Prodigal Grace


New in Christ by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman Inspired by 2 Corinthians 5:16-21| Digital painting

2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Touched by an Angel” by Maya Angelou

We, unaccustomed to courage, exiles from delight,

live coiled in shells of loneliness until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight to liberate us into life.

Love arrives and in its train come ecstasies,

old memories of pleasure, ancient histories of pain.

Yet if we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity In the flush of love’s light we dare be brave

And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be.

Yet it is only love which sets us free.

Before I begin, a point of personal privilege: the day in the church calendar that the story of the Prodigal son comes up is always a special one for me. It’s especially meaningful because It doesn’t come up every year- but every three years as we move through the cycle of readings called the lectionary. It’s special to me because it’s the anniversary of when I first encountered Jesus back in 2013.

It was March 2013, and I was living in Boston, working for the Unitarian Universalists doing Young Adult Ministry, when I wandered over to the young adult congregation at the Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Boston across the Boston Common. I wasn’t really interested in Jesus before this. Indeed, I was more of a buddhist leaning vaguely spiritual guy before that.

I don’t remember what the sermon was at that service, but what I do remember is that after the sermon there was a talkback/reflection type of thing, and a young woman stood up and talked about why the story was meaningful to her. She was young, probably should have been in high school, but was now living without housing in Boston because her parents kicked her out because she was gay. This story embodied the hope she had, that one day her parents would take her back in with the same love that the father showed his son. Afterward, this being an episcopal church, there was communion, and we did it in the round, and she served me. It was in her words, and in her sharing of the bread, that I first encountered Jesus, that I realized the Bible was more than just a bunch of bronze age fairytales strung together, that it had real meaning for a lot of people.

I don’t know what happened to that young woman, by the way. Although I became a regular at that church, I don’t think she ever returned. I can only hope she found the love, the grace, the mercy, that she craved and deserved.

Her situation, however, was not unique. As of 2020, the most recent year I could find numbers for, more than 4 million young people between the ages of 13 to 25 experience homelessness over the course of a year. That’s about 1 in 30 youth ages 13-17, and 1-10 young adults aged 18-25. LGBTQ young people aged 13-25 are 120% more likely to experience some level of homelessness than their straight peers.

I speak of level of homelessness because homelessness is not just one condition, but a range of situations. Folks might couch surf with friends while they try to find a place, sleep in their cars, stay in a shelter, or on the streets, go back home for a while then be forced out, and move between those depending on their economic conditions.

This is the situation of the young man in our parable today, the story of the prodigal son. The story is a famous one, about the power of love and forgiveness. It’s a story of second chances, about the power of overwhelming love to those who do not deserve it. As our poem today reminds us, it is also a story about the perils of keeping too careful of a scorecard, and that mercy and grace do not keep score.

The parable of the prodigal son is or at least should be, a familiar one; indeed, if I were to make a list of the parables that Christians should know, this would top the list.

The characters are a father and his two sons. The younger of the sons asks for his inheritance early, so the father divides his lands and the son immediately sells his portion. This would have been a grave offence in the ancient middle east, just as it would be controversial today in many farming communities. The land is the land, and people were strongly connected to it.

The son takes the proceeds, and travels to a distant land, where he squanders the money in parties and revelry. A famine hits, and the son is reduced to attempting to eat pig slop. Pigs were of course considered unclean animals by the Jewish people, so this would have added a religious dimension to it as well.

At this point, he has a revelation that something is very wrong with his life, that he has hit his proverbial rock bottom moment. Many have had these moments where we knew we needed to change, but, they sometimes happen too late, or under circumstances that are irrevocably harmful. We all know too many lives cut short by fatal drug overdoses, drunk driving accidents, or violence, that they either perpetrate or are victims of.

I believe his father knew this, that too often there is no opportunity to extend forgiveness and grace. So when the son makes his way home to the father, what can the father do but celebrate and forgive?

What once was lost, now is found. What was torn asunder is knit together. What was broken is now whole.

One of the many great tragedies of humanity is that it often takes terrible events to remind us that life is not a zero sum game. We don’t get to take our wealth with us, our treasures do not follow us into the heavens. Even that oh so wonderful feeling of being proven right is as a mist, burned up in the morning light. The disputes that we oh so diligently track and keep score of are as ephemeral as the shifting of the seasons and the grass that fades away.

When we think of disputes, we often think of open hostility or overt harm, but just as common is frustration, feelings not expressed, the feeling of being trapped in situations where we have no agency, no control.

I believe that this is what the older brother was feeling when he witnessed the celebration of the younger brother coming home.

He made his feelings clear to his father: he never got anything, yet he toiled endlessly. He felt his life was one of no advancement, no pleasure, intimacy or joy or any of the other things that make life worth living.

Two things that I can’t say for certain, but have a good feeling on; he took on extra responsibilities on for and by himself, and that he never asked if he could have a party.

He was so trapped by his own frustration, felt so powerless, that he couldn’t see the simple way forward. Talk to his dad.

He had convinced himself of what the score was, how he needed to get on the right side of those numbers.

He played against himself in a game that no one forced him to be in, that no one invited him to, that honestly, did not exist outside of his own mind.

So much in our lives would we better if we were able to let go. If we are to be foolish, let it flow out of our mercy and love toward one another. Let us forgive often. Really believe in second and third chances, not only for others, but for ourselves.

“Touched by an Angel”

We, unaccustomed to courage, exiles from delight,

live coiled in shells of loneliness until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight to liberate us into life.

Love arrives and in its train come ecstasies,

old memories of pleasure, ancient histories of pain.

Yet if we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity In the flush of love’s light we dare be brave

And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be.

Yet it is only love which sets us free.