Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” – Luke 15: 11- 32
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and reknown spiritual leader, spent much of his adult life searching for a home, not for a physical home but a spiritual home. Henri struggled throughout his life with self-doubt, anxiety and loneliness. He often measured his self-worth by what he did and what people said about him. Yet these measurements left Henri feeling disappointed. More than that, this focus on a worldly idea of success ultimately left the aching loneliness in his soul untouched. And so, it was in the midst of one of these struggles, that Henri visits a friend and, in the midst of their conversation, his eyes suddenly fall upon Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son in her office, pictured here on the Power Point slide.
The painting awakens something in him immediately. In the painting, Henri notices how the man in a great red cloak tenderly touches the shoulders of the disheveled boy who is kneeling. Henri feels drawn by the intimacy between the two figures, the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic and the mysterious light that engulfs them both. But it is the hands, the old man’s hands as they touch the boy’s shoulder that moved Henri the most. The painting bring him in touch with something beyond the up and downs of a busy life, it brings him in touch with that within him that longs for love and intimacy and … most of all … a home. (Source: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen)
Henri longed for home because he knew what it was to be lost. He knew what it was like to wander like the Prodigal son himself and to find himself in a distant land of disappointment and self-doubt.
We too know what it is to be lost. In a world that bombards us with loud voices and seductive promises, it is easy to forget our identity as beloved children of God. These voices may come through our parents or friends or colleagues or most of all the mass media around us. They say, “Go out there and prove you are worth something.” These messages reach into inner places and make us question our own goodness and doubt our self-worth. They suggest that we have to prove to ourselves and others that we are worth being love. The voices keep pushing us to do everything possible to gain acceptance. They deny that love is a free gift. When we follow these message, we find ourselves like Henri, never measuring up. We find ourselves, like Henri, with an unfulfilled ache in our hearts.
At the heart of today’s parable is this sense of lost-ness and yearning. In the story, the younger son decided he wanted to travel to a foreign land and asks his father for his share of the inheritance. In those days, this statement was the same as saying, “Hey dad, I wish you were dead!” And yet, his father gives him his share of the money and the son hits the road, rejecting the home that had always loved and cared for him. Leaving home then, is about much more than an event that occurs at a specific place and time. Rather, leaving home is a denial of the spiritual reality that we belong to God with every part of our being. Leaving home means living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one.
And so, the son leaves and travels to a distant land where he spends all his money and eventually becomes flat broke. The son gets a job taking care of some pigs but, he observes, even the pigs eat better than he does. The son thinks of home, noting that even his father’s workers are treated better than he is. Yes, the son knew what it was to be lost and yearn from his depths to be home.
Henri suggests that “addiction” might be the best word to explain this sense of lost-ness that so deeply permeates contemporary society. Henri writes that our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: an accumulation of wealth and power, attainment of status and admiration, lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. What we learn about today’s story is that we are the prodigal child every time we search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.
And in this place of loss, the son comes to realize that he is not an animal but a human being and more than that — the child of his parent. And so, the younger son decides to return home, preparing his speech for his father as he walks. When the son finally arrives, his father does not even wait to hear what the son has to say — he immediately runs – abandoning the cultural norms of parental dignity – and embraces his child. The father had no idea why the son is returning and yet still he runs to meet him. His joy overflowing, the father calls for an extravagant party. This painting captures this moment of tender embrace between parent and child.
What this parable teaches us is that home is a place where the Holy One welcomes us with unconditional and extravagant love. The gentle voice of the Holy One naming us beloved is always there but it easily gets lost in the critical voices around us. That is precisely why Henri’s viewing of this painting was so powerful. It cut past all the self-judgment and uncertainty and spoke directly to his soul, inviting him home.
And so, just like Henri, just like the younger child, God invites us home — we who are lost, we who are weary, we who have wandered to faraway lands. We are called home to a God who abandons all dignity and races to embrace us before we have even made it down the walkway.
I heard a story recently that captures well the extravagance and enormity of God’s love. A pastor I know went to a 12 step meeting and heard one of the old guys, a guy who has been sober for 35 years, say something that caught her attention. While they were discussing their “Higher Powers” and what the “God of our understanding” is like, the guy said, “I don’t know about you, but my God is crazy about me.” (Source: Nadia Bolz-Weber)
The pastor couldn’t stop thinking about it. For most of her life, she had heard the saying, “God loves you” but she had heard so many times it had just become another slogan to her. For someone to say to her, hey, God loves you, felt almost compulsory. Like God loves us because well God has to because we are God’s kids. But for us to say God is crazy about us. Something about that felt different for her. More extravagant. This isn’t the image of a God who is going to follow cultural norms and wait primly and properly on the front stoop.
Yet what does this extravagant love look like in real life? I am reminded of a story that the search committee heard me preach. It is a story that embodies a fundamental truth about who and whose we are. And, in the context for today, it is a story that helps us understand what means to be welcomed home by a God-who-is-crazy-about-us when we are feeling particularly lost.
It is a story about a journalist named Tim Madigan who became friends with Fred Rogers, Presbyterian minister and star of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. (We will, in fact, be reading Tim’s book later this month in fact!) Fred and Tim met when Tim flew to Philadelphia to interview Fred for a news article. They quickly became friends and exchanged many letters back and forth. Then, one day, on a sunny day in December after years of marriage counseling when Tim makes a decision to end his marriage, feeling the full weight of that decision. Tim feels like he is destroying his family and dreads telling his decision to Fred, who devoted himself to building up children and families. Could Fred continue to love him? Tim writes Fred a letter to tell him the news and receives a letter back within the week. Tim opens the letter and reads, “My dear Tim, Please know that I would never forsake you. How I wish we could be closer geographically! I’d get in my car, drive to your house, knock on your door, and when you answered I’d hug you tight. … You are my beloved brother, Tim. You are God’s beloved child.” In moment when Tim felt like he was in a distant land, Fred invited him of feel the welcoming embrace of our Creator. (Source: I’m Proud of You by Tim Madigan)
God’s abundant care is the kind of love that heaven can’t contain. It’s the kind of love that throws a huge party to welcome you home. The kind of love that is ours quite apart from what we do or don’t do. The kind of love that still hugs you tight even when you feel ashamed. It’s the kind of love that runs to embrace you before you even make it down the walkway.
The invitation of this parable is to be loved by our Creator. To sit and be loved. Right now. Even if it might be a bit awkward or uncomfortable. Jesus reminds us that no matter what distant land we have gone to, no matter how lost we are, no matter what mistakes we have made, we are invited home each and every moment to be the beloved/be-loved of God. Amen.