“Lead Us Back”
March 27th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Here is one of the things I love about the Bible—along with chronicling the greatest story ever told, it isn’t a monolithic soundbite. It has hills and valleys. It has poetry and prose. It has flashbacks and flash-forwards. And it constantly encourages us to compare one passage with another, to read one passage in light of another, to see one passage differently because of another.
As I worked this week with the familiar story of the parable we call the Prodigal Son—I couldn’t help hearing last week’s reading as well. Remember last week—where we are told that we are to repent or perish (and given some pretty gruesome stories, about towers falling on unsuspecting people, and fig trees threatened that “if you don’t produce” we’re going to annihilate you!) And then, we come to today’s reading—called the Prodigal Son, or the Lost Son, or better yet the Welcoming Father—and pow, zam, boink (to use comics language) we are in another universe.
Last week: Repent under threat.
This week: Repent, (Turn back) when you have exhausted all
Last week: Repent or ELSE (hear angry insistence)
This week: Turn back to the Father’s loving embrace, an overabundance of grace (from the point of view of the older son), an astonishing portrait of love and joy that the child has indeed come back, been found, wants to be “at home” once again.
I often think that those looking at the church from the outside see God as that angry, insistent, harsh taskmaster of last week’s reading. Intent on having us bend to God’s will, or hellfire and brimstone are just in God’s back pocket. But that isn’t the picture Jesus is painting in today’s parable. In fact, Jesus tells three “lost and found” stories in Luke 15 in response to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). You might remember them: The lost sheep; the lost coin; and today’s reading, the lost child.
It almost feels like last week’s reading imagines us as dogs on a leash, with God pulling hard anytime we stop being at heel. This week’s reading, by contrast, has us off leash and running free, maybe even getting a little lost in the process. And that brings us to a point that is sometimes difficult to reconcile—where God’s will and our free will come head to head.
God wants and plans and dreams for us. But God also gives us the freedom to make our own decisions, even decisions that might not be what God wants and plans and dreams. We don’t believe that our God micromanages our lives—we aren’t a car that has been put on autopilot. And I understand that it is harder to live in a world where our decisions make a difference—where God isn’t going to knock us into submission, or yank really hard on our leash, or slot us into the already planned railroad track of life.
It means that we are living on the high wire of life without much of a net. It means that at any moment we could fall into a pit, even one of our own making. It means that we have to pick ourselves up when we fall, we have to learn on the job, we have to summon the energy to try, try again, we have to come to our senses when we have gone wrong, we have to take responsibility for our own trajectory. And that isn’t easy.
We can pretend that we are sheep, and when we wander off, God will stop the universe to come and find us. We can pretend that we are a coin (precious as we are) and that God will upturn the world searching for us if we come up missing.
But that is somewhat childish, to think that we are an inanimate object or a muddled thinking animal. No, much more we are like that son, that child, who leaves the family home, with many gifts and blessings, and goes out to see the world.
Now I don’t want it to seem that I think that God is like a mother bird, ready to kick the chicks out of the nest. And I don’t want it to seem that there are no subtle but important ways that God has put God’s finger on the scales of our relationship with God.
The psalmist tells us that God has knit us together in our mother’s womb. The theologian Augustine writes that God has placed a God-sized hole in our midst and we will ever search until we are able to fill it. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that we are wired in our DNA to be able to recognize geometric figures (a possible difference between humans and the rest of the ape family). Maybe God has coded something in our DNA that is like a homing beacon. Or maybe God’s connection to us isn’t so much a genetic disposition as a memory (or a figment in a dream not really remembered, but nagging at us, just out of reach).
The scribes and Pharisees lived in a world of rules and regulations—a world that had a clearly defined line between those who were in and those who were out. That is how they experienced God. And so, they could not understand Jesus, who continuously sidelined rules and regulations for relationship—and who was forever blurring the lines of who was in favor and who was out of favor with God.
The more I thought about the strictures of a God of “repent or perish”—the tight prison of should haves and musts, the more I could see the audacity of Jesus’ parable of a child taking his inheritance and flaunting his freedom by leaving everything he ever knew and heading for the hills.
And yet, if this were a story of free will without any strings attached, without any ties that bind, without any connections between parent and child, would the ending Jesus told even be possible?
In the midst of the darkness of despair of the soul that fell upon the second son, the prodigal, there must have been something that he remembered about life before and thought it would be better to be there (and lose his status, even in his own eyes) than to be anywhere else. As the hymn writer put it: God’s love so amazing, so divine, demands our life, our soul, our all. Maybe it was that amazing love, that unbelievable grace, that hovers just out of our consciousness (like the Spirit hovering over the water at the beginning) that allows us to believe we can turn around, we can come back to ourselves, we can make a better world, we can live again.
The Father isn’t there in the pig’s sty when the prodigal is at his lowest—at least not in person. But he must have existed in that boy’s brain. And the lost one somehow believed that he would be able to go home. That he could somehow participate in what had been his birthright, even if he couldn’t go back to what had been. And how would he have known that?
Was it kindness shown to servants? (for he realized that even servants on his father’s land had it better than anything he was getting now). Was it small deposits in the emotional bank account during his growing up years? (Or even the extravagant gift of allowing him to make the foolish decision to take his inheritance in a one-time withdrawal? Allowing him to think that he could do as he wished, travel the world, see the sights, try his hand at showing what he could do?)
What a different picture of God we have in this story than we do of the parable of the fig tree. Is that because this is a human story, not a story about trees? Or do we misread who God is in the fig tree parable?
Maybe God isn’t the hard taskmaster who is intent on digging up and burning the tree for not producing when and where and how he asked. Maybe God is the gardener, pleading for a little more time, for a little more attention, a little more love.
Maybe we, for often we church people are the first sons, the ones who have stuck around, the ones who think we should be at the front of God’s attention, maybe we are the ones who are constantly criticizing the others in the garden, finding fault when others don’t follow our path, or do what we expect them to do. What would happen if we were more like the gardener, more like the father, more like God?
Pepper Choplin has set the prodigal’s plea to music: “Lead me back.” It is a prayer of longing. But I notice that it is the child who has to set the path towards the estate. I notice that this leading is not through threats or underhanded insinuations or manipulation. I notice that “lead me back” doesn’t pretend that trust wasn’t broken, or that there hasn’t been harm done.
What would it mean if we were to pray “Lead us back?” What would it mean it we were to behave like the gardener, like the father, when we deal with people in our lives? How might it change how we operate as the church in the world if we were to take our cues from the father in the story? What if we focused our energies on creating a memory of what God’s love is in people’s minds and hearts, something that could be the small pin-prick of light even when the world has grown very dark? What if we practiced having open arms for those who come to our doors battered and bruised? What would it mean if the doors of the church were open (and open wide and deep and to everyone) like the arms of the father in Jesus’ story?
What if we could really make it “lead US back” instead of separating ourselves into first sons and second sons, into good daughters and bad daughters, into those who are lost and those who are found? What if we could plant in everyone we meet the seed of God’s love?
So that, when we find ourselves in a messy place, as will happen to all of us, at one time or another, we will remember, we will be willing to dare to dream that we could be taken back into the household, that we might echo that over-the-top joy at those who return.
Yes. May we always be led back to our home. Doesn’t that say it all. Home, where we are supposed to be safe and loved. I know, tragically, that homes here on earth are not always so. And maybe that is our call as a church—to be a home away from home, if need be. To be a glimmer of the home we are promised waits for us eventually. A place where even the lost are found, even the dead are alive. Even the sinner is welcome at the table. Even the fig tree that isn’t producing is given another chance.
Not because it doesn’t matter if we make good choices. Not because God doesn’t really care. Not because it has all been decided at the beginning of the world. But because God’s love is found in arms, open wide, welcoming. Because God looks to find us, even when we are lost. God rejoices in our return. God wants us back in our rightful place. God is always ready to throw a party.
I can hardly say those words, “he was lost and now is found, he was dead and now is alive” without a catch in my throat—for that is our story, the human story. We are forever taking the wrong path, or missing the right one, or heading off in anger, or thinking we can do it all on our own, or falling into danger, or finding ourselves in trouble. “Lead us back to our home” is a universal prayer. Help us, or at least help us get ourselves turned around. Jesus implants in our minds, a never forgotten image, of what will be, when we do point ourselves in the right direction, when we do make our way back to our true home—the father running down the lane, not waiting for apologies, not needing to hear groveling, but throwing his arms around his precious child and kissing him.
Lead us back, O God. We want that too.
May it be so, Amen and Amen.