The Prodigals

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Lord Jesus, Sun of Righteousness,
shine in our heart we pray;
dispel the gloom that shades our minds
and be to us as day.
Give guidance to our wandering ways,
forgive us, Lord, our sin;
restore us by your loving care
to peace and joy within. (Hymnal 1982, 144)

I can’t tell you how strange and surreal it is
To have this Gospel text on this day.
Some days we wonder—maybe many days we wonder—
If God still does indeed work in mysterious ways
And then we share experiences in our lives like we are sharing now…
Maybe we’ve written an entire sermon that seemed to fit the bill quite well….
And then…tragedy happens. And we scrunch our eyes and look again at the text we are assigned….and it’s this one?
The prodigal son?

I don’t want to speak about the prodigal son today.
I don’t want to entertain the notion that I have heard so many times of the person who squandered his fortune on wasteful living.
That doesn’t ring true to me today.
I don’t want to look at opinions about older brothers being resentful because the younger son returns home and receives the father’s blessing….
Greedy self-centered older brothers don’t ring true to me today.
There are so many parts of this story—at least the way I have heard it interpreted so many times—that I just don’t want to hear—or talk about.

But, we are in a space where the Spirit has put us alongside this text…this text about a son who leaves and returns. We are in a space where the events of our lives are laid alongside—viewed through—the text we’re assigned. When this happens, sometimes, profound things happen—not because of the skill of the preacher, but because the entire community is invited to reflect on its circumstances through the text in such a way that the Spirit is felt, perceived, experienced…
Maybe, just maybe, we’re given a glimpse of something…that gives us hope…

So, where do we find hope here? Where do we find comfort here? Challenge we have enough of right now. Grief and despair…we have enough of those. I’m on the lookout for hope…I could really use a bit of comfort right now as well…

Just by calling this text “The Prodigal Son,” we are already given a certain lens…a certain interpretive framework. “Prodigal” focuses on the negative behavior. Being a prodigal means you are wasteful, throwing away resources with extravagant, careless living. The wasteful son, the uncaring son, the reckless son…the prodigal.

And, that’s all well and good when you find yourself in a situation where you’re surrounded by folks who in a position where, maybe, we need to be cautioned a bit…invited to see another way of living…have our recklessness called forth.
But that’s not where I am. I don’t find hope there…

So, I spent a bit of time yesterday re-imagining this text with pieces of the story. I sat with the characters in the story and wondered…praying that the Spirit might re-image this text for me in a way where I could find…hope.

I first noticed that the story reaches a point where the word prodigal no longer ably describes the son. There comes a point where he can no longer be wasteful because he doesn’t have anything to waste.

There comes a moment when something happens to him, within him, around him, through him…and the story takes a turn…

It’s almost too gentle the way it is phrased:

He would have gladly filled himself with the pods the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself…

There it is: when he came to himself…

There comes a moment in his life when he experiences conversion…a reorientation away from one way of being to another…

So much about the spiritual journey centers on the possibility of conversion, of an experience of reorientation toward a wider, grace-filled horizon…
– Turning
– Being turned
– Being shown a wider perspective
– Having one’s eyes opened to a deeper space of God’s grace…

Life is full of conversion moments…

For this man, he comes to himself and returns to his home. He is embraced by his father. I think of Rembrandt’s wonderful depiction of this scene, where my eyes are drawn to the father’s hands, on the young man’s back, holding him and drawing him in…

The love of a father who is there to remind his son that not only was he always loved but that he is loved still…and welcomed home…and that he will always be loved…beyond his wildest imagination…

When we start to look at the text this way, something shifts in it for us….we start to see not the son as reckless, but the father! A father who loves so freely and welcomes home so readily that it feels scandalous and wasteful. I googled Prodigal Father, and I was not surprised when Nadia Bolz-Weber popped up (If you don’t know her work, you will soono). Here is how she describes the reality of this scandalous love of the father:

Because it is here we see that your relationship to God is simply not defined by your really bad decisions or your squandering of resources. But also your relationship to God is not determined by your virtue. It is not determined by being nice, or being good or even, and I struggle with this, but it’s not even determined by how much you do at church. Your relationship to God is simply determined by the wastefully extravagant love of God. A God who takes no account of risk but runs toward you no matter what saying all that is mine is yours. (From a sermon on Patheos, March 11, 2013)

The wastefully love of God… a Father who runs out to meet us…embrace us….pick us up from the pod-picking struggles of our lives and make us whole. All I have is yours…

I can start to find hope there.

And….and….I find even more hope in knowing—believing—that this Prodigal Father loves each and every one of us—and all of us…every part…even those dark parts of ourselves that we think cannot possibly be loved.

And, (here’s the one that blows our minds) that this wasteful and extravagant love of God continues well beyond our deaths…

That this is what St. Paul was pointing at when he described how this extravagant of love of God simply cannot be stopped:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-40)

Nothing can stop the prodigal father…

Through our practice of faith, we come to trust in this extravagant of love of God—a love that lets us question and wonder and wrestle….and yet never gives up on us. Never…

The love of Christ that does indeed, as the hymn says, dispels the gloom that shades our minds…

We can start to find hope in this love…we can start here…

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Lent IV, Year C
St. Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 6, 2016

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