It was so fitting this past Lenten Sunday to hear the story in Luke 15:11-32. In the story, a man who decides to abandon his family and demand his father hand over his inheritance. He might as well, in Jewish tradition, have wished his father dead, for inheritance was not something lightly given prior to a father’s passing. But the son was looking for a kind of happiness, love and prosperity that he wasn’t finding under his family’s roof. It didn’t matter to him in the moment how many assets had to be liquidated, what trouble his father had to go through and how deeply hurt his family was with this decision. It was what made sense to him in the moment, and there wasn’t a darn thing that anyone could say to convince him otherwise. And for a while he lived that life of luxury– full of partying, women, food and drink. But when the money was gone, so went his prosperity, his friends and lifestyle. He fell into a state of survival, accepting the most degrading position of the time—feeding swine—simply to avoid starvation. In our modern day view of this story, we might suggest he became a panhandler, a prostitute … or, well, a homeless man.
Which is why I’d like to reflect on this past Sunday’s message by saying…I know the prodigal son. And yes, you should take away from this story that God loves all the prodigal sons of this world no matter how far they stray. You should hear from this story that you or anyone else who stumbles and falls will always be welcomed back into God’s kingdom with open arms. But what I want to know from you today is when you meet the prodigal son, are you the father in this story or the brother?
There was a woman who substitute taught in my elementary school and whose children grew up with my sister. By the time I met her as a guest of Micah she was divorced and isolated from her entire family going on seven years. In her reality, the government had taken her husband and children away, hiding them somewhere safe and putting clones in their places. She always assured us that her family would send for her, and she too would have the opportunity to be rescued as they had. But in the meantime, she survived off of the cold weather shelter, community dinners and the little bit of money she earned from knitting hats and selling them. So many times our staff and volunteers designed the grandest plans to help this woman. If she would just realize she had a disability…..If she would just take medication. If she would just… If would just… All the “If she would justs” we could come up with… meant nothing to her situation until the day I answered my phone to find her brother on the other end. He’d been looking for her. Didn’t even know she had divorced. Certainly didn’t know she was homeless, especially as long as she was. A week later he was on a plane, headed for Fredericksburg, and I was delivering the news. I half expected a wild outburst or that she’d disappear upon hearing of his imminent visit. But I saw in her teary eyes, for the first time, a moment of clarity and peace as she asked, “He’s really coming for me?” I saw, that following Monday morning, the “Prodigal son’s” homecoming with her family. Do you know she left that very same day to go live with her brother in another state? All after seven years of homelessness. There, she accepted mental health treatment, got her driver’s license back, was approved for Social Security and made plans to return to Fredericksburg, get a part-time job and rekindle relations with her children. This summer will be the third year she has lived independently an apartment.
I actually get calls from family members of those frequenting Micah services quite often. “Please,” they often say. “I don’t know what else to do for my son, my sister, my nephew or granddaughter. I will do whatever I can to help you with what you are doing for them. But I can’t have them in my house. I’ll give money to help you, help them, but I can’t give it to them.” And usually they add, “I love them, you know, thank you for caring about them.” But sadly, many of these calls come as the individual is dying or even afterward when they are called as the next of kin. Yet, even these moments have a bit of prodigal son effect to them as well.
Not long ago, I picked up my voicemail to hear a message from the brother-in-law of a Micah guest who had passed away. “We have so many questions,” he said. “I don’t know where to start, but I hope you will call me back.” He and his wife, our guest’s sister, had spent many years trying to set their family member back on track. They’d helped him get jobs, brought him into their home, hooked him up with a car and spending money from time to time. But with young children, the antics associated with his substance abuse and depression left them with no choice but to excuse him from their home. For the next 10 years, they had little contact with him, instead dreading late night phone calls—fully expecting it would be the police letting them know he had been found dead in a ditch somewhere. They lived with guilt and hope that some day their brother would come home with reconciled struggles. And that call did come not too long ago, but it wasn’t the police. It was the hospital, requesting an end-of-life decision maker. And after he passed, it would be they who were invited into their brother’s apartment to see that he actually had made it “home” after all. While on the street, this gentleman had been able to stay some nights in the shop of a downtown business owner, who also gave him some light work for cash occasionally. And even members of the police department had stepped in at times, driving him personally to rehab programs and making sure he had what he needed to make it through harsh winters. Through this support, Micah had been able to help him get disability and an apartment about a year and a half earlier. “For so long, we did our part, we carried that torch as long as we could,” our guest’s brother in-law told the Free Lance-Star recently. “We didn’t have the tools, but Micah did….What an amazing gift we have received through them.”
So here’s your chance to answer:
Are you the father in this story, loving our neighbors in need no matter what and waiting patiently for them to be ready to go home? Or are you the brother in the prodigal son story, working hard and doing the right thing always, but lacking a forgiving heart for those who have strayed from the family?
You know, I experienced the most magical moment of my life last February. It was the moment I held a little four-pound wonder in my arms and called him “Patrick.” My son looked at me, and neither one of us had to say a word to acknowledge how important we were to each other. I’m convinced every parent has one of those moments. And that is what lets me know how great the responsibility our community has to care for people in need is. They may not be tiny innocent creatures anymore and a lot may have gone wrong for them. But somebody once called them important and gave them a name. That name is a mark we each carry that says we belong to someone. And if my love means that some mother or some father could one day welcome their son or daughter home, that’s reason enough for me.
Don’t you see? The people in my stories were dead to their families, for one reason or another. But the love they were shown by others helped them became alive once again. You too can participate in these stories, not just with the prodigal son after prodigal son who walks through Micah’s doors each day. You can do it with the people who visit a community dinner or food pantry each week. You can do it in your own families and circles or anyone you meet throughout the week, who may struggle. We are all on an inward journey, sometimes closer and sometimes farther from God’s plan for us. But it’s the people in our lives who love us through it that make it possible for us to continue journeying at all.
There is really only one thing about the people in my stories that makes them any different than those who experience mental illness or struggle with substance abuse and live very successfully in housing. Their family was missing. They didn’t have a support network. Even the prodigal son reached his darkest hour when he was farthest from people who loved him. And even he struggled to rediscover the value in himself until he could be restored by that community. If you take nothing with you from this message, I hope you hear me say this. When biological family is absent from the lives of our neighbors in need, this story alone calls the church, calls the community, calls you to be it. We understand this unconditional love of our heavenly father. We know that we can’t refuse to love someone that God loves. God welcomes and loves all of us. He desires that we, like the father in the parable, will love the prodigal son day after day until he is ready to carry himself home.