Gospel : Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
1st Reading: Joshua 5:9-12
2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
I read a story the other day on the Oregonlive website about a flamingo that is hanging out with a flock of ducks. It is probably an escaped pet. Now, whenever the flock of ducks takes off, the flamingo goes with them. It made me feel sad for the poor flamingo. Where does it belong? Will this flock be the closest thing to family it will ever know again? Does it know it isn’t a duck? Does it feel that kind of heartache we feel when we know we don’t belong?
That story and the prodigal son parable got me thinking about what it means to belong. Belonging is a theme all over the Bible, starting at the very beginning. God created the heavens and the earth because God didn’t want to be alone. God made humankind in God’s image and likeness so that we would know we belong to God. Then God created a partner for the first human, because it wasn’t good for the human to be alone. It seems that whole Genesis story is about what it means to belong, and testing the limits, and taking the consequences and feeling the brokenness and separation.
Separation is one of the most fundamental fears and pains we can deal with in life, and that, I think, is why it is addressed so early in the Bible. As Abram looked up at the stars, he wondered where he belonged and to whom, since he didn’t have any offspring. As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness they were exploring where they belonged and to what God. They experienced separation from the only life they knew and looked forward to a time when they would truly belong.
I sometimes think about Jesus’ childhood. Did he have a sense of belonging or being different? When did he realize that he saw the world differently from other people? Who did he feel closest to? Probably, like all of us, he experienced both belonging and alienation.
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells a story of disconnection, separation, pain, and loss as well as belonging, returning, welcoming, love, and joy. It is a story of family. It is a story about leaving and coming home.
There is so much pain in this story. Here is a son who has asked for his inheritance. He has asked something that was unheard of. He’s basically told his dad that he’s as good as dead—the son would like to act like the father is dead and receive his inheritance. Ouch! Then the son leaves. There is no other course to take. There is pain in every parting, even in a relationship that might have been adversarial like this probably was. The son is leaving. The father is left. It is hard. Later the son experiences hardship. He has to humble himself to come home to his dad and face the one he’s hurt and never expected to see again. And at the end a little more hurt is expressed, when the older brother expresses his jealousy and won’t come in to the party.
This story is not just full of lows, but takes the highs to the highest level. The son comes to himself, he comes to his senses. He finally sees the good that his father always intended, the means that his father has to care for him, even as a servant or slave. The son returns. He deserves to be rejected, but instead he is welcomed. His father comes running out of the house and embraces him and cries over him and kisses him. His father goes all out with a party—won’t even hear his confession, and offers him the best of everything he has in the world.
When I hear this story it is with a mix of joy and fear. I feel so happy to welcome and be welcomed. But I also feel fear that maybe the father is being taken for a ride—that he’s being taken advantage of. I am mostly the older the brother, in my own mind. I’ve done mostly what I was supposed to. My sister has been the prodigal son, lost custody of her children, burned her bridges, had her phone cut off, lost jobs, moved to other states with men she hardly knew. She is welcomed back every time, yet, now it is with a wary eye. We know the pattern. We love her dearly but we don’t want to see her get hurt and we don’t want to see her children get hurt. Then again, maybe she’s the flamingo in the family, who has the greatest adventures, and dreams the highest dreams while at the same time experiencing the feeling of being different and sometimes lost or hungry.
This story is called the prodigal son—prodigal meaning wasteful. But aren’t we talking more about the prodigal father—wasteful with his love? He just throws it around without giving it a thought. He just lavishes it all over the place without considering whether it could happen again or who his son has hurt or if his son will ever learn. It is the father who is wasteful in this story.
Yet, you can never run out of love. It isn’t like gold or money. It is just painful when you give love away and it is not returned. God showed just how much pain God could take on the cross—took on willingly to show how much love he has for us. When you give love, you open yourself up to pain, and that is a risk that God is willing to take and consequences God is willing to bear.
This story is about where we belong. The good news for today is that we belong with God. Whether we’ve wasted all the good things that God has given us, or run far away from God for a long time, or resent the kind of unconditional welcome that God provides, we are all welcome. We all belong.
The first reading is about belonging. The wandering is finally over. The Israelites are finally getting established—and they know it because they’ve been in one place long enough to cultivate the land. So they celebrate, finally arriving at a place where they belong by eating something, anything other than the manna they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the wilderness. Yes, it was the food God provided, but they were tired of it. It was meant to be a temporary solution for a people on the move, who didn’t belong anywhere, who were discovering who they belonged to by who provided their food. But after 40 years it must have seemed quite permanent. They thought they would never belong, but now they know they do. This new meal meant they finally were where they belonged and it must have tasted delicious at so many levels.
The second reading is also about belonging. Our human point of view has us putting people in categories, holding grudges, being broken and separate. But now we have Christ who is the father welcoming us all. Now that we all find ourselves at the party, we have to learn to get along—we get to learn to get along. Since we have the ministry of reconciliation, it will help us live as one in Christ despite our differences. Whether we are the wasteful the son or the bitter, jealous son, we get to grow in likeness to our father, and shower love lavishly, wastefully on all God’s children.
Are you more of a duck, in your flock, comfortable and content? Are you more an escaped flamingo, searching for where you belong? Are you waiting for those who you have lost to approach you? Are you willing to meet them at the gate? Will you stand outside the party of welcome, or will you accept the invitation to celebrate the unity and love we all share—the love of our prodigal God?