“You Can’t Return Home Again” (Part 1 of 2)
Luke 15: 11-24 ~ September 12, 2021 ~ Northwood United Church ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
‘You can never go home again’ summed up the myriad of feelings in many family’s hearts over the past week. I am thinking, for one, of families who accompanied their children to their first year in university. Personal friends, John and Sally reported a heavy cloud of emotion on the ferry as they accompanied their child to UVic. And as those parents returned on the ferry home, one can only imagine the heavy emotions…joy & sadness…pride & loss. John and Sally report that the weight of emotion on their ferry seemed so heavy that they were glad it didn’t sink! For we know, don’t we, we know that once you leave, we can never go home again. You can go home…for Thanksgiving, come back for Christmas and pop in for Easter…you can return for summer jobs…or as I did, when you flunk out of first year, you can go back with your tail between your legs! But once you leave, there is a change that occurs…a growth that happens…and you will never be the same you, once you leave home.
This concept was first coined by writer Thomas Wolfe in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again. In his novel, Wolfe explores the radically changing social landscape that occurred through the 1920’s and 30’s. The stock market crash, the First World War, and the rise of Nazism. These factors converged to create the inability for, the main character, George Webber to return home. For the home that he had known had changed…and so had he. In the end, the home he returned to would be romanticized out of proportion, and only alive in the mind’s eye.
This is ‘Welcome Back Sunday’…a Sunday that we celebrate on the 1st Sunday following Labour Day. Because September is a time that we gather following summer break. Normally…we gather and share our summer adventures and let the Fall journey commence: back to school routines that our young people have missed; back to routines and regular things that we have missed in our week; and…back to church, and all that goes with it. And as a ‘church family’, we gather with the exuberance that any family reunion holds. “How were your holidays?” “How was that trip?” “I need to see some pictures!” We catch up on the joys and we catch up on the sorrows…and we hold one another in this sacred reunion. Yet, this ‘Welcome Back Sunday’ is unlike any before. Last year’s ‘Welcome Back Sunday’ was cancelled and we were isolated in our own social bubbles. We have not been gathering as a church for the past year and one-half. And we gather with masks on our faces and the smell of hand sanitizer in the air…and we realize that we cannot return to home…for the home that we left is very different.
And as we receive this morning’s text on ‘Welcome Back Sunday’, we realize that it has a lot to teach about homecoming. The Luke 15 parable is, arguably, the most significant homecoming story in the canon of the Bible…certainly in the Gospels. So, I thought we might spend the next two weeks on this text: this week with the younger brother’s story which Emma read, and next week with the story of the older brother. We are reminded that whenever we examine a parable, which Jesus used often, we are dealing with a story that points us towards the deeper truths about the Kingdom of God. This parable is actually a continuation of the previous two in Luke’s 15th chapter: the lost coin which is found; the lost sheep which is recovered; and today’s parable: the lost son. In these stories, we see a dramatic progression towards this homecoming celebration. The lost sheep is found; the lost coin is found; and when the lost son is found we witness a ‘welcome back’ celebration of heavenly proportions!
So, how does it all begin? It all begins with something that we all hold near and dear…freedom. It begins with the younger son demanding his freedom. According to tradition, the younger son is entitled to 1/3 of his father’s estate. Now, this would customarily be distributed following his father’s death; however, what the younger son does is ask for his inheritance early. The father honours the son’s request; the son cashes it in, and he proceeds out into the world. An out on his own the younger son loses it all. The son had gone from being a member of an esteemed Jewish family to now working for a Gentile farmer….feeding his pigs ~ unclean animals by Jewish standards. And as the son sits in the filthy mud, feeding the unclean pigs, hungering for the slop he is serving, we see the son’s decline to reach a rock bottom. And at that moment, the son realizes that there is a condition even worse than death…that of being lost.
Now, I’d like to stop here for a moment and consider the judgement we have been placing upon the younger son. Historical interpretation has not been kind to him. Many sermons and much biblical commentary have offered a simple formulaic contrast of the two boys. One as bad (the younger son) and one as good (the older son – who we will get to next week). Perhaps, we might already be placing some judgement upon the younger son…right now? How many of us might have played the role of the younger son or younger daughter in our own lives? Poor decisions…poor discretion…things we wish we could have done so very differently…things we wish we could erase? I know I have my own list…and I suspect you might have one as well. We might not like it…I am sure we do not…but part of ourselves actually relate to the younger son. And as we shine some light on him, realizing parts of ourselves, we see that what was first being sought was freedom. And suddenly, things get much more complex.
We have an interesting week coming up as it pertains to freedom. In 8 days, we will have the freedom to cast our vote in the Federal Election. It is my 18 year old son’s first time to vote and I’m excited to go with him! And, tomorrow will also be the first day that the vaccine passport regulations come into effect. Starting Monday, you will require a vaccine passport in BC to take part in what BC Health have been deemed to be “discretionary events.” Among other events, the passport will be required when dining inside a restaurant, going to a theatre or watching our beloved Canucks, Lions or Whitecaps. No passport…no entry! One of the key issues that has arisen has been concerns around the erosion of our human rights and freedoms. Over the next week, things will shift and become a lot less neat and tidy pertaining to our freedom. If you think back, we have been a society that has consistently sought a world where all are welcomed to gather at one table. All Canadians 18 and over can vote tomorrow. Not just men, but women too. Some of you might remember when full access for women was achieved only 60 years ago! And we hold so preciously…freedom for all! Many will lament discrimination inflicted upon people of colour, inflicted upon homosexual and transgendered people. All of us can remember when marriage was first permitted in BC, a mere 18 years ago. And, as we follow the historical timeline, we have faithfully and consistently worked towards equality and freedom! We would like this parable to be a simple one, but we quickly realize that it is NOT! Certainly, the younger son is not a pillar of virtue to be followed. He is not someone suited to guide wise financial choices. Yet, the younger son is important. He lifts up the voice of freedom in the complex balance that is before us now.
To meet the younger son is to be reminded of the complex world in which we live: the multiplicity of shades between right and wrong are found in this story before us. The son might be brazenly rude – asking for his inheritance before his father’s death; he might have poor judgement on how to live – as he proceeds to lose it all and sink down to the level of working for Gentile pig farmer…but the shining gift that the younger son holds up for us who value inclusion and welcome is that of the value of freedom. We cannot, and should not, paint the son with the ‘bad son’ paintbrush. What we are realizing is that this balance between freedom and personal health is very complex and highly personal. We celebrate the freedom of living in a society that does not dictate what people are required to do with their bodies. Yet, we also celebrate a society which lifts up the fragility of life as sacred and in need of protection. It is so complex…I have a clergy colleague who cannot be vaccinated due to a neurological condition; young women express concerns over how this might impact future child-rearing; others raise concern over how the vaccine will effect their bodies long-term. And, sadly, we are seeing a growing divide developing of “maskers and vaxxers” versus “anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers”. A troubling divide is growing. This is not a simple issue before us. To be sure, this is a shift away from the freedoms we cherish, as we find ourselves in such an uncertain time.
As you can see, I am not going to be very helpful to you this morning if you are looking for ‘the right’ answer. I have been to churches where the bulletin includes a sheet of notes. Fill in the blanks on the points that the preacher is making in order to ensure that you get it right before you leave. What I have always viewed my role as is to help us sit together and ponder the deep mysteries of God and consider what following the Way of Christ means for you in your life today.
So, if we can take away the precious gift of embracing the younger son as a treasured and complex part of our faith, I think we are off to a good start. As the story proceeds, the son has a rebirth: he decides to go home. This son lifts up the value of freedom…now lost…he considers homecoming…he knows, in his soul…he knows that his father will let him come home as a hired hand. He doesn’t expect to come home as ‘the younger son’ who is treated like royalty. His inheritance and status have been spent. He just wants a homecoming where he can work in a respectful environment…where he feels safe and valued. This change in the son is recorded in the text saying that “he came to himself.” Coming to ourselves lifts up our spiritual capacity to return to the forgiving heart of God – to renounce errors and reclaim our potential to be in communion with God…embracing our heritage as God’s children…and starting again. Earlier in this reflection, I suggested that there is a condition worse than death…that condition is being lost. And, when the son “comes to himself”, he realizes that there is also something better than life and that is of being found, and forgiven, and loved as a child of God!
The welcome home celebration that the son receives is unexpected, unearned, unheard of…what he receives is grace. Scholars talk about the father’s actions as giving us insight into the nature of God: your heavenly Father; your heavenly Mother; the loving way of the Cosmos is revealed in the actions of the father. It was unbecoming, back in those days, for a grown man to run. Yet, the overpowering nature of the father’s love moves him to run. He springs up and sprints down the road towards his son. He runs so fast his sandals blow off his feet and his tunic fills with air like a parachute. The father is uncontrollably moved by joy…by compassion…by love…for he sees that his son is alive! I wonder if what our world truly needs, right now, is to work towards creating a world with that welcomes that kind of grace, to welcome home that kind of compassion, to welcome home that kind of unbridled love.
May we create a growing space for forgiveness, for understanding…for grace as we continue to live in these complex times. Knowing that we All are children of God.