by Rev. Ellen Jennings
I’ve always struggled with “reentry”—the term a friend of mine taught me to use in reference to the act of returning home after spending time away. I think, perhaps, it’s because there have been large periods of my life when where I lived was not where I wanted to be—including DC for quite awhile after I first moved here, many years ago in the early 90s. Too hot, too far south, too urban—you get the picture. I wanted to be somewhere else!
So, when I went away, usually on vacation, I’d fantasize about living “there,” whether “there” was Vermont or Montana or Scotland or Maine—note, my fantasies have always involved more northern climes! And, when it was time to return, I’d feel peevish, put upon, resentful and, even, angry. I’d had such a good time! Why did I have to come back? Why couldn’t I live where I want to live?
Well, of course, I could! I was a grown up. I was a free agent (married, but certainly capable of lobbying for a change of venue). I could have made a move. But I didn’t.
And what I’d like to suggest today is that it probably didn’t matter. The move was not the point. Had I moved, there might have been some very good things in store—cooler summers, less traffic, cleaner air, mountain scenery. Hmmm… But, no! The point is that moving would only have changed the backdrop to the story of my life. Because I would have moved with me.
Like a turtle with a shell on its back, we carry “home” with us. And that home can be a haven or a hell. It all depends on where we are in relation to ourselves, our neighbors, and our God.
So let’s take a look at what it means to “come home.” Biblically, we have a wide variety of stories and images to choose from—everything from today’s scripture reading of the 84th Psalm to the story of the Prodigal Son, which I’ll share with you in a moment. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, God seems to care a great deal about homecoming, with the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible full of stories about exile and return and the New Testament replete with parables about the “lost and the found.” Apparently, God is always on the lookout for the one who is lost, never resting comfortably until the last sheep has been found and brought safely back into the fold. God wants us home.
So I ask you to think about this divine concern as we listen to the parable of the prodigal son from the Gospel of Luke, translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message. Open your eyes and your ears and your heart to it. This story is, of course, one in a series of “lost and found” parables in Luke’s Gospel, and, in my opinion, one of the most powerful told by Jesus.
Then he said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any. That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father. When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out and embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to his servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.
Coming home. God’s embrace. Complete welcome. And it is these themes that make this parable such a powerful and moving story. But there’s another important component, which is often overlooked. And that’s the moment in the story when the younger son decides to return, the instant when he realizes he wants to come back home. Because when this happens, a critical turning point has been reached. He’s stopped running, stopped whining, stopped denying, stopped crying, and is ready to do whatever needs to be done in order to return.
In the Jewish tradition in which Jesus lived and taught, teshuvah or “return” requires a decision. For when one decides to turn back around, when one decides to turn ones face away from that which has tempted and defiled and deformed and turn ones face toward the divine, one must take what those in twelve step programs know as a “fearless moral inventory. “ One must be willing to acknowledge where one has strayed, where one has, in the Hebrew, “missed the mark,” and be willing to get back on track. And it can’t just be a whim; it must be a decision. Deciding to return, having the courage and conviction to come back home, especially after having made some truly bad choices, is not for the faint of heart. It requires both strength and commitment. It is difficult and humbling to do. Which is why God so joyfully welcomes us back each and every time. And why the themes of exile and return/lost and found are repeated again and again throughout the Bible.
Returning is a choice. It’s a hard choice. And, yet, it’s the only way for us to connect with God. Now, don’t get me wrong, God is always with us. In fact, there’s nothing we can do to make God go away! But we do have some degree of control over whether or not we’re able truly to feel at home with God. And most of us do yearn for that. As the psalmist writes in today’s scripture reading:
How lovely is your dwelling place, O God of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of God; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O God of hosts, my Ruler and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
“Happy are those.”
So, how do we do it? How do we come home to God—not to mention ourselves and our neighbors?
Well, I’m always leery of simple formulas, but in this case, I’d like to suggest that there is, at least, a predictable progression:
1) decide you want to return
2) take a fearless moral inventory of your life
3) make some new choices
4) come back home.
Sounds simple, right? But it’s not so easy, is it? It’s not easy for any of us. And, recently, while on vacation, I was reminded of how truly difficult it is for some. How coming back home may seem a far off dream and even having a place to stay for the night is a luxury not usually attained.
Last week, while my family and I were in Cambridge, MA, I was shocked to see how many homeless youth (as well as older adults) lined the streets of Harvard Square. I remembered a few from my time at HDS, but I most certainly didn’t recall these numbers. As I read their signs, some plaintive (Gulf War Vet: no home, no meds, no hope), some darkly humorous (Yes, I will be using this money for drugs!), and some just sad (Mother with children: please help any way you can), I wondered, again, what we can do to address the crisis of homelessness in our country (3 million people each year, including almost a million children and teens). Specifically, I wondered what I could do. Should I give money? Should I give food? Should I print up a supply of cards with referral information on them? Surely, I shouldn’t just look the other way— because I was on vacation, and it’s not my city, and I just didn’t know how to help… Surely not that.
But I confess to you, that’s exactly what I did. Well, I didn’t totally look the other way. Some I gave the courtesy of direct eye contact followed by a headshake. Others I just walked by. But it troubled me. It troubled me greatly, and the sin of my omission has been only partly relieved by the knowledge that here at Cleveland Park Church we prioritize homelessness as one of our mission projects. That we give generously to the Community Council for the Homeless, that we participate in the Help the Homeless Walkathon, that our youth just helped build five houses with Habitat for Humanity in West Virginia.
But, nonetheless, I confess. I did not help. I did not help those prodigals. I missed the mark.
But that’s not all, my friends. No, it gets worse! For on that same day, as we walked around Harvard College, and as Mark’s and my privilege as alums allowed us access to Widener Library, I encountered a story that made me consider the true depths of our society’s waywardness on this issue. A student tour guide told us the tale of Harry Elkins Widener, son of the benefactor who funded the building of this immense structure. And it’s a sad tale—please, don’t get me wrong. It’s a story of loss and a mother’s grief. But it’s also a story of idolatry and wealth—and how reifying the dead can get in the way of transforming the living.
Here it is:
Harry Elkins Widener was a privileged young man who attended Harvard in the Gilded Age, prior to WWI. He was an avid book collector, and in the spring of 1912, he and his parents went to England for that and other purposes and were delighted to be able to return to the states on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Of course, as we all know, the Titanic sank. And, while Harry’s mother was one of the 700 or so survivors on lifeboats, Harry and his father were one of over 1500 who drowned at sea. In her great grief, Mrs. Widener wanted to establish a memorial to Harry, so she decided to fund and endow a library at Harvard in his name. This was a generous and meaningful gift, but along with it came two stipulations, born of her despair: one was that the library would never be changed (at all!) externally, though they could remodel the interior, two was that there be a large room at the center of the library, which was an exact replica of Harry’s library at home. It would contain all 3300 of his personal books, it would not be touched, and fresh flowers would be provided in his memory every single day.
Now, you must understand. It’s a beautiful room! And, it pays great homage to the memory of Harry. In fact, there’s even a Gutenberg Bible (which someone in the Widener family donated in the 1940s) that’s kept open and has a paged turned every day. But, it’s a shrine to something that has long since past! Harry is gone. His mother is gone. Any friend or relative who knew him is gone. And still, Harvard is maintaining a museum in his memory, at an untold cost over the past one hundred years.
So I must ask: what if Mrs. Widener had, indeed, built the library in Harry’s honor (for libraries are surely good things), but had, instead of enshrining his room for all time, set up a foundation that would help young men (for in her day, it would have been young men) who were on the street and without home or hope? What sort of good might that have done in the world? How many prodigals might it have helped return? For I’ve always wondered if, perhaps, one character was left out of that story in Luke’s gospel. I’ve always thought there must have been someone who held out a hand before the father ever had a chance to open his arms. I’ve always had the feeling that there must have been somebody who offered just enough hope, just enough human kindness, just enough possibility that the son was able to summon the strength and courage to do what it takes to come home.
Which is, of course, what it means to live as part of the Household of God (a phrase I use, with thanks to biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan, in lieu of Kingdom of God). God’s house is a place where everyone is welcome. God’s house is a place where everyone is forgiven. God’s house is a place where everyone is lent a helping hand. Because in God’s household the goal isn’t one-upmanship or personal gain. The goal is for everyone to come home. The goal is for everyone to return.
Which means that, if we wish to live as part of the Household of God, it is our task both to return ourselves and to help others do the same.
So, “reentry.” I still find it somewhat hard to return after vacation. But, the truth is, I now understand that
it is up to me, no matter where I am, to be “home:” to be at home with myself, to be at home with my neighbor, to be at home with God. And I’ve found that the formula for a good return hasn’t changed much, if at all, since Luke wrote his gospel almost two thousand years ago. One still has to: decide to return, take a fearless moral inventory, make new choices, and then… come back.
For me, the process recently looked like this:
1) I decided I wanted to return—which I did; for as much as I love the north country, my life is here now.
2) I took a good look at what’s not working so well—I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I haven’t been as centered and sane as I would have liked over the past year!
3) I made some new and more life-affirming choices—such as recommitting to a more sustainable balance of work and home, as well as to helping others find a home.
4) I came back—and here I am!
There’s no perfect place to live. And, note, I have grown rather fond of DC. But there is a perfect place to be “at home.” And that’s as part of the Household of God.
As the psalmist writes:
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.