Calling all visual learners, artists and art lovers! Lets’ begin, today, with some time to consider the image that is printed on your bulletin cover. I’ll walk you through a process kind of like lectio divina, in which we meditate on the words of scripture in a prayerful way. Today, we’ll try visio divina instead – prayerful seeing. Parents, would you help your children take part in this activity as well?
Step one: as you look at the picture, see what part of it catches your attention first. Let your eyes stay with the very first thing you notice. Study it carefully, for the next few moments of quiet. OK, step two. Look at the whole image. Take your time and consider every part. See it all. Step 3. As you continue to study the art, consider your response to it. What thoughts, feelings or questions does it raise for you? Step 4. Let your study of the image lead you into prayer – this prayer might involve conscious thoughts about the art and how it impacted you or it might just be a quiet resting in God’s presence. That was a very short version of visio divina. If you practiced it at home, you could take more time with each step.
The parables of Jesus are works of art with many meanings and many possible interpretations. They are pictures of the world as it is and as it might grow to be, under the influence of God’s creative spirit. Like Zen Koans, Jesus’ parables are simple but not simplistic. They are NOT obvious allegories providing a moralistic message. They are puzzles that yield fascinating dilemmas and deep questions. Ultimately, the point of a parable is not to “teach us a lesson” but to disarm our defenses and open us to a genuine encounter with God. I have a special assignment for our children and other artists. Throughout the rest of the sermon, you have my permission, even encouragement, to draw and doodle and scribble and daydream. Create your own picture of this morning’s parable and we’ll collect and display those you wish to share.
In studying the parable, I was struck at the way it pushes us beyond our dichotomies of “good” and “bad”, “lost” and “found”, “at home” and “in exile”. The younger child is the obvious “prodigal”, or bad apple. In asking for his portion of the inheritance, he treats his father as if he is dead. Selling off his portion of the land is not just a poor economic decision, but an unwise spiritual one. The land, in ancient middle eastern families, was a sacred inheritance from God. It was a gift that gave life to current and future generations. The son’s stint as a hungry swineherd underscores his alienation from home, family and faith, since Jewish law forbade contact with pigs.
The older child’s story makes it clear that there is more than one way to be lost, that a person can be at home and yet in exile. His sin is not greater or lesser than his brother’s, just different. As he stands outside, fuming with judgement and jealousy, refusing to join the celebration, his father leaves the party guests – a major breach of etiquette—to pursue him. Let me see if I have this right, the older child sputters, my brother, who squandered his portion of our family’s wealth, and destroyed our honor in this community, is getting a feast out of you? Well there goes my inheritance down the drain! The father responds: “my child, you are always with me, and what is mine is yours” As Rodney Clapp puts it: “Every time God’s active, stretching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. It means another, and now a bigger, party.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 2, p. 120) Will this older child come to himself, as his brother did, and will he return home? That is the question the parable leaves us with.
I came across an editorial this week, entitled, The Good, Racist People by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is an editor at the Atlantic Magazine. His piece explains that recently a black actor, Forest Whitaker, walked into a Manhatten deli. An employee stopped Whitaker, accused him of shoplifting, and frisked him. Coates writes: “Since the Whitaker affair, I’ve read and listened to interviews with the owner of the establishment. He is apologetic to a fault and is sincerely mortified. He says that it was a ‘sincere mistake’ made by a ‘decent man’ who was ‘just doing his job.’ I believe him.”
Coates continues: “In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist.” Coates draws this conclusion: “The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place.” (March 6, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/07/opinion/coates-the-good-racist-people.html?_r=0)
This morning’s parable reminds us that God doesn’t share our human temptation to define some people as “good” and others as “bad. God sees us all as lost children, dead, in some way, to the hopes God has for us. Whether our alienation is more like that of the younger child or the older child, or some other child altogether, God waits for us to come to ourselves. God runs to meet us while we are still on the road to a changed life and changed world. God welcomes us home with a reconciling feast.
That’s good news, as we lament the racism and xenophobia that decent, well-meaning people perpetuate in our society. It’s hopeful news, as, today, we hear from our guest speaker, John Gutterman, about the urgent need for a more just and humane immigration system. It’s transforming news as, this morning, we make our offerings to One Great Hour of Sharing, and seek to address the reality that many around the world lack the basics of clean water, good food, safe housing and medical care, even as the average American’s consumption of resources, measured carbon dioxide emissions tops five times the global average.
When the younger child returns home, his father throws a feast. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points out that the father takes this course of action not to reward his child’s behavior, but to make amends with the community. She writes: “The only way that boy of his is ever going to step foot back inside that town is to come back ten times richer than he left, with fabulous presents for every member of his family and enough left over to buy back the farm. Then he will have to throw a banquet and invite the whole community, honoring them as extravagantly as he shamed them when he left. But of course this is not what happens…”
Taylor continues: “If the father can get to the son before the village does, then he can save his son from being cut off. He can save his relationship with his son and his family’s relationship with the village all at the same time. This reconciliation will cost him his honor—his greatness in others’ eyes— but that is a price he is willing to pay… …he orders his servants to kill the fatted calf—not a goat, or a lamb, or a dozen chickens, but a calf–a clear sign that the celebration about to take place is not a quiet family affair but a feast of roast veal for the entire village. It is a feast to restore the family’s honor, as well as a feast to restore the family’s son. It is a banquet of reconciliation for anyone who will come.” (Sermon, April 17, 2006, 4th Presbyterian Church, Chicago. http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/newsletter374062.htm)
Jesus’ parable is an open door, beckoning us toward music and dancing, joy and life. In what way are you lost, alienated, yearning to come home? What does home look like to you? Is there a sibling, a parent, a friend, a spouse or child with whom you desire to be reconciled? Coming home to God means placing a priority on grace, for ourselves and others. God’s judgement is fleeting; God’s forgiveness is limitless. We are made for love and generosity and there is plenty for all of us. Let us join the party! Amen.