Genesis 28:10-19 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. (NRSV)
Luke 15:11- 32 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property on wild living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said,‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “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.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
There once was a person who had 2 children who were coming of age. Lets call the older child Alex, and the younger child Brett. (A&B) As most of us do during those years, the children were busy figuring out who they were- how they were separate from their parents- their strengths and weaknesses- gifts and talents- what they would do with their lives- and what they felt about themselves and their family. It's a great time in our development, and if we are wise, we let that process continue through the whole of our lives- always growing into something more than we thought we could be.
We don't hear much about the older child Alex in the beginning of the story- Alex is no more than a supporting character at first. The younger child, Brett, however, is having some problems. Again, the text doesn't tell us what those problems are- and frankly, there are a host of reasons why a child could feel unwelcome at home. As children, we often feel as if we are being treated unfairly, or that we don't want to play second to an older sibling (as we saw in the Jacob story) to feeling controlled, or being told what to do one too many times. Perhaps its something that we've done, or continue to do- something we feel so much shame about it's much easier to walk away than come clean. It could be even deeper- that who we realize we are in the process of our own development is different from the norms of society, and feeling certain that we will not be acceptable to our parents.
But whatever the reason, one afternoon the Brett goes to their parent and says, "Give me my share of the inheritance now, whatever is coming to me," (and to themselves), 'I need to get out of here and away from all of you!'
And the money is divided, and after a few days, Brett, belongings in tow, walks out the back door, through the fence and down the path toward the horizon. Did you notice that that the child doesn't leave for a few days. What happened over the course of a few days? Were there heart to heart conversations? Tears? Yelling? Violence? It can't have been pretty- it never is once we have made up our mind to sever ties with people we've called family.
I wonder about the older child during these few days. Did Alex know about it or try to stop Brett from leaving? We don't know. What we do know is that it's heartbreaking to see someone we care about walk away from relationship- and grief causes everything from "oh no- what will we do now that this person is gone' to "well, they're a grownup- they have to make their own decisions- all we can do is pray for them." And later that evening, when Alex is out cleaning up the yard and notices the back gate left open, they shake their head, flip the bolt and go back to work. It's not easy, but life goes on.
But, as you may have guessed, leaving home hasn't been easy for Brett either. (None of us do very well when we are all alone do we?) The money ran out quickly, and the only jobs available were ones doing things Brett never imagined- and the text says 'no one gave them anything.' "I can't live like this the rest of my life, Brett thought. 'Maybe I can try to go home.'
I need to stop here a second and just say, wow, this is a brave step! Deciding to go back to a place you walked away from, no matter what the reason, is difficult- but deciding that you are going to work toward healing and reconciliation? That's hero material. We take it for granted that home is the best place, or family is the best place, or church is the best place, because we are here- but for many people those places have not been 'the best.' For many home, or family, or church, have been places of hurt, or pain, or feeling shame. So holding your head up and saying, I'm going to try again? Come on, that's epic!
And each of us, I suspect, would have our own way of preparing to 'go home.' But let's notice how the prodigal prepares, playing out a conversation based on getting back in the parent's good graces. “I’ll tell them what a screw up I am, and ask if I can make up for it by working- I won't care how much I have to do, what I have to do, but I'll do it to get back to feeling loved- anything to feel loved."
On the journey home, Brett keeps focused by practicing the repentance mantra we're all familiar with… “Dad... I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your child; treat me like one of your servants.” “Mom, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your child; treat me like one of your servant.” “God, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your child; treat me like one of your servants...”
And while still a long way off… one of my favorite lines in scripture... before we even are close to getting it right, before we are cleaned up, while we're still preparing our hearts to be "right" so we can approach God.... while still a long way off... the parent sees Brett coming toward home- and runs through the yard, hops the fence and wraps the kid in a bear hug and squeezes like there is no tomorrow- and the rain of tears and kisses don’t stop- welcome home, welcome home, welcome home- and the kid cant get a word in edgewise… it’s not important, how it happened, or why it happened, or what was said or what was done! Welcome home!!! And the next thing you know Brett is being pulled toward the house, feet barely touching the ground… “Everybody! Look who’s here! It’s fantastic! Look who's home… we need to have a party!”
Its great isn’t’ it? Except when the older child gets wind of what’s going on, Alex. I mean, come on, being forgiving is one thing, but for what this kid did? What kind of a self respecting parent lets a child walk all over them? What about justice? What about repentance? This isn't fair!
Now it's the older child's turn for parental confrontation: “What are you doing? This kid treated you like crap! And now being rewarded for it? And what about me? I’ve been here the whole time? I didn’t leave home and I never got treated like this! You never gave me a party!"
I don’t know about you, but I get Alex. I was always taught, when someone does something wrong- they should have to pay for it. Tolerance and forgiveness is great, but I’m not going to be a doormat for someone and just let them waltz back into my life just when (and because) they need something. I’m not letting anyone use me! And further… my God shouldn’t be used that way! God needs people who can work hard! Celebrate, sure, but when you've done something to deserve it! Not because you're here! Because not for nothing God, but I never got a party like that!
And Alex is met with a parental gaze that is reflective of nothing but love. "Any time you want you can have a party like this! You're here every day- your whole life can be a party if you want it to! But today, celebrate the one who was lost, who now is found!"
The most curious part about this whole thing is that these children, didn’t know their parent very well at all. That had a misconception of what their household was built on, and what it was about. And I think that we do so much the same thing with God.
Much as we profess to serve a God of forgiveness and unconditional love, and we profess to have a relationship with God that is not based on works, but based on grace, we don’t always live it out that way. And for many of us, this is not our fault. We have been taught that God is a ruler/parent figure who has a list of do’s and don’ts for us to follow- a God who loves us, yes, but isn't pleased with us, perpetually disappointed with us when we can't live up to the bar of expectation that resides somewhere up here. Further, many of us have been taught that we are sinful, broken, abominations, for living out who we are. Others have been taught that we are not acceptable as long as we have something in our lives that we struggle with, addictions, habits, behaviors.
The worst part of all this is that it builds up a sibling hierarchy with all of God's children. We look at ourselves, we compare ourselves to others, we decide, based on either what we've been told or what we believe, that some people can have, and do have a bigger portion of God's grace and God's acceptance. And we start working hard to get our piece of the pie. But what if, and I want to stretch you for a second, what it the pie was unlimited?
Indulge me a minute and lets play this out. Le'ts say you love pie- you always pick on up at the store, you get it divide it into pieces for yourself and let say, you're willing to share some with your family. Then your friends some over, so you have to give them some too. But now there is only one piece left... your instinct, if its like mine, is to either save it for yourself, or to give it someone special, deserving of it. Sound familiar?
But what if, every time you went to the fridge, the whole pie was back. Not only that, there was more than one pie, there were so many pies that you had to buy a freezer from Costco to keep all of the pie, and you opened your cabinets for cereal in the morning, but all you found was pie? And there were pies in your living room, on top of your end tables- you had to move them to even sit down- you woke up in the morning, and your bed was covered in pies. I would hazard a guess that you would do everything in your power to give those pies away, wouldn't you? Because the competition is gone. The measuring and comparison is gone. All you know is you have this amazing amount of self replenishing pie that you get to share with the world- everyone can have it.
That's how God's grace works. You can take as much of it as you want, and there will always be more. It's unlimited. And that's why, accepting that you are loved and accepted just as you are, no matter what has the power to change everything! There would be no more older sibling/younger sibling stuff going on- we would be so averse to someone not having or realizing God's love that we would be the ones running down the path to meet the 'prodigal' …in fact, we would be out every day before that trying to look for them and bring them back home.
Or, for the “younger child” times in our lives… and we all have those… know that forgiveness is offered before you even ask for it… that regardless of how it may look or feel, that you already have a royal robe on your back and ring on your finger and because you come from and are a part of God! And no matter how hard you try, you can’t get God to stop loving you! I know it’s hard to believe… but no matter how far off you think you are, or how much you’ve done or who you’ve hurt of where you’ve been, that God is at this moment running toward you with arms wide open…ready to crash right into you and rain laughter and tears and kisses all over you and bear hug you so tight your feet won’t touch the ground. Welcome Home! Welcome Home!