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The Prodigal God

Lent 4C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22).  A robe, a ring, and some sandals were not for fashion or comfort or even for hygiene—although they imply all these things.  More important, these gifts restored status, ownership, and authority.  The wayward son is welcomed home with more than a lavish party.  The Father awarded him a new share in the estate he squandered by half.  The older brother has reason to be angry.

This father is a prodigal. That is, he is foolish, wasteful, extravagant with his love.  The young son is also a prodigal. He is immoderately callous and careless.  An outright failure, he realized the error of his ways.  On the long road home, he rehearses his apology again and again, but he doesn’t even have the time to say it all before the father, runs to meet him, and restores him fully to belonging.

God sets a higher priority on forgiveness than on being right. God places a higher value on reconciliation than on saving face.  Better to be humiliated than estranged. God has done what many of us would not.

For a child of God, family is family.  All are created in the image of God. Therefore, regardless of past actions, religious or political beliefs, none of us have the right to treat anyone differently. We have no excuse to exclude or condemn a person whom God does not view with unkindness or condemnation.  This is the great good news that can also be a tough pill for us to swallow.

Family is family for God.  How ironic, therefore, that family and intimate friendships are so often the place that we struggle most. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eli Saslow chronicles the true story about a special relationship between a father, Donald Black, and his son Derek.  They traveled the country together for Don’s work starting when Derek was young. Derek enjoyed these trips and liked to help out.  In fact, Derek made a reputation for himself by creating a website, online games for kids, and a daily radio program for the so-called family business.  Looking back, Derek said of his dad, “We were always very close and could talk about everything.”  It seemed like an ideal childhood, except that racism was the family business.

Derek’s dad is the founder of Stormfront, the largest racist community on the internet. His godfather is David Duke, a KKK Grand Wizard.  By the time he was 19, Derek was already regarded as the ‘leading light’ of the fast-growing white nationalist movement in America.

Like the prodigal son, each of them squandered their birthright.  They frittered away their own inherent dignity by denying the full fruits of that dignity to people of color and to Jews.  Derek and his father Don are good examples of people we might feel justified in excluding.  Maybe they’re a little bit like the weird cousin or eccentric uncle we cut out from family gatherings.

This could be where the story ends—as it so often does—in brokenness, cut-off, alienation, and bitterness. But fortunately, for Don and Derek, and for us, we have a good, extravagantly loving prodigal father in heaven.  Jesus’ parable proclaims the stamp of incarnation imparted upon all creation.  The presence of God is present everywhere and in everyone alike.  Rocks and trees, plants and animals, seas and stars proclaim the greatness of the Lord God who has shamelessly claimed us and named us as her children.

In Rising Out of Hatred: the Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, Saslow tells how Derek Black realized the error of his ways.  Eventually, at tremendous personal cost, he disavowed the racism he was taught to believe. It happened because of the courage and grace of a casual acquaintance at college, named Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, who set aside the vitriol and rage at Derek sweeping the campus and chose instead to do something different and even prodigal. Matthew went out of his way to meet him on the road, which is to say, he sent him a text message. “What are you doing this Friday night?” Matthew invited him to the weekly Shabbat dinners he held in his dorm. With hospitality, not judgment, dialogue not manipulation, after two years and including lengthy conversations with other intimate friends, Derek’s thinking finally began to change.

This improbable change came through non-judgmental friendship, kindness, and listening. It came through respectful dialogue without name calling.  Matthew believed people can change.  Family experience with Alcoholics Anonymous taught him that. He believed that faith compels him to “Reach out and extend the hand no matter who is on the other side.”  “It’s our job to push the rock,” Matthew said, “not necessarily to move the rock.” Each of us has opportunities to do this among people in our lives. We do not have a responsibility to complete the work, but we all are obligated to engage in the work. Faith compels us to confront the racism inherent in our American history.

Reflecting on this, Derek said, “There are moments I get quite pessimistic coming from the background I do. I’ve seen how effectively white nationalists can take pretty commonly held assumptions in America and elevate them to a level of hate that is fast, burns bright, and last’s a lifetime.”  It’s easy to quickly elevate a private grievance and turn it upside down, like whites are the ones being discriminated against.   Opposing hate is sometimes harder than inspiring it.

Being silent is a choice. We can’t challenge it by being silent. We have to actively work against these beliefs.  Speaking from his years of experience, Derek, says the people with the most power to douse the flame of white racism is another white person who calls B.S.  What is best for all people, including whites, are communities that thrive on diversity.

Our parable offers us a choice. Engage in the work of reconciliation or be like the older brother who refuses to join the party. Self-righteousness and judgmentalism became a stubborn obstacle to his own growth and renewal.  In these waning days of Lent, as our congregation considers ways to uncover our own blindness and complicity with racism—the great three-day banquet culminating in the Easter Vigil Saturday night, April 20th@ 7:30—remains ahead of us.  There is yet time for us to choose whether to accept the invitation to enter into the joy that is for all people.

We have a prodigal God. For all God’s children family is family. “O Lord of all the living, both banished and restored, compassionate, forgiving, and ever caring Lord, grant now that our transgressing, our faithlessness may cease. Stretch out your hand in blessing, in pardon, and in peace.” (ELW #606)

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