|Rembrandt's "Prodigal Son"|
It was probably one of the more unusual Scriptural choices for a funeral, but it was the most fitting Gospel lesson to tell the story of my dad and his treatment of all his children. Because we have all been misfits, to one degree or another, who often brought home with us other waifs and misfits. And my dad, the lawyer, judge and former Navy officer, loved each of us through and through.
And so, I pricked up my ears when I heard the priest begin the Gospel lesson. It didn't take long before I found myself engaging this story in a new way that certainly recalled my father, and was now striking me in another unexpected understanding.
The story begins with those who were Jesus' critics doing what they always seem to be doing: kvetching about what Jesus is saying or who is cavorting with or with whom is he sharing a meal? Jesus is always hanging out with "the wrong crowd," according to these naysayers. And so he begins to tell the parable of the Prodigal Son:
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
I'm going to interrupt the narrative here. As I considered the younger son, I thought, "What if this were a 'coming out' situation?" The younger son, living in a small town where everybody is in everybody's business, has finally come to terms with his sexual orientation and he knows he cannot stay here or he will be miserable and alone. He goes to his father and announces he's moving out, but he is too afraid to tell dad why. Dad, hurt that his youngest son cannot and will not stay, gives him the portion that wasn't due to him until dad passes away. And the son, determined to go somewhere where he can finally be himself, sets off on his own.
DJ: pull up Bronkski Beat's "Smalltown Boy" and let's go on with the story...
When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, "How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
The younger son has had a blast. He's found the gay bars in the big city. He's found love in all the right places. Life seems good. But he is still incomplete. He has lost touch with his father, for whom he felt great affection. He doesn't call home because he can't reconcile his gay self with what he believes are the values of his family living in the small town. He feels the loss, and it is a pain deep within him that prevents him from feeling true joy. Terrified, he knows he must go home, and face his father to make the most difficult declaration he can imagine: "Dad, I'm gay. Can you still love me?"
'So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, "Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
The young son arrives, trembling at the gate. But before he knows it, his dad, who has been waiting on the front porch, springs to his feet and comes running down the driveway like a lumbering black lab, excited to see the son whom he has waited to see again for the past three years. The son, in a panic, blurts out, "Dad, I'm gay. Can you still love me?"
The father, without pausing for a moment, responds with glee, "Oh, son! I knew that! And now you've come home! I can't wait to tell the neighbors! Let's raise a drink, you and me, and toast to you finally accepting yourself and letting me back into your life!" Then he whips out his cell phone and calls his best friends.
"He's home! My son has come out and he's home!"
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'
I'll pause us here. As I listened to the Gospel on Sunday, this part of the story led me back to the now famous panel two weeks ago, and the Baptist preacher who sat at the opposite end of the row of chairs from me... and represented the viewpoint that was definitively my anti-gay opposition. If memory serves me from the experience, I believe he said he has a brother who is gay, or, at any rate, he has a "relative" who is gay. Thus, for him to maintain a position that denies equal rights to LGBT people is, for lack of a better word, sad.
In this next scene from the Prodigal Son story, the elder son, who has kept with all the values of small town and been a good son to the father has learned from a neighbor, who is on her way to the party that his younger brother has 'come out' and come home. The neighbor, full of the infectious love modeled by the father, smiles and says, "Isn't it great?!"
For the elder, straight son, the answer is, "No! It is not great."
Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'
This is what I imagine life must be like for those who are in the church and deny the rightness of the presence of the LGBT faithful be in the church with them. They cannot accept the idea that the LGBT people should be able to have access to all the same sacraments, and have all the same rights and benefits that exist for all Americans. They've been living and playing by the rules of small town all of their lives, abiding by laws and doctrine which specifically ban people of "that kind" from being treated with the dignity afforded to all human beings.
In the story, it seems the elder believes that dad has changed the rules. He actually accepts his gay son, and doesn't just merely tolerate him; he's excited to see this queer son. "You never get this excited to see me! Me, the straight son! Remember me?!"
Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
And this really is the answer I believe God gives to those who object to the LGBT community. "Nothing has been taken away from you," the father says. "Don't you get it? We're just adding another leaf to the table and expanding the banquet to include all the lost ones who have finally come home. Rejoice! Rejoice! And enjoy a moment of good cheer that your gay brother has overcome the fear of rejection to come home!"
What is so interesting to me about the Prodigal Son parable is that there is no resolution to this matter with the elder son. Does he join the party or does he shuffle off? Another way of putting it: does he remain in the Episcopal Church or does he flip off the whole crowd, declaring himself more-orthodox-than-thou to start a rival Anglican Church?
And what does the father do? How long does he stay out on the sidewalk with his pouting elder son before he goes back into the party? We don't know. Given his abundance of love for both sons, I imagine he will hang out there as long as it will take in hopes that the elder son can stop sulking and see the reasons to be happy.
And what about the younger son? Some reading this might have become nervous that I was going to equate his gay orientation with being a "sinner." But, as I have said again and again, being gay or even falling in love and engaging in sex with someone of your own gender is NOT a sin. The sin of the younger son, in how I was hearing the Gospel on Sunday, was the wrong belief and the assumption that he would be hated by his father for squandering the gifts he had been given; hence he stayed estranged.
This is my own story of my relationship with God. It was easier for me to remain aloof and away from a faith community because I did not believe I would be accepted as a lesbian. I had done much the same with my own family. I was cut off and unwilling to share anything about my life until a letter arrived from my mom that forced me to pick up the phone and come out.
I always have hope at the end of the Prodigal Son story that all three characters will go inside the house, have a glass of wine and break bread together. I always hope that the elder will soften his heart as he sees his younger brother, and that the younger brother will recognized that the elder has come into the party and welcome him instead of gloating that he got the fatted calf. Time amongst the pigs must have given him a taste of what it is to be the lowly.
And I do have hope that the Father will always remind both sons that there is more than enough Love for each of them.
When will we all believe that?