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That beautiful song by Gregory Porter evokes powerful images. A king, one of wealth and power and privilege comes to a village wherein those with wealth and means have laid up a beautiful feast, dressed up their houses, so all that is right in the world can be celebrated and anointed. Some have said that this is an image of heaven, where they guild their houses and line the sidewalks with every sort of shiny thing. But is heaven a place of thing or people? A taxi cab driver comes to the pearly gates in a loud tee shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, St. Peter checks his list and says “welcome” and hands him a beautiful silk robe and a golden staff and he walks right in. Next comes a minister, dressed in a proper blue suit. St. Peter checks his list and says “welcome” and hands him a coarse cotton robe and a wooden staff. The minister protests “how come I get a cotton robe and a wooden staff and that man before me gets silk and gold?” St. Peter smiles and says “you are a minister and he is taxi cab driver. When you preached people fell asleep, when he drove people prayed.”
So stereotypes don’t often measure up to the real power of forgiveness and new beginnings. In Gregory Porter’s song, the king, who I like to think of as the better angels of our own human nature, tells his erstwhile hosts, don’t show me what is beautiful and right with your world, take me to the alley. Take to the place where your broken and marginalized are living, so that I might offer them love and healing and food and pardon.
This might be just a commentary on our social ills; it might be a song of hope for those around us who are poor and marginalized, immigrants, African American youth, the Indians on the reservations, anyone who is suffering under this widening gap between rich and poor. It might be all that, but I believe this song says something that is much deeper. I believe this song is about the poverty of soul all of us have felt, perhaps that are feeling at a times such as this, a poverty brought on by a society that seems heartless and forlorn, a community which can’t understand the real human desperation beyond the political rhetoric, whether it is BLM or gun safety. The feeling that all of us have had of being in the alley. Brought there by circumstances not of our making, or even more painful perhaps, brought there by circumstances of our making. The refrain from Porter’s song is telling in this regard: Take me to the afflicted ones, take me to the lonely ones that somehow have lost our way.
This is a song about forgiveness and healing. This is a song that reminds me that behind our gilded houses and our sidewalks with every sort of shinny thing, what we really need is healing.
When I first proposed this song as the central focus for a service around the high holy day of atonement, Yom Kippur, several of my colleagues thought it was a stretch. But is it? Isn’t that what atonement means: To move beyond what we have and seek healing and forgiveness for what we are suffering from, victims and debtors alike? Who here doesn’t want to be held in the arms of love for what we have done or had done to us? Who doesn’t want to come to the table, rest in the garden and for all that has happened receive a pardon.
I know I do. I know I have done things for which I am not proud. Until the day she died my mother wanted nothing more than for her two sons to be reconciled. My brother and I had a terrible falling out over some slight neither of us could remember. It pained my mother terribly. It broke my heart to see her heart broken. She died with this one hurt unhealed and a love between us unrequited. It wasn’t until after my father died ten years later, that my brother and I were able to heal in the alley of our own mis attribution and rancor. There and only there in the shadow of my father’s life did we find a way beyond this hurt, and come to atonement. Atonement. At-one-ment. The returning of love and wholeness.
Two brothers, one father and a mother gone. It’s a metaphor for healing in the alley if there ever was one. This is why Connie shared the story of the prodigal son.
One of the most troubling and yet powerful stories in the bible is the prodigal son. In it Jesus tells of a younger son who despite being giving his father’s wealth squanders it all and comes crawling back to home full of self-loathing and remorse. The father, upon seeing the fallen son return, welcomes him with open arms and throws a great feast. The elder son, who stayed with his father, is more than a little put out by this. I could relate to that guy… “Here I have worked for you and you have never once killed the fatted calf for me” says the older brother. To which the father strangely replies, “do not be angry son, for all I have is yours, but your brother who was lost is now found”.
No one asks what kind of father (and mother where is the mom in this?) was he to have raised such an ingrate. No one asks what kind of family dysfunction is at play here that one is co-dependently responsible while the other is a passive aggressive loser? I mean really, there is enough blame to go around here. Talk about a modern family. And yet this story has so many deeper meanings.
The story is about the grace of forgiveness and acceptance. We all fall down, our children fall down, our parents fail us, and we fail them, but here is a story of re-creation. Taking the lessons of loss and moving on to a new reality. This story is more about welcoming a return from exile, about survival of the community or of the tribe, then it is about who was right and wrong. It reminds me of saying by Rumi “Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
We are never told why the younger son wants to take his money and run, but we today, in our cultural setting, may impose our ideas of youthful idealism and independence–like joining the Peace Corps. Or, as it turns out, of depravity– “loose living”….. Actually, he divided his property, giving half to each son, a detail we may miss.
When the youngest son decides to return home, he rehearses in great detail what he will say when he meets his father: 1. that he has sinned against God and his father, 2. that he no longer deserves to be a member of the family, and 3. that he should be treated as a hired hand.
What is so unexpected by the returning son, is how his father rushes to greet him, ……The father’s enthusiasm and joy abound as he gives the returned son his finest robe, a ring, and shoes. And there is to be a feast of a “fatted calf,” a huge celebration in a culture that seldom ate meat. Don’t forget that the father had given the elder son the other half of his possessions, so all these lavish gifts are not even his to give, but the property of his elder son. We don’t hear of any attempt to notify or call in the elder son who is off in the field working, so he returns home unprepared for all the music and dancing and hears of his brother’s return from workers. This son refuses to join the party, and, when confronted by his father, complains of the unfairness of all this welcoming of a brother who has thrown away his inheritance.
As the progressive Catholic Theologian Richard Rohr has said: “This parable of the Prodigal Son/Father has the power to change us because it names human relationships so perfectly. We see ourselves in both sons: We try to live our life apart and autonomously, and yet that leads to an eventual alienation and unhappiness. So we end with an amazing story of one son who does it all right and is wrong, and another son who does it all wrong and is right!” (Richard Rohr, 2014)
The great lesson for us, is it that the father reminds the older son that his forgiveness of the younger son in no way diminishes his love for him. We would do well to remember this deeper truth. That love and forgiveness are not limited in time and space. The younger son doesn’t know this yet, but he is very much in the alley. But clearly, despite this family’s wealth, the father and the mother in our story are in the alley as well. All afflicted, all lonely, all have lost their way. But what happens? The lost son, having nowhere else to go returns and there in the alley of his pain, is received by his father, who hears him say “I am your friend, come to my table, rest here in my garden, you will have a pardon.”
Yom Kippur is the day that symbolizes that pardon, from the alley back to the street. For any of us, this could be the day, this could be the month when we reconcile the hurt, reach out to those we have wounded and start again. And yet, even if this is not that day, take comfort that you are not alone.
This is what our church and our way of religion teaches us. We can do some pretty terrible things, we can make some awful mistakes, we can survive some deep traumas and we are still capable of love, we are still worthy, we are still masters of our better selves. The point is this: you can make mistakes, you can be wounded; you get up, brush yourself off and go on welcoming the lost and forgiving the fallen.
But let us remember this as well, that there are many who can never overcome poverty and discrimination to enjoy even the rights of the free. Many, most the world over, live in the alley, and it is there that we must do our part to bring healing. After the service we will dedicate our BLM banner. I have been in almost constant dialog with members of this congregation and leaders in our community about the irritant this banner has become. I want to be clear: we are erecting this banner in recognition that there are those who live constantly in the alley of fear and discrimination. That black lives and brown lives and red lives and white lives and blue lives should all matter the same. We dream of a day when we are all at the table, all able to rest in the garden of love and all pardoned. Until that day arrives we stand on the side of love to do our part to go into the alley ourselves.
My colleague Galen Guenerich wrote: “Until you find a place to belong, you can never be free…..the truth is that we form our individual identities not by breaking our ties with everyone and everything, but by virtue of those ties. I am who I am by virtue of my relationships with others. A community of faith is not peripheral to our individual quests for meaning and purpose. In a real sense, our relationships with others create the possibility of becoming who we ought to become in the first place.” (“God Revised” 2015)
A few days ago I heard this story on the show StoryCorps:
“On a late summer day in 2010, John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver, was walking across the street carrying his carving knife and a small piece of wood when he was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer. “He was carving an eagle at the moment,” his brother Rick recalls…. Rick tells his friend Jay Hollingsworth that his brother loved to carve — had been carving even at age 4, when he completed his first totem pole. He says John could walk and carve at the same time, and that was just what he was doing, carrying his knife openly.
“You see the dashcam video, and you see the officer — he’s already got his weapon out” says Hollingsworth. “And he screams a couple of times, ‘Put the knife down!’ But John was deaf in one ear. He finally heard that somebody was walking up to him. So he had started to turn towards the sound he heard. And then shots rang out.” It all happened in 4.7 seconds, Rick says.
“This image I see every day in my sleep,” he says. “It’s been six years. I walk through depression, suicide thoughts, anger, rage. It’s a side of me that I want to leave alone. No criminal charges were filed against the officer, Ian Birk, who later resigned.
Rick Williams says that in the years since the shooting people have told him he “should hate white people,” that he “should hate cops.” But, then he hears these words in his grandfather’s voice, we have no word for hate. Still these days, Rick says he returns to the cemetery where his brother’s buried, bringing a cup of coffee and some thoughts for his brother. “I’ve asked many times, bring me this policeman, let me share a day with you, what it would’ve been like to carve with John,” Rick says. “I want them to know him the way I did. He was one of the finest.” (NPR, Morning Edition, 10/7/16)
Two brothers from the alley, one killed the other alive. When will any of us rest in the garden, and feel we have a pardon? My brother and I celebrate Thanksgiving each year now, remembering ourselves when we were in the alley. Our love continues, for all the world, love carries on. Amen.