11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” ~ Luke 15:11-32
Almost twenty years ago I attended a conference at Montreat in North Carolina, which, if you’ve never heard of it, is a kind of Presbyterian Nirvana: a beautiful conference center nestled in the foothills of the Black Mountains, where, every year, about forty conferences host thousands of people who are there to “encounter God through relationships, renewal, recreation, and rest.”
One year when I attended, we spent the entire week pondering the story of the Prodigal Son. We looked at it from what felt like every angle, turning it around in our hands like a gemologist examining an exquisite diamond. We did exercises, in which we placed ourselves in the positions of, first the father, then, the younger son, then, the older son. We made art about it. We listened to music, and sermons about it. We wrote poetry.
Finally, it was the last night of the conference, and we gathered in an enormous barn—there were probably about 300 people there. And we sat on the floor with the lights darkened, and watched a re-enactment of the story, one last time. And it was so heartfelt and beautiful… and then the father said, “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And, the parable tells us, they began to celebrate...
Suddenly, there was music, and the lights rose—beautiful colored lights, strung all over the ceiling—and people got up and began to dance.
Now, because it was in the Black Mountains, the music was an excellent local bluegrass band, and the dancing was everything from reels to clogging. And there we danced and moved to the music for what felt like a beautiful eternity.
And, I thought, “Now I get it.” For the first time I felt that I understood this little gem of a story.
It is a story about homecoming…not the awkward homecomings where we aren’t sure we fit in anymore, or the tense homecomings where people are at odds and cross-purposes. This is the kind of homecoming where everyone understands, or perhaps is still in the process of learning, at last, their deep need for one another.
It isn’t simply that, “Hey, we missed you.”
It’s that, “We are not complete without one another.
It’s not simply that, what was lost has been found, as if this man-child being returned to us were a wayward penny, or a precious gem, or even a little lamb.
No. It’s that we who had been broken apart, sundered, are whole again. We who knew the pain of our phantom limb can now flex our fingers and feel them, strong. We who knew the chipping away of a piece of our heart now feel its steady beat, now feel it glowing with joy, deep inside of us.
And so, we had to celebrate. We had to.
The story of the Prodigal Son may or may not feel like your story. We may each find ourselves alternately, in the role of that son, or his brother, or their father… the one returning, the one who never left, the one who only wants everyone to get along. The story leaves out the ending… we never get to see how the older brother works through his feelings about the homecoming. And yet, the story offers us a vision of celebration, of welcome, of musical merrymaking, singing, and dancing, and instruments playing, that tells us:
We had to celebrate and rejoice, for the one who was dead has come to life.
We had to celebrate and rejoice, for we who were broken are whole again.
This is why we are here. This is the deep story at the heart of the Christian story: the story of a God who only wants every single one of us know what it is, in the end, to find our way, joyfully, home, and to be greeted there with a celebration.
We have to celebrate and rejoice.
Thanks be to God. Amen.