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Love Always Waiting

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Sep 09

Text : Luke:15- 11-32 The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Thank you, Kate, for that beautiful reading. Good morning, everyone. It’s a joy to be gathered here again at the beginning of new year in our life together. To any who have personal family connections to Judaism, Shana Tova -- Happy New Year, indeed -- for today is also Rosh HaShanah.

Before we go further in our service and regathering celebration, I’m afraid I have some sad news I need to share in case you missed it in the email we sent out yesterday. As many of you know, we have been praying for our beloved brother Brian James these past weeks as he had been wrestling with a severe infection in the ICU at Beth Israel. Sadly and shockingly, his condition continued to worsen, and this past Friday our dear Brian died peacefully surrounded by his family, enfolded in their love and in the thoughts and prayers of this community.

As I shared in yesterday’s email, Brian was a remarkably kind, loving and passionate person, a decades long member and dedicated leader who served First Church in many ways: as Deacon, Treasurer, member of our Shelter Oversight Committee, bringer of comic relief and contrarian wisdom. First Church is a different place because of the many gifts he shared here. First Church will be a different place without him. Please pray for one another as we each process this profound loss. Pray especially for Brian’s life-partner Nancy, for his daughters Christina and Casey, and for his ex-wife Patty, all of whom were by his side over these past days. Services will be held here sometime in October when we will have a chance to celebrate and further give thanks for the life of this precious child of God.

Now, on to the sermon. Will you pray with me, please. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer.

So...I’d like to begin today with a fascinating tidbit of history that I picked up from the writer and psychologist Bill Plotkin. He wrote a book many years ago called "Soulcraft" in which he describes a certain World War II epilogue. Among other things, it gives new meaning to the oft-heard expression “loyal soldier.” Check this out.

Apparently, after the war, Plotkin writes, there were literally “hundreds of Japanese marines and soldiers who, after surviving shipwrecks or plane crashes in the Pacific found themselves stranded, alone or in small groups, on uninhabited or sparsely settled islands.” As the story goes, “some managed to endure for years, lost in extreme conditions and suffering severe social-cultural isolation and several of these soldiers were discovered many years after the war had ended.” Have you heard of this phenomenon? I take it one was found still living a full thirty-five years after the war. Here’s the thing: “Unaware that the war had ended, each [and every] one of them, upon being found, was ready to immediately return to the war effort. They were told, of course, the war was over (and that Japan had lost).” But, Plotkin continues, “this was generally unthinkable to them; the war could not be over because their [undying] loyalty to the cause was what had kept them alive all those years.”

If this rings a bell, there was a news story in 2014 about the death of the last of these so-called ‘loyal soldiers.’ The New York Times reported it: “Hiroo Onoda, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who remained at his jungle post on an island in the Philippines for 29 years, refusing to believe that World War II was over, returned to a hero’s welcome in the all but unrecognizable Japan of 1974.” He lived until he was 91 in Tokyo.

Let me say a bit more about that hero’s welcome. Apparently, Officer Onoda and others like him had become so attached to their roles and cause that when they did return, they needed help in establishing a new and broader identity so they could join their communities and contribute as well-adjusted citizens. Understanding this predicament, the Japanese learned to do a remarkably compassionate thing for them. They gave all of them a hero’s welcome. They created a ritual whereby they would first recognize and thank these soldiers for their extraordinary courage, sacrifice and loyalty. And then they would announce, with authority and compassion, to each of them: “the war is now over.” They would say, in essence: “your communities now need you to let go of what has served you and us so well until now. We need you to return to us as something more than a soldier!” For months after this fact, they would sometimes need to gently repeat that simple refrain -- "It’s ok… The war is over… The war is over…" -- until they could embrace their new reality.

Fascinating, right? Psychologists like Plotkin and spiritual writers like Jesuit priest Richard Rohr find this story useful because it speaks to a truth in so many of our inner lives. Plotkin and Rohr have even teamed up on retreats where they invite people to identify with their own loyal soldier, to name their own survival strategies and personas. They invite folks to “welcome home” and thank and love those parts of themselves if only so they can move on to fuller understandings of who they are and what they have to offer the world. If your loyal soldier “sub-personality” is especially entrenched, as it is for many in our hyper-achieving culture, Rohr would go so far as to invite you to try “discharging your loyal soldier,” at least some of the time! Don’t you love that? The fact is, these strategies have served us and our communities well. They help us to achieve and accomplish, to survive and sometimes even to thrive, living at least a part of our life to the fullest. But when this becomes most or all of who we are, it’s just not healthy. It’s not healthy to be ‘on-duty’ all the time, just at it’s not healthy to party all the time!

Can you see where I’m going with all this? If we see the parable Jesus taught, what Kate just read, as a template for our inner life, we too can find here some powerful and familiar personas. There’s an inner wild child/prodigal son and an inner loyal soldier/elder son, maybe within each of us, and each persona seems to be needing or vying for that hero’s welcome. Ultimately, the passage is about God’s love which welcomes all parts of ourselves, but first let’s take a moment and try to relate to these children, shall we? The fact is that neither child is all that agreeable, but they are nothing if not relatable!

First, the prodigal son! We know this guy. Some of us can relate more than others! He might as well be that long-haired, head-banging, lead singer for a hard rock band. Let’s call him our inner Patti Smith or Freddie Mercury, who was the lead singer of Queen. He wants it all and he wants it now. If you need something more refined, you might try how the King James Version paints the picture. In verse 13: “He wasted his substance on riotous living.” King or Queen, KJV or Rock’n’Roll, you decide! Some juvenile part of us, at least of me, is cheering for him, wishing we had the chutzpah to fling off our family responsibilities and our job expectations! Anyway, the point is he goes out, parties, spends it all until a spiritual hangover of biblical proportions kicks in. ‘Light dawns on marblehead!’ And we learn in verse 17 that “he came to himself.” Through the headaches and haze of his self destruction, he comes to his senses and returns to his better self. He remembers that his father’s love and fairness is still there at home, waiting. He then offers this beautifully humble and profoundly important addition: “I will arise and go to my father!” Wise move for a wild child! His wisdom comes when he remembers he’s not alone and that his father is still there. In this case, he heads home and is bowled over by an extravagantly generous and healing hero’s welcome! It’s as if his father is saying, ‘The battle with those demons is over. Let’s move on. Be done with your little frat parties. Let me show you what a real party looks, a banquet of divine love for all!’ Nice, right?

So, what about the elder son! We’ve already met him too. Though he receives no hero’s welcome, he is clearly the proverbial loyal soldier of our story. My guess is most of us can relate to him more! Think about it … those of us who soldier on from day to day, wanting to be good people...loyal children to our parents, loyal parents to our children, loyal siblings, loyal friends, loyal co-workers, loyal people of faith, loyal members of our wider community. Like the elder son in our scripture, we too know what it’s like to remain at our posts, working late, making sacrifices, fighting the good fight, staying, many of us, obedient to the expectations of others, whether of our parents, our bosses, or even institutions? Ever shown up for a meeting, even here at church, when you were wishing you could be someplace else? Then you know the elder son! Ever gone to battle with your mile long to-do list? You are that loyal soldier! These survival strategies, in particular, can serve us and our communities well for a time, but we need to move on from merely surviving in a small corner of our lives to thriving as whole persons! We too need to come to ourselves, to arise and remember we aren’t alone. The parable may seem to leave the elder son hanging, but the banquet is already set and there’s plenty to go around!

I wonder...how many of us have ever had a chance to recognize, celebrate, and “welcome home” either of these important parts of ourselves? We may not be fighting any actual wars, and yet, can’t we, too, sense the liberating power available in that repeated and authoritative expression - “the war is over!” If our loyal soldier can’t rest or quit, we may need some stronger language to discharge them. “At ease!” “You are honorably discharged of your duties, at least for a time!” Ultimately, we need to remember and arise to a new reality and a new identity!

Which brings me to the last and most important character in the passage. We get so distracted by the sons in this passage, relatable as they are, but what does the father do in this passage? And in case it’s more helpful, and all this language of fathers, sons and soldiers is feeling too masculine or manly, let’s go ahead and change up the script here. Let’s consider that the father in the story actually represents God our divine mother.

With the prodigal child….she loves and welcomes, that’s for sure, but she also waits! First, our mother God tenderly, patiently, lovingly— without fear, anger or judgment— waits for her far-away, A.W.O.L. prodigal son, first to come to himself, and then to arise and come home. Then she waits for her loyal soldier elder son to come to himself and realize that family is about love and staying-with and caring for, not keeping score. Like those Japanese rituals, God waits, and even decades later celebrates a homecoming, gently saying to us all. “My sweet wild child, you’ve fought your demons that took you away from me! Its ok. That party is over! Come home! My elder son, good boy that you are, you’re still fighting your demons that are driving you to be better than you need to be! Its ok. That war is over. You are more than enough! Come home. For I am here; it’s me, the one who made you. I’ve been here all along, waiting for you and wanting to give the very best I have. Not just the fattest ribeye on the farm! Better than that, it’s my love which never runs out, my peace which the world cannot give, it’s a relationship with me that will give you the strength, guidance and assurance to be all that I created you to be.”

Friends, we couldn’t ask for a better passage for this regathering Sunday! We should raise the banners! Welcome home all you loyal soldiers, all you wild children, all those parts of yourselves that just want to work, that just want to party or that just keep getting stuck somewhere in between! Welcome home, and realize we are all broken, all wounded, all in need of a hero’s welcome. God’s arms are here waiting to gather and regather all those parts of ourselves, saying to us, saying to you: “Sweet child of God, at the core of your being, at the heart of all those striving personas, you are always with me. All that is mine is yours. And I’ve got whatever you need - courage for your fears, fuel for your resistance, solace for your pain, compassion for your loss, forgiveness for your regrets.”

Thinking about all this yesterday afternoon as I was writing, it dawned on me that I spent a good amount of time this last week waiting….waiting with Brian and with his family, at his bedside, or in a place that was literally called the family waiting room. We waited for procedures. We waited for results. We waited for one diagnosis after another. We waited for treatment. We waited for recovery. We waited, seemingly, for everything. Except for one thing. The only thing we never, ever waited for was Love. If you ask me, the love was always there. It was there before we arrived each day and when we left, God’s love, deep within us, deep within Brian, reaching for and connecting us across time and space. It waited for us! It waited patiently as we came to ourselves, as we came to each other, as we came to terms with the excruciatingly painful reality of death. Love-waiting-always to hold a family through the most dire of circumstances. Love-waiting-always to receive Brian, loyal soldier and wild child that he was, when his time came far sooner than any of us expected. Love waiting always!

Dear friends, here’s the miraculous gift of our God and of this community. This same love waits for us each of, right here and right now. God’s love is waiting for us, from within each of our hearts, gently encouraging us to let go of our security, to discharge our survival strategies, softly reminding us that we don’t need parties or war to know who we are. God’s love is waiting for us, ready to help us come to ourselves, to be at ease, to let all the lost parts be found and gathered in for a feast of love. A new and truer chapter awaits us all, always! Arise, then! Come home! Receive God’s self- and world-transforming love! God’s amazing, all-embracing grace is waiting for us, even now. Amen.

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