Practicing Prodigal, Undeserved Love

Sarah Howell, Assistant Minister of Worship and Young Adults at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a dear friend, posted the sermon she gave at her church's Roots Revival service this week. In her words, "We used Michelle Shocked's 'Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)' and Polecat Creek's 'Midway Road' to explore the story of the prodigal son" (Luke 15:11-32).

Howell manages to weave into her message the New York Times piece on Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree and his defiance of the United Methodist Church's stance on same-sex marriage.

The United Methodist Church's official doctrine does not allow pastors to perform same-sex marriages, and so it should come as no surprise that Dr. Ogletree's decision to do so has caused some controversy. ... But what really grabbed me is this -- when Ogletree's son asked him to officiate his wedding, he said, "I was inspired ... I actually wasn't thinking of this as an act of civil disobedience or church disobedience. I was thinking of it as a response to my son."

That right there -- "a response to my son." That is what I believe the father in the parable was doing. He was responding to his son. Even in this broken world, there is no more natural response of a father to his son than one of love and welcome with no strings attached.

After then commenting on Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son" and how it changed her view of the older brother in the parable, Howell surprises her congregants with a view of God as the prodigal using Timothy Keller's "The Prodigal God."

Keller challenges our assumptions about the very word "prodigal." We generally take it to mean "wayward" or "disobedient," and that's not wrong -- but really it means "recklessly spendthrift" or "wastefully extravagant." Sure, this applies to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll -- but more than that, it applies to the father's illogical, excessive welcome home party.

God is the prodigal because God is wastefully extravagant with God's love.

Perhaps the most enlightening point in Howell's message, however, is her next statement. "God is not interested in morality or family values or issues," she writes. "God is interested in reckless, transforming, surprising, undeserved, eternal, unconditional, socially unacceptable love for all sons and daughters."

As soon as I read this, my mind splinters into several paths, all of which lead to contemporary earthly examples of showering the undeserved with socially unacceptable love. (These statements also evoke the Christian ideal of loving the least. "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matthew 25:40, KJV).

Most recently, Judy Clarke plans to serve as the defense counsel to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers. "The 60-year-old woman, who has been called the most low-profile high-profile lawyer of all time, will pair ... her formidable legal knowledge and courtroom mastery in an effort to save him from the executioner, just as she did some of the most reviled killers in recent history," writes Michael Daly for The Daily Beast.

And from the same tragedy comes Paul Douglas Keane, who has offered one of his family's burial plots to the family of the other alleged Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, after the family ran into difficulties while searching for a cemetery that would accept Tsarnaev's body. "The only condition is that I do it in memory of my mother who taught Sunday School at the Mt. Carmel Congregational Church for forty years and taught me to love thine enemy," says Keane, a Yale Divinity School graduate and retired public school teacher.

Returning to Howell's list of the unappetizing adjectives from which God lives and loves, I eventually come to William Stringfellow. I'm remiss to have discovered this lawyer and lay theologian only recently as a result of Hugh Hollowell, who loves what society has deemed the least in his own right, but nonetheless, I haven't been able to shake his ponderings in recent weeks of how to counsel the impoverished, specifically this passage that runs parallel to Howell's sermon finale:

To become and to be a Christian is not at all an escape from the world as it is, nor is it a wistful longing for a "better" world, nor a commitment to generous charity, nor fondness for "moral and spiritual values" (whatever that may mean), nor self-serving positive thoughts, nor persuasion to splendid abstractions about God. It is, instead, the knowledge that there is no pain or privation, no humiliation or disaster, no scourge or distress or destitution or hunger, no striving or temptation, no wile or sickness or suffering or poverty which God has not known and borne. ... He has borne death itself on behalf of [humanity], and in that event he has broken the power of death once and for all.

If only more people, and even the church, would practice the kind of reckless love that Ogletree, Clarke, Keane, Stringfellow and Hollowell have shown, we might have a chance to shake Stringfellow's "awful vulnerabilit[ies]" of life.