The 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke
One of the things I love about Scripture is how it is always surprising me. How, no matter how often I have read a certain passage, no matter how well I think I know it, something new will jump out at me, something I hadn’t really noticed before—not because the Scriptures have changed, but because I have changed or my circumstances have changed. Or maybe the world itself has changed.
I love Scripture because God is still speaking through it. God is still speaking love and hope and joy and new life.
And so it was that when I read the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke last week, something touched my heart in a way it never had before. Maybe you heard it, too:
And that is how central friends and neighbors and celebration are to life with God.
In these uncertain days of pandemic and social distancing, this may be one of the few things we are sure of: That we need one another. That we miss each other. That one of the best and clearest ways God loves us is through one another. Through community. Through joy. Through connection. Through church.
Hear again the life-giving word of God:
When the good shepherd finally finds the one lost sheep out of a hundred, when he cries for joy over that little lamb and carries her on his shoulders all the way home, the first thing he does upon arriving is call his friends and neighbors to come celebrate.
And when the woman who has lost one of her ten silver coins turns her house upside-down and inside-out looking for it and then finally—finally!—finds it, what does she do? She calls together her friends and neighbors to come celebrate.
The heaven Jesus describes is, apparently, one big, non-stop party to which everyone is invited. And the God Jesus knows is, apparently, forever on the lookout for a reason to celebrate.
This party-animal God will leave no stone unturned in searching for her lost children. This extravagantly loving God cannot stand to lose even one of us, even for a little while. This most merciful God will not let even our worst, most disrespectful and self-destructive behavior come between us and a shamelessly exuberant welcome home. This self-giving, long-suffering, and forgiving God seems to love the lost and the lowly most of all.
But what does that have to do with me? you might be wondering.
But what does that have to do with now?
Many years ago, my AIDS-afflicted brother and his partner were living with me in my tiny, ramshackle house. They had been with me for a few months, and my brother’s condition was getting progressively worse. I was trying to care for my brother and restore our fractured family all while working full-time, and it seemed I had one last chance to take a break before things got really, really bad.
And so I took a road trip out west. I spent some time in New Mexico before making my way to a beautiful retreat center in Colorado, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I was an experienced hiker, even then, and I was enjoying my time alone, so it didn’t occur to me to tell anyone where I was going that morning when I parked my car at a nearby trailhead, and headed up the mountain under a yellow canopy of quivering aspen trees.
Long story short: It was a lovely hike, but I ended up on the wrong side of a mountain range. By the time I realized that the trail was never going to loop back over the ridge, by the time I realized I didn’t really know where I was or where I was headed, I had only two options: to go back the way I had come—and likely spend a cold, dark night on the mountain—or to keep going and hope I would find someone to help me.
Which is to say: I had to admit that I was lost, and I had to let myself be found. I, who had been working so hard to save my brother and our family, had to let myself be saved.
Now I realize that my experience is not a perfect analogy to either the prodigal son story or our current situation with social distancing in a pandemic. But neither is it all that different.
Think about it: Just as the prodigal son squandered his inheritance on on wild living, so we have squandered our greatest gift—the earth and its abundant resources—on our short-term desires and selfish ends. Just as the prodigal son took his parents’ support and his privileged position for granted, so we have taken for granted the many relationships and the complex web of interdependence that make our lifestyles—and our very lives—possible.
Standing in a pig sty, the prodigal son had to admit he had made a huge mistake. Standing on the wrong side of a mountain, I had to admit I was lost. Living in a time of drastic climate change, we see how much our lifestyles really cost. And now, separated from our friends and neighbors, cut off from all the communities and co-workers, routines and plans, independence and control that we love, most of us feel very much alone and perhaps a little bit lost.
Beloveds, the good news is that God absolutely loves the lost.
The good news is that once we realize we are lost, we can begin to understand what is most important. And once we know that, we can let ourselves be saved, which is another way of saying that we can let ourselves be more fully loved and healed.
The prodigal son realized that his father’s servants were better off than he was, so he headed home intending to ask for a job. In Colorado, I hiked and hiked and hiked until I came across the first people I’d seen all day—a middle-aged woman and her daughter and son-in-law—and asked them for a ride to the nearest town. And now that social distancing, closed schools, empty shelves, and cancelled plans have left many of us alone, unemployed, and anxious, with time to kill and health to protect, we can see much more clearly how much we really do need each other.
All it took for the prodigal’s son father to go running down the road like a fool with no shame was the vaguest glimpse of someone who looked like a bare-bones version of his lost son. And then the neighbors were summoned to the biggest party anyone had ever seen. All it took for a gentle monk to drive all the way around a mountain range to rescue me was a contrite phone call—and then she bought me dinner.
I don’t know exactly how God is going to love us out of this dangerous pandemic, but I know God is in it—in songs sung to neighbors from balconies, in phone calls to friends we normally share a pew with, in conference calls, deliveries to neighbors, Zoom gatherings, worship livestreams, and a thousand other good deeds. I am quite sure that the God who loves finding the lost and celebrating their return, the same God who loves bringing new life out of death and despair, will bring us through this, and that there will be a grand celebration on the other side, and the restoration of real and full life.
In the words of Christian writer Laura Kelly Fanucci:
When this is over,
may we never again
take for granted
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbors
A crowded theatre
Friday night out
The taste of communion
A routine checkup
The school rush each morning
Coffee with a friend
The stadium roaring
Each deep breath
A boring Tuesday
When this ends,
may we find
that we have become
more like the people
we wanted to be
we were called to be
we hoped to be
and may we stay
for each other
because of the worst.
In the meantime, may we let ourselves be loved and found and healed and celebrated by the God who loves the lost. May we find the loved ones we have lost and the lost parts of ourselves. And may we let our lives be made new.