Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Preparing for the Prodigal Son



I was around seven years old when my family made our usual pilgrimage to the local Kmart to hunt and gather our necessary provisions.  At some point in that trip that flashing blue light special lured me away from walking next to my parents.  I am still convinced that strobe light had a hypnotic effect upon you, messing with your mind that of course you needed two towels for five dollars, what a deal!  In my case, I was distracted by a display of stuffed animals.  When trance I was in wore off, my mom and dad were gone.  I glanced down nearby aisles.  Nothing.  I walked to a different department, no parents.  I started to scramble around the store, but my family was not in sight.  My child-like wisdom I decided my best option was to pace nervously in front of the customer service desk because I was too shy to go up and tell them I was lost.  So back and forth, back and forth, like a human yo-yo, until one of the workers noticed this strange, peculiar, poor child.  I can still hear the speaker booming, “Paging Mrs. Bixby, Mrs. Bixby to the front counter please.”  The relief that washed over me when I was reunited is actually relived within my life when I find myself today lost trying to find someone’s home.  Or staring at the map in an unfamiliar city trying to get my bearings straight.  The experience of being lost is one we all share.  Each person has a story.  And each of us also know those moments of going astray, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.  Moments when God feels as distant as the dwarf planet Pluto.  Times when a relationship that was meaningful suddenly ends.  Instances when I say and do the very thing I did not want to say or do, suddenly I am lost without ever leaving my familiar surroundings.
          The passage today tells us two stories of being lost.  First, one about a sheep.  Second, one about a coin.  The set ups are strikingly similar.  A shepherd has lost one of the herd, leaves the rest, and goes to search out the sheep that has gone astray.  In the second, a coin has been misplaced, so a woman lights a lamp, sweeps high and low for that missing money, until it is found.  In both parallel narratives, the culmination and conclusion is to throw a party when that which was lost is finally found.  Yet, behind and beneath these narratives are some peculiar realities.  First, in the sheep, the image is of the shepherd leaving instantly and immediately in the wilderness.  Have you ever wandered what about the other 99?  Sure, we might rationalize that the shepherd left the rest under the care of another or made sure they were safely in a pen.  But what if, it really is as foolish as it sounds.  To leave 99 sheep alone is like leaving 99 Jaguars with the keys in the ignition running in downtown Sarasota.  It is amazing the leaps our minds sometimes make.  Because I believe that all the parables are meant to leave us puzzling and shaking our heads in disbelief, I tend to lean toward thinking that maybe one of the points of this parable is the foolishness.  Just as my seven year old mind in that midst of that moment of lostness perhaps did not make the most rational choice, perhaps it was so with the shepherd too.  Or consider the woman who lights a lamp to find a coin.  Ever consider that the woman is wasting one resource (oil) to find another (coin)?  In burning the oil of the lamp the net of her actions was actually a deficit.

          I love the truth that at the end of both, the shepherd and woman throw a party.  As if to say, Let’s celebrate my irresponsibility that I lost a sheep and coin.  But maybe there is a truth inside this parable about leadership and even being the church.  I am susceptible to watching the bottom line, to making sure that the math adds up, to counting costs and being mindful of everything within the church.  I have been taught that is what a leader does.  But maybe a faithful leader in the church needs more than just the occasional moment of foolishness.  To say, “Let’s celebrate that I am learning from that thing I did last Thursday.”  To say, it is only by the grace of God that I even am standing here today.  Or to really let the wisdom of our ancient ancestors take hold of our life when they wrote, work as if it is all up to you, but pray as if it is all up to God.  This human condition of being lost has been with us since our earliest ancestors, we are all east of Eden, no matter what our actual address may be.  Along with being lost, we often feel insecure and afraid and uncertain.  And we are surrounded by the pushes and pulls, advertisers that say, just take another trip, just swipe the credit card, and that insecurity will melt away in your brand new car.  But once the smell has worn off, we realize that the uncertainty and lostness is now sitting right next to us in the passenger seat.  So, I keep returning to truth that my soul is restless, wandering, lost until I find my rest and home in God.  I continually remind myself that I cannot consume my way to completeness, but can be open to the goodness of God’s presence around me and within me day by day.  I still remember that after I was reunited with my parents that day in an Iowa Kmart, I ended up getting one of those stuffed animals, but more importantly that moment forever taught me what it meant and felt like to be at home and peace.  I pray we will all sense more than trace of that kind of grace this day.  Amen.