Well, what a gift to welcome these children into our church, but not just into our church but into the global fellowship across time we call the Body of Christ.
To me it felt like a day to talk about the love that is at the very center of our faith. God’s lavish, extravagant love. And Jesus’ vision for us to be the Beloved Community – people who learn to love God with our whole being, and people who are formed to love one another as ourselves.
Our scripture today is from Luke 15, the famous story Jesus tells which we call the parable of the prodigal son, because there’s a kid in the story who is kind of extra, kind of extravagant and lavish in the way he spends down his inherited wealth while his parents, or at least his dad, is still alive.
But the main character of the story isn’t either of the grown children in it but the father, who is really the most prodigal character of the story, the most lavish, the most extravagant one.
So today I’ll read the story of the prodigal God/parent in four parts, and our message is about the lavish love of God for us all, and the extravagant love of God, of self, of friends, lovers, children, even love of causes, love of justice to which we are all called. Four Dimensions of Prodigal Love.
Here we go:
Luke 15: 11-12 (Common English Bible)
11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons.
12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them.
When I was a teenager, I dated this girl for a while, and one time she went somewhere with my family – the details are pretty hazy since it was over three decades ago. But here’s the one thing I remember. My girlfriend got sick and threw up on the floor, and before I even knew what was happening, my mom sent her to the bathroom to go clean up and I think I waited for her to walk her outside afterwards, but my mom stayed behind to clean it all up.
And I remember thinking: what is going on here? Because my mom had done this kind of thing again and again for me and both my brothers. But now here she is cleaning up my girlfriend’s puke as well, looking after this girl who isn’t even hers, just because I cared about her, and my mom was there.
I think part of me took that for granted, like most kids take their moms for granted a lot of the time. But part of me registered what was going on and thought, wow, this is what love looks like.
Think about all we give our kids if we have them: for 20 years, in the prime of our lives, they become a huge part of our finances, our time, our attention, our emotional lives, our labor, our contact with other people’s bodily fluids, sometimes the center of all those things. And mostly until we die, they stay right near the center of our hearts and our longings. We invest everything we can in them, or at least we try.
God as parent is like this too. God has invested such brilliant creativity in the creation and expansion of this universe: such a wildly complex and beautiful place. And one in which the freedoms and chaos required for all that complexity and beauty mean all kinds of things go wrong in the universe all the time. It’s such a chaotic and violent place too, our universe, certainly our earth.
And if there’s one baseline quality the scriptures attribute to God in relation to all this is that God really cares about it all, more than you’d expect really. God takes enormous pleasure – the word is usually delight – in everything that goes well in the universe. New species evolve, new life grows, new love blossoms, new relationships bond, new justices are achieved, and God beams with pride and joy. This matters to God.
Just as when species go extinct, life dies, love is shattered, relationships severed, injustices fester and God is angry and heartbroken.
Great investment and great risks are the hallmark of love, and God is no exception. The father in this story, who certainly could be a mother too, seems to be an image of God for Jesus and certainly makes a great investment and takes great risk.
This parent has accrued land and wealth, saving and preserving it carefully for his children. And when the younger one asks for his share, which would have been a third of his family’s wealth, the father takes an enormous risk and says: I’ll do this. What the younger child does here, to ancient near eastern ears, is a horrifying dishonor to his family. He’s more or less saying:
Dad, you’re old. Get on with it. I wish you’d just be dead and gone, and I could get what’s coming to me.
Well, the father doesn’t die, but he takes a huge risk in trusting his kid with an early inheritance, with holding back none of his investment.
More often than not, God is just like this with God’s creation – mostly letting us have our way, however foolish our intentions. Because God created like this – making huge investments in all life in the universe, but for the sake of beauty and freedom and abundance of dignity and life for us all, taking a huge risk as well.
And baseline, this is what love looks like for us all as well – making investments and taking risks. And for us as with God, our investments aren’t mostly about money, but about all the resources we have, money only being only one of them. Love is about the lavish investment of our attention, our time, our wisdom, our affection, our encouragement. Love is mostly about showing up again and again with all of that for the people and communities and causes we choose to love.
Love takes the risk to again and again say and show that what’s mine is yours. Whether I love my children or my wife or my friends or this community of Reservoir Church or even when I try to love my enemy, as Jesus commands, I’m making available the resources entrusted to me – money, time, attention, care, and more – and making them available to others, in their interest, and in the interest of our shared relationship and well-being.
And love lets go. We pick up the story of the now broken family.
Luke 15: 13-20a (Common English Bible)
13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need.
15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.
16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.
17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death!
18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’
20 So he got up and went to his father.
Did the father in this story know what would happen? I mean, it’s fiction, it’s a story Jesus told, so it’s not like we can answer that question. But I’m quite sure that God is like most parents. God doesn’t control the future, so God can’t predict it entirely, but good parents know their kids pretty well, so they often have a sense of what’s going to happen next. And they let go when it’s time anyway, because love lets go.
I think knowing their kid, the parent in this story probably didn’t think that the younger son was going to make a series of wise and generous choices. This kid just doesn’t seem like that kind of person. And they aren’t. Things go really badly. Until he’s working a dead end, demeaning job, living in poverty, and wondering if he can scheme his way back into the family he so flamboyantly left not long ago.
One of you, a psychology professor, used to tell me when my kids were all just entering the teenage years, that in modern, Western culture at least, the teenage years weren’t just about growing up but the beginnings of the dissolution of the family unit. God, I hated it every time you said that, because it’s kind of true. I mean, maybe not only dissolution, maybe more like reconstitution, but things for kids and their parents and their family change as the kids grow up. And a big part of that change is on the parents’ behalf, starting to let go.
I was talking with an older friend of mine recently, whose kids are all older than mine too. And he was telling me about one of his grown kids, whose life is at least from the parent’s perspective, of course in a number of ways. And my friend was talking about the pains that were likely ahead of their child in the years to come – divorce, heartbreak, some other struggles – and my friend was like:
I’m making my peace with this, though, because there is nothing I can do about it. I’ll keep engaging, I’ll keep showing up for this grown child of mine, but I can’t stop any of these things.
It’s so awesome to be a parent of growing teens and young adults, but it’s so heartbreaking too. Because love lets go. Parents need to let go of control over their children, more so every year. Friends let go, when friends grow distant, or when they stick around but they just move on from us. Lovers let go, when our beloved breaks up with us or divorces us or even when we stay together, or when our beloved changes and we need to let go of old expectations we had or an older form of a relationship that has changed.
God’s like this too. In God’s uncontrolling, vulnerable love, God doesn’t always insist on God’s way. When we reject wisdom, when we reject what’s best for us, when we reject God, God keeps caring, keeps invisibly wooing us to the best, but God lets us have our way. God lets go.
Because love lets go.
But that doesn’t mean love gives up and packs it in. Love keeps showing up in the ways that are appropriate to do so. Like my friend with the grown kid, love keeps engaging in ways that honor the beloved. Because while love lets go, love also protects.
We pick up our story.
Luke 15: 20b-24 (Common English Bible)
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.
21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet!
23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting
24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
The other month I was talking with Vernee Wilkinson, a member at Reservoir. She and Laura Everett, a pastor who’s a friend of our church, are doing some work for local churches around practices of mending and repair, and Vernee was helping me talk through the series we just concluded on healing and mending.
And Vernee told me a story about her son, and the holes and tears in the knees of his pants, and what she’d do about that.
See, in this work of mending, Laura and Vernee will talk about throw-away fast fashion, and the harm to our environment and our economy and our souls really that comes from throwing so much away, and mending and fixing so little.
But Vernee said, when it comes time that the knees of my boy’s pants tear, I do not patch those up. I buy him some new pants. Because Vernee’s son is Black, and as a Black woman in America, Vernee is painfully aware of the ways people and whole communities judge Black children, and her mother’s heart is fiercely and appropriately protective of her son, still young and under her care. And so like her parents did for her, she is going to make sure that her son goes out into the world with clothes that aren’t torn and that aren’t patched up in ways that judging, discriminating eyes could view as signs of poverty or neglect.
Because let’s face it, for all our talk of progress, we still live in a world that is too often fiercely anti-Black in our hearts and our judgements and our violence, and Vernee is going to do what is in her power to protect her son from the worst of that world for as long as she can.
Much honor to Vernee and to every parent who’s protected their children as best as they could. And much honor to parents of children of color, who are doing double and triple and quadruple work on this front in a racist, dangerous world, fully knowing that their protection is limited.
Our world is unsafe, and given our sin and injustice, it’s less safe for girls than boys, less safe for queer than straight, less safe for BIPOC than for white people, less safe in neighborhoods and countries with more poverty. And none of us can fully protect our beloved.
But in the ways that we can and are appropriate to our beloved’s age and agency, we’re dang sure going to try.
In this sense, we’re less different from God than we tend to think. God also can’t fully protect God’s kids from harm. Chaos and violence are part of our world of freedom, and awful things happen. God can’t micro-intervene with every danger, just like a good parent isn’t a helicopter parent, trying to shield kids from every possible harm, trying to have them avoid suffering entirely. So it is with God.
But God has limited chaos and disorder in the universe. If nothing else, no violent creature, no matter how evil or powerful, can escape their own death as well. God has also commanded and inspires the protection of the dignity of all creatures. God has in most religious traditions and abundantly so in the teaching and person of Jesus Christ, put out a teaching grace into the world too, always waiting and always welcoming our return.
Look at the father in this passage, not moving on from his wayward kid in anger or disappointment, but out on the porch night after night, scanning the horizon, checking his texts, just waiting for his son’s return, and running down the street to embrace him and welcome him home when he comes back. This kid who has squandered a third of the family’s wealth is so welcomed home, so loved upon his return, that a feast is thrown in his honor.
It’s like the wedding day his son never had, all at the father’s expense, but part of how we protect our beloveds in a vulnerable world is we never stop loving them, we provide a kind of relational, emotional, spiritual canopy of safety through this willingness to say: as long as I live, I’m still here for you and what’s mine is shared with you.
There’s a lot of tension in this dimension of prodigal love, how love protects even when we can’t fully protect, how love protects while love also lets go. So these dimensions of letting go and protection take prayer, and growing wisdom and discernment.
But sometimes at least, it’s not complicated.
We protect our kids when they’re young by not neglecting them, and looking out for their wellbeing.
And we protect the kids of our communities by doing the same. Or we ought to. Our country is shamefully neglectful and wicked in this regard, in open rebellion against the ways of love. A couple years back, death by firearm passed death by traffic accident as the leading cause of death for children in America.
We’ve worked hard on the traffic accident stuff, lots of laws, billions of dollars in safety engineering so that fewer of our kids will die on the roads. But at the same time, we’ve been loosening our gun laws more and more, guaranteeing another Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and Uvalde, Texas will happen again and again. I am so angry.
Before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr’s last sermon he was working on was titled, “Why America May Go to Hell,” and times like this, I am sure he was right then. And there are quite a few reasons that’s so but failing to protect our children and failing to do the collective work so that we don’t have to protect our children so much, so that we don’t have to worry if their school will be next, or we don’t have to worry if our beautiful Black child will be judged by the patches on his knees, is a big part of this.
Love protects. Y’all, parents or not, please keep an eye out for the welfare of all our children. There isn’t much more sacred we can do in following Jesus than this.
And love pursues. For the sake of time, I’ll be ever so brief on this point, just reading the end of the story mostly, but it’s the climax Jesus is driving at.
Luke 15:25-32 (Common English Bible)
25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing.
26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on.
27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’
28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him.
29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’
31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”
The father looks at his entitled, bitter, judgy oldest child and says:
son, I love you too. This kid is furious at this dad, and the dad says: everything I have is yours as well. Everything I have is yours.
Love might let go, and love might need to change and adapt, but love doesn’t stop loving. God hasn’t given up on our violent nation or any of God’s troubled kids, you and me included. And as people of the beloved community, that call is ours as well.
Love keeps engaging, keeps protecting the dignity even of exes and enemies. Love dreams of reconciliation, and when that’s impossible in this life, releases the beloved with blessing. Love puts up with things, loves trusts in all things, love hopes for all things, endures all things. Which is why, the scriptures dare us to believe, love doesn’t fail.
Love works. Love wins.
Not always how we think it will, not always today or even tomorrow, but eventually, we hope. Love has its way.
Jesus hopes that the judgy elder children of his time will lay down their judgements and join God in welcoming the love of all God’s children.
God hopes that Americans will stop letting people shoot our kids and trash our earth but find our way towards Jesus’ beloved community together. God hopes we’ll love better, love more because love heals, love doesn’t disappoint, love never fails.