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The human propensity to forsake

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

Our young adult bible study has met just about every Wednesday evening for the last almost two years, and in that time, in those dozens and dozens of meetings, there have been a few bellweather bible stories that really knocked our socks clean off. And one of those, was the story of the Prodigal Son.

Of course in that story, the younger son of two goes off and squanders his inheritance and comes crawling back home broke and dejected -- and is met by his father who is so excited that his son is home that he throws a huge party, infuriating the other son whose dutifulness was never rewarded with a fatted calf. Of course the moral of the story is that anything or anyone who is lost, should be celebrated to be found.

The Prodigal Son is one of the great stories of scripture because it gets right at the heart of Christian truth and Christian struggle. Who is deserving? What is forgiveness? What is the worth of duty compared to the celebration of reconciliation? What is our worth and how can I describe why I have more of it than you? This story has everything?

I can't help but feel like our story from Genesis this morning smacks of Prodigal Son-ness. Again, it is the story of two sons, Isaac and Ishmael -- both sons of Abraham, but one mothered by Sarah and another by Hagar. Hagar was the Egyptian slave of Sarah who was given to Abraham to bear a child to him before they knew God would allow Sarah to bear a child herself to Abraham. As a slave though, Sarah condescended Hagar and her son, and when it occurred to Sarah that Ishmael might inherit right alongside her Isaac, she either panicked or she got mad or something because she had them cast out.

It's kind of shocking to consider the action of Sarah here to cast out a woman with her child into the wilderness where it was presumed they would die, simply do that her son would not share his inheritance, the same way it feels shocking to consider the older son enraged that his prodigal brother finally was returned home to him. And as shocking at it might be, if you have paid any attention at all to the world around us, it is not surprising. We have such a deeply ingrained human propensity to forsake one another, it's upsetting but it is not surprising.

And I suppose I wonder where it comes from -- is it something twisted in our very human nature that just wants to hurt or control, is it a fear of scarcity that if we share then I won't have enough, or is it quite simply the logic of worthiness: the idea that worthiness is earned, and some people have more of it and some people have less of it, because they do good things or better things or because they were born with more of it. I think one of the things happening in this story from Genesis just like in the Prodigal Son is that it is being decided that one son is worthier than the other, and that logic is not exceptional, it is deeply normal in their culture, and in ours. It's cruel, but it's common.

How much scarier though becomes this logic of worthiness when we conflate it with God's will. It's not just that I'm richer or nicer or harder working than you, I am worthier than you because God picked me and God didn't pick you. I'm worthier than you because you're a sinner, and I'm saved, neener neener neener// BLECH. It feels gross even to say, but again, how common is that language and that sentiment even today among a wide variety of Christian traditions and denominations and leaders. The problem is that these categories have trickled down over the years into >the elect< and <the damned> when what they really oughta be is >the found< and the <y'all better go find them>.

In this Genesis story as well as in the Prodigal Son, the human proclivity to give one another up, to cast one another out, to deem one more worthy than another is on full display. And also on full display is God's propensity gather up the discarded and welcome it home with a well and a fatted calf. And that is what we need to hear today: that on the other side of an exile -- self-imposed or sentenced -- is God coming to collect that person back into the fold.

It occurs to me that this sermon falls squarely in the middle of Pride weekend. It has not always, only been LGBTQ+ people who have been forsaken by the church, or by their families, but all too often that is the story. Gay bad, trans bad, gay unworthy, sinful, they've gotta go, they can't be here, they can't be part of your church. It causes devastating harm in people's lives to be told that your very identity is wrong, and that God made you wrong, our community outside these walls is full of people who have been told precisely that. And the extent to which a church thinks they're acting according to God's will, they get to take that harm they've caused and decide that that violence was actually virtue.

We can take heart though, I suppose, knowing that this problem of forsaking is as old as time, and God has always had an answer for it, and one that God expects us to give too. And that answer is this: oh you forsook them? Well let me go get them. Oh they've run out of water in the wilderness you've cast them into? Lemme go get them a well. Oh they finally returned home to us after blowing there inheritance, prepare the fatted calf, one coin rolled out from the purse, I will sweep the whole house to find it, one sheep wandered off, I will leave the 99 to find them. On every occasion when we would cast out, God goes out too to go and find them.

What a burden to bear on the occasions where we find ourselves hoping to lose someone, but what a comfort it can be to us in the event that we are the ones to become lost. Happy Pride weekend. Amen.

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