A Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11 -32 (The Prodigal Son) by the Rev. Heidi Neumark, March 21, 2004
- Sunday, March 21 2004
We are squandering our capacity for international leadership, our ability to have a credible voice on human rights and nonviolent negotiations for peaceful coexistence in other regions, a voice needed more than ever. We are squandering billions of dollars.
-All that money that could have been invested in health care, and research to treat and cure intractable diseases, squandered.
-All that money that could have been invested in evening the educational playing field, so that children who grow up in poverty are not stuck there, squandered.
-All that money that could have been invested in healing and protecting our rivers and forests, oceans and air, squandered.
-All that money that could have been invested in low income housing, in safe spaces for the abused and neglected, squandered.
-All that money that could have been invested in creating living-wage job opportunities, squandered.
-All that money that could have been invested to help alleviate the AIDS crisis in Africa and Asia, squandered.
-All that money that could have been invested to vaccinate, feed, clothe and educate more of the world’s poorest children, squandered.
There are many ways to squander an inheritance.
We have inherited a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that proclaim a government of the people, by the people and for the people. We have inherited a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that call for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. Here in NYC that all includes an amazing collection of diversity that reflects cultures and complexions from around the globe. We have been blessed with the inheritance of one of the world’s greatest civil rights movements and its spirit-filled leaders. And yet our city remains segregated. You know who the most likely person to become homeless in NYC is? A poor African American child. And why is it that the housing projects on one side of West 100th Street are filled with people of mostly one complexion and the upper middle-class housing on the other side of the street is filled with people of mostly another complexion... and everyone here knows which is which? Why is it that in the housing on one side of the street, the ventilation system has not been cleaned in over 50 years and children are suffering with asthma in record numbers and rats are running rampant? And you can guess which side that is. How is it that public housing has become a public health threat? There are many ways to squander an inheritance.
But today’s gospel is a gospel which means GOOD NEWS. The younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. That doesn’t sound good. Then the famine came. The reckoning. The consequences. I remember our son Hans coming home from nursery school when he was four and saying: “I don’t like consequences!” Who does? Not the younger son. He began to be in need. He who had inherited such a fortune began to be in need. Well, that’s not good news yet. 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 (the corn husks) that the pigs were eating and no one gave him anything. That’s not good news. But then he came to himself. That’s what the Bible says. He came to himself. And there’s a beginning of good news.
There are families and friends of our service men and women who are coming to themselves. They are feeling the consequences of our war. They are feeling the famine of loss. The gnawing emptiness in the belly of grief. They are sitting with the husks of once healthy minds now sucked dry by war. They are burying the husks of once strong bodies. It’s a terrible thing, but now they are coming to themselves. They are questioning our nation’s choices...wondering if this war was the only and best alternative to safeguard our future. I think that more and more people are coming to themselves, feeling the famine of justice and peace. And that’s a beginning of good news.
The moment that the prodigal son came to himself was the moment he realized that there was an alternative, that the far country in which he found himself was not a place he had to remain. There was another possibility. There was a place with bread to spare where no one need die of hunger. And in spite of his selfishness, thinking of no one but himself and his own desires, heedless of the world’s wisdom or of any hunger and honor besides his own, in spite of all this -- this ignorance, this arrogance, this unilateral wastefulness -- while he was still far off -- far off --his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him! He covered his shame with a beautiful robe, placed the ring of family wealth back on his finger and sandals on those wayward feet and prepared a feast to celebrate his homecoming!
Do we deserve another chance? After such a long history of squandering? Stealing lands from Native Americans and polluting them... building an economy on the backs and the blood of slaves and continuing to keep so many of their descendants segregated from the economic mainstream... presenting ourselves to the world as a champion for human rights while teaching Latin American dictators torture techniques in the School of the Americas in Panama? A world leader showing the way by lies, evasions and invasion? Do we deserve another chance when we have left the poor of our own nation nothing but the crumbling husks of democracy?
No, it is sad to say, we are no longer worthy to be called beloved sisters and brothers in our global family, anymore than the prodigal son of the story was worthy of his wondrous homecoming, but...it really seems to good to be true, but it is true... we have another chance! That is the gospel. We have another chance. It is the message God has been speaking to us throughout this Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday. Return to me. And last week with the fig tree - leave it one more year. And today - come home. I am waiting for you so that the famine of justice can become a feast, so that the famine of compassion can become a feast. Take the beautiful, best robe to cover your shame with honor. Take the ring as a sign of your continuing vital role as stewards of my wealth. Put on the sandals for you are not a barefoot slave bond to the status quo, not in your life, not in your church, not in your nation. Come home, beloved, and celebrate with me.
I thank God that we were provided with this story on this week, this story of hope as we are forced to recall how hopeless things seem in so many places around the world, sometimes due to our own nation’s dissolute living, from which we cannot fully remove ourselves. I thank God that even while we are still far off, far from where we need to be as a nation, far from where we need to be as a church, far in our practice of loving our neighbors as our selves, forgiving and embracing one another fully and completely, far from where we ought to be in our work for justice, far from where we ought to be in so many ways, that even while we are still far off, God is running to us to pull us towards the feast where bread abounds.
And towards each other. Even, the story insists, even towards those who have wronged us, those who have distanced themselves from us by their arrogance, betrayal and selfishness. For it is possible to stand and bow and sing and pray at the altar and be in a far country, where our perfect and proper liturgies have become pods for pigs, empty husks, and we are far from the Father in today’s gospel, far from the true love of God which cannot be known apart from the love of our sisters and brothers.
This was the situation of the older brother in the story. So near and yet so far. Unable to forgive his brother. Unable to even recognize his brother as family, calling him this son of yours. He too had squandered his inheritance, devouring his property, not with prostitutes but with prejudice, not with dissolute living but with distrust, resentment and bitterness, that broke his connection with his family as surely as his brother had done. The older brother is the one who squandered an inheritance of amazing grace. Singing about it is one thing. Living it is quite another.
I have come that you may have life and have it to the full , Jesus said, bread enough and to spare.
When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his left and one on his right. Then Jesus said, Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
There are many ways to squander an inheritance. And you and I, as Luther once said, we are all beggars. But it is not too late to come to our senses. We know it happened for the younger brother. We don’t know if it did for the elder. People come to their senses one at a time. One at a time, we come to church. One at a time, we ask God to help us hold out the robe, the best robe, of forgiveness to those who have wronged us, to those who have wronged many. Those who have squandered our personal trust, and those who have squandered billions. One at a time, we find ways to gather and pray and celebrate with those from whom we have become separated, sharing communion without segregating anyone to the back of the spiritual bus, sharing the feast as a family, rings for all, equal position for all, no longer distanced or divided in a hierarchy according to prejudices around race or income, mental health, sexual preference, language or immigration status.
One at a time, we find ways to share at the table of power as we try to listen to each other in meetings and during fellowship, to pray with, include, teach and learn with our children and youth, exchanging the robes, the rings and the sandals. One at a time, we find ways to build community in a city that is so far, so far, from what a city should be. We have the opportunity to join with other congregations in Upper Manhattan Together to call for an investment in pubic housing, to take the ventilation problem seriously, to take the rodent problem seriously, to approach the table where decisions are made in this city together, folks from both sides of the street, from the projects and from the co-ops, documented and undocumented, gay and straight, as one family we will stand together and proclaim that the rings of power are not to be hoarded by the few, but shared among the many, that we do not step as barefoot slaves into the halls of government, but we walk shod and upright as children of God, at one with our sisters and brothers.
This is not politics, it is part of our prayer. It is our Lenten fast, according to the prophet. Is not this the fast I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice? For us, that means filling out a survey on the locations and numbers of rat sitings in the projects and surrounding streets. This is part of our Lenten fast.
We may still be far off, but consider who is coming to get us --with robes and rings and shoes in every conceivable size, enough for all. Enough even for Bush and Osama, Sharon and Arafat, you and me and whoever comes to their senses and turns towards home.
It’s almost more good news that one can bear...but it is ours today. How can we keep from singing? How can we keep from celebrating the feast prepared for us? Amen.