarrassment, they were welcomed in by the gays and lesbians who eventually became like family.
And it happened to us here, nearly every day. We are a sometimes divided group here at the School of Theology. We come from different places and hold different—sometimes contradictory—theological beliefs. It would often be easy to sit in silos, alone but for the group of people who think, pray, believe like we do. But every time we sit next to somebody during Convivium or class or at the Reef, we begin the good, hard work of reconciliation. Are we throwing open our arms and embracing God as found in our prodigal colleagues and community mates? Not yet, but we are working on it. And sometimes, that’s enough.
We are invited during these last few weeks of Lent to continue practicing this work of reconciliation until that bright Easter morning when the God who was distant, who still reeks of musty tomb and fiery hell, is greeted with glad shouts of “You were dead, but now you’re alive! You were lost, but now you are found!”