(Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. Psalm 32)
God. Is. Mercy. God doesn’t just have mercy or act with mercy. God is mercy. That mercy is always available to us. We can always receive it and share it with others, if only we turn to it and accept it. This sounds beautiful, and it is beautiful. But so often we are not living in God’s mercy, we’re not turned towards, we haven’t returned home to it. When we’re stuck keeping ourselves apart from God’s mercy, the reality of that mercy can feel to us to be very uncomfortable, even shocking or scandalous.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is about the scandalous beauty of God’s Mercy.
A young man finds himself face down in the muck. He’s hit rock bottom. He has taken his inheritance early and went out and blew it all. “Prodigal” means reckless and wasteful. After all that wastefulness, this young man is humiliated. But rather than ending it all or digging himself deeper – which many in his situation do – he makes the hard choice to turn around and take the big risk of going back home to his father, whose inheritance he squandered.
His father is overcome with joy to see his son, who was dead but is now alive. He welcomes the son back in, without an ounce of judgment.
Meanwhile the other son, the older son, has been the good son, the faithful son all this time. He’s played by the rules, working hard in a humble way for his father. He’s done it all the right and righteous way. He’s earned praised, but he’s never gotten anything special. Yet here is his younger brother, the screw up, who’s being praised and celebrated.
When the older son confronts the father about how unfair this all is, the father responds with nothing about fairness, but everything about love. “My son was dead and now is alive! Your brother was dead and now is alive.” The older brother, it’s now clear, is not led by love for his brother and his father. His only concern is for earning merit and being judged righteous for always doing the right thing.
Jesus tells this parable because the “good” religious people of his day were so scandalized by his being so kind to all the “bad” people. Jesus is unmasking these “good” religious people, showing that they are not led by love, they are not led by the mercy of their God, the mercy that embraces them entirely no more and no less than every one else. They are only concerned ultimately with bolstering their own ego by gathering ways to judge others.
I should quickly mention that the sinners here, the “bad” people Jesus is living among, are tax collectors and prostitutes. They are the ones who are doing the dirty work of their society. The ruling elites are living fat off the taxes the tax collectors collect, and the upstanding male citizens are all going out under cover of darkness and keeping the sex workers employed. And yet who’s righteous in the public eye and who’s publicly shamed?
That was then. What about now? These days, the “good” righteous religious people of our culture are by-and-large Christians. And I hate to say it, but I don’t think we’ve got all that much more mercy or all the much less judgment and self-righteous hypocrisy than the folks who Jesus was scandalizing with mercy back in 1st Century Judea.
To hear how this parable can speak to us in our time, to hear the Good Word in a new way, let’s turn the parable around a bit. The prodigal son is about a kid who finds himself in the gutter.
So let’s think about the kids in the gutter.
In our society, when you look at teenage homelessness, here are the statistics: 40% of the teenagers on the street are gay kids, queer kids, trans kids. That’s way out of proportion. These kids are seven times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than straight kids on the street (and remember that those homeless straight kids are themselves much more likely to get hurt than their peers who aren’t on the street). Here’s another tragic statistic: LGBTQ+ youth from highly rejecting families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
These are youth who come out of the closet only to get kicked out of the house, where they are targets for the viscous hate our culture harbors for those it deems unrighteous misfits.
See how this turns our parable around? Our problem is a problem of prodigal fathers, and prodigal mothers, not of prodigal sons and daughters. This is a problem of parents whose judgment and hate cause them to throw away their precious inheritance from God.
These prodigal fathers and prodigal mothers are products of prodigal churches and prodigal temples that are obsessed – strangely obsessed – with the notion that a natural orientation is somehow an abomination.
It’s pretty telling how many homophobic preachers end up getting caught with boys. Not too different from those hypocritical leaders of Jesus’ day railing against tax collectors and prostitutes.
“Stop right there! Look at the scriptures! Scripture says this here, scripture says that there. Homosexuality is an abomination.” Well, you’ve got four, maybe five bits of scripture to pick from here. None of them have anything to do with Jesus, by the way. We can go into the details of each of them, I’d be glad to do it … but, really, that misses the point.
Look, I’m sorry, if you’re burying your face in a book and picking around for bits to weaponize against others, and you can’t look up from that book to look with love into the eyes and hearts of your sons and your daughters and your neighbors, then you are doing exactly what it was that Jesus fought against. You think those Pharisees couldn’t quote scripture back at Jesus? They did it all the time. What Jesus was fighting for was the spirit of love and mercy that is alive in holy scripture. This is the spirit that moves us beyond the pages of the Good Book and into lives of love mercy.
“Stop right there! We are about love and mercy. We don’t teach people to kick kids out when they come out. We teach them to love the sinner and hate the sin.” Here we go. When you hate how someone loves, you hate that person. How one loves, who one loves is a precious and intimate and integral part of any person. In a world that is so full of hate, with our hearts so susceptible to hate, you shouldn’t have any time to waste worrying about how people love.
“Oh, we’re not saying that having certain sexual orientations is a sin. It’s doing certain acts.” Now if by acts you mean acts of abuse, acts of violation, acts of domination, using sexuality as a weapon, then, yes, we can talk about sin. But no, prodigal churches are condemning expressions of love between two consenting adults. They are saying, “You can be who you are, but you can’t really be who you are. You must deny who you are. You must cut out your love, burn out your need to share and express love with the one you love.” These messages are not loving. They are hateful.
This is prodigal. This is a waste. This does so much damage. It’s a waste of life, of life force, of human vitality. This is about throwing away gifts that we have been given. And, yes, sexuality is a gift, from God, whatever gender God has created that sexuality to find love with. A gift from God is the opposite of an abomination.
Now, like all other human powers, this gift of sexuality can be used for good or abused for ill, used for life or abused for death, used for love or abused for hate. Apparently we has humans are fallen from perfection and we are very susceptible to abusing our powers. All of us, with all our various human powers. But our powers are gifts from God, at their heart – gifts from a God of love and mercy, gifts that can be redeemed to serve love and mercy.
When we find that we have abused those gifts and gotten ourselves face down in the much of hate and hypocrisy, we need to pick ourselves up and turn ourselves around and head back humbly and accept the embrace of our mercifully merciful God.
At this church, First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, having been officially Open & Affirming of LGBTQ+ orientations for almost two decades, we are part of the effort of the institution of Christianity humbly turning itself around. We are one part of this great historical effort of the prodigal father of the Church saying to the cast off gay kid, queer kid, trans kid, “I’m sorry. I messed up. I denied who you are and this is dead wrong. I love you for who you are. We miss you. Will you come back home?”
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered March 6, 2016. Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)