Not the Long Walk Home, but the Welcome
The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
4 Lent, March 31, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12 Psalm 32 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with every start…
In the Name of the God of Compassion: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. + AMEN.
You might recognize the lines I just quoted. They’re from a Mumford and Sons song that begins, “Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine.” It’s a catchy first line, but the whole song evokes for me our Gospel lesson today, of the Prodigal Son. This is one of those stories that is so well known, I almost feel embarrassed to preach on it. “The Prodigal Son” is an iconic parable, one of the most well-known of all of Jesus’s parables. A wealthy man has two sons. The younger son asks his father for his inheritance so he can go off and live life. The presumption in the request is staggering, since he’s essentially saying, Dad, I wish you were dead, fork up the cash. And then he goes and spends it all in, ah, “dissolute” living. Eventually, the cash dries up, he ends up in some hard straits and comes back to a father, who not only takes him back, but embraces him. The classic story of the Wayward son. Clearly this is an allegory of God’s forgiveness of we poor sinners. So what more is there to say?
Well, I think the question ought not to be what more is there to say, but rather we ought to ask how we ought to tell and hear this story. Where do we put the emphasis? Because, I don’t think this is really a story about the Prodigal Son. At least, it’s not about how far he fell before he came back. It’s not about what sorts of sins he committed, or that he decided to stop sinning and become religious and straight-laced all of a sudden. That’s part of the story, perhaps, but it’s not the heart of it. It’s not about a Wayward Son, at all, because prodigal doesn’t mean wayward, it means wasteful.
That’s a key part of this parable. What was the Son wasting? Not the money. It wasn’t the money he was wasting. Well, he was wasting that, too, but that’s not treasure, that’s just money. No, the Son was wasting his own life, his own heart. About a third of the way through the story, when the son is tending pigs (which were unclean animals and so a shameful thing for him to have to do), and indeed, eating with the pigs—no further degradation was possible—notice what Jesus says, “But when he came to himself, he said….” When he came to himself. When the distractions of thrills and the pleasures money could buy, and strong drink had all worn out, he came to himself. At the bottom of the trough he found what remained of his dignity, ironically in his guilt, and he resolves to go back to his Father and plead with him. He’s rehearsed it, too: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands. Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
And what happens when he finally gets there? “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son—” But the Father cuts him off! No, no, no, no time to talk about it just now. Get the robe, fire up the grill; we’ve got a party to launch! The father is so overjoyed, he even ran out to him when he was already far away. The Father is all rejoicing! The Prodigal Son is fundamentally about God’s welcome. God is always waiting for us. God runs to us, when we can barely bring ourselves to acknowledge God. When we have made a mess of our lives and are ready to cast ourselves into the despair of shame, God is there to say, no, no, no: no, put on this robe, come and feast on my love. I have never, never stopped loving you. I have never forgotten you, and I never could, because you are my beloved! This parable, and the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are all about God’s rejoicing in us, when we turn our attention back to the source of all love and our own being. God created each and every one of us as a gift to the world. You and me. God made us, God loves us, and God keeps us.
Notice that Jesus tells this parable and the two that precede it in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes, who say, “This guy welcome sinners and eats with them!” The point of the story isn’t the long walk home, it’s the welcome we receive at every start. The first parable Jesus tells is of the shepherd who, stupidly, leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one. And when he finds it, he says, “Rejoice with me!” The second parable is the story of the woman who has ten coins, but loses one, and turns her home upside down to find the lost one. And when she does, she gathers her neighbors and says, “Rejoice with me!” These are ludicrous ways of behaving! But that is just how extravagant is the loving embrace of God.
The full stanza to the Mumford & Sons lines I quoted goes: It seems that all my bridges have been burned / But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works / It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart / But the welcome I receive at every start. And we’re back again to grace, which is the word we Christians have always used as a shorthand for that radical, reckless embrace of God. The point of turning our eyes into the deepest recesses of our hearts is not so that we know how horrible we are. The point of confessing our sins is not to try to outdo one another with the originality or magnitude of our wickedness. It is an exercise of honesty that gets us started on our way back to God, back to the banquet, back to the legs that run to us and the arms that hold us fast, back to the recognition of our own infinite worth in God’s eyes. The point of Lent—I feel like I can say this on Laetare Sunday, when we are meant to rejoice—the point of Lent is Easter. The point of Lent is not the slough of despond or feeling bad about ourselves; the point of Lent is to get us to lift our eyes ever so slightly toward the face of God, which is always longing to rejoice in each and every one of us.
It’s hard work—it’s scary work—to come back to ourselves, to our own hearts, to know ourselves well. There are always things to prune away. And that’s where Mumford & Sons start their song: Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine / Together we will see what we will find / Don’t leave me alone at this time / For I’m afraid of what I would discover inside. But that kind of examination, that kind of returning to ourselves, of examining our conscience daily, of confessing our sins, fully aware of the ways we have hurt others or failed to help those who are hurting—that’s what will change our hearts, and we dare to begin because we know the welcome God has waiting for us.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the Prodigal Son after the banquet? This is another reason I don’t think the story’s really about the Prodigal Son. Jesus doesn’t tell us. What effect did the Father’s welcome have? I suspect Jesus doesn’t tell us because we ought to feel it. What is the only possible response to such a radical welcome? Rejoice with me! Give thanks with me! The Eucharist is where we principally render our thanks for God, and how we attune ourselves to seeing the world with thankful eyes, because we were dead, and we have come to life. And that is the source of our joy, our courage, our vision, and our strength for the living of these days.
Mumford & Sons have it right again. Once the loving face of God has touched us, our hearts are brought alive: Stars hide your fires / for these here are my desires / and I won’t give them up to you this time around / And so I’ll be found / With my stake stuck in this ground / Marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul. I like to imagine that the Prodigal stuck his stake in the ground and refused to give way to the siren songs of life, but poured himself out in love the rest of his days. I like to imagine that he became like Mary Magdalene, or Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, or any of the great multitude of saints whose newly impassioned souls led them to quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) heroism. I imagine him like Mother Teresa, who once caught sight of God’s rejoicing and spent the rest of her life on the long walk home among the poorest, uncertain of much, but certain of the welcome that greeted her at every start.
Beloved, the Prodigal Son is an icon for us of joy. Let us, like the Prodigal, return to our own hearts and find there the overwhelming delight of our creator! Let us, like the Prodigal, rely not on our own self-deception, but on God’s unfailing joy in each of us. Together, let us become a community whose strength is in God’s open arms. Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine / Together we can see what we will find.