Musical Seeds Project: Intersections of Ecology, Music, and Dance

Have the Old Gods Run Away? The Prodigal Son

March 06, 2016

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

 Have the Old Gods Run Away? The Prodigal Son
I’m not saying the old Gods have completed disappeared. They may be mad as heaven about presidential candidates competing over the size of their but that’s not the kidn of thing that really surprises them. The old Gods hang around in dusty texts and cunning chants and moving melodies. They hang around in our memory of our grandmother’s body powder or the old priest’s bent over gate. Some of us never knew the old Gods at all, so firmly directed were our parents to keep us free of superstition or silliness. No, I am not saying the old Gods have completed disappeared.
Instead I think the doors to them have a sign draped outside, “Closed for Renovation.” You know that sign: it means everything has been torn up, the air has a filtered quality, and nobody knows when he expensive project will actually finish. I’m pretty sure the Path train station at Ground Zero opened this week. The Gods are like that, we have waited so long for their restoration that we are starting to stop waitng.
Whether it is ISIS beheading people in Syria and dropping the head of a rebel on his mother’s doorstep…..please slow down here…and repeat…., or 35,000 children refugees being resettled right now in Sweden alone, we know that the God in whose name that action occurred has disappeared. Gone Prodigal. Taken a powder. That God, like the Prodigal Son, is so fed up with his current life and current understandings that that God joins the refugees in those awful boats. That God joins the children like that one with the broken foot, carried out of the Mediterannean by a Greek firefighter. That God has left the contested homeland and doesn’t know where she is going next.
Or maybe God has disappeared more intimately. Like when you are homeless “on the streets of the richest city in the world. “Can you buy me a cup of coffee?” Can you give me a quarter for a sandwich?” “Can you help me?” “Can you help me?” Repeat.
If you are like me, when the homeless man or woman catches your eye, all you can really do is make eye contact and say No I’m sorry I can’t help you. The ask is too small. I need to find housing for you, a home for you, a friend for you, a clean blanket for you, a place at the Thanksgiving table for you, not just a sandwich. In the name of the large God, the one many call “Deus Absconditus,” I can’t just give you a quarter. And because my quarter is so small compared to what you need and deserve, I will have to walk on by. At least, as Karl Garlid used to say, at least I can look you in the eye, even smile, and say no I am sorry I can’t help you. Because you are truly sorry you can’t help. The Gods who promise good things, the Gods who promise feast in the common wealth of God, where are they? Why have they run off and left these people stranded on the street, in the rain? Why does God, presumably so powerful, make me feel so powerless? Or does she do that at all?
The Muslim Consultative Network has been distributing these backpacks in the park for the last couple of weeks. Note they do so in the name of the same God whom others retain for beheading. Well, maybe and maybe not. You see there are lots of Gods and all of them are MIA, when it comes to the homeless. What the Gods have instead are people like us, walking around with bags and eye contact. Please take one when you come up for the communion of the Agape meal later. Please keep it for yourself if you are homeless, metaphorically or materially. Please give it away to your favorite person, perhaps the one who occupies the grate outside your building. Unfortunately, in this sermon about the Prodigal God, the one who split for who knows where, the one under renovation, all that is left for the homeless and the beheaders is you. You carry the embers of the divine around with you, until God decides to come back and then you give God a party.
Many people smarter than I think we are moving into the time of the interfaith, the multifaith, the hybrid, the God who doesn’t even have dusty texts or major melodies yet. I think that God is leading that direction – and that’s why we have a sense of Deus absconditus, the God beyond God, the one who lit out for the territory leaving us alone here with the renovation and its disruptions. Yo Yo Ma was on the radio this morning, talking about how his father was Buddhist and mother was Protestant and that’s why he was “always on a search for meaning.” We understand. When God is no longer captive in any one tradition, it is as if God has left.
The truth is more like those months on the farm when the Prodigal Son was gone, the brother was over functioning and the father was hanging on in something like hope. The truth is what it’s like for Andover Newton students to have paid for two years of seminary education and to realize that their school has gone out of business. I know many of them. They will get their degree. And have the distinction of being the last student to graduate from that school. Poof. Hundreds of years of educating Congregationalists and Baptists, Poof. Protestantism in Boston, poof. Union Seminary and Pacific School of Religion and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York are all involved in similar renovations. Who knows if they will ever get finished? Who knows if the old Gods intend to come back at all?
As the Prodigal Son knows and the Prodigal Gods know, you have to go away to get home. Australians are smart enough to suggest a roundabout, a rite of passage, a near insistence that 18 year olds leave home and walk around. Now that is multifaith religion. Why? Its message is you need to get out of here in order to get back here. It is a blessing and ritualizing of the prodigal. The prodigal is not bad for leaving home and hearth and traditional ways. The prodigal, perhaps the one lurking in you, is good for adventure and campfires and new ways. Maybe God likes the new ways more than the old ways? Wouldn’t that be an interesting surprise? The God of tent and tabernacle rather than cathedral and pews?
Anyway, next week I am going to Costa Rica to visit eight of our most Prodigal members. Nick and Macky and Sue and Ward have involved their four offspring in a planned prodigality. Many of us miss them terribly because they were very much close to the heart of this congregation. There’s lots of room in there by the way so don’t start competing. They wanted the kids to learn Spanish, to appreciate the places of their natural origin. In a way their leaving home is also a way of finding a deeper home.
Anyway, the four parents have created a rite of passage that is simply phenomenal for Alice and Netty, who are 12 and 13 years of age. It is a bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah, an outward bound, a roundabout and a Christian kind of confirmation. The curriculum is 30 pages long and involves literature and daily work about interesting questions, like who is God to you and do you like God and does God like you. I have a copy and can share it. It will soon become a best seller. Anyway, we are going down so I can take my part in their rite of passage. I am pretty excited.
But to conclude today’s sermon, I want to read from an email from Nettie/Yineth. She has always been precocious. In the note you will hear how much even the intentional prodigals miss their home. As we await the renovation and the revelation from the prodigal Gods, I think we need to pay attention to this yearning:
“Hi Warren and Donna, how are you? We have missed you and Judson so much and are so excited to finally see you again. We are looking forward to coming to Judson Church when we are there in late March and early April. This is might be a bit of a strange question but do you think that you could a few things only if you have room in your suitcase and I could pay you back, if so, thank you so much and if not, no big deal, I was wondering if you could pick up a couple Peppermint Stick Luna Bars, they are granola bars that I think you can get at most grocery stores, and then there are these press on nails, I think you can get them at drug stores like CVS or Rite Aid or Walgreens, preferably this brand:

“Broadway Nail Real Life Press-On Petites Nail Real Short Peach.” Nettie may be a prodigal but she too wants to get home.

Omit bold in the spoken version

Thank you and best regards,

We are so excited to see guys, we love and miss you very much, and if you can get the stuff thank you but if not no worries! “

I so hope that ISIS people so desperate to get to the right kind of God will find meaning somewhere else, perhaps in each other or in exile. Many have. I so hope the homeless will find homes and that we will not look at these small back packs as signs of our helplessness but instead signs of our hopes to connect. I so hope that the renovation is done soon but I don’t hope that the old Gods come back the way they were. I want them to come back changed. Changed to their very core. Why? Because I want that kind of change for you and me too.


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