A Community of Salvation
4th Sunday of Lent
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott
St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 11b “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his propertybetween them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘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 again; he was lost and is found.’”
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
I'm rethinking salvation today. Well, not just today, but particularly today as we hold this broadly known story of the prodigal son. Folks far beyond our Christian tradition know this term. “The prodigal son has come home,” people exclaim, whether in jest or in sincerity. We tell the story about the behavior and actions of this one man. His walk of shame. His loving and forgiving father. His begrudging and do-good-always brother. As I hold this story, though, I hear echoes of Jeremiah 29:7, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you...In doing so, you will find your own.” Our welfare, our shalom, our flourishing is intertwined. Our life together matters just as much as our individual lives. There is something happening in this story that is about the son who returns home and also not about him. There is much more happening about the void he leaves and the potential atrophy of his community...and we’ll come back to that.
One of the most beautiful examples I can think of this kind of communal care comes in the story of Remus Lupin. If you haven’t yet read Book 3 of the Harry Potter Series, The Prisoner of Azkaban, I’m about to give some character spoilers but not plot spoilers. I want to honor anyone who reads in sequence and needs to take a minute to plug ears as we explore the story of the Shrieking Shack—this boarded up house with seemingly no access point that is rumored to be haunted. Almost 50 years ago, people who lived nearby could periodically hear screams coming from inside, and no one dared explore the premises. Even Dumbledore himself, beloved headmaster of Hogwarts, confirmed the rumors of its hauntedness and urged everyone to stay away. It turns out the only way in and out of the Shrieking Shack is through a tunnel that begins at the roots of the Whomping Willow—a tree that moves and fights and can wound anyone who comes near to it—and the tree was planted to protect that entrance.
It’s a mystery, the relationship between this beautiful, violent tree and this terrifying, inaccessible shack. Then we learn that Professor Remus Lupin was afflicted as a child with lycanthropy—he is a werewolf. And to protect him when the moon is full, professors and friends create a system for his survival. The headmaster enchants a physical structure and creates a mythology around it, one professor creates a secret passageway, another plants a magical tree to protect the child. Friends guide him to the hiding place for his own protection every month. They devise a safe route, limited access, a place that will protect him when he takes his werewolf form, and even support rumors to guard against curious intruders from stumbling upon him. This community forms around Lupin, from the time he is 11-years-old to 18, to hide his condition from people who would not understand and to enable him to remain a student at Hogwarts just like all of the other kids his age.
What a lot of work! This cursed child, by no fault of his own, is afflicted with a terrible disorder that makes him an absolute violent threat every month. The administration could reject him for the risk of his condition. Professors could balk at what is being asked of them. Peers could gossip about him and avoid him as weird and frightening. People with very real power who could banish him from their magical world instead put themselves at risk to make a way for him to be near them. A circle of protection and affection forms around this child and continues to surround him all the way into his adult life until he becomes a gifted professor at the very institution that made his own life possible.
I owe my re-reading of today’s family parable to Barbara Brown Taylor whose sermon “Parable of the Dysfunctional Family” completely transformed my understanding of this text. [Quotes throughout from Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Parable of the Dysfunctional Family” preached March 18, 2007, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.] We approach this story as highly individualistic Americans in the 21st century. Our children announce they are taking gap years after high school and before college. We pack up and move 1000 miles away for a job. Particularly in our setting of economic and educational privilege, we are not rooted in place out of duty or family or need for survival. However, in her sermon Taylor explains, “Chances are that nine out of ten of Jesus’ listeners were rural farmers, like the family in the parable. Their land was their livelihood. They received it in trust from their ancestors and they held it in trust for their children.
There was no courthouse where they could record their claims to it. Those claims were kept in the memory of the community, where honor was everything. Break faith with the community or lose its respect and your property lines might be ‘forgotten,’ just like that.
A great deal depended on being and having good neighbors...In this world, an individual had little meaning apart from his or her family. Identity was conferred in the plural, not the singular.”
Taylor goes on to explain the parts of ancient patriarchal culture that are less familiar to us—“such as the huge honor owed the patriarch of a clan, and the elaborate code for keeping that honor in place. Patriarchs did not run. Patriarchs did not leave their places at the heads of their tables when guests were present. Patriarchs did not plead with their children; they told their children what to do. According to the rabbis ‘three cry out and are not answered: he who has money and lends it without witnesses; he who acquires a master; he who transfers his property to his children in his lifetime.’”
She then examines a Talmudic detail that speaks to the son’s insult to his family, their community, and the consequences should he return home. “What he does is so reprehensible that the Talmud describes a ceremony to deal with it—a qetsatsah ceremony, to punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles. Here’s how it works. If he ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people.”
Is Jesus speaking about this communal practice? Is that what his listening audience knows is coming? This child has broken the community, broken the family trust, jeopardized everything, and now he is marked for cut-off, marked for expulsion, marked for qetsatasah.
The father knows. The father is aware that his son is a danger so great that he might not be able to protect him from the outcome...unless he can get to him first. “If the father can get to the son before the village does, then he can save his son from being cut off. He can save his relationship with his son and his family’s relationship with the village all at the same time. This reconciliation will cost him his honor—his greatness in others’ eyes—but that is a price he is willing to pay.”
The father sees his son while he is still far off. He is looking for him. Watching for him. Scanning the horizon in anticipation of his return. Like a band of 11-year-old boys watching the growth of the moon to get their best friend into the safe house in time for his own protection, the father watches for the son that the town wants to forget. And when he finally sees his form coming down the road, the father takes off running. He gathers up his robes and moves faster than he has in years. He smothers the boy with a desperate embrace, ignores the boy’s apology and words of indebtedness, and immediately dresses him. He’s had the clothes waiting and plenty of time to hatch this plan. Quickly, he dresses him in the finest of clothes, the wardrobe of a man of the estate and not a servant. And the father calls for the fatted calf to be slaughtered—the biggest and best meal; “a clear sign that the celebration about to take place is not a quiet family affair but a feast...for the entire village. It is a feast to restore the family’s honor, as well as a feast to restore the family’s son. It is a banquet of reconciliation for anyone who will come.
And just like that,” writes Taylor, “before anyone really has time to process what a genius he is, the father throws a banquet before the townspeople can throw a qetsatsah. The prodigal is saved, though not in isolation. He is saved by being restored to relationship with his father, his family, his clan, his village.”
Sitting with this story for a while, I realize now the village is saved, too. His father is saved, too. His family, his clan, the land they farm, the grumpy brother who doesn’t break the rules and would have been just fine, thank you very much, with a qetsatsah, is saved, too. The entire community would have been fractured and diminished by this ceremonial excommunication. The salvation, the welfare, the shalom we all crave is for each of us and for all of us—together. This is a story of a community of salvation, not just the salvation of this one son. This salvation parable is showing us we don’t just belong to God but we belong to one another, too.
We are radically, intimately connected in ways we do not fully understand. That is why our words and actions matter. That is why seeking the welfare of the city to which we have been called matters. That is why being a congregation asks questions, seeks justice, loves neighbors, and welcomes all matters. This path we are walking and making and living out together is not just for me and not just for you. Our lives are linked for salvation. And if that sounds like an awfully tall order, then hear this word on redemption from the Jewish prayer book used by Touro Synagogue—a reading for the High Holy Days. May this be a blessing for the work of salvation we are doing together:
Once two Sages were walking very early in the Valley
and they saw the light of the morning star.
Said one to the other,
"This is how the redemption will be.
The dawn breaks with a single ray of light
and bit by bit the sky is illuminated,
until morning comes and the darkness is gone.
So the redemption will occur little by little,
growing steadily and gradually
until the world is full of light."
Do not wait for a miracle
or the sudden transformation of the world.
Bring the day closer, step by step with every act of courage, of kindness,
of healing and repair.
Do not be discouraged by the darkness.
Lift up every spark you can
and watch the horizon
for the coming of dawn.
It has already begun.