Prone to Wander

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Prone to Wander

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 25, 2018, the second Sunday in Lent. “Dissonance” sermon series.

Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, /prone to leave the God I love…”[i]

Today we begin a four-week deep dive into the parable we’ve heard this morning. There is a lot going on in this story, there is dissonance, there is disharmony, broken relationships, broken dreams, broken hearts. Each week we’ll pick up and turn over a different piece as we seek to “remaster” this Christian classic. For those who hold this parable at your spiritual center, having lived with it for many years, I pray these weeks will provide welcome reminders, moments of deepening awareness, and potential epiphanies. For those for whom the story is little known or completely new, our hope is that you will find this passage of scripture both challenging and inspiring as has been the case for countless others across the centuries.

Words from the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” capture the particular dissonance that’s our focus this morning. “Prone to wander…prone to leave”… This is embodied by the younger of the two sons in the parable who wanders away from home to a “distant country.”

Of course, wandering isn’t always an expression of dissonance or brokenness. Having an adventurous spirit, wanting to explore new places and have new experiences can be a healthy part of human life and development; as is the work of growing up and moving into adulthood as an individual, apart from those who have raised us. Lord knows many of us have wandered far from home to study, to serve, to work, to be in relationships, to live here. Some of us may have left a place of dissonance in our families or other relationships—a place of disharmony, conflict, or abuse—and wisely traveled to new places where healing can happen. Wandering away can lead us to places of beauty and new life.

But the wandering in the parable Jesus tells isn’t presented as healthy, loving, or wise. We have no evidence in the story to suggest that the father was unkind or abusive or that the home the son left lacked anything. So we don’t we can only imagine what prompts this decision by the younger son. But we do know based on the culture of the time that the son’s demand is an insult to his father. When the son says, “give me the share of the property that will belong to me” he is demanding the inheritance what would come at his father’s death. He might as well have said to his dad, “I can’t wait for you to die!” Perhaps this is a case of the younger child figuring out how to play his parent, knowing that the father won’t deny his baby boy even a humiliating request. But for whatever reason, the son is given the death benefit. He cashes it in, takes the money, runs to “a distant country,” and proceeds to waste the money in “dissolute living.” What is here translated “dissolute” is the Greek word, asotos—a word that can also be translated “prodigal.” The younger son manipulates and insults his father, wanders off to a distant country, and squanders his inheritance in prodigal—that is, reckless, riotous, destructive, self-indulgent—living.

What happens next is sometimes described as a moment of real repentance. When the younger son has lost everything, hits rock bottom, and is starving, he “comes to himself” and remembers what it’s like at his father’s house. He compares his situation to that of his father’s hired hands and realizes that he, the beloved baby boy, has less at this point than the servants who’d done the dirty work at his house when he was child. The son formulates what he will say upon his return, carefully planning each word. Now this may very well be a true moment of repentance. It may also be further evidence of this son’s manipulation and selfishness. The moment of coming to himself could be a true waking up to his former manipulation and selfishness or it could be a moment when he simply calculates what it will take to get what he needs to survive, with the only self-awareness being his own imminent destruction if he doesn’t figure a way out.

Whether it is also a factor in his return home, at the heart of the younger son’s initial wandering off is selfishness and ingratitude. It can be very easy for those who have been provided for in this life to take things for granted. Whether that care has been found in a child-parent relationship, a partner or marital relationship, or in a friendship, if you have had a roof over your head and food to eat; if you have been given opportunities and support; if you have been given guidance and healthy boundaries; if you have been encouraged and loved…it can be very easy to feel entitled to these things and to focus not on giving thanks for all you’ve received but to always ask the question, “what have you done for me lately?”

The son’s behavior toward his father was supremely selfish—not only does it take for granted all that the father had provided, it was also cruel. Inherent in the message of “I can’t wait for you to die” is “I don’t need you!” I need your money, but not you. Imagine what that would feel like for a parent… (some of you will know exactly what that feels like)

At the point of despair, the son knows he needs his father—perhaps he’s still focused on his father’s wealth, the excess food that even his father’s servants enjoy—but he knows that to survive, to keep from starving, he has to go home, he has to return to his father.

Anytime a story is about a father and son or child and parent, or even simply evocative of “home” we cannot help but get caught up in our own memory and experience, feeling the resonance or dissonance between the story being told and our own. I imagine that many minds have wandered into distant countries, thinking of people and relationships in your life, or thinking about moments or seasons of wandering or of leaving home. That is not unexpected and is welcomed.

If you’d like, however, I invite you to return and receive some insights from the late priest and teacher, Henri Nouwen. In his beautiful extended meditation on the parable, Nouwen explains, “Leaving home is…much more than an historical event bound to time and place. It is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace…Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one.”[ii]

Nouwen highlights the allegorical association of the father in the parable with God. He describes home as “the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’”[iii] This is what God spoke to Jesus at his baptism, and God speaks those words of love to us all. Home is that place in each of us, Nouwen teaches, where we are aware of that voice. He writes, “over and over again I have left home. I have fled the hands of blessing and run off to faraway places searching for love! This is the great tragedy of my life and of the lives of so many I meet on my journey. Somehow I have become deaf to the voice that calls me the Beloved, have left the only place where I can hear that voice, and have gone off desperately hoping that I would find somewhere else what I could no longer find at home.”[iv]

“Prone to wander…prone to leave the God I love…”

Money and power and attention, trying to prove ourselves, chasing what we think will be freedom, and all the other things in this world that promise to make us feel like we’re important and worth something—titles and trophies and connections—a boyfriend or girlfriend, a promotion, feeling needed…all those things drop their tasty morsels like breadcrumbs luring us away from the place where we hear the voice of God. Nouwen says, “Anger, resentment, jealousy, desire for revenge, lust, greed, antagonisms, and rivalries are the obvious signs that I have left home. And that happens quite easily…I find myself wondering why someone hurt me, rejected me, or didn’t pay attention to me. Without realizing it, I find myself brooding about someone else’s success, my own loneliness, and the way the world abuses me …”[v] These are the things that happen in the “distant country,” far from the awareness that all we have needed, God’s hand has provided.

I don’t know what it is that lures you away from God, what voices tempt you to reject the promise of God’s grace, what leaves you feeling alone and desolate and searching for something to fill the gaping hole in your heart. It may be something wholly unrelated to anything named aloud today. But here is the good news for all of us: regardless of the circumstances of our lives or the state of our relationships, we can return home today. You can go home—not to a home that may have rejected you or that judges you or that puts “ifs” on love; you can return to the love of God that is always there waiting to embrace you and to flood and fill the emptiness within. And here’s the thing: you can return to God, you can seek that voice of God’s love within, even if your motivation isn’t entirely pure. Maybe you’re at your wit’s end and figure this whole love of God thing is your last-ditch attempt to not feel so miserable. God’s love is still ready to embrace you.

The journey home may begin with a true moment of repentance, of waking up, of “coming to yourself;” perhaps that means seeing the destructive, selfish decisions you’ve made or the choices that have done harm to yourself or others; perhaps it means acknowledging how often you take for granted the support and love offered by people in your life; perhaps it means admitting how forgetful you are about what and who matters most of all. For each of us, as with the younger son, the thing that will draw us home is remembering what it’s like when we dwell with God, to remember the reality of God’s abundant love and mercy—love and mercy to spare. And then, once we find ourselves on that path, the journey continues with gratitude and praise.

Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it,
mount of thy redeeming love.[vi]

[i] Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 400.

[ii] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 37.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., 39.

[v] Ibid., 41.

[vi] Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” stanza one.

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