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Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
A poem by the Rev. Maren Tirabassi 1
Wouldn’t it be great if life were as simple as a parable?
If every family were wealthy enough to offer each child the means to follow their dreams? If each privileged person got as excited about justice that restores people to wholeness and community as the homeless person gets when they find a forgotten fiver in their pocket? If a fix for dysfunctional families was as sure as the sunrise, and undoing bad life choices as easy as making a U-turn? If rejection could be resolved with parties, and resentment dissolved with dancing? If every parent were so unabashedly love-sick and as eager to forgive?
Wouldn’t it be great if we knew—really, really knew, in every forsaken corner of our hearts—how deeply we are loved? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live as though were we are swimming in a boundless ocean of mercy and drinking from a bottomless cup of grace?
How different might our lives be, how different could the world be, if we really understood what grace is—how there is nothing, absolutely nothing, we have to do to receive more love and goodness than we can imagine? How might our hurts be healed and our hearts transformed if we could celebrate a world in which everyone gets not the love they deserve but the love they need?
How might we help build God’s realm of justice and peace if our lives were truly grounded in God’s reckless, no-holds-barred love and extravagant embrace?
(How’s that for a lot of questions?)
Now don’t get me wrong: I love this story. I believe this story. I have preached this story as if my life, the health of the church, and the future of the world depended on our willingness to explore its multiple layers and live into its many gifts. As we have read it again and discussed it anew, I have watched eyes fill with tears and felt the hope, weariness, and wariness of aching hearts.
Because however fervently we want to be forgiven, as much as we want to believe reconciliation is possible, and as deeply as we long to see the one we’ve hurt running out into the street to welcome us home, and no matter what we would give if only our loved one would come back, our lives are more complicated than the parable.
Because we have said things that can’t be unheard, and we’ve heard things that can’t be unsaid. Because we haven’t forgiven ourselves for whatever it was we did or didn’t do. Because we can’t bear the thought of admitting we were wrong. Or because we believe people should have to pay for their mistakes. Because we work hard at being good, thank you very much—so why should some ungrateful, irresponsible, loser be given what we’ve earned?
Or maybe it’s that we don’t want to go home again—because we’ve been there, done that and, while the door is unlocked, the greeting is tepid, at best. Or maybe it’s because we’ve spent the best years of our lives standing at the window looking for a child, a friend, a partner, or a parent who never comes. Maybe we risked everything to go back home or to make a new home for the prodigal, and now—well, things aren’t so great.
And it’s one thing to admit you were wrong, another thing to apologize for breaking their hearts, and still another to come to yourself and your senses only after you’ve hit bottom and almost thrown your life away. The parable has room for all those scenarios. But what if the estrangement is not so much about something you did or didn’t do—but about who you are?
What if you or someone you love can hardly get a hello, much less a ring, a robe, and a dinner-dance?
Do we just turn the page? Do we shake our heads and say, “That Jesus! There he goes again. How am I supposed to believe that God comes running to welcome me home, that the Holy One would sweep me off my weary feet and into her arms when no human person has ever loved me like that? And why is Jesus’ God forever being so unfair—paying the latest workers a full-day’s wage and forgiving adulterers and eating with the worst of sinners?
That’s the question that prompted Jesus to tell this story and the ones about a lost sheep and a lost coin. The religious people wanted to know why Jesus spent so much of his time hanging out with the riffraff, the outcasts, the people no church wanted anything to do with. They were interested in keeping score, following rules, their idea of fairness and, oh yeah,resentment. They seemed to think there was only so much of God’s loving kindness to go around and if someone else—someone who didn’t deserve it—got some, well then, there was less of it for them.
Yes, he seems to be saying. God loves us all—especially the sinner, especially the one who’s wandered off and can’t be found, especially anyone who’s ever made a mess of things,especially anyone who’s imperfect, especially anyone who’s all but dead to the world, especiallyanyone who thinks love is something that has to be earned, especially those who push everybody away even as they are starving for love, especially those who have broken our hearts, especially those who want to stick it to everyone who’s not as good as they are.
Did you catch that? Did you notice the father’s response to the jealous older son, pouting because he didn’t get a party?
“Child, you are always with me,” he says, “and everything I have is yours. Don’t you see? Now that your sibling has come home, now that we are all together again, there is not less for you; there is more. “More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing.” 2
Yes, our lives are much more complicated than the parable. But God’s love is not. Yes, we like to think our pain runs much deeper than anyone else’s, that we have been more wronged, that we are needier and sorrier, more oppressed, more worthy, more righteous in our anger and refusal to forgive. But God wants only to love and heal, to embrace and enfold, to restore and celebrate. God wants only an open heart, a heart willing to receive, a heart willing to be embraced.
God is the parent, as my colleague Maren says in another prodigal poem, who has held back, trying to walk the fine line between tough love and helicopter parenting, between rescue and empowerment. God is the love-lorn, heart-sick, wait-and-worrier who, “the minute there’s road dust,” is “grabbing the sneakers, [the] cell phone, [and the] favorite Red Sox cap [she] put on the hall table that first day [your] bedroom was empty.” And that blow-out welcome-home party? “She addressed the invitations long ago.” 3
Yes, your situation is more complicated—but this is a parable worth plumbing. Okay, no one really understands you—but this is a story to find yourself in. No, you can’t really imagine getting the love you want—but this is a love to live for. Maybe you can’t go home again, or don’t want to, or don’t like it when you’re there—but this is a love to come running back to. This is a Jesus to follow to the ends of the earth and the beginning of life abundant. This is an embrace in which to ground our very lives.
As you consider whether to come home, as you wonder what it would be like to let yourself be found and then lose yourself in God’s embrace, hear yet another take from Maren Tirabassi on this life-giving story:
I am the prodigal –
my preferred pronoun is Xe.I am the daughter
who leaves because I can’t bear
to be the responsible one,
watching my parents slowly fail.
I am the son who has wanted city life
as long as I remember.
I am the child
whose choice of love
will never be accepted.
I refuse to lick roman boots
the way my parents do,
never standing up for themselves.
I have to gamble. I have to drink.
I have to get away from all
the pointing fingers
and the whispers … “demons.”
I was touched by my uncle
in a very wrong way,
and I will always wonder
… did they know?
I wanted to go to the hills
and be a zealot.
I wanted to follow this preacher
named Jesus, but I got
with these great new friends,
and good times.
at least for a while.
I am a dreamer or a scoundrel,
a rebel, a loser, a saint.
I am not the bad daughter
up against the good daughter.
I am not a son whose birth order
makes the difference
I will not be a part of
I am many stories; I am my story.
I am the one who is recognized
only at a distance.
Down the long road, “See,” they say,
“Xe is coming home.” 4
What is your story? What are you waiting for?
When I was the prodigal,
I almost destroyed my own life
with foolish choices.
When I was an adult,
I was mean like an adult—
I polished my accomplishments,
rehearsed my contributions
to the lives of others,
and showcased my grievances.
When I was the elder sibling,
I almost cheated myself
of a party
and a chance to love and be loved.
When I was a parent,
I wept like a parent—
I felt unable to help any
of my children, even though I knew
the dangers of the road
and the angers
of the not-entered door.
When I was the parent,
I did not feel like a metaphor for God,
I just hurt, hoped, hurt
and tried to make home
a place where anyone could dance.
So I’ve been around this story
and seen it
from all the insides out,
and I just want to be recognized
face to face.
2 Rodney Clapp.
3 Maren Tirabassi, “Strategy,” February 17, 2016,https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com
4 Ibid., “My Preferred Pronoun is Xe.”