A Community of Salvation
Three Years. No Fruit.
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.
What does it all mean?
Becky Meriwether, Priscilla Stovall, Caroline Durham, and I attended an event on Friday morning hosted by The Atlantic Monthly about race and justice in New Orleans. It’s a series they are producing around the country funded by a MacArthur grant to look at questions of mass incarceration, the system supporting prisons, and all of the intersection conversations that surround the carceral state. The underlying question in every session came back to the inherent value and worth of black and brown lives. Do we as a nation believe some people are inherently more dangerous, more broken, more in need of fixing, more worthy of incarceration, less worthy of being seen as fully human?
We have an elaborate system in place in our country that answers “yes” to that question. And every discussion of recidivism, mental health, education, poverty, equity, and opportunity came back to the essential question about the full humanity of all people. It was telling as certain key officials who are tasked with incarcerating human bodies and counting the “inventory” in our local jail seemed oblivious to the complexities of value and worthiness of a life and unable to incorporate human narrative into their work. Their imaginations were bound like the roots of a tree that has outgrown its pot. Stifled. Locked. Unable to move beyond the containers in which they live and move and have their being.
Peace. Be Still.
There are signs that mark our lives and connect with the essence of who we are. Scents and songs and images, but the signs are just as significant. We have a Walgreen’s across the street from the church now. Have you even noticed? It’s been the Rite Aid for as long as I’ve lived here, but I’m smart enough to know that it’s really the K&B. And I know that if you peel the signs off of the Broadway side door of that building, the K&B logo is still underneath everything on the outside. The K&B on Springhill Avenue in Mobile was the marker to turn to my grandparents house. A marking sign in my childhood that we were almost there.
When I drive to my hometown now, like I did on Friday, something happens in my heart along I-10 when I see the “Sweet Home Alabama” sign. I don’t even know if I’ll ever live in Alabama again in my lifetime, but when I see that sign (or, let’s be honest, hear the first notes of the Lynyrd Skynyrd song) I’m home. There’s this other sign on I-65 when you’re driving North from Mobile to Montgomery or Birmingham, as I have so many times, that pictures a red devil with a pitchfork. Do you know it? Have you seen it? It says, “Go to church of the devil will get you.” It disappeared for a while recently, and I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, the theology is so gross, but on the other…that’s one of my signs. I know where I am when I see that sign. Turns out the owners were just repairing it to hang it again after a storm, so that Southern Gothic combination of landmark and toxic theology is still right there along I-65 on the northbound side near Prattville.
You know of my deep admiration and affection for Dr. White and the joy I feel for the musicians who join him every year. But what I didn’t fully expect of this annual tradition was to grow so deeply fond of you, the Mardi Gras congregation. You are a different and rare creature every year, just like our beloved Carnival season. This thing we create when we come here together on this one Sunday of the year doesn’t exist at any other time, even though I may think about you and wonder about you in June or October. We are neighbors and friends and strangers and family, we are devoutly Christian and quietly agnostic and nominally Jewish and boastfully atheist. We are, like our city, a mashup of all kinds of people from all kinds of places and all walks of life, gathering together for just a little while to honor something rare and set apart. It’s the music and the traditions of this city, yes, but there’s this other thing that happens when we are together. And it’s a pretty holy thing.
I wonder…How has the past year been for you? Has it been good? Have the kids grown? Did you get the promotion? Are you retiring soon? Have you moved? Have you buried ones that you loved? Do you have all of your ducks in a row? Have you lost your ducks and would settle for even just carrying them in a bag if you could find them all again? Have you gotten a divorce? Ended a friendship? Are you facing the diagnosis or in total denial? Have you worked hard on yourself and repaired something broken? Pushed past an old blockage? Are you watching the news and devouring Twitter or turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to all of it in hopes the chaos will be over soon? How has the past year been for you?