Monday, September 08, 2008

radical hospitality (luke 15)

The prodigal son is a story that has captured the imagination of people of all ages, it speaks to folks inside the church and outside. It is, someone has said, Jesus’ masterpiece. It has been painted by artists---most significantly by Rembrandt, the work portrayed at St. Petersburg in Russia, a number of you have seen it; it has inspired music…we think of “Amazing Grace”, a hymn that transcends all genres of music, and speaks to people of all faith and of no faith. It is the gospel, and for that reason, it is for all humanity.

Someone has said that there are only two themes in all of literature: first, “a stranger comes to town”. Second, “a person goes on a journey”. In the parable a man has two sons, the younger one leaves home, surely this would have upset the birth order, taking with him the inheritance and leaving behind the safety and security of home, not to mention the bonds of relationship. And almost immediately, if we are listening, the story becomes our story: who present this morning has not lived this story (?), and that is really where scripture comes to life, when the story of God becomes our story.

The son leaves, and, to make a long story short, independence is not all that it’s cracked up to be. He goes through the money pretty quickly, and soon finds himself in trouble. He finds work, to survive, not the work he had hoped for, but it is a way to stay alive. Then, in the middle of the parable, a turning point: in verse seventeen, “he comes to himself”.

What an amazing phrase: he comes to himself. Meaning that truth cannot be imposed on us from the outside: we have to discover the truth for ourselves. Maybe you have heard the humorous comment, “when I was 18 I thought my parents were ignorant, when I was 24 I was amazed at how much they had learned in six years!”

He comes to himself. And so, he turns, toward home. And here, the genius of the parable is that it holds together the two great themes. His homecoming will be in the form of a stranger who comes to town. He is not the same person. And yet, he is going home. And so he rehearses the speech, what he will say to his father: “I have sinned, I am longer deserve to be called your child”, a speech, by the way, he never actually gets to make---such is the mercy of God.

He returns. Now the story could take two different paths here, starkly different outcomes, and I want to sketch them out. In the first, imagine that the wayward child is almost home, and he meets, not the father, but the older brother.

The older brother meets the younger brother. The older brother, arms crossed, thinking to himself: “I knew you would be back, crawling home to dad. I could have written this script. Give me one good reason why we should take you back?”

And I could imagine that the younger brother keeps on going.

I ask you to imagine this scenario because this parable was given so that our imaginations might be stretched. The unclean child returns home. Do we exclude or embrace? This parable has always been one of challenge and of comfort, and I want to take it in that order. And we not only hear it, as individuals. We must hear it as a church. And so the question becomes: are we, as a church, the church of the older brother?

And so I have reflected on the children who have lived in far countries and yet who may be on their way home, home to God, home to church.

Picture…a couple who have been burned by some bad experience in the church, and yet have some spiritual hunger and want to take some tentative step back.

Picture…men and women who have had the experience of spending the last few years in Iraq, living amidst a chaos and destruction they cannot make fully make sense of, knowing that we cannot understand it either. They will be returning to the U.S. in the years to come, in droves. Will we be ready?

Picture …gay and lesbian adults, who love Jesus, who have been shaped by the church, and yet wonder…does this church welcome me?

Picture…the single parent who gives birth to a child? Perhaps she is asking, “Would this church baptize my baby? Are we the right kind of family for this church?”

When you see the wayward child, returning home, who do you see? Sometimes a person you have never met? Sometimes your very own child? Sometimes yourself?

Because this is gospel, good news, the story as Jesus tells it takes a different path. The wayward child is returning home and meets, not the older brother, but the waiting father. While the child is returning, rehearsing the speech, the father, who must have been searching, and praying, sees him (verse twenty). While the son is yet at a great distance, the Father sees him, and runs (how undignified!), and embraces him, and kisses him. Let all of that soak in for a moment.

We see what we are looking for.

The fathers sees and runs and embraces. Active verbs.

This, brothers and sisters, is radical hospitality. Embracing the unclean, loving those who have abandoned us, welcoming the stranger. Note in the scripture: the Father does all of this seeing and running and embracing before the child confesses. And then there is a party, a feast, a family reunion. My son was dead and now he is alive. My daughter was lost and now she is found.

What a different outcome, and it has everything to do with who the wayward child meets, on the way home. I shared this week another scenario, and I mention it briefly again. It depends again on the exercise of your own imagination. If you are a younger person, that is your role, if you are an adult, that is your role. You can figure it out.

Your adult child grew up in Charlotte, but moved to a distant city. You know enough about his or her life to know that he or she has lived the life of the prodigal. They have known some despair, some difficulty, and some danger. They are far from home and far from the church. You are talking on the phone one evening and you hear a different tone in the voice. “Mom, dad, there is church near me, and this Sunday I am going to go to the service”.

Now let me quickly note how we get sidetracked. What is most important is not what kind of programs the church has, what style of worship the church offers, how handsome the facilities are, whether the beautiful people are among those in attendance. These are technical adjustments that we make. This is a person who hungers for substance, for something more.

You imagine your child waking up on Sunday morning, getting dressed, and finding their way into the doors of the church. Here is the question, if the church were our church, who is the first person you would hope they would meet when they pass through the doors?

Who is the person?

I have shared this exercise with smaller groups over my years here, and one name would be mentioned more often than any other: Catherine Ussery. If you have been blessed to live your Christian life here at Providence for more than a few years, you will remember Catherine. I knew about Catherine before I ever arrived: I was senior pastor of a church in another city, and one of our associate pastors there had lived in Charlotte, experienced a difficult divorce, found grace in this church, and had been befriended by a persistently older and mature woman with a beautiful smile: Catherine.

My friend’s life was changed by radical hospitality. He never mentioned finding a program or a style of worship or a certain décor or the beautiful people in our urban village. No, on the way home, while he was still at a great distance from all that God wanted for him, someone saw him, someone ran toward him, someone embraced him.

Catherine embodied radical hospitality, and over the years she helped to shape our church. Of course, radical hospitality abounds in many places here: with homeless families, with the Joy Class, and I could go on.

The question becomes, for us, how does the spirit of Catherine live on among us. Who befriends the young adult going through a difficult divorce? How could we become a congregation of Catherines? How could we re-discover the image of God, which is love, unconditional love, as we see it in this waiting parent?

I have preached on this parable before, and if you searched for that sermon on the Providence website you could read about the painting of Rembrandt: its significance lies, among many interpreters, including Henri Nouwen, in the painting of the hands of the parent, there seems to a masculine hand and a feminine hand. A friend in our church reminded me of Nouwen’s deeper interpretation of this parable, in that the three characters represent our development as Christians:

We spend some time wandering, exploring, tasting, experimenting, thrashing around;

We spend some time judging, critiquing, finding fault, comparing ourselves to others; these correspond to the younger and the older brother.

But then there is another way. After a lifetime of wandering far from home, and a lifetime of grumbling while staying at home, there is the one who stands at the window, waiting for a miracle: that the dead are alive and the lost are found.

If you and I “get” this story, it breaks down every barrier and it unites us into one family, and the symbol for this great meeting is and has always been a meal, Holy Communion. Charles Wesley “got it”, this gospel of grace, and his words of invitation are for everyone of us:

Come sinners to the gospel feast
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest
You need not one be left behind
For God has bid all humankind.

Sources: Henri Nouwen, The Return of The Prodigal Son; Charles Wesley, “Come Sinners To The Gospel Feast”, United Methodist Hymnal. Note: This meditation was giving prior to receiving Holy Communion.


Blogger Questing Parson said...

Thanks for this.

I've lately been pondering the many possible meanings of the line, "He came to himself."

9:42 AM  

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