Preached September 19, 2004 at MCC Columbia (S.C.)
Scripture reading: Luke 15:11-32
I have a confession to make. I have an addiction. It’s not one I’m proud of, but it’s something I can’t stop doing even though I know it’s not all that good for me. I know that it when I engage in this activity that I’m going to get frustrated, sometimes angry. Sometimes I’ll feel smug and superior, smarter than someone else, or better than someone else. I always come away from this activity feeling a little ashamed and wonder why I keep doing it.
What is my addiction you might be wondering? Yahoo message boards. I can’t stay off of them. Everyday I vow to not go to the gay and lesbian Christianity board anymore but by day’s end, there I am – posting away – giving as good as I get from those who post there telling gays and lesbians that they are going to hell.
Let me give you just one fine example posted by a man named “sgtwillie” who claims to be a good, God-fearing and compassionate Christian:
“Queers, fags, and dykes all follow SATAN! You homosexuals/lesibians are an evil breed. God will banish you to the pits of Hell unless you repent of your sins and come to JESUS. Woe to you on the day Christ returns. AIDS is punishment for your sin. You are a pague on AMERICA, I bet your parents are very proud of you. Your poster boy Matt Shephred and Diane the Dyke Wipple are burning in HELL. The same fate awaits all fags and dykes unless your seek God’s forgiveness and salvation in Jesus.” (Spelling and grammar errors are his.)
This sort of post, beyond simply being vulgar and rude, is the norm on this board. It used to make me very angry, but now I’ve come to a point where I simply feel sorry for them, because they cannot find it in their heart to give gay and lesbian Christians any benefit of the doubt. They cannot rejoice that gays and lesbians are following Christ – mainly because we are not following Christ in the way that THEY believe we should be.
It reminds me of a quote I read from a newspaper story several years ago when Soulforce was in Lynchburg, Virginia trying to dialogue with Jerry Falwell and his church. An anti-gay protestor was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “God’s love is cheap if he throws it around to everyone.” This person believes that God doesn’t love people like gays and lesbians and that God’s love is not unconditional. It’s inconceivable to people like this message board poster and this protestor that God’s grace could extend to someone as hated as a homosexual. It’s just not possible, because “God’s love is cheap if he throws it around to everyone.”
In many ways, they are like the older brother in our scripture reading. He’s upset that his younger brother, who has gone off and squandered his inheritance, should be given such a grand welcome home. After all, the older brother complains to his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” He must have thought that his father’s love was cheap if he was going to throw it around to someone so undeserving. Those I meet on the message boards are just like this brother – they’ve done everything right and have never left God’s side. Why then would God cheapen his love by giving it to people like gays and lesbians?
This parable, along with all of Jesus’ other parables that we’re very familiar with, have lost their edge in our modern times. Those who heard Jesus tell this parable first hand would have found it to be outrageous! They would have been scandalized by the actions of all three of the people in this story. Today, however, we’re not scandalized at all. Instead, like most parables, we’ve turned it into a nice story about a guy who comes home and all is forgiven, except maybe by big brother who will never let the little brother hear the end of it.
The first outrage in this parable occurs when the younger brother approaches his father and asks for his inheritance. In Middle Eastern culture of the time, a boy like this would never, ever speak first to his father – that would be out of place. And what he asks for is even more outrageous – his inheritance. A child would only receive that when his father was dead. In essence, this son is telling his father to “drop dead!” Those who heard Jesus tell this tale were scandalized before the first part of the story had passed. Already, this son was the goat of the tale, doing two outrageous things back to back!
The father acts out of character as well. Given that the boy should not have spoken at all to him, but to make such an outlandish request when he does – the father should have exploded with rage! Instead, Jesus further scandalized his listeners by telling them the father granted the boy’s request. Outrageous!
The boy goes off and “scatters” his money. We’re not told how the money is spent, and it’s only the older brother later who theorizes that his younger brother spent it on prostitutes. The Greek word used for how the boy spent his money doesn’t imply immoral behavior, but instead means he spent without thinking. He was living for the moment, unconcerned about the future.
Eventually, the money runs out and the town where he lives is gripped by famine. He realizes, as he’s slopping the hogs one day that they are eating better than he is. He “comes to himself” in this moment – Arabic translations say he “got smart” – he wised up and got himself a plan to go back home. He couldn’t return as his father’s son, but perhaps his dad would hire him – perhaps he could earn his way back into the fold.
At its roots, brothers and sisters, this story is about God’s outrageous grace – a grace that is given freely, but never, ever earned. We’re told that we must do this or that, or give up this or that, in order for God to love us. The prodigal son thought he must earn his way back into his father’s love. The listeners who heard Jesus tell this tale probably thought that was a wise move. What father in his right mind would take such a boy back any other way? To simply welcome him back after all this time would be outrageous.
But, our scripture tells us that while the boy was still far away, his father spotted him and did something that is totally outrageous. He RAN. This is where Jesus’ audience must have audibly gasped. “What did he say? The father RAN? Outrageous!”
You see, in ancient Palestine it would be regarded as a loss of dignity for a grown man to run. According to author Kenneth Bailey, “Arabic translations of this story refuse to translate this as running! They avoid this because it is clear that the father here is acting as God acts toward prodigals. Running in public is too humiliating to attribute to a person who symbolizes God.”
Outrageous! But there it is for all to see – God will even humiliate himself to welcome us back into the fold!
The prodigal begins his speech about not being worthy, but the father isn’t even hearing him – he’s too busy ordering food and drink for the big party he’s going to throw for his prodigal. This is God’s grace at work. We come to God with a heavy heart, ready to beat ourselves up about all the things we’ve done wrong and God says, “Bring out the best clothes, bring out the best food, for my child was dead and now she is alive – what was lost has now been found!” Confessing our sins is not the act of repentance. Repentance comes when the lost is found!
Not everyone is celebrating, however. The older brother comes home after slaving in the fields all day to find this big party going on. He asks a servant what’s going on and is told about the big party for the wayward son. He got mad and he refused to go into the party. Again, Jesus’ listeners would be appalled. By refusing to join the party he offends the honor of his father!
But, the father again puts his own honor aside to seek out the older brother and invite him to the party. The older brother refuses to come in, even though the father – who represents God – works to reestablish a relationship with his older son and help him to understand that his love is not cheap, but is big enough to encompass anyone who seeks it and accepts it. Jesus’ listeners must have been appalled at such an outrageous tale, especially when the tale is meant to illustrate the radical, welcoming love and grace of God.
Perhaps this parable needs a little updating to make it as outrageous now as it was then. My own story reads a bit like the prodigal son’s story. I came to a full realization of my sexual orientation when I was 16 years old. Being raised in the Southern Baptist church I had been told that it was not something that was compatible with a relationship with God. So, I did something outrageous. Just like the prodigal son, I told God to “drop dead.” I decided to take my inheritance – which I believe is my sexual orientation -and try to go out and make it on my own. I met my first girlfriend and we fell in love and moved in together. It was a rocky relationship, full of some ups and some very deep downs. We were barely making it financially and emotionally. We were deep in debt and were having problems in our relationship. We were living for the moment – wastefully – with no thought for the future.
The prodigal son came to his senses in the midst of a pigpen. My equivalent of waking up in the pigpen was in the form of some very serious dyke drama. All within the same week or so, my girlfriend wrecked her truck and we had no money to get it fixed. Later that week her brother, who had discovered the nature of my relationship with his sister, outed us to her family and they totally rejected us. They would not speak to us. They shunned us – and were even trying to bribe my girlfriend away from me by promising her money for school if only she’d leave me – because of course I was the one who had wooed her into that horrible “lifestyle.” Let’s just say they didn’t know what a smooth operator their daughter was!
Just as an aside, let me tell you how my girlfriend’s brother found out about us. When I first met my girlfriend’s sister-in-law, I saw her coming out of my girlfriend’s parent’s house. She was dressed in brown cover-alls and heavy-duty steel-toed boots.
I said to my girlfriend, “Who’s the dyke?”
My girlfriend laughed, “That’s my sister-in-law. She’s not a dyke.”
“Whatever you say,” I said, and let the matter drop.
Apparently, it was this sister-in-law who had gone through the pockets of my jacket one evening and found a note my girlfriend had given me – proof positive of the nature of our relationship. She turned the note over to her husband who happily ran with it.
It’s not often that we get to see poetic justice work itself out, but several years later, this woman came out as a lesbian – is my gaydar good or what? She left my girlfriend’s brother – a Baptist minister – got herself a girlfriend and joined the police force. I know a butch when I see a butch! But, her fear of her own sexuality led her to out us. Despite her motives, which she meant for evil, God meant it for good, because it put me on the path to going home to God.
While all this drama was swirling in the air, my girlfriend found a story in one of the local Atlanta newspapers about a church that welcomed gays and lesbians. It was something called an “MCC.” We had never heard of such. She wanted to go back to church (she was Southern Baptist like me), but I wanted no part of it. In reality, I ached for God, longed to go home, but like the prodigal son, I didn’t feel worthy. How could I go back to God now after I had squandered this wonderful gift of my sexual orientation? How could I return to God and ask forgiveness for walking away? I was no longer worthy to be called God’s child.
After much arm-twisting on my girlfriend’s part, I was convinced to go to a service and I believe I experienced the same thing the prodigal son experienced. For MCC old-timers, you’ll know this man – Papa John Hose. He was the guest preacher that weekend and for me, he represents God running out to greet me while I was still far off. Papa John told me that God loved me and that God knew that I was gay because God made me that way! What a simple but profound revelation for someone who had been convinced that God could not love them – that they were not worthy of God’s love. I sat in the pew and cried. I had been lost, but now I was found! I had found my way home, and when I got there, God ran to greet me, and threw the world’s biggest party for me because I had returned. It was a moment of rejoice – a moment of true welcome – a moment of grace.
The big brother in my story is played by my oldest sister, who, upon learning about my experience and that there were churches accepting gays and lesbians was outraged. She told me, “If churches keep welcoming gays and lesbians, where will I go to church?”
Just like the big brother in our parable, she was upset that God would rush out to greet someone like me. God’s love is cheap if he just throws it around to everyone – especially to gay and lesbian people! She had been there all along, faithfully serving God and consistently doing the right thing. She had never felt that God threw her a party or thanked her for her faithful service. Yet here God was throwing a big party for someone like me – someone who engaged in that “filthy lifestyle” – whatever that means.
I told her, “Don’t worry. There will always be small-minded, bigoted churches for you to go to.” She wasn’t amused.
She was like those message board posters who consistently say that one cannot be both gay and a Christian. Those big brothers would tell us that God has not welcomed us back with any sort of party because we have not repented of our sin – namely our sexual orientation. The prodigal repented, they say, and that’s why he was welcomed back.
It’s true this is a story of repentance, but what sin did the prodigal repent of? His sin was not telling his father to drop dead or squandering his inheritance. His sin was in believing that he could live his life without his father’s love and support. That was my sin. I believed that I could live my life without God. I believed that I could make it on my own, without God’s love, grace and mercy in my life.
His act of repentance – and mine – came when he “got smart” – when he realized how much better his life would be if he was even just his father’s servant, let alone his esteemed son! His act of repentance was coming home. His act of repentance was returning to the fold – he was once lost but now he is found! The act of the father’s embrace is repentance – not the renunciation of some “lifestyle” or the giving up of something as innate as sexual orientation. Merely realizing that we cannot live without God and accepting that we have been found is the ultimate act of repentance. That’s outrageous – but that’s Jesus message with this simple story.
It feels good to be the prodigal son, doesn’t it? To know that simply by coming home to the father you’ll be welcomed back with a big party, the finest clothes and jewelry and all the trappings of an honored child. When we read this story we always tend to see ourselves in the prodigal. But, do we ever stop to consider that often we are the big brother in this story?
I’d bet that most of us wouldn’t have to think very long before we could come up with someone who we are not happy to think that God might love them as much as God loves us. There are the obvious names here for our community – Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Robert Knight, Gary Bauer – people who oppose our very existence, not just oppose our acceptance by God. But, there are the everyday folks we know – those who may have offended us or abused us or have done us wrong in the past – whose party we would refuse to attend if we knew God was throwing one for them. How could God love people like that? God’s love must be cheap if he throws it around to people like that.
I remember one of my own big brother moments. I’m not sure if folks remember this woman but she was a double murderer – killed two people in cold blood and said she had gotten sexual enjoyment out of the act of taking their lives. Her name was Karla Faye Tucker. She was executed for the murders in 1998, but not before her jailhouse conversion to Christianity. She pleaded for her sentence to be commuted to life so she could preach the gospel to other prisoners. It made my skin crawl to hear her talk about God and how God loved even someone like her. It didn’t help my feelings much that one of her staunchest defenders was Pat Robertson.
I couldn’t believe that God would cheapen his love by giving grace to a person such as this. “Is that all it takes?” I thought. “You can just say, ‘God forgive me,’ and it’s all done? Man, God’s love must be cheap if that’s all there is to it.”
But, brothers and sisters, the answer is yes, that’s all there is to it. As much as Karla Faye Tucker’s conversion was offensive to me, it was sweet to God. She came home – she was lost and then she was found. In the act of coming home, God ran to greet her while she was still far away and threw a lavish party for her. I could stay outside the party if I wanted to, but God came out to me and tried to make me understand that God’s love is free, but it is not cheap. It is a radical love that demands a radical response. It is a radical and outrageous grace that is given to anyone – anyone – who is willing to receive it.
That has not been, and probably won’t be, my last big brother moment. Did you notice, in my own story, when I became the big brother? When my sister voiced her distress over the welcoming of gays and lesbians into the church, I immediately became the big brother with my sarcastic comment. Instead of telling her that there would still be churches full of bigots where she would be welcomed, I should have told her, “You’d always be welcome at my church.” And I know that she would be very welcome here – made to feel at home and hopefully to feel the spirit of God that permeates this place. Instead, I chose to be the big brother – excluding her from the grace I had only recently received myself.
We all do it, but we need to be aware of those moments when we fail to welcome others – when we are dismayed that God’s radical love extends to those we’d rather not see enjoy God’s grace and mercy. We’ve all had our prodigal moments, where we have been found and celebrated, and we’ve all had our moments where we’ve refused to join the celebration of others who have been found. Jesus tells us a cautionary tale – one that reminds us to extend the welcome to anyone who seeks it, no matter what our opinion of them may be.
On the message boards I’m careful to never question the faith of my detractors. They question mine all the time – calling me a liar and telling me that my faith in God is false. I try to never be the big brother there, keeping C.S. Lewis’ words in my mind. He wrote in Mere Christianity:
“It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. […] When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.”
I’ve met some bad Christians in my time – sgtwillie is a fine example of this – but I try to never judge another person’s heart. That’s not my job. I trust God to dispense grace as God sees fit, even if I personally find it offensive. I try hard to not be the big brother and instead to celebrate God’s grace in the lives of other people. It’s never easy.
In our parable we’re not told the rest of the story. Jesus doesn’t tell us if the big brother goes into the party and reconciles with the younger brother. God is obviously rejoicing in the return of the prodigal and leaves us with the question, “Will we rejoice too?” That is God’s question to us today. Will we rejoice? Will we welcome anyone who accepts that they have been found by God or will we stand outside the party like the big brother and sulk? The choice is ours. But remember the father’s words to the big brother – “all that is mine is yours.” That’s radical love and an invitation to us to welcome everyone who comes and wastefully share the wonderful gifts that God has given each of us.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.