The story of the prodigal son reminds me of Led Zeppelin. Yep, that's right. Perhaps because Led Zeppelin was such a formative part of my adolescence, and for much of this period of my life I too was a prodigal. A privileged angsty adolescent who would strike out on his own, pride fully intact, to seize life by the horns. My anthem was Ramble On, “Gotta find the Queen of all my dreams, I've got to Ramble on, it’s time for me to go”...and with that, the prodigal son took his inheritance and left his father’s house, never to return again, or so he thought. It is never the intention of a young prodigal to fall on hard times and have to return home tail between his legs. For the prodigal is shortsighted, never taking into account that there is always a limit to his resources.
There is a deep forgetting that the prodigal possesses. Forgetting who he is and where he came from. Forgetting his own privilege. The prodigal ventures off, looking for something more, driven by a certain angst, a thirst, a wanderlust, a craving, never arriving, always searching.
And then one day, in the midst of his forgetfulness, the prodigal remembers. Laying face down in a pig troth, he remembers in a moment, in a flash, a door opens and his perception is immediately altered. He sees his life through a new lens, the lens of his experience. Through the harsh realities of life, through the pain and suffering, through the limitations, through the realization of his own limitations, he makes a turn. Only then to come full circle and return to where he began, home, to the waiting arms of a father who had never moved, always waiting, having never forgotten. And once home, he is whole again.
I might point out that the story of the prodigal son is a story of privilege. You can't be a prodigal if you don't have resources to squander. We all in one way or another have been blessed with various resources, some that we have even squandered away frivolously. ( I suppose there are some, who did not even have the love of family to squander away. Some, born into nothing, how can they possess the luxury of being a prodigal.) But for most of us, we recognize the relative abundance we have experienced. And from this, there are perhaps numerous stories of frivolity, squander, rebellion, lavishing living, and even forgetting.
This past weekend I heard God referred to as "the God of the ditches, the God who resides in the sorrowfulness, brokenness, and messiness of life." To me, that is refreshing and absolutely authentic. There is deep hope that resides in this understanding. Throughout scripture, we are reminded of the God of the mountaintops, there with Moses as he receives the Torah, there with Jesus as he experiences the transfiguration. Honestly, I am more interested in the God of the ditches.
For a large part of my life I lived in the ditches; the valleys where the shadow of death was cast across every square inch of terrain. My struggle to drag my way out of these valleys was always futile. I could see the mountaintops residing in the distance, but had no idea how to make my way there. "If only," was my mantra. Like some Tolkien narrative, like these lyrics from Ramble On,
“Mine's a tale that can't be told, my freedom I hold dear.
How years ago in days of old, when magic filled the air.
T'was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her, her, her....yeah.”
The Queen of all my dreams….
God must reside there in the mountaintops, in some magic-filled place, but I was stuck, like Bilbo Baggins, there in the valleys. Faced with the daunting task of returning to God by way of a treacherous and a damn-near impossible journey, the valleys held little hope for me. There was a point, while stumbling over the endless obstacles of the valley floor, that I cried out to God, "Lord help me make my way back to you." Surely, God could not reside in such brokenness.
Perhaps the Prodigal son felt this same way. There in the ditches, filled with slop, the Prodigal son settled on eating with the pigs. Imagine the sensory experience of this. Finding yourself face down in a ditch eating with pigs. I have been there, and believe me, I don't know how much lower you can get than that. Now, the parable is not absolutely clear on how the son "came to himself," but something spoke to him there in the ditch. Perhaps it was the owner who had hired him to tend the pigs, perhaps it was a talking pig or the telepathic cry of his father waiting at home. Perhaps, it was the still small voice of God, there in the ditches, that assured him of hope, that all was not lost, that there were brighter days ahead, that their were infinite possibilities. However it might have come to him, it came there in the ditch. And he remembered...home.
The hope-filled message here is that this prodigal son's transformation happened knee-deep in a ditch. And isn't that where God meets us, right where we are at? People, God is not waiting for your return in some warm home, on some far away mountaintop. God is there, in the shadows, in the cold, in the hunger, in the broken, sorrowful, messy places of our lives. Trust this and see.
This promising message is one of reconciliation. God reconciling the prodigal to God's self. St. Paul suggests that having been reconciled ourselves as prodigals, we have now become ministers of reconciliation. So, what does it mean to be an ambassador of Christ with the "ministry of reconciliation"? By not recognizing others by human standards, by not counting their sins against them, but by seeing them as new creations having been reconciled to God through Christ. By understanding each person that we encounter. To understand others differently.
Understand. From the Old English understandan "comprehend, grasp the idea of," probably literally "stand in the midst of," from under + standan "to stand." If this is the meaning, the under is not the usual word meaning "beneath," but from Old English under, "between, among." Thus, to understand is to stand between, to stand in the midst of. Just as God stands in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of our everyday lives, we must stand with others, in the middle of their lives, in their brokenness, in order to really understand them. This applies, not only to others, but first to ourselves. Love your neighbor, AS YOURSELF. To understand ourselves, to see ourselves again, not merely as that broken and forgotten prodigal, face down in a pig troth, but to remember ourselves as children of a God always present to us, arms always open to us, always luring us towards love, beauty, peace, truth, reconciliation.
So, ramble on, as ambassadors of reconciliation. Be reconciled, know that you are loved, and love others.
Pastor Stephen Patten
From the Mountain is a 'cyber sanctuary' where sermons and other musings are posted for the general consumption of a larger community. Feel free to reflect on them as you wish. You are welcome to leave comments below with thoughts, insights, and/or questions.