Tuesday, July 16, 2013

We are all Prodigals

The story of the Prodigal son has many, many levels to it.  There are different approaches and for each person in this room there is a different perspective.  Even when looking up resources I found that the story is known by different titles. The Prodigal Son, also known as Two SonsLost Son and the Running Father, the Dutiful son, the Forgiving father …just by those titles alone there seems to be different foci.
A story of a prodigal by definition is of one who spends money recklessly.
Henri Nouwen renowned spiritual writer engages this story so deeply that he ended up writing a whole book on it.  Henri describes his first encounter of Rembrandt’s interpretation of this passage and what led him to ponder this story.
“When I first saw the prodigal son, I had just finished an exhausting six-week lecturing trip through the united states, calling Christian communities to do anything they possibly could to prevent violence and war in Central America.  I was dead tired, so much so that I could barely walk.  I was anxious, lonely, restless, and very needy….It was in this condition I first encountered Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son on the door of Simone’s office.  My heart leapt when I saw it.  After my long self-exposing journey, the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment.  I was indeed, the son exhausted from long travels; I wanted to be embraced; I was looking for a home where I could feel safe.  The son-come-home was all I was and all I wanted to be.  For so long I had been going from place to place: confronting, beseeching, admonishing, and consoling.  Now I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel a sense of belonging, a place where I could feel at home.”[1]
Have you ever felt that way?  Ever feel like you have been fighting for, working for, striving for something for so long that you are just exhausted…tired of fighting, striving…you just wanted a place that is safe, warm and welcoming…a place that says come into my arms and rest your struggle is done, relax, you are safe here.  It doesn’t matter how you got here, it doesn’t matter what you did right or what you may have done wrong this is about rest in the journey.
This is a story of a homecoming, this is a story of a young person’s search and discovery, this is a story of a loving fathers longing for a complete family and this is a story of a brother who gets a little green when it comes to parity. I wonder who each of you is in this story.  I wonder where the mother is, is there a mother?
I know for me in this story I can identify with the prodigal.  I was raised a young good catholic.  I went to church every Sunday, I excelled at Sunday school, I was an altar boy and I dreamt of being a missionary priest.  In high school I worked with the worship committee and volunteer student services and was in a Christian rock band.
Sure I had my moments of trouble.  I even ran away for a weekend not so much cause things were bad at home more seeking the opportunity for travel.  When I was a kid I was nick named Charlie brown especially because of my luck with kites but as I became a teenager and into young adult hood I think I became more like huckleberry Finn with a deep yearning for travel and adventure.
After coming into my true self as a Gay man I sought out Dignity Detroit.  I so wanted to remain a good catholic though who I was existed in direct opposition to the clerical hierarchy of the Church.  When the church finally asked that Dignity meet anywhere besides a catholic church, though dignity Detroit remained in their original home for years, I left.  The order was enough to tell me I was not welcome any more.
So I took my inheritance and I left the church.  It is interesting to note that when the prodigal asks his father for his share of his inheritance the father divides up the property and a few days later the son is on his way.  This is so matter of fact, there is no complaint no bargaining it is just;  “well here you go have fun…”  I can’t help but in my mind’s eye see the father turn around give a slight smile and say to himself he’ll be back in a day or so.
So what was my inheritance?  What had the Catholic Church gave me to take with me as I left?  Well it had taught me to ask questions thanks to some very liberal teachers in high school.  It had given me a sense of spirituality and spiritual practice.  It had allowed me to seek what God and a relationship with the divine meant for me and as I walked away that is what I carried with me.
In Luke it explains after everything was spent a great famine broke out.  The prodigal spends his inheritance, it doesn’t say he spent it foolishly, it doesn’t say he spent it wisely.  It just says “everything was spent”, exhausted, beat, beaten, burned-out, bushed, dead, and done.  Those are just a few of the synonyms.  Now who hasn’t felt that way?  I mean in just the day to day of trying to get by, who hasn’t felt completely spent?
I think that description matches me.  I left Detroit for Chicago for a weekend with a friend…after the weekend came to an end I was like; “I have a friend in Long beach!”  I don’t know why but I had packed nothing where my friend packed all he had…he had no intention of returning to Detroit.
Spent about two months in Long beach searching for a job…Finally had a job interview and there was a sign on the door…”went to Disney!”…only in California, I swear.
I had my ups and downs.  I had good times and bad.  At one point I had been kicked out of what had been my home with my bags literally outside the door and I had to sue to gain some of my other belongings and some semblance of retribution for three years of work.
I had to get emergency housing and was put in a hotel that leaked as it rained a cold winter desert rain.  I ended up sleeping on couches and floors for several weeks and eating a lot of sandwiches as I waited for assistance to come through so that I could find a place to live. The Famine had hit
I was exhausted…I was beaten down …I was hungry spiritually for some sort of strength…I returned to the Church.  A place I knew as home.  I quietly walked in and I sat in the very back row. I returned as a prodigal, beaten and exhausted tired of fighting for scraps.
Now the Minister didn’t see me coming from a long way off and run out to greet me.  No and yet looking back…God did.
You see all the time I was seeking, searching, surviving, living, partying, fund raising, educating…no matter what I was doing my inheritance,  that deep down spiritual life and connection to God was still there informing my every move.  When I felt it was entirely spent God came running out to greet me.  I can’t tell you what was said, what was sung, or how the service even went that day.  I can tell you I cried.
I cried out that exhaustion, I cried out my frustration, I left what was bitterness and pain in the church that day.  God had come running out to greet me.
It is interesting that in the story the son comes seeking forgiveness, seeking to be made the lowest in his father’s house, seeking nothing but some semblance of a life.  Yet just as he is barely in sight his Father see’s him and is moved.  That is what the story says; “While still a long way off the father caught site of the child and was deeply moved.”
I know I am playing with synonyms today but let’s go there…to be moved is a visceral reaction, it is to be fired up, to excite, impassion, to stimulate or enflame.  This is strong, do you hear it?  This is a once in a lifetime type of reaction so much so that the father doesn’t hear the sons plea of forgiveness but throws his arms around him, kisses him , gives him rings and robes and throws a party!
Why such a visceral reaction?  Why was it so strong? Well remember in my version the Father walks away with a grin on his face thinking oh he’ll be back?  I hear further the father thinking; I have been there and done that he needs to learn his lesson.  But then he doesn’t come back right away.  The son stays gone till he has spent his inheritance.  Taking in consideration what the father has when the son returns, I suspect, that was a pretty good inheritance.  Therefore, no matter how he chooses to spend it, it took a while to spend.
I know this is a story to display God’s love and welcoming back into the flock of a sinner. But it is using humans as an example, which makes sense if we are created in the image, not exactly like and not perfect, but the image of God.  Gods own behavior might resemble some of ours. 
So the father is smug at first.  Let me give my son a taste of the real world, a taste of freedom and he will be back quickly for the world is nothing as he imagines.  But then that day turns into a few days, then weeks and months.  Soon it has been a long time with no word and no sign of his son.  Is he doing well, or has he fallen in with a bad crowd.  What if he is in jail?  What if he is sick or worse yet dead?
The longer the time apart the more worried the father becomes, the longer apart the greater the possibility of no return. Yet, I believe, if it was one day or 1000 days the greeting would be the same.  En impassioned joyous welcome home.  You see the Father in this story, just as god doesn’t really want to let us go.  But that is what free will is about…it is in Gods nature to let us go.
Henri Nouwen speaks of it this way…

How much would he have liked to pull them back with his fatherly authority and hold them close to himself so that they would not get hurt?
     But his love is too great to do any of that. It cannot constrain, push, or pull.  It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return. It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost a father.[2]

God has chosen to be a parent, a parent who sometimes must set us free to allow us to do what we must do to become who we are. I mean how many times have any one of us looked back on our lives and said I would not be where I am now if I had not gone through what I did. I actually could not write what I write today, or any day for that matter had I not gone through and lived all that I lived.  Yes I often wonder about the what ifs, but if I were given an opportunity to go through it all again…I would for it has brought me here in front of you all today.
God the parent, grieves when we separate ourselves for the love that is extended and yet as soon as we start to walk back, God comes running out to greet us…no need for confession there is no concern there…That is what we hold against ourselves not God.
“There is no lust, greed, anger, resentment, jealousy, or vengeance in his (God’s) lost children that have not caused immense grief to his (God’s) heart…From the deep inner place where love embraces all human grief, the Father (creator) reaches out to His (the) children.  The touch of His (God’s) hands radiating inner light only seeks to heal.”[3] This is the lesson of the moment of assurance we have here every Sunday.  There is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, think or pray that will separate you from the love of God.
But yet God goes further…God Goes over the top…Isn’t that what this parable portrays?  Henri Nouwen goes on to comment; “I realize that I am not used to the image of God throwing a big party.”[4]  Well now isn’t that an understatement.  I mean we all have this image of God that is all commanding, Judging, Powerful and dead serious.  Where did that come from?  I mean as followers of Christ there isn’t much of this “judginses” going on in Christ’s teachings.  I mean if Christ is any example are we surprised when the Loving parent throws a huge party at the return of the son.
As in this parable, and many others, God is waiting …just waiting to throw this big feast.  Not only is the invitation there, the party will start without you until you arrive.  Yet, as in another Parable, it doesn’t matter when you show up; just show up for the last will receive just the same as the very first. “Celebration belongs to God’s Kingdom. God not only offers forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, but wants to lift up these gifts as a source of joy for all who witness them.”[5] Guess what…we get the honor of witnessing it here every week, heck any day you walk in here.  This is the place where you are welcome as part of the creators loving family.  We witness it every Sunday when it is proclaimed that this is not our table it is God’s and there is nothing…nothing that can prevent you from participating in the little banquet.  Yes I called the communion here the little banquet for the feat the creator has set aside for us is so much greater than we can even imagine.
So you see, you are allowed to walk away…you are allowed to spend your inheritance…you are allowed to come back home tired, broke, spent and the loving parent that is God will be waiting to clothe you, heal you and give you respite.  The loving parent is ready to throw you a feast; a party to allow you to sing and dance.  I truly enjoy the way Carey Landry expressed this in a song; “and the creator shall dance as on a day of Joy God will exalt over you and renew you with God’s love.” All of this is so that when you are ready you can step boldly and proclaim that you are a child of God. Amen.

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4.
[2] Henry J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Continuum, 1995), 95.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 113.
[5] Ibid.

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