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The Prodigal

I listened to a fascinating true story this week on the podcast Heavyweight.[1] The story was about a young woman, Sara Hebert who had grown up in a tumultuous and traumatic family in south Louisiana. Her adult life was very different from her childhood, and when she got a letter in the mail from someone who claimed to be her best childhood friend, she was very confused. She was confused for two reasons: 1) the letter came from a woman who called herself “the other” Sara. Her name was also Sara Hebert and 2) Sara had absolutely no memory of a childhood friend named Sara. But then again, her young life was so messed up, she really didn’t have very many memories at all. Huge chunks of her life were missing altogether from her memory.

After a year, Sara worked up the nerve to look into the letter. Pretty quickly she realized

it was probably not a scam. She still didn’t remember the other Sara, but some of the very specific memories she mentioned did seem to vaguely ring a bell. The details about her life were right. She wrote a letter back to the other Sara. They texted a little bit and then made plans to meet up, but at the last minute, the other Sara cancelled. Twice. And then she sort of went off the grid and stopped responding to Sara’s messages. None of it made any sense, really. Why had the other Sara reached out in the first place if she wasn’t going to engage? Was it all a weird trick? Did the women actually have the same name? Did Sara have a best friend that she’d forgotten? Another year passed. Sara decided to write another letter back to the other Sara. And this time, the letter turned into an online meet-up.

The other Sara had disappeared because her life had sort of fallen apart. The father of her children died. Her fiancé had gotten into legal trouble, and she had gone to rehab. But she was so glad to reconnect with Sara now. Sara still didn’t recognize the other Sara, but the stories all made sense, they all lined up with her experience. She had had a best friend also named Sara Hebert who had been with her in the midst of the hardest period of her life. She’d never told the other Sara the truth about the violence and neglect she’d experienced; it never touched their relationship except that it swallowed the relationship up whole.

The other Sara told a story about the last time Sara spent the night at her house. Sara had been sick all night and the other Sara, rather than telling an adult who would almost certainly send her home, opted to take care of Sara on her own. She stayed up all night tending to her friend. Sara confirmed that she got sick a lot. “Thank you for taking care of me,” she told the other Sara on the phone. Sara, who had spent her whole life thinking that she was unloved and alone as a child found out the truth- she was very loved, and never alone.

And for the other Sara- Sara’s response to her letter was a lifeline during a traumatic season in her own life. “It was the first of many good things,” she explained. Receiving Sara’s letter was the first event in a season of sobriety and healing in her life too. As they hung up, the other Sara, the one who’d been forgotten but was now found said, “I don’t want to lose my best friend again.” Sara, the one who’d been so lost in her trauma and was just now finding another bit of truth said, “I feel like for a lot of my life I have wanted the people who are important to me to show me the investment and the love that is part of that relationship and I have spent a lot of my life not getting that from my parents and my stepmom, right? And it’s like, maybe I did have that person? Maybe Sara was that person.”

I’ve thought about this story all week, not because I have much in common with either Sara, but because I also had the two brothers and the father from our text today in my head. And I keep thinking about the ways that we leave one another and ourselves, the ways we get lost and get found, the ways we experience truth and grace and welcome back. The other Sara could have been hurt or angry that she’d been forgotten, but instead, grace found her in the moment she needed it most. Still bearing the scars of a messed-up childhood, Sara found that grace had been there when she needed it most, that grace had carried her through, even when she couldn’t see it. When they were reunited, it was a gift. A joyful gift. The younger brother is grateful when grace brings him home, his father rejoices that grace brought his son home, and the older brother… well, he’s still figuring it out.

Typically, when we hear the story of the Prodigal Son, we rightly put ourselves in the position of the son who left. We have, of course, all been there- far from home, isolated, broken down. It’s the younger son’s physical hunger that finally snaps him into action, but maybe it has been your hunger for peace, your hunger for change, your hunger for relationships that made you wake up. Luke 15:17 explains that the young man “came to himself,” a phrase that I have always liked. It evokes the moment of asking, “what in the world am I doing?” A question anyone with an ounce of self-awareness has asked at some point. So, he makes his way back home.

And listen- is he only going home because he’s hungry? Is he actually repentant? We can’t say for sure, and honestly the text does seem to indicate that he’s just tired of being miserable and he wants to go home to feel less terrible. His comment that the servants have more bread than they need while he starves, seems pretty high and mighty. Practicing his speech may come off a bit disingenuous. But that isn’t really the point either. No one’s motives are ever truly pure. The point isn’t that he is sufficiently sorry or that he has experienced adequately bad consequences. He doesn’t deserve forgiveness. The point is the Father’s big, over-the-top, reckless love.

His grumpy older brother needs that same kind of big love. If I’m being honest, I relate to the older brother just as much. I have often been the one who did the right thing, worked hard, and awaited the praise that I thought was due me. It can be hard to do the right thing just because it is the right thing, and even worse when it seems like not doing the right thing pays off. The older brother just wants justice. He wants things to be fair. Imagine having to walk into a party to celebrate the brother who left you with a heartbroken father and an extra-long to-do list. But that isn’t really the point either. This isn’t a story about how you reap what you sow. This isn’t a story about how fairness and justice are always the right thing. Those points, as good as they may be, are not the point. The point is the Father’s big, over-the-top, reckless love.

Of this story, Murray Andrew Pura writes, “Only the father can be the catalyst of resurrection for them both- if he is willing to humble himself and fling himself at their feet and beg them to come into the house. But why should he? The younger son only returned home because he is starving, not because he is truly sorry for what he has done. The older brother is used to having everything and now is acting like a spoiled brat, humiliating his father by refusing to obey his summons to join the feast. Yet the father goes out to both of them…Love does not care if it looks foolish. Love only asks that it be allowed to love at whatever the cost. The sons do not have it in them to save themselves. So, the love of the father does it for them…In this one story, fashioned from the mind of Christ, we find the very essence of the gospel.”[2]

The point is grace that runs out to greet someone who has been lost, grace that steps out of the party to welcome another in. The point is grace that risks having one’s own heart broken- will the younger son stay? will the older son come back? There can be no love, no grace, no relationship without risk. And the father risks his whole heart to love his children. Bible professor Richard Swanson, writes, “Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love. And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love might indeed re-create the world. But perhaps one ought tremble when reading this scene.”[3]

“Indomitable love might re-create the world.” Friends, we are in a world that needs re-creating and with God’s help, we can be the bearers of God’s indomitable love and grace. God can use us to re-create the world. God can use this church to re-create the world if we are willing to be used.

But there’s one more piece- I don’t think that the party in the story is just a throwaway detail. I think that Jesus is trying to help us see that in the midst of this kind of love and grace, there will always be joy. There has to be a party to contain the joy of a heart this full. Commentator Debie Thomas wrote a letter to the older son saying this, “"We have to celebrate and rejoice." This is your Father's final word to you as you stand out in the cold, your arms crossed, your fists clenched, your heart bleeding. Did you know, dutiful firstborn? Did you know you have to celebrate? Did you know that joy is a must in your Father's house? That partying is a duty? How astonishing, that you lived within arm's reach of your Father all these years, and never glimpsed the merriment that is at his core. "We have to celebrate and rejoice." He insists. But there you stand, you lover of justice. 100% right — and 100% alone. What will it take for you to believe this craziness? Some lessons can only be learned in the thick of laughter. Some hearts will only be healed at the Feast.”

You are the younger son, you are the older son, and we are called to live like the father. We are called to welcome others home, to wash the world in grace, and to host the parties. Sometimes when we think about stewardship, we get so caught up in the money part- and don’t get me wrong, that is part of it, but stewardship is about throwing the parties, about re-creating the world with the love, grace, and joy that is in our hearts. Stewardship is finding those who are lost, getting found, and entering the feast. May we be like the father- running to welcome people home, meeting them where they are with love, grace, restoration, and joy. Risking it all, spending whatever it takes, running, laughing, dancing. Joy, joy, joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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